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Daniel Day-Lewis spoke with poet, Eileen Myles in this 2002 interview. Photography by Terry Richardson.
 

Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.



Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.


Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.


Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.
 
  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Wayne Koestenbaum, 1999

WITH PETER HALLEY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RUDY MARTINEZ


Poets are interviewed in our magazine with a bit more frequency than in Soldier of Fortune — but not by much. So when we sit down to talk with someone like Wayne Koestenbaum, it' s because he sees the world in a way that' s smart, sexy, funny, political, and poetic. And we want in.
Even if he might not agree, we see Wayne as a kind of glamorous intellectual. In addition to three volumes of poetry, Wayne is widely known for books on Jackie Kennedy and opera. The Queen' s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire, and Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon, have established him as a cultural historian who turns fandom into scholarship. He' s no doubt well- equipped for his next subject, someone who also investigated personal obsession and celebrity: Andy Warhol.
Wayne' s newest collection of poems, Milk of Inquiry, has just come out.


PETER: I just read your new book. I was bowled over. There are a few things that especially stuck with me. At one point, you said something about the pleasure of being in an alive body.
WAYNE: It' s " Four Lemon Drops" ... like: Why do I want to write poems? Because I want to say what it' s like inhabiting a decent male body in this decade.

PETER: And then there was a second line about desire. I guess this goes throughout your work, the mystery of desire, that it' s something that can' t in fact be understood.
WAYNE: Since writing that poem, which was earlier than any of the other stuff in this book, I feel a little less cheerful about the decency of this male body. I have a little less joie de vivre. That was hardly joie de vivre, but ...

PETER: Actually, I thought it was hugely joie de vivre.
WAYNE: I was really depressed when I wrote " Four Lemon Drops." If there is joie de vivre, it' s day- glo or it' s induced. I' m not saying I was on drugs when I wrote this, just that, as opposed to earlier elated poems of mine, I was aware of a kind of funk or a constitutive foundational lowness of mood. I' m not speaking clinically as much as existentially. I was more aware of poetry as a kind of tool to rev up and the production of words as having to do with artificial mood elevation.

PETER: I' m interested in the relationship between the voice of your poems and the voice of your books. People don' t typically call you a historian. But I think the book on Jackie is a kind of history. And the The Queen' s Throat of course contains a lot of research as well. And then there' s another voice in the poetry. I really thought you were saying that poetry can do everything, that this is it. This is all the burners turned on at one time — in terms of consciousness, in terms of memory, in terms of reference, and in terms of music.
WAYNE: Right. I guess I' ve always been interested in visual art and whatever artist it is that I' m idolizing, it' s the same question. Here is a human being with a colossal predicament that' s the given of their existence. And there are certain genres and forms available, and the puzzle of their life is for them simply to exist with a modicum of happiness. This predicament has to be solved through the question of expressivity: how to express something, what is worth expressing. I say, " How is it that this person — whether it' s painting or poetry — was able to do something new in this art that also solved this predicament? What did he need to discover? What were the inadequacies of the givens of painting at that time? And what breakthrough did he have to make to make the thing happen?" And for me, poetry is that thing that I turn to. I love the essay but it' s not around where the aesthetics of the smallest choices you make have that kind of existential weight. And so it' s like apples and oranges.

PETER: There seems to be a certain pleasure in the nuances of these traditions in which so much has been laid out and you share such a broad field of reference. But what are you saying about cultural history? Are you interested in decentering history, delegitamizing history? What do you think of as lineage?
WAYNE: I' ll pose it in terms of questions of life style and social position. In my prose, it would be maybe the dandy or flaneur. You said historian, but a certain kind of historian. But poet is collector. I was very conscious of that when I figured out how to write poems in a way that was real to me. It was all about counting syllables. You' re doing artificial syllable counts, and it felt physically like stuffing bits of lived experience into these boxes. It was entirely analogous to me with the gesture of the collector.
That feels like a more historically sensitive way of framing the aesthetic search. It' s not just that I, as this unique individual, need to fulfill my destiny by finding the kind of stanza that will allow me to express myself. But more that I, like many other people, am faced with the question of memory, the past, refuse, junk, and everything in a continuum from the most lofty, historical witnessing to self- commodification — turning oneself into a curio shop. And so I get viscerally turned on, whether it' s Artaud or Annette Messager or Ray Johnson. I see work like that and I go, " That' s what I' m doing too." I' m just trying to organize this mass and figure out correspondences: How this got there. How is it that I' m like the spiritual godchild of Jackie Onassis? I mean, just constructing lineages ... making sense of things by putting them in containers.

