Hoarders, newly out with Wave Books, is writer/artist Kate Durbin’s third book of poetry. Titled after the reality television show of the same name, each poem brings to life a person and their attachments—from sketches of naked women to rotting food to VHS tapes to clothes to cats. Here, Durbin lays bare the American Dream as nightmare, and the links between trauma and capitalism, not turning away from the darker aspects of hoarding. But the book illuminates a new kind of aliveness as well, an unusual way of thinking about objects, and a sense of humanity that is beautifully complex.
In April, I talked to Durbin about Hoarders, portraiture, maximalism, the life force of objects, pain, and tenderness over Google Docs.
In my first read of Hoarders, I was especially struck by the portraiture within the book. I could almost see each person–even though they are never described physically–surrounded by their objects posing for the camera. The portraits are made up of voice, of monologues that are cut off by objects which spill out all over the space of the poems, but also seem to blanket their owners, tucking them in somehow, into the home, into these almost baroque worlds of excess. How did you come to write Hoarders, and were you thinking of portraiture when you began to write it?
I love this image of the characters tucked into their objects like blankets. I did think of portraiture when writing, especially those old aristocratic portraits of people with their prize chalice or horse. Only instead of one prize chalice it was maximalist, hundreds of prize chalices! Or you could think of the Hoarders poems as portraits combined with still lives, somehow–an aristocratic portrait combined with a Dutch painting from the 17th century, grapes and fish and bread and apples and rats spilling everywhere. I also wanted the Hoarders poems to have a kind of feeling of eerie not-quite-stillness to them, almost like a tableau vivant.
As for how I came to write the book, that feels a bit mysterious, but I’ve always been drawn to objects. I feel suffocated, scared and excited by the fact that we live in a time when there are more objects than any other time in history. When I was writing my last book, E! Entertainment, I wrote this section about the Playboy Mansion, where there were no people in the mansion — the objects were telling the story. And then I got the idea to write through the show Hoarders, which I was in part drawn to for its incredible object density. The objects in E! were placed carefully by their owners to project power and wealth, whereas the objects in Hoarders are more like parts of the characters’ heart and history, piling up.
I was also drawn to the show because of a deeply personal connection to it – my own family’s problems with mental illness, substance use, and hoarding – but that was a more complicated kind of draw as it is also why I resisted the show, too. And my watching experience was indeed painful.
That vision of maximalism makes complete sense to me, as does an aristocratic portrait combined with a Dutch still life. Until I read Hoarders, I had never seen the show, so I immediately watched an episode, Andy & Becky in Marysville, Washington. I was amazed at how closely the piles of objects in their house resembled mountains, and when they walked through a room it almost appeared as though they were in the wilderness, on an overgrown trail. How did you choose who or what to write about, or was it instinctual?
I like this idea of one’s home being a wilderness, that is in some ways mysterious or unknown to us. I was drawn to writing about certain collections, or categories of objects, and then the relationship between the person and their things came through that container or constraint, of a type of object. A poem about hoarding data or TV shows suggests different feelings and relationships than one about hoarding Barbies or toys. And each type of object had sort of a different idea to evoke about an individual character and their painful history, as well as the US, the dreams and nightmares of this country. It was also really important to me to include poems about hoarding things that weren’t just consumer products, like plants, or bones, or feces – because these dirtier poems, for me, get at the heart of the book’s sadness, that everything passes away, and you cannot stop time.
That’s very moving. It makes me think about Alice, from Beloit, Wisconsin, who collects cats. She feels she is saving them by giving them a home, yet she can’t take care of them properly, which causes them harm. The reader sees a cat with a missing eye, a kitten trying to climb out of a huge pile of shit, a dead cat slumped against the wall. There is sickness and trauma in Hoarders, no doubt, and dreams and nightmares of the US, which you trace so well. The book has been described as tender, as well as surreal. I agree. Do you feel there is tenderness in the show, or did that arise in your response to watching it, along with that particular feeling of sadness?
