“Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs” is a weekly series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A! This week, author Christopher Schmidt interviews poet and scholar Wayne Koestenbaum about his new book, My 1980s and Other Essays, which chronicles his younger days amongst artists, poets and writers.
Christopher Schmidt: You’ve always brought in the sexiness to the academic. It’s sort of your trademark and your gift to all of us. I just wanted to thank you.
Wayne Koestenbaum: Can I respond to that? This is also maybe characteristic of me that I bring up negative things that people have said to me after being praised. A recent review of [My 1980s] that came out last week said in a critical way that a typical tic of mine was that, for example, in the middle of a serious consideration of Hart Crane, I immediately take a prurient detour. The reviewer asked, “What does that contribute to the argument?” It’s the kind of thing that might have been transgressive 10 years ago. Of course it’s a matter of opinion — what’s transgressive and what’s a helpful gesture and what’s a throwaway. I actually don’t believe there’s such a thing as a throwaway. Again, I felt somewhat of a — if I may be bold enough to say — tone-deafness on the part of the reviewer and how necessary it is to bring eroticism back into the picture.
You told me when your first book, Double Talk, came out, there was a party by Routledge with you and Judith Butler, and that you felt kind of like, “Wow, this isn’t me, I’m not Judith Butler.” You had undergone some sort of heavy theory bath and wished this book had been a novel instead of an academic book. Can you talk about genre and about writing novels within academia, and how you get your jones from doing that?
The Judith Butler thing — I had forgotten I had told you that. I do like to delve into anecdotes where I can just smell an allegory. I remember it was 1989, and the party was going to be at Princeton because Diana Fuss taught there. It was a book party for the three queer Routledge books of that year: Diana Fuss’s Essentially Speaking, my book Double Talk and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. I told Diana, who was my friend, “I don’t really want to do this. I just don’t feel like celebrating my book. I feel like an imposter.”
I didn’t know Judith Butler very well at all, but she called me up. She said, “Wayne, hi. This is Judith. I’ve been talking to a lot of graduate students at Rutgers who are really into your book. I really think it’s absolutely crucial you be a part of this event.” I remember thinking, OK…. So I went and for most of the party, there was another room next to the book party, and I hung out in there with a friend of mine who was always talking about Foucault. Any time he opened his mouth, it was “Foucault, Foucault, Foucault.” I was experiencing an overdose of shame. It came from a sense of being an imposter. I felt like the book was my dissertation, and I liked it and I worked hard on it, but it wasn’t an authentic performance. To get jubilantly behind it and proud felt really fake. I like being proud of what I do. It was so clear from conferences and everything else that what I wanted to do was different from what my imminent peers were doing.
You mention the word shame just now, and I’m thinking of another queer theory maven that you have a different relationship with: Eve Sedgwick.
Anyone who was a friend of Eve or was a student of her or even a reader would know that she vibrated with a sense of embarrassment and shame in a kind of ungainly awkwardness, as if she were the bull in the china shop — but she was the china shop! She gave off a contact high of smartness but also of shame. I guess it was always really clear being around Eve that being bruised was a badge of honor. I would immediately with her want to talk about bruises. I suppose it’s a similar move that I’ve already told you that it made me feel really at home to tell you about a negative review. You could say I’m bragging about the grandiosity of the underdog.
I see you practicing, as you say, “the art not of losing but of liking, which is a difficult art.” I’m really struck in all your encounters with Roberto Bolano or Hart Crane. You’re not always in complete affinity with these writers, yet you’re always trying to find a way to like them and be interested. That strikes me as a really pedagogical thing, but it’s also a part of the poetry of your writing as well.
In terms of pedagogy, I remember saying to a class — and I feel like saying this to all my student because I feel like it’s a characteristic of the way I approach culture but it isn’t necessarily how other people approach it — “You need to cultivate your affinities.” Repeatedly, there would be experiences in classes or books of disaffinity. Very sophisticated students felt that the most interesting comments being made were from not liking something. My attitude was always that a work of art can be weird, naughty, unfamiliar and maybe somewhat even dreadful, but what in me can I find? I need an experience of being uplifted, so let me try to be uplifted by this.
I remember also in the ‘80s when I started going to opera, and I would have a transporting experience, and then I would read a review that was really negative. I’d think, “Didn’t the person try to be moved?” It’s easy to criticize a performance of La Bohème, but the person being tested is the listener. It’s your Saturday night: Do you want to be moved, or do you want to be a crab? You have one encounter; find something to feel elated. It doesn’t mean falsely praise things, but cultivate your exaltation instead of sharpening your falsely privileged opinion against the artifact. That’s my philosophy. I think coming from years of encounters with things I didn’t understand and didn’t like but thinking, “Hmm, how can I like this?”
Kate Gavino is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has written for Hellogiggles, Prefix Magazine and CMJ, and is currently working on a novel.
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