Kate Durbin is a 28 year-old Los Angeles poet who, just this past October, released her first book of poetry, The Ravenous Audience (Black Goat Press/Akashic Books 2009). This collection is an exciting study of women, myth, Hollywood, and the ever-hungry audience. Using a multitude of forms, Durbin cracks into the world of her subjects, women from film and lore, to study the parts that ooze and drip out—we’re talking bodily juices. Through the use of persona poems Durbin allows her female characters to speak for themselves, as well as her avant-garde experiments with film and verse, open up a whole new world of possibilities for these female archetypes we always thought we knew.
Before speaking with Durbin, I had the pleasure of reading her collection, and mulling over its many complexities. I was drawn to her re-envisioning of such familiar characters as Mary Magdalene, Jezebel, Little Red Riding Hood, and the “virgin,” but I was captured most by pieces inspired by Marilyn Monroe and Amelia Earhart: two women equally engrained in our cultural psyche, less perhaps for their talent, than their mysterious and tragic endings. I must admit, I too have often wondered, what happened to Amelia Earhart? Who was the real Marilyn Monroe? And though these women will never be able to answer these questions, Durbin gives us her own version of the “truth,” while at the same time addressing the audience with the question, why do we have such an insatiable appetite to know? Is it our gossip society and our obsessions with celebrity, or is it something deeper, more ingrained? These are just some questions I had for Kate Durbin, as I had the opportunity to discuss her first book, The Ravenous Audience.
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo for The Splinter Generation
Splinter Generation: I noticed Catherine Breillat films inspire many of the poems in the book. What was it about the films that inspired you, and how did they translate to writing for you?
Kate Durbin: Initially, I wrote those poems as exercises, but I write a lot of poems based on films, or based on sculptures, or based on any number of other visual mediums, particularly art. And I guess, for me, there’s not really one way to translate a film, or translate a sculpture into poetry. If anything it just sort of sparks my imagination initially, and then I go ahead and sit down and write something.
But with the Breillat poems, some of them, I kind of set up these very almost tedious exercises. I would write down all the dialogue from the film, or describe [the scenes]. Not all of the scenes, but I might pick a particular motif like scenes by the ocean, or scenes that were just very visually striking to me. Usually, I would watch the film once through, and then I would go back a second time and kind of just pick my constraints. And then I would have a whole bunch of material after that, and it was really a process of sorting through it, adding to it, taking away, deciding on a form because each one has a different form. It would take forever for me to figure out, “OK, what do I want to make with all of this?”
SG: Did you have a list of constraints or rules for yourself as you went through the films?
KD: I want to say yes, but it was kind of sloppier than that. For example, with “36 Fillette” that poem is all dialogue that the men in the film said about the girl. The first time I watched that film through, I noticed this refrain that people kept saying to her—”How old are you?”—in these sort of interrogating voices, and I noticed they were saying these really disturbing things about her, coloring her in a certain way that was really alarming. I decided I wanted the poem to just be those voices because when juxtaposed together the dialogue was so intense and disturbing. In that case, the second time I watched the film I did go ahead and write down everything they said about her, or to her, and I wrote down all the “How old are you?” phrases. I purposely didn’t write down anything that she said. So that’s an instant of being very particular with the constraint, but some of the other ones like “Fat Girl,” was more of a free write. It kind of depended on the movie, and what I got from it.
SG: You mentioned “36 Fillette,” and I noticed in this poem, like others, there is a definite objectification of the female, or perhaps a deconstruction. Is this deconstruction a reflection on the audience or the woman?
KD: I love that question because it is both, and more. That was one of the things I really wanted to do in the book was to hold the audience responsible at the same time as hold the woman responsible. Part of doing that was that I wanted these poems to be sort of in process, or to be performing, so that everyone is kind of involved at the same time, including me as the author. I wanted there to be an awareness of me writing these women, and that even though I might want to free them or liberate them in kind of a feminist revisionist way, that even doing that is kind of disturbing because I’m writing them, and not giving them a voice. [This] is why I chose the “we” voice a lot of times, instead of “I” or “you,” so that we can include me and whoever was reading, the audience, and then it could also sometimes include the woman in the poem. It was so important for me to do all those things at once, but that made it a real juggling act. And it made it really important that the poems be kind of alive in a sense, so that they were almost enacting this sort of unraveling deconstruction as they’re happening, like as you’re reading it.
SG: You describe these poems as alive or moving, and I found movement to be ongoing theme in the book. It is mentioned in the Marilyn Monroe interview with the metaphor of butterflies, as well as, in the Amelia Earhart poems. How has movement formed your poems, and what is it about movement that interests you?
KD: There is a sense that the poems themselves are moving. And almost when I was writing them—this was very strong in the Marilyn Monroe interview––I literally heard in my ears, well not really, but in my imagination, I heard cameras whirring like, “chkchkchkchkchk.” And for me, the way these women can avoid being pinned down, in the sense of––since you mentioned butterflies––a sense of like a butterfly being pinned to a cloth and hung on a wall, was for the women to be moving. As long as they are moving, they can’t be pinned down, they can’t be dissected, they can’t be fully understood, and therefore controlled and contained. So I think that transferred over nicely into what the women say about movement. I think what Marilyn says is probably the most perfect capturing of what I thought about movement, which was, “It’s the spirit of the person always shifting.”
Something I’ve been doing since the book has been “finished” is thinking about how the book isn’t finished. So I’ve been working on more— not necessarily more poems, but I’ve been working on paper dolls to go with the book, and I’ve been thinking more about how I can perform, and use costume, and fashion, and performance to actually present the book, which is for me another way for the women to continue to move.
