Know your past live your future

INTERVIEW: Wayne Koestenbaum by Liam Hess

INTERVIEW: Wayne Koestenbaum by Liam Hess

Illustration by Sam Russell Walker

Liam Hess is editor of The Leopard, an annual queer interest publication co-founded with Alister Mackie and Jamie Andrew Reid, and features editor at Buffalo Zine. He also writes freelance on art, film and fashion for The Guardian, Wallpaper, Vogue, Dazed, i-D, AnOther and more. 

With all the breadth and nuance of queer culture as we know it today, it’s easy to find the task of assembling a new pantheon of icons daunting. What are the criteria for someone to be put on that pedestal? A commitment to activism, a streak of creative genius, a life lived on society’s margins? Who to include, and who to leave out?

Few writers working today are equipped to answer these questions than Wayne Koestenbaum. From his beginnings charting a course between queer culture and the bombast of opera in his 1993 debut The Queen’s Throat, to his most recent poetry collection, Camp Marmalade - a madcap rollercoaster ride through everything from Giotto frescoes to glory holes - Koestenbaum’s sprawling body of work across criticism, poetry and art has constantly pushed up against and expanded the limits of the queer canon, whether he realises it or not.

My own first encounter came in that quaintest of places to discover a new writer in the 21st century: the bookstore. I remember browsing (or to be more Koestenbaum-ian, cruising) the staff recommendation shelf of the Covent Garden branch of Waterstones, and finding a Warhol Polaroid of Debbie Harry staring out at me. It was the cover of his 2013 essay collection My 1980s, which I flipped over to read the writer described as “an impossible love child from a late night, drunken three-way between Joan Didion, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag”.

If that makes it sound forbiddingly highbrow, it isn’t. Despite his remarkable erudition (more on that later) Koestenbaum is just as likely to spend an entire chapter exploring the subtleties of Y-fronts than he is to pick apart the proverbial Proustian madeleine. Even if you don’t get all of his references, his books are as much an education in queer life as they are a thrill ride through the possibilities of language. In the spirit of the figures that populate his weird and wonderful creative universe (Warhol, Anna Moffo, Harpo Marx, Jackie O) the glossy surface of his words gives as much pleasure as the moments of profound, puncturing depth - as all the very greatest queer writing does.

In the run-up to my conversation with Koestenbaum, I was studiously preparing for a deep dive into his labyrinth of references, from the degenerate pleasure seekers of Humiliation to the deified divas of The Queen’s Throat. But then I realised that the point of his writing isn’t to impose his own heroes upon you: it compels you to find the confidence to pursue your own unlikely threads of interest, to discover queer heroism in people nobody ever has before. The canon of queer icons that is passed down to us is made to be broken, reshaped, added to and taken away from - and we all deserve our very own shelf to put our personal heroes on. There are no hard and fast rules for who we choose to hero worship. Why? To mimic Koestenbaum’s own affinity for John Waters-esque infantilism: because I said so.

I’m aware this is a horrible question, but given the breadth of your erudition and interests, how would you define yourself to someone who was unfamiliar with your work? A writer, an artist, a vaudeville lounge act?

I guess I'm an artist. I don't think of myself as so erudite - I've always been around academics and I've never felt quite equal to all of them. So I'm always flattered but mystified if I'm referred to as erudite. Of course it’s very possible to say: if Donald Trump is one version of a human being - pure lead weight without any curiosity or knowledge whatsoever - on that wide of a human spectrum, I am rather erudite. But I see the world and I approach what I do in a much more playful and experimental way. I always approach the world from a standpoint of ignorance and curiosity and ardent exploration. I want to tickle the world rather than master it - that's as far as the erudition part of it goes. But I’m primarily an artist-poet. I'm a word by word kind of guy: inch by inch, colour by colour, gesture by gesture. Everything for me is quite atomised and approached in the now: I identify with Warhol in that way, in that he saw the world naively but comprehensively and capaciously. But since it’s the Queer Bible we’re having this chat for, I think there are a lot of queer precedents for the kind of person I am. Many of my idols have done many things: look at somebody like Paul Bowles, who I admire greatly. He was a composer, then he left that and became a short story writer, he became a kind of musicological ethnographer as well as a full time kief smoker and cruiser. Tennessee Williams, again: cruiser, playwright, bookkeeper, short story writer, drifter.

