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Two nibs


Wayne Koestenbaum

in conversation with Tony Leuzzi
22 October 2004, Le Gamin Coffee Shop, Chelsea, New York.
This Le Gamin (on the corner of 9th Avenue and 21st; there are others with the same name) has since changed management and is called Cafe Grainne.

This piece is about 10 printed pages long

Ottava rima

TL: Wayne, what inspired you to write a book-length poem in ottava rima — a poem comprised of any number of eight-line stanzas, each in iambic pentameter, rhyming abababcc?

WK: Concretely, it was because I was reading Kenneth Koch and he had written poems in ottava rima and they were deliciously flat and self-deprecating and mock-epic. I thought, “Oh, I could do this.” I rhymed a lot in my first book, Ode to Anna Moffo, but I had since abandoned rhyme and meter and I missed it.

An obvious influence would be Byron, since his Don Juan is also in ottava rima. But with Model Homes I think we need to go back even further. There is a satirical, eighteenth-century sensibility in the poem. You stretch the limits of this form, often to comic effect, for example, I think of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras. There, as in MH, syntax occasionally gets distorted or wrenched to fit the requirements of the form but not because of an inadequacy in the poet; rather you and Butler appear to be mocking the conventions of the form as well as celebrating them.
Le Grainne Cafe, exterior

Le Grainne Cafe, exterior

Interesting. I’ve never read Hudibras. I took an eighteenth-century literature class as an undergrad and it was my least-favorite period of literature. I almost had an allergy against it. I never really got into it.

Perhaps the influence, then, is not conscious. Though Byron was consciously influenced by the eighteenth-century satirists, you might be only conscious of your debt to Byron. Maybe you’re tapping into that eighteenth-century sensibility through him.

That’s possible. But I’d read Byron in graduate school and liked the figure of Byron more than his poetry. I didn’t read Don Juan when I was writing this and I kept on thinking I should to get tips, but I didn’t. I hadn’t looked at that poem in years, so the Byronic influence is more systemic, more influenced by the image of Byron.

So, you were responding more to Byron-as-Literary-Figure than the actual poem. And you used the form to react to this source of inspiration.

I used the form as an arbitrary module. I could put anything I want inside of it. I make reference, for instance, to Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes.

The form in MH functions as a repository for a wide range of references. It’s sort of like  ––  and I do not mean this negatively  ––  an enormous belch that released so much of your cultural awareness, education, and experience.

Right. Yes.

And yet Model Homes is very playful.

Yes. I’m someone who doesn’t take himself that seriously. I mean the book itself is serious insofar as it was hard to write and I had to commit a lot of time it. I had to believe in it and had to think I could get away with it. I had to work hard, but the work is not serious in that it doesn’t strive for a lofty tone. I just accept the fact that I’m a prosaic poet who says what he needs to say.

You tend to make self-deprecating admissions throughout. It seems at times as if you were questioning the relevance of your own sensibilities in relationship to the project.
Le Grainne Cafe, interior

Le Grainne Cafe, interior

I could have been even more self-deprecating. There’s a kind of a Woody Allen shtick. I do undercut myself a lot. I suppose deep down I do have a grand image of myself that I apologize for in my writing, even in conversation. I tend to make very bold statements in life. But then I retract them or doubt them. I’ve always been a little bit of an underdog. Growing up I was the shortest kid in my class. I have an older brother. I also never felt very much like a legitimate poet.

And you, like a lot of contemporary gay poets and novelists, blend the high and low cultural references. Novelist Kevin Killian was once called a “gentleman-sleaze novelist” for doing this.


MH is constantly flowing from one reference to another. And the movement might take the reader from an encyclopedic reference about seventeenth-century art to a description of “tea-rooms” [where gay sex occurs in public bathrooms].

That’s totally my aesthetic. I’m a very sexually-preoccupied person. Sexuality has always been a place for me of retreat and richness and fantasy. If there is something I take very seriously it’s sex. I take it seriously the way Genet does or the Marquis de Sade. I don’t consider it low on the totem pole. For instance, consider Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. In my mind he was not in the least discredited by that adventure. If anything he was elevated. And so I am familiar with reversing the cultural hierarchy that puts at the bottom the realm of sleaze and puts at the top family values, religion, and institutions. I take seriously the shadow side of sexual conduct.

