Running off to Join the Circus: Wayne Koestenbaum Interviewed by Ruby Brunton

The writer on the tradition of notebook writers, archiving his own work, and enjoying a ragged, damaged, nervous narration.


Poet, writer, and otherwise diversely talented cultural mainstay Wayne Koestenbaum does not shy away from anything, and we are all the better for it. “It’s my duty as a poet to push my language and consciousness as far into the ‘forbidden’ as possible,” Koestenbaum stated in an interview with American Poetry Review and he honors this duty beyond just his poetry. His novel Circus, which was originally published in 2004, was re-released this year by Soft Skull Press. The novel takes place inside the heightened anxious mind of Theo Mangrove, a (perhaps?) once famous concert pianist with a Marquis de Sadean-size sexual thirst and a propensity for incest, self-aggrandizing and artistic delusion. 

Mangrove’s increasingly-fevered obsessions with young hustlers, his own and others’ musical careers, and above all the Italian circus star Moira Orfei are told earnestly, without cushioning, in a series of notebooks. He’s been advised to track his emotional movements by his mother for presumably therapeutic purposes, although we can never quite trust Mangrove’s own word. Koestenbaum guides us through the most uncomfortable of subjects with his renowned humor and inventiveness of language, and the brilliant Rachel Kushner provides the introduction to the new edition. 

I spoke to Koestenbaum about what has changed in the years since Circus’ initial release. 

—Ruby Brunton

Ruby Brunton What does it feel like to see the same work released fifteen years later?

Wayne Koestenbaum Elation. Relief. Luxuriousness. Rebirth. Reincarnation. Reclamation. Mouth-to-mouth. A new strange intimacy with my former self, the person who wrote the novel.

RB What has changed, culturally speaking, that you think could affect the reception of the book this time?

WKYounger writers today seem more at ease with ragged, damaged, nervous narration. My novel’s tonal irregularity—its spasmodic humor, its bleakness, its unconventional eroticism—might strike chords in readers now comfortable with a novel narrated by a self that seems scissored to pieces and put back together with a glue closer to Ecstasy than to Elmer’s.

RBHow have you changed as a writer? Do you think you would write the same book now?

WK I wish I could write a similar book all over again. I would love, once more, to be possessed by a wild, demonstrative, importunate voice, not quite my own. I would love to find a way to put my current “ideation” into a series of dense, lurid notebooks.

RB The novel is told in a series of notebooks penned by our narrator Theo Mangrove, a concert pianist who’s returned to his family’s home in East Kill, New York after some level of mental exhaustion. It’s a surprisingly provincial location for the surrealness of the book’s events. What made you set it there?

WKI have a house in Germantown, in upstate New York. Perhaps I was thinking of a town like Hudson when I invented East Kill. I’m enamored with small-town life, at least in fantasy; I used to call that strain of fantasy “hotel consciousness.” I imagined life in East Kill as the equivalent of permanent hotel-habitation: libido-limbo. Theo’s grandiosity would die in a big city like New York or London. He needed a small town—whether Aigues-Mortes or East Kill—to make his desires seem enormous.

RB Any particular reason for choosing the notebook/diary form? What does this epistolary form allow us to know about Theo that a more straightforward narrative would not? 

WKI love reading and writing notebooks. Composing Circus, I was thinking specifically of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. Also of Edmund Jabès, Sei Shonagon, the whole tradition of notebook-writers. Notebooks permit direct, episodic narration of the day’s explosions, clouded over by memory and anticipation. Theo anticipates his comeback: to render the unquenched thirst of Erwartung, expectation, in the expressionist mode of Arnold Schoenberg crossed with John Waters and Jean Genet, I needed a myopic form like the diary.

RBIn a way, a notebook or diary is a personal archive. I know you’re currently going through your own. What is your relationship to the idea of “archiving” your work and is there any particular reason to be doing this project now?

WK Fear of fire, flood, damage, age, disappearance … I didn’t want my papers to disappear, when I disappear. I wanted to find a permanent “home” for them, now, while I’m still working and healthy and onward-looking. Wanted a fresh start, an uncluttered desk. I have a lot of unpublished work, and I like all of it, which doesn’t mean I want to immediately try and publish it—but I want it all to be available, in a library, for others to find, and to publish if they want to, or to read in secret.

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RB Circus is a novel of many obsessions—to start, sexual obsession, which underpins Theo’s daily comings (pun intended) and goings, the man gets twenty erections a day and it appears he can’t just let them slide. I’m still trying to figure out how he can find the time to write all these notebooks in between all the erection deflation visits with hustlers, music students, his aunt, his wife?

WK Theo is good at multi-tasking. And the sexual adventurism and profligacy in the novel is, admittedly, carnivalesque—like in a cartoon, where Bugs Bunny keeps falling off a cliff and then magically reappearing, unhurt. The sex in the book isn’t “realistic”—it’s procedural, as in the Marquis de Sade. A counting game. Permutations.

