Room to Improv

Figure It Out: Essays BY Wayne Koestenbaum. Soft Skull Press. 288 pages. $15.
Wayne Koestenbaum. Photo: Tim Schutsky

Wayne Koestenbaum performs a surgery of surfaces. He finds the inside of a thing by drawing together the outsides of that thing, pinching the body until the folds present a name. His new book, Figure It Out, is a collection of essays and reviews written at some point in the twenty-first century, mostly the last ten years. The thread of the book is “Wayne thought it” and this glistens like a shell.

These pieces are self-assignments, opportunities to create and solve a problem at the same time. Some tell you this right up front. From a 2015 piece called “Twelve Assignments,” here is the eleventh assingnment, in full: “Describe an ungenerous or unkind act you have committed. The act could be merely verbal.” “Figure It Out,” from 2017, is a list of forty-three questions which have swollen to include Koestenbaum’s own answers. Number 7 begins with “Make a new decision about color” and ends with “find a new favorite among the minor, oddball yellows.”

Figure It Out is a manual for maintaining curiosity and highlighting “unscrutinized acts.” Tasting a word, inhaling a disagreement, melting syntax—these are skills you can learn form Wayne. He has mastered the combination of category and kind, and can instantly widen a particulate filter. In “Corpse Pose,” Koestenbaum seems to be talking maybe about his dead stepfather (nicknamed Sugar Boss by his mother). On the way to that essay, Koestenbaum takes a very Koestenbaum detour into himself: “My aim, originally, in this essay, before Sugar Boss became a corpse, was to write about a kind of literature that follows in the wake of Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Joe Brainard, and more recent models—a literature that makes no bones about its corpse-like exhaustion and that recycles its depletion (its stance of no longer caring about literature) into a new, faux vitality, a vitalism composed of ellipses, blunt honesties, paratactical leaps, silent sulking fits, and a staged love affair with its own posthumousness.” As the lists pile up, so do the instructions; Koestenbaum encourages us to create a “puddle surface,” maybe because he thinks of one thing by doing another and wants us to consider doing the same. We also get discussions of “asemic writing,” his mother’s stroke, and his stillborn brother, none of which cancel each other out. That’s just one essay!

Maybe you don’t know what you’re most interested in, not yet. Curiosity is the match under Koestenbaum’s year-round yule log. Words as yeasty, generative seeds. Fulsome tunnels. Perfervid bun traps. Let’s go!

We got coffee at Grainne Cafe back in January, also known as 1978. We talked about the arc of his work and the French author Michel Leiris, who we both love. Koestenbaum almost met Leiris!

I want to talk with you about line. Michel Leiris can stretch a line of prose so insanely far and Paul Jacobs makes the line of Debussy so light that it almost disappears and Sane tagged Brooklyn in the ’80s and made the loops of a single letter feel like a rollercoaster. Those lines form a palimpsest, in every instance, a city under the city which is no longer one. You almost made the Paris of Leiris your own Paris. When was that?

It was the very first time I went to Paris, in 1987. I was twenty-five. I knew Michel Leiris’s address because, well, because I knew it. I went to his address and I saw the little thing and the buzzer and it said “Galerie Lousie Leiris.” I was about to push the button but I didn’t. Given that it was France and he was like ninety and I didn’t speak very much French and it was night, the odds that my appearance would have been a welcome gesture are small. If I had been a different person, I would have prepared myself with a letter of introduction or something, but I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say to him. All I knew was that he lived there and I thought, “I have to go see where Leiris lives.”

An equivalent for me was the first time I went to LA. I was in high school and we didn’t actually go to LA—we just went to Disneyland. I remember looking at the signs and thinking, “Maybe I’ll run into Carole King.”

What if you were Carole King? What if someone came to your door like that? What’s the question you would not want to answer?

I would be irritated if somebody was interested in me only because I had blurbed somebody or had once been the friend of somebody. If somebody said, “Oh wow, didn’t you go to college with Peter Sellers? I’m writing a book about Peter Sellers and we’re interested in the most trivial of connections!” I would be narcissistically wounded.

Where did you grow up?

