PRINT May 1995


You didn’t know it could sound like this, smell like this, throb like this—thinking, so lemony and sexy, at such a voltage. It’s high time to bring glamour back to thinking, style back to reading, risk back to poetry, and Wayne Koestenbaum is the best “one-man firecracker committee,” as he calls himself in his poem “Rhapsody,” to accomplish this reprieve. In his work the thrilling and at times contradictory energies of Roland Barthes, Sophia Loren (with whom he shares a birthday), Frank O’Hara, Elisabeth Scwharzkopf, and a hot anonymous hustler meet for tea. Although Koestenbaum’s contribution to queer theory is vital, his interpretive acuity should never be hastily separated from his poetic gifts, since his concern is always language as thinking as pleasure. Koestenbaum explores how bodies and words occupy time and space—which is why movies, movie stars, music, photographs, and the various perfumes of the quotidian are his leitmotifs. His consideration of desire’s elusive nature creates a crucial, difficult esthetic, perhaps even an impossible one. Koestenbaum asks, as Gertrude Stein did, “If it can be done why do it?”

A recent recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, Koestenbaum is the author of two critical works—Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration (Routledge, 1989) and The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire (Poseidon, 1993)—and two invigorating collections of poetry: Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems (Persea, 1990) and Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender (Persea, 1994). He is an associate professor of English at Yale University. We met for lunch at La Côte Basque to discuss speed, chic, repose, and other matters central to his most radical book yet, Jackie under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon, out this month from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.


WAYNE KOESTENBAUM: Trying to imagine Jackie and Ari or Jackie and Truman or Lee and Truman on these banquettes when La Côte Basque was now is almost impossible, impossible almost to imagine that then was ever now. It looks like a French restaurant from the ’40s. That’s what I love about it. Old-fashioned French restaurants. The wine. All the plates. Also the banquettes. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a restaurant that had this much banquette action.

BRUCE HAINLEY: What’s the best seat? Where would Jackie have sat? It’s a hard room to negotiate.

WK: I think they would have been in one of those back banquettes. You reach a certain level of fame and you don’t want to be seen. There would have been too little privacy for them to have sat right here, but in terms of sightlines this isn’t bad. We can see everything.

BH: What are the poetics of sitting?

WK: Lethargy is a doorway to creativity. Gertrude Stein said that Alice B. Toklas would call her autobiography The Wives of Geniuses I Have Sat With. Think of Alice, how she sat on the edge of her chair, and how Gertrude sat back. There is so much to learn from how they sat.

BH: Do you sit to read, or do you recline?

WK: I cannot lie down to read—I need to sit up straight. Colette wrote in bed, I think that’s really important, and I wish I could write lying down, but I cannot. I have my desk at a window and I look out. I used to have a desk against a wall, so most of my introspection took place looking at stucco. My study is really important to me: it’s never comfortable enough. The places I have written at have always been incredibly internal. I am not at one with the physical space I’m in. I’m a pretty disembodied person. I actually feel when I’m writing that I’m not in my study, I just need my study as the chamber where I can get lost in space, where I can go to these other playgrounds and bathrooms. That may be rather banal.

BH: Isn’t the banal what needs to be tapped into, though? Get into banal?

WK: I know! I love it. I’m really banal, defiantly banal. I was talking to a student recently about Jane Bowles, and about how any object in the Bowles oeuvre is a banality that can quickly blossom into a luxury. I’m really interested in figuring out why Jane Bowles didn’t complete things. Wasn’t Two Serious Ladies, which is her major complete work, originally Three Serious Ladies? What could have been different around her that would have made what she was doing look complete enough for her to call it complete? What kind of optic cast her as incomplete? It wasn’t the traditional homophobic one, because she seemed to move with freedom and flexibility over any homophobic corral. How interesting it is to read a writer whose task is incomplete, just for the lessons about incompletion therein.

BH: This goes back to lethargy and sitting.