RBI’m curious what drives this need to be sexually intimate with people constantly, it’s almost as though the idea of not dealing with all of his erections is completely preposterous. So, the erotic as you said is more perfunctory, as a way to deal with the physical situation that arises (I can’t help it, I’m so sorry). What do you think is Theo’s relationship to the act of sex?

WK He is, well, phallically driven. But he has a considerable anal consciousness as well. His relation to sex is literary and musical—theoretical, speculative, embellished. Imagine a musical composition that is all grace notes without the notes to which the grace notes are usually appended. Theo’s sex life is an encyclopedia of grace notes. A confit of addenda.

RBTheo’s sexual obsessions are further complicated by the fact that he is HIV positive and yet seemingly wholly casual about it. Rachel Kushner in her introduction describes him as having a “Kissinger size death drive” which I thought was brilliant. The idea of a “death drive” really interests me at the moment—it sits in antithesis to concepts of “self care,” as it is an active neglect of bodily care that directly leads to a less healthy lifestyle. Theo ultimately comes across as a deeply tragic character despite the coolness of his prose, what do you think?

WKI love Rachel’s phrase, a “Kissenger-size death drive”! Theo is all about the death drive. 24/7 death drive. He wants to combust. Most of the classical music that I love and that Theo loves is dominated by a death drive—whether it’s a Chopin mazurka or a Wagner tetralogy.

I don’t mean this point to sound glib. Truly, the content of Theo’s repertoire is death-driven. I guess Theo is a deeply tragic character. Grandiose and foolish. Charmed—fatally charmed—by his own roulades and poses. Headed toward death; in a sense friendless; I think he feels love for Friedman, one of his “boyfriends” (or hustlers). One of his regulars. And, of course, he loves Moira, but what he feels is more symphonic and pointless and total than love. He loves totality.

RBIt’s as though this intimacy beyond the erotic ultimately leads Theo to find himself disappointed in the character of those around him, with the exception of the one person he’s put on this pedestal—the Italian circus performer you just mentioned, Moira Orfei. This opens up an interesting inroad into ideas of celebrity and stranger obsession. Why do you think Theo fixates on her while neglecting those around him?

WK Because she is his ground and his sky. Without Moira, or the possibility of a reunion with Moira, Theo doesn’t exist. His existence is literally founded on Moira, the idea and image and sound of Moira. Do I sound unnecessarily religious or mystical? His voice, his language, his music-making, his syntax, his adjectives, his trajectory—they all rely on the possibility of Moira or someone like Moira, someone whose art and image summon up totality.

RBIt does seem we live in an era of especially heightened obsession about fame and celebrity. What do you think fuels our interest in the lives and doings of these relative strangers?

WKA wish to get closer to the weird physical and emotional kernel of humanness—and we can’t find this “humanness” kernel in ourselves or in the people we actually know and see—but our hunger for the kernel remains unsatisfied, forever unsatisfied. And so we fasten onto the bits of humanness we find in media—a nose, a pair of lips, an attitude, a costume, a vulnerability, an arrogance … We want to construct a humanness for ourselves, because we don’t feel quite human. We need to build, through voyeurism and fantasy, a primer of how to exist, how to be palpable. We acquire (imaginary) palpability by pumping our system full with the fluids we receive from media spigots.

RBI just read Kate Zambreno’s lovely Screen Tests which examines, among other things, our late night internet rabbit hole journeys, for example famous author photos in which the writer is smoking. Or, me reading every interview with you I could find and obsessing over old photographs of Moira Orfei and her fantastic eyebrows. Do you have any “internet hole obsessions” of your own at the moment?

WKI’m delighted to hear about your rabbit-hole journey! I wonder what you found. At the moment my rabbit-hole journeys are on Instagram. I deep-dive into the feeds of strangers, and cruise-hop between feeds, one stranger to another, tracing kinship systems, friendship-clusters. My Instagram crushes abound—and occupy a surprising degree of bandwidth in my heart.

RBYou started out writing fiction, then moved to poetry, and from there have jumped around the two as well as a great deal of cultural criticism. Are you concerned with the genre people identify you with? That they might call you a “poet” first?

WKI’m happy to be considered primarily a poet—because of my essentially rhapsodic or impressionistic style. I’m not very systematic. Except, sometimes, I get systematic, but in a poet’s fashion. My cultural criticism—is that what it’s called?—is that of a poet, because of its whimsy and detail and openness to linguistic slide.

RBAt the start of a project, do you set out to write any particular style? For instance, did you know Circus was going to be a novel?

WKI wrote an essay about playing the piano: “Game of Pearls.” In one of its paragraphs, I sketch an imaginary novel about a failed pianist. After finishing the essay, I began writing some reflections about piano-playing in various small notebooks. I’d planned, or so I remember, to write a nonfiction book about my piano life. But then Theo’s voice emerged. I turned into Theo.

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