I think it’s very common for queer people to feel uncomfortable with narrow definitions. And for you, the kind of knowledge you have is such a weird cocktail of pop culture and philosophy and critical theory, I can understand why you would resist being labelled in that way.

Yeah, and also because we could literally spend the next half an hour listing all of things I just flamboyantly do not know. Major zones of inquiry. It's not even subtle. I came of gay age within a milieu of very heady and witty and cosmopolitan gay men who knew so much more than I did, and they let me know that they knew more than I did. Queens can be mean, but also, queens know a lot. Not even just literary knowledge, but opera, for example - opera knowledge requires such intricate and esoteric apprenticeship and I was always aware, coming into that world, of how ignorant I was compared to my gay fathers. They had seen Maria Callas, and had backstage knowledge that I would never have. I think it's part of the structure of a certain kind of gay male mentorship. And queer culture more widely, it is a cocktail that we're stirring for each other, but it's a strict cocktail. You would know this as a fashion writer, but style is cruel.

I was struggling to think about what to ask you, but I realised that it's because of the pure pleasure of reading your books. Thinking specifically about the Cleavage and My 1980s essays, there was a sense of being able to dip in and out, and just be carried along by your voice that weaves together all of these strands of queer life, whether that's explicit or implicit. It felt like a series of impressions.

I am a fan of longform, and that operatic sense of breadth, but I find in my own work I love quickies. I love brief glimpses and sharp jump-cuts. I could say I’m practising an art of assemblage or something like that, but really I love the word quickies. It has a connection to the gay sexual underworld, it's a style that relates to cruising, of brief encounters that can be stigmatised for their anonymity - when anonymity is the greatest gift, not something to apologise for. Maybe I'm digressing a bit here, but what I like about those encounters is that they have no context: you don't know necessarily the full biography of your quickie. The Camp Marmalade poems are scissored glimpses. I want to second and salute this notion of impressions. Perhaps there's a way of providing a closet, or a form of privacy for stigmatised sexual identities and encounters, that connects to modernism and its love of instance; the frozen moment, apart from the flow of time, all that stuff. But for me it’s about quickies.

I think again that sense of the peripatetic is very queer - being a bit of a drifter, trying out lots of different things. A lot of the most important figures from the gay male canon are people who experimented with different mediums, different ways of living. There's a common restlessness.

It's funny you use the word peripatetic, as I'm actually writing these poems right now that I've nicknamed peripatetic sonnets. I'm having so much fun with them, because my deal with myself is that I have to write one a day, and it has to be 14 lines. The lines are long, not like traditional poetic lines. I usually write them on my phone and I send them as notes to myself as I'm wandering around and doing stuff, so that if I see something and I have an idea, the line will occur to me and I will send it to myself, and by the end of the day I hope to have 14 of them and there it is: my peripatetic sonnet. It's not an original procedure, but it's a way of being on the move and not chained to my desk; not in a space of intending to write a poem. The fun thing about writing these sonnets is that maybe by four o'clock, I don't remember what line I sent to myself two hours earlier, so there's no transitions between the two different things. It's very exciting to find that distance from yourself. I can be so much more forgiving and kind to myself when I have that distance.

You say that, but when I read My 1980s, what struck me was that you clearly have a remarkable memory, particularly for what you were consuming culturally at any given time. How do you retain all of that? Are you a diarist?

Well I am. When I write I don't refer to my diaries, but I have - pretty much since I was 18 - kept a daily diary that now covers all of my adulthood in one form or another. It includes a lot of dreams. If you're in the habit of writing daily about your habits and your dream life, you tend to remember it better, I think. Memory is reinforced by writing, and so because I've written more or less autobiographically for a long time, things are acid etched into memory.

