THE RAVENOUS AUDIENCE:
Becca Klaver interviews Kate Durbin
Kate Durbin is a writer and performance artist. She is the author of The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books, 2009), Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator’s Boot (Dancing Girl Press, 2009), FASHIONWHORE (Legacy Pictures, 2010), and Kept Women (Insert Press, forthcoming). She is founding editor of the journal Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art About Lady Gaga.
Becca Klaver: So much of The Ravenous Audience is about how women’s and girls’ bodies are not only over-sexualized by our culture, but violently consumed: “The nude female body / is a strip of paper / at the bottom of the serving dish” (54). The Big Bad Wolf, the shark—all these flesh-eating creatures want to eat little girls up. In connecting sexual appetite to an appetite for food, are you trying to make some of the fairy tales’ allegories more explicit? Are you updating them for the 21st century? Some mix of these? Something else?
Kate Durbin: I must first tip my (feathered and tulle-d) hat to Angela Carter, whose feminist revisionist fairy tales continue to inspire me, even though I take issue with some of her idealism. Her notion that Perrault’s & the Grimm’s fairy tales contain an underscript of sexual violence that becomes blatant when they are re-written for adults, is an idea I stole for my own fairy tales, although I wanted to complicate the narratives further by making the girls in the stories less than heroic. I wanted to make them more like girls I knew growing up. Girls who’d ignore you in front of some guy they liked, for example, or talk shit about you behind your back to other girls because they were jealous. Girls who were incredibly smart and yet would make fun of you for something stupid, like your period stained underwear. Certain feminists have talked about how the effects of the patriarchy are what have turned women against each other, and okay, that’s true. Except that when you leave your friend in a compromising position at a party, or when your friend leaves you, you know that you made a choice. It may have been two lousy options you were choosing between, but you still chose. And so to blame the patriarchy entirely is to give it too much power, I think. In my fairy tales I let the bitches be bitches. I wanted to reveal the complexity of these issues that I think are, at times, too simplified in Carter’s tales. In many ways my tales are a response to hers. They are also an homage to Sylvia Plath. Plath always let the bitches be bitches.
I want to add too that Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel are bizarre and bawdy in their early folk versions. Little Red, for example, cannibalizes her grandma and drinks her blood in the earliest known version of tale. She also does a striptease for the wolf and escapes the situation by claiming she has to take a piss. In some ways you could see my renderings of these tales an act of collage—combining elements from various versions of the tale, including feminist revisionist versions, to create a postmodern, non-sensical, re-mix version. Or, as Johannes Goransson called them in his Rain Taxi review of my book, “B-movie” versions.
Now, to expand this notion of consumption—I am glad you culled that quotation from “Doll Disrobed” because in that piece as in many of my cinema pieces I wanted to draw attention to how (mis)reading women, whether in a text or on a screen, is cannibalizing them. This is why the nude woman’s body is a sheet of paper, just another text/tree/treat. I love this quote from philosopher Simone Weil (herself an anorexic): “We read, but also we are read by, others. Interferences in these readings. Forcing someone to read himself as we read him (slavery). Forcing others to read us as we read ourselves (conquest). A mechanical process. More often than not a dialogue between deaf people.” Or, I would argue, a blind viewing. To view someone blindly is to render her flat (flat screen, flat page). It is therefore far easier to consume the flatness. To really see, to really read, is to allow someone to expand, to gain more and more dimensions, some of which we won’t like or understand. I wanted to permit my women to expand in this book, by drawing attention to the fact that the reader’s mechanical process was getting in the way of that, and that my own position, as permission-giver, was also problematic.
Your blog is called “Ornament and Excrement,” and for all your interest in ornament (as feminine artifice, usually), your book is indeed interested in excrement as well: “Now woman/poet, I shit words; vomit them like someone else’s bile out my mouth. Crap them from my pen. Rub them into my hide. Paint them across my lips” (34). I’m thinking here, too, of your essay about teenage girls on Delirious Hem: “My writing, then, is a swollen corpse full of babbling she-demons, slobbering and vomiting on one another, emitting a chorus of unholy grunts.” What’s the power of shitting and purging? Does it have something to do with your rendering of patriarchal forces as ravenous?
Teenage girls puke in private, they puke because they have been presented with an impossible image of femininity that is puke-worthy. But what if bulimics didn’t purge in private but instead purged in public, much like 28 Days Later or some other zombie film? I love this notion of teenage girls vomiting all over their math papers, all over their teachers, standing in a line like that film Suicide Club or as a row of crazed Care Bears, puking all over the world.
