Guernica Magazine

Wayne Koestenbaum: “I use obscene as a term of praise.”

Critic, essayist, and poet Wayne Koestenbaum talks about the reissue of his only novel to date, Circus, while offering a glimpse of his art works, unpublished writings, and family archive.

Miscellaneous Files is a series of virtual studio visits that uses screenshots from writers’ digital devices to understand their practice. Conceived by Mary Wang, each interview provides an intimate look into the artistic process.

Wayne Koestenbaum began our conversation by asking about my name. I was quick to offer a brief summary of my peripatetic and bi-national family history: “I don’t have a solid, unequivocal mother tongue,” I told him, almost apologetically. Perhaps my confession was meant to assuage my anxiety of interviewing someone whose virtuosic and exacting prose is the expression of a lifetime commitment to a poetics of nuance. I needn’t have worried. In talking to Wayne, I learned that the expansiveness and eclecticism of his knowledge is also a form of generosity; He could meet me almost anywhere—an obscure literary reference, a debate about abortion, or a tangent about fandom. I certainly didn’t expect him to meet me in Caracas, a city, it turned out, where our vastly different lineages uncannily converge: My maternal country is where Wayne’s paternal grandfather landed after fleeing Nazi Germany.

For the past two years, Wayne has been processing his archives, gathering and indexing unpublished prose, poetry, notes, and family-related documents that he occasionally dispatches on Twitter. Broken and disenfranchised lineages elicit speculation; learning more about one’s personal history of migration, and the tangled ways the self is formed over generations, is a narrative exercise—and a fertile ground for fiction. Wayne rarely writes fiction, but when he does, it is exquisitely unhinged, a little more so than the rest of his more typically aphoristic prose. Although grouping Koestenbaum’s nineteen publications under a single genre wouldn’t do justice to the formally diverse span of his literary production, his writing is undeniably essayistic– a mélange of cultural criticism, homage, and autobiography in close conversation with authors like Susan Sontag, Richard Howard, or Robert Walser. Narrative continuity and formal completion aren’t exactly his bedfellows, which is why a novel, stands out among the rest of his oeuvre. First released in 2004 as — touches on some of his customary themes: family and psychoanalysis, public sex, classical music. Set in East Kill, New York, the novel chronicles Theo Mangrove’s forthcoming musical comeback in Aigues-Mortes, Southern France, where he desperately hopes to be joined by the Italian circus diva Moira Orfei. Decadent, damaged family relations shape thelogs the highs and lows of Theo Mangrove’s small-town life and histrionic musical aspirations. His accounts are detailed, raw, and sexually explicit; as Theo’s HIV positive body gradually deteriorates, he ruminates obsessively over a classical repertoire that he may or may not perform.

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