One evening in the beginning of 2012, as I was wandering around my Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, I stumbled into a salon reception at a hipster clothing boutique called The Dog Show. That’s where I met Kate Durbin, by the strawberry cake and violet champagne cocktails table. In her pale yellow slip dress, pink and blue wig, electric blue lipstick and matching eyeshadow, and heart-shaped sunglasses, she looked like someone straight out of Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books. A collision of vintage Hollywood and teeny-bopper kitsch.
The events of the evening included a poetry reading by Kate, in which she sat on a large plush pillow under a wall of cascading fake hair sprinkled with neon barrettes and fascinators, and read from her chapbook, E! Entertainment. She invited volunteers from the audience to curl up on the pillow beside her and join her in dramatic readings of scenes from “The Hills” and “Dynasty.”
Kate Durbin’s poetry and performance art focus on female archetypes like princesses, witches, and pop stars. She dives into the cesspools of modern culture without shame, resurfacing to present us with glittering treasures from the depths. Her poetry has a dark, urgent pulse, whether she’s describing the haunting experience of learning to read (“The words told me what the good and bad witches wanted them to. I listened to them all”) or transcribing scenes from reality TV shows. The latter populates her newest forthcoming book, E! Entertainment Diamond Edition. The transcriptions of Kim Kardashian’s wedding, Amanda Knox’s trial, and reality TV shows about wives gather mythological weight with each repetition, like an incantation or an origin story.
Kate is a Los Angeles-based poet, performance artist, and teacher. She is the author of five chapbooks, a book of poems (The Ravenous Audience), and E! Entertainment Diamond Edition, a collection of short stories and prose poems forthcoming from Insert Blanc Press. She is also the founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, an online journal devoted to critical writing on the work of Lady Gaga. This winter, Zg Books will publish a collection of creative critical essays and visual art about the website and Lady Gaga.
There’s something about being in Kate Durbin’s blue-walled Pasadena apartment, with its fridge covered in plastic fruit magnets and its beauty salon posters from the 1980s, that makes you want to endlessly discuss the bizarre history of American monsters and femininities over tea. Which is what she and I did during the height of the Los Angeles September heatwave.
The Rumpus: Why are you drawn to pop culture—why reality TV, Tumblr, pop music, etc.?
Kate Durbin: My initial question is always why are we so drawn to this, why are we creating this? What purpose is it serving for us culturally, not so much individually? When I took my first poetry workshop in grad school, I asked my teacher, the Nigerian poet and novelist Chris Abani, if there was something wrong with me because everyone in workshop was writing about their personal life, their family histories, and I was transcribing French films by Catherine Breillat about really violent sex, and I’ve never even had violent sex.
I guess I’ve always been drawn toward those things that we bury under the rug because they are considered “dark” or fucked up. I think taboo touches upon such important philosophical and cultural questions. The cultural consciousness is so fascinating. I try to tap into that and go down as deep as I can. And speaking of the taboo, I actually think there are many realms of pop culture that are considered totally taboo to take seriously as an artist—it makes you look stupid if you care or think it’s interesting or complex in any way. People often look at me funny when I say reality TV is a brilliant medium or that teenagers on tumblr are geniuses. But anything that we consider shallow and is yet so ubiquitous can’t really be shallow or meaningless. It has to be really important for us to create it and sustain it for so long.
Rumpus: I’ve been saying for awhile that practically anything humans produce is worth studying, because even if it’s something as inane as Two and a Half Men, we can still possibly learn something about our culture, what makes us tick. Why do we make the things we make and what does that say about where we’re going?
Durbin: I also think intellectuals often possess a tremendous slowness when it comes to new interfaces, new mediums, etc., when the general public and kids especially are so much more open and quick to play! (By the way, my teacher was very gracious and said there was nothing wrong with me when I was writing those poems—he thought I was ahead of the curve, and he actually ended up publishing my first book with Akashic, which had those French film poems in it.)
