How do we live the colour pink, Wayne Koestenbaum?
Iki Nakagawa, video still, courtesy of the Kitchen
With his new book the author attempts to turn the “trance” of everyday life pink. While introducing it in New York’s The Kitchen the American poet also played the piano.
“This is not what I usually do” said Wayne Koestenbaum of his performance to a full house at the end of last week at the Kitchen in New York, referring to himself playing the piano. Koestenbaum, who lost seven pounds last night just from dreaming, or so he sprechstimme-d in a calligraphically musical launch for his new book The Pink Trance Notebooks, allegedly practices piano at the same time every day. The Pink Trance Notebooks, published by Nightboat Books, is sculpted from notebooks that the author wrote every day for a year, a process of translation from impulse to imprint, via a hefty delight in improvisation, that Koestenbaum began on December 3, a letter might be perceived as a colour, and so on. This sensory play is at the heart of The Pink Trance Notebooks, as the author attempts to turn the “trance” of everyday life pink. Pink is of course gay, and it’s via historical uncles like Alexander Scriabin and Frédéric Chopin, whom he refers to as his “Hotel Women” in his book Hotel Theory, that Koestenbaum begins to unravel some of the fascinating twists in language, and beyond, that can turn a sound, or a person, pink.
Logics of liberal morality so often relies on cascading, empty tautology (for example, the justification of a minimum wage that's below living wage, or the phenomenon of the working class conservative, or even the wealthy gay couple). In pushing such tautology into the terrain of the historical, the prosodic and the queer, Koestenbaum was clearly poking for ways to beat capitalism at its own game, to envelop it in the pink trance, his metaphor for synaesthesia.
Koestenbaum is dedicated to his melodrama (I mean, what do you do every day?), and an appropriate tension between metricality and musicality runs with abandon through his writing and performance. This tension was mirrored in the theatrical tension pursued in the performance, as the poet switched between different microphones to alternately sing improvisational speech-poems and read from the new book. The piano miniatures took inspiration from 19th-century composers such as Scriabin and Chopin. I wouldn’t necessarily have known, but when Kostenbaum does something, he likes to tell you he’s doing it. Almost the first word Koestenbaum chanteured was “Scriabin,” a proper noun that, at first perhaps unassuming, unravelled a tour de farce of sophisticated, homonymous poetic word association.
“Scriabin is a tautology, a tautology, a tautology, a tautology,” he sang as opening chorus, and essentially mission statement of the piano pieces, turning “tautology” into a tautology and then into a methodology. Say something enough times and it becomes tautological, in the grammatical sense – which is to say, redundant. For example, “fatal murder”; the Greek root means literally “repeating what has been said.” Yet in a smart dialectical twist, the meaninglessness of the tautology can also open language up to something beyond meaning, potentially reinvigorating it and making it more meaningful than ever.
Koestenbaum’s result was something more between senses than nonsensical. Scriabin was famously influenced by synesthesia – the condition whereby a stimulus in one sensory category (i.e. sound) elicits a sensation in another (i.e. vision).
Yet maybe Koestenbaum would have been most successful had he reached another level of iconoclastic tautology?
The danger in the "pink trance" is that it’s perhaps too close to the "pinkwash", the almost tautological portmanteau of “pink” and “whitewashing”. Had the colour pink been tautologically stretched into the rainbow, maybe a more critical and invigorating state of trance would have been achieved. As colour becomes lived and bodied, as happens within the condition of synaesthesia, then how do we live this colour, as pink people? What is the tangibility of these associations?
Koestenbaum likes the piano, he explained, because it distances him from language, and he likes language because it distances him from the piano. This is clearly a productive double-distancing, and one that we all navigate daily in our overlapping dealings with language and technology. However to explore a similar distance from pinkness within white, male poetics might also be productive. Not with the intention of disavowing it, as Koestenbaum understands that he can’t disavow language through the piano, but to return to it with renewed associations.
Such an aim to tautologise colour, if such a thing is possible, is the grand and queer ambition of The Pink Trance Notebooks. Perhaps the longest laugh of the launch evening came when Koestenbaum announced that he had tied his tubes earlier, in Duane Reade, on the way to the performance (because no one wants to be a “deadbeat dad”). I think he was joking, but the underlying point still held: perhaps the synaesthetic is most productive when it’s unreproductive; when the ties between senses are disrupted, and not just senselessly stimulated.
Harry Burke is a writer and Assistant Curator & Web Editor at Artists Space, New York.