“guy said ‘fag’/ under his breath as I walked by.”
I remember reading the first line of Wayne Koestenbaum’s Camp Marmalade on a transatlantic flight. It was a budget airline: no refreshments or snacks, carry-ons carefully weighed before boarding. When call lights were activated, the entire Holy Roman Empire would pass by before help arrived. But unlike my fellow inmates, I was armed with this ticket to the pleasure principle, this volume of pervy odes to stars, scatology, fagdom. Like the child in The Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost,” I’d fallen in a portal to another dimension, a place down the road from Jane Bowles’s Camp Cataract in which you, the reader, become the marmalade, all your polymorphous perversities coagulated into a spreadable substance than can traverse and invert subject, syntax, and sex. The aircraft landed: I emerged-bright eyed among the downtrodden.
Some years later, I was abroad again, this time East Jerusalem. Lockdowns became routine. Like the speaker of Poe’s “Ligeia,” I resided in a monastery, alone with nowhere to go but the small appointed radius around my home, which encompassed sites such as the famed Holy Sepulcher church and Via Dolorosa. Their grandeur withered with each listless day. Then at an English language bookstore, a clerk slipped me Derek McCormack’s Castle Faggot out the shop’s window (entry was still out of the question). No longer destitute in the monastery, I had entered McCormack’s amusement park for queers. The Via Dolorosa was now populated by Count Choc-o-log, Boo-Brownie, and Franken-Fudge. In my permanently dazed state, the deserted sepulcher’s chandeliers became shit stained, the old city’s ramparts decorated with dead faggots.
This spring, I received a copy of Koestenbaum’s Ultramarine, the conclusion of his trance trilogy. The trance m.o.: “each word has a comprehensible/and an incomprehensible edge — /catch the place where a word/surrenders or crosses over.” Shortly after, McCormack’s Judy Blame’s Obituary, a chrestomathy of fashion columns, arrived. It begins: “Fagginess is what I write about.” I decided McCormack was the guy who whispered “fag” in Koestenbaum’s Camp Marmalade, not a slur but a solicitation. I scheduled an appointment with these two nancies over Zoom. During the conference, we took breaks to apply perfume, and there were numerous costume changes as well. – Ben Shields
Derek McCormack: I wish I had a Judy Blame piece. My secret hope in writing and publishing the book was that someone would send me something, but nope, no one. The things are so collectible now, so expensive.
Wayne Koestenbaum:You have to put that in the interview, Ben. Make it a pull-quote.
Ben Shields: Okay, dolls, we’re starting. I’d like to begin with the nipple. Wayne, this is from your collection, Cleavage: “I knew many pairs of recently developed breasts. They surrounded me. I had an attitude toward them. Now I wish I could define that attitude. It was a mist. It didn’t incorporate nipples. Breasts were slopes without personalities to give.” Now, Derek, this is one of your takes on the nipple: “Vera West sexed up the wardrobe. Décolletage deepened. Watch Lupita Tovar’s character [in Dracula] as she frolics with her boyfriend. Visible beneath her negligée—nipple.” I’m riveted not only by the parallel in content, but form. I misleadingly led with nipple, but what I’m really getting at is syntax. I’d like you both to weigh in on how you put words together and how you elect that order.
McCormack:I have a series of superstitions about how paragraphs should be constructed. If I have a three-word sentence, I either have to have a full paragraph of only three word sentences, or it has to be 3, 4, 5. It can’t go 3, 4, 5, 4, 5. It has to go back to three. A three-word sentence, which is pretty usual for me, has to be followed by a four. And then if it’s followed by six, it has to be followed by a five. Now, I can’t really elucidate these rules because I make them up as I go along. I’m like the worst Oulipo student. That said, generally I like my paragraphs to look like chandeliers or inverted chandeliers. I was reading one of Wayne’s essays and he had a number of colons, one in front of the other, and I loved it so much. A perforated colon! So I like shapes. Kind of like a huge lure. A big piece of jewelry. I think everything has to be a brooch. And there have to be some big background rhinestones, and some beadwork. I’ve never studied jewelry, and I don’t know the terms for any of those things, but I think of it as being like a Joel Arthur Rosenthal brooch. Although that has actual diamonds. You notice I said rhinestones, because I assume whatever I’m writing will be pot metal and kind of crap.
