An interview with Kate Durbin: Part I

by Jill Crammond Wickham
Part II is here, in the Winter 2011 issue of Poets’ Quarterly.
Editor’s note: this interview was conducted with Kate in February 2010 so be sure to visit her website for more recent news.

Jill Crammond Wickham: The Ravenous Audience is like no other book of poetry I’ve read. “The words howled at me,” as the speaker in “Learning to Read,” says,  “…first with pleasure, then fear, as I began to realize this wasn’t a television I could turn off…”  How did you put the collection together? In writing the poems, when did you begin to realize they were working together to create a greater whole?
Kate Durbin: I started writing these poems in grad school, without the intention of showing them to anyone. I was getting my MFA in fiction at the time. I wrote the Breillat poems first, as a series of exercises. I did this because Breillat’s work spoke to me in a way that graduate school did not. Workshop was going poorly for me—I wasn’t connecting with most of the advice that was being given, nor the motivations most of the people there held for creating literature in the first place. For me, art is meant to throw a monkey wrench into the institutions that are destroying us. Art is meant to provoke and disturb us out of complacency. Also, art is a deeply spiritual thing, even though I lost my religious faith while writing this book.
I tried to workshop a few of the poems, but they didn’t go over. Nobody knew what to make of them, so it was decided that I was just trying to be “shocking.” And I was, but not in the sense that they thought I was. I was trying to shock myself back into making art, because all those awful stories I’d been prescriptively and obediently writing were not art, they were toilet paper.
However, it didn’t take me long on my own to realize that the poems I was writing belonged together. They all came from a very desperate, hidden place, and so I vomited them up and then artfully constructed them into monsters. An enormous amount of thought went into it, and of course research, but it was all born from passion.
You divided the collection, film-like, into four scenes. Silent film star Clara Bow, movie star Marilyn Monroe and the films of Catherine Breillat are an integral part of The Ravenous Audience. Can you talk about your interest in film and how it impacts your poetry?
The consciousness of the gaze when we read about film was something I wanted to exploit. Adding this awareness to the poems changes the way the poems are read; the reader then applies that consciousness of their own gaze—in the Lacanian sense, and also somewhat the Male Gaze—to their reading of the book, so that the reading of the book, unlike the watching films, is a self-aware activity. Critic Patricia McCormick, who coined the term cinesexuality, explains how “[s]pectatorship is an event which cannot be witnessed.” The reader cannot read these poems the blind way they would read a film, but nor could they read them in the way they would read a book of poems [which also has it’s own blindnesses]. For the book to accuse in the ways I wanted it to accuse, it had to possess some tension regarding “genre” so that the reader would take it on it’s own terms.
I’m fascinated by this concept of cinesexuality, whereby cinema has the ability to produce intense pleasure in a viewer, to create desire in “excess of the meaning of images and their deferral to established sexualities.” This concept—or something akin to it—is one I explore in Clara Bow’s silent film poem, and also in Marilyn Monroe’s interview poem. For me, it relates back to the idea of the ravenous audience or the peanut-crunching crowd that Plath refers to in her poem “Lady Lazarus.” Essentially, cinesexuality gets to the heart of why the peanut crunching crowd is so dangerous. It reveals why they have this strong desire  [need] for cinema, and for the screen siren. It tells us why our culture is so obsessed with movie stars and why we pay them the big bucks. Because they are ciphers for our desires we don’t want to name and claim.  And the price for being a cipher, especially if you are a woman, is very high. My poem “Romance,” based on Catherine Breillat’s film, can be read this way. The woman becomes a Christ figure/S&M victim; she surrenders [or is forced into surrendering, it is intentionally left vague] her image up so we can be born, violently, in the theater. Marilyn makes the same sacrifice in her interview poem. There is something so beautifully generous in this gesture, but also deeply disturbing. We leave the theater with blood on our hands if we have refused to own our desires that have sprung to life [pun intentional] on the silver screen.
