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kate durbin

The Hills

A wolf whistle sounds. Street level shot of an apartment complex at night, windows lit. “Heidi and Spencer’s Apartment, Hollywood, CA” say white letters at the bottom of the screen. Shot of Heidi’s torso in a room with white walls. She has on a black, low-cut halter dress with russet trim. As she pivots her body, the tip of her bleached hair appears on her tanned shoulders. She lifts one hand to her face. Her face is out of the shot. Spencer appears to be sitting, back to the camera. He is in the left hand corner of the screen. All that can be seen of him is his torso and the back of his curly blonde head. He is wearing a white t-shirt and is out of focus. Heidi is in focus. Heidi walks across the room, back to Spencer. “That looks good,” says Spencer. “Those the shoes?” The camera zooms on Heidi. She half-turns toward the camera and Spencer, tan cleavage and face now viewable. Her face is doubled in the closet mirror. Spencer’s head prevents Heidi’s breasts from doubling. Heidi clutches at the mirror as her body moves up then down then up. “Think so,” she says. Shot of a girl’s tanned feet and ankles. She has French manicured toenails. One foot is in a black open toed peep toe pump, with a loosened ankle strap. The other foot balances on air, as if wearing a shoe. In the right hand corner of the frame, barely viewable, is an open brown leather suitcase. Wide angle shot of the room. Spencer back is still to the camera, mostly, except that a portion of the right side of his face is now viewable. His shirt has black gothic font near the armpit. He sits on a bed covered in unfolded piles of men’s clothes. Across the room, Heidi steps out of the black peep toe pump. A closet across from her is open, clothes spilling from it. One hanger in the closet points straight up. Spencer whistles again, spins two fingers. Heidi turns around without looking. She looks in the mirror. Close up shot of mirror. Heidi’s real head and breasts can be seen, half-blocked by a white wall in the foreground. The closet mirror takes up most of the shot. There is a silver divider down the middle of the mirror, which cuts Heidi’s mirrored body in half. On the wall reflected in the mirror is a light switch; two of the switches are on, one off. Heidi examines her body over her shoulder. Shot of Heidi walking across the room in bare feet, sweeping her blonde hair over her shoulder. Spencer lies on the bed, head on a yellow pillow. He fiddles with the plastic top of an Arrowhead water bottle with both hands. “I’m dying to see if Lauren, Whitney, and Audrina show up to Frankie’s birthday…” he says. Heidi is still walking across the room, not looking at him. Shot Heidi’s head and shoulders up close. She stands in front of a dark, open closet. Air escapes from her mouth. Shot of Spencer on the bed, still fiddling with the water bottle. “…somebody they’ve known for three months,” he continues. “And they didn’t show up their la—best friend’s housewarming partment—party.” Shot of Heidi walking across the room, only now she is holding envelopes in one hand and greeting cards in the other. “So I wrote Lauren a letter…” she says. Shot of Spencer picking at his fingernails. The Arrowhead bottle is tucked into the pile of men’s clothes next to him. He looks up. “…about not coming to the housewarming party.” Shot of Spencer on the bed with envelopes and cards suddenly in his hands. “Let me read these,” he says, smiling. Heidi’s hand can be seen picking up the cards and envelopes as they slip from Spencer’s hands onto his stomach and the bed. One card has a starfish on it and the other one has a beach scene with a lone palm tree. Under the cards, on Spencer’s stomach, is a silver cell phone. “Well, how bout you don’t read them, they’re personal,” says Heidi. “Ahhhhhhohhh,” says Spencer, widening his eyes. Shot of Heidi’s face smiling and leaning forward. The camera follows her as she bends over and pecks Spencer on the lips. Shot of Heidi straightening. “Okay should we go?” she asks, quickly. Shot of Spencer sitting up, catching the silver phone in one hand. “Look at this,” he says. A rap song with cymbals begins to play in the background. Shot of Heidi holding out a black men’s sports jacket. Spencer puts one arm through one sleeve. He is holding the silver phone with his other hand. Heidi smiles at his back as he slips into the jacket. “God, you come in handy so often these days,” says Spencer. The rap song gets loud.

