Andrew Durbin: On His New Book ‘Mature Themes,’ the Power and Uselessness of Love, and the Joys of the Perfect Pop Song
Author: Theodore Kerr
January 14, 2015
Hurricane Sandy began on October 22, 2012, south of Jamaica as a low-pressure system; by the end of October 29, it was a northward wind blowing over eastern Canada. In between, it wrecked havoc over land and sea, including New York City, becoming one of the most destructive hurricanes of all time, taking with it 285 lives, and leaving in its wake an estimated $68 billion in damages. The hurricane reached a wind diameter of over 1150 miles, at one point with winds wiping as fast as 115 mph. Today, many people who lost their homes in the hurricane remain without stable housing.
In 1968, teenager Raymond R. checked himself into a hospital. In less than a year, he was dead. He died of HIV/AIDS, making his the first confirmed U.S. death related to the virus. We know this because in 1987, researchers from Tulane University went back and tested Robert’s remains. Scientists now believe that the human immunodeficiency virus circulated a few times in the U.S. before the crisis often thought to have stared in the ‘80s began. Since statistics have been gathered, 35 million people worldwide have died of HIV. Currently, 34 million people around the globe are living with HIV.
Both Hurricane Sandy and AIDS haunt Mature Themes (Nightboat Books, 2014), the debut of Andrew Durbin that, under the umbrella of poetry, brings together criticism, essay and memoir. The Superstorm and the assemblage known as AIDS are weaved throughout the book and serve in their own way as starting points for Durbin. In the interview below, the poet talks to writer and HIV/AIDS activist/organizer Ted Kerr about Sandy and HIV, as well as about the objectivity of Tamagotchi Angels, the music of Ciara, and what is meant by the term disingenuity.
If all of these things seem to make an unlikely or uncomfortable composition, welcome to the world of Durbin. Like the book itself, the interview illustrates the quiet humanity and curiosity of the young man who is able to dive headfirst into the banal, into dissonance, and into the entirely omissible, emerging with reflections and commentary that he is willing to share with others. From his vantage point, he is able to weave together and make known the wreckage and melancholy of Hurricane Sandy and how it lingers in the psyche of New Yorkers, along with the ongoing crisis of HIV/AIDS.
Yet, it is not all gloom; inherent in Durbin is a whimsy that harks back to writers he loves such as Kevin Killian and Kathy Acker. Life is hard, but not so bad that one can’t, for instance, stop and reflect on a movie they have never seen.
Before we get into the book, let’s talk about the cover and the design. How involved where you in the selection Alex Da Corte’s work for the cover? Did you work closely with the designer?
I’ve known about Alex’s work for a few years now. When I first saw “Body Without Organs,” I knew that I wanted to use it as the cover of the book. I also knew that I wanted to flip the back and the front of the book, putting the title and my name on the back cover rather than on the front. So a lot of the design elements were actually my idea—and I had a lot of say in how I wanted everything to look. The designer, Carl Williamson, is a good friend of mine, so the process of designing was painless. He really understood what I was after.
Why did you want to flip it?
With trade books—unlike work published on the web or artist’s books—it’s difficult to challenge how the reader approaches the book as a physical object. I thought reversing the front and the back (as a kind of nod to manga) would subtly do that.
As I read it, Mature Themes is a book of essays. Yet, it is categorized as poetry. Is this relationship to form something that places the book in the New Narrative camp?
While I’m influenced by New Narrative—in particular, by Bob Gluck, Kevin Killian, Bruce Boone and Dodie Bellamy—I’m also very invested in the Conceptual work of Robert Fitterman, Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place; and in the work of Language writers like Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino; and in novelists, too, especially Chris Kraus, Kathy Acker and Michel Houellebecq. Most of my influences come from outside of poetry, from artists and critics and novelists. Poetry can be anything you want it to be. That’s what makes it compelling to me as a medium. My work is essayistic, novelistic, speculative, theoretical and so on because poetry allows you to be all these things at once.
Recently, this sentence came out of me: “I have a tumblr so I’m easier to read.” It was one of those moments where something emerges from me that I think makes sense, but I don’t get. And yet, having read your book, I think I get it now. There is a way in which constructing an edifice for others to engage with can actually be a more rigorous form of transparency than just being yourself. The importance of imagination and your fluid relationship to fact, fiction and creativity within the reality of the book tells us more about you and the times you live in than a straight memoir could ever have. Does this seem right?
I have no idea, actually. I didn’t write the book thinking it would be representative of anything, my time or anyone else’s. I write in terms of my interests, my reading and viewing and listening habits, so if that somehow tells people more than any recitation of actual events, I’m grateful.
That makes sense. So, what were some of your interests leading up to the book? What ideas were you thinking about?
I began the book after Hurricane Sandy. That time provided some clarity for me about what I thought my subject should be. Once I began to write about the environment and “nature,” I could expand that to thinking about the media ecosystems that surrounded me. My friend, Lucy Ives, recently coined a term that I like: disingenuity, which she defines hence:
To begin with, disingenuity is obviously a term having to do with indiscipline. It’s not a real word (though, as I’ve said, it’s archaic) and may, therefore, cause us to pause and cough. When we speak, more conventionally, about disingenuousness we’re talking about behavior, and the behavior we are talking about is not out-and-out lying. We are talking about a condition in which someone knows more than she lets on. It’s not a question of information, exactly; it is, rather, a kind of atmospheric thinking about what’s known, as opposed to what should or must be revealed. We’re talking about a fraudulent attitude, a pose of insincerity, in which what’s known and what is shown do not exist in a relation of symmetry. We’re talking about performance: She knows more than she lets on. She is not characterized by candor. She performs a state of innocence. A negative judgment follows. The term comes from a negation of the Latin, ingenuous, native, inborn, free-born, having the qualities of a freeman, noble, frank. One thinks of the guileless ingénue. I wanted to take this term and rewrite it. For it refers to an attitude toward language—in social space. I wanted to take this term and give it a positive valence. Thus: disingenuity.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, that is what I was interested in.