My work often re-emphasizes repetition, which is the heartbeat of pop culture. Ever since my first book came out, I’ve been interested in narratives that we tell ourselves, in particular those we inscribe upon women’s bodies over and over. These keep getting repeated through time. So my first book, The Ravenous Audience, dealt with fairy tales and ancient biblical archetypes.
E! Entertainment Diamond Edition, which is my forthcoming full-length book of reality TV conceptual writing, has an affinity to The Ravenous Audience because you see the same myths playing out, only televised in a very contemporary way. I wrote a short story in the book of Kim Kardashian’s “Fairy Tale” wedding, so there’s a focus on marital and other major rites and life rituals. And the interesting thing about those rituals being made into reality TV shows is that the meaning really starts to break down when you see it presented in that way, with all the cameras and interview snippets and everything. As I’m watching it, I am thinking, “This is so meaningless. Not because Kim Kardashian is doing it, but in and of itself.” Weddings are so weird. These rituals we go through in our culture are very strange and very repetitive. Why do we keep repeating ourselves? Especially when we’re not particularly satisfied with the end result? We all know what happened to Kim after her fairy tale wedding!
Rumpus: Why are you so interested in repetition?
Durbin: Repetition, when it becomes aware of itself, promotes the collapse, as it shows the cracks in the structures we have built for ourselves. In the most hopeful way, I want to promote the collapse.
There’s another section in E! Entertainment called “Wives Shows” that fuses together in a really fun to read, trashy pop narrative, five of the different shows from the “Wives” genre of reality TV: Basketball Wives, Married to Rock, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Sister Wives, and Mob Wives. So, again, dealing with repetition and the Wife myth over and over. What’s funny is a lot of those women aren’t even wives on those shows. They are like, the daughter of a famous mobster, or the ex-girlfriend of a famous NBA player. The whole “Wife” stamp is just a signifier.
Rumpus: Wife shows are so ubiquitous. My women’s studies professor in college was obsessed with the show Wife Swap. It was a show were two households, usually as far apart culturally as the producers could make them (like an heiress and a school bus driver, or storm-chasers vs. artistic psychics) would trade wives for two weeks. And then hilarity would ensue! And drama.
Every week my professor would start class by saying, “Let me tell you what happened on Wife Swap last night!” She wanted us to see how the theories we were studying were manifesting themselves beyond the textbook. She insisted that Wife Swap was a fascinating study on American gender roles. It emphasized that the roles of “wife” and “mother” are really like full-time jobs that women are constantly evaluated on, and navigating family responsibilities isn’t that different than navigating workplace culture.
Durbin: I need to watch Wife Swap! I should probably also mention that I love watching reality TV; I relate to a lot of these women. So, like all my projects, I’m not coming at this from a condescending or purely critical perspective, per se. I just want to meditate on this thing—reality TV—that we’ve made and sustained, to play with it a little bit, to poke around. I think reality TV is totally fascinating, the most brilliant of all genres of television, because it has the potential to reveal our own construction of ourselves to ourselves so profoundly. I mean, look at the first reality TV moment—the Rodney King beating. That reality TV moment showed the world to itself and as a result the world set itself on fire.
Rumpus: Tell me about the Women as Objects Tumblr project.
Durbin: Women as Objects is a Tumblr project where I follow teen girl bloggers and re-blog all their heartfelt and ridiculous and offensive and amazing text posts and images. I do tend to follow girls with a certain pastel goth aesthetic, just because I’m really drawn to it visually, but otherwise the only criteria is teenage-seeming and female-identifying. In a way, I see this as a sort of pop cultural anthropological project, but an impure one, because I do interact with the girls sometimes and I have no specific end goal. Eventually I’d really like to do a book, a performance in a gallery, and a documentary.
The phenomenon of Tumblr is really exciting to me, because it reveals how visual our culture currently is, and how malleable and easy it is to shape it if you speak that visual language fluently. Kids who would normally be affecting fashion, for example, from the streets up, can now take high fashion and rob it directly, with all their fake Chanel. Plus, I’ve been following the high fashion collections and they are ripping off these Internet kids so hard—it’s easy to see where the real inspiration and ideas are coming from.