I want to say, though, that this kind of writing—which is really a political stance—has a danger to it. If you puke and puke and puke and never stop, you will die. I fervently laud and protect those writers who are compelled to vomit endlessly, as a way to hold this world accountable. For myself, however, I find that this shitting and purging aesthetic is one that is fraught. I became physically ill while writing that Delirious Hem essay. I was listening to these terrifying recordings of Anneliese Michel, the possessed girl, and I started to feel like I was going crazy, and that someone was touching the back of my head while I wrote. I couldn’t sleep. This experience made me realize two things: 1) writing, creating, is powerful beyond any understanding I have of it now and 2) there are ways of creating that are dangerous, and should be treated as such. That doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable, in fact the opposite is often true—that some may find their own lives worth sacrificing for the wake-up their work will be for this world.
I think that this stance is inherently rebellious, inherently teenage. We should not move past it because we are now “grown up,” should not take on some modernist, progressive approach. But to learn to wield the vomit, perhaps, in sharper shapes, and to become stronger, to become a monster so that you can withstand the purging, and to eventually purge flowers, sequins, rhinestones, yards and yards of tulle. And maybe one day you will realize you’ve become a fountain, that the rose waters of the world are flowing through you, that you’re being fed even as you’re spilling out.
Even though I’m interested in confession (and withholding), I can feel a little nutso reading such writing, even as I admire its risks—its “TMI,” its lack of filter. I don’t care much whether or not poems do “healing” work, but I want them to do some alchemical work. I want to witness raw material transformed. And sometimes vomit is just the raw material. So even as I’m interested in this type of writing, I’ll admit that my gut reaction is often to look away. This feels a little conservative and cowardly, but it’s true. For anyone who might be curious to do some further reading, do you have particular authors in mind when you mention a “purging aesthetic”? What do they have in common? How is puke-writing different from confessional poetry?
I don’t know that confessional writing lacks a filter. All writing is a process of filtering. Whatever ends up on the page is processed through the writer’s body and memory and confessional writing is an amplification of the writer’s experiences, whichever ones she chooses to, well, puke on the page. It is filtered through her needs, too. Maybe that’s what can be so squeam-inducing about confessional writing—it seems so needy, instead of casting the illusion of existing apart from the writer’s emotional life. It is also interesting from a feminist perspective, since many of these confessional writers are women, purging their emotions, wallowing in them, when women are traditionally seen as too “emotional” as is. This is what makes their work powerful and important and rebellious, I think. And, yes, dangerous and potentially even unethical at times.
As for who does this sort of purging-writing—one of my favorite writers, who is also a dear friend, is Kate Zambreno. Her blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister, is like this. Also, Dodie Bellamy, who wrote the original puke-manifesto, Barf Manifesto. Ariana Reines. With the work of these writers, there is no difference between the confessing and the puking, except that they are clearly wielding their puke into artful shapes.
I also think there can be different types of vomit-writing that aren’t confessional in an I’m-revealing-my -personal-life-for-you kind of way. Puking or regurgitating something you’ve ingested culturally that is poisonous. The Ravenous Audience is like that. I think Lara Glenum’s Maximum Gaga could be read that way too. Some of Danielle Pafunda’s work, like her new series “The Dead Girls Speak in Unison.” The poems of Juliet Cook.
You’re the founding editor of Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art About Lady Gaga, and you identify as a fashion and performance artist. (Actually, I’ve noticed that your self-descriptive phrases in the “About Me” section of your blog change about as often as Gaga’s outfits!) Plus, your own costumes are to-die-for: you approach Gagaesque elaborate excess without an entire Haus to help you out. Do you make the costumes yourself? Can you guide us through the making of one of your favorites, from inspiration to completion?
I come up with the overall concept for every costume, but I don’t actually make the clothing. I generally find most of the outfits on ebay and at vintage stores, or I purchase some amazing concoction from Carissa Ackerman of Mandate of Heaven and then work with that as a base. Carissa and I share a lot of similar inspirations, such as fairy tales and Courtney Love. She has such a sense of clever playfulness and over-the-top, yet still functional, femininity to her clothing [I am all for dysfunctional couture as well, but have yet to be able to afford pieces by, say, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, or Viktor and Rolf].
I also collect from Kelly Eident of I’m Your Present, whose fashion is also over-the-top feminine but in a very hyper-90’s girly, Saved By The Bell, way. My favorite costume from Kelly is my bunny tits outfit, which goes with my forthcoming chapbook about the reality show The Girls Next Door, Kept Women.
I do my makeup myself, and my hair, and have made hats and altered many a costume. For example, I took this lavender thrift store gown from the early 80’s with a netted neckline and attached faux butterflies to it and paired it with a 1950’s tulle and flowered turban. Another of my favorite examples is my Rockinghorsefly dress, designed by Carissa for her Through the Looking Glass collection, which I wore for the Los Angeles book launch of The Ravenous Audience. I affixed felt letters to the shorts so that they read POEM, and orchestrated an unveiling/performance around it.