And within those memories - the films you were watching or the music you were listening to - there's always something tied to it that is more significant. In the 1980s, you have that high-low Manhattan culture, the shadow of AIDS, the Reagan administration, the Christian Right, but it’s woven into very personal memories of what you were doing on a day to day basis. It’s very powerful.

I'm aware that I don't pay enough attention to the now. I've always been in mourning for the now. I wrote an essay, I think it's in Cleavage, called 'Notes On Not Now', and it's about paying attention to what's happening at that moment. I remember in that essay I made a list of things to do or things to pay attention to right now, and one of them was a reissue of Joan Crawford's last movie Trog - the film was made in 1970, was being revived in 1999 and I was considering that a feature of the now, when of course it wasn’t the now. And here I am telling it to you in 2018. I really don't think that strange time warp has to do with nostalgia, because I'm not nostalgic for Trog, nor am I frozen in time or developmentally challenged. I think I’m getting a bit murky here. I've maybe got too distracted by embroidery in my writing also, when my initial stylistic trait or tenet has to do with not embroidering. Certainly in the essay you're referring to, My 1980s, I don't embroider. I remember when I wrote it having a very strict policy with myself about that.

By embroidering, you mean including extraneous detail?

I mean giving too much feeling, or context, or transition, or turning it into a story rather than a kind of icicle.

Reading Camp Marmalade, you seem to take a lot of joy in these weird and wonderful configurations of words, even if they don't lead you to anything deeper - it feels more like a big soup of words than an icicle. Even the title captures that perfectly as a delicious non-sequitur. How do you think that play between surface and artifice relates to queer life more broadly?

[Wayne pauses] I was just wondering if I was queer still. But of course I am, there's nothing else that I am. But it's strange - the funny thing about speaking 'queerly', or from that point of view, is when you arrive at that identity there can be such a flood of clarity. And a wish and a will to make powerful statements of witness and certainty. In my experience as time passes and styles change and new identities flourish and the contours of queer life around us morph, any kind of certainty I had that I could speak with knowledge or authority from that position starts to liquefy or melt. And I'm not just saying that as a deferral of your notion - I was quibbling with your notion that I was erudite, and now I'm quibbling with your notion that I'm queer - I am queer, of course, but it's hard... I used to theatrically say that speaking as a queer is to have a divided voice, and maybe there is a bit of rhetoric in that, but now I would say that it isn't even rhetoric. I got a lot of mileage intellectually when I was younger from imagining that all men were queer. That was the kind of erotic leverage of my early adulthood, a feeling that there was just something gay about men, period.

I think that's more common than it seems. I remember reading Alan Hollinghurst's novels when I was a teen and being a bit confused by them, because all of the men seem to be gay or queer. Which is obviously absurd, even if there's something quite intoxicating about that idea.

I think there was a certain confidence I had about my queer point of view, which had to do with the pride and glee and maybe even aggression with which I felt I could demolish any man's straightness. That I could tear it apart, that there was no straightness impervious to my deconstruction of it. That allowed me to eroticise everything and to feel that there was just an imminent nakedness about the world surrounding me. It's almost as if a certain heavily sexual outlook I have towards the world in general has diminished, and that I don't find the world in general as sexy as I used to.

I was reading earlier some reviews of The Queen’s Throat that came out around the time it was published, and a few of them spend most of their word count dissecting the way in which you used the word 'queer' as something broader than gay and lesbian. At least from what I could parse within the book, that wasn't your primary goal, to open up this meaning of the word queer, but it did seem to have that effect.

It's funny, I don't recall that. I think a lot of that book was about returning to a more erotic aura around opera, that maybe it always had, without sexualising it. It's again part of this thinking that all men are potentially gay, the practice in that book and in my earlier work in general was giving things a sexual glow without having them actually be about sex. Maybe it's also something to do with the gay male culture that I come from - where Judy Garland was the queen of everything - there's this investment in divas that doesn't precisely have to do with sex.