SG: On your blog I noticed you have a section dedicated to costumes. One thing I enjoy about your work is that you incorporate film, costume, photography, and paintings in like a collage. How does wearing costumes to your readings reflect this aspect of your work?
KD: For one thing, I loved fashion and still do, and for a long time I kind of saw it as separate from what I was doing with my poems. And part of that is because I feel like the poetry world is so—especially the avant-garde poets that I like—they tend to be, I want to say this in a nice way, they might disdain fashion a little bit. I mean fashion is really seen as something that is kind of in the realm of teenage girls. For me, that’s why I love it, in part, because I love teenage girls and I want to align myself with them. If I could think of an ideal audience for my book it would be teenage girls, or young women.
Then all of a sudden it just sort of started to merge with the poems for me when thinking about doing readings because–– For one thing, I just get bored easily, and standing up there in my jeans reading wasn’t really as interesting for me. So yeah, it just happened naturally. Just like writing about the films happened naturally. I love so many different types of art, why not, like you said, collage them together? Why does the book have to be finished once it’s published? Why can’t it keep going on and on? Why can’t these women keep expressing themselves in different ways? And a reading is a performance whether we like or not. We’re standing up there and performing so why not see it as a performance in the way that a rock star does. They always wear the costumes.
SG: Sure. We can be rock stars too.
KD: Yeah. I think poets are rock stars. I don’t know why they don’t think they are. You know, everyone complains that no one goes to readings, but perhaps if there was something more interesting to look at.
SG: You were saying an ideal audience for your book would be young women. Considering that the female characters in the book are from the early part of the 20 century or earlier, why do you think women are still captured by these stories, and how do you think these characters resonate for women in the 21st century?
KD: One of the things about the women that I did choose to put in the book is that these are women who have really been mythologized in American culture. So these are all the myths that I have taken in from the time I was a very young child reading the bible in Sunday school, reading fairy tales, up through being a teenager. We are all kind of bombarded with images of Marilyn Monroe, Amelia Earheart, Clara Bow less so, but she was kind of a precursor to Marilyn Monroe and she was the original “It” girl, like that term was actually coined after Clara Bow. So in a sense, writing about her, I felt like that meant that all the It girls coming after her, whether it be Lindsay Lohan and Britney or whoever, I was kind of writing about them too.
As to why they are still so powerful, I think that as women we’re really still only offered these sorts of narratives. And a lot of times, they’re maybe not told to us explicitly. And I remember feeling very distinctly growing up that there seemed to be something missing, like there just weren’t good options for women. So I guess that’s why I wanted to retell those stories, and to make them a bit more complicated, but still draw attention to how disturbing they are at the same time, and how limiting.
SG: I like how you point out that these women have become myths, and that we don’t get the full story. In a way your poems are making them human, or at least, giving them a wider scope.
KD: Yes. That was so important. Marilyn is a great example. We don’t really see her as a human any more. She’s just a myth. And feminist kind of berate her, and just call her this cipher for culture desires, or whatever, but she really was a person. And so I was intrigued by the fact that she was a person, and I knew that I would never be able to get to the real Marilyn Monroe, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t want to try to do that, while also addressing the myth of Marilyn Monroe that we have all kind of ingested, while also wondering what it might be like for her to have lived through that. So like you said, widening the scope. It’s not even that all of a sudden these myths are just going to go away, or we’re just going to fix them or revise them in a feminist way. I don’t’ think that’s realistic, but if we can just create some more wiggle room, and expand our minds so that we can deal with contradiction and complexity, and just the reality of being human and being a woman, then that would be beyond my wildest dreams.
SG: One way I saw you dealing with this complexity was by delving into dark areas, and grotesque areas, and explicitly writing about urine, and blood, and cum. How did you give yourself permission or freedom to talk about those sorts of things?
KD: I had never used those words in my writing before I wrote these poems. And I really felt like Catherine Breillat films were very permission giving for me because they are extremely explicit. Just seeing that she was doing that, and because the first poems that I wrote I thought were just exercises that nobody would see, I felt totally free, but there was a lot of fear for me in doing that. Part of that is because my family is very conservative—Evangelical Christians—so if I had known that this was going to turn into a book, I don’t know if I would have felt as free being that explicit, but it’s good when you can just trick yourself the whole time by saying nobody has to see this. Once I started doing that, all of sudden, I felt like I was actually writing poems, and I know that might sound strange. Looking back at the stories I’d written before that [moment], I realized that I was kind of repressing myself, holding myself back, and these were the first poems I wrote—even though they were based on a another women’s films—that I felt like were in my own voice. And I realized, for me to not talk about those things, I would be censoring myself.
SG: My last question is for our readers and submitters, as someone who recently came out with her first book, what are some words of wisdom or advise for those of us who are still in the process of creating a manuscript?
KD: Oh, words of wisdom scare me a little bit, just because I feel like the worst thing would be to give someone bad advice that they could trace back to me (she laughs).
I feel like one of the most important things is to not worry too much about potential publication one day. I know this is something I worried about a long time ago, and I know a lot of people who worry about it, and so that they will kind of write their work in a certain way, self-censoring, kind of like what we were just talking about because they’re thinking, “this is the only thing that gets published,” or “this is what a poem is,” or “this is what a story is,” but I actually think the less you worry about that, and the more you think, “what is completely and totally traumatizing to me?” “What is completely and totally provoking to me?” “What is the most beautiful thing I can think of?” What is the most fascinating thing?” If you worry more about that and just create something, then I feel like—because this is what happened to me—someone will want to publish it because it will be so singular, and so interesting that there will be nothing else like it in the world. I really do believe that. I think that would be the best piece of advice I can give.