Shields: Your numerical choreography makes me think of counting rituals that can develop in early childhood, like counting footsteps or touching surfaces a certain number of times.
McCormack: I used to say early on in my career that my books were spells that I was hoping would destroy literature. I’ve never cast a spell, but I assume you have to have the exact right words in the right order. But my knowledge of witchcraft comes from Bewitched.
Shields: Wayne, you have a mysterious stanza involving Bewitched in your new book: “solitude, capers, Samantha/in Bewitched, Tarzan/remakes, constellations,/puce, ramekins.” Do you want to jump in?
Koestenbaum: Okay, I don’t want to drop some of these threads that seem very, very important: nipples, syntax, counting. Nipple was the lily pad to syntax. Right away I was thinking of numbers and nipples because nipples are famously two. But I went to a doctor in the 1980s in New York; he said I shouldn’t get HIV-tested at that point because then the feds would know about it. But he did tell me that I had a vestigial third nipple. No one has ever verified this hypothesis since. But I walk around with a secret pride. It’s like TNP: third nipple pride. The sentences you just read, Ben, were written a lifetime ago. I had not yet heard the full call of my third nipple. But then, okay, after nipples it’s time to talk about the punctum. And I’ve grown up thinking that every optical or verbal or acoustic composition has to have a punctum. But I can define the punctum however I like. So I would think that a sentence has to have a nipple punctum. But then to move from the subject of nipples: I became me as a writer most vividly, I think, around 1985 when I started counting syllables. I started writing syllabic verse and I would determine the number of syllables per line by looking at an Auden or Marianne Moore poem, and I would copy their stanzas. A numerical arrangement I was very fond of gave me my voice: 13 syllable lines followed by 11 syllable lines. So 13, 11, 13, 11, 13, and 11. It’s not very daunting to write a 13 syllable line and then an 11 syllable line. But that as well as stricter forms like 8, 11, 5, 3, 3, taught me to exercise territories of babysitting of content, syntax, and sense, or content, syntax, and sound within each area. That form of husbandry engendered by counting taught me how to economize words, even when I wasn’t counting. I don’t write syllabic verse anymore. Except in Ultramarine and Pink Trance Notebooks and Camp Marmalade, I was often counting the syllables, but not to obey a rule, just to remember that 1985 consciousness that I had by counting or measuring within a very tight metric. Literally, as if through séance, to bring up one’s voice. Focus one’s tone. Become funny. Become faggy. Become curved. Become jeweled. After reading your new book, Derek, and thinking about Judy Blame’s necklaces and brooches, and thinking about assemblage, I like thinking of my stanzas in Ultramarine as obeying necklace law. That they’re strung together, the relation of sequence to sequence—a sequence fellowship.
McCormack: Well, that is just beautiful. In your book there’s a stacking relationship for sure, which I loved. And I think that relates to Judy Blame, because he would add and then add and then add. When you say necklace law, that makes sense because I guess there would be some kind of a divider that keeps them apart.
Koestenbaum: In buddy booths, isn’t there something like a guillotine that can rise or fall between the booths and turn the wall into an aperture? I guess we all as grown-up faggots understand that a wall can be permeable.
Shields: If I can suggest something else about the nipple and syntax: in the sentence I read of yours, Derek, the word nipple itself is the nipple of the sentence: “visible beneath her negligee—nipple.” Wayne, in your prose, probably less so your poetry, you make the nipple with a one-word, introductory clause closed off by a comma, and then comes the rest of the sentence. For example, you might write, “Ugly, the doctor entered the room.” I don’t think you would usually write, “the ugly doctor entered the room.”
