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Joseph Keckler is a magician, a vagabond of the outer boroughs with an eye for the unorthodox, irregular, anomalous, and eccentric. The first time I met him, in 2011, I was struck both by his silver jacket and his impeccable manners. He’s the most charming man I know, also the most fragrant. We both travel constantly, so we often find ourselves in the same city, slipping back into a long, ongoing, rambling conversation about art, performance, gender, and sex. Thinking about his work now, I’m struck most by its generosity. He describes himself in his collection Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World (Turtle Point Press, 2017) as an “obscurity impersonator.” I think that means he has a knack for drawing strangeness to him, for absorbing anecdotes and confessions, alchemizing them into mesmerizing, intricately constructed performance pieces. As a writer and singer he nudges language to its limits; as a performer he is uncannily commanding.
Olivia LaingHave you had coffee?
Joseph KecklerYeah, I’ve been guzzling it for a half an hour.
OLGood, okay. Where are you?
JK I’m in Seattle, on tour. I was just performing in Austin. And Vancouver, where I was playing at a lovely little performing arts center, then at a former porn theater—every Vancouverite told me with glee, “This used to be porn theater!” Last night I did an impromptu show with no tech or anything at this gallery café with the musician Ahamefule Oluo. Next I’ll head to Ann Arbor. And where are you? What are you up to?
OL I’m sitting in my study, which is at the top of my house in Cambridge, trying desperately to steal the next couple of moments before Crudo (W. W. Norton, 2018) comes out to write Everybody, the nonfiction book I need to finish by the end of the year. The chapter I’m doing at the moment is about violence and sex and Francis Bacon and the Holocaust. (laughter) I don’t know why I write these cheerless, miserable books. I’m about to go to Berlin to do some research. Are you possibly at Chavisa’s house?
JK Yes. (laughter) And we’ve put a blanket over her bird. To keep him quiet.
OLYou know, after rereading your book last night, there’s something I’m very bothered about and must mention. Although you don’t say it in “Cat Lady,” the story about your mother having lots of cats, you mention in another that you’re actually allergic, which retroactively makes things a bit disturbing.
JK (laughter) Yes. And I don’t unpack it. Everybody asks about that, and some express fury at my mother—
OLI didn’t feel fury. I felt amusement.
JK Amusement—that’s good. Growing up I was interpreted as a sickly child who was allergic to a whole host of poisons—dust and ragweed and animal dander—but I also loved cats and even brought a kitten into the house. So I participated.
OLThe stories in this collection, Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World, don’t run in chronological order; they open out. Something that happens later illuminates something that happened before, like with your allergy. Right at the beginning, you describe yourself as an “obscurity impersonator.” I thought that was such a great phrase.
JK As a child I was obsessed with many singers but also Mel Blanc, the voice of all the Looney Tunes. He was Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety, all these characters, and I was fascinated with his vocal shapeshifting. I wanted to learn about voice-over artists, and I was always imitating cartoon characters. Then when I was a teenager I decided to totally unhook from popular culture and stop watching television. So that gave way to me impersonating people in my life directly—often people with great dramatic flair, who were unknown to the world at large. That’s why I say I’m the opposite of a celebrity impersonator. I’m an obscurity impersonator.
OL The thing I like about it is the compulsion to repeat but also magnify and make operatic these odd little moments that you might otherwise ignore, populated by people you see out of the corner of your eye. You manage to draw out of these situations something that’s quite shattering and moving but funny at the same time. And it comes by way of a magnification and distortion that you’re very gifted at doing.
JK In terms of describing these individuals or actually performing them?
OL Well I suppose it works both ways because they’re pieces that are performed and also written, but I’m thinking particularly about the latter.
JK A lot of the people whom I’m attracted to talking about are people who are sort of these performers without stages.
OLYes, exactly. Like your voice coaches.
JKYeah, voice teachers who use that realm of the studio as a kind of stage. Or other people—there’s a lengthy portrait of Gerry Visco, who makes a spectacle of herself day to day at every moment. Although I’m a performer by trade, I’m not a big personality socially. I’m more often a restrained observer; especially in the presence of these people I surround myself with, whom I couldn’t possibly compete with in terms of largeness. By writing about them I’m creating, in my mind, some sort of stage for them.
OLIs it that you’re powerfully drawn to them, or are they also powerfully drawn to you? I see it when we’re hanging out in the street—you will enter into long exchanges with strangers, whereas I’ll be like, Oh God, I don’t want to talk to them at all. I’m interested in how that opens you up to these incredible confessions or performances that you get from these people.
JK Well, I would like to have, in many ways, more boundaries than I do. But historically, I’ve had very few.
OLDo you have bad boundaries? Are bad boundaries good in art?
