Books In Conversation
Wayne Koestenbaum with Tony Leuzzi
(Nightboat Books, 2022)
February 22, 2022 marks the release of Ultramarine, the third volume in Wayne Koestenbaum’s trance poem trilogy. This project, which began with The Pink Trance Notebooks (2015) and continued with Camp Marmalade (2018), is remarkable for many reasons, not least of all for the distinct tonal differences (or: colors) between the respective volumes. Each collection of trance notebooks reflects the degree to which Koestenbaum is attuned to real-time realities while he composes. Initially drafted in cafés and on trains, these notebooks capture one man’s reflections and impressions as he is experiencing or remembering them. “I stopped keeping my diary when I started doing these trance notebooks,” Koestenbaum admits below. “My books are my diaries.”
According to Nightboat Books, “Ultramarine is an examination of central pleasures such as sex and sexuality, desire, food, culture, music, and philosophy. The book reaches across memory through poetic sequences and vignettes, beyond the literal world into dream-habitats conjured through language’s occult structures.” Although technically similar to the content in earlier volumes, Koestenbaum’s ongoing obsessions are inflected through daily life. As a result, the author’s new trances reflect inevitable movement—even before he subjects his material to revision.
Reaching nearly five-hundred pages, Ultramarine brims with quotable moments. From trance notebook “#34 [the last guest]”:
Rauschenberg I rambled
but didn’t reach him
Situated midway through the notebook, this vignette, like so many others, has the ability to suggest complex states of being. On one level, this is a confession whereby, through language, Koestenbaum unsuccessfully attempts to apprehend (and connect to) a source of inspiration, to close the distance between observation and understanding. On another level, the lineation hints at a homoerotic subtext: his movement “toward Robert” may be referring to another man with the same name, a man Koestenbaum tries to “reach” through discussion of Rauschenberg.
Some passages are so startling they induce pause, as in “#35 [unseen ultramarine]”:
“I want mommy now”
the little kid says
and the father says “you could die”
Others are equally visceral, though comparatively more subtle, as in “#24 [meat smell near museum]”:
overthorough description of brother
defacing my Films and Career
of Judy Garland book
Indeed, almost every page of these notebooks invites the reader to observe numerous metonymies and savor Koestenbaum’s intimate attentions to memory, culture, imagination, and the immediate environment. As a whole, his trilogy takes on Whitman-like dimensions.
My conversation with the author was formed from a number of email exchanges and one face-to-face interview at his art studio on West 26th Street, Manhattan, just before the pandemic. At the time, Koestenbaum was completing his revisions of Ultramarine but was exceedingly generous with his responses. For the sake of space, some material could not be included in the final version printed here. However, the following comment, initially attached to an unused segment, is too useful to exclude, for it relates to Koestenbaum’s idea (amplified below) of “housed experience”: “Before ‘writing’ can take place, there must be a procedure, a frame, even if the frame is to throw away the frame. I may want to write, but I can’t stumble into writing unless I have established a threshold, or chosen a set of measuring spoons. Again, the set of measuring spoons include one very tiny and essential spoon called absence, or null, or disappearance. I stumble upon the set of measuring spoons, the archive of frames and forms; I don’t always intend to step into this equipment-booth, stacked with devices. The measuring-spoons, in the trance books, is (a) the material fact of the notebook itself, its size, the limited space it gave on each line, the fact of the arbitrarily imposed line-breaks (whenever each line in the notebook would end, and force myself to go back to the left-hand margin); (b) the condition of trance. The notebook authorized the trance: an arbitrary game! Sometimes it’s necessary to choose a device, or procedure, to catalyze a freedom that's impossible to grab without the procedure’s permission slip.”
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): I’m enthralled with your trilogy of trance notebooks. Part of my fascination has to do with the nature of the notebook, which in itself can be ambiguous. No matter how one understands “notebook,” there is a sense of the provisional and the unfinished, one being that “notebook” is a space to work through certain obsessions before they are fully crystallized in a more permanent form. How would you define “notebook” and what are some of your reasons for gathering several notebooks together as one collection proposed as poems?