Was it was less to do with queerness from a sexual perspective, and more to do with camp? I feel like opera is a socially acceptable, ‘high’ art form but really it’s just unbelievably camp. The prima donna has all of the same indulgences as the drag queen. I think it opened my eyes in that sense: it made me more aware of those intersections between art and queer life that aren’t always immediately obvious.

The thing about camp is that it's so serious. There's a grandeur to the phenomenon that sometimes gets dismissed as camp. So many people describe something as camp in order to dismiss it, or to deny its aesthetic power.

It's become too synonymous with kitsch.

Stuff that is camp is also really really good, stuff that is kitsch is not. Kitsch is all surface, whereas camp is incredibly deep. When I'm talking about camp, the word I like to throw around is the old fashioned one, sublime. The qualities of the sublime experience, its terror and its grandeur, are present in the phenomenon that I think of as camp.

Did you read about the big Costume Institute show at the Met this year? It’s themed around camp, which will be the theme for the Met Gala too. Susan Sontag's definition of camp.

About failed seriousness.

I'm fascinated to see how celebrities will interpret it.

That is really tough what they're trying to pull off, they will have to be really careful.They better have some good advisors. My recommendation would be that they have to proceed with the utmost austerity and sense of religious passion about it. Maybe they should say, this is an exhibit about - insert here another word other than camp - and pretend that's the exhibit they're doing and then - surprise! - the day before, they tell everyone they're retitling it, and the exhibition is camp. That would be a really good exhibit, because they wouldn't have gone about trying to restage and falsify camp..

The whole conceit you just described is very camp.

What is your main interest if you don't mind me asking?

I supposed I’m very interested in the history of magazines, particularly anything countercultural. Which has somehow spun out onto working on indie mags and scraping together a living through freelance journalism.

When you talked about countercultural magazines I had a pang of longing for the various kinds of ads you would find in the back of magazines I remember from the past - whether they were movie magazines or the Berkeley Barb or men's magazines. One thing I remember specifically, and they weren't even necessarily porn magazines, was the ads for you to order 8mm films, which were obviously porn films, but there would be specific post boxes. The sex ads and personals in the Village Voice, the specificity of all those needy, available bodies, I just love it so much.

It's funny you say that because I've just been working on this new magazine project that's inspired partly by old pulpy gay mags, and one thing we wanted to do from the beginning was to have a shopping section at the back of it, designed like one of those old mail order tearouts with dashed boxes, but you can contact them directly over Instagram to order them instead.

I love all of that. A lot of the poetic form of Camp Marmalade has an affinity with that, the little stanzas or idea bubbles, with lines separating each one. They're a bit like those wanted ads, in their dashed boxes. I think forms of wanted ad speech are always emerging, and then they get suppressed by technological advances, but then they creep up again. Censorship and technological advances go hand in hand: two things are coming to mind, that I have a similarly urgent passion about. One is the sex ads on Craigslist, which got shut down, but what was particularly beautiful there was something called 'missed connections'. You could search men for men, women for women, and it would say for example: saw you in a red hoodie on the F train at 10am, we exchanged glances. You looked really hung. Wanna meet? Or: We met in the elevator at the Metropolitan Museum, you said hello. And those are all gone now. The other thing is that Tumblr is now about to shut off any sort of sexually provocative content, when that was such a flourishing space for gay imagery.

They said they were going to censor 'female-presenting nipples'.

What do you do with that kind of a culture? That's how your interest in publishing and forms of identity that emerge through DIY publishing intersect with my aesthetic procedures of impressionism. I feel great connection there. Do you know Vince Alletti?

I don’t.

He's a photography critic in the United States, he's queer and I think he might have been the executor of Peter Hujar's estate. Look him up. There was a really interesting magazine in the US called Nest, it was phenomenal. I wrote a piece about Vince Alletti's apartment, and he has an astonishing archive of magazines, decades of Vogue, but also a huge stash of alternative magazines too. He's a great person to know of.