PETER: So you' re juxtaposing a collector who sort of brings in everything as having equal value ...
WAYNE: Yeah.

PETER: ... with someone who' s been looking at an historical canon which makes things into hierarchies?
WAYNE: Right. About the collector, there' s something else I wanted to say. I am a kind of private historian. I definitely think of my poetry as being ... not private myth- making or simply telling what happened, but a self- conscious and often ironic attempt at making a history, figuring out history. The poem " Metamorphoses" in my new book is like that for me. The breakthrough there was deciding that each sonnet would be spoken by a mythological character and a historical personage. That' s kind of wacky, but it is a private history.

PETER: There are all these hilarious juxtapositions, like Echo with Ethel Merman, Medusa and Emily Dickinson, Adonis and Marilyn Monroe.
WAYNE: Yeah. I think Adonis is also David Cassidy at one point.

PETER: Right.
WAYNE: I mean, one of the things I love about index is that we' re interested in what stardom means on all of its levels. And we' re capable of being extremely recherchŽ about what a star is, which is why I don' t dismiss, like: Did Jackson Pollock get destroyed by the media or whatever? I' m really interested in star identity.

PETER: Growing up with this preoccupation with stardom, then people from official histories also become stars. So for you, Emily Dickinson is a star, in the same way that Michael Jackson might be.
WAYNE: Right. Well, stars ... I have my most interesting thoughts and feelings around stars.

PETER: Is a star someone you intensely transfer feelings onto?
WAYNE: Right. Somebody I discovered, not by meeting them, but by perceiving them in a number of ways.

PETER: What do you think it is — this intensity of being able to take what one is thinking about or feeling or identifying with, and going to the star and trying to find what one is looking for there, especially by digging and by explicating, like in your Jackie book?
WAYNE: Part of my interest in stars has to do with the star world being an endless source of visual stimulation. I think of it largely as visual stimulation. Right away, as we' re talking, I see star cheekbones, star noses, star breasts — and they' re all as particular as people I' ve had sex with or wanted to have sex with. It' s an enormous trove of sensory memory.

PETER: Both The Queen' s Throat and Jackie Under My Skin are intensely visual.
WAYNE: Right.

PETER: I guess it' s obvious.
WAYNE: Just say " Montgomery Clift." The levels of my interest in Montgomery Clift work exactly the way literary or cultural allusion works in art. It' s reference. But how beautiful the two words, Montgomery Clift. They have in them, it seems to me, just a fathomless sea of visual and narrative nuggets. There is a whole tragic narrative. It' s like a CD- Rom or something. I' m aware that knowledge is often very ephemeral, that you have to be a fan to know it all. But I know a lot of those things about the people I care about. It' s a kind of literacy that enlivens daily perception. It adds layers.

PETER: High and pop culture become equalized because you' re interested in how extensive or intensive the referentiality can be.
WAYNE: Also, it depends what you' re doing with it. I mean, I have a vexed relation to popular culture because most of my popular references are somewhat dated. I' m not even necessarily taking in what is currently popular culture. There' s a certain bracketed amount of years that are for me the most resonant, and it has everything to do with how old I was then and how intensely I was projecting or transferring.

PETER: It has to already be in the archive for you to sink your teeth into it.
WAYNE: A little bit. Yeah. Or I had to have been significantly oblique at its moment of emergence.

PETER: [laughs]
WAYNE: I spend so much time still thinking: Why is it that the glamorous women of the ' 50s and ' 60s are so glamorous? What is that glamour? It has everything to do with having been around it, but not around it.

PETER: It' s a challenge, though, to think of one' s contemporaries or people who are younger as glamorous.
WAYNE: Then I think it' s just simple desire.

PETER: [laughs]
WAYNE: I have a much more sort of Death in Venice feeling about the young. The inaccessibility of youth is a trope that is just as rich and that I look forward to tapping into. I' ve already begun.

PETER: Years ago, the architect Rem Koolhaas wrote a book called Delirious New York. It' s about building the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center and Coney Island. Then he became a mature architect and somebody hired him to build a mega project in Lille, in France. And then he was asked to do a new plan for the Universal Studio complex in L.A. So in writing that book, he was able to imagine the desire and then he was able to fulfill it. Since I read The Queen' s Throat, your study of divas and the intensity of your admiration, it struck me that as a writer, you have transformed yourself into the diva that you are fixated on.
WAYNE: I wish. And I' m not being modest but I guess ... I don' t know how to put this exactly without it seeming like a personals ad. But I would not say that I' ve received enough propositions in my life on some basic level.

