An Interview with Kate Durbin
Kate Durbin is a writer, fashion artist, and performer. She is the author of The Ravenous Audience, Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator's Boot, and the forthcoming books Kept Women and FASHIONWHORE. She is founding editor of the project Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art About Lady Gaga, and her fashion/text project, Prices Upon Request, can be viewed at the ZG Press website.
In August 2010, Bookslut interviewed Durbin over e-mail by Elizabeth Hildreth. They discuss, among other things, hunger panic, life as a fashion show, terrorism by words, sexualizing Felt Jesus, getting back to the “real” Norma Jean, teenage girls as delusional liars, Gaga Stigmata, naughty nun poems, and moving as fast as fashion moves.
Hi Kate! Congrats about your debut collection The Ravenous Audience. I’m always interested in the frame surrounding any given work. Can you talk about the title The Ravenous Audience, as well as the collage on the cover of the volume? Are those Japanese ghosts?
Thanks, Liz! It’s great to talk with you.
The title The Ravenous Audience relates to our celebrity-obsessed culture. When one consumes art -- particularly celebrity-driven popular art -- it is with a not-fully-realized hunger, and this is especially relevant when it comes to viewing women in cinema. These women figure prominently in the book -- tragic movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Clara Bow. I wanted to explore how dangerous that hunger can be, if it goes unrealized. There’s a quote in the book by mystic Simone Weil, which speaks to this: “The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”
I see the ravenous audience of the title as not only being the book’s audience, but also relating to the women in the book, their unrealized hungers, as well as my own. The thing that is important here is that when one person denies his or her hunger, and projects it onto someone else -- say, a woman onscreen in a movie, and this relates to the notion of cinesexuality which I talked about in my Poets' Quarterly interview -- it induces a hunger panic. Then everyone eats each other.
Los Angeles artist Marnie Weber created the collage on the cover of the book. The background looks like a lot of lyric poetry book covers with these serene landscapes, yet there are these creepy women plastered (not naturally integrated) across it. Johannes Göransson, in his review of my book for Rain Taxi, talks about how my “poetry often invokes the quiet lyric of the workshop poetics, but it consumes and blows it up.” I think this is also a perfect description of what the cover of the book is doing. It looks like a quietist poetry book, yet zombie women infiltrate the landscape.
Based on your website and the content of these poems, obviously fashion and film inform much of your writing. Can you talk about how in particular, they relate to this collection? Also, in my interview with poet Elisa Gabbert we played the game: What Celeb is Your Debut Collection Like?
So! What Celeb is Your Debut Collection Like, Kate?
What celeb is my collection not like? I really see these women -- Marilyn Monroe and Clara Bow in particular -- as blueprints of all the celebs that have come after them. I mean, Clara Bow was the original It Girl (the term was coined after her). Her tragic story is their tragic stories. So in a very real sense this is also a book about Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, too.
As for fashion and film -- these are two central elements to this collection, as you noted. Beyond the simple fact that films inspired individual poems (such as Breillat’s and Pasolini’s films), I see the book itself operating in a cinematic way. Movement is such an important element of the collection. It informs how the poems are structured and how the POV shifts constantly. I saw a projector in my mind whirring as I wrote the book, and the image on the screen was of a woman fleeing. Her back was to the camera the entire time.
In regards to fashion, one way to look at the poems is as costume pieces. Each woman is performing her identity for the ravenous audience, and a huge part of the performance of identity is the costumes we don and discard. Fashion is seen culturally as the most ubiquitous and feminine and therefore the lowest of the arts, the most shallow and market-driven. Teenage girls are obsessed with fashion, as are drag queens. Serious people, “authentic” people, do not care about fashion. But the whole of life is a costume show, and it is one with deadly serious consequences. A perfect cinematic example of this is the 1939 film Jezebel starring Bette Davis. In that film Jezebel wears a red dress to a southern ball where it is only appropriate to wear virginal white, and her whole life is destroyed.
While there can be deadly consequences for our fashion choices, fashion is a way to both play with and debunk the cultural narrative. This is something I wanted to explore in the book in poems such as “Doll Dress” -- the mystical, healing quality of fabric. And then we become our dressings, in a sort of Donna Haraway’s cyborg meets Viktor and Rolf’s Russian doll kind of way.
Also, it is crucial to note that the costume show -- that is, life itself -- is unavoidable. So anyone who thinks he is not “into” fashion is fooling himself. Even if you live at a nudist colony, you are part of the show. If you have a body, you are part of the show.
I loved one of the first poems of this collection called “Learning To Read.”
[…] I began to realize this wasn’t a television I could turn off . . .
[…] The billboards, more than I could count, rushed past. Still howling.
I said to my mother: I can’t stop reading. How do I?