Wayne Koestenbaum: I call these poems—these assemblages—“notebooks” because literally, materially, I wrote them originally in notebooks, longhand. “Notebook,” to me, implies a house or container or tangible receptacle in which random thoughts or jottings or observations can occur, accrete, dwindle, illuminate. Some of the notations sink to the bottom of the notebook’s pond. Other notations acquire glimmer or truth-value because of their origin in a box as permissive and somnolent (not punitive) as the notebook. When I write in a notebook I agree (with a form of magical thinking) to accord “notebook” a sacred (or at least aura-laden) status. I treat “notebook” as a space on the verge of literature, or outside literature—a space of adjacency to literature (perhaps a space of longing for literature?) but not yet subject to literature's strictures and exactions. I'll admit that “notebook,” as I construct it, is a fantasy space, and that this space of longing-for-literature-while-being-outside-literature can happen without the tangible fact of a notebook. “Notebook,” as Elysian Fields, can occur on a computer, or on a legal pad, or on a Dictaphone. But the spell of “notebook” begins for me, always, with the banal fact of a notebook itself, and I insist on this superstition, I don't wean myself from this rather childish belief in the power of the material surface—the support, the canvas, the page—to engender a state of possibility. “Notebook” signifies for me an interstitial region between the private and the public; when I write in a notebook, the language is freed from the obligation of ever wishing to be public. The words in a notebook are in a sense doomed to remain private. That's the force of enchantment speaking: by convincing myself that the words are private, and will remain private, I can begin actually to write, without guile or forced intention.
Rail: And then there is “trance.” How are you using that term in the title? Is it more concerned with the way in which the book might have been composed (in a state of trance) or the way in which the poems draw their readers into a certain frame of mind (as in: to entrance)? Or a bit of both?
Koestenbaum: Certainly, the poems in The Pink Trance Notebooks were originally drafted in a state I call trance, though of course it is not really trance. What would a genuine trance be? Beyond my ken. I’ve always had a mystical tendency—or wish—going back to my early enchanted days of Schumann-worship in high school, Bach-worship in junior high, silence-worship on the banks of California creeks—and my early attempts (in college) to engage in active dreaming (inspired, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, by Carl Jung). That tendency—a wish for focused, ideation-packed oblivion—turned into a wish to write poetry, and, much later in life, to paint. States of synesthetic immersion—of simple happiness in being utterly present while also feeling not present—are the substance of what it feels like to paint, to live through color, line, overlap, edge, stroke, pressure—the experience of making a monoprint (by hand, not by a mechanical press); the experience of blending yellow and blue, or blending blue and red, or pushing yellow into orange, or pushing violet into pink… These experiences led me to want similar states to govern my writing life, too—for writing to feel like a process of pushing violet into pink, of drawing a watercolor pencil through a moistened page’s field. “Trance” is my placeholder—code-word—for a quite ordinary (accessible to anyone!) state of engaged making. I need to call it trance because I need a word for every experience, and trance suggests trans and dance—and its “a” (“tra-a-a-a-a-nce”) is long and open and uncanny, the word buckling under its own weight and becoming a vehicle that can take you anywhere. To read The Pink Trance Notebooks is (in my experience of it) to surrender to the fall, sometimes whimsical or aleatory or ungoverned by “sense,” from stanza to stanza; each tiny corpuscle of poem, separated from its mates by a horizontal line and a space,is bound to its neighbors but also free of them. Stretching the filament of connection to the breaking point but also maintaining its tension and amity—the corpuscles want to be friends with each other!—was my aim.
Rail: To enter the “whimsical” and “aleatory” world of the entire trilogy does require surrender. One has to put aside certain expectations for how a poem might stand alone yet bind with what surrounds it. Those “tiny corpuscle poem[s]” unfurl in a torrent yet are paradoxically stopped repeatedly by a “horizontal line and space.” This tension between autonomy and interrelation forces me to circle back, even as I’m compelled to push forward. These competing tensions created some initial irritation, but once I gave into the experience, the result was heady, even intoxicating. It occurs to me the language we’re using to describe this reading experience—“surrender,” “tension,” “initial irritation,” “breaking point”—is pretty sexual. Or should I say “erotic” to sound more intelligent? In either case, I am reminded of a passage from section #17 in Camp Marmalade: “the only / way to be excited / about life is to have / a sexual relationship / with it.” Do you mean this ironically? I suspect the answer is yes and no, but I’d love to hear what you have to say about this proposition about life, and how this proposition might be a poetics for both books.
