An Interview with Kate Colby
We are going to bury something
or dig it up. Find
or lose ourselves
Kate Colby’s second book, Unbecoming Behavior (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008), is a long poem described at the publisher’s website as “part autobiography, part revisionist biography of Jane Bowles.”
The first time I saw the manuscript, I was on my way out the door. But the mail was on the porch. I opened the big envelope, read the first few lines in the cold, brought the mail inside, finished the first page, sat down and continued through the next 30 pages or so until I finally made myself put it down, late for where I had to be. I remember thinking as I closed the door behind me: that poem is practically a page-turner…
Kate Colby is the author of Unbecoming Behavior (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008), Fruitlands (Litmus Press, 2006, winner of PSA’s 2007 Norma Farber First Book Award), and chapbooks from Anadama, A Rest, and Belladonna presses. She lives in Providence, RI.
What exactly is a “revisionist biography”?
It’s one way I’ve described what I did in Unbecoming Behavior with the facts and spotty, speculative details that are available about the life of Jane Bowles. I wildly extrapolated from her writing and her biography. There is very little that is factual in the poem with regard to the actual person of Jane Bowles, so the term is inadequate, or the “biography” part of it is. I did the job of something like an armchair criminal psychologist, arbitrarily assigning motives without having either visited the scene of the crime or met the perpetrator.
The poem manifests my tendency to try to identify and organize my direct experience of things via the imagined experiences of others. I’ve written in this way about Anna Anderson, Ada Lovelace, Isadora Duncan, Catherine de Medici, Typhoid Mary, Sarah Winchester and Jim Thompson, among others.
The poem is also partially autobiographical -- a mode that is, by nature, also revisionary. If all narratives, personal and historical, are constructed, and if knowledge and intelligence are complex rather than accumulative, then what I’m saying right now is only what I’m saying right now, not the cap on a lifelong continuum of thought and experience. Not believing that these narratives within which we live our lives can be fully parsed or deconstructed, I wanted to see if there was a way to counterbalance them or wrench them around one another, forcing them to work together in odd and illuminating ways.
As I say in the poem, I used Jane as a barber pole around which to wind a personal stripe -- as a focal point via which to catch myself in the corner of my own eye. I don’t think of myself as a particularly interesting material subject; I talk about that, too. But we are all only our own subjects.
When and why did you first become interested in Jane Bowles?
It’s difficult to remember what, in particular, incited the project, but the fact of it began with Paul Bowles, whom I read, as one does, before going to Morocco in 2002. It served its purpose, but I generally dislike his writing -- it has a high-minded, heavy-handed, self-consciously literary quality that I’m not fond of. But I haven’t read all of his work and one book that I do like is Points in Time, which is a series of short, interwoven prose texts that plots a loose constellation of lights on the history and legend of Morocco. I quote it in Unbecoming Behavior.
Somewhere in my perfunctory investigation of Paul I learned about Jane. She is often portrayed as a Viv or Zelda or lesser Sylvia, which is always a particularly annoying gender role to encounter -- not even “the woman behind the…” but “the woman in spite of whom…,” etc. It gets my attention. I bought her collected works and the Millicent Dillon biography, which, I believe, is the only one, and which I highly recommend, in spite of the author’s slightly overzealous adherence to the theme of Jane’s belief in her own “original sin.” It is otherwise very well done, I think.
I read all of Jane’s work and the biography around the beginning of 2006 and didn’t know what, exactly, I wanted to do with all of the information. But knew that I wanted to engage with it for two reasons: first, I love Jane Bowles’s writing which, to me, is far more subtle, skillful and compelling than Paul’s, and it’s maddening that she didn’t get nearly the level of attention that he did; and second, her work and her biography gave me weird frissons of social terror. I’m now recklessly revisioning again, but Jane was always the most annoying person at the party -- loud, louche, stagy, intoxicated, “inappropriate,” but perversely attractive -- the jolie-laide -- the one the other women rolled their eyes at. She fell on just the other side of the fine line between Mae West and train wreck. The more attentive and/or insecure among us might have looked at her and thought, “There but for the grace of God…” because she systematically spat on the false gods of femininity, and not in a discreet behind-the-hand kind of way. She was the uneasy “Was I...? Did I...?” feeling of the morning after a long party, that grotesque unfilled blank. Or that’s what I’ve made her out to be for my purposes.