And somehow the form lends itself to this reversal of the cultural hierarchy because your adaptation of the ottava rima is reversing the standard practice of using traditional poetic form for lofty purposes. And, then there is the fact that ottava rima is historically linked with satire.

And it’s fairly obvious that the stanza and form is a stricture against which one must battle to find freedom. But also I’m in a constant productive war with the forms of domesticity, family, and sexuality. I want to fit in the container but I also don’t want to fit in the container.

Are you more comfortable reacting to it?

Yes. Sexuality is the key here. I would have put more material relating to this in the book if I had the courage.

And this is one of the charms of MH. It could, ideally, go on and on. The ending, though shaping towards a conclusion of sorts, is somewhat artificial. There doesn’t seem to be a programmatic structure here. The voice of the poem admits to such arbitrary boundaries: “today I’ll write for two hours.” Why not three? Why not two hours everyday? The use of the form suggests discipline, yet the persona confesses to be fairly undisciplined in the act of writing.

It has an improvisational quality. The book started as an exercise for myself. I wrote the warm-up, which appears before the “First Canto.” I was so happy to do this. I hadn’t had so much fun in years. I thought, “I’m going to write until I run out of inspiration.” I wrote much of it in August, which is the best month of writing for me because I go back to teaching in September and I’ve had a little leisure in the previous summer months, a kind of inner-fertilization period. I hit this August stride. Actually, it was in July. No, I wrote it in July. I started to revise the book in August. This is how I do most of my writing. I go with an impulse until it dies. And don’t give up. I get kind of obsessed and manic and work daily on the process and just keep going until I run out. It’s really hard to do. Since I wrote each of those cantos in a day, it was very hard to sustain it. I kept saying to myself “Don’t stop until you get to a satisfying number.” It was nine, but I completed fourteen or fifteen cantos and condensed them into twelve.

Writing in form requires a good deal of discipline. Many writers write a long formal poem over a number of years. But you wrote it quickly.

It did ultimately  ––  and this is the sad thing about spontaneity  ––  take several years. I wrote it that summer, spent a couple of months revising it, and then I showed it to a number of poet friends who told me the rhymes weren’t working. The original had much more approximate rhymes in it. Very approximate. Then I went back and reworked it. This process took me a year to make the rhymes as exact as I could and make the meter as exact as I could. This was Hell. By the time I had finished rewriting it, any memory of the original pleasure it had given me was gone.

I’d like to look a bit more closely at the second stanza of the “First Canto.” It reads:
Strict stanzas are a telephone: ring, ring,
     You guilty charlatan, leaving alone
Your family and friends — you ding-a-ling,
     Invective the P. E. coach, a Francophone
Spaniard, directed at the skinny gring-
     o boy I was, hiding a juicy bone
In my shorts, responsive to a thug named Joe
Whose chest hair told me mine might one day grow.
This stanza encapsulates in miniature what you are able to achieve with the ottava rima form throughout. You begin with an equivalence: stanzas and telephones. Both ring. The expectation is that the phone will be picked up and, through an interaction with the person at the other end, a new level of understanding will be reached which may not have been anticipated if the phone was left unanswered. In the case of the stanza, the demands of the form must be worked through in order to arrive at discovery. The “ring” that sparks the words in motion here lead you to some new territory. Through your engagement with the form you are finding your subject as you write: the comparison of the first line leads to a new germ –– the “guilty charlatan” of line two; then comes the ponderous weight of failed expectations “leaving alone/your family and friends” –– a constant theme in this book; a new direction is signaled with the phrase “ding-a-ling” –– made possible by adhering to the rhyme pattern, which associatively leads the voice to a memory of his P. E. coach’s homophobia. The stanza closes in on a surprise: the voice’s “juicy bone” for Joe and his awareness that Joe’s physical development signals a possible source of identification between himself and the hirsute thug. What’s more, the growth he feels in his shorts precedes the growth that may (or may not) enable him to catch up to the object he desires.

To my way of thinking, this is an ideal use of the form because the shape and movement of the lines in the stanza reflect the transformative and associative character of the text as a whole. MH is filled with outstanding passages like this. And while you were not always able to achieve such compression, you were often able to carry over, across several stanzas, very powerful, effective images, such as in the Susan Sontag dream, also in “First Canto.”

Yes. Some of the stanzas are more managed within the unit and come to a kind of epiphany.