Koestenbaum: Here’s a line from The Queen’s Throat. “Tawdrily, I adore her.” And that sentence reflects the same principle: a wish to push one member out of the proper area of the sentence. To exile the adverb or adjective just to be difficult. It’s important for me to signal to a reader that I am being linguistically fussy because fussiness gives pleasure. That’s my version of witchcraft. I want the reader to feel the sorcerer’s hands, even if that is a very fey aesthetic.
It’s important for me to signal to a reader that I am being linguistically fussy because fussiness gives pleasure. That’s my version of witchcraft. I want the reader to feel the sorcerer’s hands, even if that is a very fey aesthetic.Wayne Koestenbaum
Shields: Let’s keep sorcery and pleasure with us while I read aloud a passage by David Altmejd in a conversation with Derek: How do you activate an object? If you’re given a werewolf head, how are you going to make it feel precious? For a really long time in my work, that was an important part of my work. To position them in such a way that they would vibrate. I don’t think there’s an infinite number of ways. So we talked nipple, we talked syntax. I want to move toward object. A collection of detritus isn’t enough. How do you activate an object—we started to get there with the counting.
McCormack: I never actually addressed the nipple issue. I pay so little attention to my own nipples. I forgot I had them until you asked that question. That sentence of mine you quoted was pretty juicy for me. The nipple is quite sexual, and usually when I write about body parts, they’re dying or dead. A dick is a worm fleeing a body. But syntax—I love listening to Wayne say ‘tawdrily,’ which is so beautiful. And it reminds me that a rule I’ve had since I started writing was no adjectives, no adverbs, and no inner thought. Now, I have broken that rule if I find an adjective that I can bear. But in general, everything has to be a description for me. The sentence has to stand in for the object or become the object. I love reading writers who can use basic things like adjectives and adverbs, especially when they do it as well as Wayne. I joke about breaking my own rules, but that is a rule I’ve stuck to: no one has thoughts or feelings, which means that I usually have a very basic sentence structure. I use a lot of fragments in my earlier work, which I think really just reminds you that they’re objects in themselves, and they remind you that they are fragments all the time. What activates my little sentences? Wayne talks about fussiness, which is really beautiful because I’m a super fussy writer, but I think our writing is very different. Wayne, does my writing seem fussy? I chop it, shape it, deform it so much, I hope it bears the marks.
Koestenbaum: Wayne jumps in to say, yes, fussy, a different school of fussiness than mine, but the fussiness is audible.
I just love exactitude. The precision of excluding other readings, of excluding other meanings. In my mind, something is activated when [the prose] is as tightly controlled as I can do it.Derek McCormack
McCormack: Well, that makes me so happy—I have this game in my mind, we talk about activation, and I guess there are different schools of activation. One obviously is to let words, sentences, poems and texts vibrate, give off multiple meanings. And in my work, I try so hard to pin down one meaning, I mean, I just love exactitude. The precision of excluding other readings, of excluding other meanings. I know there’s no way to stop it happening, but in my mind, something is activated when [the prose] is as tightly controlled as I can do it. I also think in some broader sense it’s activated when there’s something demonic about it. When I’ve made something that is odd or tight or structured or gross enough that something satanic starts happening. I think of my friend William Jones, who always says hail Satan to me at the end of conversations.
Shields: Are you Catholic?
McCormack: No, I’m nothing.
Shields: I was OCD about the number three in grammar school. And I pieced it together later in life that three was father, son, holy spirit. Then when I got a little older, I increased it to four. I think I was adding the Virgin Mary to the Trinity, which is something that Jung writes about. That the Virgin Mary is the unofficial fourth member of the Trinity. So when I hear three and also four I also have this striving for perfection activated in me. And it’s a very religious association. I mean, what is more activating than the sign of the cross?