For me, there’s a horror to all of that -- the dragging hem, slurry speech, smeared lipstick -- that underscores how deeply ingrained certain gendered tenets are. She embraced the unbecoming, but not in an empowering way, really; so why? I guess that’s why I got into it. To me, gender and, especially, femininity and its toilsome physical signs, are particularly untruthful constructs. And yet, what’s the alternative? Look at me. Look at Jane. What else is there to go on? There are a lot of things scrawled on the body and you become them.
Complicating all of this is the fact that Jane was gay. I am not. What’s the difference?
When you say, “She embraced the unbecoming, but not in an empowering way, really; so why? I guess that’s why I got into it” -- do you mean by “why,” why did she embrace it? And could you clarify “that's why I got into it”? (I could interpret that a couple of ways).
Reading about Jane’s alternately fey, untoward and unhinged behavior made me squirm, but in sympathy, I think, more than categorical revulsion. I envision squinting at her through my fingers, thinking, “Stop, please stop, please, please stop.” It wasn’t an in-your-face proto-punk sort of performance, but a childishly out-of-control one. So, yes, why did she embrace that? “Embrace” probably isn’t the right word, but I can’t say whether it was a proactive or a capitulatory action. I think I entertain both possibilities in the poem. Again, I want to stress that I’m making a lot of this stuff up. Maybe “projecting” is the word that I’m laboriously avoiding, but there you have it.
Without going into theory, it was performance that I was interested in -- different kinds of performance and how they relate to both biological and constructed categories of identity. There are several referential layers of performance and theater in the poem. I’ve spent a lot of time on stages in my life, and I put in some of the residuals.
Finally, in counterpoint to the idea of performance, I was interested in the extent to and means by which Jane Bowles created control in -- a container around -- her life. She trapped herself in relationships, financial situations, possibly partially willful mental problems, physical spaces. She had this famous protracted case of writer’s block, but perhaps that was a project (note that I don’t intend to generalize in any way about mental illness and its origins here). There’s a geometric problem at the poem’s core, of how to dead-reckon any kind of personal center or identity when one is already defined as always relative to other non-static persons, places or things. She was an expatriate, partner to a more famous writer and a divorcée of her own middle-class, Jewish upbringing. Because she was in so many ways an outsider to her own circumstances, maybe she struggled for a vantage from which to look inward for her own compositional center. Maybe it was all a matter of her dramatic failure to do so. At the end of her life she withdrew into herself all together. I can’t really say what that’s about, either, but in this poem I pretend to have answers.
Do you think that reading Jane Bowles and being familiar with her biography would help a reader to better understand your book?
Beyond knowing that Jane Bowles was a writer who, at least nominally, was married to a more famous writer, I don’t think there’s anything you need to know to read the poem. Cherifa, a Moroccan woman with whom she had a complicated relationship, crops up a few times. Other biographical detail is built into the poem -- her problems with writer’s block; her discomfort with living abroad, which she and Paul did, in various places, during most of their life together; her descent into poor health and a poorly understood state of mental instability; and her burial in an unmarked grave in a country to which she had little connection. All of that is in there, but it is somewhat enmeshed with details of my own life, and it’s not always clear who’s who, but that doesn’t matter and is also intentional.
Can we get into the area of your autobiography?
Yes, but I should point that while there is certainly autobiographical information in the poem, calling it “autobiography” is a misnomer, albeit my own, since it features a sporadic and non-consecutive selection of details. For the most part, the personal detail is simply a navigating tool with which to explore the temporal act of writing itself. How much of what you think as you write do you put in and what do you leave out or later cut out and why? How much of what you write is directly related to personal experience, and how often do you disguise its autobiographical origins? I just left in the first-person pronouns. I’m sure I could have made a much more intriguing fictional character of this other person whose story is intertwined with Jane’s, or she could have remained a floating “she.” But it was necessary to this project that “she” be me -- not because I have anything to declare or mystify or justify, although it’s probably impossible to avoid doing those things to some extent.