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Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based writer, performer, and transmedia artist. She is author of The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books), E! Entertainment (Blanc Press Diamond Edition, forthcoming), and The Fashion Issue (Wonder, forthcoming). She has also written five chapbooks, including, most recently, FASHIONWHORE (Legacy Pictures) and Kept Women (Insert Press, forthcoming). She is founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, an online arts and criticism journal about Lady Gaga, which will be published as a book from Zg Press in 2012.

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LF: One of the things I thought was interesting–and admirably bold–about The Hills was that it wasn’t afraid to, conceivably, bore its readers;  wasn’t afraid to not entertain, which is a rather ingenious juxtaposition considering that, of course, the book is about entertainment, and by default about instant gratification. (In your recent reading at AWP, you even mention that the piece, as read aloud, might conceivably come across as “boring” without the participation of readers acting as the voices of various characters, so the narrative is clearly a multimedia interaction as presentation as well as in print). Beneath the “naked eye” repetition, there’s an indefinable undercurrent–as if someone had slipped something into a drink and the room had started to shift and alter imperceptibly, or a kind of white noise that had been quietly building had suddenly made itself heard. The ostensibly perfunctory/stoic text has suddenly become richer, more layered, and more disturbed; the dialogue within more frantic and uncontrolled, though nothing ever really happens on the surface. Methodology-wise, this is a radical departure from your first collection, The Ravenous Audience, which is extremely visceral and instantly/almost tactilely engaging; can you talk a little about any such methods you might have employed  in composing The Hills, as (unlike many clearly “channeled” poems) it does seem to have come into existence by the hands of a deliberate methodology?

KD: The Hills is, as you point out, an exercise in tedium, and yet there is a sort of dramatic pull to it not unlike, say, a Jane Austen novel–if one is willing to give themselves over to the breaking of the action by descriptions of weird minutia in the setting, such as a bottle of champagne behind a juicer, camera angles, all the weird mannerisms of the characters, things like people pulling hairs out of their mouths. These oddities can be pleasurable, tactile, to read, or frustrating because of how they don’t really reveal. The set of constraints I followed with constructing the piece were to simply describe, in minute detail, every moment of an entire episode, with block texts broken into scenes. The title of the episode is “I Know What You Did,” and it’s one of many interchangeable episodes of the show, wherein Lauren Conrad (the show’s heroine) confronts Heidi, her former BFF, at a now defunct faux-French nightclub in Los Angeles, for telling the press that Lauren and her ex-boyfriend made sex tapes. I am still not done with the full version of The Hills, which will be in the diamond edition of E!, and which comes out this summer. Each scene, which is about 20-30 seconds of screen time, takes me about two hours to write.

After Ravenous came out, as off-putting as the text was to people because of its intensely sexual and violent subject matter, I felt that the poems themselves were very seductive and had a cinematic pull to them. E! is not a seductive book, purposely–it has an ironic effect, considering that I more or less just re-iterated the most seductive “texts” of our pop culture. I mean, the Lindsay Lohan Arrives at Court section of the book is just a complete lifting of a text from an online tabloid that millions of people read, and yet it’s the section of E! that people are most bored by. I suppose you could say this is because what we are interested in as a culture is in essence very boring, but I feel like that’s too easy of an answer. Like all good conceptual art, the texts of E! are pre-existing “material”, de-contextualized. In that way, E! is a completely disorienting book because it de-familiarizes pop culture so totally; it’s a text that unravels, but very, very slowly and almost imperceptibly, as you point out. And so if you don’t read it all the way through, with attention, you can miss that and read it too flatly. But you’re reading pop culture, which is something people normally don’t pay attention to, is the thing–they usually “miss” the very thing which shows us so much about ourselves.. Because I felt that people were missing E! in performance/readings,  I started having them act out the characters in The Hills. It forces them to encounter a text that they might have been really ambivalent about before–and often they start to “get it” and really love it (one reader said he felt “exhilarated as he’s never felt at a poetry reading” after being Heidi in Boston). This happens even if they don’t know who those characters are. The audience then embodies the basic premise of this body of work, which is “we do this, we are this.” We live reality TV every day of our lives; we are Lauren and Heidi.