And such epiphanies, like the ones offered in the second stanza, are self-referential to the poem and its procedure.

Yes, exactly.

Elsewhere, I noticed a quick movement from one image or idea to another. There are, for instance, the intriguing passages in the “Ninth Canto,” where the voice’s formative sexual experience with an Asian girl on an airplane morphs into a consideration of his unforgiving grandfather. Whether or not such passages were plotted and revised over the course of years, the effect seems entirely spontaneous.

It was spontaneous. Why I like to write poetry is that such connections are actually happening. Why I need to write quickly in my first drafts is so I don’t stop myself before I make that leap. That’s the way I write in general. I write a lot at once. And, again, I am somewhat of a prosaic writer. Anecdotes one, two, and three in themselves aren’t necessarily interesting, but it’s the travel through them –– in or before –– that proves exciting. I need to pursue the course of the narrative all the way through to the end because, ideally, that process will redeem the journey. And that’s why I am excited by a form like this that will enable me to go on and on and on. I know my writing will get better if I continue. If I stop I’m in trouble.

So, you like to work within forms that don’t require a terminal point. You can determine when you should stop.

Yes. I like size, too. I like big, long poems, too.

I prefer to work in miniature. The sonnet, for example, is one of my favorite forms to write in. But the same realization holds: I often find I need to write three or four sonnets rather quickly before I get to the one I was meant to write. And, to be fair, ottava rima is a micro unit within a macro one.

I also like micro units. Another manuscript I have in the works is all short poems. Originally, this book had thirty pages of short poems attached to this long poem but Thom Ward [ BOA Editor] did not want to print them with the long ottava rima poem.

I’m glad he didn’t print them with this because MH is a self-contained volume of verse.

In terms of not taking myself too seriously, I would never have submitted this long poem as a book by itself.

Why not?

I don’t have enough clout as a poet to try to publish a book like this. I thought if the thirty pages of other poems were included someone who didn’t like MH might like the shorter poems better.

So you thought it would be a risky move to try and get a long poem in ottava rima published, especially since your use of that form was, at times, fairly untraditional?

Yes. And several of my readers of the original manuscript liked the shorter poems much better than MH, which they felt was verbose, shticky, formally self-referential hay ride. I would love to try this sort of thing again. Maybe rime royal, which a friend told me is easier than ottava rima. Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” is in that form. Rhyme comes in a funny way very naturally to me because of my free-associative bents and because my syntax is somewhat unruly.

One can’t be too literal working in forms because then you can get very boring poems. If, on the other hand, you’re able to accept wider connections and take leaps, form can be of valuable service to writers.

I agree, but it’s funny: the poetry world is so faction-driven, so sectarian, that there are people who won’t read MH. I mean there are whole classes of readers, writers, and scholars I admire who won’t read this book because it is in form and is written in the first person.

And there are formalists who may not read it because they feel your extensions of ottava rima are perverting the intended shape of that form.

Yes, and I find such reactions painful. I can read L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, Beats, real wild street poets, James Merrill. I can take pleasure in the whole range. And what pains me more than those who won’t read MH because it’s in form are those who would dismiss its seriousness or rigor because it is confessional. That really depresses me because there is no way I can write without making constant reference to my own life or my own so-called life. I guess that’s just the way I’m built as a writer. One press turned the book down because it was in form. They only took “experimental” work. Another press said “we don’t do confessional stuff.” Before this experience, I had no idea I was a formalist or a confessional poet.

How are the editors coming up with these definitions?

Aren’t “Formalist” and “Confessional” dead terms anyway?

Back to the book, I wanted to bring up a few more sections. You talk about your mother a lot.

Yes, she’s big in the book.

She is big. So big that she is almost cartoonish. So big she’s comical –– not frightening. Are you working with a stereotype: gay man with an overbearing mother? How much of this is your literal mom and how much of this belongs to cultural mythology?

It’s pretty literal. If it’s intercepting the cultural stereotype you mention it’s because that cultural stereotype is somewhat true. It’s a powerful subject that I haven’t really wanted to write about before. I always felt it was one of my major subjects but I’ve written about it in disguised form. One of the major personal breakthroughs of writing in this form is I finally found a place to write about my mother with the right tone. When I tried to write about her in the past it was too serious, too memoir-ish. It seemed inaccurate. I felt comfortable writing about her in this form because I could be a comical and honest at the same time.