Koestenbaum: Thanks for singling out my phrase “the only way to be excited / about life is to have / a sexual relationship / with it.” That’s an extreme statement, I know: hardly sane. Yet it participates in a worldview related to the wackier and hornier members of the Frankfurt School or the post-Freudian left… Walter Benjamin, in “Hashish in Marseilles,” lets fall the lovely notion of a two-way street between love and existence, a traffic wherein the experiencing self seems to be playing a kind of ping-pong game with existence. The ball of desire (or of will, of intention, of lust) gets tossed between self and existence, back and forth: “For if, when we love, our existence runs through nature's fingers like golden coins that she cannot hold and lets fall to purchase new birth thereby, she now throws us, without hoping or expecting anything, in ample handfuls to existence.” A confusing and beautiful sentence! I think the “she” in the last independent clause might be “nature,” or “love,” or maybe “existence.” So: when I say that the only way to be excited about life is to have a sexual relationship with it, I am indicating (however mirthfully) that to be in a state of optimism, a state of wishing to live, or of living with excitement (rather than depression, gloom, turgidity), I must throw myself in ample handfuls toward existence, and this act of throwing myself is like the motion of a poem hurling itself forward but also like the trajectory of lust, of sexual attachment, of having a crush on existence. Being thrown toward existence, we're being discarded, treated as junk, as disposable detritus. But we’re also released into existence’s arms; we become “easy” (lubricious, promiscuous, slutty), as in “easy virtue.” Each book in the trilogy acknowledges that their engine, or motor—the force that propels the thinking and the feeling behind the poem, and that propels those impulses into language—is a cruisey form of sexual desire, mine, but also the poem’s. The poem has the hots for life. And so, the poem must have the hots for all the guys—mostly guys, but women, too—that breeze through the book as catalysts. In Camp Marmalade, don’t I describe a guy—probably married—reading Walter Benjamin on the F train? Cruising that guy, however unsuccessfully, I am throwing myself in ample handfuls toward an existence that might turn its back to me.
Rail: One of many reasons I am drawn to these trance notebooks is that they seem a clever way of delving into anti-poetry, specifically through the editorial process.
Koestenbaum: I love the whole tradition of anti-poetry, particularly those strands of the tradition that see anti-poetry as a way to get at some authentic core of the poetic. In one way, my trance books are anti-poetic because I wrote them, in a sense, as prose. I wrote in these slender notebooks where the narrowness of the page forced me to enjamb a lot, though very rarely did I consider them conscious enjambments. Sometimes (maybe ten percent of the time) I was aware that I was trying to write poetic lines and/or was aware of the line break. More often, I was simply just writing. Maybe there’s a subliminal awareness at the end of the line, a drop more energy. However, I was more attentive to simply the flow of language. When I typed them up, I deliberately retained all of those line breaks that had been originally accidental. Right away, I turned it visually into a poem without having sonically or rhythmically made it a poem. Later, in the revision process, I fine-tuned the line breaks, made them into something like line breaks—but not too much. As a result, I let myself do some things that in my earlier poetic life I’d considered enjambment sins, such as ending lines with articles or prepositions. As I recommitted those sins, I would always remember how frequently Frank O’Hara did things like that. I tried in the revising of the poem to keep more-or-less a balance between lines that ended with strong words and lines that ended with throwaway words, so that it would seem like a poem. Also, in the sculpting of it, I tried to keep the stanzas pretty short, so they would resemble the kind of quatrains or tercets or couplets that I considered poetry before. The final thing I’ll say is I was aware these books were participating in an essayistic tradition as much as a poetic tradition.
Rail: In other interviews, you’ve said these poems could have been presented as prose. I’m not so sure. The word sculpt that you mention above really means something in this context. When I started reading The Pink Trance Notebook I sensed the writing was as much a visual experience as anything else. I continued to feel this way reading the notebooks in Camp Marmalade and Ultramarine. If these pieces were written in prose, I would have reacted differently to them. You appear to be relying on the reader’s understanding of print culture to look at the page and decide, “I am in the realm of the poem.” Even if while reading these pieces I say “This is not normally what I expect from a poem,” I am still in a poem headspace. And then there’s an actual beauty to the way these books are presented. The conscious use of white space on the page, the horizontal lines that separate poems on each page. All the trance books strike me as visual artifacts as much as anything else.
