Interview with Wayne Koestenbaum Originally published in Graphic #22
Ryan: How would you describe the intersection of authorship, criticism, and education that characterizes your work?
Wayne: I write books. Some of them are poetry. Some are prose. Some are fictional. Some are factual. The ratio of poetry and prose, and fiction and fact, is often unstable. Sometimes I put too much poetry in my prose, or too much prose in my poetry. As for education: I teach. I like making manifest my stances, opinions, whims, discoveries. Not all of them are mine; some of these stances are borrowed or stolen. I like speaking in public. And I like witnessing (and fomenting) student radicalism.
Ryan: Your own identity and your works are closely connected. Could you say a bit about how you navigate this relationship?
Wayne: What’s to navigate? I’m always me, even when I’m trying not to be. I wish I had a choice; I wish I could be not me. Eileen Myles did a good job, in her great long poem “Not Me.” Her point: those of us who write autobiographically also reserve the right to be liars, fabricators, theorists, pontificators, generalizers. I like to rhapsodize about “humanity,” even if “human” is an irrelevant word. In class today, a seminar called “The Practice of Everyday Life,” I used the word “human,” and I apologized for it.
Ryan: As an author and cultural critic, what do you think is crucial right now in your field? Are some of these things also crucial to the world at large?
Wayne: Most of what I care about is not crucial to the world at large. Even to make such a statement is to assume I understand the meaning of “world at large.” I am not comfortable speaking about the world at large. Except: I am rather uptight and worried about ecology and the state of the planet. I am in a pretty perilous condition of anxiety about what Jonathan Schell once eloquently called “the fate of the earth.”
Ryan: Who and what are you paying attention to right now?
Wayne: I am paying attention to Jean Dubuffet. I am paying attention to what some art critics call “mark-making.” I am paying attention to lines, smudges, squiggles, curves, trapezoids, circles. I am also trying to learn the difference between warm and cool colors. Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t believe in the distinction between warm and cool colors. But I am newly in love with grey. Cold grey, it’s sometimes called.
Ryan: What does the term relevance mean to you?
Wayne: I fear the thought-police, where “relevance” is concerned. I.e., if a certain subject isn’t relevant, am I a cad, or a moron, to pay attention to it? What if I want to watch closely and passionately a phenomenon that’s irrelevant? Hence I fear the possibly authoritarian exclusiveness of “relevance,” as cudgel, as border-patrol, as stricture. I want to reserve the right to care about irrelevant matters—the atopical.
Ryan: Your most recent book is titled Humiliation. Is humiliation relevant to graphic design?
Wayne: Absolutely yes. Humiliation is relevant to every human endeavor. What if the graphic design fails? What if it fails to seduce the viewer? What if the font goes out of style? What if the forms clash and fumble on the page? What if the graphic designer gets fired?
Ryan: Is post-ironic appreciation possible? Can seduction occur with kitsch and irony, but then a more authentic love emerge after that initial courtship?
Wayne: Yes, post-ironic appreciation is still possible. First, one must travel through the dismal valley of irony. Second, after the voyage is over, you can re-enter the safe haven of appreciation.
RW: Would you be willing to make a YouTube playlist for us of five or ten profoundly humiliating videos?
Wayne: At the moment, I can’t think of any. I suggest that you make five humiliating videos and post them on YouTube. My hope, of course, is that you’ll secretly find them exalting, not humiliating. My hope is that you’ll pretend to find them humiliating, so you can keep as your private treasure their covert resplendence.
Wayne Koestenbaum is a Visiting Critic in Painting at the Yale School of Art, Distinguished Professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center, Poet, and Cultural Critic.