Wayne Koestenbaum, the poet and cultural critic, had a relatively normal childhood, but he was not a normal child. He remembers lying in his bed in San Jose, California, trying to divine his bedroom wall’s white plaster. There were lumps—too many lumps! “This primal scene of staring—of confused beholding,” he told The White Review, “is the origin of my interest in abstract art and in difficult (or enigmatic) literature.” In fourth grade, he began playing the trumpet; by middle school, he realized he was never going to be any good. It was the first time he experienced the Miltonian “theme of downfall.” In seventh grade, he masturbated for so long that his penis swelled, and he had to skip school—“lest I reveal, in P.E., my deformity.” And, at San Jose State University, where his father taught philosophy, he was cast as an extra in The Music Man. He didn’t have a line, just one bit of acting: to tug the mayor’s coattails. “I tugged on them. A tiny apprenticeship in staged effrontery?” he now wonders.
Koestenbaum is radically friendly. The first time we talk on the phone, I’m in Paris, and he’s in New York. (“Wow, Paris!” And “Your last name; it’s multivalent!?”) What’s funny is that for someone who’s lived one of the most cosmopolitan lives imaginable—New York City poet, prize-winning performer, public intellectual, pianist, painter, and supporter of emerging writers and artists—Koestenbaum also admits that he’s ultimately provincial. “I’m that kind of American,” he says.
His subjects, however, are neither friendly nor provincial. Perverse, bizarre, dredged from the darkest depths of the subconscious—these are far better descriptions for Koestenbaum’s eight collections of poetry, nine volumes of cultural criticism, two works of fiction, and an opera libretto inspired by Jackie Kennedy. “My material—in any project: essay, nonfiction, whatever—is always very raw. I tend to produce very quickly and somewhat fluently but quite messily,” he tells me. “It allows me the extremes of disorder that I need to function, and when I say I need ‘extremes of disorder,’ I mean, my material itself—my topics are unruly.”
For instance, are all the dead babies in his latest book, Camp Marmalade, meant to be funny? “Well, how are they being presented?” Koestenbaum might ask. “Do they show up in a stretch of prose? In a poem? If so, what kind of poem? A haiku? A sonnet?” Koestenbaum doesn’t necessarily think dead babies are funny per se, but he knows that subconscious interests and desires—the way people feel toward certain images and ideas—merit exploration.
“I dropped out of a workshop ’cause after the first or second meeting, when I wrote a sonnet that had a dead baby in it, at least a couple of people in the workshop were really angry at the poem—and at me for treating it as funny,” he tells me. “And it wasn’t funny. It was just in a sonnet. And the sonnet, because of its rules and its tidiness, makes its material funny. I learned a long time ago as a writer that the more orderly and anal you are in your technique, the more ironic your subjects become.” (In Camp Marmalade, he reflects on this, writing, “they hated my poem about / a dead baby // dead babies / in sonnets aren’t funny // I never said dead / babies were funny.”)
Koestenbaum often presents his favored themes of death, humiliation, Jewish diaspora, and queer theory ironically, but he approaches them in earnest. They’re themes scraped out of his psyche. “I’m a Neo-Freudian,” he says. “I’m on an indefatigable quest for the earlier, the prehistoric, the ruins beneath Rome. [Freud] very explicitly made an analogy between archaeological excavations and personal excavations.”
Camp Marmalade is the second book in a trilogy that began with The Pink Trance Notebooks (2015). The volume is organized into 40 sections, but it’s basically a singular unit. Readers are propelled by the fluidity of its fragments. Themes, motifs, and inside jokes reverberate between sections, and the cheeky, adage-y style remains consistent throughout.
“I want a speediness of association and a promiscuity of allusiveness,” Koestenbaum says. “It’s a way of trying to be more exciting and more accurate about the ideas and emotions, not a way of running away from them.”
This energetic expressiveness is the hallmark of what he calls “trance writing,” which constitutes the current trilogy. In Koestenbaum’s trance state, he writes longhand in notebooks, without a plan, putting on paper anything that comes to mind. “I long habituated myself to delving, to pushing myself into my fantasies and dreams and going to a place where I don’t even feel responsible for what I’m saying,” he tells me. Had he been a contemporary of the surrealist André Breton, he probably would have called the technique automatism. Every two months, he types up his notebooks and looks through the text to see what has preoccupied him most. What recurs? What’s on his subconscious mind?
In Camp Marmalade, death is clearly nagging at him:
he rejects me
like a dead body
rejecting air and earth—
you say my psychiatrist
died, smile whenever you
mention a friend’s death,
invert the emotion
while we’re on the subject
emerging nudism bops me
on the head, not far
from dad fingerprints
massage parlor became
dead haircutter’s echo salon—
did echo salon always
carry imminent death taint?
“When I’m in trance writing, I’m really making things up based on association and words,” he says. “I’m playing between syllables and words and really letting linguistic play direct the content. I’m often amazed at how nightmarish the places are that language leads me to, and I tip that as a kind of evidence not just about myself—though it’s clearly about myself—but also about what I like to call my ‘linguist unconscious.’ When I push my language, it does reveal things about myself.”
Koestenbaum says that corpses are the underlying leitmotif of the book. His Jewish father—the philosophy professor—survived Nazi Germany, and that fact has haunted Koestenbaum’s subconscious (“a post-trauma transference”). But he hadn’t been aware of how much that history informed his thinking until he began editing Camp Marmalade, a superficially messy but deeply organized process in which themes emerge and language is sheared to its essentials.
Koestenbaum usually spends about a year writing the first draft of these trance books in longhand and then types them up without revision. “I look at the whole thing, and I start to map out what interests me, what doesn’t interest me; then I keep producing a further and further distilled text, and quite quickly within that process I’ve broken the text into stanzas, and into these, what I call the little three- to five-line little bits,” he says. He organizes the stanzas into different notebooks while trying to keep them all more or less the same length. Throughout, he asks himself, “what justifies the existence of this notebook as a separate entity?”
Personal history is transmitted through language accessed only in the trance state. “Forms of the dead that are part of my father’s experience with his childhood are transmitted to me through, let’s just say, fantasies of dead babies,” he says. “So, I say to myself, ‘Why is there a dead baby in my poem?’ I don’t know. Am I dead? Am I the dead baby? Is my father the dead baby? I start to wonder about the historical resonance of both.”
“I’m figuring out what turns me on,” he adds, “and what disgusts me.”