Koestenbaum: I love that point. When I revised, when I looked originally at this very unruly, unpoetic transcript that was just hundreds of pages, a torrent that was very hard for even me to read or get into, I needed to make some clarity of this beast, so I could see in. In the revision, I stood up rather than sat down, and I stood at some distance from the page. I would look at one of these transcribed pages and search for the words that looked good. Literally, the way I would with a painting. I studied the page, blurred my eyes a little bit and waited for something to jump out. When I found it, I would think “that phrase!” So, I plucked the phrases out from the nest with a different eye. I did not read my drafts word-by-word. I looked at the page and seized the words I have no problem with, words I had no problem comprehending or loving them, words where I had no problem recognizing their obscenity. I looked for phrases that were true. It’s hard to explain. Imagine you’re in an archive, looking at a diary of somebody. It’s hundreds of pages, but right away there are things that you say, “Oh my god, I want to read that sentence.” While revising the trance books, I would do that for myself.
Rail: In some ways, what you describe is a general metaphor for steps towards revision. Some materials are selected, whereas others are discarded. However, your process really foregrounds that reality, something you often revel in. As a result, many of the potential problems that go with the process are not only foregrounded but aestheticized.
Koestenbaum: The adventure of writing a poem I find to be gripping. I’m thinking back to when I was an undergraduate, reading quite dutifully but also lovingly Pound’s Cantos. I loved those moments when he was confessing that he couldn’t make the poem happen. Those moments were always really beautiful. It’s the equivalent in poetry of what we think of in visual art as the artist’s hand. In my revision process, I try to keep an eye out for including stuff that I like just because I happen to be the author, versus including stuff that I like because authorship is interesting. In this third volume, Ultramarine, there’s a lot of food. I needed to decide with each food reference: Was this food reference sufficiently either allegorical, funny, perverse? Was it helping the reading enter the poem? I weigh myself a lot, at least a couple of times each day. So, in the draft of the third volume there are constant references to how much I weigh. Most of them have been cut. I thought they were charming when I originally wrote them, but I think I was too into my weight. I think I was just too excited by it. And ditto with the penis stuff. Even though there is a lot of cock in Ultramarine, believe it or not there was more in the originals.
Rail: In order for an obsession to work in any kind of artistic medium there has to be much that is suppressed, a stylized presentation of the obsession rather than a literal one. In order to serve the work, there needs to be some space, some air. It’s kind of like what we do with the deer population: in order to keep it thriving, you need to thin it out. Weight and penis references in the book will be heavier, weightier because there are less of them.
Koestenbaum: Ditto with the stuff where the process is foregrounded. I’m always loving that kind of stuff, but the longer I let a draft sit, the more selective I am about trimming it. That said, I think the main subject of these poems is the attempt to find a form for living. A poetic form for rendering life, but also a mental or cognitive or philosophical framework for coping with the mess of life. I consider the foregrounding of the process a way of letting the reader understand that what’s at stake in these poems is how you go about the mess of your own life and find a navigation system within it. We are all in search of frameworks or categories to house our experience. Maybe this is a writer/artist/maker’s preoccupation, but I find un-housed experience to be very sad and dispiriting. I’m made happy in life when I find a box for things to go in.
Rail: And yet, between each of the housed or boxed experiences, there are spaces implying worlds not yet categorized or boxed. Through the brutal or ruthless editorial process, that unused material is suggested in the negative spaces.
Koestenbaum: I learned a couple of tricks—or I stumbled upon them—and tried to make these craft tricks conscious, so I could make them work. In terms of keeping the spaciousness that you’re alluding to, where there’s an alternation between box and space, I relied on this trick. Even though I use the first-person pronoun a lot, and it is very autobiographical poetry, I often don’t use the first-person pronoun, or I have sentences that are clearly referring to my experiences that don’t begin with the pronoun “I.” I use more participles and gerunds without “I” + infinitive phrases. So instead of saying “I would like to eat some raw almonds” I might say “the desire to eat raw almonds” or “to eat raw almonds” or even “Eating raw almonds.” There is essentially a use of fragmentation that untethers the personal experience from “I.”
Rail: Perhaps you are also proposing a universal? Saying “To eat raw almonds is to savor…” supposes we all will feel this way, even if that’s not necessarily the case. The proposition, which sounds universal, comes off as ironic. Occasionally, I read what you’ve written as a reaction to some sort of discourse that has happened more broadly elsewhere. For example, I know you are pretty involved in queer theory. I could see it in your 2015 Brooklyn Rail interview with Phillip Griffith, where I was shamefully ignorant of a lot of what you said—
Koestenbaum: The interviewer was very smart.