In San José. That’s where I was born. A duller place you can’t imagine. Though apparently there’s going to be an Eataly opening in the little shopping mall that was right down the street from the duplex in which I was born. It was called Valley Fair shopping mall and it wasn’t even a mall. It was just a few strips of shops around a kind of plaza with a fountain. Now there’s gonna be an Eataly there, so it’s not the same place.

You’re one of those writers—there aren’t many—who I associate with no publication. Whatever cultural writing actually is—I don’t think I know—became interesting to me because it seemed to have the widest, most dispersed range for a writer. I ended up thinkling that because of writers like you and Gary Indiana. So then the question was “Who is interested in the most things?” It seemed like you were a likely candidate for that. Your work is tied up in my mind with the old display at St. Mark’s Bookshop, when it was on St. Marks Place.

I discovered Leiris at St. Mark’s—window-shopping had a shaping hand in my sense of genre and role models and what was possible to do between hard or soft covers. I remember something that Eileen Myles once said about bookstores—“Bookstores are our museums, for writers.” That’s where we have our art, in bookstores. You could go to St. Mark’s and figure out a lot about the contemporary and about genre and about the ecology of where you wanted your words ideally to be.

In St. Mark’s, there was a spot where they kept new books. I remember being super-calibrated to what was put where. “OK, so there’s X amount of theory? But how do they figure out how much fiction to put in here?” It was this commingling that was very important to me. It seemed like I would find it there and not anywhere else.

Those books are the best, the ones that were near theory but weren’t theory.

Right, that’s always what I was looking for.

That was Leiris, too.

I’m always looking for that book. I want it to be lyrical but I don’t want it to be credulous. I’m generally hopeful about a book if the author is skeptical, working with some sort of undergirding theory but not deaf to what might occur in the process of chasing the initial idea. I think I’m describing Lydia Davis.

French theory offered some possibilities. I wish I could think more thoroughly of what those books were, but books that weren’t novels and weren’t poetry and weren’t scholarship and weren’t theory. . . .

A bookstore that still does some of this for me is City Lights. They have a section on social anarchy, and they give you that sense that you’re in literature but you’re not in literature. Surrealism? I remember buying Eileen Myles’s Not Me.

I haven’t read that one.

It’s really good. It was one of the earliest works that I read that went whole-hog into straight-up autobiography but made that act seem strange, very intellectual somehow, by the stint of the traversal. The duration of the dive. David Antin did that for me too, in his poems. He’s really great. He died a few years ago. He did these things, I think they were called talk poems, and they were all oral performances that he gave and then transcribed them with this peculiar lineation.

So he would just improvise them?

They were always improvised. And they’re remarkable. There’s one about going mattress shopping with his wife Eleanor. And that’s it. They don’t talk about anything except shopping for mattresses. The whole thing. And it’s not just a joke.

At the New Year’s Day Poetry Project marathon, Sam McKinniss read a Yelp review of Mattress Firm. It was probably my favorite thing from that day.

Which is the same reason the David Antin essay is so smart and good! It doesn’t subordinate the search for a mattress to a larger thesis statement, and it overstays its welcome. There’s endless thinking about whether or not they bought the right mattress. It’s not such a long piece but it goes on and on, and the search is greater than the thing searched for.

I love that. What’s it called?

It’s called the theory and practice of postmodernism. It’s funny, I remember in the ’80s, looking at David Antin, who was shelved in poetry, probably still would be, published by New Directions, and I remember looking at the page and saying, “You know, it doesn’t look eclectic, it looks confusing.” I didn’t know what was going on with the spaces. I was suspicious. I thought, “What’s he getting away with?” I was much more conservative then, I think, and wished for more kinds of mainstream success, so I probably condescended to it.

What year would that have been?

I lived in New York from ’84 to ’88, when I was a graduate student at Princeton, and then I moved to New Haven. So those were the years of discovering opera and literature and the gay life and everything here in New York.

Then how long were you in New Haven?

From 1988 to 1997. And then I moved back to New York.

And so when did you start publishing in magazines?