WK: I have not at all expressed the depth of my feelings for sitting. These days, as I sit, I am trying to read the silence around me. Just as in Andy Warhol’s Empire, I’m trying to stare. I am trying to step deeply into boredom, without material or narcotic aids. There’s this movie, The Proud Ones, or Les Orgueilleux, from 1953. It’s by a French director I haven’t heard of. It’s pure Jane Bowles. A woman is stuck in a town in Mexico, and her husband has gotten the plague. He dies, and she stays on in this little hotel. The scene: her husband is dead, the funeral is over, and she retires to her bedroom. She takes off her whatever, and she’s in her bra and slip. She lies on the bed and she kills a cockroach. She takes a little portable fan and runs it all up and down her body to cool off. Totally amazing. I’ve never heard of any of the stars who are in it. It’s really sexual.

BH: Let’s talk about theory and passion. While you were writing Double Talk, was your poetry already providing you with a way to accomplish a more passionate form of theory?

WK: When I finished Double Talk, I knew how unaccommodating I had been to the millions of voices and nuances in my head. There was just no room in that straitened book for other kinds of thinking. Somebody said to me last night, and I wanted to slap him, I had said that I really loved poems again, that they seemed transgressive in a way they never had before, and he said, Do you mean transgressive on a psychological or a political level? I just stopped and I inwardly fumed and I said, A little of both. I thought, If you’re going to have to figure out whether a gesture is psychologically or politically transgressive before you proceed, you’ll never transgress. There is just no hope. I think it’s hubris to figure out if what you’re doing is transgressive. You will get the message that it is when people violently disagree with you, or when you feel within yourself a kind of violent revulsion against what you’re trying to do. While I’m actually writing I feel an ecstatic charge, but I often wake up in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning stricken with lucid dread at what I am writing. But why not forge on: I trust, disgust, and dread as much as I trust lust.

I never thought of poems, of Ode to Anna Moffo, as theory at the time, or I wouldn’t have wanted to write them. I remember when I read Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes for the first time, I was grabbed by the thought that there was a space, sanctioned as theory, where you could talk about the photographs that triggered your imagination. That was the beginning of the tunnel that I wanted to traffic in.

BH: You say in your poem “Erotic Collectibles,” “He was pre-med, I was prenothing.” I wonder now if you’re postsomething?

WK: [laughs] Post-“about.” Exactly.

BH: You talked once to me about the connection between Jackie and Madame Sin, the Bette Davis vehicle from 1972. The island. Bette’s evil. Severe, staunch Bette lost in the haze of the ’70s.

WK: I had a pang that I couldn’t talk in the book about Jackie as Madame Sin, the evil of Jackie. That particular zap technique in the film, where they just—zap. She enters you. She discombobulates you. Talk about Bette under My Skin—Bette Davis and her sexual greed. I don’t remember in what direction her sexual greed goes. It just goes. She’s jealous—

BH:Of everyone.

WK: I love it mostly for the sunglasses. Bette wanted to work when she didn’t have to work, that’s part of her staunchness: she continues.

BH: It’s her work ethic: you go to work.

WK: And Madame Sin’s work is mass murder. Beauty’s meanness.

BH: Beauty is mean. Jackie was everywhere, why did no one seem to care? Not that there haven’t been biographies and memoirs, but why hasn’t there been thinking about Jackie?

WK: Just try to think about Jackie. You think she’s beneath thought: just try. Talk about the stun gun of Bette Davis—it’s Jackie who stuns, and her power to stun, her tabooness, comes from her position outside intellectual discourse. To think about Jackie is almost impossible.

BH: Icon Jackie—you can’t look at anything else. You’re always doing a double take to catch Jackie.