PETER: As an artist?
WAYNE: As an artist, even as a body. I could use a few more star fuckers in my life, who considered me the star. Let' s just say that' s not been my experience. Or at least it' s not been my perception. And I think I would be pretty aware. Put it this way. That would itself be a really interesting project, to work on that.

PETER: [laughs]
WAYNE: That would be really great.

PETER: But modesty is a virtue.
WAYNE: In " Four Lemon Drops" I said that I always feel like there are all these people in the room with me at this moment. I' m quite sensitive to what I think of as psychic invasion, what I refer to as negative capability. I often feel kind of boundaryless. Keats said this in his negative capability letter, and I used it in the Jackie book to describe my relation to her. When I' m in a room with other people, I do feel that their identities press in on me so that I don' t even exist; and sometimes I really love that annihilation. But it also drives me crazy, which is why I' m quite a loner and why poetry is so important to me. It' s an entirely solitary process of self- consolidation. But, with the star- fucking theme — in my solitude I often say, and this is a quote from the poem: " I wish off the bat I could name 300 people who know me." And I could say: I wish I could name 300 people who want to sleep with me right now. Or 300 people who think I' m a great writer. Or 300 people who have fantasies about me. You know what I mean? I do have this collector in me. I love assembling imaginary constituencies.

PETER: I' m also nostalgic for the era in which intellectuals were glamorous, especially in the ' 50s. I think it' d be nice to bring back glamorous intellectuals.
WAYNE: Well, there are the glamorous artists.

PETER: That' s a toughy.
WAYNE: Yeah. Look at Jackson Pollock. I mean, there were very sexy pictures of him. He' s not my type at all. He looks far older than he was. He could have been so much better- looking. I mean, his body ... he didn' t take care of himself, terrible bags under his eyes. He should have just shaved his head. But it' s an extremely sexy thing in that barn out there in The Springs, with Lee Krasner on the stool. I go for that. And I think Warhol was incredibly glamorous. I mean ... duh. But even in the most specifically sexual way — just the quality of his skin in the ' 60s, the kind of fleshiness, doughiness.

PETER: Yeah, people don' t usually talk about him as sexy. But he had really great lips. And he was very photogenic.
WAYNE: He' s incredibly photogenic.

PETER: And he had nice eyes.
WAYNE: He knew how to wear pants. I have a feeling he had a good butt. I just have that feeling from the way the pants fit in some of the early photographs, that he' s a little pudgy but that he rounds out that region. I think he was sexually very desirable. And I think that a lot of people were having sex with him and not enough of that has been put on record.

PETER: Is your major project right now your book on Andy Warhol?
WAYNE: Yes.

PETER: That' s almost as much of a challenge as a book on Jackie.
WAYNE: More.

PETER: Because ...
WAYNE: Because smart people have things invested in Warhol and smart people have nothing invested in Jackie. By and large, the problem with writing about Jackie was that I was writing it as a smart person and it' s not a smart subject. Though I think it is. But Warhol — except for people who are incredibly reactionary and just blind, deaf and dumb, his name and work summon a huge range of the most important issues of cultural theory.

PETER: How are you approaching it?
WAYNE: It' s still at the research stage. But it' s due in a year, so it' s going to have to speed up.

PETER: I' m really intrigued by your appetite for research. When we went to that symposium on Warhol' s " Camouflage" paintings, I was bored out of my mind. And I realized as one gets along ... one can easily become so blasŽ. And I assume in retrospect that you weren' t hearing anything that really excited you. But it fascinated me that you were so alive to the experience; whether it was good, bad ... it was like a receptivity.
WAYNE: I was really aware that we were in the privileged seats. And I was really, really curious ... I felt, " Wow, who' s here that I don' t know?" It' s like: " Is that Vincent Fremond sitting over there?" I had a sense that the room was alive with possible heavyweights, and I liked that. Also, I have been reading just nonstop about Warhol by myself and suddenly, here I was in this room with living people who were all as interested in him as I was. It was like going to church if you' re religious ... So I was excited. It felt really contemporary even though nothing that was said was that with it.

PETER: What relationship do you feel with Roland Barthes?
WAYNE: Deep. Though it' s a little bit jaded now. Roland Barthes envied the novel. And he approached his work through what he calls the novelistic, which is writing essays as if they were novels. And I see in his work an incredible over- intellectualizing. This is kind of obvious. It' s his temperament and it' s his mandate. In one of his books, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, he makes a list of things ... he calls them anamneses, moments of narrative or visual interest that he says have no meaning. He just lists them, three pages of them, and they have incredible meaning. Each of them is luminous and speaks volumes. And his immediate dismissal of their possible meaning is like a denial that there' s an unconscious, a denial that he has an unconscious or that he might be able to wander with one of them in an unscripted direction. And all his life, the reigning intellectual paradigm was Marxist, but he was a hedonist and an aesthete. You can feel through the first three- quarters of his work, the struggle to justify bourgeois pleasure, which is basically what he has. And then he relaxes a little bit about that.