Other reasons for the personal detail have to do with lyric traditions and categories of “identity politics” and the “confessional” and other modes that are mistrusted by many self-identified practitioners of avant-garde (or whatever you want to call it) approaches to writing. I have my problems with these conventions, but, at the same time, why would you categorically exclude anything from your own thinking? I try to appropriate, reinvent and recontextualize as necessary, and to not rule anything out. I think it was partly a challenge to myself to do it this way.
Would you elaborate a little on your feelings about identity politics?
I don’t know that I have much to say about it. I write as truthfully as I know how. When talking about oneself, as in this poem, it’s hard not to self-mythologize and assign ready-made categories and storytelling tropes to personal experience. This is, again, why I used another person in counterpoint to myself. I hoped that the two would keep one another in check.
There’s a poem by Matvei Yankelevich called “Far After Five (Deposit, New York)” in which he says,
I am not keeping a journal
in order to free my 'real' life
of my biographical data.
That’s what I tried to do in Unbecoming Behavior -- to locate some real life.
I was struck by the repeated references in Unbecoming Behavior to the itchy need to break out of a cocoon. And I love the word “ballooning” and what it means. [The definition is quoted in the poem: Caterpillars gather periodically, / climb to the tips of branches / and dangle from silk threads, / catch the wind to a new location / in a practice called “ballooning.”]
Somehow it made me think of how you were a dancer and are now a writer -- would you say that’s the result of a kind of ballooning?
Suspending belief in the indissolubility of narratives for a moment, both dance and writing are, for me, in one respect, about exploring ostensibly boundless creative possibilities within strict physical and linguistic/gestural parameters, and whether, or the extent to which, any of those parameters can be exceeded. That said, I’m not really interested in systematically breaking rules. Taking a wrecking ball to narrative precepts requires a lot of work and energy that I’m currently invested in directing elsewhere. I’m interested in the rules and the boundaries of the stage and the page and in seeing what I can do within and outside of them, rather than without them. That’s not to say that I don’t relish watching other people try to break stuff; I’m just not thinking about that kind of conceptual project for the time being. I write and think about my writing quite formally, in fact.
The “ballooning” in the poem has to do with almost the opposite of that idea of operating freely within boundaries. It illustrates the question of how to go about undertaking and organizing and building a life and an identity inside a sense of inherent boundlessness. And that, of course, sounds a lot like a Paul Bowles-type of existential conundrum, which I was definitely aware of, but couldn’t avoid, while I was writing the poem. It’s about waking up in the morning and being assaulted not just by everything that you need to do and everywhere you have to go during the day, but by everything you could do, where you could go additionally, instead and thereafter. How to decide and what do those decisions mean? Would you be better off with fewer options? (This now sounds like my high school book report on Sartre’s The Flies.) That sort of anxiety is a luxury of the privileged, of course, which I also address in the poem.
Anyhow, there is a strong theme of elective containment in the poem, and toward the end of her life it seems to me that Jane Bowles more or less just stopped making decisions. She became willfully involuntary. So, yes, the poem’s about cocoons and when and why you decide to be in or out of them. And the other answer’s no -- I don’t believe there was much of a meaningful or conscious transition from dance to writing for me. It was mostly about age and time and what else was going on in my life. I think a lot about whether they fulfill the same creative and expressive needs and each in what way, but that’s another whole topic. I have a long poem called A Banner Year in which I begin to address the respective roles of writing and dance for me and in which I actively attempt to write like a dancer.
Who are Jim Thompson and Sarah Winchester and what are they doing in this poem?
I don’t know how to describe their appearances here other than as metaphors -- parallel universes. I have a hard time avoiding it, but I distrust writerly metaphor, especially simile, in contemporary poetry. I use similes occasionally, but they feel reductive and cheap and inadequate. But what can you do? This is the language we have to work with, and I’ve opted to work with it.
Her eyes are like fan blades
straining against the ceiling.
Those are two lines from the poem. Later:
things that ring
false, like similes,
This is another strand -- the poem’s running reflexive argument both against and for itself. It registers ambivalence about my aforementioned habit of turning historic lives into the mise-en-abîme morality plays with which I interlard my poems. But those stories add texture and substance, I hope.