In the ’80s, I published book reviews in the New York Native and the Village Voice. One in Commentary, or something like that. They were short and I was a graduate student. I did a lot for the New York Native, which then was a really interesting magazine. I don’t know if you ever saw it?


I started getting asked to write for magazines after my opera book [The Queen’s Throat] came out in early 1993. It was sudden. I was very happy to be asked to write for magazines and I almost always said yes. For better or worse. I mean I kind of wish I had said no a little more.


I loved the thrill of publication, I loved the money when there was money, and I loved the interaction with the editor, and I loved everything about it, except I increasingly didn’t like having to commodify my own schtick in some way. I didn’t like that I wasn’t choosing my topics.

What exactly is “commodifying it”?

Editors would say, “We need some more Wayne here. Do a Wayne thing there.” And I thought, “The whole piece is very Wayne, because I wrote it.” I began to feel like there were things I had done that they thought of as “Wayne-like things,” and I would grow tired of those things. I think I started in rebellion against that for myself. Writing less for magazines and also starting to read more difficult literature. Which I had maybe avoided in the years when I condescended to David Antin.

Is that because you wanted to become more difficult?

I recognized ways that I was oversimplifying my own thoughts.

Because you were getting approbations for certain things.

Yeah, and because I wanted to be popular.

Right, and it’s hard. Even when you’re getting mad at them for asking you to do the “Wayne thing,” it’s nice that people have noticed that there’s a “Wayne thing.”

I was thrilled. And I never thought it would happen to me that there would be a Wayne thing.

If any writer ever tells you that they don’t react to praise, they’re obviously lying.

I live for it, of course. When I try to put together a collection of essays or a collection of poems, my criteria for inclusion or exclusion are simply the compliments. There are things that I like, and then there are the things that people have complimented, and there’s kinds of juridical wars, evaluative wars that take place in my brain. When I read this poem out loud, what showed a good line was people laughed at it. You know, there’s a kind of anthology of praise that I have, but as a kind of taste barometer.

It’s like when the press says that you look good in that jacket, you’ll never sell that jacket.

Also, then you’re trapped, ’cause when you’re approaching an anxiety-inducing event of some kind, or even just like going to CVS and you want to look your best, you think, “I could wear that blue shirt.” But then you think, “Everybody compliments the red shirt. I look good in red. If I wear the blue shirt, what if this famous art dealer sees me and I’ve missed my big opportunity? I didn’t wear a hat. I was cold on the way here and I didn’t wear a hat because my frizz-perm messy disheveled hair would look even worse if I had taken off my hat.” And today I thought, “I’ve got to make a good first impression with Sasha.” So I’m gonna not wear a hat, for you. But I brought it, I think. Did I bring it with me to wear home? Yes. I brought it with me to wear home.

That might be the more important trip! On my way here today, I was thinking about my hat. Specifically, I was thinking, “Why do I care about any specific object? Why am I emotionally upset that I may have lost this hat?” It’s a Parks Department hat and it was hard to find. I love it! But do I want to be freed from the prison of loving that object? Or do I want to remain in thrall to that object because if I stopped caring about everything, then what is life?

Can I tell you two stories that directly relate to that?

Tell me nine.

But in a totally contingent way! Lost hats. In my novel Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, which was recently republished as Circus, the first line is about a lost beanie cap. The narrator says, “I lost my beanie cap when I was in third grade. I never found it.” Maybe three or four lines about the lost cap. I remember when I was finishing writing that novel, I thought, “I don’t know how to begin it.” And I don’t think it’s the best opening, but I remember thinking, “Well, for whatever reason, this is very important, about losing the hat. And I’m going to stick it at the beginning of the book, maybe to establish the character’s poignance, because he’s maybe reprehensible by the time the book’s over.” And I have lost a hat. I lost a beanie cap in third grade. I remember that as an original wound. I cared enough about it that I began a book with a line about a lost hat.

How did all of Circus start?

I had started keeping a journal about playing the piano and I was in a church, listening, slightly drunk, to a concert. And I wrote that in there. The church I was sitting in when I was listening to claviers, it was probably near Union Square, it wasn’t like a big church, it was maybe a Quaker meeting hall if anything, not quite a church.