WK: In reading my galleys, I’ve noticed the profound circularity of my thinking about Jackie. I like Jackie because she is sublime; Jackie is sublime and so I like her. I like Jackie; Jackie is what I like. My paragraphs perform a movement in which they pretend to be moving linearly toward an argument but always just return to their foundation, Jackie. Revising the book, I made handwritten notes all along the left margin around the typed text to the top of the page, then down along the right-hand side and back around the bottom. When I was trying to retype those pages, it was incredibly hard to discover where the sentences began within this circle. Typed text surrounded by pen circlings: that’s Jackie’s O. The circularity of trying to think about her: where are you going to begin? You’re going to begin outside her, in theory, and apply theory to Jackie? Not on your life—not on my life.

BH: Hypnotic and repetitive, like Gertrude Stein.

WK: I’ve been reading practically nothing but Stein, and I thought, How odd that I’m writing this book about Jackie and reading Gertrude Stein. But Stein and Jackie are closer than any two figures in the world. My obsession with Stein these days has to do with Jackie parturition, postpartum depression. Post-Jackie, what’s left but Gertrude Stein? My table of contents, that’s Stein’s influence—the repetition of Jackie, how many times the word “Jackie” appears in the book. It’s just me looking at Jackie. That’s it.

BH: If you begin with Jackie you’re going to end with Jackie—so what are you going to think about?

WK: If you’re thinking about anything, you better zoom ahead—beyond what you’re thinking about. As you say, postsomething. An essay I read said that feminist film theory needed to get rid of psychoanalysis, but it couldn’t, because you couldn’t just begin out of the blue. I thought, Ah, yes, that’s what I want, exactly: criticism out of the blue! If you’re more committed to Jackie than to any school of thought or conduct, and you’re willing to throw out everything but Jackie, that’s when theory begins. That’s what postsomething means. I’d be willing to throw away everything to enter the Jackie space. Jackie is first, anything else is second—any commitment, any ideology.

BH: Any erotics.

WK: Any erotics at all.

BH: Say what you’re really interested in and it will have something to do with all the things happening in your body at once. The difficulty is how to remain truthful to that. In your work, jackie sends you back to Roland Barthes and the third meaning and Camera Lucida. You can say the third meaning to so many people—

WK: —Nobody knows what the third meaning is.

BH: Jackie insists upon the third meaning—the “obtuse,” that which makes thought and language “skid. ” Icon jackie is—

WK: —Completely the third meaning. Stein talked about the continuous present, about having to begin again. Writing is only beginning again: you start and you begin again. In a piece on gardening in The New Yorker a while ago, Jamaica Kincaid said, If you don’t know what you want to give somebody for a gardening present, just draw what you’ll give them and write, To Come. That’s what postsomething means: to be interested in To Come, in all the senses of “coming.” Move on. Postsomething. That’s also what’s moving to me about Jane Bowles—writing block as a really creative space. The block is postsomething: postlanguage, postwriting. My dream has always been to retire and sit: whatever it is that you’re about is over. When I was in Miami I was thinking of how people retire to Florida and it’s supposed to be so pathetic, but think of the life that begins with an exit! Like the Beales! The life that begins when you’re retired or a has-been! The possibilities in being Alexandra del Lago: you’re postcareer, you’re not producing, you’re silent. Then what do you begin to produce when you’re not writing anymore? That’s what’s so interesting about Stein.

BH: And about Joseph Cornell, who never really had a career. A nothing.

WK: A nothing. The pathetic space of being a pest. Writing letters to people you don’t know, and who don’t respond. Postintimate. You don’t have relations with people, you only pester them.

BH: The impetus of Icon Jackie is, I can. I can do anything. I can pester you.

WK: All the I’s in interpretation and icon—that’s why they’re interesting. Jackie is the i.e. function: Jack—break—i.e. Her circularity again.

BH: Saying “Jackie,” you’re saying everything and nothing at the same time. Certain ladies’ scarves hold all that in. If you don’t wear the scarf to hold it all in you’ll be in outer space, jackie O-uterspace.

WK: Wrapping. Christo and wrapping: what does it mean just to wrap something? What does it mean to wrap who you are, or are thought to be? Postsomething and retirement: you’re this, and then you’re going to wrap it, close it. You make it a gift.

