The American Reader
November 14, 2013
Wayne Koestenbaum is a distinguished poet, critic, and writer who also happens to be known for his conversational skills. After reading his most recent collection of essays, My 1980’s, I knew I had to talk to him. His book addresses many of the issues I’ve been dwelling over lately: my fear of failure as a 20-something in New York, my obsessions with Susan Sontag, drawing classes, and my boyfriend’s ex-wife. My desire. Wayne, though he had a cold at the time, was nice enough to chat with me at the corner table of a cute little cafe in Chelsea.
I. REASONS YOU WON’T SINK
W: [To the waitress] I don’t need the milk actually.[To me] Maybe you do?
R: I don’t.
The first thing I want to jump off on is, being in my 20s, I loved reading about you in your 20s. Especially in the title essay “My 1980s” where you describe yourself as a small boat that’s trying not to sink. I feel like that constantly. I wonder always if I’m doing something wrong, if I’m not being ambitious enough, if maybe my plan isn’t working and I should be trying something else. It’s sort of like, when does it get easier? But also not when does it get easier because of course it will get easier. I mean, you knew you weren’t going to sink.
W: No, I didn’t know that.
R: No? You didn’t?
W: No. I can tell you all sorts of reasons why you won’t sink. I mean, I think ways not to sink include deciding what you want to do vocationally in your early 20s, and devoting time each day, secretly or illegally, to doing what you need to do to pursue your vocation. I.e. Write. Every day. Meet people who will inspire you rather than get you down. Not have bad relationships. Not take too many drugs. It’s a balancing act between exploring your inner and outer anarchy, exploring your libidinal volcanic impulses, and also looking forward. Also, as I say in that essay, the world was in the process of shutting down, and the world is now in the process of shutting down, so you have all sorts of new reasons to feel possibly foreclosed or drowned.
W: But I wanted to be a poet. It’s how I thought of myself primarily then. And even just getting published seemed like the biggest mystery on earth. I imagine that for you it’s less mysterious because you have an MFA from a New York program, so your seedbed of friendships and contacts is in New York. You work in a literary environment in New York. It’s a bookstore, but that’s better than working in publishing.
R: I think so.
W: Because it’s not as hierarchical. It’s more low stakes on the surface. But you happen to work in a bookstore where writers congregate, so you meet a lot of people. I don’t talk about it in “My 1980s,” but I worked in bookstores in my late teens and early 20s. Those were my first jobs. I was paid I think $2.50 an hour in California. Minimum wage or even below minimum wage. So when I think of it, it was like no money. I was very frugal in those days. When I worked for a bookstore in San Francisco, I remember what I would do for lunch is I would go to this sandwich shop, and I wanted a mortadella sandwich because mortadella was the cheapest meat. I would buy a quarter pound of mortadella and a roll. Because I didn’t understand why you would pay $2.50 for the sandwich when you could get—for a dollar—a quarter pound of mortadella, and 25 cents for the roll. But it was a little dull without mustard. It took me a long time to realize that it tastes better if they make it. I was embarrassed each time I would go in and order my quarter pound of mortadella and my roll. Being a little ashamed of my frugality. Not too ashamed, but shame is something about the 20s.
R: There is a constant feeling of shame. Of things I should be able to do. I should be able to buy more groceries, or I should be able to take someone out to dinner or something. All these things that I want to be able to do, and looking at my budget and realizing, No, you can’t do any of that. None of that. No. But also there’s something really beautiful about it. You talked about this in your round table interview with The Believer, where you talked about being, I don’t know, it sounded like you were almost nostalgic for the times of being broke and that there’s this romanticism about it. Sometimes I wonder, is it just romantic, or is it actually helpful for an artist to be broke?
W: It’s interesting. Let me think. [Seven second pause.] I think it’s harder to be broke now than it was then. It’s just harder. New York is a mess economically. I don’t want to make irresponsible claims. It’s constant—the privileged make claims about the beauty of poverty, which is not at all my point. I’m really glad I didn’t value money in my 20s, and I didn’t even know it existed. I didn’t understand that there were professions that made money.
