Kate Durbin has the distinction of being the only writer ever to make me seriously consider reality television as a cultural force. Her 2014 book E! Entertainment blew my mind and changed the entire way I perceived and received the genre. That book, and her other projects, gave me the impression of a cool, implacable artist, someone who’d be difficult to talk to and likely to say little about her own work.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I met Durbin, I found she was kind, open, richly knowledgeable, and totally willing to plumb her own artistic process to help others interpret her work. I wanted nothing more than to interview her the next time she had a book coming out, and lo and behold, I got my wish. Durbin’s new poetry collection, Hoarders (Wave Books) is as clear, focused, and blistering as her artistry has ever been. Each poem is composed of dialogue from the show and and arrangements of objects from the people’s homes. It seems at first glance to be working on the same wavelength as E!, using reality shows as replicable texts, but Hoarders is more spare, and more heartbreaking.
Katharine Coldiron First things first. How did you choose Hoarders as the show you wanted to examine?
Kate Durbin I became interested in the sticky relationship between people and physical objects, especially mass consumer products. Hoarders felt like the right show for me to write through because it is about literally being entrapped by your stuff. It’s also about being haunted by trauma, having past traumas compound and accumulate in the present. The more I wrote through the show, the deeper I went into a kind of metaphysical question: what is the actual relationship between people and things?
KC Did you come up with an answer?
KD I am more interested in how Hoarders approaches that question. Though I will say there are a lot of possibilities in exploring this relationship. We have very complicated relationships to objects. There’s the projection of one’s emotions onto objects, our relationship to objects intended for obsolescence or what we call garbage, our long history toward sacred or religious objects, and so on.
KC How did you choose these episodes and these scenes? Your curation as an ekphrastic writer has always been brilliant, but it feels like in this case, you stripped your selections down to such small parameters from a really large hunk of material.
KD I don’t consider Hoarders ekphrastic writing so much as a cross between possession and contemplation. As for the process, I was guided by the objects, the associations they might evoke. For example, a poem about hoarding plants brings up different feelings and relationships than one about hoarding items from vintage Las Vegas casinos. I was interested, too, in looking across the US, so the book has a certain sweep to it, even though it’s not intended to be comprehensive. I whittled it down to a small, dark shape.
KC The main thing I noticed about this book was its extreme, crystalline specificity, particularly in the nouns and adjectives you chose. Tied in with this was how clear the book made it that branded items often have a string of adjectives attached to them, so the object or product is… over-determined, if that word isn’t too odd to use. Any thoughts on this?
KD William Carlos Williams said “no ideas but in things” and I feel that, deeply. I remember in school I was told not to write brand names and as I was being told this I was looking at a blue Mountain Berry Blast Powerade on my desk, and had this eerie feeling, like the Powerade was vanishing before my eyes. To ignore the specificity of things feels like an erasure of the contemporary. I want to go deeper into things, the more precise the thing, the better, because it’s a challenge in a way, to go into the over-determined, the branded, to see what’s there, even if what’s there is… Death? Life? Particles? Oblivion?
We experience these products as part of our daily lives. They become a part of us, we use so many of them throughout our lives, like the video game character Katamari Damacy rolling up objects. And the absurd precision of these objects is a part of our late capitalist contemporary reality. At what other time in history could you get Waffles & Syrup Oreos or Swedish Fish Oreos? At what other time could you see a Minion next to baby Jesus inside a nativity scene on someone’s lawn at Christmas? How many people have eaten Oats and Honey Nature Valley granola bars, the wrapper of one which blew into my yard as I am writing this sentence to you?
I liken this impulse I feel to go deeply into things to the impulse I feel to write everything down when I go to a strip mall. The strip mall makes me feel trapped and anxious, this consumerism snow globe I’m stuck inside. I feel I’m being obliterated in a strip mall. I guess I’m picking up on that death drive underlying capitalism, but I really feel it physically in my body when there. And yet I am also lured and lulled by the aisles of Bed Bath & Beyond, comfortingly packed with glossy Yankee Candles, cartoon-headed Pez dispensers, bath mats with cliches written in looping cursive. I start to think, I have to get it all down, it’s how I can survive it, by making it into art. I wanted Hoarders to capture those feelings: the repulsion and attraction of consumer objects, the dread and alienation and also the enticement. And as a poet, working with the language of these branded names is interesting to me, to unravel it in a way.
KC The surreal details of this book were so American. “Second Barbie Dream House stuffed with monkeys wearing Planet Hollywood shirts” is a clear image, but written out like that it feels so much more surreal than the image might, and so tied to American capitalism that it’s hard to imagine it existing any place else. Is this book a statement about American life? Or is it closer to a camera left running on American life, no statement?
KD The book is not a statement so much as an experience, which is what I look for in poetry and all art. There is an element of cultural criticism to the book, not of people who hoard but of the culture that produces these traumas and products, but the criticism is not overt. I want readers to feel these things in their bones. The poem’s form creates associations organically between objects and American traumas such as colonization, mass consumerism, endless wars, bootstraps individualism. These traumatic associations are like ghosts haunting the objects, like a haunted doll who witnessed a murder decades ago and carries it inside her forever.