In a way, I guess I want to give these kids some credit for the amazing things they’ve done with this interface. I love the ability of teenagers to take something over, like an alien invasion, and just reclaim it. And yet because these cultural shifts are coming from teenagers, people don’t want to give the kids credit or don’t take the phenomenon of tumblr very seriously. My goal with W.A.O. is to take what the kids were doing seriously. In this way, it’s similar to my goal in starting Gaga Stigmata. If people take it seriously they might realize their own potential to change and shape culture through new mediums.
The name “Women as Objects” relates to the often-amazing, sometimes-disturbing things these girls are doing with their second-bodies via the Internet. Objectifying themselves but in really bizarre and self-empowering ways, or in rather abject ways that shove our bullshit cultural beauty ideals back in our faces. They don’t, for example, hide their cuts and bruises—they turn them into glittering .gifs. I felt like this phenomenon was worth taking notice of because it seems rife with culture-shifting potential to me and is just interesting in general because girls are interesting in general.
Rumpus: Your work makes many references to princesses, dolls, whores, starlets, etc. What is it about these models of femininity that fascinates you?
Durbin: To be perfectly honest, I like glitter and female objects because I am one.
Rumpus: What gave rise to the creation of Gaga Stigmata? What can we learn from Lady Gaga?
Durbin: There was a period of time in 2009 and 2010 where I was really fascinated, watching everything that Gaga was doing. I thought, “Who is this person?” She’s not just a pop star, she’s kind of a performance artist, and yet she’s totally embodying the role of pop star. She’s truly famous, on the national stage as a pop star. I’m always drawn to people who do things in new spheres. She’s a meta-pop star, and she was especially performing that role when she first came on to the music scene.
No one had performed fame like that. Warhol had put pop in the museum. Some pop singers and musicians had commented upon the nature of fame in individual songs — everyone from Bowie to Britney– but not so consistently, intelligently, or so thoroughly publicly. It wasn’t their primary thrust. No one had an album called The Fame and then further evolved that concept into The Fame Monster.
And then Gaga had her 2009 MTV Video Music Awards performance where she bled to death on stage while singing “Paparazzi.” It blew my mind because I thought it was one of the most amazing art performances I’d ever seen, rivaling some of my favorites like Schneeman, Finley, Beecroft, Abramovic, and ORLAN, and yet it was on MTV. That made it even more exciting to me, the fact that it wasn’t in a museum or gallery or even a “street” space or a community space, but rather this pop space that had been relegated by the fine arts world to shallow, commercial, irredeemable trash.
Rumpus: I remember feeling that way, too, when I watched the “Paparazzi” video. Gaga embodies many of the common signifiers of the sexy female pop star, but she consistently makes herself ugly, too. And not a lot of women are allowed to do that, while still being considered successful and desirable. Women aren’t really given the space to be ugly, or weird, or grotesque. Riot Grrrl certainly reached for that—like Kathleen Hanna scrawling “Incest?” across her chest in Sharpie. It was a “fuck you and your beauty standards” kind of aesthetic. But Gaga seems to be actively sexualizing monstrousness like she’s trying to synthesize it with those beauty standards. Like instead of telling the Hollywood-Porn-Beauty-Factory to go fuck itself, she’s walking right inside and saying, “Weirdness is sexy now, FYI.”
Durbin: That’s a good point. Gaga has gotten away with looking incredibly grotesque for a female pop singer, and she’s really shifted our cultural perception of beauty. The “Paparazzi” video was one of the reasons I started to poke around on the internet. I was curious to see if anyone was writing about her, any critics or scholars. I wasn’t finding a lot, but I found this one woman, Meghan Vicks, who I invited to be my co-editor at Gaga Stigmata. She was a doctoral student at the time and she wrote this critical breakdown of Gaga’s “Telephone” piece with her boyfriend Eddie McCaffrey, which Lady Gaga tweeted about.
