Having Glaze Both Ways: Talking to Wayne Koestenbaum

How might hints of “glade,” “gaze,” “gays,” “haze,” “gloze” (and perhaps “glass”) coalesce into an especially buoyant and attentive prose? How might an ekphrastic author, feeling a “bit of amnesia” take over, sensing increased divorce from the referent while building up some “measly house of cards,” suddenly find one’s way to the fiction room (where “every association, every word, everything is suddenly useful”), even while pushing one’s exuberant critical and interpretive play ever forward, “never checking back to the world to see if they’re still true”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Wayne Koestenbaum. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Koestenbaum’s Notes on Glaze. Koestenbaum has published 19 books of poetry, criticism, and fiction, including The Pink Trance Notebooks, My 1980s & Other Essays, Hotel Theory, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, Andy Warhol, Humiliation, Jackie Under My Skin, and The Queen’s Throat (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist). His newest book of poetry, Camp Marmalade, was published this spring. He has exhibited his paintings in solo shows at White Columns (New York), 356 Mission (L.A.), and the University of Kentucky Art Museum. Koestenbaum’s first piano/vocal record, Lounge Act, was released by Ugly Duckling Presse Records in 2017. He has given musical performances at The Kitchen, REDCAT, Centre Pompidou, The Walker Art Center, and the Renaissance Society. He is a Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and French at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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ANDY FITCH: Could we start with the cat photo, with its “paw-licking version of Étant donnés, that confessional-booth-qua-glory-hole into which I pour my optimism, my feudalism, my kleptomania, and my refusal to kowtow to ordinary pharmaceutical dogmas of satiety”? One type of Notes on Glaze review, let’s say, might want to run with the de rigueur Duchampian reference. Such a review might probe fraught or conflicted relations of representation, projection, penetration, power. But Duchamp also points me back to the Rosalind Krauss Optical Unconscious passage in which she works her way first through Sartre (his formulation that “to be discovered at the keyhole is to be discovered as a body”), then gets to Lyotard’s line “He who sees is a cunt.” Do you remember reading that?

WAYNE KOESTENBAUM: Many years ago. Please continue.

Krauss describes us bending over to peek at this exposed body, even while we position our own body to be accessed from behind. But what I find most relevant to Notes on Glaze comes next, when Krauss suddenly pivots from “cunt” to discussing Kant. Here, to my mind, Krauss basically says (dares us to ignore her saying) something like “Kant is a cunt,” or “My cunt is my Kant.” She might as well be Artaud for that moment — or Roland Barthes associating criticism with the “crazy,” not to deride it, but to release it from alibis of professional credentialing, of taking part in the purportedly prevailing conversation. So here I finally approach my first question. Notes on Glaze’s introduction suggests that this book’s imperiously descriptive/improvisatory range rarely admits to powerlessness. But then when this intro starts sliding between “mist” and “mystification,” when your notes recuperate failures of seeing as pleasures taken in the labyrinth of saying, when you side with perfumeries of the vowel and attendant atmospherics of elocution, I do sense these pieces admitting (through tone) to a form of powerlessness — to the prompt of the unspeakable, perhaps unknowable desire shaping any act of interpretation. I’ll sense this project’s overall rationale as something like “My mouth wanted to say this thing,” or “My ear wanted to hear this thing.” So I wonder if you could provide some palpable sense of the bodily urges playing their part in how Notes on Glaze operates. And could you also place those somatic urges in relation to your recent work in painting and performative Sprechstimme?

I’m always surprised when I look at a page of Rosalind Krauss’s — how full of play and delicious error it is. A few days ago I gave a perplexed student the first page of The Optical Unconscious for inspiration: “Of course, it’s easy enough to laugh at Ruskin. The most analytic mind in Europe did not even know how to frame a coherent argument.” That sentence moves me to identify with Ruskin — not for his genius, but for his inability to pursue an argument.

I’m fond of Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing, a how-to book in which he advocates microscopically close vision. His exercises involve isolating objects (such as a leaf) from their surroundings, putting these objects on white paper, and fastidiously drawing them. What makes John Ruskin deliciously pathetic is his inability to see context, and his infatuation with the close-up.

Krauss’s initial disavowing gesture of pity for Ruskin’s illogical procedure is counterpointed by her own French (Barthesian) pleasure taken in linguistic slippage and in games. The other line of Krauss’s I’m quite in love with is the opening of her acknowledgments to Under Blue Cup: “Incited by over a decade of disgust at the spectacle of meretricious art called installation, this book was made possible by fortuitous encounters with what I saw as its strong alternatives.” I love the syntax of the sentence, the way it begins with her triumph over disgust, painting her as victim of installation art’s spill tide. It’s a thrilling diagnosis/denunciation, but it also grounds her in the eccentricities of her own way of seeing — as she, in this book, tries to put together a lexicon and a way of speaking, after her brain exploded. The book actually begins, “Late in 1999, my brain erupted.” Here again the body interferes with or enables the words. Call it the helplessness of the critic, the helplessness of the critic as artist.