Friends Seminary.

Yes! It was one of those New York moments where I actually literally thought, “Why do I waste my time doing this, when in fact I could sit in this space of silence with a notebook, having had a glass of wine or two, listening to a concert and having flights of ideas?” That seems to me still topical in terms of today’s attention-deficit issues having to do with the delusion of consciousness around social media and the Baudrillardian commodified sped-up reality sick-reality that we live in. The tweet-sphere.

Say more.

I often have had that thought, prompted by some of New York’s cultural treasures. “Why don’t I go sit in one of the Greek sculpture atriums at the Met, reading a novel? Why don’t I get a membership to MoMA and spend most of my afternoons just watching movies there? Why don’t I turn off my phone and sit slightly drunk, obediently writing down all my thoughts for four hours?” Just tether myself to a position and a place and a state of attentiveness and actually do something, whether as a consumer of culture or maker of, at the moment, meaningless artifacts. I’m a big believer in the making of meaningless artifacts for no one. This is also why I love Michel Leiris, the kind of pointlessness, and Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. It’s a big part of that whole universe of pointless literature.

I was in Lisbon in the summer of 2018 and they broke a heat record. It got up to 110.

Also Lisbon has those shiny streets!

Those beautiful white stones, the calçada.

Which would make it even hotter-feeling.

It was like a hair dryer being on all the time, except it was the outside and you were in it. Anyway, Pessoa. I got into a cab and was talking about Pessoa and the driver turned around to talk about Pessoa. I asked the driver, “Can we go to his house?” He started going on and on about Pessoa, saying there were poems he had to memorize in school. He said, “They changed the money but Pessoa used to be on the money!” Pessoa is such a genuinely odd candidate for soccer-player-level fame. He left everything in a bunch of trunks and was kind of an incel. And he became so popular in his home country!

It would be like Joseph Cornell being known in the streets.

When the streets and the art seem to agree, I suppose my question is, “Why this art and why not something else?”

That’s why atriums or courtyards or park benches are really great. Where maybe there’s a sculpture three-hundred yards away from you that you can barely see. That’s as much art as you can take—you get the kind of ambient drift of the art. There’s a piece of music by Luigi Nono, La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura. It’s a violin piece, it’s pretty famous, there are a lot of recordings of it. I’ve only heard it on CD. It’s on for a while and you have to keep turning up the volume, like, “Is it on?” And you hear a little scratching, and it’s this violin in the vicinity playing, and then whatever that violin is playing is taped and the violinist is interacting with the loop of the tape or something, so it becomes a kind of plenum of violins, but it trips in and out. Once I spent a month in Venice and I would often nap with this music on, and it was really great napping music, you would fall asleep in it. And also it blended with the sounds of Venice. At Luigi Nono’s house in Venice, there’s a plaque that says Luigi Nono lived and composed here. And where I was staying was a couple blocks away from that. I wrote an essay that I’ve never collected about Luigi Nono and that piece of music and particularly about new music. [“Gee, Luigi Nono Is a God, No?” published in Southwest Review in 2005.] This was a point when I was educating my ear in a way by listening to contemporary . . . I don’t know what you would call it. Contemporary classical music? Contemporary scripted music. Contemporary non-pop music. Whatever you’d call that, John Zorn being kind of in that thing along with Luigi Nono. I had this hunger for sounds that I had never heard before and that were very quiet or produced by very strange instruments.

When did you do that?

Like the early 2000s. I have a lot of CDs from those days. I’m not in active quest of those sounds anymore. But then, I’d go to the Miller Theatre concerts. It used to be very robust and I went to those for a couple of years. But yes, I’m thinking about that kind of art, it’s askew and comforting because of its distance or because of its non-saturating.

Or what you were saying about napping. It’s precisely in a state of being out of focus that you enjoy it. Your story reproduces the way that Brian Eno came up with ambient music.

Oh wow.

When he did Discreet Music, he had been injured, he couldn’t get up. And an album of eighteenth-century harp music was playing at really low volume, and he couldn’t change the record, so it went in and out of being able to be heard. And that’s when he started to develop an idea of music that we don’t pay continued attention to because we can’t, or don’t need to. I am paraphrasing both the events and ideas.