JK There’s one point in the book where I ask myself these questions. It’s in “Exhibition,” where I talk about stumbling into an awkward and unwanted sexual situation, due to a miscommunication. The scene takes place at the high-rise apartment of a diplomat, in a bedroom with glass walls, with the lights and sky of Manhattan all around. For a moment I envision my boundaries as being like those glass walls. In the same moment, I ask myself if I’m a sort of predator, allowing these stories to unfold, allowing people to perform around me so I can depict them later.
OL But these portraits you make always feel incredibly affectionate, even moving. It’s not like you’re mocking them.
JKNo—there might be a little pinch of vampirism, but I have to love anyone who I talk about. I want to love them. I would never write about Donald Trump because I don’t love him.
OLI feel like you probably would if you hung out with him for a while. You’d start seeing something.
JKI’m a little bit afraid of that, yeah.
OLLet’s talk more about boundaries in art because you do a lot of crossing over or not seeing borders that others strictly enforce—for example, those of different genres.
JK That’s true—how did the lack of personal boundaries translate to my lack of artistic boundaries? (laughter)
OLThere’s a looseness, a fluidity about lines in your work.
JK To me, it comes back to running up against categorical language, and it’s not necessarily that I am rebelling against it. Often interviewers ask me, “You sing, and you write, and you make videos. What language do you use to describe your work?” Or “What is your essence?”
OLOh, that’s so boring.
JK There’s this thought that I’m shifty or uncentered or something. But that makes me feel like a starfish who’s being cut up, until I’m just a pile of parts, each trying to generate a new whole.
OL Especially if the essence is this crisscrossing back and forth.
JKYeah. In your work, you talk about a similar movement.
OL Not wanting to settle into one thing and being excited by how I can move back and forth.
JK That makes sense to me—like when you’re on a research mission, you’re also retracing the steps of some artist.
OLSome dead artist.
JK (laughter) Yes, you’re walking the length of the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned, or you’re spending time in an old haunt of Tennessee Williams. You make this research visible, and it becomes a kind of performance. You include yourself. Their biographies become intertwined with your own autobiography, associations, and memories. Your writing is many things at once.
OL To just do one very circumscribed art form—I would find that frustrating.
JK Yes, to me it doesn’t seem like you’re intentionally rebelling against criticism or biography. It just seems like you’re not confined; you’re including a lot that’s already there.
OL That’s why I find the first person really exciting. It lets you—without sounding hokey about it—report on consciousness, with all of these multiple layers you can shift into. You can have something very personal or intellectual, very abstract, sensual, but it feels like a free place to inhabit, and not necessarily much about the autobiographical self. Do you know what I mean?
JK I think so. Could you say more about that?
OL There’s an assumption when you’re writing in the first person that you’re writing about yourself.
JK That you want to talk about yourself.
OL Yeah, but yourself in quite a thin way, like a biographical thumbnail sketch walking through the world.
JK And in a way that has to do with ego.
OL Yeah, rather than just the self actually experiencing the world, which is so much more interesting and resistant to being put into language, and so the challenge of trying to capture it in language is much more exciting. At the end of your story “Sounds and Unsounds of the City,” there’s this amazing little sketch of being in a room in silence. Like, what’s that got to do with Joseph Keckler? But it’s something you can do with an “I” that you can’t do in any other way. Why do you use the first person? You write basically completely in the first person, right?
JK Mostly. I want to envision myself as some sort of living instrument of observation. Genesis P-Orridge talks about a writing exercise—I think it comes from Burroughs—where you write down everything that’s happening in one minute, in order to become attuned to frequencies of reality you might be tuning out. So much happens in a single minute, internally and externally. You’re in a place. There are sounds. Sensations. Images and concerns flitting through your mind.
And now wait—your new novel, Crudo, is in third person! It’s in many ways more revealingly autobiographical than your other works, yet it is your first book of fiction, and you refer to yourself as Kathy Acker, at times blurring your life with hers. You’re playing a variation on Acker’s game of literary appropriation.
OL I’d read Kathy Acker back in the day, but when I reviewed Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker, I was fascinated to find out about Acker’s writing process. She’d go into libraries—this is before she’d written her first book, when she was studying under the poet David Antin in San Diego—and she would take a book about Toulouse-Lautrec, say, or a history of murderers, and she’d plagiarize it, putting it into the first person. So it would say, “I did this, I did that,” enlivening these chunks of other people’s writing, which I really loved. So then I was like, Well what happens if I just take my life, but put it in the third person as Kathy Acker? So everything in this novel is me and my friends and relationships and what’s going on in my thoughts, but it’s all put in the Kathy Acker person, which was incredibly liberating and fun. Sometimes my biography gives way to hers, and it’s all quite slippery.
JK Did it propel you in a different way to be constantly saying, “Kathy did this. Kathy did that”?