The yin to the POEM costume’s yang is my golden POETRY outfit, which Carissa designed and named after Joan Crawford’s glam, saucy character in “The Women.” I planned for months to wear this piece for AWP. I thought it would be awesome to walk around the convention center in Denver at this serious academic conference decked out in full gold regalia, with black feathered lashes, and the word POETRY tattooed across my ass [it was a tough toss up between POETRY and AWP for the ass stamp]. When I finally got to do it, I got a lot of stares, and one outright guffaw as I was heading up the escalator to the book fair. Once I got upstairs, a confused, older gentleman asked if I was lost, because shouldn’t I be at the car show next door [as a showgirl]?
Nooo! That’s so great! I mean, so presumptuous, but so great as an illustration of gatekeeping. It’s like a Gurlesque poem trying to strut through the pages of some stodgy old lit mag. Any costume or performance plans for AWP DC or other conferences?
I was secretly thrilled when the old man thought I could be a car show girl, really. As for performance plans, I am in the early stages of mapping out a couple of performances, one for the Mommy, Mommy reading series in L.A. I also want to incorporate fashion models into some of my future events, a la Vanessa Beecroft, and plan to propose some performances to art galleries in Los Angeles and New York.
While I had a blast meeting poets I admire at AWP, the idea of infiltrating academic conferences is becoming less interesting to me. Instead, I am trying to actively participate in popular culture, by doing things like writing about celebrity fashion for hollywood.com and creating Gaga Stigmata.
What did you wear in high school?
It was in high school that I began to really incorporate fashion as a part of my identity, and as a weapon/shield—at least as much as my meager earnings from babysitting and cashiering at Krispy Kreme Donuts would allow. Also, I went to a conservative, tiny Christian high school in the middle of the Phoenix desert—it was a cement block with no windows and frigid A.C. They were strict about clothes. No flip flops, no short skirts, no tank tops. I dyed my hair lavender in the 9th grade and they called me to the office and told me that it was a sin to draw so much attention to my hair instead of God. Because of me, a new rule was indoctrinated into the rulebook—“no clothing or hair coloring that draws too much attention to one’s self.”
Oh man, I got called into the principal’s office for similar reasons in high school. Mostly it was because I was wearing slip dresses, which were trendy at the time and being sold as dresses (the second “slip dress” I got in trouble for was actually a “real dress” from the Delia’s catalogue). I insisted that they show me the place in the student handbook that said I could not wear such a thing (so did my mom — she’s a lawyer). They ended up copying a page and highlighting the phrase “or otherwise distracting.” The other phrase that echoes in my head from the incident is “underwear as outerwear.” Ha! So, basically, same as you — original style was officially banned! And this was a public school. (Though I got yelled at for wearing lipstick in 7th grade at a Catholic school, too. )
Where were you when I was in high school, Becca?! We could have started a gang. The Slip Dress Sluts! I worked with what I could in terms of what I wore—I shopped at Buffalo Exchange, Urban Outfitters (on sale—it seemed so expensive then!), mall shops like Wet Seal and Hot Topic. I was obsessed with Clueless, and worshipped my Delia’s catalogue although I couldn’t buy anything from it because I didn’t have a checkbook or credit card. I read Sassy and Seventeen, but secretly, as my parents didn’t want me to read magazines that talked about sex. I was inspired by Gwen Stefani & Theo Kogan of the Lunachicks & Courtney Love & Debbie Harry—I’ve always loved iconic blondes. I wore dark lipstick and bright colors. My nickname was Rainbow Brite. During that phase I wore a lot of plastic. I also went through a grunge girl phase where I wore huge pants (remember Jncos?) [yes!] and tight-fitted pizza delivery shirts. I carried around those giant roll-on tubes of glitter from Claire’s and would glitter my arms during Bible class. I was obsessed with nail polish, and had about 50 different kinds, mostly from Wet & Wild, or the rare, treasured bottle of Hard Candy. In speech class, I gave a speech about caring for your nail polish collection, when were supposed to share a how-to instruction. Other people talked about witnessing for Christ or taking care of their expensive cars their dads bought them.
It strikes me that an outré costume is one very effective way of twisting the patriarchal gaze. The average girl is leered at, commodified, and consumed like many of the girls in The Ravenous Audience; her femininity seems natural or transparent, ready to be seized upon. The costumed lady throws a wrench in this cycle, unravels the loop of the gaze. By distorting and exaggerating, she seems to say, “You thought you knew what femininity looked like, but look again!” Or maybe, like Medusa, she turns you to stone. Where do you think the costumed woman’s power comes from?
This question makes me think of a recent discussion at Gaga Stigmata, curated by my brilliant co-editor Meghan Vicks, about Lady Gaga’s (in)famous, most fabulous, meat dress! I think Gaga turned the paps to stone with that choice piece, as well as millions of Americans. In the meatiest way.
