In partnership with Oregon Wild Hair Moustache Wax, Molossus is proud to present an interview with Los Angeles poet Kate Durbin. Durbin is herself a noted fan of the moustache, known to host themed parties at which each guest is required to grow or otherwise don “the next evolutionary step to enlightenment.” As part of their sponsorship of Molossus, Durbin will receive a complimentary tin of Oregon Wild Hair Moustache Wax.
The moustache lends a quality of distinction to all, regardless of age, race, or sex.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX– Kate Durbin
Durbin’s first full-length collection, The Ravenous Audience, was recently released on Chris Abani’s imprint Black Goat. She will read from that book at Serenade Sunset, 31 March 2010, at El Cid in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 90026, as part of our partnership with the Silver Lake Jubilee.
I love that your collection The Ravenous Audience contains a legal disclaimer at its beginning like a novel: “This is a work of fiction… Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” Who made that recommendation?
I like that you noted the legal disclaimer; it’s one of the first things I noticed when I opened my book up for the very first time. While I would like to think it’s there because I did, in fact, write about real persons such as Marilyn Monroe and Amelia Earhart—controversial writings trucking in conspiracy theories—that Akashic had to protect itself, but actually I just flipped through the other Black Goat books on my shelf and they all have this disclaimer in them, even though many of them, like Uche Nduka’s gorgeous eel on reef, do not have any references to famous dead people. So I am guessing that the statement is likely there because Akashic is a fiction press, primarily, and that they put these disclaimers in all their books. Black Goat Press is Akashic’s first foray into poetry. And what a foray it is! I am thrilled to be a part of it.
I like that the disclaimer is there as well because it makes the work sound dangerous. Which it is.
I know you often wear costumes for your readings and sometimes you incorporate elements of performance as well. Can you give us a hint of what we can expect, costume- or performance-wise, at the El Cid reading?
For the El Cid reading, I will be wearing The Red Bishop, and there will be clubs, spades, and hearts involved. I can’t say more just yet about this specific costume or performance, but I will say that the outfit was designed by Carissa Ackerman of Mandate of Heaven, who I give all my money to because I find her fashions to be so otherworldly, one of a kind, and rife with potential for performance. Carissa is super intelligent and very aware of the history of women’s fashion, and this history plays out in her costumes in a way that conjoins beautifully with my texts, particularly The Ravenous Audiencesince it deals with historical and iconic women. And while really comfortable to wear, Carissa’s designs are as complicated as women—and so I can incorporate the involvedness of an outfit into my performance, by taking off or putting on certain elements, or altering the costume somehow during the reading to heighten, for example, formal shifts in the poem or the layers of implication going on in the text (and to go beyond the text; so that the poem keeps evolving beyond the page).
Of course, the outfits are always meant to showcase the women in the text: to allow the women to construct and flaunt their shifting, clichéd, earnest, violent, passive, and ambivalent identities and desires in a campy way in front of a ravenous audience (or “the peanut crunching crowd” as Plath writes in “Lady Lazarus”). There is an affinity with the very early burlesque, which was all about parodying and subverting gender and beauty stereotypes and fixed identities. I want to challenge the audience to really think about how they are reading my poems, and me.
I’m so overwhelmed by the vastness of your collection that I don’t know what to ask you about. Still, it all seems to fit together, it all makes sense. What is it that ties this all together?
The collection is most effective when read as a whole, and operates as a visceral sojourn, a journey from childhood unto death (death being total abjection, both physical and spiritual). It begins with ingesting other peoples’ words, the mythic blueprints of our culture—as the poem “Learning to Read” sets forth—and then, over the course of the book, vomiting back up these myths (mainly ones about being a sexualized and sexual girl and/or woman in this world) and turning them into monsters, a process which is liberating, impossible, dangerous and destructive.
I realize others might have a different experience with the text than this, but this is how I lived it. I lost my religious faith while writing this book, so now I know personally that art is not separate from life, that art is the sword.
I recently asked Gabrielle Calvocoressi about her process of integrating, even narrating history. What is yours like? I like your poems from Scene III: Flight, “Amelia Earhart: Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator’s Boot,” and interestingly Calvocoressi also had a series of Earhart poems in her first book. How much research do you do for your poetry?
I’ve read and liked Calvocoressi’s Earhart poems. I read them after I’d written mine, when several people told me about her book. She is dealing, in a beautiful and lyric way, with the cultural longing and lack that Earhart’s absence tapped into, specifically during the Depression, while I am trucking in conspiracy theories and bodily death—re-animating Earhart’s corpse, to bring witness to what Earhart’s actual experience might have been for her final flight and hours alive. Something that was important to me with both my Marilyn Monroe and Amelia Earhart poems was to make these women physical and visceral again, since they’ve become such ciphers culturally.
As for narrating history, I did do a lot of research online for this poem, but when it came to the actual writing of it, I didn’t worry obsessively about facts, for one because facts are impossible in a case like Earhart’s disappearance or Marilyn Monroe’s identity—there’s too much cultural baggage accumulated at this point, and even if there wasn’t, these women are gone, they can never share their stories from their own perspectives again.
As for Earhart specifically, I was writing from a conspiracy theory, a truth constructed by teenage girls (the girls who heard Earhart’s distress calls on the radio were teenagers, and the coast guard dismissed their calls as fabrications or delusions). I wanted to honor those unheard girls, by hearing their truth, and the only way to “hear” of course is through empathy, and that was painful and scary for me as a writer, as I often found myself weeping while writing this poem.