OL Kathy could do anything! It was very freeing. I usually write very slowly, and my work is very research-heavy. Everything’s got to be incredibly accurate, thought-through, and interrogated, and, to be honest, it’s a fairly dismal process sometimes. But this book took seven weeks. It was a blast. It was just a totally different way of writing. And it was also a way of writing about a political situation that was getting out of control faster and faster. I was trying to write about violence in my other forthcoming book, Everybody, in a world where the definitions and possibilities of violence were changing every five seconds. With every tweet from Trump the ground had changed again. And I couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t find a point to have perspective from. Turning to fiction allowed me to speed up. It allowed me to find a way of tracking what was happening without feeling like I needed to have an authority of tone. It was very freeing.
JK I had that sense from the rhythm of the writing. Your other books are very lyrical—this is virtuosic, but very staccato.
OL I was doing the proofs this evening and suddenly was like, I haven’t put any commas in. Should I put more commas in? But you know Gertrude Stein’s got this great line about commas being autocratic. People should breathe when they want.
JK I felt like the comma had been dismissed.
OL It has—it’s been sacked. I fired it. Trump fired Comey and I fired the comma.
JK (laughter) Yes!
OL How much of what you write is stuff that’s actually happened?
JK A lot. But then sometimes a bunch of stuff that’s happened suggests another ending. I see a certain direction events could go, and I may follow that track. The conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll, whom I recently did a project with, stages transcripts of her IRS auditing, and it’s word for word, verbatim. She doesn’t impose any other structure on it. I don’t do that; I might take an entire relationship with a certain person and events that happened over the course of years and reposition them all to occur within twenty-four hours.
OLOr turn it into an aria that’s very structured and sculpted. I’m thinking of your GPS song, about driving to the airport.
JK Well, the GPS story is true, and I wouldn’t have written about the relationship at all if that ten-minute episode hadn’t occurred. My partner of five years was driving me to the airport, so I could fly back home across the country after our relationship had unraveled, and the GPS was on, but had strangely been set to a different location in the opposite direction, and my partner refused to shut it off. So the GPS kept telling us to turn, on every single street we passed. It was the most heartbreaking moment of my life, yet it was also so ridiculous to have this disrupting automaton, breaking our silence to misdirect us at every moment. And I thought, What a strange moment of life this is. So I wrote an operatic aria in a broken, nonsense language, which I perform with English supertitles.
OL There’s an ongoing fascination in this book with incidents of language breaking down—not just the GPS voice, but people speaking in baby voices, or people deforming speech or repeating things until they lose sense. You’re incredibly articulate and at the same time besotted with moments where language breaks down.
JK Yes, because somehow language is very burdensome for me.
OL Do you mistrust language? Are you punishing language?
JK Well, I love language, but I’m often tracing miscommunications, the failure of language—and yes, baby talk! In the GPS song, I ask if baby talk is the ultimate language of love or the atrophied language of love. I call the nonsense vocabulary a “shadow language,” and it’s derived partly from baby talk. The other layer to that is that my partner had translated my earlier autobiographical operatic arias into other languages, so I was also without a translator and left to invent an imaginary foreign tongue to sing in.
OLOh wow. In “Cat Lady,” there was a line I wrote down: “She cuddled, morbidly, with language itself.” I thought this was such a pleasing idea, that you might love language and be very proficient with it, but at the same time you might just want to push it over the edge into nonsense. The singer inevitably deals with nonsense as well because you’re taking a phrase and distorting it in all kinds of ways. It’s quite interesting to me, the idea of the singer as writer, someone who manipulates language in a way that a writer might not necessarily do.
JK As a singer, when you’re doing exercises, you’re emptying a phrase of its meaning and imbuing it with a whole variety of meanings. And you do start to feel like someone who’s alone in the asylum just singing the same word or sentence over and over again. Voice is often discussed as a “remainder”—something beyond the meaning of the words.
OL The emotional charge that the voice carries? Or the singer’s personal history? What do you mean? I haven’t heard that before.
JK I hate to go dragging him into this, but I believe it’s a Lacanian thing—the voice is what’s left over in the “signifying operation.” I like picturing the voice as sort of a second body, which feels present but can’t be seen. Anyway, the spoken word, the sung word, has another dimension.
OL I think there’s a much more fearful dimension to the spoken word. I talk about this in The Lonely City (Picador, 2016)—there’s a possibility of being unintelligible or not being heard properly. You feel the threat of the voice being lost or not reaching the ear. The gap between the voice and the ear feels much more potent and dangerous than the gap between the written word and somebody’s eye. This is the threat that’s always there in language: that at some point it might degrade to such a point that you can’t make yourself understood anymore.
JKRight. And there’s more urgency in the uttered word.
OL Yeah. It comes up in the story “Voice Lesson” about your voice teacher Grace, where you’re singing phrase after phrase, and they’re all about this kind of horror—“I have fleas. The dog has fleas. The cat has fleas.” This nightmarish speech, which I just love.
