In October Wayne Koestenbaum read at the Segue Reading Series at Artists Space in Cortlandt Alley, right off Canal. Lonely Christopher, the curator and host, introduced him, and is letting me include his introduction here. His introductions are so well-read and insightful, all I need to add is that it was invigorating to be at a live reading again. Everyone had masks on, but everyone was there. And it was a pleasure to listen to Wayne Koestenbaum read his work. Enjoy.
Introduction to Wayne Koestenbaum
by Lonely Christopher
Wayne Koestenbaum, beyond being an enduring thread in our cultural fabric—raconteur, bon vivant, an about-town bellwether à la Fran Lebowitz—is a writer of startling, almost impolite diversity. In an essay on studying under novelist John Barth, Koestenbaum identifies a driving impulse to be “promiscuously nonsectarian.” He’s authored nearly two dozen books that are all over the map: memoir, journal, essay, biography, cultural criticism, musicology, art history, queer theory, fiction, fables, poetry, hybrid weirdness, and more. Not to mention that he’s a visual artist, musician, and teacher. The desire to be this multifaceted makes sense to me. Who doesn’t want to be the quintessential polymath? But what’s frankly shocking about Koestenbaum is how he actually pulls it off, constantly, how skillfully he pours his adroit observations into whichever container he’s deemed most suitable, where others, mere pretenders, attempt similar dexterity, only to wash up embarrassingly on the sullen shore of poetasters and charlatans, where the likes of James Franco lick their wounds in the shadow of their own overextended ambitions.
Koestenbaum the self-described “infatuated scribe” is in love with language and uses it polymorphously to poke and prod his subjects in search of untold emotional reserves, turning them around in the light for a holistic yet unexpected perspective. He doesn’t “make” points so much as “reach” them, in discovery of something ever present but inchoate, like a prepubescent queer’s sexuality. He writes, “I avoid argument because I don’t want to get into fights,” and it’s true that his prose is more invitational than confrontational, but it does expect something of the reader, a granted permission for the author’s slithery sentences to wend their way toward unexpected conclusions. There must be a readerly curiosity for the author to delicately cultivate. Koestenbaum’s prose meets us not as we need it most, but as we least suspect it. He constructs dollhouses in which to organize a chaotic breadth of feeling. “You see that my emotions, if I allow them free reign, lead toward anarchy, disillusionment, rudeness, alienation, fines, fist-fights, name-calling, and, possibly, prison.” Koestenbaum’s work expresses the tension between careful analysis and lusty caprice, with the author always threading the needle in ways yielding discursive treasures unreachable by conventional means.
I first explored Wayne Koestenbaum in high school, accidentally. I would frequently skip class to hide in a corner of the library, reading the newspaper and books from the stacks to pass time. I randomly plucked a title off the shelf that turned out to be a recent biography of Andy Warhol that Koestenbaum had been commissioned to write for the Penguin Lives series, which also hired Edmund White to do Marcel Proust and Elizabeth Hardwick for Herman Melville. The veil between my culturally bankrupt small-town life and the world of the metropolitan creative avant garde had been punctured as I was subject to the concentrated queering of an art icon who had been desexualized, heteronormalized, and flattened by the art establishment. Koestenbaum’s Warhol is a melodious monograph that served as a fabulously lucid introduction to an artist who wanted to be a machine or a mirror yet was undeniably flesh and blood. Koestenbaum introduced me to the figure of Julia Warhola, the artist’s mother, who skulked around his basement, and whose handwriting was borrowed by her son in his early period. Koestenbaum tells the story of the artist’s mother bellowing, “I am Andy Warhol!” A terrifically loaded statement that contains warmth and incest, jealously and collaboration. Koestenbaum also undertook a serious evaluation of the underappreciated film work. Even though Warhol was recently the subject of a new, exhaustive biography by Blake Gopnik, Koestenbaum’s take on the artist remains essential, especially for the ways it catches and relishes the incidental and perverse aspects of Warhol’s life that remain overlooked by others.
Now I will talk briefly about Gertrude Stein. (Somebody recently sent me a video copy of a PBS special about the opera Four Saints in Three Acts and there on my screen appeared Wayne Koestenbaum’s visage as talking head extraordinaire.) While an unsuspecting reader of the New York Review argued with Virgil Thomson in 1971 that Gertrude Stein’s title Tender Buttons referred to “a box full of buttons that she loved to sort through,” we know better these days, and understand the buttons as nipples as well, or primarily as nipples, but Koestenbaum, in an appreciation of the late queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, revealed to me that the title is actually a double-double entendre, as it also contains the line “tend her butt.”
Koestenbaum’s latest essay collection, Figure It Out, is full of these little surprises. Things you would have noticed given the chance to figure it out. Koestenbaum exists on a plane unfamiliar to me, sees things differently, like how he describes a piano’s soft pedal as a device the function of which is to dampen your keyboard noodling so as not to distract the next-door neighbor in your Manhattan high-rise. Or how he describes taking meticulous handwritten notes about his paintings. I have never heard a painter talk about writing notes on their works in progress. Is that a common practice, or one of the author’s meaningful quirks? He writes about how the notes are not literature, but then contemplates what could happen to transform them. And Koestenbaum’s work is crowded with transformation and transition. “I’m trying to cultivate distractibility, to fray the edges of consecutive thought.” Koestenbaum shows us how a daydream becomes a treatise, growing functional while maintaining ineffability. Like any good opera queen, obsession haunts his work—the spectral figures of Andy Warhol, Anna Moffo, Jackie O, and Harpo Marx populating a dark forest of identity. A poet is “the loser who gets to decide how the poem ends.” And of his new short fiction? The publisher of his collection The Cheerful Scapegoat promises, “Koestenbaum’s fables travel in circles, slipping away from their original point and leading the reader to a paradisiacal suspension of fixed categories. Intensified sentences and curlicue narratives scheme together mesmerically to convince the reader to abandon old ways of thinking. The fables alert us to the necessity of pushing language into new contortions of exactitude and ecstatic excess.” He’s already given us so much—and right now he’s going to give us a little more. Please welcome the amazing Wayne Koestenbaum!
The Cheerful Scapegoat is published by Semiotexte. You can check it out here:
Camp Marmalade is published by Nightboat Books. You can check it out here:
Ultra Marine is published by Nightboat Books. You can check it out here: