- The Prurient Detective: An Interview with Wayne Koestenbaum
Wayne Koestenbaum likes to watch—how people respond to stars like Jackie O, how gay men embrace opera, how writers collaborate, how artists produce their work. With books like The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (Poseidon, 1993; rpt. Da Capo, 2001), he has built a distinctive body of cultural criticism that looks at the transactions of desire and aesthetics and that tacks toward the writerly rather than the academic, in evocative, often aphoristic prose. At the same time, he has also built a distinctive body of poetry, with five books and counting, reinvigorating our contemporary model of the poet-critic.
Koestenbaum’s first book, Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration (Routledge, 1989), was a relatively traditional literary study, of canonical writers like Eliot and Pound, although it looked at them through the lens of early queer theory. The Queen’s Throat, a trade book, marked his launch onto the wider scene, followed by Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995; Picador, 2009); Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics (Ballantine, 2000), which collects many of his journalistic pieces; and Andy Warhol (Viking, 2001), which appeared in the Penguin Lives series. More recently, he experimented with double-columned, stereophonic commentary in Hotel Theory (Soft Skull P, 2007). Parallel to his critical work, his books of poetry include Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems (Persea, 1990); Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender (Persea, 1994); The Milk of Inquiry (Persea, 1999); Model Homes (BOA, 2004); and Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films (Turtle Point, 2006). In addition, he’s written a novel, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes (Soft Skull P, 2004), and the lyrics for an opera libretto, Jackie O.
Born in California in 1958, Koestenbaum did his undergraduate study at Harvard (BA, 1980) and, after getting an MA in creative writing at Johns Hopkins (1981), took his PhD from Princeton (1988). He got his first academic job at Yale, in 1997 moving to the CUNY Graduate Center, where he is a Distinguished Professor of English.
This interview took place on 5 November 2010 at Marquet, a restaurant in Lower Manhattan. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams, [End Page 367] Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, and transcribed by Jennifer Beno, an MA student in the literary and cultural studies program at Carnegie Mellon. It continues a series of interviews that Williams began in 1993 in the minnesota review.
You’re known for The Queen’s Throat, a trade book on opera, as well as books on Jackie O and on Andy Warhol. But let’s start with Double Talk, your first book, which came out in 1989. Gay and lesbian criticism was coalescing, but the book suggests the changeover to queer theory since it focuses less on gay relationships than on the charged literary relations between men. It deals with the collaboration, for instance, between Pound and Eliot on “The Waste Land.”
You’re right, I talk about nominally straight men. Double Talk is not a history of exemplary gay writers.
How did you come to do that book? How did you become interested in criticism and theory?
I arrived at graduate school in 1984, and I had come from an entirely traditional undergraduate English education at Harvard, with no theory whatsoever. In one course, there was one lecture on structuralism, but otherwise not even a suggestion of theory. This was in the late 1970s. Secondary sources were Greek to me at that point, although I read Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era and Helen Vendler on poetry—works of criticism that I understood to be artful rather than merely exegetical.
When I arrived at graduate school, I wanted to be a poet, and naively, I considered literary criticism to be a parasitic activity that had nothing to do with the creative process. Then my mind changed very quickly because of feminism and feminist literary criticism. I took a class with Elaine Showalter in which we read Derrida, Bloom, Lacan, Jane Gallop—a lot of mainstream (and some...