Jim Thompson was an officer in the proto-CIA Office of Strategic Services during WWII. He was deployed to Thailand in 1945 and arrived just after the Japanese surrendered. He chose to remain in Bangkok, where he “discovered” Thai silk and founded a company to facilitate its creation and export. He worked with Thai investors and local, mostly female craftspeople and paid them well, so it was a relatively admirable undertaking. Simultaneously, he became a capital expat socialite and art collector and built this fabulous house over a canal (or klong) in Bangkok that was cobbled together from elements of antique Thai stilted houses that he had bought and disassembled. My husband, Rusty, and I visited his house when we were in Thailand in 2004 and while it’s very beautiful and evocative, it feels like plunder.
In 1967 Thompson disappeared while on a walk in Malaysia and was never seen again. Conspiracy theories proliferate. Meanwhile, his namesake silk goods shops are all over Thailand. So, there you have your cocoons, high-style social proceedings, expatriatism, persona-as-market-brand, and a questionable ending. But it’s not so literal as all this -- I hope there are other illuminating and complicating parallels and divergences.
Sarah Winchester was a 19th-century Connecticut socialite who was widowed by the heir to the Winchester “Gun-That-Won-The-West” rifle fortune. After her husband and then daughter died suddenly, she allegedly consulted a medium who told her that the family was cursed by the spirits of all those who’d ever been killed by Winchester rifles. She was told to move west and build a house for herself and the spirits and that the construction could never stop or she would die as well. So, she moved to San Jose, California in 1884 and began building. The construction went on 24 hours a day until she died almost 40 years later. Once situated on an enormous piece of land surrounded only by rolling hills, the ornate Victorian “Winchester Mystery House,” as it’s called, is now unceremoniously wedged between numerous highways and a huge high-end mall and housing complex. They offer guided tours and have a singularly tacky gift shop. In spite of all that and the pervasive billboards touting the spook factor, the house is actually a spectacular place to visit, with lovely, if overblown, period detail and beautiful gardens, if you can disregard the surrounding neighborhood. Much is made of the doors that open into walls and stairways that go nowhere, which, it’s said, were intended to confuse the ghosts and distract them from haunting the lady of the house, but which are more likely inadvertent results of the constant and poorly planned construction.
I think I’ll leave that one open for interpretation.
I’m interested in how the poem talks about writing/not writing. Have you suffered from writer’s block like Jane Bowles? Do you believe in writer’s block?
No, I’ve never had writer’s block. I think that that would require having a plan to not fulfill. Do poets get writer’s block? We get disinclinations to write, but I think that’s a different thing from what a fiction writer might call writer’s block. I can’t imagine writing a traditionally narrative novel and having to keep it moving forward as it’s supposed to. So, yes, I believe in it, but I can’t fathom writing the kind of thing that would render it a possibility.
Did your writing habits change as you were writing Unbecoming Behavior?
Yes, my writing habits change as I write anything, and then, when I start over with something else, I have to decide which new habits to keep and from which to recover. I’ve been writing long poems, so with each there’s a lot of room to develop and deeply ingrain new habits that might serve the particular poem, but which later need to be unlearned. Unbecoming Behavior was difficult to disengage from because I had rarely used the word “I” in a poem before. And when I had used the word “I,” it was often to represent a fuzzy sort of half- or maybe-me. I’ve since lost my interest in that evasive kind of opacity. So, I began using this “I” that was, to the best of my ability, a denotation of my “self,” transitory as that “self” was and is. It took me about a year to write the poem. Then a few months later I began working on something else that is now pretty far along and which has to do with Thomas Hardy and England and New England and American Indians and historical romance and anxiety about the contemporary and a lot of other things, but I didn’t intend that it be “about” me. Nevertheless, I recently named it The Return of the Native because it has become about me and, in part, about moving back to New England from California (which is also what Unbecoming Behavior is about, partly -- they’re now bookends to that move, I guess). The “I” kept barging in and I tried hard to get rid of it, but it wouldn’t go away, so I eventually decided to let it stay. That sounds terribly precious, but it’s what happens. I don’t object to the “I” philosophically, but I want to have precise control of it -- to use it like a weapon, rather than, say, a wooden spoon.