Furniture music.

The half-listening and knowing and not knowing also happens with cheap radios that emphasize the midrange or the treble or the bass, like a shitty car stereo, a disloyal representer. You hear a popular song, it starts to play, and you can’t locate the downbeat and you can’t find the front of the song, or the back. You’re hearing the trumpet line to a song you didn’t even know had a trumpet because that’s all this stereo can reproduce well. For a moment, you think “What is this amazing waltz thing?” And then it turns out to be “Brown Sugar” or something. And you’re all, “I didn’t know that I knew it.” For a moment, your ear is hearing a different kind of music. As a musician, those moments help you land in places where you would never intentionally go. Getting rid of intentionality is a thing that certain people are very interested in. When we were talking about the mattress thing— “Ooh, what if a mattress is a metaphor for America?” No! A mattress shopping trip is what it is! Period.

About a year ago, I bought a little keyboard, after having a very purist relation to my baby grand piano and playing an actual piano my whole life and never having any interest at all in playing any other kind of keyboard. But I bought it because I started to do this kind of improv musical thing a few years ago. On the chances I had to do it, the venues often did not have grand pianos. Or pianos. So I thought, “I’m gonna buy a keyboard.” So for $400, I got that Yamaha model from Guitar Center on 14th Street.

Is it the one with—

—yes, weighted keys. I love them.

Those things are great!

Let me tell you, baby. It changed everything. I started improvising, which I had NEVER done. The fact that it produced—I no longer wished to be a good pianist. I was interested in the sounds it was making. And I was standing up. Which meant that I had a different kind of pianism. I was not locked in one place moving left or right, I was above it, letting my hands fall where they may, and they usually fell in places that sounded meaningful or interesting to me. And it also of course had effects, modes, you know, vibes. And different sounds, like jazz organ and strings and harpsichord. So I could deviate from the piano sound. But it also made monody and very simple forms of counterpoint seemed sufficient, where on an acoustic piano that would have seemed bare to me. Also it sustains tones longer than an acoustic piano, just slightly. It doesn’t have as many overtones as a grand but it’s more a mic sound, it has more carrying power. It gives each plain note a duration of sufficiency that it might not have on the acoustic piano. But mostly it alleviated me of any wish to be a virtuoso, which was a failed thing for me anyway. But it just—it sounded good right away. Anything I play and it sounds good. And that was really liberating, and so my entire relation to music has changed. I’m just telling you this because you’re a guy in a band.

No, I love that. Wait, are these improvisations you do for audiences?


And do you sing or do you just play?

I do sing. I do Sprechstimme. I even have an LP called Lounge Act that Ugly Duckling Presse Records put out. Next time we meet up I’ll bring you one.

I would love that.

Yeah, I do a variety of things. In some of the performances, the ones that were on a grand piano, originally I would play various classical pieces and I would improvise, half-sung, half-spoken. I don’t really have much of a singing voice, more spoken improvisational arias to go along with it. After I bought the digital piano, I stopped coming prepared with a Scriabin piece to which I would riff. Now I come prepared with a poem or something that I want to read, and I make up the music.

You’re going the other way around.

Yeah. The best is the question-and-answer session when neither is prepared.

So people ask you questions?

People ask me questions and I sing the response. I did one at Poetry Project on December 13th. I will do more.

I like that.

I sometimes think when I’m in a good improvisational mode, and I say, “OK, I’m gonna sit down now and I’m gonna turn on the tape recorder and I’m gonna play for five ten or whatever minutes. I’m gonna record it and I’m gonna give it a title.” And it could be, like this one would be, Impromptu After Seeing Pessoa’s Grave. Or whatever. And then it exists and I’ve done that and it’s an object that I’ve made and maybe somebody will hear it and maybe not, but if I do maybe five of them then I can layer them together. I should do that more. Why don’t I sit more at early evening at the piano with a tape recorder making three-minute sonatas? If I do that enough, then I hope I will understand what that three-minute sonata can do and then there will be occasions for presenting or re-creating those because I will understand my three-minute sonata. I’ve done that and I use them as soundtracks for little films.