Is the form, then, a kind of shield of defense?

I think my writing about her in MH is stylized. It emphasizes certain details over other ones. Likewise, the portrait of my boyfriend in the work is very partial.

I love where you and Steve create names for your excrement. It’s one of my favorite sections in the book because it shows the level of honesty, play and intimacy between you both. Again, I can’t image this being a premeditated subject for a poem; it appears to have been arrived at through the form.

Yes. I never once decided, “I’m going to have a stanza about excrement.” It was the last thing I thought would come up. It was one of the stanzas I considered cutting for embarrassment reasons. But I liked how the rhymes happened and how they were true. If I’m saying something true and I’m saying it in my own voice and it fits well within the rhymes, it seems like such a life discovery that I couldn’t omit it. I did cut a few things. I had my boyfriend read a few stanzas and he said “You can’t say that.” But he let me put the section in that we’re discussing.

I was so engaged in this book, which  ––  to be entirely honest  ––  surprised me. I’m often turned off by books that talk about trying to write. Why do you spend so much space doing this in MH?

Such topics never bore me. I love the foregrounding of the writing process and the inclusion of material that reveals that the writing is happening. My favorite fiction writer at the moment is Thomas Bernhard whose books are all about that kind of struggle. One of my favorite books of his is about a character who is trying to write a study of the composer Mendelsohn but can’t begin. I like writer’s block books.

For readers like you, then, the self-referential moments where you discuss the challenge of writing this poem may be among the chief pleasures of this book.

Right. And I didn’t know how to do this book another way. The meta-writing sections are as necessary as those sections about my mother and boyfriend. Also, a writer is an uneven thing. A book is only fixable to a point. There is a lot of fixing one could do, and the things I didn’t like I was able to change or cut. But in many places, there was no way I could omit sections that were on their way to the good parts. Nonetheless, there are certain kinds of unevenness I wouldn’t allow. I wrestled with the lines that seemed profoundly un-idiomatic or where the rhymes were non-existent. I was going to try and keep the form and really try to sound like myself.

So, like many contemporary poets who work in (and extend) traditional forms, you created your own limits and boundaries.

And one of the rules was it was perfectly fine to talk about the poem in the poem, that was one of the major subjects. I’m allowed to talk about what I’m eating, fantasizing about, my background, and the writer of the poem. These are all allowed topics. One of my friends who read it resisted the food. I felt the food was too deeply worked into the poem to take out. It was also one of the rules I could talk about the food. I know food talk isn’t always the stuff of profundity.

Speaking of which, we’re in Le Gamin, a coffee shop in Chelsea. This cafe is mentioned repeatedly in the book as one of the places where MH was written.

I love this place. It’s two blocks from my home. I come here all the time. I do a lot of writing here at a corner table. It feels kind of like home, which is nice to feel in a city as impersonal as New York.

I was surprised to see that after a few months of its release that MH has not yet been reviewed anywhere that I could find. This is a bit surprising, considering that you’ve earned quite a fan base of readers with your non-fiction books.

Poetry readers won’t read confession. Nonfiction readers won’t read poetry. I’ve discovered this with all my books of poetry. It’s a totally different world. People who think they love me and my writing can care less that I’m publishing a book of poetry. They may pretend to care but I can see their eyes glaze over when they ask what I am working on and I say I’m publishing a long poem. They’ll smile and ask “What else?”

Who is the audience you are imagining for this book?

That’s a great question, and maybe a depressing one. Is there an audience? You’re the audience! Readers of contemporary poetry who are interested in autobiographical poetry and don’t dismiss it as un-serious. Readers of my work in other forms. Readers who have followed my work and are interested in my life and want to hear what I have to say. I think to read this book you have to be into poetry. People tell me this book isn’t too hard to read. It moves and it’s chatty. Compared to a lot of the things I’ve written it’s easy to read. So I hope that people who might be suspicious of poetry would be attracted by the book’s easiness.

The tone is immediate and casual; it provides the reader with a formal challenge that is accessible. But I think the average reader might be entirely overwhelmed by the syntactical choices, the compression, and a good deal of the cultural references, which you mention so casually and fluently.

Honestly, it comes as a total surprise that you see obscure references. All of that material is so familiar to me. I don’t doubt, however, that you’re correct.

