“With” in this case might be inappropriate, since it suggests a separate interviewer. What’s happening here is that Dimitrov and Durbin are interviewing each other about, as they put it, “place and poetics and poetry as performance, since we both have done projects and work in this vein.”
Kate Durbin: What role does NYC play in your poetics?
Alex Dimitrov: Well, for Night Call, which is a multi-media poetry performance through which I read poems to strangers in bed, I’m literally using the city’s landscape as a way to think through desire, intimacy, and anonymity. I’m using the city to get to strangers and read them poems. My chapbook American Boys and my book Begging for It are full of New York imagery. I suppose I think of the city as a character that’s constantly changing, much like I’m constantly changing. The idea that for New York to stay New York it has to change—that’s central to my work and in some ways my life too. You know what I mean? I’m also curious what role LA plays in your life and your work. They’re such different cities. I do have fantasies about moving there.
Durbin: LA is one of those cities people fantasize about. We’ve invited that with the whole Hollywood thing: LA as the world’s projection screen. Because it’s so open to being a canvas, I find LA to be a really receptive space creatively, at least for me. I often feel LA is conspiring with me.
On an obvious level, my work has to do with LA in that I create work about the entertainment industry. I think of the industry broadly, encompassing of course TV and pop music, but also Disney. My first book, The Ravenous Audience, was all about female archetypes and ciphers, the book’s central figure being Marilyn Monroe. My latest book, E! Entertainment was created via me transcribing reality TV shows: Kardashians, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Hills. It’s about Hollywood and the anxiety of the female “viewable” object. The language in the book is also very anxiety-inducing, I think, with the excess of brand names and the interruption of the subtitles. Hollywood is the void out of which popular culture, its texts and subtexts, are created, and so when you’re living in the void, you get to see how constructed it all is, how culture is just a prop, like the Hollywood sign.
Speaking of props, I’m thinking of Night Call, being performed at night, in a bed—New York feels to me like a nighttime city, like a black and white film, and LA like a daytime city, technicolor. And you and I have joked before about how you always wear black and I’m in colors. Do you feel a particular affinity, creatively, to nighttime in New York? I’m also curious if the city’s architecture plays a role for you in your work.
Dimitrov: I love the idea of culture as a prop. New York feels like a nighttime city to me, yes. Though mostly because during the day everyone is in an office working somewhere five hundred floors up. When I was in LA this past summer, mostly driving but also walking around Santa Monica and Venice, I couldn’t believe how many gorgeous, carefree babes were just hanging out on the beach or at the coffee shop or everywhere really. And I remember thinking, don’t you people have jobs? But of course so many people who live in LA are actors or performers and many of them work whatever job they need to work at night in order to support themselves and their artistic lives, and that schedule was just so foreign to me. I suppose people have it here too but it’s different somehow. New York is very much all business in the daytime.
I’m more of a night person. I feel most creative then, I feel the urge to see people at night and be social…which is rare for me, although I know people think otherwise. The idea of reading poems to someone at night, in their bedroom, having just come from my own bedroom, or someone else’s bedroom, in the dead of winter in New York City when no one wants to go out, yet at the same time there’s this feeling of wanting to be intimate and wanting to be social…all of that informed Night Call. I went to the Upper West Side, to Queens, Brooklyn, my neighborhood which is the Lower East Side, the East Village…I went to many different places. Entering someone’s private space, someone’s apartment, after getting off the subway, which of course is incredibly intimate and anonymous at the same time, or after walking outside with your head down the entire way because it’s close to below zero, and then having to read someone poems and be face to face with them, in bed, or in a room…it was exhilarating and strange and sexy and private, yet still somewhat impersonal. It was all of the things New York is.
I’ve always wanted to ask you though, and I was thinking about this earlier when I was talking about the different kinds of people who live in LA—what does it feel like to be a poet there and to be surrounded by screenwriters and actors and other types of writers who basically dominate the terrain, no? Does that free you even more? I also want to know where in the city you go to feel present and known and where you go to feel anonymous. I think both of those are important. I imagine there’s a lot of presence and anonymity in one’s car…but I don’t know.
Durbin: I wish I could have been in New York for Night Call—it sounds like it was an amazing experience.
I don’t separate the creative and the personal—even watching tv, this mundane thing, is creative for me. To answer your question, though, I really like encountering people in Los Angeles who are from the industry. I always get excited when I meet anyone who works in reality TV. The other night I was at a rooftop party at Ace Hotel and I met an editor for all the paranormal reality shows, and I was asking him all these questions—probably too many questions! But the editors create the narrative, so I find their work fascinating. What I did in E! is similar to what the reality show editors do.
If I want to feel present and known, I definitely gravitate toward the art and literary communities in LA. It’s a good scene, fairly laissez faire, which I like. Essentially everywhere in LA is an anonymous space. It’s a lonely city. So much space, light and glass, everyone spread out. But I thrive on that a little bit. I like the space to think. I also like driving in my Fiat but only if I know where I’m going! I get lost easily, and Siri is no help.
Do you feel like there are any iconic New York writers who have influenced you in a significant way? Do you relate to being a part of a lineage of New York poets?
Dimitrov: When I’m there I do get the sense that it’s a lonely city, yeah. We used to visit friends in Malibu when I was in high school, almost every summer, and I remember watching a movie late one night at their home and looking out the screen door and seeing a coyote walk across quite lazily. The landscape felt so surreal, so American, and there was a kind of quiet danger everywhere, more perceived than real. But I just remember thinking, I have to live here at some point.
And it’s funny you ask about writers because I also remember the summer before I went to college, reading Joan Didion’s The White Album and specifically the title essay, and understanding just how important Los Angeles is, mythically, creatively, in her imagination and in the imagination of a lot of writers. I’m actually working on my second book there this summer. I’ve rented a place in Venice. Oh and Bret Easton Ellis. How can I forget him. I love those novels. Less Than Zero is very important to me. I also love how he just doesn’t give a fuck yet is subdued in his not giving a fuck. His attitude is a very LA/New York mix. And actually, Didion and Ellis lived in both places for quite some time. I think she’s in New York now and he’s in LA but it was the opposite for a bit.
Kate, maybe we can swap apartments? I’ll be living alone for the first time in New York, first time in something like six years, starting in June. You should come over.
Durbin: I wish I could, Alex! I will be in England then. I can’t wait to see what you write out of LA, though. And we should totally swap one day. I love New York and especially New Yorkers. They are such hustlers.
I love the early work of Didion and Ellis: Play it as it Lays, Less than Zero, and American Psycho. I think the brand names in American Psycho are genius—it was one of the books I was thinking about as I created the brand names in E! (I also had practice doing this kind of writing when I was a fashion writer for Hollywood.com, doing red carpet recaps). I loved how Ellis was able to be so exact with all of his branding in American Psycho, to really capture the soulless materialism of 1980’s Wall Street, but I wanted half the brands in E! to be fake because reality tv in 2014 is a “real fantasy.” So some, I faked. Like a fake Birkin.
I could totally see Ellis’s don’t give a fuck attitude—which is also kind of Truman Capote-esque—in your work and all you do. It’s one of the things I love about you: that boldness. Few writers are that bold. I confess I relate less to Didion and Ellis currently, in the upper crust of NY, and more to their LA years, writing my Los Angeles: its dystopian beauty, the empty mirror of it. Its sadness, which is really the sadness of the world and our impossible fantasies. I like to think I live in and make work out of that space.