Like a film of you going to Leiris’s door and then turning around. Wait—when did you find Leiris’ writing?

I found a Richard Howard translation of Manhood at the same time as I found Gide’s The Immoralist, also translated by Richard Howard, in my first year of graduate school, my first year of living in New York, 1984, in St. Mark’s Books. So it was my moment, Manhood and Genet, and then a year later, Proust. So in my intellectual and sexual readerly trajectory, Leiris is at the very beginning before Proust, even though I obviously knew of Proust and maybe he was at the center of the self-ethnography, but I didn’t, until Leiris, I didn’t get how rigorous self-ethnography could be. There was also a Yale French Studies issue, in the ’90s I think, about Leiris, which Lydia Davis probably had something in. When Lydia Davis started translating Leiris—which she did after her translations of Maurice Blanchot—the truly and variously rigorous Leiris arrived, the one who excavates these erotic mysteries through language. You know, doing an anatomization of language.

But you mean Manhood?

No. What I had intuited in Manhood, I found the verification of in Scratches. In Scratches, he lays out the math for what is only impressionistically sketched in Manhood. It’s this essentially queer thing, to go at masculinity with a kind of scalpel, a willingness to be analytical about castration.

That’s accurate.

There’s Proust and then there’s Leiris, and there’s no one who goes at self-consciousness in such a way that redeems it for all writers and thinkers who might have feared that self-consciousness was solipsism or corny. And I think that even Proust isn’t as effective a cudgel as Leiris is—a cudgel for wrecking doxa, and replacing it with rigorous oneiric pathways, roads arising from the words themselves, as material, acoustic entities.

Other than Proust, the one who seems closest to Leiris in terms of doing something with parallel rigor is Genet. If you isolate certain passage in Genet from the drama of his life story and the station even of his work, and you take some paragraphs from Funeral Rites or Our Lady of the Flowers, they move in truly peculiar causality-destroying directions along metaphoric trains, or semiotic trains through word association. They use the self-memory desire, cultural debris as building block, but arrange those found objects—treating them all with equilateral attention—into kinds of subordinated incremental sentences that are . . . it’s not just that they don’t have cause and effect, it’s that things depend on other things and are grateful. A memory depends on this water glass, and the water also depends on the glass, and things depend on each other through association and relations of nesting, but it gets disassembled in the delivery to the reader, or it gets assembled.

But what’s important for me about Leiris and Proust and Genet seen together is that they link something like a perverse sexuality with a perverse focus on the self and a perverse magnification of language’s possibilities, so that they’re doing a social task for everyone on behalf of language, ’cause we all have language. But they’re exploding language and syntax for all of us. And they’re also widening the permission for everyone to take their desire at its worst very seriously. You have a memory, which is like a fallen object, the memory contains words, and you will benefit the world by spending a longer time rather than a shorter time delving into those words. Like, bore everybody, alienate your friends and society, get the police curious, by how long you’re spending on something that occurred to you.

Curiosity is key.

I spent a lot of time inculcating Leiris and students have never heard of him. If you have a project on queer sexuality, on experimental writing, on autobiography, on all these things that people have a reason to study, Leiris isn’t somebody that students go to when they’re looking for the answers. And I say to them, “You will be helped by seeing how complicated Leiris makes self and desire, and the language of quest around sex and desire.” He ratchets up—I’m not sure that’s the idiom, I’ve never used the phrase—but he ratchets up your estimate of how complicated you need to be in your quest. He says, “Oh wow, I can put more weights on that, the dumbbells. I can actually add like fifty pounds.”

That’s a great way of putting it.

And do it like really, really slowly, and I can actually add five more sets of reps. And I won’t die.

One thing that I think is great about The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat is that it’s a perfect introduction to Leiris.

It is. It’s short, it’s complicated but it’s lyrical, its poetic, it’s also contemporary.

I think it’s one of his best books.

I agree.

