'A Surrender to All-Over, Non-Directional Horniness': An Interview with Wayne Koestenbaum

Talking to the poet and critic about his new book of poetry, Pink Trance Notebooks, identifying with "wounded speakers," and the mind as a demonically possessed Siamese twin.

September 9, 2015

Sarah Gerard is the author of the essay collection Sunshine State, a New York Times critics’ choice, the novel Binary Star, a finalist for the Los...

I turned on my recorder well after Wayne Koestenbaum and I began to talk and I realized we were on topic. We were talking about notebooks—he only fills one side of the page, and especially so since he’s begun what he calls his “trance practice,” toward his latest book of poetry, Pink Trance Notebooks: “I believe in more gestural freedom and prodigality of expenditure,” he says. He sprawls. I do not sprawl. This dynamic is one we returned to, comfortably, many times while we were talking. You are like this; I am like this.

I turned the recorder off when I thought our interview had finished but we continued to talk—about stink. I confessed I like stink: the smell of men, their musk. Wayne doesn’t. And yet, it is an obsession he carries with him always, and something he returns to in his work: disgust mingled with erotic curiosity, and an obsession with gender differences, and details, such as stubble. This is not a proper introduction, but, as Wayne says: turn away from the assignment. Eschew critical dogma.

I’m calling him Wayne not as a matter of disrespect but because he has come to feel familiar to me through his writing. The experience of reading Pink Trance Notebooks is at once the same and different from reading his other works; more and less directly personal; more and less overtly poetry, or criticism, or autobiography; like painting or writing music, but also not—because, as he says, “it’s just words.” Pink Trance Notebooks is the mind working, is material rising from somewhere deep to be shaped and reshaped into blocks of dreamlike text. It is also surface: material gathered from within reach.

Pink Trance Notebooks is Wayne’s 17th published book, and the product of a transformation in his notebook-keeping practice, which is to say a transformation in his method of working. Having kept a journal for years, in November 2012 he shifted away from traditional journaling and began instead to keep “trance notebooks." They are not quite automatic writing, nor exactly stream-of-consciousness—rather, what Wayne calls “a surrender to all-over, non-directional horniness.” I was curious about why such a prolific author would choose to do this—would reject what is familiar and venture into unmapped terrain without knowing whether what he produced could be another book. I thought it must be a way of awakening something that had long been asleep.


Sarah Gerard: Tell me about trance. The reason I was interested in this book in particular is because I’m writing a new book of my own now, a collection of essays, and for one of these essays, I visited a hypnotherapist to help with memory recovery. She refers to her practice as trance rather than hypnosis, and refers to herself as my trance partner. We talked about trance for a while, and she explained that, throughout the day, we all experience various modes of trance, such as when we’re watching television, especially advertising, or daydreaming, or intently listening to music. So, what is trance?

Wayne Koestenbaum: I don’t know how I even stumbled upon it to begin with. There are loftier senses of trance that I wouldn’t claim to have entered, ever, in my writing. My relationship to the word “trance” is asymptotic—I crawl toward it but I don’t fully ever occupy that. I think of it more in terms of Gertrude Stein’s writing practice, where there’s a commitment to the continuous present, where the clinging to an intention for verbalization is diminished. One does not cling to the fiction that one intends one’s phrases—a certain posture of surrender to the linguistic apparatus resonant in one’s physiology, and just a surrender to the linguistic unconscious. Maybe it’s stream-of-consciousness, which is a very degraded term, as is “automatic writing.” I think there’s a politics to all this in that “automatic writing” is a term that’s assuming a kind of imbecility or non-agency, and stream-of-consciousness seems like a dated literary thing that maybe reached its apotheosis with Molly Bloom and Virginia Woolf, but then has since been downgraded through age, practice, et cetera.

So, to conclude this little riff, I would say that my use of the word “trance” is more of an aesthetic position than a way of trying to describe within literary genealogies, and saying, “I side with Stein.” Also saying that I admit that writing comes from places I don’t know.

SG: I’m battling with myself now about whether to pursue Gertrude Stein or ask about psychoanalysis, because you’re talking about stream-of-consciousness and I want to ask about free association. I think I’ll ask about psychoanalysis. You make a lot of references to Greek myth in Pink Trance Notebooks. There are many fathers in the book but only one mother. There’s a fascination with dreaming, and also color. Were you consciously working within a psychoanalytic tradition?

