Taking 'Inordinate Pleasure in the Shape of a Sentence'

June 24, 2020

Professor Wayne Koestenbaum talks about his new book of essays, Figure It Out, and other things.

Wayne Koestenbaum (Credit: Tim Schutsky) and the cover of his book, Figure It Out.
Wayne Koestenbaum (Credit: Tim Schutsky) and the cover of his book, Figure It Out.

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

“Wayne Koestenbaum’s Cerebral, Smutty Essays Playfully Disobey the Rules.” So reads the headline on The New York Times’ enthusiastic review of Figure It Outthe latest book from Professor Wayne Koestenbaum (English). The book is a collection of essays — some amusing, some touching, all compelling — spanning topics ranging from porn to poetry to Picasso. One piece recalls his encounter with Nicole Kidman at a swimming pool, another describes a class he took with writer John Barth. Among the book’s most entertaining tidbits are what Publishers Weekly calls “faux advice” — Koestenbaum’s “assignments,” which may (or may not) have been composed in jest, but which feel oddly inspiring now that we’re all homebound in a pandemic. (One assignment instructs readers to “assemble a small village” of shapes cut out from found pieces of paper, cloth, and plastic, then “write about that village, its inhabitants, its secrets.”) 

Koestenbaum spoke to The Graduate Center about the book and more. 

The Graduate Center: Who is your ideal reader? 

Koestenbaum: My ideal reader is someone who takes inordinate pleasure in the shape of a sentence — someone who likes strange sentences, someone for whom strangeness gives pleasure. I admit that my sentences are sometimes self-conscious; they go out of their way to be odd, not because I want to make people uncomfortable, but because I want to feel alive and genuine, and the best way for me to substantiate my own feeling of being alive is to turn and turn a sentence until it seems embodied.  

Not all of my sentences are ostentatious. Some are very direct and brief. I like to blurt out untoward messages. Each essay is like a set of emergency telegrams; being alive is the emergency, and I’m using the essay form to write myself into a state of momentary contentment. 

I like to write about experiences I’ve had, embarrassing experiences, pleasurable experiences. I like to be very specific and autobiographical, but also to introduce an element of abstraction and allegory into the narration, so that even though I’m telling the truth, the account sounds almost like a fable, somehow cubist and askew and symbolic. 

GC: Talk about your work at the GC, and give us some insight into your assignment lists in Figure It Out

Koestenbaum: As a teacher, I’m accustomed to giving assignments. For many years, in my seminars at The Graduate Center, I’d require my students to write a two-page composition each week, and I’d make the assignments specific and elaborate. I might say, “Write about the potatoes in Chantal Akerman’s film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Or you can write about any other specific object (or category of object) in any film.” That’s an assignment I actually gave to my students. And the assignment appears in Figure It Out, in the essay “Twelve Assignments.” Some of the courses I’ve taught over the years at the GC: Humiliation, Punctuation, Odd Secrets of the Line, Repetition, Stars, Hotel Women. Certain of these courses turned into essays in Figure It Out. I’d write the essay after I’d finished teaching the course. Once, I taught a course on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and then another course on Benjamin and Roland Barthes. I wanted to write a book called Walter Benjamin’s Body.  That’s a book I still haven’t written. Maybe I’m no longer interested in Walter Benjamin’s body. 

GC: Any advice for writers and artists?

Koestenbaum: Write only about what genuinely interests you; don’t ever pretend to be interested in a topic that you consider already stale.

Listen to your pleasure. I’m thinking right now of the film artist Luther Price, who recently died; he treated film, as a physical substance, rather strangely. Apparently he sometimes buried film reels — the film itself! — in his backyard, and would dig them up later, after they had moldered.  No one told Price to treat film that way.  No teacher said, “Find a reel of 16mm or Super 8 film — a discarded educational film? someone else’s home movies, found at a yard sale? — and bury it underground so that it can rot, and then dig it up and see what it looks like.” He made an intuitive, seemingly unjustified decision to take this risk, to commit this ungodly act of film-burial — because, I imagine, the act gave him pleasure, or satisfaction, or settled some score.

I feel very close, these days, to the child I used to be — the child who might have buried film in his backyard.  One needs to wait until adulthood, until maturity, to enact some of the impermissible creative wishes of childhood.  Writing a book — or making a film — or burying a film — or turning and turning the sentences in a book until they forget their original identities:  these are “adult” ways of taking long-ago playful impulses seriously and giving those impulses the fair hearing they deserve.

GC: This month is the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Your thoughts?

Koestenbaum: Stonewall, then and now: queer culture in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s still excites me, still seems to pose questions, and to offer a set of recipes for radical thinking, unfettered art-making, visionary process. I still feel emotionally and culturally and aesthetically connected to the person I was in 1969 — 11 years old at the time of Stonewall. The insurrectionary energies of that time stimulated me from afar; in whatever chrysalis I found myself wrapped, in 1969, I understood (in my fantasies, in my tastes) the kind of future life I would be able to assemble here now. In the two most recent seminars I’ve taught at The Graduate Center, The Essay Film and Poem Encounters Film, I’ve had the chance to explore, with my students, some of the experimental films of those decades — films that, whatever the sexuality of the filmmakers, partook of a visceral sense that by reinventing the language of film, for oneself, by oneself, with the materials at hand, one could produce a new form of writing, a new grammar, a new set of desires, or a new way of embodying the old desires.

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.