It’s got little tiny pieces and then really long ones, all of them showing you how he thinks. But I was angry when I found the book! How did I not know this writer!

Right, where have the gatekeepers been?

It comes down, again, to line. With tagging, it was all about those concerns. You have to execute it perfectly in a very short space of time. When I was in high school, every morning I’d get on the train and we’d be doing the homework, looking at the day’s catch. No one can tag now because the coordinates have changed and it’s not a thing. Then, it was all like, what’s your R like? What’s your straight line? What’s the curved line?

It’s totally there. I’m thinking, for me, one of the most rapturous experiences of looking at still art like paintings, as opposed to movies, is realizing through the idiosyncrasies or even just the continuousness of a line, that somebody made it, and that the making happened in time, even though that time isn’t represented in what you’re seeing. And I’m thinking of these Louise Bourgeois lithographs. I remember seeing these, and the charisma of the half-smudged, half-forcefully inscribed line is exactly what you’re describing. And it’s captured in Le Mystère, the Picasso film. One has to whisper when talking about Picasso though. I try to do a little bit without getting spanked—he really could do lines.

I just saw this Miles Davis clip from the ’80s. He’s on Letterman, doing the Cyndi Lauper song “Time After Time,” and he’s got the red electric trumpet and the electric band. It’s completely weird and impressive, but I’m sure at the time I bracketed it differently and thought, “Ah, this isn’t the cool Miles.” It’s entirely cool. It’s Miles and it is still his line.

My Miles connoisseurship is sadly stunted since jazz is not my first love, so I’m less thorough in my knowledge of that canon.

I was so dumb with canon as a kid. I thought it was a cool thing to ignore! I got mad at myself all over again when the Delacroix exhibit came to the Met. I saw one of those huge, everything-contorting-at-once paintings, and I got complete galaxy mind. I was seeing these intersecting shapes and light and gah.

You were mad that you missed out on Delacroix?

I was a dimwit about representational art. I used to think that abstractions somehow contained more information, maybe because people like Reinhardt and Richter wrote essays about their work. You don’t have to!

But maybe nobody let you see that realistic art is still composed of air and lines, and that if you looked at it closely enough or with a forgiving enough and open enough mind, it would disintegrate into the lines that it was always about.

Good oil portraits are just packed.

They have smudges and smears and overlay.

But then you get to that synthetic point. Motherwell and Bourgeois are doing the same thing as Delacroix. It’s the animating intelligence, making a series of choices that form a whole that does or doesn’t cohere depending on how they want the whole thing to come out at the other end. With Leiris, the point is that it doesn’t come out at the other end. Leiris, in Scratches, writes pages and pages about his father’s gramophone and how the wax smelled and how the needle worked. It’s all one idea that ends with this whole associative suite of ideas, fragments and syntagm and rocks. It hangs together but it doesn’t go A-B-A.

Francis Ponge does it a little bit, quite a lot actually, too. He’s actually a big one for this kind of thing. He’s a major French—he’s your Leiris of tomorrow. He’s an amazing philosopher-poet who Sartre and Derrida and all of them worshipped. Ponge wrote prose poems that were supposedly, or on the surface, observational. Like still lives, but dismembered reality through language. They have a kind of tenderness but are still lively—the smallness of still life. Leiris and Ponge are part of the same world, but Ponge is not autobiography. His great book, which is right up there with Manhood, is called Soap. And let me tell you, Gary Indiana has been wanting to make a movie of that for a long time. Soap is one of the great books of the twentieth century. He wrote it when he was living underground during World War II. He was in the Resistance. And it’s about soap. It’s just about soap.

He’s also somebody who practices an art—you could say in Leiris and Proust’s case it’s the art of memory and of self-observation. And in Ponge’s case it’s still life. He enlarges that genre to make it world-encompassing but also uses that genre to show us how we are all bound within language and nourished by language, right? Which is like, the prison hatch, but also the escape ramp and the playground. But Soap is also like what you say about the gramophone or what you say about The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat. Soap. It’s just about washing your hands and you have this bar of soap that disappears or it foams. It’s this whole little book called Soap. But this was all a digression on the way to something else. Francis Ponge—they call him an essayist. He was born in 1899 and he died in 1988.