WK: I’m very psychoanalytically oriented in terms of the way I think about literature, the way I think about my own history, the way I interpret the world. I interpret the world through a psychoanalytic landscape, which is basically to say that I think people are really complicated—that I subscribe to a psychoanalytic point of view on the world, that I’m not a historical materialist, maybe. I’m very psychological. I’ve never been in psychoanalysis but I’ve been in therapy with a psychoanalyst—just talk therapy, nothing really full-scale psychoanalytic. Except my dissertation, which was my first book, Double Talk. The first chapter is about Freud and his studies on hysteria and Anna O. and the talking cure. I put my cards on the Anna O. table from the very beginning, in a kind of cathartic, automatic, polylingual, hysterical speech. Greek myths? I’m not a classicist—I’m not really schooled in that—but they are a helpful code. Orpheus, Persephone.

SG: Eurydice appears in the book.

WK: I can’t live without them. In my third book of poetry, The Milk of Inquiry, I have a long series of poems called “Metamorphoses (Masked Ball),” which goes through all the wounded Ovidian personae. The tongue-torn-off one, whatever her name is—Philomela. I love them. I identify with wounded speakers. It’s also kind of stigmatized to write from dreams but I remember my dreams really very well and in my writing life, I’ve worked from them.

SG: I think it’s ridiculous to ask a writer to ignore dreams.

WK: So do I! When I was in a fiction-writing class in college with Ann Beattie, she distinctly told me, “Don’t write from dreams. They’re boring.” I tell this to students often just to illustrate the fallibility of any critical dogma about what you’re supposed to do.

SG: Even if I don’t write directly from dreams, they’re a very important part of my life. It’s where everything becomes urgent and reorganized.

WK: And with the urgency of perhaps only the best film noir, the intensity of a quest where the motives aren’t articulable, but with a burning zeal.

SG: Do you believe dreams are a code?

WK: I don’t know if I believe they’re a code, I just want to hang out with them. Like the way I feel about music, why I want to play the piano: You like a phrase, you want to hear it again, you want to figure out the phrase, you want to practice, and then you want to get it in your hand. Dreams are like this thing, like an enigmatic series of intervals, and gestural units that I want—that are mysterious. I say, “How do you get that? I guess those are fourths, or minor fourths.” It’s a formalist, but like a sexualized formalist curiosity.

There’s a lot of voyeurism and I would often work up crushes to fuel the writing—would use whatever ambient eroticism I could find as a prod for writing energy.

SG: Sexuality was something that I wanted to talk about because in your essay on Barthes, “In Defense of Nuance,” you talk about writing as being a form of cruising. Pink Trance Notebooks is at times very erotic—there’s a punctum, to use Barthes’s word, within this studium that is your everyday life, wherein you collect these moments. What gives a moment that sexual charge, that punctum?

WK: I’m very aware of the sexuality, as I’ve gone over and over and over the Pink Trance Notebooks for the last year, making it a book. Every time I revisit, I say, “Wow, there’s a lot of cruising, or a lot of eroticism, more so than in anything I’ve written.” For me, the surrender to trance meant a surrender to all-over, non-directional horniness. Freud said about psychoanalytic listening—he has a great phrase for it, “floating attention”—you listen loosely and with a certain amount of detachment. The practice of trance writing was to move my hand as quickly and fluidly as possible and to not stop.

SG: So each notebook is a sustained writing exercise?

WK: To some extent. They’re broken up and then other things get written down that aren’t so trancelike. But for the stuff that’s in this book, a lot of them were written in extended periods of time, like one or two hours of continual writing. One thing I’ll say about the sexuality is that I wrote them often in public. They were in trains or cafés or whatever, and there were always people around. So, there’s a lot of voyeurism and I would often work up crushes to fuel the writing—would use whatever ambient eroticism I could find as a prod for writing energy.

SG: It’s impossible to tell, reading the book, what’s coming from where. Is he seeing this or is this something that’s arisen from deep memory?

WK: A little of both. I also wanted to say that I brought the notebooks. [pulls a thin notebook out of his bag] This is the very first one.

SG: It’s literally pink.

WK: Do you know the poet Ariana Reines?

SG: Of course.

