Half Happenstance, Half Design: An Interview with Wayne Koestenbaum

Vincent Scarpa

The work of Wayne Koestenbaum has always been, for me, essential and cataract-removing. It consistently forces me into spaces of thought which feel simultaneously disorienting and familiar, collected and chaotic, and its the process of tunneling through those spaces that Wayne brings me to as a reader that I find so rewarding. He does not give you a map, but does offer some coordinates. He doesnt lay claim to having an answer, but he asks the questions so adeptly, with so much insight and an almost sadistic intellect, one feels that perhaps its the question itself thats the solution. In other words, Wayne Koestenbaum is a writer who makes one think, who makes one have the feeling of thinkingthe feeling of if, of and, of but. His latest project, The Pink Trance Notebooks, is the product of the year Koestenbaum stopped keeping the traditional journal he had maintained for three decades and began instead a series of trance notebooks as a way to reflect an intensified, unmoored consciousness. The result, unsurprisingly, is staggering, and it was a prize and a privilege to get to speak with Wayne by email, over the course of several weeks, about the book.


Vincent Scarpa: One of the things that struck me in reading The Pink Trance Notebooks is how astounding it is that, though we are given these fragments in a spirit of brevity, in the shape and manner of a stream, the thoughts and sentiments the fragments hold still manage to be gigantic, suffer no loss of nuance or depth in compression; the way a fragment like “is/rumination different/from contemplation?” can appear on the page as small, but can open up in the reader some massive space of inquiry. I wonder if you could talk about compression in a general sense, but specifically if you find it, at least in this project, to be a way to amplify the possibility of meaning by, lacking a better phrase, shutting yourself up?

Wayne Koestenbaum: Compression: it’s my life’s blood. An antidote to logorrhea. A way of feeling sane, boxed-in, neatly tucked. Every button buttoned. As unbuttoned as I sometimes seem, on the page, I’m actually a buttoned-up writer. I like the edges to be fastened and tied. Hence my addiction (in prose and poetry) to blank interstices—asterisks, horizontal dividing-lines, numbers—to splice the flow of language, to create a sense of stacking (like Donald Judd sculptures). Compression is cousin to separability; I like to instigate separation between the members of my chorus. And so, in The Pink Trance Notebooks, drafted as one continuous (albeit year-long) flow, to make a book of the melee I needed to stage-manage via stanza-style compression-tactics. From the messy flow of the draft, I sought out the tiny phrase-clusters that could exist independently; I rescued them from the flood. The book, yes, still resembles a flood—a flood of fragments?—but at least I have the satisfaction of having scissored off the edges of each passage, to give each little phrase-island the illusion of individuation. A long time ago I learned, as a writer, how to cut myself up—to subdivide myself—to employ often plainspoken matter-of-fact sentences or phrases that, when stacked together, without transition, get more odd and funny and pleasantly askew by being (in their essence) lopped-off. I’m an atomizer—as writer, reader, viewer, observer. I prize nuggets. “Tidbits” has always been one of my favorite words. I wrote a poem once called “The Tidbit School of Adult Entertainment.”

VS: As I was reading, I would stumble upon certain fragments and think, “God, Wayne would be so great on Twitter.” A line like “‘Salmonella’ sounds like a bitter drag queen,” from Trance Notebook #18, for example. I read that and thought, Fuck, that’s funny, I’d retweet that. But then I sort of stepped back and saw how each fragment really does ricochet off the ones before and after it, and it’s that endless ricocheting that so delighted me as a reader. Were you conscious, in the crafting, of wanting even the most disparate entries to create a sort of ringing between one another, or was this just an accidental fortune of your process? And, hey—if compression is your life’s blood, and, to quote you, “self-exposure has always been the name of [your] game,” why aren’t you on Twitter? Does it interest you at all?

WK: I could imagine loving Twitter, as a writer, because I love index cards, post cards, tight discourse-spaces. Some of my first poems—in 1981 or 1982—I typed on the back of “While You Were Out” pads, when I was working as a temp. I loved those pink While You Were Outs—they licensed internal expansion, liberatory flight. I could say rash, improvident things, within the confines of While You Were Out. When I started writing sonnets (in 1982 or 1983?), I had the same feeling: my mind exploding, associations ricocheting, because of the cramped confines.