JK That came from a real voice teacher. The exercise begins, “That cat has fleas.” It’s a phrase that is designed simply for its sounds, the way the vowels and the consonants are and finding the right space in the voice and so on. But then it progresses into “The dog has fleas.” And then, “I too have fleas. Do you have fleas? We all have fleas.” And it’s chromatically ascending, a slow-growing horror of infestation.
OL Which also counterpoints this claustrophobic, quite tragic story. Grace has chronic fatigue syndrome and ends up giving up teaching to care for a sick husband.
JK Yeah, in the story that’s what happens. And at the center is the character’s revelation of that moment of tragic ventriloquism, which haunts her. She started late in life as a singer. And she recalls a production where she was not cast in the leading role, but was required to sing a high note that the lead can’t hit: she’s on the edge of the stage, singing this high note while someone else stands in the light, pretending to sing it. Voice teachers are always ventriloquists in a sense because they are transferring all their knowledge, energy, and artistic impulse into the student, who then goes off and performs before an audience.
OL I was going to ask you about the Goth sensibility—the book is full of demons, funerals, and ghosts, even the disinterred corpse of a cat, and there’s this playfulness about it, but I was really struck by how much actual violence there is around the edges. Several of the women are beaten up by their partners. A gay bar burns down. There are multiple kinds of darkness at work, some of which are more playful and some of which are much more serious.
JK I’m often thinking about how a traumatic event shapes or reshapes a person. Regarding actual ghosts: I always say that I’m a skeptic on the streets and a spirit medium in the sheets.
OL Do you? (laughter)
JKI do say that.
OL “I say that every day at the grocery store.”
JK I’ve always had a compulsive attraction to images of the occult. At the same time, I find witchy culture rather silly, cheesy. I have a certain allergy to that world, but at the same time, I have a complete attraction to it. I didn’t learn until I was about twelve that I was born on All Souls’ Day, Day of the Dead, but as long as I can remember I was drawing skulls and skeletons and hooded figures with glowing eyes. This is what has always made me happy. This pantheon of spooks I find festive.
There’s something too in the tradition of Gothicism, in terms of structure, with one narrator introducing something, and the story being passed off to another narrator. Or the narrator’s recalling someone else who told him a story.
OL Yeah, nested narratives.
JK And that feels related to the way I’m always telling a story that’s somebody else’s story, and there’s a kind of circling of events, circling around something that will be revealed. At the same time, I’m kind of mocking the Gothic… but I think irony can be a part of the Gothic. One of my early heroes is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. He typifies this to me: he’s creating a theater of the ridiculous and he’s almost a novelty act, with his skull on a staff, getting out of a coffin, but at the same time his voice is so commanding and so powerful; there’s an inherent seriousness in his sound and a kind of divinity. That’s where I want to live—that point which can tip into the ridiculous or into something that’s divine or commanding.
OL I suppose this an obvious place to ask you about Let Me Die, the opera of death.
JKWell that—okay, yes, so I’m premiering two pieces next year. One is called Train With No Midnight and is about the 2012 apocalypse and other events that didn’t happen. And Let Me Die uses various operatic deaths. Opera is a form that surrounds death, and then death is at the center of a conversation around opera: Is opera dead? Or is it alive? Are the audiences dying? And so on. So I’m working at this intersection. The title comes from the Italian “Lasciatemi morire,” a line from “Lamento d’Arianna,” an aria that a lot of beginning vocal students learn. It’s like, “Okay kid, here’s this song where you’re imploring the gods to kill you. Give it a whirl!”
OL Welcome to opera!
JK That aria is from a lost Monteverdi opera, and it depicts Ariadne after Theseus has abandoned her. She’s stranded on the island of Naxos, and she’s just wishing for death. But it’s the only piece of that opera that has survived. So Ariadne is doubly stranded. Her aria has survived its own context. It’s this little singing fragment. In turn, I’m taking other opera deaths and fragmenting them and putting them together. Death is the event that everyone waits for when they’re watching an opera. So I thought impishly, Well, what if we give the people what they want, right away, over and over again.
OL And then do the deaths become ridiculous?
JK They can become ridiculous, but then do they become not ridiculous later? Or what happens?
OL Or is there a point where they’re boring, and then they start becoming moving again?
JKAnd how do you sustain something that’s constantly ending is another question that I’m trying to entertain. And I’ll have my own material in there, my own little interludes woven through, and so it will be a sort of festive discourse with these medleys of dying.
JKBut to me it is cheerful! To me somehow it is, I don’t know why.
Olivia Laing is the author of To the River, The Trip to Echo Spring, and The Lonely City. Her novel, Crudo, will be published by W. W. Norton in October 2018
We have to skillfully protect and defend people Trump has terrified, which means having a little bit of spine and calling bullshit when we see it.