LF: Your chapter on Dynasty was my favorite part of the book, and seemed to me, as I described it in my review, as a kind of morbid stop-motion dollhouse. I am curious about your personal thoughts on the representations therein, either from a feminist perspective or as commentary on popular media’s idea of what the public “wants” re female interaction.  I thought it significant that telltale glimpses of the actor’s “real” ages kept slipping like cracks of sunlight into the poem. Though the piece is obviously largely hilarious, there’s something sinister looming over the camp–a kind of overseer embodying the possibility of a kind of encroaching  metaphorical death (of youth, perhaps) or change. Did these more ominous images come out naturally in the process of transcription; and, if so, were you aware of them when they appeared, or did you notice them in hindsight?

KD: With the Dynasty section, what happened was that I discovered through the process of freezing, then transcribing, nighttime television’s first major catfight, in a series of stills, that the tragedy of “the catfight” and women’s loss of beauty in our culture, manifested itself quietly and tragically. I like that you called it a stop-motion dollhouse. It very much is that. Some of the images looked to me like a still life as well; there is one still where a gilded picture of women with parasols is on the wall while Krystle and Alexis fight that simply breaks my heart–that doubling of the two women on the wall, our dolls. And yet the section is funny, too. Our funny woman problems: wigs slipping, silk ripping, fire-engine red press-on nails. Cue the laugh track.

As for what you say about the manifestations coming out the woodwork (or out of the pixels), I’d say yes–I didn’t know with any of the sections in this book what would manifest from my processes of writing. I felt drawn to certain images/texts (images are texts), set up constraints, and went to work. I figured by looking closely at something usually glossed over–seen as “shallow”–I would find much, terribly much, that had been neglected. And I did. And yet I didn’t want to “say” what I had found, I wanted others to experience my process through reading the text, my process of writing, not about, but writing, reality TV.

I love what you said in your review about the book’s method forcing one to look at one’s own conscience. That is a beautiful way to put it. It did that to me too.

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LF: Your Anna Nicole piece was also carnivalesquely disturbing, and I thought it was fantastic that you had someone putting clown makeup on you as you read it at AWP–just as the child in the now notorious video that’s the poem’s subject was applying it to Smith’s face as events unfolded. Obviously you kept your own ideas about Smith’s possible complicity in said footage to yourself, but I wonder what you think: do you identify that particular spectacle (and perhaps the enigma of Anna Nicole herself) with the natural but still contrived camp of, say, John Waters, as opposed to a more “organic” kind of Tennessee Williams Baby Doll  innocence? (I use these examples as templates in keeping with the women/drag queen-and-screen premises of both E! and Ravenous). How do you think either interpretation might change the way–or, perhaps more accurately, the level of sympathy–with which Smith is generally viewed?

KD: I think any/all of these descriptions of Anna Nicole’s problem seem apt, the only thing is that we can sit here and talk about Anna Nicole forever, and about Marilyn Monroe too, but at the end of the day that’s us sitting here talking about these women and the problem(s) of these women, and there’s something gross about that. I didn’t want to write another text that tsked tsked at the problem of the destroyed blonde angel. I wanted to simply re-arrange a text that already existed that was fucked, and multiply fucked by having been introduced into court evidence. Another thing I wanted to do was mix up tabloid and CNN/news reportage (because they are all the same now anyway), and then to see what that might teach me, or what experience I might have via reading that text re-arranged, to see what I was not seeing. A lot of things became viewable through this process. An experience of heartbreak, mostly, that–I was going to say despite, but I won’t say despite, and I won’t say because of either, but alongside or entangled with, the mechanical and uncanny and bizarre and unreal qualities of the text–a tragedy that is very human and very, very alive. We think of television, we think of reality television especially, as being so fake and scripted and what-have-you, but it seems to me more alive than life, life spilling beyond life. Whatever was real, whatever was “fake” with that Anna tape, what I learned by looking more closely at the transcripts, scrambling them, was an ecstatic tragedy, and that tragedy had to do, yet again, with a woman who was not seen, not witnessed, who was dismissed as a clown, and who could not see herself. The echoes of her pain are still reverberating, like a mechanical baby doll, crying forever: a baby, our baby, who can never be soothed.