Then for the question of “my mouth wanted to say these words,” and in terms of singing Sprechstimme while playing the piano: apparently Percy Bysshe Shelley (however you pronounce his middle name) would sometimes compose poems with just vowel sounds before finding words. He would compose a graph of vocalisms, and words would come later. I think that’s how Tennyson worked. T.S. Eliot and maybe modernists in general denounced Tennyson and others from the 19th century (poor John Ruskin, poor Lord Alfred Tennyson) for being sound artists, for having no arguments. Tennyson just had his sounds, admittedly pretty sounds, but what were they? When I’m working at the piano, I start with vowels ( “o,” “e,” “a”), and then try to find the words. A song I’m working on right now begins with the words “Mae,” “West,” and “Patty,” “Hearst.” First, I just sang “Mae, Mae, Mae,” because “Mae” is a very good sound for vocalizing. It’s a nice vowel. Then I thought: This is boring. Why don’t I just say “Mae West”? But “West” is not so vocally felicitous. Nor is “Hearst” helpful for the mouth. But “Mae” and “Patty” are useful, so I started evolving a song. I play preludes by Szymanowski, a gloriously sickly, homosexual descendent of Frédéric Chopin, and a very underrated composer, and also a Polish compatriot of yours.

In a class I’m teaching on Gertrude Stein and Henry James, I’ve stumbled upon a bit of linguistic synchronicity that obsesses me, and that has no basis in a logical critical argument. It’s simply wordplay and it moves me. It has to do with Mae, the word “Mae.”

I thought of Stein right away with “May.”

Yeah, because there’s the famous crux, revealed by Ulla Dydo, that Stanzas in Meditation was massacred, edited, and bowdlerized by Alice B. Toklas, and all instances of the word “may” were crossed out and replaced by “can” or other words, and now we can read the restored text with the “mays” put back. Alice B. Toklas had discovered the manuscript Q.E.D., I believe, and the “mays” thereby indirectly pointed to Stein’s long-ago love affair with a woman named May Bookstaver. Alice, a linguistic literalist trained in the Stein école, believed that the word “may,” even in the sentence, “You may go to school,” always meant May Bookstaver. That’s Exhibit One.

Exhibit Two is Henry James’s The Sacred Fount. A crucial character is named May Server. We only hear May Server’s first name a couple of times in the text, so one historical question emerges about influences. Did Gertrude Stein read The Sacred Fount around the time of her love affair with May Bookstaver, and what the hell do May Server and May Bookstaver have to do with each other, or tell us about continuities between an essentially 19th-century writer like Henry James and a 20th-century modernist like Gertrude Stein? How does James’s novel relate to an abstract sound-based art like Stein’s? The May Bookstaver and May Server link is pure whimsy, but also an irruption of the uncanny. How else to move between the things we visit and read? How else to make sense of any public intersections unless you take seriously a word like “may”?

Well, for public intersections, could I turn back to Notes on Glaze? In terms of how sound plays out within this book, in terms of microscopically close vision, could we also consider affinities between sound and smell, perhaps under the sign again of perfumeries of the vowel, of Duchamp’s bending down and carnal critiques and anti-retinal departures? Could we talk about the ever-emergent place of scent, perhaps particularly the scent of underwear, across this book? Or just to give one aromatic reference, we could look at the “Punished Aroma of Colportage” piece, where you picture a scene (or a glaze) burrowing its way to scent: “I picture burdened peddlers presenting merchandise in staggered array, like peacock feathers or a Mallarméan éventail, a fan spreading out to conceal, to confuse, and to create a border between listener and speaker, a border that will likely permit no trespassing but might admit an olfactory insinuation.” Then when you mention Chanel No. 5, definitely synesthesia overtakes me. I glimpse the Charles Demuth painting. I hear the William Carlos Williams poem. And then you present yourself bent over, too. You say “I’m convinced that its aroma will teach me — if I can bow down low enough to receive the instruction.” So thinking about scent, about bowing down in this way, by now I sense this Warholian organza [Laughter] approaching, and I realize that sex has been happening throughout the piece. Or similarly, the piece “Restraint” revels in its rhetorics of restraint. It stays very playful with that, then starts closing on restraint’s “unclipped fingernails, its dirty kleenexes, its dingleberries.” And then it bows down again, to “lick the soles of restraint’s brogues” (again like scenes of Andy Warhol bending down to do his own sniffing). And reading both of those passages, I also remember you once writing about a young Joe Brainard putting his ear to a friend’s vagina…

Oh my god.