I made the liberating decision to quit my job as a paralegal, buy an IBM Selected Typewriter, and set myself up as freelance typist. I had discovered the holy grail of how to be a writer. I remember telling a friend of mine who had an editorial assistant position at Viking, who was also a writer who had no time to write, I said, “Why don’t you just quit your job at Viking and buy a typewriter?” And I remember her saying, “I need a little more structure. And I need to be able to tell my father that I’m doing something. I need a little bit more presentability.” Now when I think of it, a lot of people wouldn’t have been comfortable doing that kind of thing. Putting up a sign saying, I’ll type whatever you need for a $1 a page, as a vocation. I never thought I would do anything but work in coffee shops or bookstores. But then I did decide to go to graduate school, and then it was, well, I’ll teach. But teaching isn’t money. Or it can be a certain regular salary, but people who want to make money, it is not. And I didn’t have any of those notions.
R: Which I think is good! It’s good!
W: I’m glad I was not corrupted by too many commodity desires. Things I wanted: I wanted to be able to buy boxed sets of operas. Which I couldn’t afford. I wanted to be able to go to the opera.
R: Did you go?
W: I did. I did go to the opera a lot, but not as much as I wanted, and it was always Family Circle. Which was fine. I think I wanted to be able to buy—I really love to cook and I was exploring cooking—and I wanted to be able to buy ingredients so I could look at a recipe and say, I want to make this. Instead of—I remember to the same friend that I told she should quit her job at Viking—making dinner for her in the ‘80s in New York and serving liver. It was calf’s liver. It was great. And I remember her, the same friend who is also one of my dearest friends, was like bleh.
I also remember, we would meet for lunch when she was working at a publishing firm, and I was a grad student, and I’d say, let’s just go to a diner, and she’d say, “I don’t want to go to a diner; let’s go to a thai restaurant.” But I was thinking, that’s like $9!
So all those issues were very alive for me until I got my first real job at the end of my 20s. When I was 30. Teaching at Yale, assistant professor, after I got my PhD. And that was the first time I had a, you know, a job.
R: I have friends left and right who are starting to get “real jobs,” at magazines and things, and it’s a little confusing because it’s like, Wait a minute! What do I want? I just had coffee with someone two months ago, and she said, “What’s your ideal job?” And I said, “I’m doing it! I’m freelancing and I’m working part time at a bookstore. I’m doing it.” But now I’m thinking maybe I actually want to be an editor, or, you know—
W: Oh no. I don’t know. I don’t think. Actually, we each have our own destinies. Something I realized yesterday, and I realized it with new force, is that I’m a recluse. And I can’t really be with other people for more than two hours a day.
R: It’s hard to be in a bookstore for eight hours.
W: I just. I lose my voice, I lose my extroversion. I go into some kind of psychic shock. I really do.
Two days ago I went to a premiere of a movie, and then I went to a party, which was a more glamorous party than I’m usually ever invited to. Isabella Rossellini was at the party. That’s kind of why I went. I thought, I have a feeling Isabella Rossellini is going to be there. And I did go. But I had a cold. I didn’t feel well. But I felt again a certain shame. I thought, I’ll go to the movie, and then I’ll go home and get Chinese takeout. And I thought, how often am I invited to a chic party honoring a filmmaker after the debut of his film, where there may be movie stars? The next day I thought, well I’m glad I saw Isabella Rossellini, but I am really not cut out for being in public. And I think in terms of sinking or swimming in your 20s, I’m lucky I didn’t sink given how bad I was at winning friends and influencing people.
R: Come on.
W: Honestly. I think it’s because I took a somewhat academic path which involved exams and doing things that privacy was helpful for. Writing a dissertation. Writing book reviews. Being presentable, occasionally. Appearing in public but not every night. Not going out to parties. Not making the scene. I didn’t even know there was a scene.
II. MIMETIC DESIRE AND ME
W: I write a lot about how I wish I had taken more advantage of my youth. I had very much a sense of being physically nothing.
R: Yes! You say that in My 1980’s. Especially to young people to take advantage of their youth. And that youth in itself is an asset. It made me laugh out loud because my boyfriend is much older than me.
W: May I ask how old?
R: He’s 53.
W: That is much older. That is impressive.
R: I mean.
W: That’s really impressive.
R: Impressive in which… I don’t know! That it works?
W: It’s impressive for both of you. No. It shows that the structure of your desire is pretty interesting. It’s a pretty unconventional choice.