WK: She has these things called Sacred Evenings. She invited me as a guest to one. I brought this because I always travel with a notebook, and there was a moment where she said we’d just sit and write for twenty minutes. I was in a really bad mood and I just started writing. The very first sentence is, “Virgin writing would include random crushes…” And that is exactly how [the finished book] starts. It began with crushes. The prosody of it began there, too. Also, the lineation: when I type these up, I keep the lineation of the notebook.

SG: I notice there are no stanzas in the notebooks. In the finished book, you’ve broken them up into stanzas.

WK: There are no breaks. It was the only way I could cope—the only way I could help a reader cope. I decided that the syntax within each thing would be pretty clear. The question of whether they were syntactically connected to each other was left open but I would try to have somewhat conventional syntax within each one.

SG: I want to ask about coalescence. The notebook answers part of this question because I can see that Pink Trance Notebooks began here with no breaks, but at times the sections coalesce into stories and then, for instance, you talk for a long time about stink—which is also sort of erotically themed.

WK: Usually, after about forty-five minutes of writing, I would land on a story, or a litany of some kind, most of which got radically truncated. But you can tell that there are these moments where there’s a repetition or a continuance, for two or so pages, of one motif.

SG: But there are other notebooks, too, where the sections don’t coalesce into narrative, and there’s no way of decoding, which brings us back to Gertrude Stein and the idea of surface: writing becomes a kind of painting; words coalesce upon a two-dimensional plane.

WK: Yes. With the lines, I was thinking a lot about a book by Robert Creeley that I really like called A Day Book, which is arranged like that, and also Lorine Niedecker’s poems, which don’t have titles. In my prose, as you can tell from My 1980s, I use fragments a lot, numbered fragments. So, I’m used to going through my writing and breaking it up because I do write very continuously and it’s kind of a mess, and my process in prose or poetry is to divide it; to clarify. I also found myself noticing that when I got rid of the first-person pronoun, that made me happy. I tried to keep it out because one of the prisons that I got into with Harpo, and with most of my writing, is the first-person—is autobiographical. I was trying to figure out a way that I could construct phrases that were somewhat emotionally meaningful or referential but that weren’t authored in that kind of bogus, banal way. Like, normally, if this were a poem I was writing [points to a passage in Pink Trance Notebooks galley]: “to reach a point where mania masquerades as regular not unreal”—I would revise it to say, “I want to reach a point where mania masquerades as regular not unreal”—period.

SG: At times, in your critical essays, you digress into the biographical. Pink Trance Notebooks is also like that, even without the use of the first-person pronoun: you’re more critical, or thinking about influence, and then you digress into something more personal like the story of your mother.

WK: In a way, Pink Trance Notebooks was an attempt to start liking to write again.

SG: You stopped liking to write?

WK: I kind of did, I think, when I started painting. It’s complicated because it was never a writing block, because I was writing a lot. But the sense of self-criticism and the sense of—I think my threshold was my book on Harpo Marx, which was written in a kind of trance. I spent so much time, more than I’ve ever spent, trying to make a coherent book out of it, that would be shorter, and it’s still a very big, and kind of loose, digressive, weird book. I felt like I was in a syntactic prison with that book, trying to make it shorter, shorter, shorter—trying to find a way to make sentence after sentence have the word “Harpo” in it, but without repetition. Trying to find linguistic variety in a pretty shallow terrain. I got really, really tired, and I wanted to feel what I did in painting, which was just joy. Looseness.

SG: Freedom?

WK: Freedom, which I always have in my writing, but I had, somehow [in painting], a sense that I didn’t know what I was doing, and a sense of being young again in the practice. I courted it. In my writing life, I always have books that represent a turning-away from what I think I’m supposed to be doing. No one is telling me I’m supposed to be doing something, but I come to wish to turn away from the assignment. In the case of Pink Trance Notebooks, the assignment was being a writer. I have always kept a journal, and at a point when I thought I wanted to go back to my journal and make some books out of it, I decided instead to do this. I really loved my journal, and for the first couple of months, I had my diary and then I had these trance notebooks, and this is now my diary. I was so happy doing this. [The first book] ends on New Year’s Eve 2013, and then I started a new one January 1st. Inspired by having done this, and feeling really happy that I could make a book out of it, “I’m going to do this for another year,” and then I did it, but more—more concerted sessions. I took a lot of trains that year. I would write nonstop for these journeys, and I’d cut it all up again. I have now a third year that I’ve been doing. I want to do three years of this.