Or I recall recent trends of Japanese teens licking each other’s eyeballs. So for a question: I sense some occult harmony (but, of course, with slight differences of posture, texture, flavor) that I can’t yet articulate to you putting your nose, your tongue, your ear to these photographic scenes. Could you discuss that repeated gesture?

Yes. It’s gratifying, Andy, to hear you read so carefully and with such detail, and to unfold a sequence of occult resemblances within my book. I certainly had not noticed or thought of the two bowing-downs, and had not thought of Duchamp, or Warhol, or what it means to bow down or get seen from behind.

I’m thinking now of Derrida’s The Post Card, which opens out for us a connection, on the one hand, between sodomy and the relative position of two bodies, and, on the other hand, between writing versus orality. There’s something cool and spooky about putting together in our minds the writing/speaking dilemma with the question of bowing down and being seen or penetrated from behind.

So I bow down to receive the instruction of an aroma, which I spot first in a text. I first heard about Le Numéro Cinq by Molyneux, a perfume that bows down to Chanel No. 5, by reading a text by Marie Chaix. She was the partner of the late Harry Mathews, the only American Oulipo member. Perhaps he’s the playful father beneath or within this scene of bowing down.

In the other scene, I’m bowing down to restraint. The strictures of these essay-fictions made them (I don’t know why) remarkably difficult to write. I had free rein over whatever I wanted to say, but all my imaginative deviations needed to be grounded in these found photographs. What made this process so difficult? Why was I in a position of restraint, and why was I bowing down to a structure that was simply the structure of response? Ekphrasis: to ekphrasis I was tied, and I bowed down. Within that structure I needed to use all I had. I had the images to look at, and I had all of history around me. I had all of human experience, so why did I feel that I was in a desert, and that the only glimpses of illumination or succor were in the synesthetic reverberations of certain words?

I don’t want to frame this in a psychological way (“Why is Wayne unable to enjoy the plentitude of human history, and why is he geeking out on individual words? He should have just gone to a perfume shop instead of trying to find perfume in a word”). But I’ve gotten so deep into my relation to words at this point. Maybe it’s the “poor John Ruskin” dilemma. I’ve gotten so deep into my personal way of working with words, which is not the most fruitful or certainly not the most profitable way. But I’m so deep in, and I have no other way to proceed, and when I’m working within words I’m in a particular system of receiving knowledge and receiving reverberations — so that I have to fly constantly between scenes and impressions and artifacts to retain cognitive freedom, and to retain, to some extent, physical freedom. I need to look for perfume through a dropped word in somebody else’s text. I’m not saying anything about Le Numéro Cinq by Molyneux in itself. I’m saying that this perfume occurred to me, and because it occurred to me (for reasons that I choose to see as uncanny and overdetermined) I bow down. Bowing down is a masochistic posture, and it’s the art posture. I celebrate that kind of masochism, to return again to Henry James. Bowing down is syntax. I said this in Humiliation: the more that language gets worked, lived within, taken seriously, the more filled with perils it becomes, and the more it becomes a system to be outfoxed.

I want to say one more thing about posture and bowing down. My students and I have noticed that, in these Henry James novels, a lot of the sexed inexplicability and uncanniness of human relations, and of our attempts to gain intellectual purchase on human relations, comes from the relative position of bodies spied near each other. In a scene in The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer walks into a room and sees her husband, Gilbert Osmond, and his mysterious friend, Madame Merle. One is seated and one is standing. Catching them in this particular relation to each other reminds me of Freud’s Wolfman glimpsing his parents in primal-scene congress, like a tango, in the doggie position, which leads into his brutal imaginings of animals on trees. Not to say that the uncanniness of human relations always goes back to this spying of the primal scene, but for questions of bowing down, for forms of intra-psychic/intra-subjective relationality, or intra-psychic obeisance (that one can be paying obeisance within one’s own psyche), again, we must look toward syntax, or singing, for answers.

One foundation of bel canto is appoggio (from the verb appoggiare, “to lean”). This system of vocalization is about leaning. You lean on the body’s internal support, which is simply air. Somehow the uncanniness of powerful singing or speaking has to do with an internal relationality or inner obeisance, an inner bowing down.

Wayne Koestenbaum, Elementary Cardboard Couture, 2018. Acrylic, acrylic marker, cardboard and canvas on cardboard. 18 x 10 inches. Currently on display at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery in New York City.

