A Conversation with Kate Durbin
Interview by Alissa Nutting
ALISSA NUTTING: Your chapbook E! Entertainment is an excerpt from a full-length book. I’m curious about process–did the chapbook come first and then grow into a full-length, or did you take material from the full-length to create the chapbook?
KATE DURBIN: I read “Anna Nicole Show” at Royal T Gallery in Culver City, which has a giant Hello Kitty inside. Mathew Timmons, who runs Insert and Blanc Presses in L.A., was in the audience, heard the piece, and said he wanted to publish a chapbook of similar work. I then wrote the book with the chapbook format in mind. After it was finished, Matt and I talked about how it would be cool to have a full-length edition. The Diamond Edition, he called it.
The work in E! is new in that there isn’t a critical framework for it & for that reason it’s maybe good for people to be introduced to this text in short form first. On the flip, some people haven’t known how to read it. You could look at the chapbook as a short film and the full-length as a mini series. I think both enact similar effects upon a reader, but one experiences the effects more intensely and disturbingly by reading through pages and pages of our repetitive cultural scripts piled up. For example, spending time reading the entire episode of The Hills as opposed to just the first eight scenes is going to be pretty mind-blowing for people, I think. Also the sort of disintegration some critics have pointed out that takes place over the process of the book will be more intense in the full-length.
AN: Why did you decide on these four particular pieces to engage in conversation with one another?
KD: “The Hills” and “Dynasty” are both catfights; “Lindsay Lohan” and “Anna Nicole” are examples of “news” reportage of celebrity women in trouble. The genres vary from reality TV to scripted TV to online news reportage to CNN, yet they are all the same. I wanted to show that what we ask of our screen women and how we view them is always the same. I did this by simply putting the texts next to each other and pointing at them. It was no different than turning on every TV station at once.
AN: I wondered about what labels, if any, you give these four pieces individually–if in your mind you call them chapters, stories, poems, found poems, collage, pastiche, essays, criticism…or something else entirely, like glitterbabez?
KD: Well, now I am going to call them glitterbabez! While writing, I didn’t have a particular title for the sections in my mind other than the titles of the shows themselves. I’d classify this book as post-conceptual writing or poetry, yet I find it useful to think of this work, to myself, as conceptual art. While writing I also thought to myself: you are writing reality TV. Not about reality TV, but writing reality TV. Thinking along these lines, instead of in terms of poems, chapters, collages, etc., made me make more interesting work. It’s a matter of form—the forms of conceptual art and reality TV are at the cusp, risky.
AN: Do you find, in writing about video and reality TV, the pieces together take on a sort of episodic quality? In going to the next chapter, I often felt like I was changing a channel.
KD: I think that’s a wonderful way to look at it. Except with E! I’d say in changing the channel you will find the same thing on every channel.
AN: For you, how do you know a chapbook is ‘incomplete’ or when a chapbook is ‘finished’? Do you think it could still be a chapbook with only three of these? Could it still be a chapbook with a certain combination of three of these but not necessarily any combination? Why did you choose four and not five?
KD: I know when I’m done with something because it feels done “enough.”
I think the cultural disintegration E! enacts requires the precise ordering of the sections the book has now, and all four of them in that order, yes. You’ll notice the mirror image TVs on the books front and back covers, similar to the mirror image Es I wore on my face recently in Louisiana at the Delta Mouth Literary Festival to present this work. The catfights mirror each other as Lindsay and Anna Nicole mirror each other. In order that you, the reader, will look into the television screen, your mirror.
AN: In the full-length book, do the four pieces that make up your chapbook run one after the other chronologically? If not, what is the effect of putting other material in-between them?
KD: They will be in this order, but there will be texts in between and around them. The cultural disintegration will be more apparent and the work’s themes amplified by layering texts from the Kardashian wedding, The Girls Next Door, the Housewives shows, Amanda Knox’s trial, as connective tissue between the pieces already present.This is a book, though, that due to its concept has the potential to run endlessly, like cable TV with its infinite channels. There are so many, many shows with the same “scripts,” the same glitterbabez.
AN: I know that for filmed and public readings and pictures, performativity and costume are very important to you. I definitely sensed a relationship between that and your decision to include color photos/stills in the chapbook. Do you think the chapbook would be incomplete without a visual component?
KD: I am interested in taking text and visualizing it and in turning visual language into text, then seeing what that translation shows us about our cultural values and unconscious desires—especially in relation to our screen women. And yet that bleed-over—grainy cell phone images creeping into the text—creates a glitch in the system of my own strategy. Including stills in a book that is mostly devoid of images, even as it’s all about image culture, or wearing E’s on my face and dress like a disease when I present the book publicly, enacts a bleed-over that makes the work vital because it refuses purity of form.
AN: Related to that, as an author who infuses her readings with theater, do you ever feel stifled or limited by the written medium?
KD: I felt stifled as long as I believed I was limited by the written medium, but I don’t feel limited by medium anymore. Text is bigger than the written word. There are texts around us and in us if we are open to seeing them. Additionally, our negative limitations are generally self-and-culture inflicted. My work is, in part, about making negative narratives visible, like a scarlet A written upon a woman’s body in invisible ink, in order that we might no longer go around blindly bound to them. And then to create new texts we can later destroy when they no longer serve.
AN: I think it’s appropriate to end the interview with another question on limitations. Aside from (I assume, perhaps incorrectly) length, what do you feel like the other boundaries of the chapbook are? And let’s make this a double-header ending and engage that second part as well: is there a way a 400-page document would be more chapbook than not, could retain the essence-ness of a chapbook?
KD: I think a chapbook’s restrictions are mostly related to length, number, and distribution, as well as how seriously the form is taken (not as seriously as perfect bound books, which of course have their own hierarchy depending on publishers, etc). Writing something as ephemeral as a chapbook can give you enormous freedom to play and experiment. I think it’s possible to create a 400-page document that has the essence of playfulness in a chapbook. Forms are just things we made up to help us categorize the world, anyway. You really can do whatever you want.