Almost exactly the same years as Leiris.

Exactly. A year or so older. And he was influenced by Surrealism, and he developed a form of prose poem minutely examining everyday objects. He’s indispensible. He’s more of a poet’s person because these are poems. He’s a different kind of artist but he’s like Leiris in that he is important to visual artists and philosophers as well as esoteric poets and novelists. But when you were talking about this page-long sentence, and you were impatient—the other two people who do something like that in the twentieth century were Gertrude Stein and Beckett. Beckett in his trilogy, like in Molloy, where it just goes on and on. Beckett is a lot like Leiris in that it’s perverted, it’s material, and its relation to the chronology of memory is skewed and circular and like rowboats or whatever. And Stein, because of her impossibility, and because of how linguistic she is and because she is in France—she shouldn’t be able to do what she does and she did it. And it actually holds up and it’s impossible, and it’s claustrophobic, but she created a whole new portal into language and into autobiography.

It’s so odd that Manhood is the book that brought Leiris to so many English speakers, in the ’70s. If it had been another book, like Scratches, I think people would have reacted in a different way.

Good or bad?

I think in a good way. It’s hard to understand his combination of exacting and leisurely, the prone to dreaming and the prone to brutal honesty. How to see ugliness and beauty everywhere, but in detail, not glancingly.

Manhood took an autobiographical kernel that could have been folded into a story and handled it as a separate piece of evidence that was to be isolated from the narrative. And it really influenced my writing. It was the primary reason I started writing in those little crops that I write in. Because he didn’t say, “I’m remembering these things and I’m this continuous self and then this happened and then this happened”—even Proust does that. Leiris folds it up differently, but it’s still a continuous thread of reminiscence. What that taught me is, in my own little way, the thing that you remember or that you want to foreground, treat that as a discrete object. Sever it from its neighbors and it will acquire strangeness, and you will have the possibility of some kind of distance on it, even if only as a literary effect. If not actually epistemologically. Just like that, I thought, “OK, so I want to do autobiography. But I need to make sure that I separate the part of me so it doesn’t turn into a banal soup of me. That I am interesting for everybody’s sake.” I’m not saying, “When I was little, a dog bit my buttock. And then I grew up and went to college and remembered grandmother kissing me or whatever.” But it’s like, out of like the whole field of your dreams and memories, I remember Ava Gardner, I dreamed that Ava Gardner bit my buttock. And then you call your thing “Ava Gardner bit my buttock.” And then it’s no longer about your memory, it’s about Ava Gardner, buttock, and how that can come together in culture. It was kind of an estranging optic that Leiris seems to do—that’s what I think is so great about Manhood, not just that he begins the book by saying I’m balding, impotent, which is cool. But I’d never read any other writer who had done that with autobiography.

In my essay “My 1980s,” I talk about that bit-buttock revelation. And I say something like, “I read Leiris’s Manhood and grooved to his mention of bit-buttock,” where I’m narrating my intellectual and sexual genealogy a bit, and talking about all the things I discovered at that point, including everything Richard Howard translated, which seemed to be the open sesame to me to a lot of stuff. The other thing is, the translator of The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat, Christine Pichini, was my graduate student at CUNY. I don’t know whether I assigned her Leiris, but I know that Christine and I are very close and it’s something that’s very meaningful to me. Not to then claim credit through the back door as it were, for the magic circle of Leiris idolatry. Christine and me and Lydia Davis—it’s like the webs of kinship are crossed.

How can it not have formed?

It must have, but also she is such a genius that she might have arrived equipped with Leiris and we just concurred on him. She wrote a brilliant dissertation on maternal correspondence. It was Joseph Cornell and Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore.

Corresponding with their mothers?

A lot of that but also just letters and mail—it was really brilliant. And then she went off and did other things. But she has really perfect pitch. And it moves me that here you are, discovering Leiris through Christine. It’s a fairytale—there have been sacred messengers who’ve been entrusted with these pellets and now here we are meeting and who knows where else the little things are happening. It’s magical.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician who lives in the East Village.