Could I add one point of reference here, to try to bridge Derrida, The Post Card, bowing down sexually as shaping writing and orality, all prompting outfoxings of language? The concept of plasticity seems crucial to your recent work both in painting and performance. And plasticity might seem less available in writing. But when you brought up the Wolfman, the slippage from observing this scene of somebody’s penetration from behind to one’s own condensed “brutal imaginings” (I think you said), the phrase “the pressure chamber of aphorism” came back to me, again from Notes on Glaze’s intro, which also states: “I wanted the pleasure and discipline of trying to pack too much material into a very tight container.” Also, when you mentioned leaning on air, I thought of this aphoristic pressure chamber — a phrase which I think comes from Susan Sontag’s now ancient Roland Barthes introduction. And I wonder how the aphorism’s pressure chamber might get externalized by the chamber piece, the chamber performances you’ve worked on recently. Could we move towards aphoristic pressure chambers and chamber pieces and chamber pots or whatever it may be, or 19th-century closet dramas? We could refer to any number of affiliated tropes, genres, embodied histories.

Beautiful, because this sequence transports us to “chamber pot.”

If you also want to place glaze in that pressure chamber, you probably could.

Well, let me think about chamber piece, aphorism, and pressure chamber. It’s gratifying to hear you talk about plasticity. I love the words “plastic” and “plasticity,” though every time I use them, I pedantically then say: “and I mean ‘plastic’ in a good way.” There’s the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. There’s our plastic society, and Future Shock [Laughter]. But “plasticity” is a term of praise in our circles. The “plastic” arts.

And in my lounge act, the pressure chamber is the musical phrase, the musical phrase as already scripted by Chopin, Scriabin, or Szymanowski. I play scripted music, mostly pre-1950. I play the notes exactly as written, sometimes with more rubato, but I never change the score. I just dilate the tempo to allow me to include more words.

The pressure chamber: these phrase units are quite conventional, even if their tonalities get stretched. Four-bar phrases. Two-bar phrases. Eight-bar phrases. It’s like writing syllabic verse: as I’m spinning out the words I want to say or that “my mouth wants to say,” I have to think about how to fit those words within the phrase Chopin wrote.

When I prepare my lounge act, I rarely write down the words, and I rarely obey whatever verbal prompts I’ve written down. So that’s the pressure chamber I’m choosing to live in. Think of the kiln where art gets cooked: art then gets taken out of the kiln and we leave the kiln behind, whereas I choose to bring the pressure chamber with me, as a turtle brings along its shell.

I’ve always wanted to write a book about shininess.

No doubt.

I have one essay in My 1980s on shine and stupefaction. And there’s a lot of shine in The Anatomy of Harpo Marx. But in Notes on Glaze, I migrate from shininess to glaze.

My book on Jackie O. discusses glazed donuts. In the chapter called “Jackie and Synesthesia” I talk about the perfume Jicky, Chiclets chewing gum, and glazed French-twist donuts. In that chapter, which is the most way-out or Symboliste, I go out on a limb and say: “OK, Jackie reminds me of glazed donuts.” I’m deliberately surrendering to slippage and plasticity. I have an allegiance to glaze that goes beyond any intellectual claims I can make. “Glaze” contains “glade,” “gaze,” “gays,” “haze,” and “gloze.” And yes it is a form of mist or mystification — I’m slipping all over the place because, as you’ve noted, mist, as in fog, has nothing to do with mystification, which concerns mystery.

Yeah I don’t at all mean to make you define “glaze.” I thought of the diamond dust maybe of some silly Rorschach test you slept through yet ended up passing anyway. So with some sense of residue and of the ever-present pressure chamber in mind, could we connect your current performative mode to past emphases upon retreat, disappearance, silence? Doing these improvisatory performances, does retreat no longer exist for you? Do you consider the whole performance some sort of plasticity-infused evasion precluding the need for any further retreat that writing might crave and/or facilitate? Or since we haven’t yet known how to bring in painting: do you sense yourself tracking some whole emerging multi-media genre of improvisation, and where might we place painting or perhaps your Instagram posts in or alongside it?

Improvisation is secretly the motor of everything I’ve done. A certain Robert Creeley essay long ago confirmed my sense of improvisation’s necessity. Creeley says he never begins a poem knowing what it will be about, what it will contain: it’s an encounter with language. I already had read plenty of literature that came from such methods, but somehow (maybe because Creeley’s a tough artist, with less feeling, less sensual gratification in his language) it surprised me to hear this point from him. How do you prepare for the scenes life gives you, and how do you balance the pleasures and necessities of preparation with the reality of the plunge, with the reality that there is always just the plunge or the fall into saying?

Here I am, in middle age, trying to bow down again to improvisation.

Well in terms of your own personal life, has the whole project of, say, conjuring an impromptu painting career, felt like deserved and/or desperate retreat, ongoing improvisation, radical self-invention, Creeley-esque toughness, O’Hara-esque libidinousness, Ginsbergian mantra-zoning all at once?

First I am always looking for, in the scene of improvisation, a retreat from planning, a retreat from boredom. When I write, I’ll experience flight and retreat, even if the act takes place in public. It’s an excited, inspired state of not knowing what I’m doing, but still trying to drive the car.