SG: In Pink Trance Notebooks, the only sense of progression that we have is in their numbering. So, what’s behind the idea of doing three volumes? Will they be different?

WK: I’m not sure. I just read through all of 2014, and it’s really hard to read because it’s just a raw transcript, hundreds and hundreds of pages. So, I underline the parts I like, and I go through it twice. Then I go through—and I’m almost finished with this—separating the parts from each other with lines, and choosing where I’m going to have breaks. Now I have to go through and actually shape it. I have a feeling that [the second volume] is more overtly erotic than the one before, and much more autobiographical, and narrative.

SG: I made a list of repeated imagery and I wanted to ask if you would expound on some the images. Birds; colors, especially yellow, red, and orange; underarm deodorant; Walt Whitman; peaches; and Jews.

WK: Birds I wasn’t aware of. That’s one that surprises me.

SG: There are lots of birds. Lark, scarlet ibis…

WK: The lark is a reference to a Vaughan Williams piece called “The Lark Ascending,” which is a violin concerto, and there’s also a Shakespeare sonnet where there’s a line about a lark ascending. It’s a totally literary reference for me. Also, “The Scarlet Ibis” is the name of a short story that I did a dramatic interpretation of in high school. And the Whitman: I taught a course called “Trance” at the CUNY Graduate Center, and we read Whitman.

SG: He’s a really rich one. I hoped you would talk about Whitman.

WK: I prefer Emily Dickinson, if I had to choose which path to go, but Whitman, because of his eroticism and his specificity—

SG: I mean, he’s a roving poet, too.

WK: I know, he’s it. He’s totally it. I would say, underarm deo… I’ve been doing these songs lately, and one of my favorites is about underarm deo. I don’t know what it is.

SG: It’s related to the father, and the father teaching you or someone to use it.

WK: It is. I have this song I’m doing now called “Boys Should Wear Deo When They Come of Age.” That’s how it goes. So, I don’t know. I don’t know why. It’s just my life—because I’ve always kept a diary, because I’ve always been an autobiographical writer in some way. Like whatever kind of counterpoint inspired Bach to make his fugues, the things from which I make my fugues are quite fixed emotional properties. I don’t have an unlimited pool of material. There are eddies of returning fascination and underarm deo is one of them, I guess. Stink. It’s interesting, I’m a Virgo and I am kind of pristine in many ways. Deo and B.O. are like the raw and the cooked structuralist dichotomy that organizes the world for me.

SG: In that vein, I’m wondering also about the fathers and the mother.

WK: I love that they’re fathers, plural. I mean, of course you’re right. In some ways, they’re all fathers, conceptual. Mostly, I tried never to say “my father” or “my mother,” but to say “father” or “mother,” uncapitalized, to despecify or remove the property rights or sole jurisdiction over it being my father. But I think I do say “my mother.”

SG: Your mother had a stroke and you were caring for her. How is she now?

WK: Not as the sole caretaker, but yes, involved. She’s alive and in a nursing home. It’s the major theme of the book although not consciously. When I was looking through the books for a couple to bring to you, I was noticing how edited they are—I didn’t even recognize a lot of what’s in them. But I kept most of the stuff that I had written about my mother. When I’d see it on the page, it would always leap up at me and I would want it, and I chose to choreograph the book to end there. Dramatic shaping involved preserving as much autobiographical narrative as possible.

I think my relation to my mind is that it’s like an emotionally stunted, really interesting and kind of demonically possessed, really unruly and undisciplined and unsocialized child, a Siamese twin that I’m stuck with. I really do feel like my mind is a problem child that I carry around that’s somewhat of a burden but also my secret toy and my greatest pleasure.

SG: In terms of the material surrounding entries about your mother, and entries about the fathers—so, the more free-floating, nonnarrative entries—how do you make selections? What makes something shiny for you?