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Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based writer and performance artist. She is author of The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books), E! Entertainment (Blanc Press Diamond Edition), the conceptual fashion magazine The Fashion Issue (Wonder, forthcoming), and, with Amaranth Borsuk,  ABRA (Zg Press, forthcoming). She has also written five chapbooks. Her projects have been featured in Spex, Huffington Post, The New Yorker, Salon.com, Poets and Writers, Poets.org, VLAK, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, Black Warrior Review, Joyland, berfrois, SUPERMACHINE, Drunken Boat, NPR, Bookslut,  and The American Scholar, among others. She is founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, an online arts and criticism journal about Lady Gaga, which will be published as a book from Zg Press in 2012. She co-curated a forum on women writers and fashion for Delirious Hem, SEAM RIPPER. Her performance Prices Upon Request was performed at Yuki Sharoni Salon in Beverly Hills, her piece Pardonmywhoremoans was performed in BELLYFLOP swimming pool gallery in Los Angeles, her Bad Princess Walk was performed at the West Hollywood Book Fair in 2011, her installation Pile of Panties took place on Sunset Blvd as part of the Los Angeles Road Concerts in 2011, and her short film Tumblr is the Only Place I Don’t Pretend I’m Okay premiered at TOTEM in Brooklyn in 2012. She writes about celebrity style for Hollywood.com.

E! Entertainment
By Kate Durbin
Insert/Blanc Press, 2012
Full color 40 p. chapbook
$12.00

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If Hedda Hopper had been reincarnated into a bag lady forced to stuff her own newspaper columns into her clothes for warmth, the wyrd outer hummings of her cycle toward rebirth might well have been echoed in Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment.  The 40 page deconstruction,  namesake of the television network and interspersed with lurid screenshots, is prose-poetry fed less by muses than by an alternative kind of green energy powered by their garbage: “recording angel” concept gone Murdoch wiretap, courtroom stenography as art that fluctuates between high and low like designer prescription drug-induced mood swings.

The book opens with an episode (presented as script-summary) from reality TV’s The Hills. The shot (recognizable and iconic in renditions from Wilder to Lynch) rises over the narrative like a smog-crepuscular sun:

Opening shot pans over Los Angeles. The buildings sparkle in the sunlight. Episode title appears in white font. ‘YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID’.  Shot of Sunset Boulevard sign, man in grey shirt going over crosswalk…

But Durbin is not interested in exploring mystery here so much as she is leaving us to dissect it, if we can find it. E!’s four chapters (the remaining three are on Dynasty, Lindsay Lohan, and Anna Nicole Smith) are so wholly representative of their medium their strategy is almost undetectable, its illumination indistinguishable from the famous sunlight in which it exists. Just as cubism and surrealism aim toward simultaneous representation, The Hills explores the overlap of interiority within presentation, like a sheet of tracing paper: “closed captioning” repeatedly refusing and belying the accuracy of spoken dialogue–as if the piece were composing itself against its own five-second broadcast delay:

 “I’m intimidated’ says a male voice with a British accent. The white letters say the same thing….’okay,” says Lauren. The white letters do not say this.

Shot of Lauren putting her hand over her heart and leaning forward…shot of Lauren’s face ….her eyes are glassy and her nose looks like a button.

The aforementioned chapter on Dynasty is E!’s crown jewel, a campy, morbidly funny stop-motion dollhouse in which Joan Collins and Linda Evans in a cat fight are repeatedly played and put on freeze frame:

Alexis’ blurred upper body fills ¾ of the frame. Her black hair is pouffy and a wig. Krystle’s face is coming at her. The crease of her cheek can be seen. The rest of her face is indistinct, and looks old.