I’ve been writing, since the election, pieces I call fables. Ornate, they have embryonic characters and scenes. They’re retreats, because, when I write them, a room opens in my mind, and it’s a room that I used to live in. I know that room. I’m so happy this room is still open for me, and that I know how to open the door. I fear I’ll forget again soon how to open that door. It’s the fiction door. When I’m in that room I feel intensely free, because I feel that (like Stein’s aphorism: “use everything”) everything is suddenly of use. Every association, every word, everything is suddenly useful. I overheard a waiter say “Do you take mustard?” [Laughter], which of course became the title of the piece I was writing. That’s not even a nice phrase. But the phrase “Do you take mustard?” lit up something for me.

Many of these fables have emerged in response to works of art. When artists ask me to write pieces for their catalogues, I give them fables. I write these fables in a café, never at home. Or if at home, then I write them on the pink manual typewriter I’ve resurrected. I’ve had many dreams about typewriters over the last year, and then I just thought: Just go to Gramercy Typewriter Repair and get your pink Royal fixed.

I’m also writing short poems. In Rome I bought a bilingual (Latin/Italian) copy of Satyricon. I’ll take a paragraph of Latin and use it as the loose map for a new poem.

I’m working on my Trance trilogy, which began with The Pink Trance Notebooks. The second volume is called Camp Marmalade, and the third volume I’m beginning to revise. I write these notebooks by hand, very quickly, and let the hand discover the words. I feel silly touting these basic poetic procedures and objects — like a pink manual typewriter, or a notebook, or a fable, or a café, or a homophonic translation. There’s nothing unusual about these contexts, but I need them to trigger in me the unknowing.

To start moving off my own fixation here on retreat, to try for a different type of plunge, you long have tracked the death drive or death drives. Notes on Glaze refers I think to “prose’s death-drive pose of certainty.” Sometimes Notes on Glaze seems to resist the death drive, and sometimes to beckon towards and fulfil it. And here, more than in other writing of yours I can remember, you present the potentially pedestrian death-drive pursuits of, say, perception, language, public interpretation as protecting us from catastrophic knowledge. We also could discuss the recurrent repetition of certain sounds, even as (or until) this allows for improvisation — so repetitive processes, but also the release from them, just as these Notes on Glaze scenes push you towards ranges of visual/critical perception/reflection otherwise inaccessible, yet at the same time limit your ability to stay there.

The death drive connects to repetition. We know that. One of The Pink Trance Notebooks’s final sections (“I decided not to keep up with the death drive”) starts out: “shaving the private, shaving / the colonel // offering walnuts to a stranger, / a jogger // peach / shard to a jogger, epitome of / the death drive, a debate I’m not / part of // I decided not to / keep up with the death drive // please mention that you saw my butt.” I don’t know what exactly that adds up to, except that the jogger epitomizes the death drive. My voyeurism tells me that jogging gives you immortality, but also kills you. It’s a repetitive, painful, needless procedure — engaging your fight-or-flight mechanism, spiking your adrenaline for no good reason. Of course you can experience a runner’s high.

I end that little death-drive bit by saying “Please mention that you saw my butt.” So I’m demanding to be seen. I’m admitting some secret. About catastrophe, we can’t say much, or anything. And so I can’t say anything about the death drive. I decided not to keep up with it. The death drive remains crucial to me, but I’ve never really understood it. Instead I decided: OK, I’m not going to be the intellectual master of the death drive, even though it is a question that most urgently concerns me and my work. I just can’t keep up with it, which I guess also means that the death drive jogs faster than I do, and outpaces me, so I have this relation of emulation and actually bowing down to the death drive. By saying I can’t keep up with the death drive, I declare the death drive the top, the superior.

I’ll beg your indulgence by bringing up one other concrete thing. I decided to fill the 10 minutes before our conversation this morning by playing all the minor piano scales, all the minor arpeggios, and then I went to my book of Brahms’s exercises, and played six. Ever since I started doing the lounge act in public, I’ve done these Brahms exercises each day. Repeatedly I need to confront the question of why I’m practicing them. Is it simply mechanical behavior? I’ll think: Well, OK, it’s like meditation. But it’s not like meditation. Playing the Brahms exercises is unlike meditating, since I’m submitting to scripted exercises that supposedly improve my digital control and strengthen my finger muscles. But do they really? Am I doing it for comfort? I’m doing it vaguely for preparation. I almost feel like I’m facing the death drive — facing the knowledge that I’m never going to arrive at full competence. I’m doing exercises again and again and again. I don’t have any illusion about these exercises being the path to pianistic excellence, but I repeat them. My doggedness reminds me of the repetitions in Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, where she nakedly discusses her own motivations for writing, and says something like: “I do it not solely for pleasure, not for ambition, yes, partly for ambition.” It’s an extraordinary moment, because Stein rarely speaks that vulnerably about why she writes. The question the Brahms exercises raise for me in the face of death is: “Why waste time repeating a possibly useless exercise?” But that form of a death drive, that perplexing fact of this sheer number of hours, is integral to my functioning and to my work habits. Maybe prose is the death drive.