BH: The gift of postnow. We are always postnow.

WK: That’s the importance of Warhol and the tape recorder: you bring now along.

BH: Now goes with us.

WK: Move on. No more tasks. The importance of dithering. Wasting time and money.

BH: Babble. The importance of being wrong.

WK: Thinking or theory is best when it’s wrong. That’s the paradigm, the postulate. Why say something if it’s not wrong? The right things have already been said.

BH: And who wants to say them again?

WK: They won’t be good sentences if they’re right. To Come isn’t an accurate statement about anything; it’s a wish. The notions that we batten on: no more tasks. Move on. I can. Staunch. Retirement. Sitting. Repetition. Now.

BH: A book about Jackie so easily could have been a nostalgia trip, but your book is not. Nor is it estheticism, because the attention you pay is too active.

WK: No, it’s a book about the future, how I’m going to step forward to the I-lands. It’s about travel, where you’re going next: how to leave an identity. It’s my swan song to queerness.

BH: Does the word “gay” even appear?

WK: It appears once, but in the old-fashioned sense. I talk about Jackie’s ability to move on, to be gay, to party, to not remain a widow. To be gay there, in Stein’s sense: just go there, away.

BH: What was in Jackie’s purse?

WK: I’ve thought about it a lot. In The Proud Ones, the woman who’s stuck in Mexico—she is totally Jackie—her husband dies and she has to move on. So what’s she going to do? She’s going to take the fan and cool her body. She doesn’t even have enough money to bury him. She empties her purse: she can’t find any money in it. What’s in a woman’s purse? Lipstick, compact. There is always more in a purse than the space seems able to hold, physically. The purse is another dimension. If we say that the purse is Jackie’s sexuality, or my sexuality, let it remain that. Do not displace it.

BH: Desire and sexuality are on the wrist if anywhere: they dangle out.

WK: Dangle. Pulse points. Babble. The importance of baby talk: Stein is baby talk and nonsense, Jackie is baby talk.

BH: Baby-talk is simple and repetitive.

WK: “Great.” “Fantastic.” “O.” “Gee.” Think about how these walls have resounded with Jackie’s and Truman’s “O.”

BH: I’m gaga over all of it.

WK: I’m gaga over all of it.

BH: Could you talk about the theory of perfume and soap, perfume as terra incognita, and Francis Ponge, who wrote Soap?

WK: Soap is a great structure: how long a bar takes. Le Savon. “I know it,” or, actually, “We know it.” We know Jackie. Le Savon: “it” could be Jackie, that thing that we know and that we try to cleanse. Lady Macbeth trying to get the spot out. Soap is a corrective to the sinful. Soap’s noninvolvement—but I’ve been talking about soap and not Ponge. What’s so exciting about Ponge is that his work is simply about soap. He doesn’t hinge it on any school. He doesn’t take it to task.

BH: He loves that it’s going away.

WK: Going away, it’s now. It’s replenishable and cheap. It’s a supply. It’s everywhere. If you’re interested in soap, you’ll find it in prison, in the train station, in hotel rooms. You travel with it. I don’t have soap with me right this minute, but it’s close by. For me, soap’s importance is Jackie’s importance: it exists on the line between possession and edibility. You can’t eat Jackie, but you almost can, because she’s an icon: you’d be consuming the Host. (Of course Jackie was a hostess—think of her White House tour.) Jackie’s O is Orality.

In terms of eating and consumption, there are analogous shapes I want to mention, vanishing shapes: buttons. The buttons of ice. I have always chewed ice. I’m a big ice-chewer. Sugar cubes. Butter cubes. Soap. When I look at a bar of soap I want to eat it. A bar of soap is a cake of soap. Right now I’m pursuing tilleul, linden. I don’t go for musk but for lemon, or lime blossom. I love when asked, What are you working on?, to be able to say, Jackie. What are you working on? Soap.

