SATURDAY JUNE 24, 2017
 
Blog TALKING TO
WAYNE KOESTENBAUM
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"You know you will be laughed at and thought stupid and queer and you keep on writing." — Gertrude Stein

Writing is humiliating. Even as I write this, I tremble at the thought of exposure; the very notion that a reader may call me out on the right I have to make such a statement. Or worse yet, there’s the possibility that no one calls me out; that I am punctiliously writing into a void. Do you see where we’re going here? To be invisible is humiliating. To be too visible is humiliating. To try and make oneself visible is humiliating. And so on .
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What then of writing about humiliation itself? Risky, yes? But, Wayne Koestenbaum, light-handed, (he)artful poet and master of the long form essay ("Andy Warhol," "Jackie Under My Skin"), stalwartly dives into the abyss in his aptly knighted non-fiction work, Humiliation.

I got a chance to speak with Mr. Koestenbaum about the perils he faced in the process of writing this book, his most humiliating moment and whether or not humiliation is a necessary function of art. ...
 
In the very early portions of your book you state: "I, as a human being, was born sensing that we all live on the edge of humiliation." How important do you feel this idea is to your work and to the work of other artists?

Artists/writers who interest me, if not born sensing, exhibit in their art the threshold right before being strip-searched. Strip-search is palpable in the works that I care about. From the beginning of my writing life, I've been drawn to write about events that are symbolically strip searches. The reason I chose to be a poet and to write autobiographically and intimately is because I believe that the act of unveiling is physically and emotionally gripping. Writing should be an extremely exciting, though frightening, event.

You use the term strip-search here and in your book as a kind of paradigmatic analogue to humiliation. To me, strip-searching triggers as very physical in its impact. Is humiliation something you feel more with your body than with your mind?

I feel it mostly with my self-esteem. But my self-esteem is tied to my body; it's very hard for me to separate bodily integrity and bodily okayness from psychological okayness.

At the end of the book, you make a kind of grocery list of your lifetime's humiliations. How painful was this process for you?

Actually, it wasn't painful in the least; it was my reward for writing the book. After all the research and worry about being an honourable critic, it felt good to relax and just stare within. I was also aware when I was writing those of a kind of writerly or aesthetic minimalism, somewhat truncated and almost affectless in the narration, so that the experience of writing was not one of confessing but just of point blank facing the music in a very leisurely and centred and composed way. For me it's the epicentre of my voice, whereas the rest of the book took an unnatural exertion.

Is the idea of humiliation worse than the experience of being humiliated?

No. [laughs] Because I think the actual moment of humiliation is white heat, it's intense. Humiliation in the aftermath as I mention in the book, can be reinterpreted, it can be ameliorated, it can even be turned into some kind of bittersweet reward. In the moment itself there is no silver-lining. Except, there is a kind of blankness and shock and there is a paradoxical way in which shock can be relaxing. We're thrown into the present and don't have the luxury of observation.

You're a professor of literature at the City University of New York. As a teacher, do you ever feel complicit in the humiliation of your students?

Yes. I am very aware of the inevitable presence of humiliation as a kind of ghost or implication in every classroom.

As a writer, rejection obviously comes into play. Is it a greater humiliation to be rejected by a "lesser" audience than it is to be refused by "pedestal readers?"

There is a really shockingly tart or tangy feel to a rejection that comes from a writing situation that I think should be a no-brainer. Here's an example. In 1993, I published The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery Of Desire — a gay book — and I went into a gay bookstore in some other town and there was my book sitting at the cash register. I was standing at the register looking through some other book about opera, not at my own but I was very happy that my own was there. And then the guy at the store pointed to the book and said, "That's a really good book, but one I really hate is this." Obviously he was pointing at mine. I said, "I wrote that book!" And he proceeded to tell me everything that was wrong with it. That was one of the most humiliating moments of my life.

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