Rail: As are you, Wayne! I sense such theoretical knowledge is as real and important to you as everyday sensory experiences, such as, say, pressing one’s nose to a peony. Sometimes when I see the phrases you mention above, the gerunds and participles without I + infinitives, I sense you are alluding to some theoretical work you have read. Or you are reacting to a discussion you may have had with some friends. An inside joke.
Koestenbaum: Because I have been in academia for most of my adult life, my experience is that I am usually around people who know more about critical theory than I ever will, so my way of engaging in such conversations is to be funny about it. I could say, as I do in one of these books, “I decided not to keep up with the death drive,” which is my saying there have been a lot of books recently written that seem influential that deal with Freud’s mention of the death drive in queer theory and elsewhere. I get the idea of these things, but I’m not really up-to-date on what’s being said. Yes, the death drive interests me, but I’m not really an expert on it. So, I’ve decided not to keep up with it. But I think it’s funny to say “I’m not keeping up with the death drive” because the death drive is keeping up with me. You know, “Because I could not stop for Death — / He kindly stopped for me —”. The death drive doesn’t care whether I keep up with it! It strikes me as both kind of maybe philosophically interesting to say such a thing, but on the first level it’s just a quip.
Another thing that is accurate in what you’re saying addresses my reactivity. A lot of these notebooks were written on-the-go. Every weekend, I go upstate to Germantown, often by train. It’s a two-and-a-half-hours ride. I write a lot, pretty much non-stop for a year or two on those train rides. There’s a lot of eavesdropping and there’s a lot of observation of people around me. I write in cafés. There’s a lot of language coming in at me from the outside that goes into these poems. When I’m revising, it’s not always clear whose is which. There’s a lot of cruising. A huge amount of cruising. Most of the time when I’m writing these notebooks, I’m kind of horny and looking around. That is a major source of what I’m doing. I’m constantly having imaginary romances with people I’m sitting next to or near, and I allegorize them. As I mentioned above, the cute guy on the F train reading Walter Benjamin. That kind of thing happens all the time—and it’s a major part of my journal.
Rail: One of the things I noticed about these books is that you often position the “I” in a field of action, even though these are trance-state notebooks. That’s an exciting juxtaposition. I’ve seen a real change in your poetry since 2004, a change I saw beginning with Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films. From that book to now, you have cultivated an obsession with juxtaposition, specifically juxtapositions that force the reader to continuously deconstruct what is said or is happening.
Koestenbaum: I love that you mention juxtaposition, which has to be in my top five favorite words and concepts of all time.
Rail: It’s everything in your work.
Koestenbaum: Yes, it’s all I care about. Juxtaposition: the accidental nearness and how accidental nearness or analogy triggers insight. I would go so far as to say that is humanly true, but there’s a lot that is true that doesn’t happen volcanically in each individual.
Rail: I am also obsessed with juxtaposition. Ask any of my students. Indulge me as I make a premature/unsupported claim: juxtaposition as an aesthetic principle strongly resonates with gay men. Thoughts?
Koestenbaum: I’m thinking of a former student of mine who is a friend and an art critic named Bruce Hainley. When he was a graduate student studying with me at Yale in the late 80s, he wrote an essay about juxtaposition and photography, specifically homoerotic photography. Maybe Mapplethorpe and a few others. Bruce wrote about bodies next to each other, doubles, twins. It was a very complicated argument, very playful, and it ended up sounding something like photography was really gay and so was juxtaposition, not universally but because of this thing about putting things that are supposedly the same together—and then they’re not the same.
Rail: The accidental nearness of two unalike things—gay men find themselves in that position a lot, especially in relation to the cruising you were talking about earlier. We might desire a very different kind of man in front of us, someone we have little in common with and might barely tolerate were we forced to spend a lot of time beyond the fantasy of sex with them. We’re looking at something that may attract yet repel us at the same time.