WK: I had the luxury of there being so much material that I didn’t fuss as much as I normally would. There would be pages and pages and pages of this stuff barely in syntax, and then there would be an island of something that interested me six months later, while I was reading it, and it would be really clear to me. It would be an unusual combination of words. I thought of it as—in art theory, they talk about indexicality. Photography has indexicality. So, that word came to me as I was doing this and I thought, “Choose the things that have indexicality.” They’re either referring to something real or the word itself is a nugget of truth. I revised it almost visually, so I would literally look at the page and—almost like with a certain kind of camera that recognizes faces and gets interested—I would say, “Where do I recognize a face in this page?” And I would respect the gut instinct that said, “Oh my god, there’s the word.” I do that all the time in my writing but I usually don’t have as much material. I had this cavalier attitude toward throwing stuff out. Also, I realized that the numbering—these [Pink Trance Notebooks] aren’t actually separate notebooks. Like this first one, which is Number 1, ends with, “We sat together in a yoga space, connected to a fair painter, a charlatan…” [Picks up Pink Trance Notebooks galley, flips to a page] It’s right there. So the rest must come from Number 2. Some of the notebooks were too skimpy and some were too long. I would splice. It was collage.

SG: Line breaks are something I thought about a lot while I was reading this because of a line in your essay on James Schuyler, “Epitaph on 23rd Street”: “In order to write poetry, one must cultivate belief in the continued life offered by the line’s end.” Is that continued life something you were thinking about while editing this?

WK: Absolutely. The weird decision to take notebooks that were not poems—I mean, it was just a notebook written continuously with not a lot of attention to line breaks, but to say it mattered that I wrote them in these lines and I’m going to make something, aesthetically, out of that—partly as a decision about the way I want this book to be received or not received. I want this book to be seen within the context of poetry.

SG: There is a kind of trust in the idea that the mind has its own natural rhythm, and that the hand and its orientation across the page has its own natural rhythm.

WK: Well, something that I don’t talk about because it seems corny, or just something that you don’t talk about, but … I meditate within Vedanta Buddhist tradition. It’s not a huge, public commitment—I don’t go to retreats and I’m not part of a Zen temple or anything, but it’s something I’ve been doing for awhile, so it’s certainly changed my various aesthetic practices. It’s certainly why I started painting. I think I started painting because I started paying attention to life. I think that, literally, my sense of visual possibility was opened through meditating, and also, I’m positive that this [Pink Trance Notebooks] sort of thing is an outgrowth of meditation. I don’t mean to advertise that. It’s just sort of a fact.

SG: You’d say that meditation changed the way you see? How?

WK: Well, it slows down perception very markedly, physiologically. Not that one becomes slow, but…

SG: Your attention is—

WK: —more focused, and more interested in things as they are exactly when they are, rather than being caught in the onrushing fictional story you’re composing.

SG: You curse the onrush and ongoingness of life a few times in Pink Trance Notebooks.

WK: Life is very ongoing and that book is very ongoing. I was just thinking again about Gertrude Stein and the continuous present. I don’t think Stein was particularly spiritual overtly, or a meditator overtly, but her commitment to writing as an experience that was vindicated by the present moment of writing and not by later evaluations, and that it was an experience ratified by the experience—that seems to me a religious structure. She studied with William James, so this is totally Jamesian, but that the truth of an experience is ratified by its effect and by its … the expound that you make within the experience is what proves the experiment, not an outside source that says, “No, this is not real; this is real.” So being able to occupy one’s own sense of conviction within writing was something I tried to regain as a writer through taking my journal seriously, I guess.

SG: A question that I was going to ask you earlier, actually, is: when you imagine—and maybe this is silly, but—the landscape of the mind, what does that look like to you? We were talking about meditating and you said it changed the way you see, so: how do you see your mind?

WK: I’ve never been asked that and I’ve never thought about it so let me think about it for a second. It’s probably very psychoanalytic but I’m going to say it’s not as metaphysical as you’re inviting me to be. I think my relation to my mind is that it’s like an emotionally stunted, really interesting and kind of demonically possessed, really unruly and undisciplined and unsocialized child, a Siamese twin that I’m stuck with. I really do feel like my mind is a problem child that I carry around that’s somewhat of a burden but also my secret toy and my greatest pleasure. There’s so much stress that my mind produces and so many fantasies and so much self-sabotaging ideation, and so much distortion of fantasy and reality. I think of my mind as a terribly unedited noise machine that needs to be tamed. Most of the things I do, like writing—writing engages and stimulates my mind but it lays it out. There’s a feeling of catharsis afterwards. Painting allows my mind to go without me needing to pay attention to it, and playing the piano really regularizes.