R: Yeah. Which poses it’s own issues and complications and curiosities about desire. I’m actually working on a little chapbook about desire, and I wanted to talk to you. It’s a good segue. In “Fag Limbo” you talk about mimetic desire, and I really was going off on that idea. Because this chapbook, a lot of it is about my boyfriend’s ex-wife. And about my desire for her. How I’ll look up pictures of her, and I figured out who she was and I figured out that she’s pretty. She’s a violinist. I mean, he’s a pianist and a composer, so that makes sense. And I kind of have this slight obsession with her, and I feel sort of sexually attracted to her—
W: That is the best subject for writing on earth. Make it more than a chapbook.
W: It sounds like a huge book. Seriously. I have to mention something I feel like I bring up a lot because it’s a touchstone for me. A story by Joyce Carol Oates called “Accomplished Desires.” It’s the story of a woman who is obsessed with the wife of the man she’s in love with. Not exactly your situation. She’s having an affair with this man, or maybe she’s not even yet having an affair. But the story begins: “There was a man she loved. And it was a passionate love. And she spent more of her time thinking about his wife. Yes. She followed her.”
R: That’s amazing.
W: I read that in my early 20s, late teens, and memorized that first paragraph. It was everything I wanted my writing to be about. That space of illicit desire that’s not even as honest as I want you but I want the thing next to you, or the thing mimetically connected to you.
R: The thing that you used to want.
R: Do I want her because she reminds me of me? Or because he used to be with her? I imagine what their sex life used to be like. Is ours better? Would she be jealous if she saw us? Would I be jealous if I saw them?
W: I realized yesterday, something about my desire, that I had never consciously articulated, though I’ve known it for a long time, is what I call gay desire. I want a guy. What that really is—I want a guy because of the fact that he’s at the same time me and this inaccessible other person. And it’s very voyeuristic. It’s like I see him and he’s enough of the other and reminds me of inaccessible people in my life but has a grain of me in him. I feel this horrible tug between ownership and expatriation. So I feel, there is a piece of my property that has gone missing, and I need it, it’s like, Wait! There’s a drop of me exiled in this migrant body that is posing as kingly and inaccessible, but I see that I’m secretly the possessor of that. But he doesn’t know it. So the desire project is trying to recolonize what’s my own property because it’s me.
I think it’s Emerson who said famously something about our thoughts return to us with an alienated majesty. It’s either Wordsworth or Emerson. When we read the words of others we recognize our own thoughts that come back to us with an alienated majesty. It’s the alienated majesty of the other that is so much what I think of as gay sex desire because it’s so obviously you. I mean, I think across gender it must work in the same way.
R: I think so. I think I’m attracted to people, men and women, who remind me of myself. Like, tall and thin. It’s funny how there is very much a type. And I feel like I’m also their type. And isn’t that weird? Are we trying to look like each other?
W: So what is your type?
R: I think my type is smart, sort of weird, not very—I’ve never really been with someone who is like super attractive. That sounds so horrible.
W: No, I know what you mean. It’s not a looks contest.
R: Yes. And it’s not a type where it’s like, Oh right, I’m attracted to the “tall, dark and handsome.” A lot of the time the people I’ve dated, other people wouldn’t be attracted to them. It was perfect in college because my closest friend and I never fought about guys. She was attracted to the jocks, and I was attracted to the weird writers who didn’t talk to me. So, quiet and introspective but extroverted enough that I can be my really weird and giggly, clowny self, and they’re not freaked out. They can engage with that. In shape. Healthy. But also a degree of not being healthy. I don’t want to be with someone who’s too strict. What’s your type?
W: I have many types, but I think that one of my types would be, I’m fascinated in a more sexual vein, particularly like in the essay “Eric’s Stubble” in this collection, men who seem to me Jewish but not. Where I can feel the affinity. I say, Oh, that guy seems Jewish, but he seems also Egyptian or Greek. So there’s a sense of possible blood brotherhood, but maybe from the enemy side. My boyfriend is Italian. I’m pretty wired towards Italians. Basically you could just say Italians. Which includes, of course, a lot of guys who sort of look Italian. But it’s a certain kind of look. It’s not my look—except maybe the two or three times in my life that I’ve been mistaken for Italian, which have been the happiest moments in my life. Seriously.