As you and I have discussed before, everything we wear is a costume. And there is no difference between a fashion statement and a political statement. I am tired of the attitude many poet-liberals ascribe to, this pooh-poohing of fashion, this nervousness around it, because it is associated with frivolity and the marketplace. Nothing can be extracted from the marketplace, not even a poem. And we are putting on a costume every morning when we get dressed. In fact, out of all the categories of art that exist, fashion is the most ubiquitous. Perhaps its mass availability is part of what makes it so denigrated by elitists, which many poets are but won’t admit to being. [Aside: taking issue with fashion is different from having a problem with the fashion industry, though of course one cannot separate them out, just as one cannot separate one’s art from the marketplace.] I think if these poets were really so troubled with fashion, they would dress like goths or punks or homeless people or nudists, instead of donning the uniform of the academy.
And so if we are to costume ourselves daily, we need to be aware of the Gaze. You described it perfectly, Becca, when you said that the costumed lady “unravels the loop.” Via exaggeration, distortion, ornamentation, fashion distracts and distorts like a funhouse mirror that kind of simple (mis)reading that women and girls fall victim to. What the costumed woman stands for is being conscious of that power, owning it, and wielding it like a sick pair of Gaga-style, razor-blade sunglasses.
You’re one of the only contemporary poets I can think of whose project takes place both on and off the page. I think your persona completes the project of your book, and vice versa. Do you think poems are like costumes?
Thanks, Becca! I actually like to think of the costumes as spin-offs of the book, or evolutionary outgrowths or mutations, more than completion, I think. As for the poems being like costumes—yes, absolutely. I wear my poems all the time!
Although it’s clear elsewhere that you can use pretty words, you seem to steer clear of ornamented language in The Ravenous Audience. Was this a conscious decision? What do you think about the relationship between ornament and diction?
In “The Ravenous Audience” I was going for cinema, for that sense of relentless surging danger one feels when watching a Lars Von Trier film like Antichrist. This was because of the intense subject matter of the book, and also because I was violently regurgitating all these mythos from my childhood and needed to get them out-out-out.
After the book came out, I started to feel that, with the exception of the Viktor & Rolf pieces, and “Marilyn: Leftovers” (a list poem, which details all of Marilyn Monroe’s affects including her vast wardrobe), my investment in over-the-top femininity, in ornamentation, was something I wished was in the book but wasn’t. I wouldn’t go back and change it now, but I did start to wear the costumes to readings as a way to “ornament” the text.
For my next project, the poetry and visual art book Excess Exhibit (forthcoming from ZG Press), co-written with the stunning poet Amaranth Borsuk and illustrated by Zach Kleyn, Amaranth and I wanted to dress up our poems, to laud the excessive potential in language that is usually “toned down” in order to not have ones work considered “over the top.” Couture poetry! I see this as a rebelliously feminine gesture. To wallow in glorious adjectives, outrageous and gorgeous descriptions, saucy Caroline Bergvall-esque babble, and also to write/merge with someone else, another woman, as a way to do away with the patriarchal concept of sole authorship. We looked at all kinds of visual art pieces—from the hair sculptures of Shoplifter to the decadent candy landscapes of Will Cotton—while working on these conjoined poems, but then in terms of our language constraints (which eventually fell away, like a useless corset), we chose to amplify and joyfully celebrate language that already felt “too much,” additional, pretty. Ornamental. And we then turned the language back into visual ornamentation, by making costumes in which to present the work, and a series of photographs, which you can see here and here.
Unlike other poets who retell fairy tales (I’m thinking, for example, of Anne Sexton’s Transformations), you don’t necessarily rewrite the story itself. Instead, the women seem useful to you as emblems or icons. The real women you write about—Amelia Earhart, Marilyn Monroe—are often given altered lives in your hands. What’s your hope in revisiting these stories and recasting these icons?
To quote Simone Weil again: “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” Monroe & Earhart in particular are two icons who seemed to me to be crying out to be read differently. Their cultural narratives are completely tragic and simple. And for those of us who are in their imposing shadows, who are stalked by their images at the grocery store and on TV, we want, not a different ending, but a different way of understanding the ending, and of expanding the middle, which ultimately is what really matters.
I talked earlier about how (mis)reading someone is to render her flat. Like a cardboard cut-out, of which we’ve seen countless of Marilyn with her white halter dress flirting up as she poses over the subway grate, forever flashing those creamy legs. And Amelia, standing next to her Electra plane in aviator gear, only we see only The End. We read straight tragedy in her smile.
These women were complex beings, brave ones, and I wanted to allow them to expand beyond these flat, tragic narratives we’ve inscribed upon their cardboard corpses. Not for them, but for the girls who have them pasted in their lockers and as their desktop backgrounds. Girls like you and me.