Well I feel that any time we discuss a book or project of yours, you’ll refer to secret crushes, projections, Oulipo-esque rule-shaping for how the work plays out. I love how I never can tell which of these secrets you long have harbored, which you already have broadcast to a lot of people, which you have pulled from the air just now as this generous, personalized, semi-confidential magician’s bouquet for your interlocutor. And given this book’s particularly serialized, staggered process of coming together, how have its secrets arrived so far, or where might some future readers still search for secrets in it? And to bring this back to Barthes: to me at least, one secret rationale for this broader book seems to involve constructing a textual apparatus that can hold the phrase: “Roland Barthes, sweater queen…”

Thank you for noticing “Roland Barthes, sweater queen.” I’m thinking of a photo of him. It might be in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. But I guess I’ve just always wanted to say “sweater queen,” and this is my chance.

He always wears some soft sweater. He’s a total sweater queen.

He’s always wearing sweaters, and I didn’t even know until now how much the phrase “sweater queen” resonates. [Laughter] Of course you’re not praising somebody by saying “sweater queen,” with that derogatory but tender, affectionate way that gay men describe each other, based on their affiliations. But those sweaters can be beautiful. And it doesn’t mean you want to go out with guys who wear sweaters. It just means your scarlet letter is that sweater you end up wearing, with no other possible fashion choice. It’s funny that you call that line a secret.

One big secret in this book (unarticulated, not fully unpacked) is glaze itself. I characterize glaze as something that coats, something that renders opaque the lens of seeing, but glaze is also the thing sought after, the thing seen. Glaze is the fetishized shiny surface, the fetishized nimbus, as well as the gunk that prevents clear sight. By having glaze both ways, I can set up glaze as an object of desire, but I can be glazed over to such an extent that I can’t describe this object of desire, amid an overall numbness procedure.

Sure in that list of homophonic terms from before, I might have added “glass.”

Oh yeah, “glass.” Absolutely.

Maybe with Glas alongside that, but mostly glass as ice, glass as transparent, glass as hard, as fragile, and glass as lens again. You also offer a glass jar of preserves here, with jam (itself like glaze) sort of the ideal destination of this book — smeared glass.

Yes, totally. When I realized that the title for the Trance trilogy’s second book would be Camp Marmalade, I was really happy. One of these Glaze essays says: “Jam won’t change the world.” Of course it’s ludicrous to suggest that jam could change the world — but I like getting jam in there. So on the level of the secret, I have certain husbanded terms or concerns that I’ve held for much of my life, and longed to bring forward and flash, but I don’t really have a place or use for them. In my first book, Double Talk, the secret was a male fantasy of procreative anal intercourse. I flashed that fantasy everywhere but without saying it was a fantasy: Freud’s fantasy, T.S. Eliot’s fantasy, Coleridge’s fantasy. Of course it was my fantasy, and I knew it was a fantasy, and therefore something intangible, theoretical, unharmful. It hung as a structural possibility over everything I read and wanted to say, without ever being a thing or scene I could wish to lay claim to, or describe, or put to rest by writing: “Oh, that was Freud’s problem.” I pretended that this fantasy provided the germinating seed for psychoanalysis.

Similarly, glaze and jam in Camp Marmalade are critical tools, objects, or fantasies that have great resonance and numinousness for me, fantasies that I fail to explain and that hover halfway between idée fixe and heuristic. A “flashlight,” I was going to say. Then the other types of secrets would be more personal or autobiographical things. Dreams. Crushes. The Pink Trance Notebooks is entirely about crushes. Maybe Camp Marmalade more so. I don’t think this will last, but my working title as of last weekend for the third volume was The Promiscuous Unseen. I’ve always wanted to call this third volume something like The Unnamable, The Invisible, The Blank.

But on the crush issue: the crush as MO of writing keeps thickening as a plot for me, in all these recent works. But a crush isn’t secret. What I’m calling “crushes” are like the jogger or the death drive. I have a crush on the death drive. I might frame myself as someone who could have a crush on anything, and who chooses to multiply these crushes because they make me more awake. So I don’t know if crushes function as secrets so much as catalysts. But also, when I’m moved by more lucid, daylit writers, I’ll say: “It’s so easy for me to be a straightforward person. Why can’t I be a more straightforward writer?” [Laughter] I wonder why I construct myself as Mr. Secrets.