My father grew up in Germany but moved to Caracas as a kid, so his early childhood was in Berlin and then Caracas. So I have this thing for South American Jews. I hadn’t known that many, but that particular combination of Buenos Aires and Jew. If I were to rename myself, one of my names would have a definite South American ring to it. Paulo, would be my first name.
R: That would be a nice name.
W: That’s sort of my type.
III. SUSAN MOTHERFUCKING SONTAG
R: What’s your type of woman? I know you’re a fan of Susan Sontag, which you write about in the essay “Susan Sontag, Cosmophage.” Last fall I was in sort of a dark place and I read Reborn, her first group of diaries, and was just amazed at her ambition, and her, I will rule the world! Just throwing exclamation points everywhere. And how smart it was. You described her as “intelligence as style.” I think, God, if someone ever says that about me I will just die. It would be like someone mistaking you as Italian. I was also amazed when I realized she was fucking fourteen when she wrote this. I’m really into intellect. Are you into intellectual women?
W: I’m into lots of different people. But for something like desire, as I talk about in the Debbie Harry essay, “Debbie Harry at the Supermarket,”  where I also mention Susan Sontag, I’m really a sucker for a certain kind of beauty. I don’t necessarily have a lot of it in my life. I don’t make decisions around it. But it instills in me or catalyzes a sort of reverie that may be regressive, but that I really savor. That’s why I could write a book about Jackie O., which is maybe a subject I shouldn’t have written about, but it’s about the media representations, as we say, of her. I don’t know if that’s what she really looked like, but it’s the way photographs made her look. There’s a relation of nose to eyes to cheek to hair that is cinematic. Sontag had it to an extent too. And that Sontag absolutely worshipped herself.
R: The photo of her on the cover of that new book, The Complete Rolling Stone Interview… God.
W: Put it this way. Sontag has this unique historical accident to be both in the stream of beauty and an annotator of it. It’s typified for me in the fact that her girlfriend was Nicole Stephane, the French film actress, and then her other girlfriend was Annie Leibowitz. She’s sort of a professional savant of female beauty. I celebrate within myself my capacity to stumble into reverie. It doesn’t have a lot to do with human relationships, I don’t think.
IV. THE IV DRIP OF LIBERTY
R: You paint. Do you take a lot of drawing classes? Do you do figure drawing?
W: I have taken three semesters of figure drawing, which is one of the high points of my life. That experience, drawing men and women. When I’ve had models of my own they’ve always been men. I’m organized around wanting to look at naked men, that’s no secret. But, when you take a figure drawing class it’s women and men and it’s having a person naked there and drawing her or him and the feeling that at any moment the opportunity is going to end, but no, it stretches on for three hours. I talk about this in terms of Warhol’s cinema in that most times in life you have to look away. You’re only allowed five seconds of glance, but Warhol’s cinema gives you like an hour of staring at one face, and figure drawing is the same thing. A person is nude and doesn’t move.
R: And you look at them.
W: And you look at them.
R: And you’re meant to look at them.
W: For me it’s the, first there’s the shock of revelation, it’s the, “Oh my god, he/she is nude for me!” And then you imagine the aperture closing, and censorship’s curtain falling, but it doesn’t fall. And that perpetual extension of the right to look, it feels like a continuing IV drip of liberty. Liberty keeps bestowing itself.
I think people who have been doing figure drawing for years are over the nudity part, and then maybe also less connoisseurs of their own voyeurism, less cultivators of their voyeurism than I am. I mean, when you described your mimetic desire, and I said you need to write a whole book about that—I do moments of covert desiring or a sudden efflorescence or ability to desire. That’s my subject matter. So figure drawing is really intense. But there’s a certain shame for me in the doing of it because I’m not that good at the drawing in any kind of obvious way. I like the way I do it, but it’s not technically very good. So I’m ashamed if other people look at my pad. There’s a frustration threshold. During the three hours, after a while I say, “Wow, I’m not getting any better, it’s only getting worse.” Given the limited space, what kind of size pad do you use?
R: Oh, when I draw? Well, I don’t really draw. I do draw, but I guess I would call it more doodling.
W: That’s drawing.