PETER: How?
WAYNE: He has a much less dogmatic relation to his own pleasures and he doesn' t need to do what he did in Mythologies, which is to explicate a cultural site for the pleasure of explication and then at the end show how we' re just being mystified ... how somehow this cultural site produces false consciousness. After a while, he doesn' t need to condemn things as much.

PETER: Did he always end up with false consciousness?
WAYNE: In the Mythologies essays, in every one, he says, " And this is the pleasure of this, and this is the pleasure of that," and then it ends with a mention about Algeria, the war in Algeria.

PETER: [laughs] I noticed that. Jackie Under My Skin can be said to start from Roland Barthes ...
WAYNE: It' s technically entirely indebted to Roland Barthes, yeah.

PETER: Each chapter has a title referring to different aspects of Jackie: Jackie' s Death, Jackie' s Hairdos, Jackie' s Wealth, Silent Jackie, Jackie versus Liz, PassŽ Jackie, Jackie as Dandy ... it' s a beautiful organization. Given what you' ve said about your debt to Barthes, where Barthes is lacking, how did you choose your categories for Jackie?
WAYNE: I think I was simply trying to be organized. I didn' t have any other recourse. I now look at it and I say: That' s just pure Roland Barthes.

PETER: Oh, I don' t think it is. It' s a trope taken from Barthes.
WAYNE: One of the documents that I' m most enamored of in my private archive, as I keep every piece of paper I' ve ever written, is the list. It' s the most obsessive page. I was literally writing in circles around the page — trying to keep sane about Jackie by separating her image into logical categories — because her simultaneity so numbed discourse and prevented consecutive speaking. Throughout the book I talk about her silencing capacity: that she was silent and that she silences those who wish to speak of her. You want to say everything at once, which has always been my desire and my impulse, but you can' t, you' ll explode. You have to break it down. And that was simply how I thought of it.

PETER: Writing about Jackie and also the opera stars, you can describe yourself as a gay writer, but on the other hand both books seem really feminist.
WAYNE: Right, right.

PETER: In a way they' re guidelines for feminist power. And I think they can be taken very seriously that way. Especially in Jackie — Jackie' s inauguration versus Jack' s inauguration. In The Queen' s Throat, you talk about the power of the diva earlier in the century when it was more intensely a man' s world. You state in quite a bit of detail how this kind of female power can be constituted, or what its rules are and how it can be effective.
WAYNE: Well, I definitely think women should rule the world. I don' t even know if this counts as feminism. It might even be seen as somehow weirdly anti- feminist because of its essentialism or whatever. But I never feel that you can go wrong by moving toward the women, in whatever way possible. It' s always been my impulse to pay attention to the women. They' re more interesting. [laughs] I guess I have an enormous ... like women vibrate for me. Now, I' m sounding like Anna Wintour. I guess I' ve always been a little repulsed by some of the traditional aesthetics of male power. I hate bullies. I hate bossy men. I hate men who talk too loud. I hate big men. I hate Washington men. I mean, who doesn' t these days? But I hate that whole way of being. And I think a lot about Adrienne Rich, the feminist poet — a very important figure to me. And I always think of how would she look at this. And I know she would hate my work. I' m sure she would hate my work, because of its somewhat retardataire objectification ... I do fetishize women.

PETER: For people who haven' t read the Jackie book, how would you summarize how she is most powerful?
WAYNE: In the realm of the visual, Jackie enacted a sort of transfer of power. She summoned interest. She reorganized space visually. Semiotically, she suggested shadow readings of events, like the inauguration. She suggested a way in which appearances could be a valuable realm, could be a realm in which the work gets done — you know, the empire of signs. Jackie simplified and confused the question of the flow of power. She seemed apart from the flow of power. She was a veil over it that prevented us from more closely scrutinizing it.

PETER: She basically, as you say, created most of what we think of as his Presidency.
WAYNE: Yeah. And as somebody who wasn' t exactly a woman. She was an inexact woman. She helps make gender a little bit of a joke, in a lot of very interesting ways.

PETER: I think that requires elucidation ...
WAYNE: I just had lunch at Mae Rose, and there was a young Kennedy- looking kind of guy, black Irish type, with just that arrogance. Yet again I had a pang of sympathy for Jackie. I thought at once how easy it would have been for her to fall in love with young Jack and just what an impossible erotic situation that would have been. What a fate to believe yourself in love with a dick ...