Soap is also a process. What Ponge teaches: to be interested in the process of thinking, period. I am keenly interested in the process and movement of thought. My thought moves the most, circles the most, in the presence of Jackie pictures. Soap: compulsiveness. Obsessive hand-washers, masturbators. I am obsessive. I am obsessive in my prose. I decided that obsession would be my method. I would repeatedly wash my hands but never get rid of Jackie presence, because I never want to be rid of it.

BH: Jackie’s gloves cover her hands. Late Jackie—Halston Jackie—wore gloves. One of the last pictures of Jackie shows her wearing gloves.

WK: It’s late to be wearing gloves. Wrapped hands. What Jackie did with her hands: she wrote notes. She put on and wore jewelry. Wearing gloves, she covered her hands. She chain-smoked. She had big, obviously nicotine-discolored hands. Big staunch hands.

BH: Could you talk about Susan Sontag?

WK: First of all: metaphor. A willingness to be wrong. I’m thinking of Sontag being against interpretation. Illness as metaphor, she says, meaning, Correct the metaphors—but then she turns to The Volcano Lover and Alice in Bed. Her career means so much to me. She has been torn between, what? In a way, between truth and lying; between the deceit of metaphor and some kind of truth of staunch commentary. What we are allowing ourselves, and what is not allowed, is being wrong, making a mistake: theorizing on the basis of pun and metaphor. That is the third meaning. The closet. Against Interpretation. The importance of her saying, No more tasks, meaning, Let me move toward mistakes. Let me go back to bed. That’s the invalid, the in-valid, Alice in bed. Retirement again and writing block. Susan Sontag is sublime. Now that Jackie’s dead, she’s a reason it’s nice to go to New York. Not that one sees her, but that New York is good enough for Susan Sontag.

BH: No tasks, because asking one’s self questions is not a task?

WK: It’s self-love. Autofellatio.

BH: Few today read theory for what it is—a cabinet, a shop-window of metaphors. Shop it, don’t read it for conclusions.

WK: It’s also about theft. I remember when we went to Frank O’Hara’s grave and stole some violets to place on his tombstone, how important that gesture was. “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible”—which means the grace to be born and let yourself wander, retire, and steal. In terms of theory, the shopping cabinet: if you like it, steal it. That is the gesture I want to enact.

BH: Cornell called Sontag “the Ellipsian.”

WK: She’s stylish. A mover. International. She keeps silent when she feels like it, and she never does anything she doesn’t want to do. She travels and writes little books, again and again. She stands up for what she believes in. She assumes that the central project in anything she writes is her mind interacting with a subject. Her AIDS book [AIDs and Its Metaphors] was considered controversial; it was not about AIDS, it was about writing. And that is considered taboo, but it really is radical and true. Her book was necessarily a writing project—period. Sontag is someone who is primarily interested in sentences. Or paragraphs.

BH: Good for her that her book was wrong, that that didn’t matter.

WK: Of course it didn’t matter! By the time anyone notices that it’s wrong, she has moved on to the next thing. Good for her for saying, I do not need to submit to the tyranny of “about.” She’s smart. She’s clean. She’s French. She wrote the introduction to the American edition of Writing Degree Zero. She wrote an essay about Manhood.

BH: Someone else who is importantly interested in sentences and paragraphs is Cynthia Krupat, whom you met recently.

WK: Cynthia Krupat is the Edith Head of books. Many of the quality books of the last twenty-five years have been wrapped by Cynthia Krupat, who is in charge of the look of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In an essay on Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich acknowledges Cynthia Krupat’s design. To have Adrienne Rich bond with Bishop is already crossing weird lines of propriety, but to have her invoke the name of the book designer is kind of like her mentioning, Oh, that’s a beautiful Ferragamo scarf you have! Adrienne’s acknowledging wrapping!

What I give Cynthia Krupat credit for is spaciousness. She has insisted that proportions remain classic: wide margins, space at the bottom of the page. Her care with details: she cares about the way a book is wrapped. She is interested in the book as an object, in books that make you want to think, in books that make you want to write. You want to “make” a book. You want to “do” books, the way you “do” someone.

BH: Space in the sense of elegance as refusal. Refusing may give you more space. “Move on” is a refusal.

WK: Absolutely. I admire her privacy and secrecy. Her name appears a lot in the books, but her importance is the importance of the undersung collaborators in bookmaking. What Cynthia Krupat means to us is attentiveness to the third meaning. Cynthia Krupat is the third meaning of Elizabeth Bishop. If what we’re gleaning from Elizabeth Bishop is a certain refusal, then it’s implicit in the way her books are presented to the world.

BH: In Jackie under My Skin, you find Jackie essence in four words: “Jicky,” “Chiclets,” “petits fours,” and “clip-ons.” What four words would give me Wayne essence?

WK: Soap. Lemons. Reels (of film: 16-mm. film reels). Paper cuts.

BH: It’s interesting the last is a p word, because I was going to guess “porno.”

WK: Oh, porno! Thank you. Porno, definitely. Miniature porn. My nudism handbooks. Porn’s cuteness.

BH: Tell me more about your nudism handbooks.

WK: Take any nude pictures from Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, TV Guide, it doesn’t matter what gender, take any reference to nudity, any reference to an industry that includes nudity, annotate them. Scotch-tape them together in a little book and hide it somewhere. I would hide the handbooks in record albums mostly. There were several volumes. There used to be a lot of soft-porn magazines, like Adam and Cavalier, that you could buy at 7-11. The urge to compile is directly related to the nudism handbooks. In fact I was going to call my first book Nudism Handbook.

BH: Make it the title of your collected works. In “Rhapsody” you say, “Bruce of Los Angeles captures what I like best in a human form, which is nudity substituting for consciousness and Aristotelian unities.” Who are men you gush over—men you want to see nude?

WK: Alec Baldwin. I wrote a poem for him. He’s really really hairy, and he’s just so vampiric. I love that he is of our era. That’s what’s most exciting about Alec Baldwin: to be simultaneous with somebody you could strip. With the figures photographed by Bruce of Los Angeles, there’s a temporal disjunction. Ramon Navarro is great and his picture is on my refrigerator, but he’s dead. To discover someone like Alec Baldwin or Ralph Fiennes! All my life my primary erotic archetype has been simultaneous nudity, the idea that at the same time as there are civilized goings-on, at any second the nudity switch can be flicked. It’s a myth, it’s not what adult life is like, you’re not suddenly switched into the nude mode, except when you’re writing a poem or are in the classroom. Suddenly, like in the movies, you’re doing a nude scene. I love getting as many nude scenes out of life as possible.

BH: Cute and new, nude and shiny!

WK: Cute and shiny! There is nothing that matters to me that is not susceptible to shininess. La Côte Basque is a really shiny restaurant. Mirrors everywhere, the plates shiny, the wine shiny.

BH: The surface of the photograph is shiny.

WK: And that shininess is what I have wanted my entire life. You once asked me whether the page was a mirror or an ocean. I am interested in the space of the ocean—as an I-land dweller, I am interested in the ocean that is around the I-land—but the page is the movie screen, in that the third meaning of the page, of writing, for me, is the page that I roll into the typewriter, and that is why I said movie reels. Projection and movement and twirling. Being held, as the reel holds the blank film. In writing Rhapsodies . . . , putting the page in the typewriter sideways meant that it was going to resemble a movie screen, which is so beautifully a rectangle on its side, and it meant deciding that I wanted to highlight the blankness. Chiclets are shaped like a movie screen. As a kid I used to draw movie screens obsessively, as a hobby.

BH: Light connects these things. We fall in love with light and shadow.

WK: “There’s a certain Slant of light,/Winter Afternoons—/That oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes—” The melancholy of light. The melancholy of cheerfulness, too. No comparison need be true or binding—what is interesting is the speed of movement, crossing from one place in your mind to another. That is poetry: the line break.

BH: The schism. The slant.

WK: The dash. Crossing the punishment of the asterisk. What I like about the asterisks in “Rhapsody,” what I like about the short sentences in Jackie under My Skin, what I like about injecting Jackie, is crossing the barrier, crossing the line, breaking the line. Paper cuts. What is Jackie to me: she is a paper cut. She cuts me.

BH: Didn’t someone in a John Waters flick inject eyeliner?

WK: [laughter]

BH: You “do” eyeliner. I think the ink you write in is eyeliner.

WK: Absolutely. Evanescent and untrue. Thinking more about Jackie and paper cuts: I think of Jackie as a wound and a ripping open. Stardom’s connection to scars: Liz’s tracheotomy, the cut in her throat, the cut that made her Cleopatra. The way you don’t know you have a paper cut until you squeeze a lemon, which reveals that you have been cut by what you have been reading, or by what you have been writing. I can’t tell you how much blood there is on the Jackie manuscript in my files.

BH: Jackie’s “Keep in touch” is an astringent gesture.

WK: Jackie’s transit, the moment of her sublime friendliness, her inclusiveness: it’s a cut. She’s cutting you. She’s saying, I’m moving on. It’s time to leave the party, and she moves. On. The beauty of meanness: Jackie under My Skin and doing eyeliner don’t superficially hurt. On the surface, it’s not a machete, it’s not violence, it’s not appropriation, but what is happening is this weird subcutaneous fuck.

BH: Slip in.

WK: Slip in.

BH: What of the books at Jackie’s deathbed, of Jackie as reader, and as editor? Some names: Colette, Cavafy, Jean Rhys.

WK: Jackie liked Jean Rhys probably before most people did. We think of Jackie as an elite survivor, but in fact, in metaphor, she stayed at fleabag hotels. The whole post—J. F. K. space was a sordid, flea bag, Jean Rhys existence. Absinthe. Falling. Wallpaper.

Colette: just that famous quote from Time magazine 1961, that she liked everything from “Colette to Kerouac.” I just love Colette writing in bed. Colette and Frenchness. Colette and earthly delights, pleasures, diaries, music halls. Colette is somebody who moved on. What is moving is that we don’t know what Jackie read, but we would be wrong to underestimate it. The few hints that we have: we know that she read Proust long ago and again. We know that she had a lot of time. Every account says that she would rather have been reading than anything. She buried herself in books, was a book person. Books became Jackie-ized.

BH: Jackie was the voracious reader.

WK: Most people would have called her a dilettante. Someone said, perhaps Philip Johnson did, that Jackie was a dilettante in the best sense: the dandy sense, the lost sense. Apparently the poem Caroline Kennedy read at her funeral was an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem from a book that Jackie had won at Miss Porter’s School. Little Edie saying, “I studied Litra-choor,” or “The Marble Faun is moving in.” The weird way boarding-school education sewed a “novel” frame of reference into these staunch women—so that they lived novels, even if they weren’t, by highbrow standards, educated women. Even Little Edie, who didn’t go to college, lived The Marble Faun, the way Jackie lived Madame Bovary, lived Proust. Jackie lived dramas of time and circularity. There is no better way to live Proust than via Jackie. If you’re not going to read Proust, which you should anyway, read Proust through Jackie who read Proust, which wasn’t lost on her.

BH: We need to return to the glamour of reading, the glamour of being smart, the glamour of stylishness, the glamour of shopping. Who wants pleasure cocktails with guilt chasers? No one.

WK: No, no one. Such a moving phrase of Jackie’s, I still don’t even fathom it: she said, “Oh, and give Joe Kennedy Sr. make-believe cocktails, I don’t think he really drinks.” This is part of being a good hostess, to be sure Joe Kennedy had the appearance of a cocktail. Another thing I’ve noticed: Jackie is, in most pictures, sideways. When the pictures are cropped you don’t notice it, but she would lean toward her interlocutor from the waist—she wouldn’t slump over but would, literally, lean. That’s part of Jackie as paper cut, Jackie moving on: she’d be working the room, wearing one of her Doric-column dresses, and she wouldn’t be standing back the way those awful people do when you’re talking to them. Jackie was not passive-aggressive; Jackie was phallic. How phallic her hairdos are! Idiots have identified her with phallic, phallocratic men.