Instead of a persona poem, you give Marilyn Monroe a voice through an interview poem. How did “Our Marilyn(s): Interview” come about? What inspired your decision to explore Monroe in this fashion?
I’m glad that you noted this is not a persona poem. Even though my text is full of so-called persona poems, none are really persona poems, because this notion of persona insists on a fixed identity and these women are pulling against their various fixed cultural identities [though not totally successfully, and that is intentional]. Also, they are all performing; the entire book is a film divided into scenes, as you pointed out in your earlier question. None of this is “the real story.”
I didn’t want to turn these women into dolls and put them behind glass in my museum; everyone has already done that. Everyone has his or her own Marilyn fuck doll, which is why the poem is called Our Marilyn(s). Even I do—I am not exempt, and the poem calls attention to this self-implication, with the shift at the end, after the butterflies are cued.
I’ve talked a bit about why I chose the interview form in particular for this poem in a previous interview. (
You have a very playful approach to form. Line spacing, word placement…each poem has its own unique appearance on the page. I’m thinking of the formatting of such poems as “Statues of Women: All the Same,” “Write Her Theater,” “Doll Dress,” and “Live Bear.” What dictates a certain poem’s layout? Do the poems, in a sense, “tell you” how they want to appear?      
I wish it were as simple as them telling me how they want to appear, but often they are very coy with me.
As I worked on the poems I started to see how each poem had individuality and how each form seemed to represent the unique experience of each woman in the book. So the forms became outfits in a sense, which is something I’ve talked about in other interviews. And sometimes the woman needed to change outfits, so the form of the poem would change—maybe she felt that the reader was seeing her as a dominatrix, when she was a nurse too. She, too, did not want to suffocate under my arbitrary rules. This also relates back to what I was saying about self-awareness. To keep the reader self-aware, so that he or she could not fall into the poem blindly, I had to keep switching forms.
Also, I want to add that I don’t think my forms are particularly boundary breaking, and I also don’t think that these women’s experiences are “new.” Women’s victimization, either at the hands of others or of herself, is one of the oldest stories in the book, and one of the stories I am most tired of yet I cannot deny its repetition in the world. This is why I think the various forms start to feel arbitrary—like, you can change the dressing but you cannot change the wound. Though I don’t believe that, actually. I’m more of the mind that the dressing is the wound is the balm for the wound.
Scattered among the famous/infamous women, Jesus makes a few appearances. Where does He fit in to your aesthetic?
One way to read the text is as a mystical odyssey from childhood unto death. Jesus is a beatific figure that pops in and out to beckon the reader along. As I mentioned previously, I lost my religion as I wrote this book, so I was trying to regurgitate my relationship to this figure who had always been really pivotal to me (who still is pivotal to me) much in the same way that I was trying to regurgitate these iconic female figures who narratives I had ingested as a child. In losing my religion the only thing that brought me lasting sadness was losing Jesus, since he had really been my secret boyfriend forever.
But I bravely vomited up Jesus just as I did the women. It was important to me, even as he is very “mystical” in the text, to make him as visceral and grotesque as the women. What I didn’t expect was for this new Jesus to be so fashionable—he’s a real rock star. He’s a very materialistic Jesus—first he is felt, then polyester. Also, he’s a slut.
In many ways, from your subject matter to your costumes, you are as dramatic, as iconic as the women you write about. How would you describe your persona?
That’s kind of you to say. It’s important to me to be bold. However, I am also a very anxious person—I actually have an anxiety disorder.
And yet—beneath the anxiety that has so much to do with how I was raised, in the Christian church and in a family where I was taught to turn myself inside out, to make other people more important than myself, to self-castrate—I am fiercely independent and brave and not afraid to fail. I know one of the things that makes me stand out, and makes my work stand out, is that I chase after my own artistic vision. It took balls to publish The Ravenous Audience—the book has alienated family members, and lost me some of my Christian friends (I had one “friend” walk out in the middle of my book launch). All of that for a book that might not even be quantifiably “good,” that might not change anyone’s life but mine. On top of that, it takes guts to dress the way I do, especially when other poets don’t dress up.