PETER: Do you think she was in love with him?
WAYNE: Yeah. In the way that Fifth Avenue is in love with the Empire State Building, or in the way that an escalator is in love with the floor above. It' s the direction of power. I don' t just mean she was in love with him because he was powerful, but things loom depending on where you are in life and where you are in history. And he loomed. Cute senators ... with teeth ... there' s no denying that.

PETER: In your poetry, you talk about your parents, your mother, your father, the dynamic — that whole other side of the psyche.
WAYNE: I am psychoanalytic in a way. I mean, not classically or historically. So first of all, I' m interested in catharsis a little bit and I' m interested in retrieval — that' s almost pre- Freudian, the talking cure. But I do have this belief in repressed memory, that the interesting things have been forgotten, that they are screened away, which is why I' m an elucidator and a puzzler. I like to get behind the veil. And I' m interested in primal scenes, in mysteries and scenes of origin and conception and things like that. I' m interested in my parents — in the charge of the mother, the father, and the erotic, disciplinary, visual, relational: all the things that get energized by those figures as they continue in one' s life. They' re hugely operative categories for me — mother and father, both the people who were and are my mother and father, but the relational categories are also real to me and endlessly replayed on every interpersonal and aesthetic level.

PETER: In this anti- Freudian era, I think you maybe summarized what we should remember about Freud.
WAYNE: And I also do believe in the unconscious. It' s not just collecting that interests me, but the idea that by liberating or defamiliarizing the retrieval process or the creating, fabricating process, that there emerge things or energies that were not available before — either gestural or thematic. So I remain kind of optimistic about sources, and sources of power and energy and in finding ways of tapping them. There are some people who do not feel that we' re walking on top of these untapped sources. But I definitely feel that we are.

PETER: I read this great book called Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, which describes the life of the imagination in the Renaissance and how it was repressed during the Reformation ...
WAYNE: I' ve always wanted to be a witch. Actually my first desire in life was to be a witch. Witches and stars have a lot to do with each other. I mean, the magic of wish and the magic of presence, and the power in the fetish or the totem or the face. All that can be done with a star image has a lot to do with magic, on lots of literal levels. And I would say the kinds of artists that have interested me, from Artaud through Cindy Sherman, reflect that. I mean, that' s not the only legacy, there' s Nan Goldin or Jimmy Desana. There' s a whole range of photographers and necromancers who believe in, rather than just collecting, reanimation — reanimating lost scenes and making new things happen by representing them. The entire tradition of surreal self- documentation interests me a great deal.

PETER: Marxists — and this goes back to Roland Barthes — would claim that this whole world of myth- making and magic, the creation of illusion and spectacles, is hiding bad things that powerful people want to do. In the last few years I' ve been thinking: Well, maybe this isn' t really the whole story. That you can also see, whether it' s stars or image manipulation, that it' s also about freeing a part of the mind that was put under wraps.
WAYNE: I may be on the opposite trajectory from you. That never made any sense to me, that Marxist line. It' s only now that it' s dawning on me that the world of spectacle and images may be hiding what evil people are trying to do. But it' s never made any intuitive sense to me at all. Because spectacle has always been such a nourishing thing for me.

PETER: But when you think of Disneyworld or ...
WAYNE: No, I hate that.

PETER: So that just hasn' t touched you?
WAYNE: Right.

PETER: Or you see that as only the most mundane part of the spectacle?
WAYNE: Uh- huh. I mean, I edit a lot. I edit my spectacles. And I choose what to pay attention to. And so I don' t think the relation to spectacle that I write about, perform, whatever, is a total one, or an across- the- board relation. I'm not uncritically taking on anything that lives and breathes as spectacle. In fact, I basically just seize things that interest me. I' m selective. Also, I have a feeling that in life, for whatever reason, there are certain theories that take hold of you; that we live our lives by theories, however unthought through. And that there are reasons that certain lives are influenced by certain theories and others by other theories. It' s not as if I was growing up in a time, or attending universities where I couldn' t just as easily have been deeply informed by that kind of Marxist thought. But I think because I was more visual, tactile, and auditory, there was something else I was paying attention to and that I needed to solve. It had to do with organizing, experiencing — sensory- overload isn' t the word, maybe sensory repletion — and needing to navigate it in interesting ways, and being inspired by people similarly replete who were also navigating and strategizing it. People who were dealing with what you' re calling Marxist thought were just not seduced, were not in a similar position of thoroughly having been seduced by spectacle. Some people are born to fuck. You know what I mean?  

© index magazinegelatin1
Wayne Koestenbaum, 1999
Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller