Disclosing Yourself: An Interview with Wayne Koestenbaum


I arrived too early for my interview with Wayne Koestenbaum. I was nervous because my phone was running out of battery life, and I didn’t have anything else to record the interview with, and I didn’t know if we were going to have lunch or not. It was 11 in the morning, and we were going to talk in a cafe in Chelsea. But upon Wayne’s entrance, I forgot about this. A practiced interviewer himself, he is very used to the idea of meeting a stranger and answering questions, so much so that the first twenty minutes of our interview were mostly about me. (Wayne Koestenbaum now knows where I went to college, what internships I have had, and a few boyfriend stories.) But the conversation quickly became about both of us: what we were interested in, what our compulsions were, what we thought about the news. In Koestenbaum’s latest essay collection, My 1980s and Other Essays, he speaks generously about his younger self and about the people (like Debbie Harry) and the objects (like a butter knife) he gave talismanic power, and he attempts to pin down what might be inexpressible—in other words, he tries to figure out why he loves what he loves, while resisting classification and maintaining ambiguity. We talked for a few hours about criticism, disclosure, privacy, and what we most want to know. 

Why do you gravitate towards numbering? Do you ever copy and paste things and change numbers?

When I was in graduate school, I figured out that I could be a much better writer by staging the things I said propositionally, with a lot of space around them. It gave them a certain unreliability and definitiveness at the same time. I learned how to be tonally effective when I stopped trying to sound like D.H. Lawrence and began to try to sound like Donald Barthelme.

When you say unreliable, do you mean the numbers’ presence makes the piece seem unfinished?

I think the numbers imply that the essay is a list of maybe unrelated items. I’m consoled by the making of lists. For example, yesterday I gave a reading at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, and I had not slept so well the night before. So I decided, rather than crowd the day with stuff, I would leave a lot of the afternoon free. And I made a list, and I found the list this morning and looked at it with a bit of shame. The list was: do yoga, plan outfit. Time reading selections. Fruit and yogurt snack at 5 o’clock. Iron. Pack nuts, water. I blocked out the afternoon with things that really go without saying. I do that a lot.

Do you plan your outfit every day?

What’s not planning? I mean, to the extent that you put it on.

True. But how much do you think about what you’re wearing every day?

Well, today I thought almost nothing. I put on a shirt that’s newer and has a firmer collar, because I was going to meet you. I did not wear… I have these white pants that are brand new. I wear them around the house. They’re kind of cut-offs, but you can see my underwear through them. I didn’t wear those.

It sounds like your wardrobe is taxonomical.

It is, but I’m sure that your… women…

Oh, I don’t want to talk about it. It’s gross. I just throw whatever on.

I dare say it’s because you’re young.

It’s completely because of that.

The money is a big part of it. I still don’t have a lot of clothes, but I have more ability to buy clothes than I did when I was in my twenties. But I cared more about clothes then, and I obsessed more about them then. Much more.

Because you couldn’t have them.

I was less confident. Not like I’m super confident now, but I know more who I am, and I’ve accepted who I am, and I’m not in a constant state of trying to come across as someone else. I feel very young, and I still don’t think of myself as my age.

What do you mean? 

I’m actually 53 or 54, and I’m in denial about which it is. I’m probably 54, soon to turn 55. I don’t actually physically feel that. Except I do feel heavy with the past, and I have a very untimely feeling. I’m very past-obsessed. I relish the sense of generational compost in me, and I obviously write about that a lot. Dead singers, dead poets. But somebody who yearns for the future, yearns for authority, and yearns for others is very much a young person. I pine.

You think that yearning for authority is a young person’s feeling? But it’s also a bottom’s feeling. So I wonder if…

If I’m a bottom?

Well, yes, but also you have a line in one of your essays that’s like… you say there’s not really a line drawn between top and bottom that’s horizontal. That makes sense with age, too. You can feel old and young at the same time, and it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re turning 55.

The paradox of me would be a born bottom who is actually not a bottom. I say a born bottom, and I mean both sexually and in terms of carriage, demeanor, comportment. Embodiment. A lot of superficial markers. But also reading my work… I have bottom written all over me. But I’m not actually, and hence my identification with someone like Anthony Weiner. I’m both.

I want to know what you think of Anthony Weiner.



Well, I have two feelings. I don’t feel as strongly about him as I do about Eliot Spitzer. When Humiliation came out, that was the exact moment of the Anthony Weiner resignation, so that would be the kind of thing that I would be asked. “What do you think of Anthony Weiner?” What I think now is: when I write, it’s private and there’s this scene of disclosure. I absolutely understand and forgive the kind of vertigo that exists in a moment of internet speech. We have a reason to cling to the moment of “send” as a space of privacy because it’s all we’ve got left. It’s not his fault; he can’t be held uniquely culpable for the fact that there is no privacy. Because he was still in the postal system, he thought. Like Derrida, he was sending a postcard. I’m not saying he’s a smart guy, or a sane guy, or has his wits about him. But I do understand that the moment of communication that he was undergoing was a ritual. He was wrong, but it’s a mistake that we are all in the grips of. And it’s at our peril if we banish undecidability and say, “He should have known that was public.” I identify with his delusional belief that that was a private moment. I keep googling many times “Anthony Weiner penis” and all I get is this underwear shot. Is that all that he did?

No, no, there are actual dick pics. And sex chats.

Straight male politicians… They’re exhibitionists of some kind, and they’re in love with their dicks. And that’s great, that’s okay, that’s kind of normal, maybe it’s disappointing, but it’s typical. It’s not atypical. The other thing that I always feel about all these situations is that the amount of genuine perversion and prurience and culpability in those who report it and consume it far exceeds the kind of vulnerable, haphazard foolishness of the person at the center of the scandal. Anyone associated with the Daily News, anyone who buys it, prints it, writes for it, countenances it, is much more culpable than Anthony Weiner. Because they’re enjoying it.

It’s the sadism that’s more disgusting.

Much more disgusting. Nonetheless.

You feel more strongly about Spitzer.

I do because… it seemed to me more genuinely a scene he was invested in, that he thought was private.

He thought no one was going to find out.

Right, it was more of a classic, 19th century, Victorian public/private divide.

There was also something a little more embarrassing about the transcripts of those sexual encounters. I don’t know, you probably didn’t read the sexting with Sydney Leathers. Her responses are very minimal.

Well, he also didn’t have sex with her. The big difference is that Eliot Spitzer had sex with another woman. If the public is watching out for their marriage—which is already a disgusting concept, that the public cares about his marriage or the wife’s feelings. That is bullshit. That is sanctimonious, sexist bullshit. Eliot Spitzer did have sex with another woman. That doesn’t mean we should presume to care or know what the wife thinks. I hope she’s having sex with other people! All the time!

I have theories about whether or not Anthony Weiner’s wife gets off on it.

And I hope she does! Let’s not presume a lack of imagination on the part of first ladies! Eliot Spitzer had sex with another woman. Anthony Weiner was involved in some art project. It depresses me to be a part of a world that thinks it’s bad to send pictures of your penis out.

You wrote something about Tennessee Williams’ journals where he catalogs all the pills he took and all the people he slept with. Do you keep anything like that?

Yes, I keep a diary.

That does that kind of banal cataloging?

It’s pretty banal, but I don’t have as much to report as Tennessee Williams. Sadly. Or gratefully. I do keep a journal that has its banal moments.

What are your vices that are banally personal?

You think I’m going to tell you! You think I’m going to tell you?

Well, yeah! That’s why I asked!

I’m not. I’m absolutely not.

Dammit. That’s the kind of thing I want to know.

I think that probably there’s nothing that’s not in my writing. Maybe I don’t always authorize it as about me. I haven’t reported every shit I’ve taken in my life. But I write enough about anality and about an artistic economy that is excremental. I can write theoretically about excrement, but admittedly I would probably be embarrassed to talk in detail about my excrement.

I think I really do love catalogs and lists. I identify with Andy Warhol, who liked categories not because he wanted to box things in, but because he wanted many of each item. Many famous people. It’s a yearning for multiplicity.

Are you a hoarder?

A little bit, but not in a pathological way. My boyfriend would disagree probably. I have too much of an archive. I’m not famous enough for the size of my archive.

Do you throw away those to-do lists?

I save way too much paper. As soon as I started writing, I considered every piece of paper sacred, basically. I don’t think it was grandiosity, it’s a very childish… I was always like that with stuffed animals when I was a kid. I didn’t change from one to another. I kept them all, and at one point in childhood I had too many. I had 40 stuffed animals, and I could barely get into bed. I’ve always been like that with everything. It’s very hard for me to get rid of things that have had value. It’s quite burdensome, actually.

