Kate Zambreno, Drift

I have not been writing like I am supposed to, but I have been watching a lot of things on YouTube, which I tell myself counts as writing. I am beginning to realize how formless writing really is. Publishing wants the finished, seamless, product. What are you working on? Everyone asks me. Can one answer: I am working on seeing? Trying to think of the space between things? I am considering the slow?

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I wander around on the Internet, mostly fixated on underground drag performers in the 80s and 90s who performed at places like The Pyramid Club. I think I am trying to really imagine when artmaking felt feral and unfinished––that drift that makes the work so vibrant and intense. I like thinking of the small screen on my laptop like a kinetic Joseph Cornell shadow box, that manages to contain the exquisite and absurd fury of Ethyl Eichelberg, pour-ing catharsis into her accordion as Klytaemnestra: that red shock wig, the psychotic raccoon eyes, the almost ethereal lavender ballgown. There are only fragments of Ethyl performing online—glitches, moments—shot from the audience. This makes what you can view all the more poignant.The performances have not been archived, have been allowed to disappear—performance itself is so much about disappearance, about the urgency and ephemerality of the present-tense, the scratchy video recording––if it exists––documenting a haunting. As Ethyl too is gone—she slit her wrists after learning she had AIDS—as so many of these performers are gone, as that moment is gone. And it’s strange even having videos to watch now, when I first learned of that period of radical art-making and living, of refusing to conform, of wild theatrical happenings—first read Cookie Mueller’s book and learned about David Wojnarowicz and Ethyl and Karen Finley in Cynthia Carr’s collected Village Voice columns—all I had was black-and-white pictures, I had to imagine the performances, the urgency of the howl issuing from an enraged open mouth.

*

I have to imagine Antony Hegarty stomping around the Lower East Side in combat boots and a black slip, FUCK YOU scrawled on his forehead. There’s one photograph online of the glorious gothy costumes from when The Blacklips Performance Cult put on Our Lady of the Flowers, which seems like everything I wanted experimental theater to be, art to be: psychotic, feral, everything I dreamed about when I was younger, and still dream about. I was doing an interview for a zine the other day and we started rhapsodizing about Our Lady of the Flowers, how Genet wrote the book on scraps of paper that kept getting taken from him. He kept on, madly scrawling inscriptions against this disappearance. The torn-out pictures of his criminals he put on the wall—a model for obsession, everything I write to.

*

The person who cuts my hair now is an ex-drag queen who, the other day, told me he was reading Our Ladies of the Flowers. I don’t love how he cuts my hair, but I have to keep going to him. He has a deep love and understanding of old Hollywood and glamour. And he’s reading Genet. How could I stop going to him?

*

There is an 8-minute film on YouTube that I keep on watching, like a meditation. It is directed by Ira Sachs, and called The Last Address. The film is mostly silent, except for birds chirping, atmospheric street sounds. You pause on a New York City building for a few moments, then we are told the name of the downtown artist who died of AIDS who had that as their last address, and what the address was, and then the camera lingers longer on the building. Cookie Mueller, Ethyl Eichelberger, Keith Haring. My eyes fill up at Arthur Russell’s address. The other day I was telling John that to me the most beautiful writing would feel like Russell’s World of Echo, that I want to write how World of Echo makes me feel: kind of full and shattered at the same time. The intimacy of this recording. That captures the sound of a body in a room (his voice, his cello), and distorts it with echo, with melancholy.

*

When I moved here, I wandered over to Shulamith Firestone’s last address and looked up to the fourth floor, and stood there for what felt like forever.

*

I told myself that I was going to write about rage today, but instead, I’m writing about elegy. Can one write both with rage and elegy?

*

What I want to write are portraits of my obsessions. But they exist as portraits in my head. Can I focus on each portrait, and ask you to meditate upon each one, on the heartache of their disappearance? The glittering elegy to Billie Holliday that Elizabeth Hardwick writes in Sleepless Nights, in my favorite section. Her friendship with the jazz-obsessed now-dead gay boy, also from Kentucky, a friendship as violent as a love affair—them haunting the jazz clubs; her remembrances of living at the Hotel Schuyler for transients, drifters, performers. Hardwick, when crafting the novel, studied not only Renata Adler’s Speedboat but also Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and a similar decreation occurs in the work—going away from the self, preferring to tell other stories, of the washerwomen of her youth, of the denizens of the hotel, as opposed to telling her own. An elegy to youth, to a time in New York.

*

For some reason, now I’m thinking about this beautiful cabaret singer who I knew during my Time magazine internship, my Bell Jar days, the prodrome to that breakdown. She had OCD, diagnosed by psychiatrist parents. She gave me advice for battling disturbing thoughts—if you keep on thinking a man is going to come out around the corner and rape and murder you, make it a hundred men. Make it more and more, until it becomes absurd. She also taught me how to take the subway, what was the perfect shade of drugstore red. I think she wanted our red lips pressed up against each other’s, but it never happened. I really loved being around her. I tried to look her up on Facebook several years ago, but I couldn’t remember her last name.