I feel like that's another very queer instinct, to hoard. I don't know why, but I'm picturing the images Robert Mapplethorpe took of Warhol's apartment after he died, where they're just stuffed to the rafters with crap. Maybe it plays also into the accumulation of stories, the instinct to be a diarist, someone who is collecting all the time.

I'm not a collector in any professional sense, I don't buy things that have value or will have value. Sadly I really don't buy art, and I should have all these years. But I am a self-collector, or a hoarder to some extent. I'm looking right now at all the notebooks I have on the shelf right here, and I'm very emotionally attached to my archive which is quite large. I don't know what to say about that, but when I think about collecting, I sometimes don't know the difference between me and all of the papers and books I surround myself with. I feel sometimes myself rather disembodied and feel that the notebooks in which I've written all these years are my body, or even my paintings now. It's a form of this collector mentality.

When did that instinct to collect kick in? I feel like there’s such a strong Manhattan identity to your voice, but you aren’t from New York - what’s the story there?

I didn't move to New York until 1984, I lived here for four years, and then I spent time in New Haven, then moved back here in 1996. Where are you from?

I grew up in a very small village in Wiltshire. But my eyes were always on London, I knew I wanted to move there.

It's a very familiar story, having that innate understanding of where the possibilities of cultural and erotic nourishment lie, and they lie in the city.

I was lucky to some extent, because I grew up in the age of the internet - I remember my dad getting a dial-up modem when I was a kid - so I had access to everything I was interested in.

That is so beautiful. For me it was the opposite, I wasn't just pre-internet but also pre-video. There was no ability to independently and privately have access to the materials that I dreamt about, so instead they kind of became fable. They became complete fable. That intensified my love for music and movies and stars, because they were the only access I had to those forms of glamour and sustenance. A huge part of my childhood was literally just wanting to see certain movies that I knew about, either current or from the past, but that I couldn't see - they weren't playing, kids weren't allowed to see them - it was almost like growing up in a world where you knew there were libraries, but the libraries were locked.

How did you discover those things in the first place?

The merest glimpses. When I was nine or ten years old, I started keeping these little - I call them zines, or nudism handbooks - I showed them to a few of my friends but they were mostly for me. I would take a piece of coloured construction paper and fold them in half, and assemble them within it, folded pages - it was a scrapbook and I would cut out any nude picture I could find, anywhere, and I would have little commentary. I would see a Titian nude and cut that out, but then there would be someone from a stolen copy of Playboy. I decided at that age that I was going to start collecting nudity wherever I could find it, men and women. My first interest was really in women sexually, because that's where nudes were, in the cinema or in magazines. Anita Ekberg's breasts falling out of her dress in La Dolce Vita. Things like that. But then when, for example, Burt Reynolds posed nude in Cosmopolitan and that picture was reproduced in news magazines, so I discovered that picture. Things like that. Newsweek reproducing Burt Reynolds' pin-up were like discovering porn on the internet.

I can relate, even if the reference points are different. For my generation I think it was Kate Winslet in Titanic, or it was for me at least. I think we all had a strange obsession with nudity, whether male or female.

So that's how I put together my childhood, I was collecting mental images of nudity and i had a kind of erotic museum, and then of course any male body I happened to see nude I would memorise, and I had a collection of those in my head. There was never enough.

And also, so detached from the sexual act.

I didn't even know what gay sex was. It was totally about looking. The erotic ideal for me was just seeing a naked guy and getting to look.

It felt like a weird privilege.

That's all I wanted, ever. Now skip ahead to the present day, and it's why I feel personally scapegoated and censored when Tumblr decides it's going to take down its erotic feeds, because the fact is those compilations represented to me a kind of utopia. A reparative utopia to the drought of youth. A drought I'm still recovering from. That is so much my foundation, there's nothing truer I can say.

Sam Russell Walker is an Illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process.

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