In The Pink Trance Notebooks, during the process of assemblage & revision, I aimed for ricochet, even while I allowed non-similar thought-spasms to abut each other. I didn’t try to iron out the non-consecutiveness and non-sequitur, but I tried to arrange the syntax so that the movement between spasms (I consider each little stanza a “spasm of utterance”) contained a ghost of logic and continuity. Certain spasms ineluctably connect; the grammar permits matrimony between Spasm #1 and Spasm #2. But the matrimony is also instantly dissolvable. The spasms are polyamorous?

The downside of Twitter: I’d want response. Retweetings. Ripple effects. When I type a poem on a While You Were Out pad, the response I crave is the embrace of the pink page’s edges—the pleasure of squeezing my words into the small rectangle, whose tightness serves as sufficient reciprocation.


VS: Were you aware at the start that your mother and her illness would occupy much space in the book?

WK: When I started writing the book, I wasn’t aware of any topics—only of my discontent with my earlier writing. I wanted to break with my earlier practices. Even to break with autobiography. To break with conscious planning. To break with regular behavior. To break with any demand. The only demand I wanted to attend to was the movement of my mind and hand. When my mother showed up, in my trance ruminations, I wasn’t surprised. Family trauma—family complexity—is everywhere in my work. Family dramas (whether fantasies or realities) are to my writing what goldfish are to a goldfish bowl. (I know that’s a weird analogy, but it occurred to me just a moment ago, when, in my apartment building’s laundry room, I accidentally startled a neighbor who was folding her laundry. I’d startled her by saying “hello.” Had I woken my neighbor from the trance of folding? Then she told me that her mother had died—six weeks ago—and that ever since receiving the phone call giving the news, every unexpected sound, even an unforeshadowed “hello,” is a shock.)

Maybe the surprise is that, in revision, I retained so much of the mother-oriented material. The material in the published book represents a small fraction of the actual trance notebooks, which seemed to go on forever.

VS: You say this is your first project that “reflects the synesthetic frame of mind that art-making has tripped off in me.” I wonder if you could expound on that a little bit, as I’m always fascinated by the changes—be they subtle or unmissable—in an artist’s work once the artist has begun to work in a different medium, in your case, painting, which you say you took up five years ago.

WK: I mention paint colors in my poem. Paint colors are part of the dramatis personae. Cadmium orange. Naples yellow. Burnt umber. Ultramarine. Naples yellow, like Barbara Cook, is a name that appears in my book. Ultramarine, like Taylor Mead, is a name that appears.

When I’m painting or drawing, I enjoy moments of continuity and overlap: where the edge of a cup collides with the commencement of a window frame; where a blue grows less blue; where lines drawn with a palette knife in a solid patch of blended orange-red-brown reveal a turquoise underlayer; where eyes are near a nose but not quite adjacent to it; where body hair lines, when seen up close, become like proto-verbal graphisms; where a hieroglyph sits on top of an amalgam of ridges and rivulets…

Weird micro-relations of color and line and form and texture: these strange visual collisions—half happenstance, half design—are like the play, within a sentence, between the weights of the different parts of speech, or like the movement between two adjacent monosyllabic words and a sudden polysyllabic morsel that then gives way to three more monosyllabic words that make the writer-reader suddenly nostalgic for the earlier polysyllabic paradise….

Simpler answer: more visual details appear in The Pink Trance Notebooks than in my earlier work; and the relations between the words, between the phrase-spasms, and between the various narrative fragments and aphoristic speculations, have the contingency and strangeness (I think!) of the relation between the visual moments in a painting, or between the objects (be they representational or abstract) in a painting. I consider these objects, in a painting, to be “events” or “dolmens.” The different events in a painting are like words or stanza-spasms or story-fragments, sometimes friendly with each other and sometimes in gentle altercation. I keep saying “in a painting.” Perhaps I should say, instead, referring to both poem and painting, “in an event-box.”