Have your parents read “Heidegger’s Mistress”?

I have a very odd family. My mother is also a poet. A very confessional poet. Let’s just say that I feel like I received permission, from before I was even a published writer, to write about my own life. I feel like I’m authorized to burn bridges, betray, self-create.

Does your sister not read your work?

She does.

What does she think of it?

She really loved the most intimate poem I ever wrote, “Model Homes,” a book-length poem. She felt that I was setting the record straight about our family. My mother read it and did not like it. But she’s used to it. I generally feel that there’s an ethics of writing that demands truthfulness and accuracy. I try to be really accurate in my tone. I conceal a lot. I’m using the material of my life to create an artifact in the mode of these other, earlier artifacts that have inspired me.

It’s like what you said in your piece about Cindy Sherman. You said you sometimes run the risk of rushing into the content and ignoring all the work that goes into creating the content. You’re not doing that with your own work.

Yes. The content, to some extent, is a given. It provides the impetus for the structure, but the thing I’m really contributing is not the content, but the style. Even when I say in “Heidegger’s Mistress,” “I’m trying to figure out how I became intellectual—one place to begin is when my mother pulled a knife on my father,” the levels, for me, of disguise in that…

Well. First, the piece is called “Heidegger’s Mistress.” Then there’s an epigraph from Benjamin, and then I say I’m trying to figure out how I became an intellectual, which is both a stupid statement and an intellectual statement. It becomes unclear: is he intellectual if he’s saying something so banal? What does this have to do with Heidegger and Benjamin? And then I say I have a memory, but I put it in quotes. And I don’t really describe the scene, so it’s unclear what it was. I’m right away questioning the kind of knife, and I’m not presenting it in a heavy-breathing tone of my own pathos. It’s not 12-step in its tone. I consider that such a formal gesture. It’s also in one-sentence paragraphs, so what are we, in the space of a poem or an essay? And when are we going to get to Heidegger? I’m using a somewhat sensational personal bit, but I’m extracting it so much from content that it’s obviously the art of the collage more than it is confession.

As a reader, I don’t get to see what you’re talking about. I get to bring my own thoughts to it. In my head, it looks like a Cassavetes scene. It doesn’t look like anything else.

It’s funny you say Cassavetes. Cassavetes is a blind spot for me. I just saw A Woman under the Influence just a week ago.

It’s great, isn’t it?

It’s really essential.

You have to see Opening Night as well.

I saw some clips on YouTube of it. The one where he…

Where he hits her?

When he slaps her and she falls to the ground before he hits her. It’s so good.

In your imagined dialogue between Brigitte Bardot and Karen Kilimnik, you put forth the idea that Bardot’s ploy is arousal, and Kilimnik’s ploy is consolation. Do you know what your ploy is?

You know, my tendency toward aphorism leads me to equations rather than complex statements. I like working within hypotheses, so I just set the thing forward as a hypothesis, and it seems at the moment 68% true. And I hope that through rhetoric I can work it up to 85%, but I know it’s not all the way true. So that leads me to statements like that. But my ploy… I am going to make up what my ploy is.

Go for it.

My ploy is… I mean, in a way, it’s sincerity. That strikes me as one of my ploys.

That’s a really good choice for something that might be 68% true.

I always believe that I am the most fervent and soulful spokesman for my inner life.

I should hope so!

And that I’m speaking its distilled truth. I’m not acknowledging that maybe I am involved in a shadowboxing game of ploys and feints and compromises and detours. I act like I’m speaking from my unconscious, but I actually seem to be denying the unconscious, which is all about duplicity and things that can’t be said.

You resist classification quite a bit when you’re writing.

I do.

But your whole work is about classifying, isn’t it?

You mean like gay, straight?

Just dealing with those classifications. Those monikers. So what’s the ideal? Is the ideal that you could talk about something without ever classifying it?

I’m aware of classifications, and I use them. I often overuse them. Despite my love of skidding and detour, I am trying to write a communicative, organized piece of writing. It’s a way of making an impression. And also to do a little inner housekeeping. It’s like making the list. Pack nuts and water. Iron shirt.

Iron shirt. Plan outfit.