Pink shorts, a prussian blue t-shirt, and red underwear.
Why would a reader care about what you are wearing?
Because a reader is also wearing something, I presume, and a reader might wish to be encouraged to take seriously what he or she is wearing, or at least to note its details.
How do you begin writing an essay?
By noticing what is in my mind at this exact moment.
Your new book, My 1980s & Other Essays, seems to celebrate the off-topic, the swerve, the detour, as if swerving were a passional sport or an ethical calling. Were you born to swerve?
I’m a wiggler. I like to wiggle out of any discursive pickle I find myself ensorcelled within.
These odd words (“ensorcelled,” “passional,” “discursive”): why do you swerve toward the recherché word, the out-of-fashion word, the attention-getting word, the multisyllabic word, rather than rely, Strunk-and-White style, on plainspokenness and directness?
Words like “ensorcelled” and “passional” pop into my mind; I don’t go hunting for them. And so my choice is either to deny myself the lexicon that naturally belongs to me, or to accept the words that genuinely form my mental furniture. In an earlier collection of essays, Cleavage, I said that I care as much about fashion liberation as about sexual liberation. Well, I care even more about vocabulary liberation.
You seem stuck on “liberation,” as if liberation were a bad cold you caught in the Azores. Why make such a big stink about liberation?
Gertrude Stein dropped out of medical school because she was bored: “she was so bored she could not remember the things that of course the dullest medical student could not forget” (so she wrote, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas). Liberation is the antidote to boredom—the boredom that a body feels when it is corseted within a language or a set of behavior codes that prevent breathing.
When it comes time to defend your beliefs, you often cite one of your beloved writers, some of whom appear, briefly or at length, in My 1980s—Roland Barthes, Frank O’Hara, Gertrude Stein, Robert Walser, Susan Sontag… Why hide in the enveloping shade of dead writers?
“Dead” is a matter of opinion. Barthes is famous for having claimed that the author was dead. (Or did Foucault get there first?) I find it comforting to read living words by dead people. Each of my favorite writers—role models—discovered something crucial about taste liberation, and their written works are blueprints for how to reactivate these stimulating procedures. Byron wrote: “I hate tasks.” Sontag quotes Manet’s advice: “You must constantly remain the master and do as you please. No tasks! No, no tasks!” An essay, to many readers and writers, seems a taskmaster—a form bristling with requirements, including the demand to be informative, to educate, to argue, to behave responsibly. Every time I sit down to write an essay I’m aware of false tasks—unnecessary restrictions—that accompany essay-writing like a burdensome chaperone. In my essays, I try to ditch the chaperone. Of course, I am the chaperone, as well as the delinquent trying to escape supervision. And so I must confront myself-as-chaperone, as well as outwit my own unseen strictures.
Did you sleep well last night?
I woke up nervous at 2:30 a.m.
What were you nervous about?
I’d recently painted a portrait on a cardboard box; I prepared the box’s surface with black gesso, and then drew a portrait of a friend—Filip—in white pencil on the black surface. Then I filled in some of the voids—oases of negative space—with blue oil paint, my favorite shade, Sèvres Blue, manufactured by Williamsburg Paints. I woke up at 2:30 nervous that perhaps this box, which I’m exhibiting in a group show, isn’t worth exhibiting. When I fell back asleep, I dreamt I was trying to figure out the exact name of a famous French writer from an earlier century—someone with a long and complicated name, like Francois-Auguste-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, subject of a portrait by the French painter Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson. I spent a long time, in the dream, trying to get the names straight—an impossible task.
We’re back to tasks.
I looked up “task” in the O.E.D., and discovered that somewhere in its pre-history lies the Old French word “tasche,” itself a source of the modern French word “tâche.” If you remove the circumflex you get the lovely word “tache,” which means stain, mark, smear, smudge. A style of abstract French painting in the 1950s and afterward was known as Tascheism; among its practitioners were Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, and the Catalan painter Antonio Tapiès. I found a book about Tapiès at a used book store last week, on my way to see Woody Allen’s new movie, Blue Jasmine. I get excited when I can escape from the onerous word “task” into the exciting (and “tache”-related) work of Tapiès, whose paintings resemble smudgy cuneiform, runes without a clear message.
False etymologies appeal to you.
I thought you were going to ask me a question about the Woody Allen movie.
Why doesn’t Woody Allen appear in My 1980s?
There wasn’t room for him. There wasn’t room for Mia Farrow, either, though Roman Polanski makes a one-sentence appearance, within an essay about the painter Glenn Ligon.
What is that sentence?
“When we see the same face again and again, each time sporting a different color, a new set of accidental striations and speckles caused by the mechanical silkscreen process, we may feel offended by the sameness or we may feel rubbed and tickled by it, nudged with a tactile incrementality (sight, too, can be haptic) toward, if not a climax, then a tsunami of hyperesthesia, like what I imagine Roman Polanski felt when he first had sex with Sharon Tate, or vice versa.”
That’s a long sentence. Did you feel shame when you wrote it, or when you quoted it?
No shame. I felt, instead, a happy sense of inner expansion. I remember feeling elated to discover that this sentence had room for Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate—a sentence that, at the beginning, had no place for them, though I’d secretly hoped, from the outset, that they’d find their way into the party. But I felt some shame when I quoted it here for you. I was aware that the word “hyperesthesia” (sensory overload) might seem, to you, de trop, though I consider it a magical talisman. I don’t always experience hyperesthesia—sometimes my senses are deadened, muffled, entombed—but I aim for a hyperesthestic life, my days and nights spent not precisely cultivating my senses but extending them.
Today, what will you do to extend your hyperesthesia, to put into your practice your hyperaesthetic credo?
For me, right now, everything boils down to black gesso. Today, I want to apply two coats of black gesso to some pieces of masonite board, 16 by 20 inches each. After gessoing, the board will have gained the proper receptivity to my touch, my “tache.”
I’m surprised that you mention a technical aspect of art-making, rather than a literary text.
Don’t play dumb. You know I’ve become a painter, and that I consider painting a natural extension of writing, a stealth transposition of text to a nonverbal, tactile situation.
I think we have time for only one more question.
In that case, may I ask you a question?
Do you enjoy your identity as the one who poses questions?
In an early poem (“Relics of the True Cross”? “Est-ce-que”?), you admitted that when you were a kid, one of your nicknames (other than “Woody”—because of your supposed resemblance to Woody Allen) was “Question-Bomb,” a bastardization of your difficult-to-pronounce and taintedly emigré last name, “Koestenbaum,” as well as a reference to the fact you asked too many questions in class. I share your humiliating tendency to ask too many questions, to turn certainties upside down into unnecessary self-interrogations, to interrupt the seamless fabric of business-as-usual (Barthes called it doxa) with a fine mist of questions, like pepper spray, immobilizing a listener’s resistance.
WAYNE KOESTENBAUM is a poet, a cultural critic, and the author of more than a dozen books, whose subjects have included opera, Jackie Onassis, Andy Warhol, hotels, humiliation, and Harpo Marx. He lives in New York. His latest book, My 1980s and Other Essays, is available from FSG Originals.