I consider myself fairly cultured, for example, but I needed to go to an encyclopedia for a number of references, such as Vissi d’arte and Petrof. Even the names I knew were used in such a way that implied a deeper understanding of historical figures or concepts than I possess.

I’m very committed to my cultural references. They’re as real to me as the smell of a rose. I couldn’t write if I didn’t have my cultural references.

I was wondering if readers of this book would want to do the work in order to have these references under their skin.

That’s amazing. One of my friends taught one of my earlier books to a class of bright undergraduates. She told me they stopped at all the references, which shocked her and it shocked me. To some extent I think the difficulty young readers might have with these references could be a sub-cultural issue. A lot of the work I like is similarly filled with a mix of high and low references. Frank O’Hara, who’s my God, uses references all over the place.

I see a good deal of similarity between your approach and his work. And, of course, the question of references is entirely subjective. There are, for example, many enterprising readers who do not know a good deal of things we expect them to. I still remember teaching Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Daddy” to a literature class. And in response to the line “Every woman adores a fascist,” a young man asked, “What’s a fascist?” I thought, “How could you be twenty years old in this century and not know what a fascist is?”

Oh, no! You have your work cut out for you. You shouldn’t be allowed to vote if you don’t know what a fascist is.

And in MH I found the act of locating the references I did not know one of my chief pleasures in reading it. At times I laughed out loud at the erudition, not because it was silly but because it was so deftly and effortlessly handled. As gay men, moreover, we tend to internalize the culture and use it differently. We embrace cultural references and identify with them in a way that transcends their oft-understood function.

Yes, and in my work, like Schulyer’s and Ashberry’s, there’s an assumption of an urban reader –– as opposed to other kinds of poetry that deal more explicitly with universals. I’m dealing with musical terms, brands, names, the clutter of the city. Even though I don’t think of myself as an academic, I have been in academia all my life. Compared to my colleagues, I think I use some pretty trashy references.

And putting footnotes here would not work! If, for example, The Norton Anthology of American Literature decided to anthologize this piece, there would certainly be plenty of microscopic print at the bottom of the page! And that could change the casual feel of the poem.

I once had an idea in graduate school about writing a novel that would be all one footnote, a personal footnote to the sentence “Anna Moffo was born in Wayne, Pennsylvania.” The whole novel would be the footnote to that fact. In a way, that is the book I keep trying to write.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add to this interview?

An obvious thing: A poem or any other creative project is so personal and the writer/artist knows in a way the least about it. And the shock of it going out in the world is really miraculous and somewhat unsettling. I’m not the expert on this poem. It was a room in my house, a private space for rumination and daily work, but it’s so much more. Now it’s out there, this thing, this material that has a concrete, limited existence. But for so many years it was my fantasy. If I hadn’t published it, the book would still be my fantasy. Even though it’s out there it’s still an internal part of me. It’s the keeper of my inner world. It’s still an imaginary entity.

So it was a real risk for you to publish this.

Most of the times writers are working very privately. They’re not really that clear that what they’re working on will get published. So when MH was published I thought “Wow, this one actually made it out into the world.”

Tony Leuzzi

Tony Leuzzi is a poet who teaches literature and writing at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY. His verse, book reviews, essays, and nonfiction have seen print or are forthcoming in a number of small press and academic journals, including Double Room, Arts and Letters, California Quarterly, Fox Cry Review, Rhino, Shiny, The Harvard Educational Review, and others. The author of several chapbooks, his first full-length book of poems, Tongue-Tied and Singing, was published by Foothills Press in 2004. Leuzzi is currently interviewing a wide range of American poets about their understanding and use of traditional and/or organic form. His interview with Wayne Koestenbaum is one of several he hopes to eventually publish in book form.


Wayne Koestenbaum has published five books of poetry: Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, Model Homes, The Milk of Inquiry, Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, and Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems. He has also published a novel, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, and five books of nonfiction: Andy Warhol, Cleavage, Jackie Under My Skin, The Queen’s Throat (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist), and Double Talk. His next book, Hotel Theory, will be published in Spring 2007 by Soft Skull Press. He is a Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center, and currently also a Visiting Professor in the painting department of the Yale School of Art. Photo: Wayne Koestenbaum, by Audrey C.Tiernan

Wayne Koestenbaum, by Audrey C.Tiernan