Koestenbaum: Two days ago, in a little sandwich shop I go to around the corner, a woman was standing in line next to me. She was kind of looking at me like that and then said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were…” And I said, “Who did you think I was?” And she said a radiologist. And I said, “I’m not a radiologist. Where does he practice?” And she said, “Boston.” I asked his name. She said Andrew Rabinowitz. Right away, I thought, “I look like a radiologist in Boston, I have got to see what this guy looks like.” So, I googled him. I was afraid of course that he wasn’t going to be very attractive and then know what I look like from the outsider’s perspective but was also hoping he was a cuter version of me, so I could develop a doppelgänger crush on him. I could not find him. But I did marvel at how the space of desire and of similitude opened up immediately as a fertile zone.
Rail: The desire for desire. “I want to have this crush on Andrew Rabinowitz.” There are two potential desires there: one structurally embedded in the other. When you say, “I really wanted to develop this doppelgänger crush on Andrew Rabinowitz,” what you are saying underneath is: “I have a desire to develop this crush.”
Koestenbaum: Exactly. Even the notion for me of developing a crush seems to contain a theory of desire that is counter-intuitive. If you think that crushes or falling in love happen ineluctably, no—it’s a practice, and it has techniques. And, in fact, I know how artificial and pumped up my desiring machine is because I know how to have a crush and I learned a lot of writing these two books about the techniques of crush development because I knew I was writing and to make writing happen I have to feel full of desire, so I would search around me for something or someone to desire.
Rail: The crush is different from automatic lust, which is immediate, primal. Crushes are cultivated. Maybe this is why so many gay men, or any outsiders, have developed obsessions. I think of Kevin Killian’s Kylie Minogue fixation. Or his Dario Argento obsession. He’s just one example. But so many gay men have cultivated really well-developed obsessions. Maybe this is a way for us to deal with the crushes we, in our youths, were not able to openly acknowledge.
Koestenbaum: What’s funny, too, is the concept of “type.” Another favorite concept along with juxtaposition. I’m aware that there are certain types I’m attracted to but I’m also aware that I have disciplined myself to be aroused by these types because it gives me a vocabulary for my desire. I don’t know how directly that feeds into these books but part of the process I was engaged with in trance writing was manipulating the machine of my type factory. For example, there is this excellent magazine called Fantastic Man. There’s a guy in there that I also follow on Instagram. I don’t even know what that adds up to except I’ve had conversations now with him about this magazine and him in it. I’m aware I don’t even give a shit about this guy, actually. I could even be critical of his appearance.
Rail: He might bore you.
Koestenbaum: Yes. I could even feel sorry for him, but I’ve decided he’s a really great candidate for worship because he taps all of my themes. One more analogy—and this is kind of a musical analogy. Chopin wrote a lot of pieces, and I play a lot of them; many people have played a lot of them. One could say, “Why don’t we just have one Chopin piece? Why do we need to keep on having this Chopin phrase?” It’s because pianists and listeners need to pump a certain kind of nostalgia and sentimental longing into what they hear and make. And there need to be a lot of specimens.
Rail: Throughout your trance notebooks, your writing destabilizes certain language hierarchies we find in more conventional books of poems, such as a title page, followed by the contents page that lists all of the poems by their respective titles, and then each poem presented as autonomous within that collection, even as it exists in relation to the rest. So, when one finishes the book, one can say: “My favorite poem was…” But Pink Trance Notebooks, Camp Marmalade, and now Ultramarine resist such hierarchies and the expectations that flow from them. If I were to list all of the moments when I stopped reading to exclaim, “Oh, this part is great,” it’d be ridiculous, but how can I refer to my favorite moments in these books? Certain themes or images call to each other throughout but there is no sense of a hierarchy that privileges certain poems over others. It seemed to me you are exploring creative obsessions that coalesce as an interrelated whole rather than working towards autonomous poems as product.
Koestenbaum: Somehow in the process of the revision of The Pink Trance Notebooks (and I don’t even remember how this happened) I made the transition from hundreds of pages of mess to approximately six-twelve-page compilations of aphoristic short stanzas with a title in brackets. The first compilation in The Pink Trance Notebooks is called “[I believe in ruin].” The material in that first poem/compilation is the very first stuff I wrote in November 2012 to start this whole process. So, it’s authentically the beginning of the thing, but I don’t know how I got to the notion that I could domesticate the mess by choosing these increments, either the small stanzas or the ten-page clumps—I think of them as notebooks. And—I don’t know if this is true—it may have been that that first poem, “[I believe in ruin],” was everything contained in my first pink notebook. And so, I got the notion for The Pink Trance Notebooks and the whole module came from that first skinny notebook. I don’t remember now. I let float freely in my mind where the poem lies, where the poem resides. The poem resides in the book as a whole, for me; the poem resides in the notebook, the ten-page compilation with its subtitle; and the poem resides in the individual stanza. And I’m quite uncertain which of the three is the category that deserves the name of the poem.