You said in an earlier email, this was written from experience. Can you talk about this? Both your own experience and that of writing the poem about it?
“Learning to Read” is a dramatized version of something that happened to me as a child. I learned to read almost immediately, and this may be why the feeling was so pronounced and traumatic, as the definition of trauma is a loss that occurs instantaneously. I literally felt terrorized and bombarded by words.
That piece is crucial to the book -- it’s book ended with “Unlearning to Read,” a poem that ends the first section of the book, the childhood section. I wanted, in “Learning to Read,” to explore this Lacanian idea of language as loss. The loss is of a kind of creative autonomy. As soon as we learn to read, we lose the ability to create meaning apart from the strictures of the words of “the good and bad witches” -- and, ultimately, the narratives and myths encoded in and by that language which is often dualistic and very limiting. Of course, we become programmed by language to a large degree before we learn to read and write.
There is a Miltonian undertone to this poem and to “Unlearning to Read,” a sort of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, though of course the regained paradise is more like a grotesque and ribald hell. But at least the hell of “Unlearning to Read” is a hell of my own making. It’s a horrific re-claiming of all the myths I’d read/ingested as a child, as well as a recognition that I can never “come clean” of them. I’m dirty and I’m going to stay dirty, so I may as well play in the mud.
Speaking of dirty, I really enjoyed the contrast of the simple poems, with the more graphic poems throughout the collection. For instance in “Felt Jesus,” I laughed out loud.
Jesus was made of felt:
he lived on a flat board,
also felt. Sometimes he fell down.
Then this poem is situated right next to “36 Fillette,” which was really intriguing to me, considering that I’m somewhat obsessed with young adult fiction right now.
are you the Queen of England, dog face? she’s outta her skull how old are you? beat it, little bitch! say you’re sixteen how old are you? I wonder what you want? Are you bored? I bet you’re difficult is anyone pleased with you? is your mom appalled at you? are you mad at the whole world?
These poems are in the same section and so they speak to each other -- at least to me as a reader. Can you talk about these poems, your intent in writing them, their relationship if any to one another?
Each section of the book is supposed to evoke a certain clichéd period in a “woman’s life.” This section is childhood and puberty -- both of these poems are intended to deal with this fraught period (okay, pun on period). It’s definitely, as you say, the YA section of the book, though it would get banned from any YA sections in bookstores. The book is broken up in this way to give a sense of mythological determinism -- something I am dealing with in the book as a whole, trying to flee from these entrenched cultural narratives.
“Felt Jesus” is another poem in the collection that is a lyric poem based on the confessional model, though it’s an exaggeration of a true story. I think it fits into Görannsons description of “blowing up” the quietist lyric, as its content is disturbing and saccharine at the same time. I really did love the felt board Jesus in Sunday School growing up, but I never sexualized him until I was much older. However, I wanted the child to sexualize him and consume him in the poem. To literalize the empty materialism of American Christianity.
“36 Fillette” is one of the poems in the book based on Catherine Breillat’s films. There are seven of these poems. All the lines in “36 Fillette” are based on the dialogue from the film the men said to or about the young girl. The content is extremely disturbing, and the collage makes it look and read like a deranged filmstrip that spins out of control. The girl has no voice in the poem.
It was really disturbing. When I was reading it, I felt like the girl. Like walking down the street at 13 and having men say things to you that you know are insulting or even filthy but you’re not sure how and there’s nothing to do but listen. I’ve never even seen a felt Jesus! Have I not lived? In addition to the Felt Jesus being funny, the Marilyn Monroe poems were hilarious, too, set off under subtitles like
DID YOU EVER DO IT WITH AN EXECUTIVE TO GET A PART
Just because I’ve made it with people I didn’t love -- and it’s not for you to know which ones I did -- doesn’t mean I didn’t deserve my success.
It also doesn’t mean I never came.
YOU’RE ALWAYS REINVENTING YOURSELF. WHICH MARILYN IS THE REAL ONE
I put on a new suit and they asked, is this a new Marilyn?
No, I said, this is a new suit.
How did the process of writing these Marilyn persona poems different from writing the persona poems about Amelia Earhart, my favorite of those being “Sky,” which in its entirety reads
F took me up in his plane, one indigo morning. At 100 feet, ground shrinking, blue increasing—I felt the pull of the earth, that solid home.
At 300 feet I knew I was meant for indefinite sky.
I am not entirely comfortable with the term “persona poem,” as the idea of persona implies some kind of stable identity behind the mask. These poems are, in part, about the performance of identity. The way they are set up formally is to enact a moving picture -- these women are making their names before our very eyes, and we are co-creating them with our rapt attention. There is not a screen between “actor” and viewer.