KC Hoarding is not a uniquely American disorder, but it seems like it should be—the way we equate stuff and ownership with happiness, when other cultures don’t. However, I felt like the progression of the book was from a patient, detailed exploration of the flotsam of American capitalism to something so much worse and weirder. The hoarding described later in the book is less about stuff and more about something else, something darker which resists explanation. Was this your vision for the book?
KD I love the way you phrase this: “the hoarding described later in the book is less about stuff and more about something else…which resists explanation.” Although I’d also say it’s the poems later in the book that give you this feeling, not the hoarding specifically. Toward the end of the book the movement is away from hoarding consumer products to trying to hold on to the ephemeral, to grasp at that which objects or things arise out of, to cling to the earth itself. I do think the book is in many ways about the US, not about hoarding in other places, but the existential feelings it raises and the compulsions it explores are perhaps simply human in the end, tied to an experience of the contemporary that is widely felt—to this feeling of grief for something unnamable which has been lost.
KC Are the juxtapositions in the book yours, or from the show itself? For instance, “Barbie Loves Elvis Barbie, Marine Corps Barbie” suggests the connection of Elvis’s military service, and “Books don’t bite The Science of Jurassic Park and The Lost World, Dracula” has a pretty obvious linkage.
KD I did! You can consider the relationship between the show and my poems as two overlapping worlds. While I have a rather obsessive and meticulous note-taking process while watching the show initially, I later use those notes in various ways, including writing elements from my imagination, and from other research. I am interested in entering into the realm of reality TV in my work, this kind of uncanny space, and I am not interested in showing faithfulness to a show’s structure (which is already artifice). The poem very much becomes its own thing.
KC To me this was a deeply sad book. But I have the sense, from want I know of your other work, that you might not have meant it that way. What moods collect across the poems?
KD It’s sad to me, too. In fact, in the book I resisted the common American belief that every problem will be resolved one day. I think this is a very Evangelical Christian mindset, like waiting for heaven and Jesus to save you. The show follows this structure, where they “fix” or “save” the people who hoard at the end of an episode. But that is not really how trauma works. In life sometimes things happen that can be so horrible they’re dangerous to look at directly, like staring into the sun. As someone who comes from a family that has been very harmed by addiction, I personally get agitated when well-meaning people say hopeful or salvific things to me about my family. It feels like a glossing over of trauma, the effects of which are permanent and pervasive. In Hoarders I tried not to gloss over anything. That said, the poems are supposed to be funny, too. There’s the humor in all this pointless stuff we have created—I wanted the book to capture some of the amusement I feel when I read the list of Yankee Candle names, because they are so fantasy-like and strange: Bunny Vanilla Cupcake, Candlelit Cabin, Moonbeams on Pumpkins.
KC Yes, that humor is definitely there. I’m just going to copy two questions directly from my notes instead of trying to rephrase them more sensibly, to see what you make of them: “What does Hoarders, the show, have to say about life as we know it? How does this book, in its compression, also speak to life as we know it?” It’s a big question and maybe an unfair one, but I’m curious about what you think of it.
KD I like that these questions came to you as you were reading. I also like that they came to you as questions and not answers.
KC Yes, that’s right.
KD That is what I felt too, writing it. I am very interested in the compression of time in art. The poems in Hoarders are like layers in rock to me. I was thinking about the anthropocene, about humans permanently imprinting the geological rock layers with concrete and plastic. This idea of compressed rock layers connects to the book, these objects or products accumulating throughout our lives; the way trauma from the past seeps into the present. I was thinking about all of this in relation to the smallness of our individual lives, this tiny moment in which we exist, surrounded by these specific funny weird and sometimes frightful objects that are our life’s silent witnesses, our companions.
KCI’d like to revisit this interview you did with BOMB in 2014, around the time E! Entertainment came out. To simplify dramatically, E! seems to be about people and Hoarders seems to be about objects—although objects are important in E! too. At the time you said: “objectification is a kind of othering, even when it’s done to a dinner plate. It’s a way of looking at the world and what we find there that is dismissive.” Even truer in Hoarders? Less true?
KD Even more true for the dinner plate in Hoarders, anyway. Though as you note there are actually a lot of objects in E!, like in Girls Next Door, which is a section of still life poems of Hugh Hefner’s former girlfriends’ rooms, all their pink loofahs and rhinestone-studded Bebe underwear and OPI nail polishes. And then with the Kardashians section, there’s this nervous naming of all their designer clothes and baubles. I’d foregrounded objects in E! instead of having them in the background as normally they are when you watch the shows, and by bringing them forward it was like they started sending me signals. Those signals are what led me to Hoarders. However, Hoarders is still concerned with the objectification of people on reality TV.
KC Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I feel that you have a lot less to prove to snooty literary folks about your artistic project now than you did six years ago. “Trash TV” definitely shows us something about ourselves—you’re not the only one making this argument anymore. Does that mean Hoarders was harder or easier to write and put into the world?
KD Well, writers like Morgan Parker have been making work about reality TV for a long time, too. So I feel like I’ve always had one or two people in good company. But I think you are right that audiences are now more open and making more work. Hoarders was a lot harder emotionally to write than E! was, because the show is sad and reminded me of my family. But there was also a lot of pleasure to be found in these objects, and beauty.