Recently I started a critical writings and arts journal about Lady Gaga called Gaga Stigmata (, because I find her work to be decisive to this moment in pop cultural history. I have already gotten hate mail from intellectuals with superiority complexes, who think that pop stars shouldn’t be critically engaged with, except to dismiss. I love hate mail. I started a feminist club at my conservative Evangelical Christian University when I was nineteen and I got loads of hate mail. Hate mail means you’re touching the nerve.
I don’t know that I would call any aspect of myself a persona, per se, though I would say that I am all about channeling iconic women and their strengths (both in poems and in costumes), as well as their weaknesses, because it is in weakness where we learn the most. I am also all about performing the person you want to be in the world, however messy or abject that performance might look on a given day.
From the “costumes” page of your website, it looks like whenever you read, you are sporting a different costume (my favorite is the butterfly hood). Why costumes? What do you feel they add to your poetry?
The costumes go with the poems I choose for particular readings, as well as with the venue and audience. I call them fashion performances, and they are meant to provoke. The poems themselves alter in conjunction with the costumes—they are “read” differently by the audience. Sometimes I add elements of performance beyond that, but those elements are always closely linked to the dress, whether they are gestures or altering the costume somehow. For example, at a reading I did recently I had someone pin blood roses to my tights as I read my poem “New Creature,” which is about a woman who flees naked into the forest after her father violates her. In the forest she has a transformative experience.
Your question is making me think of Alexander McQueen, who was accused of creating clothes for women that were too cruel, too bizarre. He said: “I want people to be afraid of the woman I dress.” When I read in costume, I want people to be afraid of this creature standing before them, as people cowered before angels in the Bible. I want there to be as visceral a reaction to the woman speaking as there is to the poetry being spoken.
I see a beautiful connection between fashion and poetry; both are artifice, both are ways of expressing our becoming. Together they have even more power than they do alone. When I was a baby one of the shows I loved to watch was Wheel of Fortune (one of my first words, consequently, was “Banna” for “Vanna White”). I love the glittering words and the glittering dresses Vanna wore. As I grew older my parents discouraged my interest in fashion, while my interest in writing was encouraged (though my interest in romance and horror and teen magazines was not). This same attitude was carried into graduate school—not that people in my MFA program didn’t like my clothes, but even now people have trouble seeing the relationship between what I am wearing and what I am saying, when really they are the same thing in two different languages.
By the powers that be, poetry is seen as a pure, high art, and fashion taints the purity of poetry. This is part of the reason I dress the way that I do, now—to mess with the institution of poetry, which frankly disgusts me because it has alienated so many from loving the art form. It would be different if I were parading down the streets in black paint with the Baroness von Elsa. At that time, poets didn’t have such a deep (pocket) investment in the donning the cloak of the academy. Christ said by their fruits you will know them, and I say by their costumes you will know who owns them.
Have you had any theater experience?
Absolutely none! I have horrible performance anxiety, actually. But I just incorporate that into my readings now. I would like to induce anxiety in my listeners. Even better if they would vomit, but that has never happened.
Are you, as the blurb on the back of The Ravenous Audience suggests, “intent on upsetting the reader and [yourself]”?
By upset I mean that in the most literal way, the way that you would upset a bench someone is sitting on by turning it over.
I think the only way to truly upset the reader’s bench is to upset your own bench. You are the primary reader of your own work. Artists are not preachers or politicians with an institutional agenda; they are prophets. Prophets receive messages that upset. In the Bible prophets are always moaning at God because He tells them some message of death and destruction that they really don’t want to pass along. And they become very depressed about it.
I had no idea what The Ravenous Audience would become as I wrote it. And as I followed the trail of crumbs into the dark, I lost my religious faith, alienated certain people in my life, and went through many dark nights of the soul in the St. John of the Cross sense. My bench, suffice to say, was totally upset. I’m so glad it was! For it was a bench constructed by my parents and our fucked up culture and the church. I don’t want that bench to be my foundation. I’ll take the grit of earth, facedown, any day.