SG: Do you think of sound and color and language as being distinct modes?

WK: I think that whatever I did by meditating literally stimulated a part of my mind that had not been stimulated as much, which is the visual. Painting and drawing so much continued to stimulate it, and then within words, which is a separate function, I had more of a musical-visual wish, that produced [Pink Trance Notebooks]. Still, [Pink Trance Notebooks] is just words, and it’s indulgent to say that it’s painterly or something. But I imported into my linguistic cortex some of the visual modes, and musical modes. I’m involved now in this project of inventing songs to correspond with my piano playing. I play these pieces on the piano. They’re very simple, classical, late-Romantic, early twentieth century pieces, and I improvise words to them as I go along. I’ve never been so free playing the piano because reactivating the verbal cortex while I’m playing the piano allows me to not micromanage the musical part of my brain, and it works better that way. It’s not a direct answer to your question but I think I’ve learned experientially, by talking and singing while playing the piano, how to dwell on the threshold between those two modes.

SG: Has this changed your relationship to language?

WK: Softer.

SG: Less logical, maybe?

WK: It’s never been too logical, alas. I’ve always had a problem with sequential thinking in writing, and I think it’s why I found my way of writing when I chose the modes that are in these essays [in My 1980s], of accretive and serial—

SG: —episodic?

WK: Yes, because it’s not that I don’t … I wrote a dissertation, I wrote papers in college, and a lot of book reviews and articles and things, and I can do that, but it’s not my best way of functioning verbally. It doesn’t come as naturally to me as it does to other people and I get in a state of deep emotional distress when I don’t know how to organize my thinking. The worst of all, ever, was when I wrote my biography of Andy Warhol because I had to organize it because it was a biography, and it was for a publisher who wanted it to be a biography, however interpretive. I couldn’t make things up, and I had to go kind of in order.

SG: You can’t be too creative in someone else’s biography, especially someone as well-known as Andy Warhol.

WK: And I couldn’t just say, “Now I feel like talking for five pages about this painting,” because it had a word count. So I had to say, “Okay, now I’m going to talk in one paragraph about how he became a filmmaker.” I felt despair. “I don’t want to. I don’t know how to do that.”

SG: It’s different to be given an assignment, as opposed to something like your essay on Lana Turner, where you kept a diary over the course of a few weeks.

WK: That was also an assignment but it was a creative writing kind of assignment. I was asked by Molly Peacock to contribute an essay to an anthology called The Private I: Privacy in a Public World, about privacy. So, okay, I have to write an essay about privacy? It’ll be called “Privacy in the Films of Lana Turner” and I’ll just keep a diary this summer as I watch Lana Turner movies. I mean, that’s a nice kind of assignment.

SG: When you imagine your future as a writer, how far out do you see?

WK: Well, at the moment, since I’m very interested in this trilogy, I’m very much thinking of finishing the untitled sequel to the Pink Trance Notebooks while I know how to do this, because the mistake I think I’ve made, and something I would caution you to remember in your own life, is when you figure out how to do something formally, do it again before you forget how to do it. You lose the sense of comfort with it being the right way to do things. When you try to resuscitate it later, you’ve forgotten how to do it authentically. Once I figured out how to do this kind of book, it came more fluidly than I thought it would. So I thought, “I want to do another one while I know how to do these kinds of books, because it’s a hard thing to do. And I maybe want to do it a third time.”

SG: I hope they just get more and more erotic. [laughs]

WK: I think one reason I’ve stopped even writing is it’s just too erotic! It’s bad. Bad stuff.

Paper Trail is a monthly column exploring the relationship between artists and their journals.

Sarah Gerard is the author of the essay collection Sunshine State, a New York Times critics’ choice, the novel Binary Star, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times first fiction prize. Her short stories, essays, interviews, and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, The Baffler, Vice, BOMB Magazine, and other journals, as well as anthologies. Her paper collages have appeared in Hazlitt, BOMB Magazine, Epiphany Magazine, No Tokens Journal, and the Blue Earth Review, and have shown in Denver, Colorado, and Hudson, New York. Recycle, a book of collages and text co-authored with the writer and artist Amy Gall, is forthcoming from Pacific in March 2018. She teaches writing in New York City.