*

I thought about the play I was trying to write then, when I was exiting the subway at Times Square the other day. I don’t know why that memory was triggered, if it’s because I used to wander around Times Square at night during that first stint in New York. But I felt very humane and affectionate to this former self. I thought to myself: Perhaps it’s our failures, not our successes, that make us artists. I look at Ethyl Eichelberger’s Wiki page, and am unsurprised to see that Ethyl grew up in a shit town in Illinois, like I grew up in a shit town in Illinois. And that Ethyl went to Knox College (I can even see in my head the brochure for Knox College) before getting a scholarship to study performing arts in New York. Elizabeth Hardwick writing of growing up in Kentucky. I think one of the reasons I’m so drawn to these wild artists of yesteryear is that they all came from rather dreary backgrounds, from split-level shit homes in some suburb, from lower-middle-class or working-class backgrounds where nothing was expected of them, who didn’t eat at restaurants growing up. Since I moved to New York I have felt like an outsider among most of the writers I’ve met here, even the ones I teach. They grew up in families that expected them to do wonderful things, they grew up with art and assurances of their creativity. I needed to find artists who were escaping their backgrounds, like I felt I’ve always been escaping mine—those who have had to work shit jobs, who have hustled too, who are unashamed. Who created art against—not art for. Whose lives sometimes were their art.

*

For a while I wanted to be a mime. My first trip to Europe at twenty-one, the metallic living statues at Sacre Coeur. The year everything began to crack. I would look at photographs I took of those street performers, and thinking about them would make me feel like something broke open. There was something so beautiful about them, how they would be still and mocking for tourists. I wondered what it would be like to make a life out of silence. Puppets and mimes and avant-garde theater. Those were my passion. After a pitch to the arts editor at the paper about a local mime troupe (or was it puppets?), he said to me, amused, Why are you so enthralled by loathed and vanishing artforms?

Of course, now I attempt to write Literature.

*

The girl I dragged with me to Paris, on our newly opened credit cards. The second time I had ever flown on a plane. Cheery, Irish-Catholic, South Side. A compulsive liar. Father was a con artist or gambler. She followed me everywhere for a while, we lived together in the city, we waited tables together at the chain pizza restaurant, the one where you had to mention two appetizers by name upon greeting. I still remember the computer codes. Spinach Artichoke Dip: 212. Sesame Ginger Chicken Dumplings: 202.

*

She’s dead now. Suicide at 25. She signed her suicide note with a smiley face. That’s the kind of girl she was. She wanted to make sure everyone else was okay. For a while she had figured out her depression or whatever disorder they decided—the meds, the therapist. I was the one who was worried-over when we knew each other, which hadn’t been for a while. At her wake I heard she got into one of the bad drugs, I forget which one. Crack, I think. That she slept on the streets, slept with people for money. They dressed her in a long flowery dress, all of those horrible posters of photographs of her smiling in better days. But she was always smiling, didn’t they realize that, she was always smiling. Her ex-boyfriend, who used to be a jungle DJ, asked after my welfare. I’m a writer now, I told him. Me clutching John’s hand. I’m fine. I’m still not sure, thinking back, whether I was lying.

She was a psychology major. Aren’t they always? I was so depressed the whole time in Paris, feeling so vulgar and American—I wanted to wander around the streets and the art museums, smoking and feeling alternatively hostile and melancholy. She was not 21 so she wanted to drink. I think about Paris then, and I wonder if perhaps I was also happy.

She was the one who would swoop down and save all of us, the one who seemed to have everything together. The manager type. She would drive us everywhere. When I subletted that place, with all of the heavy furniture, and I would leave the bowls of dried ramen piled up for weeks, and I would sit in that chair and drink whisky and smoke cigarettes, and still refuse to sleep, she was the only one who checked in on me, who took care of me. She would do my laundry. A mom type. I feel so sure I’m over this—over her death, over my double. We both came from the lower-middle-class Chicago suburbs, we both had addictive personalities, but we were good midwestern girls. It took me so long to cure myself of that.

And yet there is almost no logic, that I survived, and she did not. But, also, it seems so strange that I was ever that person. But there must be some connection. But also, sometimes, strange, that I am apparently the person I am now. I could say: she became darker. But I don’t know if that’s true. She kept doing drugs, and then I stopped. I think being alone terrified her. But in a way of course she was always alone. Maybe it’s that she buried the darkness underneath so much artificial light, even those who loved her, they never felt they knew her, there was always something about her, where you didn’t even know if she told the truth to herself.

*

The skinny artist boy whose apartment I subletted, above the buffalo chicken place. He had pretty hardcore OCD. He collected boxes of tin foil, they were in every drawer of the kitchen, the living room. I think he did something with the tin foil but I didn’t ask what. I had my own problems. I kept them there the entire year—I didn’t know what you put in drawers, why not tin foil?When I came over to sign the sublease, we made out on the leather sofa—how did he have such expensive things? They must have been from his parents. I liked his jumpy, nervous energy. I think we argued with each other and wrestled around, and no one got off, because for me, it was never about getting off, but about the electricity of the strange collision. I don’t think we were even attracted to each other. It was just something to do. The temporary clanging together of two fucked up people. Most of my intense interactions in the past were like the camaraderie between mental patients. The camaraderie between people who drifted in and out, because that’s what people like us did.