R: The book that I’m querying now—not the ex-wife book but another book also about desire—I did the cover for, but as you’re saying, I wouldn’t take that to a class. A teacher would sit down next to me and be like, “Her arm is completely like, you know, the length of her whole body!”
W: Just fine. At SVA, I had a really sweet teacher who was aware of my deficiencies but also celebrated other qualities I had in my drawing. I was very grateful that he would say, “The knee needs to be bigger,” and I learned things. But I would do this drawing, and then I would just draw a red line across it, and he would come and say, “That red line is really good. Why did you do that?” And I said, “Well, because everything above it works and everything below it doesn’t work.” But he would love that I just took this red oil stick and made a line across it to divide the good part from the bad part.
R: Your energy, or your feeling about it, showing itself physically.
W: Yes.[Waitress spills milk on Wayne’s arm]
Waitress: Oh, I’m so sorry.
W: That’s ok. That’s ok. If you could just get me some napkins that would be great.
R: [Giggling] Oh, dear.
W: It’s ok.
R: Spilled milk. Isn’t there a saying about spilled milk?
W: Don’t cry over it!
R: [Leans into the recorder] The milk spilled.
W: [To the waitress] Oh, no! It’s ok! Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it. If you could just do me one more favor. If you could get me one of these, actually, no, I’m just gonna use this. This is great. [Pours water onto napkin.] I’m gonna go like that. This is great. And I’m ok! Don’t worry; it happens. This is not silk; don’t worry.[To me] Profound. Profound. Okay. You can turn the tape back on now.
R: Oh, it’s been on.
W: Oh, really. The spilled milk.
R: What was I going to say? Oh, yes. One of my favorite artists right now, who I’m obsessed with is Leanne Shapton.
R: Are you familiar with Leanne Shapton?
W: No, tell me more.
R: You should be! Oh my god, you should be! She’s a beautiful painter, and she writes and does graphic novels.
W: I totally want to do a graphic novel.
R: You should!
W: Well, not exactly a graphic novel, but a book that has drawings in it. In fact, yes, I think I want to do that. Because I thought of it just the other day in fact. Incorporating in my writing practice, a thing I do in art, which is, I put these blobs of black gesso on a canvas or a piece of paper and then I let them dry. And then I take a white pencil, and I draw on the islands of black gesso, but there’s a lot of space between them. I love having an island of drawing. And that’s when I thought, it would be really great to have blobs of something on the page, and then write around it so it would be kind of a poetic form. I mean, it sounds dippy maybe. But for me, the freedom of knowing that the page was partly occupied, and I only needed to cooperate with what was already on the page. Rather than having a stereotype relationship to the page as something I have to fill en-toto.
R: Yes. Working yourself inside of constrictions.
W: Into the crevices. Writing in the interstices of islands of form that are already in place. I find that very liberating. Maybe that’s mimetic desire. Your boyfriend’s ex-wife is the gesso blob that’s already in place.
R: Right. And I have to figure out my relationship to him based on the fact that she was there and is there because she’ll never go away. My god. She’ll never go away.
V. TOO POLICED? FIND SOMETHING ELSE
R: My conversations are often about the idea of ambition and how to be in New York. Realizing that if you really want to have this artistic lifestyle, it is about people who keep doing it.
W: It is totally about that. The boat not sinking is about keeping doing it. It really is. Because the bad mood that you and the world have about your work changes. And it doesn’t change because you will it to change. It changes because time passes, and we have to stick around for the changing mood, your own mood, and the mood of the world. So if a book gets rejected—you’re writing this book and let’s say no agent wants your book—you have to then go write a second book and go through this all again because then the next agent, when you get the agent and you have the two books, that agent will like that first book. But if you had stopped writing and just waited, you wouldn’t have found the agent who would have ended up liking that first book. It’s not as if everything that one does gets eventually liked, but you have to let things sit and then go on and do new things and keep on doing it. Let’s say you hate what you did, you write your chapbook, no one wants it, and you hate it. Write another chapbook, and then suddenly you will like your first chapbook. It’s not always that magical, but keep doing the thing past the expiration date of your own negative assessment. And the world’s negative assessment. Because the opinion will change. It’s not like the opinion is going to change in a magical way, like all under-sung artists eventually get recognition, but something will shift. And it may be just that your acceptance of being under-sung will change, and you’ll grow very happy with the particular climate that you’ve created around your work. Even if it’s very private.