These feelings arose in my response to watching, and through the writing. I often felt, when watching, that I was watching my family, who, unfortunately, could be on a show like this one. The show is focused on individual pathology, and on “fixing” people, of presenting the viewer with a happy ending. It does not focus on the systemic problems that are important to the book, like the lack of healthcare in the US, or isolation and loneliness, other larger cultural (and personal) traumas. Instead of resolving each scenario, I wanted the book to slow time in order to show the nightmare of the present. Which is a different project to the show. But of course, I also didn’t want the book to only be a nightmare. There is a strange beauty in these objects, their accumulation, a kind of life force to them that is interesting to me. And part of the tenderness in the book for me is in the relationship and feelings the characters have toward their objects, even if that relationship is incredibly complicated, troubled in certain ways, and not functional.
Yes, and the book provides a sort of window into the different ways people live. Ronnie, from Las Vegas, Nevada, who buys the two houses next to his, filling them with bones, Rolls-Royces, mannequins of Houdini, Liberace, and John Wayne, props and signs and other items from hotels on the Strip, including the motorcycle Bobbie Knievel rode when he jumped Caesars Palace, says he feels sorry for “so-called normal people.” I understand what he’s saying. He’s created a rich domestic reality for himself and an aesthetic experience. It’s like he’s made a simulacrum of Las Vegas inside his house(s), is constructing his own Strip. I keep wanting to connect the idea of simulacrum to your interests and work. I’m thinking especially of your love for Disneyland and I think you like Las Vegas too.
I’m glad you liked Ronnie; he is one of my favorite characters in the book. There’s something grand in what he’s attempting, in this world he is building. He has an Egyptian tomb he wants to be buried in, to live inside this space he’s created forever. His collection feels like a quest for immortality. He has a lot of objects that are replicas of the grandest things humans have ever created–pyramids, spaceships–and also the most destructive things we have ever made, like the atomic bomb. These objects carry the creative and destructive potential of humanity embedded within them, and they outlast any individual human life, both as physical objects, and in their effects on future generations.
I have long been obsessed with Disneyland, Vegas, these artificial spaces and worlds. Going on the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland as a child, and on the Pirates ride, I felt the animatronics were really alive, and I didn’t believe my parents when they told me otherwise. They seemed so real, in some ways more alive than me. Perhaps this links in some way to my interest in the life of all objects, which is a key part of Hoarders.
Knowing the writer and artist you would go on to be, I like imagining you as a child riding the Haunted Mansion among the animatronics. I want to end by asking: what are you reading now, and watching, and thinking about, and writing, and making?
I’ve been reading Alex Dimitrov’s new book of poems, Love and Other Poems, which is beautiful, so conversational and filled with a love for life and New York City. I’ve been reading other great new books, too: Sarahland by Sam Cohen, Eat the Mouth That Feeds You by Carribean Fragoza, To Write As if Already Dead by Kate Zambreno, An Orange by Ted Dodson, Curb by Divya Victor. I just taught I’m So Fine by Khadijah Queen in my poetry class, and feel such a kinship with it – she really pushes the limits of what a list in its accumulation can do, and I love the specific articles of clothing and spaces like Ralphs grocery store. I’m re-reading The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, since I am writing a novel (or maybe it’s a memoir?) about my childhood. I just started re-watching Twin Peaks: The Return last night; once again, I am struck by his use of the uncanny throughout that series. The whole feeling of the show is familiar and derealized at the same time, like falling into a parallel universe. Lastly, I’m finishing up a video artwork about Brett Kavanaugh, which has been another emotionally difficult project to work on. I hope to release that into the world soon.
Amina Memory Cain is the author of the novel Indelicacy, a New York Times Editors’ Choice and staff pick at the Paris Review, and finalist for the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, published in February 2020 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and two collections of short fiction, Creature, out with Dorothy, a publishing project, and I Go To Some Hollow, with Les Figues Press. Her writing has appeared in Granta, The Paris Review Daily, n+1, BOMB, Full Stop, the Believer Logger, and other places.