And just in case this whole secrets conversation hasn’t made much sense to readers, I’ll try to offer one concrete example from the book. One piece in here mentions three buttons: “Three buttons in a row make me yearn for an inebriated life, a destiny more volcanic than the staid path I now pursue.” You then say you’d “rather escape into sexual reverie than decode buttons on a blouse.” So these vignettes don’t prioritize any Mythologies-like semiotic code to crack. But they do provide a magic circle of self-selected photos. And how many of these photos themselves present three buttons? I think of the men’s heads (echoed by Disney characters) in the staged and gendered scene of “Restraint.” Or the Altman-citing “Three Women” provides its own three buttons. The triangulated “Man Hugs Doll” scene has three buttons. And “Siegfried’s Underwear” shows two men plus a plane, sort of like a cock and balls, followed by “Stockholm Syndrome Sonnets’s” twin girls plus table vase (fallopian tubes). The “Oldsters Necking” on a couch (shared with a cranky guy) perhaps best exemplify this three-button motif, though I only really thought about it with the subsequent photo of the boy.

That boy in the little wheelbarrow?

Yeah the bright-eyed boy, whose glazed eyes you trace. That particular portrait made me wonder if every face is three buttons, if every butt is three buttons, or, to stick the third button on this syllogism, if every face is a butt, a third meaning, and vice versa.

In The Milk of Inquiry I wrote a poem called “Holes.” Its last six lines are “I like to return to places / I resemble. Rainclouds / condescend to me: // They have renounced / thunder, after three / ruminating claps.” Three thunderclaps, three holes. I bow down to your ingenious and beautiful reading of the three buttons and all that they portend and describe. Let’s just say it’s a structural truth of these photographs — that it’s beyond my conscious knowledge, and also, in a Camera Lucida way, maybe you’re onto something about the tripartite structure of many “dramatic” photographs. Your grand insight connects somehow with Stein’s Tender Buttons and Three Lives.

For those lines you just read, though, I’m aware of having written them in slightly bad faith.

From the first three-button photo, of the blindfolded kid?

Yes: “Seeing buttons I experience an optimistic surge of inward (intestinal? pre-orgasmic?) stimulation.” That’s true. The buttons catalyze something like this state of unknowing that excites me to creation and to further exercises of artifice. But then when I say, “Three buttons in a row make me yearn for an inebriated life,” “make me” is false. Even “inebriated” is a bit received. I’m thinking of Emily Dickinson’s “Inebriate of air — am I.” My use of “inebriated” is mildly derivative, and the phrase “make me yearn” is an overly cause-effect way to phrase this sequencing of desire. Then I say “a destiny more volcanic,” and with “volcanic” I’m back to Dickinson: “Vesuvius at Home.” Then “the staid path I now pursue”: there’s falseness in the verb tense. It bugs me every time I read that sentence. The verb tense changes. The present tense of that sentence rubs me the wrong way. I don’t revoke or retract that line — it says something true — but I remain uneasy about the certainty with which I characterize my path as “staid,” and about the tone and tense and vigor of the verb “pursue.” If the path is “staid,” how can I be pursuing it? Perhaps I’m not as certain of my motivations, my pursuits, as I claim to be. And perhaps I’m neither pursuing nor being pursued. Perhaps I’m simply hovering near or listening to, or existing in vague relation to this path.

Wayne Koestenbaum, Les Fleurs du mal, 2017. Oil, acrylic, and Flashe on canvas. 48 x 36 inches. Currently on display at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery in New York City.

There are all these weird temporalities in the book. The photos feel present tense, but also very Eastern Europe. [Laughter] So what else could you say about the codex of a book and how it fragments us, versus the present tense of a photo? And how might that relate to painting, where everything (perhaps — or you could disagree) gets seen at once? And how else could we place these concerns on a personal trajectory of tracing different types of duration and temporality: from watching Andy Warhol movies at their proper slow speed, to freezing Harpo, to improvisatory performances that can’t stop or they would collapse?

Well, the paintings I’m most content with are a series of four-by-three-foot canvases. I call them “novels.” They’re the largest paintings I’ve ever made. They take the longest to do, and I’m the most fastidious about them. They’re also the most improvisatory. One day at the art-supply shop I discovered a sale on big canvases and I thought: I’ve never painted on anything this big. I’m just going to buy one. I put it up in my studio, but I didn’t know what to do with this four-by-three-foot canvas. And so I arrived at an aleatory, incremental procedure. Whenever I had any leftover paint from another painting I was working on, I would go over to the biggie and just put a little bit of the paint on it — very low stakes. And the biggie would gradually develop, but I wouldn’t ever step back and look at it. I would just find a blank place to put a new bit of paint, and then if I didn’t like what I’d done, I would put new paint on top of the mistake. My rule was that I never approach the biggie with fresh paint. I can’t ever go and say “I want to put yellow here.” It has to be leftover paint I’ve already put on my palette, paint that’s just going to get thrown away, so I have to use it up. That permitted a real plunge into not planning and not knowing.