Rail: Another connection just came to me regarding the way in which these books subjectively present your trance states. The closest I’ve come to encountering something like this in my reading was under very different circumstances. I’m thinking of Peter Weiss, who took the Frankfurt War Tribunals, piles and piles of transcripts, cut testimonies into lines and made plays out of them. He didn’t give any of the survivors’ names, called them “Witness” and a number. Same with the defendants. It’s called The Investigation and is such a highly personal presentation of the unedited testimonials. But when you’re reading it, there seems a trance-like inevitability to the text.
Koestenbaum: Wow, what a profound idea. I read Hervé Guibert’s Mausoleum of Lovers: Journals 1976-1991 before I started compiling these trance notebooks, or maybe I was reading and writing simultaneously, but I know that my wish to have Nightboat publish this book was definitely because they had just published Hervé Guibert, who I reviewed in Bookforum. Guibert’s diaries were sexually explicit, lyrical, but not that stylized. And it went over his whole adult life until his death. I thought it was the most riveting and true book I’d ever read. It was fat, essentially pink, and I thought, “That’s what I’m doing: I’m writing my life in a way that is pretty queer because it is obsessed with crushes, for example, and bodies.” My book, like Guibert’s, is making an argument that the book is the mausoleum of lovers. The book itself is the bathhouse, the mausoleum, the list of tricks, the family album. There’s a sense that the genre of the book that is being obsessively assembled is paying fealty to (or wishing to be like) different kinds of inventory that you read in a book of poems, so writing these trance books … they are diaries. I stopped keeping my diary when I started doing these trance notebooks. I’ve now started keeping a diary again, but it’s not the same as it used to be. My books are my diaries. It was partly, in a way, like an aging and not-famous person’s sense of like: “Wow, I’ve been writing these diaries for many years, and this is maybe the longest book I’ve ever written and no one is ever going to read it, so why don’t I write my diaries as something people can read?” To do this I needed to fictionalize and remove it from the direct “I do this, I do that”, keep it more floating. In this way, I discovered a form for keeping a public diary.
Rail: This is totally in line with what you said earlier about housing experience. If you hadn’t found a way to keep a public diary, what would happen to all of the unread work? If your trance books are a mausoleum, if they are the bathhouse, then the book becomes a physical space—and the reader passes through it.
Koestenbaum: Exactly! Language is one of the bodies I’m cruising in the bathhouse of the book. Earlier, you mentioned Kevin Killian, our dearly-departed hero, mentor, fellow traveler, collector, enabler, permitter. He was really generous and such a model for amorousness, I think. And indefatigability. His Amazon reviews, that kind of critical practice, Jack Spicer, and Tagged—a photographic project Kevin had for many years, where he would photograph guys, mostly poets, with the Raymond Pettibon drawing of genitalia covering their private parts. When we read together in Lansing, East Michigan, he did a series of photographs of me with the little drawing. That project of Kevin’s is very Mausoleum of Lovers, and very much in keeping with the very thing we are discussing: a free-floating desire on Kevin’s part that acknowledges the replaceability of the parts. The cock he is obsessively photographing on a hundred different bodies is always the same cock. He loves each person he is photographing, but he doesn’t love any one of us particularly. He’s attached and not attached. It’s a project fueled by desire, a project about desire, but also a project that’s somewhat independent of desire and is concerned mostly with his own archiving impulse. I deeply identify with Kevin’s tagged project. He also has a lot of photographs where you do see the dick while the Raymond Pettibon drawing is positioned to the side. A sub-theme of Kevin Killian’s Tagged is the juxtaposition of real cock and the Pettibon drawing. The drawing held like a fig leaf over the real crotch was a symbol of trust between Kevin and the sitter, or the subject. The project wasn’t compromising in any sense. There was a kind of cordon sanitaire, a chastity belt. It’s remarkable how my experience with him in that project informs my understanding of his work. Like me, he was a quester. I remember thinking when I first heard about the Tagged project that he had found the ideal form, had found a way to get anyone to take off their clothes.