McCormack: There’s something glamorous in three. To be honest, the only source I have for three is [Gilles] Deleuze. I love whenever he was interviewed, no matter what the question was—what do you eat at a restaurant?—he would say, “Well, I have three things to say about that.” So now I try and answer in threes. I try and write in threes. I think it sounds so smart. I can rarely get past two. I only have two thoughts on anything, and the second is usually the same as the first.
Koestenbaum: I didn’t know Deleuze divided discourse into threes, but that is very grand. I often say things like, “I have three comments,” or I want to divide what I want to say into threes or fours. It’s like counting syllables. I like to have that division. I liked your notion, Derek, that there should be no feelings in writing and therefore everything should be object-like. A certain kind of rarefied writer makes sure that objects dominate, rather than feelings. Ezra Pound in his imagism phase famously talked about “direct treatment of the ‘thing’.” And William Carlos Williams, you know, “no ideas but in things.” So there’s a whole cult of the thing that I belong to even though I use my bric-a-brac of adverbs and adjectives and deep feelings and memories to swamp the objects. And the objects are just kind of floating like the little turds in Judy Blame’s necklaces that you referred to so eloquently, Derek. I have a tactile relation to words as objects, as do you. I think any writer has a relation to words as objects, an intimacy that’s palpable and haptic. A word like “invisibly” is this object with four syllables and a certain rhythmic pattern. I like to separate words from each other or to find ways of putting words together that maximizes the friction possibilities inherent in each word. Perhaps this means that I overdo alliteration. I long ago gave up any rule against alliteration.
McCormack: So did I!
Koestenbaum: I will do anything to make a word thrust itself forward as word. The first three words in my first book of poems were one word, comma, nacreous. Nacreous in quotes. And I’ve tried not to repeat that tic in every single book. In Ultramarine, I also use a lot of German, French, Italian words that I italicized. I’m always playing that trick on words. Making them show themselves as the nipples they are. It’s my way of being intellectually scrupulous. I don’t really have ideas, but I do have a fussy enough relation to words that I hope ideas emerge as a by-product of that fussiness. I think of it as somewhat Judaic or intrinsically Talmudic. A tendency or tropism toward over-interpretation, exercising the right to categorize and enforce minute discriminations or differentiations between unlike objects, to make a lot of milk-versus-meat-ish decisions. And I don’t mean to be reducing the complexities of observant Judaism. But I do think that my intelligence, if it exists, is an intelligence of the over-interpreter and a finicky eater. I just want to add a caveat to what I last said about fussiness. I don’t mean to imply that I’ve been fussy enough just because I share Derek’s sense of not wanting to stare at the same page forever. I wish I were fussier; but I like to finish things. And any piece of writing that I finish, I always am disappointed with on some basic level.
McCormack:Oh, I love that you said that. Because I thought, fuck, I’ve got to get fussier. I always say to people I’m not self-deprecating enough. And that’s my same line about fussiness. But I love to have books [come] out. I don’t care if they’re a chapbook or a little art book. I love the product so much. I would love to fuss over something for 30 years and have someone find it.
Shields:What really is fussy? Because taken out of this discussion, fussy writing could mean the mannered writing of a 19th century novel.
McCormack: I like using it in part because of the contrast to the way I live. I’m a total slob. My sister made sure I had a clean shirt for this interview that didn’t have toothpaste on it.
Koestenbaum: Here’s the first stanza of a section from Ultramarine: a “mutual suck / in his town house / injudicious.” That passage occurred in the middle of thousands of pages of trance jottings. I was fussy. In a way, I left out the feelings. I just kept the scold.
McCormack: I found those lines erotic. I thought, is it someone I know? And then ‘injudicious’—amazing word, there are a million film noir problems that entered into that. My fussiness is in relation to connoisseurship. A connoisseur has to be fussy. And I think part of showing what a connoisseur of my subject matter I am, occasionally I betray it. Betrayal is important in my writing. No matter what rules I have or what I want to project or what I want to get across, I have to undercut it as well, which is a form of not being the best, being carefree, being not tied to the connoisseurship. I love catalogs, fashion magazines. Fashion is about objecthood. I say I’m creating jewelry. It’s really what I’d rather be doing. It’s really what I wish I had a skill at. And same with fashion. When I was in my forties, I went to this trade school in Toronto and tried to sign up for a jewelry course, but my eyes were so fucking bad that they just laughed at me.