My desire was to have critical exegesis of Gaga’s work in one place, to follow and participate in her project, especially knowing that she would probably read and respond to the work on Gaga Stigmata because she’s so tech savvy (she is the most tech-savvy of all the pop stars) and so interlinked with her fans. She really allows her fans and their desires to shape her destiny; this is a huge part of her success, this symbiotic relationship between Gaga and her monsters. I mean, she says her fans created her.
So these desires led me to my concept for Gaga Stigmata. I wanted to build a space that was like Lady Gaga, where it’s a new space to perform criticism, pushing the limits of what is possible in criticism, interpreting and changing popular culture in a very immediate way. Not a journal where we’re talking about what this person did two years ago, but we’re tracking what she does as she goes, kind of banking on her, like an investment.
I called the journal Gaga Stigmata because I thought of Gaga as a pop martyr, bleeding our cultural wounds for us. The 2009 bleeding bodysuit V.M.A. performance partly inspired the name. That performance was so much about making us face our unconscious desire for the downfall of the female celebrity, our taste for her blood.
Rumpus: Definitely. Considering the lyrics to “Paparazzi,” Gaga could have made a video that was all glamour and stopped there. But instead she took the celebrity-obsession trope to its logical conclusion of stalking, violence, and death. And she comes back basically eroticizing disfigurement but in this disturbing way, with her slow death walk in leg braces up the red carpet as she sings, “I’ll follow you until you love me.” Maybe in that moment she isn’t speaking as the obsessed fan anymore, but as the female starlet, on the lengths women feel we must go to, to be recognized, wanted and loved. We have to metaphorically and literally disfigure ourselves in order to be seen, to be desired. We have to follow the patriarchy until it loves us!
Durbin: Gaga Stigmata is also about Gaga bleeding our wounds and us bleeding hers—that symbiotic relationship again. Because of the potentials of technology in this day and age, we no longer live in a closed system. Our criticism affects pop, and vice versa.
Rumpus: It’s like you become blood sisters. In fact, most of your projects focus on women in the public sphere. You also have the Kept Women Series.
Durbin: Kept Women is a collection of poems forthcoming from the Parrot Series with Insert Press. The poems are also collected in the Diamond Edition of E! Entertainment, my forthcoming second full-length book from the same press. Kept Women is a series of poem-rooms inspired by the rooms in the Playboy mansion and Hugh Hefner’s live-in girlfriends. The language is inspired by crime scene investigations and decorating magazines.
Rumpus: What do you find exciting about contemporary poetry right now?
Durbin: The tumblr girls I follow are my favorite contemporary poets. Their text poems are so raw and honest and innovative—I have used them as material for my video art pieces, “Tumblr is the Only Place I Don’t Pretend I’m Okay” and “iPrincess.” Maybe they don’t think of themselves as poets, but these girls often play with text in a concrete poetry meets Sylvia Plath meets Cher from Clueless kind of way that is just perfect. You can find them by following my Tumblr.
Rumpus: What inspires you?
Durbin: New technologies inspire me, teenagers inspire me, reality TV, tumblr, the Internet, Gaga, pop culture, Disney, the iPhone, royalty, the Kardashians, Playboy bunnies.
Right now I am moving into a period where I feel very inspired by Los Angeles. I am starting to explore all of LA’s luxury hotels, to go to all the cocktail lounges and swimming pools. I’ve also been getting really into cult science fiction novels like The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin, and visually poetic sci-fi films like Beyond the Black Rainbow.
Rumpus: You’re also a teacher. Do you see parallels between your pedagogy and your poetry or performance art?
Durbin: I do gravitate toward teaching subjects that allow my students to analyze the cultural unconscious, like many of my art and writing projects. My favorite course to teach is at Whittier College, a literature and writing course on monster theory. In that course, we examine the fears and desires of the cultures that spawn particular monsters, and how our monsters carry our cultural shadow for us. I really, really love monsters, and horror as a genre. All the pop genres are so much more interesting to me than “serious” art or literary realms, because they are so much more philosophically complicated, more free from the burden of being taken so seriously and therefore so much more revealing.