Your book reads as a controlled stream of considered moments of insight worked with to share. Tell us about your life while writing this book. What was going on?
I wrote the book between January 2012 and March 2014, living alone in Crown Heights, working, reading and going out. Sourcing other people’s interests is important to my work (I love to absorb and repurpose, not “create”), so I’m pretty social—and I go out a lot—in order to listen to people. I also began to “get into” art and went to a lot of openings, parties, Art Basel and so on, so all of that started to bleed into the work. I wrote much of the book in Miami, where I was working for a collector, and in California, too.
As a social person, how do you write? When do you write? Do you take notes on your iPhone? Do you write things down when you get home?
I work in a lot of different ways, though mostly I work on my computer (often in Gmail) in the evenings. I can’t write in public, usually, so I avoid coffee shops. I know some writers have various ceremonies and conditions for their work, but I really don’t. I do love writing on planes. I find it very easy to write while traveling.
I was really struck by the Tamagotchi Angel sections: What is life? What is body? Do you see these sections as adding to what falls inside of New Narrative?
New Narrative writing was a very important discovery for me. For a long time, the only contemporary-ish experimental writing I was familiar with, besides the New York School, was Language writing and the subsequent movements that consciously followed that particular thread of inquiry. All those writers felt too straight, too male, too white. New Narrative, on the other hand, gave me what I needed, providing me with bodies of work that felt more akin to how I wanted to talk about my experience of the world. When I read Kathy Acker for the first time it was like being struck by lightning. But I don’t think of myself as “adding” anything to New Narrative, which is a movement that, at least historically, is fixed in a moment in time that I don’t occupy. But I certainly think about that work a lot.
That makes sense. I guess hearing that I find myself interested in going back to my initial impulse. Do you see Tamagotchi as having a life?
It has a life as an object, sure.
So, much of my life is thinking, organizing and creating around the continuation of HIV/AIDS. One thing I appreciate about your book is the way it includes HIV without being about HIV. How were you able to write about the epidemic without letting it overpower the narrative? Is it about how you and your friends live today?
I’m so grateful for the work you do! Too few people realize that HIV/AIDS is still such an urgent issue, both in the U.S. and outside. I have several friends who are HIV-positive, and I think knowing them, talking to them and understanding their experience has had a more significant impact on how I think about the disease than anything else. It doesn’t overpower my book because it hasn’t overpowered my friends or me.
“Love is the only shocking act in life,” writes Sandra Bernard in her 1993 book of essays, Love, Love, Love, and it rang true for me when reading Mature Themes. I audibly gasped when I read the passage on endlings and love: “I love these endlings and hope that love, within its power can restore them to life. Or it is love, I think, that allows the future to finally emerge out of linear time in order to bring us back to the starting point.” I feel like it is brave of you to write about love.
I suppose those particular lines are meant to read as doubt that love—or, rather, the flimsy feeling associated with popular environmental movements—can halt the very real, very mechanical capitalist-industrial enterprise that is literally destroying the world. Love, which I feel so strongly for the millions of species now committed to extinction, can’t do anything of the things that I say it can, can’t “save” anything, can’t reroute time in order to give us more. The piece you quote, “Warm Leatherette,” is mostly concerned with how we conceptualize an alternative relationship to environment, especially in relation to anger and death as they are experienced in media. I don’t think love is very good for that. I used the piece to explore Dennis Cooper’s famous statement, “AIDS ruined death,” which has haunted me since I first encountered it on the back of Kevin Killian’s Argento Series. A lot of my book is a way of redoing what Kevin did with that back text.
What came first: your frustration with the book and film The Beach, or the cultural paradigms that make The Beach possible?
I’ve actually never read The Beach or seen the movie. “I Went Down to the Beach” began, like many of these pieces, as a rewrite of the book and movie’s Wikipedia page. I’m interested in how media objects culturally obsolesce overtime and, in particular, how the erosion of their relevancy accumulates new meaning. It’s something cultural objects—i.e., books, sculptures—have done forever, but how the unique “presence” of a movie is shaped by where we are in time in relation to it has become very generative for me. I wrote The Canyons, for example, about a year and a half before the film version was released. All I knew about it were the online rumors surrounding the chaotic production. That became a test case for me in how to think about movies I hadn’t seen but thought I could use as material.
You end your book with a powerful meditation on Ciara’s “Ride,” which was a song that meant a lot to me and my friends, as well. Why “Ride”? Do you find solace or comfort in shared media moments, be they big moments like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” or more intimate ones, like “Ride”?
As I writer, I don’t seek comfort or solace in shared media events, whatever they may be, however important it might be to me—whether it’s the funeral of Michael Jackson or a new Rihanna album. I paid attention to “Ride” because I am interested in how media objects like a pop song talk about our collective desires, fears, passions and dislikes. I love Ciara because she says something about the world that I don’t have to say—or am not in a position to say. My work is just a way of trying to understand what that is and why that is.