Channeling Amelia’s voice, however, was easy for me, and the flight itself carried me through the poem narratively. Later on, after the chapbook came out with Dancing Girl Press, I read Earhart’s book The Fun of It: On Women and Aviation, and was startled to see how closely the voice in my poem resembled her writing voice. Where did I pick that up? I don’t know.
Is your poem “Sex is Comedy,” about a porn shoot, based on first- or second-hand experience?
I based “Sex is Comedy,” like several of the other poems in The Ravenous Audience, on a film by Catherine Breillat, the brilliant French film director and novelist. She deals with women’s violence and sexuality in her films in really controversial, singular ways. She is known to some as the female de Sade. The films are about women trying to understand their own sexual desire and violence (towards others and towards themselves) in a clearly chaotic, misogynistic, violent world. The sex in her films is often unsimulated, like a porn film. So no, I have never been to a porn shoot. But her films are porn shoots, they are self-aware, non-titillating pornography, so you could say that I have third-hand experience (not to be confused with third-leg experience; though I do think reading poetry is fucking it). And “Sex is Comedy” is a film about making a pornographic film, which is likely why you thought I’d experienced the set. In my poem I wanted to accuse the false holiness of the audience behind the blue screen, the word Greek word for holy of course meaning “set apart.” So really, we are all having a third-hand experience here.
Also there is also uncanniness at work in the poem, as the laughter at the end could be real or could be a laugh track like the laugh tracks in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. The poem takes on even more implication when read aloud to a real audience, and the laughter I get during it is often uncertain, even a little fearful.
In some of your reviews people talk about the shock value of your poetry—to me your poems seem to reflect contemporary culture pretty accurately. I feel like it’s almost dismissive to suggest you’re intentionally employing shock gimmicks. Are you? How do you feel about that?
Well I would disagree that the use of shock in art is a gimmick, though I definitely think you are right in that people often view it as such, and are quick to dismiss anything that seems “shocking” as a gimmick so they don’t have to deal with the intense and uncomfortable feelings (and personal indictment) the work brings up in them. However, no one has yet said this about my work, at least not in a dismissive way in a review—what reviews I’ve gotten thus far of the book have been extremely positive. However, I have had people become very agitated about my work in workshops, and accuse me of using too much “blood and cum,” which is part of the reason why I think workshops can be status quo enforcing, fascist baby police sessions.
I also think you are right that my work is intended to reflect our contemporary culture as well as our history, and that too often we like to pretend we are somehow separate from the visceral quality life, when we are not (nor would it be good if we were).
I want to say more about shock in art though. Shock can be used for various purposes—to scare people into reinforcing the status quo (many U.S. horror films operate along this trajectory, where the independent, sexual woman is punished for her sexual deviance and independence by being sexually put in her place—raped—and killed), or shock can shake up the status quo. To shake up the status quo quite often means to shake up the institutions that define and enforce culture, which also means the institutions that define and enforce the art world. This is probably why my workshop experiences were what they were. My poems, like all good shock art, poke a finger in the eye of the workshop industry machine, because they are in a sense “unworkshoppable.”
To quote David Beech’s excellent essay on the Chapman brothers (the transgressive visual artists/sculptors from Britain): “…when novelties, innovations, and challenges within artworks occur according to the received parameters and paradigms of art, then they are not experienced as shocking but as cumulative, progressive, and complexifying. Shock in art is the result of transgressing art, of falling short of art’s values or exceeding its proper limits. Since art holds the place it does within culture in general and the social totality, the threat to art is inextricably linked to perceived threats to society, civilization, and the good life.”
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on three projects currently:
1) Excess Exhibit is a collaborative poetry book that I’m working on with the amazing poet Amaranth Borsuk, with illustrations by visual artist Zach Kleyn. It is unlike anything I’ve created or read; it’s much more ecstatic than The Ravenous Audience. We wanted to write about overabundance–of sound, of self, of sense–and in doing so, an ecstatic crossbreed emerged, both prophetic and post-human. These are conjoined poems about glorious mutation, and the nature of collaboration itself. The poems, ornate and visceral, grow one into the next, recombining in ever more rapturous and kinky ways until the helix of language and image spins out of control. The illustrations and text act as a flipbook when the reader thumbs through the book.
You can view video of us recently reading from the collection at REDCAT here.
We are also doing a series of photographs to go with the collection, which you can see here, to get an idea of the kind of creatures who speak this work into life.
2) I was recently commissioned to write a chapbook for the PARROT anthology, a very cool project Mathew Timmons (author of Credit) is curating for Insert Press. I will be writing a short tract called Kept Women, a grotesque and libertine read about Hugh Hefner and his girlfriends. There are many amazing writers doing chaps for the anthology, too, so do keep an eye out.
3) I’m writing a horror novel called The Husband. Since it’s not near completion, I think I will keep mum on the concept, but suffice to say Disneyland, mysticism, and cannibalism are all involved.
What are you reading? Listening to? What aren’t you reading?
I’ll tell you the books I most recently finished reading: The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Killing Kanoko by Hiromi Ito, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, Babyfucker by Urs Alleman, I Go to Some Hollow by Amina Cain, The Hot Tub/Glory Hole by Jon Leon and Dan Hoy, Warsaw Bikini by Sandra Simonds, O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno—tons more but those are the first ones that popped into my head. I highly recommend every book on this list.
As for listening, lately I’ve been on a Queen kick.
What am I not reading? Well, I am decidedly not reading Twilight. Read half of the first one and threw it across the room in boredom and disgust. Though it did make me want to write some transgressive monster books for teen girls, which I fully intend to do.