Interview with W. Koestenbaum (excerpts)
Koestenbaum: I’ve been processing my archive in the last two years, including family memorabilia, and it strikes me that my paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, might have had some Theo Mangrove in his personality. I found letters my grandfather wrote in German to my great-aunt, and they’re a little crazy, in a grandiose way. My father once told me that my grandfather, preposterously, wanted to set up him up with a coffee plantation in Caracas. Part of my DNA is a historically disenfranchised, psychologically damaged grandiosity. This might be why it was important for me to imagine certain kinds of foreignness combined with a strange, rural American town.
Arsanios: How are you processing your own archives?
Koestenbaum: My literary archives are going to Yale, to the Beinecke Library. Something like 140 boxes of published and unpublished writing and other personal materials; everything except for my diaries. In a year, my papers will be open to researchers. I’ve often suspected that my archive was more interesting than my writing.
Koestenbaum: Not that anyone would want to read every page of my drafts! That’s why I try to revise them into publishable books. I’ve always saved everything. There’s a kind of logorrhea involved in my hoarding of all these scraps of paper, and my life of compulsive composition.
Arsanios: What’s your relationship to digital, live archives like Twitter?
Koestenbaum: Twitter rescued me from the melancholy of my archive. I am no naive proponent of social media, and I was late coming to it, given my Luddite allegiances. I like the arts of the hand, and I like solitude and concentration. But in the last few months, I’ve been selecting material found in my archive, photographing it or transcribing it, and tweeting it. Tweeting literally brought these scraps into the world and gave them exponentially greater life than they ever dreamed of having.
I like tweeting little bits of the still-untitled third volume of my “trance trilogy” as I’m revising it. The audience for poetry, or for my poetry, is very small. If fifty people “like” a poem-fragment I tweet (whatever “like” means), that’s perhaps more than will ever read and absorb the finished, published poem. I find Twitter cathartic. I fear that eventually, I will have to leave it, maybe because I will get involved in some kind of feud that I just can’t cope with.
Arsanios: Do you also use Twitter for political commentary?
Koestenbaum: When I start seeing the news in the evening, there’s a feeling I try not to indulge in. I sometimes feel compelled to articulate both a rising of revolutionary fervor and a sense of disgust. At night, the Twitter feed makes me think that we’re at a major turning point, that there’s some breaking news that’s going to change everything. But by the morning, the revolutionary fervor is gone, and we’re back to the dismal situation.
Arsanios: Circus was written in the early 2000s but is set somewhere in the early ’90s, between the launch of the World Wide Web and the US war in Iraq. Yet, the book doesn’t engage its own present. Theo mentions, for example, that his country is bombing a foreign country without ever naming it.
Koestenbaum: One of the problems in this country is its blindness to history; a sense of being above history or of being the maker of history, but not actually implicated in it. Circus is not a historical novel. It’s writing the body and looking at the body for the signs of history.