Wayne's world

Author Wayne Koestenbaum talks porn and form

Poet, cultural critic and novelist Wayne Koestenbaum is prolific in a manner that almost unnerves. From the seminal (and deliriously pleasing) The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Myth of Desire, to sly and circuitous studies of Warhol and Jackie O., a stunning novel (Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, about a pianist obsessed with an Italian circus performer) and several poetry collections, his projects are all as perfect and precise as petits fours (but beware: some of these cakes have razor blades in them). TONY chatted with the author via e-mail on the publication of his latest collection of poems, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films.

Time Out New York: The poet and translator Richard Howard calls the title poem of Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films a “shocking exorcism.” Is it?

Wayne Koestenbaum: I like the notion of exorcisms, but aren’t exorcisms intended to get rid of demons? I don’t think I’ve gotten the fantasy of Jewish porn films out of my system. My poem is a manifesto, a call for papers—a comic commentary on the fact that there aren’t any best-selling Jewish porn films. Let’s make some! I’ll start with Diary of a Jewish Sex Fiend.

TONY: The book is published by Turtle Point, which has also published the French author Jules Laforgue and the poet James Schuyler, both of whom seem like great company for you. Laforgue’s writing is, I think, a seamless expression of humor and subtlety, purely via syntax.

WK: I love Turtle Point. Schuyler’s willingness to be isolated and loquacious—a hermit whose poems generously host the reader—gave me, early on, ideas of how to imagine literary containers for my contrary urges to hide and to expose. You mention syntax. Personality lies in syntax.

TONY: One poem in the new collection ends, “In this artifice I call law.” I assume the “artifice” is form.

WK: It’s a reference to literary form: as punitive, carceral container. But, like Mosaic law, it’s weirdly solacing, creating home and comfort, or illusions thereof.

TONY: Your novel contains an Italian circus performer named Moira Orfei. She is in fact a real person. Did you have any contact with her?

WK: I didn’t. My “Moira Orfei” was a placeholder, or code, for the opera diva Anna Moffo—a way of taking “Anna Moffo” energies and diverting them into another flamboyant and beautiful performer. Circus equals opera.

TONY: You once wrote about a piano teacher who urged you to “blend” the notes, and it seems like Moira Orfei blends themes that had been building in your work: the mirror relationship of fan and diva, the movement toward death, desire and desecration.

WK: Yes. In some ways Moira Orfei is my favorite of my books, though it may be the most odd and demanding, the least trained, as in house-trained. The narrator, Theo Mangrove, was the place where my desires squatted for a few years. In the process of squatting, the desires got more sordid, egomaniacal and death-driven. And so I moved on. I don’t recognize Theo anymore: He seems like a filthy bed I once slept in. But I still recognize his language, its grandiosity and entropy.

TONY: I heard you’re working on another novel, about hotels.

WK: It’s called Hotel Theory. The book will be in two parallel columns. One column is a series of meditations on hotels. The other is a dime novel about Lana Turner and Liberace, who live in a hotel called Hotel Women. In earlier versions, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, George Hamilton and Jean Harlow all lived in the hotel, but it got too crowded. I had to evict them, leaving Lana and Liberace more or less alone in the moldering establishment.

Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films ($16.95) is out now from Turtle Point Press.