Shields: Let’s talk more about that: writing as a substitute for fantasized other pleasures. My own writing life is a substitute for creating an 18 season primetime soap opera. I would rather be Aaron Spelling than a novelist.
McCormack: Wouldn’t you rather be Candy Spelling in the gift wrap room? Well, I also know it’s a fantasy to say I’d rather be a jeweler. The writer seems the perfect position to fantasize stupidly about other things. You know, I wrote [a lot of the pieces in] Judy Blame’s Obituary as a newspaper columnist. And I just loved going to fashion shows, which are very frightening, right? But I went as a literary writer. When I’m at literary events, I’m a fashion writer. It’s important I have these delusions to protect me because I’m never the writer I want to be.
Koestenbaum: I want to say something about jewelry. For the gay boy, it’s the mother who is the symbol of the word “ornament.” My mother did not wear much jewelry, but my parents had a bureau. There was the mother’s side and the father’s side. On my father’s side, the top drawer had change. Pennies. I collected pennies, so I had a sense of the treasurable nature of the coins in my father’s little divots. On my mother’s side, she had clip-on earrings. I maybe once tried them on, but I didn’t go wholeheartedly in that direction. But in my teens and twenties I kept a sacred space in my heart for the clip-on earring. In my Jackie O book, there’s an ode to clip-on earrings, not that Jackie necessarily wore clip on earrings, but I often think of my relationship to word morsels as clip-on-earring-esque.
McCormack: I think that’s just genius. I would wear my grandmother’s clip on earrings every time I stayed with her and the thing I loved about them is they hurt like fuck. I mean, they really were painful. Maybe my grandmother would wear them when she went to a card party or something. I would wear them all day and all night. Just remembering that stinging pain brings me great happiness. In a way it’s my relationship to language as well. I want it to hurt the reader a little bit.
Koestenbaum: I have an orange necklace that I want to put on just for a second.
McCormack: Oh, oh my gosh! [delighted] It harkens back to one of my first fashion heroes, Mrs. Thurston Howell!
Shields: Oh god, I love her. Lovey, played by Natalie Schafer.
McCormack: It’s not as good a name as Googie Withers, who appears in Wayne’s book.
Koestenbaum: I finally saw a movie with Googie Withers in it—Night and the City—and she is amazing. I first discovered her in a Frank O’Hara poem.
McCormack: My landlords hooked me up to their cable and I’ve been watching Turner Classic Movies religiously for months, day and night. I’ve started to talk with a transatlantic accent. And I contemplated doing this interview in it. Wayne, how was your trip to San Francisco?
Koestenbaum: I had forgotten, Neiman Marcus in San Francisco is very high end. The first floor — the perfume — I splashed on some Guerlain Impériale, which James Schuyler used to wear. And it just. Felt. Great.
McCormack: I find department stores have the best bathrooms. They’re often on the sixth floor and no one bothers you. You can be in there for hours.
Koestenbaum: Certain hotels too, if they’re fancy enough, will have really good restrooms.
McCormack: And they won’t turn you away, it would be terrible form.
Koestenbaum: My favorite bathroom was at The Carlyle. There even used to be an attendant. So if you gave him a dollar, you really felt legitimate. He didn’t care whether you were staying at the hotel.
Shields: And then was there a tray of perfumes sitting by the attendant that you can put on? I love that. That’s such a wonderful experience when you fly first class: the perfumes in the bathroom. Even if they smell like Lysol, it’s so luxurious to just go in there and apply them.
McCormack: I’ve changed. I don’t want to be a jeweler. I want to be a bathroom attendant. I think I’m super qualified.