BH: They only got their cratic through her phallus.

WK: I know: they got “it” from Jackie. Her erectness. Jackie’s superbness. Jackie’s meanness. No one ever said Jackie was nice. Anthony Quinn starred in The Greek Tycoon because Jackie snubbed him in a restaurant. The world is Jackie’s salon des refusés.

BH: There is no mention of Michel Leiris in your bibliography, yet Jackie under My Skin notices Leiris’ importance in a profound way. In thinking about Jackie, you’re doing an anthropology of glamour.

WK: Ah, Leiris! The Rules of the Game! Manhood, everyone should know it: the greatest. “Bit buttock!” Eating the inappropriate, remembering the inappropriate, basing literature on the inappropriate. The summer I wrote “Dog Bite” I was reading Leiris and Proust. And then I wrote “Dog Bite,” in which I took a bite, a violation, an invasion, a crossing, a cut, and said, I am going to delve. I am going to go as far as I can go via this bite. Writing is biting. I will, I hope, go farther on the Leiris path with Jackie. I have only begun to tap Jackie reverberations. Self-love, self-indulgence, is only the beginning. You just go!

BH: With the pun and the faux!

WK: The mistake. Mis-hearing and misrepresentation. There is nothing in my life, nothing in my world, that would not be more illuminated, more redolent, by the aid of Jackie. For me, basically, Jackie is writing. That doesn’t mean I’m writing Jackie, but that Jackie is memory, just like writing is memory.

BH: “Who cares about poems?” That’s a line from one of your poems. What can poetry do that nothing else can?

WK: Reading poetry is essentially like writing poetry. The only reason I read poetry is that I like to imagine there are people out there who think things like this and actually write them down. I don’t really care about poems in the sense of thinking that there’s a Great Chain of Being of poems, that some poems are better than others, and that you’re a poet because you can climb up the great chain. That’s really boring and depressing, as is anyone who thinks about poems in that way. In terms of a space for play, though, there’s none better than poetry.

BH: A silence I hope everyone notices: your turning from opera—the breath as sound, vocality—to the most silent woman on the planet, ever. It’s the turn from Maria Callas to Jackie. Truman Capote was deeply in love with mute women. Swans are mute.

WK: Silent stars. Callas was the greatest opera singer of the century, and the most glamorous opera singer of the century, but Jackie was 20th-century American opera. What it means for her to be operatic is that she makes you think about silence, she makes you think about throwing your voice and throwing away your voice. She makes you think about the mythic risks of everyday life. Jackie has been uniquely in my system and thank God I could not take her out. There was about a decade when I did not think about Jackie O, and then she returned—after opera, she returned. Writing The Queen’s Throat gave me a public voice, and immediately attendant upon that was a wish to be silent. I was writing myself away from volubility. In “Rhapsody” I observe how nice it would be to say something cleanly and pack away my voice forever. Writing myself out, emptying a vein: Jackie is bloodletting. Not by proxy—I’m going under my skin, spilling this, giving myself a paper cut by writing, slitting my wrists. This is it, and then I’ll be silent. That’s what Jackie did.

BH: To be post- is to be silent.

WK: Which doesn’t mean you’re not writing, but means you’ve stopped a kind of utilitarian relation to theme. You’ve stopped being thematic. You’ve stopped being topical. You’ve stopped being anything.

BH: If you were to have your own perfume, what would its name be?

WK: I would want to call it Hotel, or Standing Room Only. Those aren’t euphonious names the way “Jackie” is. In standing room you’re not there, but you’re more attentive than anyone else: you’re supremely attentive and marginal. What would be the word if I were to describe my perfume? Banquette.

Bruce Hainley is a writer who contributes frequently to Artforum.