There’s a theme of travel/exile/home/housekeeping in the poem. Jane appears in Morocco, Taxco, Ceylon; you appear in Morocco, Baja, Death Valley, Bangkok, Tonga, California, and New England…
Yes, another of the reasons I was interested in Jane Bowles initially was that she spent most of her adult life living in places far away from her native New York, and she wasn’t all that happy in those places. She seemed uncomfortable being out of her element, but, not knowing what her element was, if such a thing existed, she made do with the discomfort. New York was her physical hub, but it was also the locus of a moderately difficult childhood, a propriety-bound society and her overprotective mother. Jane and Paul lived in Tangier, mostly, but also briefly on a small island in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which she hated. Also, they traveled a lot.
Post-WWII Tangier was an International Zone, which made it easy for speculators, spies, and high-end criminals to fly under the radar there. The kind of culturally confused, free-for-all atmosphere also attracted American and European expatriates, artists, and slumming aristocrats, many of whom were homosexual, and who engaged in a rollicking drug- and booze-fueled party lifestyle there. And while it might have been a natural home to Jane Bowles’s unconventional nature, it was also the petri dish in which she cultivated her alienating eccentricities and wayward behaviors. While Paul seems to have been a generally excess-averse person and an extremely disciplined writer, Jane fell in with the permissiveness of the place and foundered there.
During the time that I was thinking about Jane Bowles and writing this poem, Rusty and I were talking about moving back east, after having been in California for more than ten years. I grew up in Massachusetts, and while I loved living in California and have a love/hate relationship with New England, the region has always felt like my hub. I’ve talked about this a lot before, so I won’t go into great detail, but I had always felt like a stranger to California and I liked that. I was anxious about moving back to a place so familiar that I might soon find myself back on the inside and insensible to it. So far, that hasn’t happened, and I’ve stopped worrying that it will. I’m starting to think it’s impossible. Maybe I’ve trained myself into a person who sees everything as an aberration from everything else. This view requires that there be free-floating norms out there somewhere, which probably isn’t the case, but, again, you do have to get up in the morning.
Two other personal traits of mine are a strong nesting/homemaking tendency that’s partly instinctual and partly an inheritance from my mother and grandmother, and a need to travel frequently, even if only locally. The latter has a lot to do with the aforementioned matter of perspective, and the nesting is maybe about the fear that comes with that perspective. I’m getting lazy here, but it all has to do with voluntary exile and expatriatism and with tourism, privilege, and cultural cooptation. Yes, I love to travel and have been to a lot of places in my life, and I have a tremendous amount of guilt and insecurity about that.
Are these topics you are still exploring in your writing now?
Yes, these themes of home/not home in the body and the world run through all of my work. As I said in Fruitlands, each time I begin again with something new I’m just trying to “whack a new route up a different face” of the mountain.
What does it mean to you to write like a dancer? What does trying to do that look like or feel like?
By wanting to “write like a dancer” I don’t mean that I try to produce writing that has qualities of dance in the eye of the beholder; I mean that in the process of writing I want to manipulate and exude language with what feels like muscular energy. I want to feel the physical confines of my body in the moment -- the body and the mind pushing against the limits of the language. I don’t know how to explain it, because I don’t mean it at all literally, but imagine the mind as a muscle -- moving, working, with tension and flexion. I mean something that’s maybe not all that dissimilar to the “Projective.” And what I write does require my physical engagement. I get out of breath when I read my work out loud. After long readings my abdominal muscles hurt. That feels integral. Finally -- and this isn’t really what I meant when I originally said the thing about dancing, but -- my poems are fairly tightly choreographed, both structurally and visually. The look of them is important, but there isn’t any kind of inherent meaning to what goes where on the page; it’s relative, abstract and instinctual. And with regard to the product, I want it to have what might be what people call “torque” – a physical, sculptural, barely balanced, bodily kind of quality.
There’s a section of A Banner Year that’s about and partly from the perspective of Isadora Duncan, who once said, “If I could say it, I wouldn’t have to dance it.” That really sums it up, and I guess my ongoing project is to try to say it, anyway.
Kate Greenstreet is the author of case sensitive (Ahsahta Press, 2006) and three chapbooks, Learning the Language (Etherdome Press, 2005), Rushes (above/ground press, 2007), and This is why I hurt you (Lame House Press, Spring 2008). Her second book, The Last 4 Things, will be out from Ahsahta in 2009.