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repetition

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.

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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.

My research currently has me looking into the surrealist-Beats, and I recently read Bob Kaufman’s Solitude Crowded With Loneliness. This was Kaufman’s first book, published in 1965, which brought together work from the late fifties that had made him famous, including The Abomunist Manifesto and Does the Secret Mind Whisper?

I am in awe of how completely Kaufman was able to embody a multitude of traditions. His work is absolutely Beat, absolutely jazz/blues and absolutely surreal. He is thinking, living and writing with all three in mind—indeed, all of these “philosophies” were in the very core of his being—and he made them perfectly harmonious, crafting poetry that enacts revolt and social critique at the same time as it heals the primitive, hard-knocked soul. The reader familiar with the Beats will probably sense intuitively that jazz and Surrealism are highly compatible with the Beat ethos and that it makes perfect sense for the Beats to draw on them, but these poets still had to transmute these influences into a singular, shamanic, “howling” voice.

One of the most powerful tools the Beats employed was the catalog or anaphora. This is prominent in almost every famous Beat poem, including “Howl.” When surrealist-Beats infuse images of dissonance into their catalogues, the effect becomes one of controlled (but threatening) hysteria. Call it the hysterical catalog. Here’s one from Kaufman’s “I, Too, Know What I Am Not”:

No, I am not death wishes of sacred rapists, singing on candy gallows.
No, I am not spoor of Creole murderers hiding in crepe-paper bayous.
No, I am not yells of some assassinated inventor, locked in his burning machine.
No, I am not forced breathing of Cairo’s senile burglar, in lead shoes.
No, I am not Indian-summer fruit of Negro piano tuners, with muslin gloves.
No, I am not noise of two-gun senators, in hallowed peppermint halls.
No, I am not pipe-smoke hopes of cynical chiropractors, traffickers in illegal bone.

As with “Howl,” the catalog slowly overwhelms the reader with its unrelenting monotony.

Playing against the monotony is the energy and bursts of thought in the images themselves, each one packed with jarring disjunction, political parody, social criticism and humor. As I read Solitudes, I began to wonder how the Beats consistently discovered images to contain all these elements simultaneously (not to say that their poems do not vary in quality). With Kaufman, the images are enhanced by courageous comparisons, yet remain firmly fixed in the mode of socio-political critique:

Hawkeyed baggy-pants businessmen,
Building earthquake-proof, aluminum whorehouses,
Guaranteeing satisfaction to pinstriped murderers,
Or your money back to West Heaven,
Full of glorious, Caesarean-section politicians,
Giving kisses to round half-lipped babies,
Eating metal jazz, from cavities, in father’s chest,
Purchased in flagpole war, to leave balloon-chested
Unfreaked Reader’s Digest women grinning at Coit Tower.

Kaufman and other surrealist-Beats transposed Surrealism’s “chance meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissection table” into more direct images of social dissent and protest. To do so, they moved away from automatism toward images that float around the semantic fields of recognizable political and social concerns. Their parodic statements, most of the time, are actually quite vague, but the poetry has a distinct political subtext.

Paradoxically, the Beats depicted themselves and the society they were rejecting in surreal imagery. America, in their estimation is a surrealist circus, full of absurdities. The Beat, likewise, lives a life of contradictions, dream-reality and contorted madness because of the context in which he finds himself. The Beat incarnates the body politic and becomes a martyr on behalf of humanity. He becomes the landscape of maligned conditions that oppress the Beat virtues of love, life and liberty. This is the premise of the Beat lifestyle, but it is especially poignant in a writer like Kaufman, whose “mongrel” heritage of Creole, African American, Jew, Catholic, sailor, peyote-smoker, poet and jazz enthusiast exposed him to, and makes him the inheritor of, a broad range of cultural prejudices and injustices. Kaufman draws all these forces and beatness into himself with images that are centered on his body:

My body is a torn mattress,
Disheveled throbbing place
For the comings and goings
Of loveless transients.
. . .
My face is covered with maps of dead nations;
My hair is littered with drying ragweed.
. . .
The nipples of my breasts are sun-browned cockleburrs [sic];
Long-forgotten Indian tribes fight battles on my chest
Unaware of the sunken ships rotting in my stomach.

Like Whitman, Kaufman “contains” America, but this kind of containment does not resolve the contradictions, absurdities, atrocities and madness. So the Beat becomes one who is absurd, atrocious and hysterical—but he is not a hypocrite. He restores himself by embracing the contradictory nature of life (as well as the pleasure-principle and a few other Beat tenants). This allows the Beat to survive and even thrive in a society blinded by moralism and paranoia—a society whose misguided premises preclude it from containing contradiction. Thus, by simply affirming the contradictory nature of reality (in the abundance of surreal configurations of life available to him everywhere he looks), the Beat poet reverses his condition. Thus, Kaufman’s triumphant body is restored to life:

The hairy little hairs
On my head,
Millions of little
Secret trees,
Filled with dead
Birds,
That won’t stay
Dead.

When I die,
I won’t stay
Dead.

On this basis, Beat poets like Kaufman, Corso and, to some extent, Ginsberg, utilize the Surrealist strategy of radical juxtaposition to transform the political landscape. It is in Beat poetry that Surrealism finds its first widely-visible expression—a poetics that embraces poetry’s revolutionary potential.