R: And if you keep doing it.
W: Another piece of advice that I would give that I still need to take, is don’t get overwhelmed by local jealousies, which is very hard. Local jealousies meaning even the jealousies of who’s really big in 2013. Temporally local. Not just the people you know or the people you went to school with. Those are very hard jealousies. The people who are your peers, and you’re in it together and you’re in a writing group and one person in the writing group becomes a star, that kind of thing can be hard. Or you can get fixated, as often I have, on one magazine or one publisher or one venue that we imagine as the sterling one, and that if you’re not in that one, you’re a nobody. All sorts of things. That’s why for me it’s helped to have different genres. The entrenched judgments I had internalized about the fiction world didn’t carry over into the poetry world. Poetry seemed like this safe space or unsupervised playground. And then that changes. And poetry seems too policed, and I need to find something else.
W: Like painting.
R: Or, what about writing an opera?
W: Writing an opera is hard. I’m doing something now—a set of my poems have been set to music by a composer Mohammed Fairouz, and he’s going to turn it into an opera. That’s great.
VI. THE MILK FILE
R: I wanted to talk—I was really hoping before I went to sleep last night that I’d remember what I dreamt about.
W: Did you at all?
R: Oh, god. I remember my dreams like crazy. They’re usually sort of disturbing and uncomfortable.
W: Do you write about them?
R: I rarely do, and I noticed that you do a lot and that you like to. Do you keep a notebook by your bed? Do you wake up and write them down?
W: I used to. When I was 21, around then, I had a dream notebook that was different from my diary, and then it just became my diary. And there are times when I’ve had my diary by my bed, but I’m not very organized the second I wake up. I’m groggy, and I don’t have my glasses on. So I don’t do it that way. But I remember the dreams, and I often tell my dreams at breakfast to my boyfriend. Sometimes I won’t tell him because I still want to write it down, and when I tell it to him it will codify the dream and maybe shut down the ability to remember it. The things that matter I remember through the day, and for most of my writing life I have written first thing in the morning after breakfast. I don’t do that so much anymore. Email has ruined that a bit. But that space is still trained in me. Morning recall. I wonder if I dreamt anything last night…
R: Did you?
W: There’s been a carry over from night to night of certain kinds of dreams. It’s like a TV serial or something. I don’t know if it was last night, or if I’m still working through a dream from three nights ago. So I don’t have anything specific to say except that there’s still a sense of a trip to Provincetown and a return.
R: So, going there?
W: It’s something I would call my Chicago dream. I don’t even know what that is, but there is this Provincetown dream that I’ve been having. It’s a Cape Cod dream. It’s a continuation of the Chicago dream, which involved being at this other place with this certain group of people including one old friend in particular. And returning home after the trip, and the difficulty of extricating myself from Chicago/Provincetown. The food arrangements in Chicago/Provincetown. The sleeping arrangements. Everything. A certain pull. To reconstruct it would be—let’s just say I’m staying overnight with this friend Lisa in Provincetown and we’re going to a cafeteria. Let’s say there’s a profound and sticky imbrication of Lisa, me, cafeteria, transportation. I’m actually now remembering something about a cab… It’s too vague. I’m not able to tell it in a narrative way.
I went to Bronx Museum of the Arts yesterday, and I took the subway to the Bronx and took a cab within the Bronx to go to an artist studio, and the confusion about in the Bronx where it’s still East 143rd but then it gets interrupted by the Grand Concourse—that is Chicago/Provincetown. The grid gets interrupted. I go on what seems a predictable journey to this other place, and I try to return, but the landscape becomes a thicket of defamiliarized landmarks.
R: A recurring one that I have is about a bathroom. About using the bathroom, but it’s disgusting and dark and wet and murky and uncomfortable for some reason. And there’s a lot of anxiety around it.
W: So great. I have a lot of bathroom dreams.
R: What do you think they mean?
W: Well, one thing is, do you know the book by Jean-Philippe Toussaint called The Bathroom? It’s a French novel, very short, published in the ‘80s. I like it. It’s very droll and dry. Not wet at all. It’s about a guy who decides he’s just going to stay in the bathroom.