Someone described these big paintings as “locked in.” They’re the most “locked in” compositions I’ve done. However aleatory and unplanned the choice of color and motif, I always had very little paint at a time to use, which made my application of it quite precise. I call these paintings “novels” because when I finished the first one I was very happy, and I had just re-read Gertrude Stein’s Novel of Thank You, so I decided to call the painting A Novel of Thank You. The second biggie I decided to call Everything is Nice, after a Jane Bowles short story. The third painting I named Nightwood, after Djuna Barnes. I titled these paintings after unclassifiable works by modernist/experimental women writers. What was the question?

It asked about frictions of temporality that this particular book was forcing you to face or get us to appreciate.

I was aware when I looked at these finished “novels,” these paintings, that everything in them happens at once, which is of course a fact of painting. Here it’s more startling though, because of the difference in scale: the canvas is large, but the marks are small and numerous. So people looking at these paintings tend to say that they look like aerial maps or large landscapes seen from an airplane, or that they look like rugs. They don’t really look like rugs, maps, or landscapes, but they confront the issues of textual temporality that Stein raises in “Composition as Explanation.” Elsewhere I think she talks about 20th-century composition starting when you could get an aerial view of landscape. The technology enables you to see differently. I suppose seeing light-years into the past, millions of years into the past, is similar.

I’ve noticed that in paintings by Kandinsky, Picasso, and other figures from Stein’s era, certain principles of composition (whether in Cubist work or not) concern the relation of objects within a frame, in a rectangle or a square. I remember the triangle from college art-history class…the triangular composition of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne. This gets back to the three buttons. At least when I studied art history in college, there were lots of hidden triangles to be found in the works of the old masters. But I’m learning from Kandinsky, Klee, and painters from that era that objects also can enter from the sides of canvases. Those side entrances happen a lot in my “novel” paintings. I am aware, through painting, of entering a boundaried compositional area, and of the arrivals and vectors of other temporalities. This answer doesn’t excuse the strange flattening the present tense creates in that little piece “The Pregnant Blindfold.” But I will say that the Notes on Glaze pieces written earliest, in my column’s first two years, tended towards the aphoristic and sentence-by-sentence, with spaces between. As the column proceeded, I started writing longer paragraphs, and the syntax became more continuous and labyrinthine, circumnavigating, confusing, as if modeled on Mallarmé’s Divagations. That proneness to errancy made it possible to be more accurate about the temporality of memory, and not fall into overly declarative, falsely certain positions like “make me yearn,” or “the staid path I now pursue” — phrases declaring that a wish or action arose in a single specific moment, when in fact the desires stumbled into life as a palimpsest of different temporalities.

In the past you’ve mentioned not being aware of or very interested in a reader’s experience. But with Notes on Glaze it felt sometimes as if you could sense us start to turn the page away from the image, as if you wanted to explore what that does to our experience of supposedly reading “about” this image. Such heightened moments reminded me, if this makes any sense, of how, just as I start to leave a room, to slip beyond range, my mom will ask a question. [Laughter] The question comes precisely then. Or here, just as a page breaks, things get even funnier, more poignant, more tethered/untethered, more fort/da.

It’s fascinating that you’d bring up an oscillation between facing the music of the image and turning away from it.

I meant to add that this happens with books, but maybe not with painting.

This book’s scene of writing would start with an image or a referent — with maybe one tether or hinge or link to the world. Based on that hinge, writing commences. Stage two is the first sentence written, and that commencement of writing becomes the new hinge or referent for the next sentence. So even if the second sentence really wants to get back to the real-world referent, to the thing itself (the photograph), the second sentence can’t. The second sentence has a bit of amnesia about this event, which now only exists in the writing. Pursuing an argument means divorcing yourself from the referent, and thinking only of this measly house of cards that you’re building. If I pretend I’m writing fiction I can construct an argument, because you construct arguments by only thinking of your own points, never checking back to the world to see if they’re still true. That fall into language in the ongoing process of writing intensifies and accelerates the divorce from the world.

All of which, in Notes on Glaze, gets felt. Like just at the very first page’s end, for “The Surgeon,” you start getting roused and/or rousing us, talking about pornography becoming a staple in the future’s primary-education system, and then, flipping to the second page, we find this long list of forecasted shapes and statuses for the surgeon’s/leader’s/father’s genitals. 

Right: a shield? A chart? A blazon? A multiple-choice exam? A decoy? Or just a demonstration of the pleasure taken in enumeration, stacks, accretion?

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