*

Also on that leather couch,the closeted avant-garde composer. It was the 90s: all the work was about failure, about glitchy tape recordings. He would leave me long, whining messages on my voicemail, about everything he did and ate that day. He never asked about me, even though I was falling apart. I was the cute girl who listened—although I didn’t really listen, I just didn’t say anything back. I was working three jobs—at the Cajun place, the more run-down pizza joint, at the arts camp during the day. He took me to see post-rock shows in the city, right near where I would later live, was dismayed I was unimpressed. I think I once let him climb on top of me, rather sloppily and disappointingly. I think we kept our clothes on. It didn’t matter to me. I was in love with someone else, I think he was too.

*

The essay I’m supposed to write is on David Wojnarowicz’s photographic series of Rimbaud in New York, where he had friends pose in front of the canals, other haunts, with a mask of Rimbaud. I have been reading biographies for this essay, I haven’t written: David’s new biography, many biographies of Rimbaud. Do you have any idea how many biographies of Rimbaud there are, how many biographies of Rimbaud in Africa? Chris Kraus had told me to read this biography about Rimbaud in Africa for the book I wrote for her, and I never did, but I read a couple afterwards, and I think I read the wrong ones.

*

Facts I seize from the biography: that David Wojnarowicz worked at a Pottery Barn. That he died at thirty-seven like Rimbaud. That they were born a century apart. Why Rimbaud? Why always Rimbaud? I don’t know. But maybe this: that Rimbaud was allowed to escape his lower-middle-class drudgery, his fate as the perfect schoolboy, by deciding he was a seer, a poet. By building a religion for art made out of suffering, out of experience. That one could become—and then one could disappear. That all of that pain and suffering––that one’s childhood––can be for something.

*

Wojnarowicz said to a reporter that he decided to make his Rimbaud in New York series because “I felt, at that time, that I wanted it to be the last thing I did before I ended up back on the streets or died or disappeared.” The photographs too feel like grainy ghosts. Mocking apparitions. As if Rimbaud was sighted at a diner. As if David Wojnarowicz was still somehow alive.

*

To go out with anger—to trace one’s own disintegration, or disappearance, as he does in Close to the Knives, this goddamn gorgeous elegy to his now-dead lover that also mourns his own sick and fragile body. That has not decided on peace, but on the theatrical, on rage. His“blood-filled egg” he carried around with him, an inscribed body.

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I would like you to imagine this essay scrawled on the back of a Nico poster, like the letter David wrote while wandering around Paris, mailed to a lover.

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Je est une autre. “I am another.” Rimbaud’s famous declaration. When one writes, one is already somebody else. The fiction of the self. Like Elizabeth Hardwick tweaking how many siblings she has in Sleepless Nights. Don’t pretend to know. But also, the idea that to write, to make art, can allow for transformation.

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Peter Hujar, who felt an artist should be able to make up their own biography. Online I look at Peter Hujar’s photographs of Ethyl, who was in his tribe of friends, along with Nan Goldin, Susan Sontag, David Wojnarowicz of course. The black-and-white photographs strikingly resemble Claude Cahun’s self-portraits, where she mutates herself in each image.

*

That haunting Peter Hujar photograph of Candy Darling on her deathbed. She has the beauty of a consumptive––tranquil and yet feverish. Her makeup perfectly on. The David Wojnarowicz photograph of a shrunken Peter Hujar on his deathbed, Hujar like a medieval saint. In her life, Candy Darling transformed herself into a blonde Hollywood starlet—the performance perfect, intact. My favorite part of her documentary, which I recently watched, is the scene in which Candy mimes a Janet Leigh monologue, knowing all of the words.

In a recent interview, I was asked to name a book I thought should be remembered, and I chose the Quebecois writer Catherine Mavrikakis’ A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning, a novel of perfectly pitched rage. The narrator hotly mourns all of these friends who have died of AIDS, all named Hervé. The narrator says she loves works that are tender and cruel, and that is what this is for me, a jeremiad, a beautiful complaint. The book is inspired by Hervé Guibert’s memoir/novel, To the Friend who Did Not Save My Life, of Michel Foucault’s death from AIDS, which also documents Guibert’s own illness.

The interviewer asked me to talk about New Narrative, even though I am by no means an expert, and I said that it was an avant-garde American literary scene circling around community, and especially, memorializing those who died of AIDS, refusing their disappearance. That the writing is a political act, the naming is a political act, a revolt against disappearance. I rattled off names of New Narrative writers: Kevin Killian, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, Kathy Acker. The interviewer asked me if I thought there would ever be another movement where writers could be angry in force again, if there would be another crisis that would allow for a political literature.

I have thought about this question for a while now, and I think it connects to more than just writing—it’s about art-making, it’s about a way of life that is about failure, as opposed to a mainstream, homogenized success.

And I said to him, that there is always something to be angry about, always something to rage against.

*

Can literature be a suicide note, a love letter, a manifesto, a complaint, can it be all of these things?

Can art be a way to trace not only disappearance, but our survival?

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