I curated an art show in the ‘90s called Bathroom. It was nearly 100 artists with bathroom related work. Also what comes to mind—I don’t know if it’s so bathroom specific—is Georges Bataille’s novel Story of an Eye. It has to do with spilled milk and eggs. We spilled milk at this very interview.
W: We didn’t spill it. The waitress spilled milk on me as if she were Georges Bataille.
R: And you had to deal with your feelings about that.
W: I had to deal with the fear that the milk—I knew I could get the milk away from my jacket and my sweater, neither of which are precious or new—but I worried that there would be a lingering smell if I didn’t launder these items. A week later I would smell some kind of strange funk on my shirt, and it would be like baby spit up. And that I had not asked, but I had distinctly said, “We don’t need the milk.” As punishment for that the milk got spilled on me.
R: And milk! That’s so—I don’t need milk.
W: I don’t need milk. No, I don’t. My third book of poems is called The Milk of Inquiry. So, milk. There’s a great poem by James Schuyler called “Milk.” I think it’s called “Milk.” So that’s the milk file.
VII. WRITING ASSIGNMENTS
R: So. For our last little—
R: I loved the essay “Assignments,” and I wondered if there were things you made yourself do, or if you’ve done many of them.
W: Well, all of those were for classes that I’ve taught. To write that essay I went through my files.
R: So they’re genuinely assignments.
W: They’re definitely things I assigned in my classes. And I’ve assigned many more things like that over the years. I’m always giving assignments. I just love giving assignments. They usually refer to things that I want to do or have done versions of, but I don’t do them when I give them. I feel I try to remember something that has worked for me as a writer. And I try to extrapolate from it a structure as whimsical, as tight, as possible that will provoke somebody else to do something.
R: Yes. I thought it would be funny if I did one of them. I don’t know if I will, but I thought it would be funny, especially: “Write a list of worries, interview a famous person, and combine them.” I could combine this interview with a list of my worries about starving on the streets of New York.
W: That would be great. For example, that assignment, when I gave it, was probably in the ‘90s, or the early 2000s when I was doing a lot of journalism, a lot of interviews. Celebrities of one kind or another. And I was very aware—I am a constantly worrying person, as we all are, or as all writers are—that there were always two streams of thinking going on in an interview. There was my attention to say, Vanessa Redgrave, who I interviewed, and then there’s my inner monologue and the whole stream of my own inner chatter. And the protocol of an interview is that you don’t include any of that. But I sometimes did. I’m very happy with one interview I did, which is in my first book of essays Cleavage. I did an interview with Alec Baldwin for Vogue, and it’s very straightforward because you don’t get a lot of time with a movie star. So you have to milk every little bit. But I felt like I could insert parenthetically my desire.
R: Do you feel that you did?
W: Not so overtly that Vogue needed to punish me for it. It was passable as a little interview with Alec Baldwin, but at one moment I said something like, “Alec Baldwin’s a playful guy. We’re having a conversation. I compliment his hair, and he says, ‘Oh, but I have stick straight hair. I don’t have good body like you. You have good body.’” Something like, “Alec Baldwin says I have good body.” That’s still within the codes of celebrity journalism. You’re allowed to sort of do things like that, but still it’s a thread throughout the interview where nothing of substance gets said, but I feel that my bodily insecurities and tendency to idealize men who look like Alec Baldwin come through. And so that was the origin of that assignment.
Or for example I told you earlier I think it would be fun to write not a graphic novel but a book where there were various sorts of amorphous forms on a page set in black gesso, and that I wrote around them. So the assignment I would give is: take a clumsy, cheap wet medium, apply very quickly and indiscriminately parts of it to a large page, then write an essay about all the dreams you’ve had for the last week on that page never touching the forms. Make reference at least three times to the shapes near which your words are traveling on the page. I might even say, give names to each of the shapes. Something like that. I’ve never done that, and maybe I never would, but there would be the impulse. I think it would be really great to do in writing what I do in painting with these islands and then form it as an assignment and combine it with something else.
My assignment for you would be: No, I can’t think of it here. But…okay. Write an essay about your bathroom dreams in which you never use the word bathroom. That kind of thing.
R: Yeah, yeah. Maybe I’ll try it.
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