                                           —-

Collins and Evans are as fairytale crones with false faces, their true countenances only glimpsed at certain slants of light, angles, pauses.  Sometimes the glamour loses its footing and the realtime-face–the pathos under the camp–can be seen, the blow-by-blow cattiness stopped and neutered into a fascinating playset:

Alexis sits on a beige sofa. Her tummy fat bulges. Her black wig is mussed. She is picking up a large crystal vase from a dark wood dressing table. Her fingernails are press-on and fire-engine red. The veins in her hands bulge.

….

Krystle is face-down on a chartreuse sofa. She is covered in broken glass. Behind the sofa the stairs to the upper level of the room are covered in something white. It must be feathers.

This last vignette, with its suggestion of forensic crime scene and waiting white angel–or specter–looming just out of the frame, reads like a horror story blurb. Another image brings to mind a wonderfully ghastly portrait of a foliage-camouflaged bogey or gremlin, crouching in the corner, reaching up for its prey with alarmingly long arms:

…There is a potted plant is the corner. Krystle is crouched near it. Her right arm reaches out all the way to her right. She is almost touching the upper level of the room with it.

Some of these scenarios run as fascinating companion pieces to the work of visual “dollhouse” artist Laurie Simmons, whose photographs feature everything from plastic figurines to ventriloquist’s dummies to Japanese love dolls:

—-

Alexis is at the upper level of the room, which is elevated five feet above the lower level of  the room. Her blue skirt flares out. Her left leg is in the air. She is wearing granny flats.

—-

Alexis and Krystle are lying on the wood floor, locked in an embrace. Krystle’s right leg is blurry and slung over Alexis. In the foreground is a small round dark wood table with a crystal vase on it filled with yellow daisies and green filler.

Of course, we are all “green filler”/worm food sooner or later, but Alexis and Krystle  are also action figures filled with the Stretch Armstrongish green “goo” of envy, hair-pulling drag queens brawling it out:

Krystle fills most of the frame. She is scrunching her face so her wrinkles show a lot. Her cheekbones are savage.

Extracts from the infamous Howard K. Stern/Anna Nicole Smith “clown makeup” video (in which a drug-stupefied Smith is alleged to have mistaken her own unborn eight-month-old child for the swelling of flatulence) make up the book’s fourth and final chapter. Though there is a brief preamble suggesting the whole scene might be staged, no comprehensive explanation for the scene is offered, and so, for those who haven’t seen the footage, Durbin’s transcript evokes a blow-up doll in whose womb Hasbro’s Baby Alive kicks up a can-can of a storm, a manic mechanical stillbirth:

RILEY: It’s your baby.  The clown doesn’t need gas medicine, she needs baaaaby medicine. That’s your baby kicking you. She isn’t real. Look. She’s having brain trouble. Brain trouble. It’s a battery baby. She’s fake. It’s fake. She has major brain trouble. Get the screwdriver. Yes, take one battery out to prove that’s not a real baby. Camera, camera…

ANNA: I think I just have a little gas. It hurts and I need some gas poot stuff so I can poot it out. I need somecuz look how big this belly’s getting cuz it’s gas. Nu uh. It’s gas…it’s cryin. Get her a binkie; it’s cryin. My baby whore. I’m gonna go give her her binkie cuz she don’t know how to take care of a baby.

MECHANICAL BABY: Mama. Mama. Waah. Waah. Mama. Mama. Mama…

There is something disturbingly “unattended” about this, as if it–and, indeed, E! itself, like Lynch’s Club Silencio–are, conceivably, “all a tape recording”. But the surveillance-or-theater question remains key; Durbin doesn’t explicate. As readers, we’re left to navigate possible meanings with no tools but our own understanding of the absurd and–strangely–our own conscience. It’s an ingenious strategy that has the boldness to potentially dismiss itself as literature–just as its subject, reality TV, is so often summarily dismissed. “My visibilities hide/I gleam like a mirror,” wrote Plath. The back cover of E!–a looking-glass image of its front cover, with correspondingly reversed text and images–is just one of many variations upon this theme. Whether we’re looking into a funhouse distortion or simply seeing a reflection of something already, innately warped is up to us–and a loaded, philosophically complex question dwarfed in an entertainment value that–significance notwithstanding and by any other name–smells exactly we want it to.