VS: One of the sections in Notebook #34 that stuck with me was “consecutiveness perhaps is the problem/why must thought be consecutive?” It seemed, at least to me, to be a question of direct address to the project at hand. And I think the book’s great success is that it doesn’t attempt to present itself as being somehow atemporal, existing outside of consecutiveness, but rather it acknowledges where it’s fixed and shirks the implications, focusing instead on the distilled thought, the sliver of precise desire, the exactitude of an image. What were you trying to gnaw at in asking “why must thought be consecutive?” Because it doesn’t feel like poetry; or, rather, it doesn’t feel placed to be only poetry in the text. It seems to ask a question, demanding if not an answer, at least our contemplation.


WK: “Why must / thought be consecutive?” I often feel—even in this interview!—that my thought isn’t consecutive. Why did I suddenly bring up the goldfish bowl? And I’ve always had a crazy hope that I somehow could find a way to speak and think and write within my non-consecutiveness; that I could find a way to arrive at steady-state, cheerful non-consecutiveness, without damage. Surrealisms attract me because they solemnize that jumpy state I long for; I’ve never been able to be a full-time surrealist, but tendrils of surrealism tug at me and I enjoy the friction of surrealism’s regular incursion into my writing.

Maybe the problem is that I overly value consecutiveness (even while pretending to love non-consecutiveness). The line preceding “why must / thought be consecutive” is “consecutiveness perhaps / is the problem”: literally I meant “perhaps consecutiveness is the problem with this poem, and it would be better if I could destroy the fiction of consecutiveness and allow the fragments to be truly free-floating, unattached.” But I also meant “perhaps consecutiveness is the problem with ‘civilization,’ or my version of civilization, or many contemporary versions of civilization, where enforced common-sensibleness often contains biases, violences, erasures, subtle or overt tyrannies.” Think of geography, and the wars and ruptures and catastrophes it reflects. Think of borders, borderlines. Consider regimes of which objects belong together, which objects do not belong together, which states or regions or infinitesimal locales are allowed to be thought together, and which are forced apart. Who legislates the sea? Consecutiveness and non-consecutiveness: an ecological issue. Beyond my power to think.

VS: Do you think you’ll continue this practice in any way? If not, I’m wondering how (if) you think it will influence whatever it is you work on next, or are working on now.

WK: I have indeed continued the practice of keeping trance notebooks. The Pink Trance Notebooks is the product of 2013. In 2014, I wrote another sequence of trance notebooks. And now I’m in the process of distilling that raw material into a book. Some days I think I’ll call this sequel The Ultramarine Trance Notebooks. But for now, it’s simply the untitled sequel, a huge weight on my desk—a long tunnel of words, needing arrangement, coddling, anesthetic, subdivision, pacing.

I’ve spent 2015 undergoing the same entranced procedure, and I have another stack of notebooks to transcribe and distill. This third tranche of the Trance Notebooksits gestational period, before I enter the purgatory and condensary of revision—I might extend until Spring 2016.

I tell myself and strangers: “When you figure out how to do something, do it again, while you remember how. Later, you’ll forget, and you’ll regret not having done it a second time, while you still knew how.” That’s why I kept keeping trance notebooks—because I’d discovered how to turn the raw transcript into condensed assemblages. I may soon forget how to perform that transformation. I’m often afraid of imminent shutdown, imminent defeat. Trance notebooks have felt, for this moment in my life, as a practice of immense unfetteredness. I fear again the arrival of a restraint that neutralizes elation.

A little door in the brain opened up, and I watched the parade of words that came out the door. What if someone slams shut the door? What if I’m the destructive person who will slam it shut?  It’s my own process that I’m afraid of shutting down: a strange war, within myself, between making and not-making. Perhaps The Pink Trance Notebooks enacts that oscillation between language and its foreclosure.


Wayne Koestenbaum is a poet and cultural critic. His recent books includeMy 1980s & Other Essays, Humiliation, The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, and the poetry collection Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background. He lives in New York City.

Vincent Scarpa is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas and managing editor of The Austin Review.