I like your question about process. It was entirely different for each piece. The forms determined much of the work that had to be done. Once I realized the forms -- the sets -- I was able to make the poems. Until then I only had a mass of research and notes. The researching for the Marilyn piece took ages -- something like six months of watching every film and interview, and reading every biography. The biographies were all terrible and sexist and each cited the previous, so they were all based on gossip and hearsay (heresy). Which I kind of love and hate, truthfully -- this idea that gossip is all that remains after our deaths. It really is stronger than “fact,” which is, of course, a lie anyway. A less interesting lie. And yet, I wanted to complicate Marilyn, because as far as I’m concerned the crime that she’s suffered post-mortem isn’t the lies told about her life, but the clichéd oversimplifying of this complex, brilliant person who moved the world. But that oversimplifying occurred before her death too, which is part of what is happening in the fake interview -- she is both evading, and also playing into, these cliché notions of herself. Marilyn lied during her interviews -- she saw them as performance pieces, though she wouldn’t have called them that. She used the form in order to create her identity for her audience, not as Norma Jean, but as Marilyn Monroe. I always think it’s interesting how people want to get “back” to the “real” Norma Jean, when really, it seems that Marilyn was a much more active, conscious being -- choosing her own name as opposed to defaulting to the name her parents chose for her.
After Marilyn died there were a bunch of copycat suicides by young women. One woman wrote this in her suicide note: “If the most beautiful thing in the world has no reason to live, what hope can there be for the rest of us?” I think this is a valid question.
The Amelia poems were based on conspiracy theory research. I’d become obsessed with these teenage girls who claimed to have heard Amelia Earhart’s distress calls over their short wave radios and whose calls to the coast guard were dismissed as lies or delusions. Teenage girls are sometimes (often?) accused of being delusional liars, and in many ways I wrote this book for them. I wanted it to be what The Bell Jar was for me when I was a teenage girl.
The conspiracy theory about Amelia claims she didn’t drown, but rather landed on an unhospitable atoll in the South Pacific. She called on her short wave radio for help but her calls only reached these girls. And so no one came to rescue her, and she and Fred Noonan, her flying partner, eventually died of exposure. The process of writing that text was emotionally intense but didn’t require as much research as the Marilyn piece.
Ah, performance of identity not persona. Love it. In particular the idea of being a co-creator. In the Notes section you talk about The Ravenous Audience being an evolving project. What does this mean exactly? How would you describe its evolution so far?
At the time that I wrote that, I planned to make a paper doll to go with the book. I envisioned the doll like the evil Queen in the film Return to Oz, who keeps women’s heads in glass cases in a great hallway. She changes them daily according to mood. The heads, of course, would be all the women in the book -- Marilyn, Clara Bow, Amelia Earhart, Gretel, the Breillat girls, etc. I also wanted some heads of women who weren’t included in the final draft -- Josephine Baker, Anna May Wong, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan, in particular. Really any “It Girl” could have a head, and I wanted to invite readers to submit their own heads, which I would then add on to the project (which would be an online venture). This of course would relate to the notion of the ravenous audience’s involvement in co-creating these women’s identities. And the one body with many heads relates back to this notion in the book of the women all being the same woman, essentially, with the same terrible narrative imprinted upon her body.
I tried to make those paper dolls but as I am terrible at drawing, they never came to fruition. I have, however, performed the book in a lurid Technicolor of costumes. These costumes have been based on the women in the book, but have been drag interpretations of them. This is a way to let the women in the book keep disrupting the reader/viewer.
I’m a terrible crafter too. If I tried to make paper dolls someone would put me in jail. I think I’ve seen some of your costumes on Facebook. Great eyelashes, BTW. I was thinking of those eyelashes today. Specifically: Must get some of those eyelashes. After this debut collection, what’s next?
I am continuing to run Gaga Stigmata, my online journal, which I co-edit with Meghan Vicks. It’s a journal of critical writings and art about Lady Gaga. We’ve had a lot of great press attention, and are in the initial planning stages of making the best writings and art on the site into a beautiful, hardcover book. I encourage anyone reading this to check it out and submit if interested.
I have two chapbooks forthcoming. One is called Kept Women, and it’s about Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends. It’s inspired by the reality show The Girls Next Door. That should be out soon from Insert Press, as a part of the PARROT series curated by Mathew Timmons.
My other chapbook, FASHIONWHORE, will be released from Legacy Pictures in September. These are poems based on the language of fashion magazine descriptions, in particular the clichéd tropes that appear again and again in fashion, such as naughty nuns and glamorous housewives. The press is a pop up press and the book will be available for a week only -- moving as fast as fashion moves.
Elizabeth Hildreth works in Chicago and is a regular interviewer for Bookslut.