Kate Durbin’s books are powerful investigations into American culture’s (mediated) reality obsession, whether that obsession revolves around viral online videos, paparazzi photos, or reality television. Hoarders, Durbin’s newest collection, is a look at and through the documentary series of the same name, to the the secret life of American objects. It shows how we are formed with, by, and through our relationships with our stuff — which haunts and is haunted in equal measure. It is a powerful, beautiful, and deeply unsettling book.
Full Stop has previously interviewed Durbin for her previous collection, E! Entertainment, in 2014. I was very happy to share a months-long correspondence with her leading up to the release of Hoarders to talk about performance, imagism, Katamari Damacy, and Minions.
Kyle Williams: It’s been seven years since your last collection, E! Entertainment. In that time you’ve done a lot of other artistic work, including performance pieces, installations, and the iOS app ABRA. Have you found a certain continuity of artistic process from performance and digital media to your poetry? Are they separate processes that inform each other, or the same process?
Kate Durbin: Every artwork I make, every book I write, has its own process entirely, which means everything takes a long time! For example, I’m writing a novel now that has nothing to do with reality TV — it’s about my childhood — and it’s a very different process than making Hoarders, where I was note-taking from the TV for over a year before writing. But of course, everything constellates around everything else, and my thinking, my obsessions I return to again and again, unite it all.
When you perform your poems, you really perform – you put on voices when the poems call for it, like with your Anna Nicole Smith poem, or affects, like a valley “accent” for your “Hills” series. Having never actually seen you perform, I’m getting this information mostly from this PennSound performance, which is one of the strangest and most affecting performances I’ve ever listened to. It’s so echoey, and it made me cry. I’d love to hear you talk about the vocal performance of your work, and how you’re thinking about that when those poems are printed. Is the page just as performative as the stage? And, also, what vocal effect do you find yourself going for in the poems in Hoarders?
I’m touched that Anna Nicole made you cry. She makes me cry too. I’ve found myself reading the Hoarders poems quietly, because of their darkness and tenderness, I think. I’d like to hire actors to read them instead of me, since they are character poems, but that would be cost-prohibitive of course. I usually think of how to perform the poems after writing them, though sometimes I get those ideas when I’m working on the page. Because my reality TV books have elements of TV dialogue, there are echoes, as you noted, televised ghosts coming through me when I perform them aloud.
The construction of reality through the voyeuristic camera has always been an explicit interest of yours. Those constructions come in a variety of valences, though, from a construction through glamorization, to a construction through an exploitative gaze on tragedy. Do you approach these constructions differently? Are they different constructions?
I don’t know that they’re so different. The USA loves excess in its various forms, and so does our reality TV, from closets full of dazzling designer gowns on the Kardashians to piles of rotting newspapers on Hoarders. And tragedy is a theme across many reality TV shows too. It’s glamorized and often manufactured on Real Housewives and pathologized on Hoarders. But for me, the voyeuristic camera’s gaze is a more immediate tension in my book E! Entertainment. In that book I wanted to transport the reader inside the camera, a kind of nervous space. And maybe the glamour of those shows, Kardashians and Real Housewives, had something to do with the urgency of that inquiry, because they are so blingy! That and the fact that many of the shows are about celebrity, and to be a celebrity is to live your life in the camera’s eye.
But in Hoarders, because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, I approached the show softly, taking seriously the stories of the people and their objects. Because in many ways their objects tell their stories. In Hoarders my concern for the camera is more submerged than it was in E!, circling around this idea of isolation in the US. There is a thread throughout the book, people mentioning their neighbors – sometimes it’s the neighbors never coming over, other times the neighbors reporting them to the authorities, but never their neighbors helping them. I wanted Hoarders to capture that feeling of abandonment, which is a common experience in the US, where we have no universal healthcare, this bootstraps mentality that you have to solve all your own problems. There’s this poem about Dorothy, who hoards data — she records TV shows; she tries to record every single one that’s ever existed! In the poem Dorothy is watching a Hoarders episode. She’s watching an episode from earlier in the book, about Alice, who hoards cats. That moment in the book, which is sort of meta, speaks to this loneliness of connecting with others only through screens, or even through going on a reality TV show.
This is really by-the-way, but, have you seen the new Britney Spears doc? I felt like it was related to your work. The public outcry over Dr Phil’s treatment of Shelley Duvall, too. That public reinvestigation of women deeply mistreated by the media.
I haven’t watched the Britney doc, but I feel for her and Shelley Duvall. They could be in E!, especially Britney. Her story somewhat parallels Amanda Knox’s story, and Lindsay Lohan’s, both of whom I wrote about in E! These women were hunted by the paparazzi and condemned in the public eye through images they had no control over. I still feel haunted by that photo of Britney crying in a diner while looking at a pap’s camera. She was holding her baby and looked totally cornered.
You’ve mentioned “haunting” a couple of times now, regarding images and traumas. This feels like an interesting word related to your work – thinking, for instance, of the séance performance piece.
I see my books about reality TV existing between the TV screen and the viewer, somewhere in that gap, which is a kind of spectral space. There’s this scene in Poltergeist, the 1982 movie, where a ghost hand reaches out toward the little girl through the TV screen. I feel like that scene really speaks to what I’m attempting, which is a kind of impossibility: to actually reach through the screen. I think a lot about the strangeness of living now, when so much of our lives is engaging with screens. I like to think through the life these images have. Their echoes and afterimages.
Trauma is in some ways like an echo or a ghost. It doesn’t just go away, it reverberates, passed on through our genes, but also in other ways. I think of the objects in Hoarders as bruised. They hold the past, like for Gary, who fills his whole house with plants because he is dealing with everything he witnessed during his time as a paramedic. Some of the objects in my book also hold larger historical wounds, like wars the US has fought. These might be literal objects from a war, like bullet casings, but also other objects, like old curtains.
KW: The way you write about objects is so agentive. The objects haunt and are themselves haunted. While reading Hoarders I was sometimes thinking of, like, object-oriented ontology. This might be a silly way to ask this question about objects, but I also kept thinking about this while reading: Do you identify with William Carlos Williams’s mantra, “No ideas but in things”? Or relate to it at all?
I relate to it strongly! The objects take up at least half, if not more, of the space of the poems, and it often felt to me when writing that they have a life of their own, independent of humans. They even have their own sense of humor, like the Cabbage Patch doll in one of the poems who’s reclining at the same angle as someone’s grandmother in a chair. I’m sort of allergic to abstraction and certain forms of figurative writing like similes in my reality tv books specifically (not really in my other work) because it takes you out of the TV screen. But I find going into an object is a very mysterious, evocative place to go. Objects feel bottomless to me in their possibilities, their suggestions. Frank O’Hara said it well: “Oh! / Kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas! / You really are beautiful! Pearls, / harmonicas, jujubes, / aspirins! All / the stuff they’ve always talked about / still makes a poem a surprise!”
I like this move from the imagism of WCW to that of O’Hara’s. Do you feel like you’re part of a lineage related to that line? Are there other poets or work that felt particularly important to you in writing Hoarders?
I think you could say the Imagists and the New York School poets paved the way for Hoarders. Bernadette Mayer and her constraint-based work, her idea of writing through a day, like I’m writing through a TV show. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is probably the most important influence for Hoarders — the idea of a poem filled with slippery and conscious little objects! I also thought of the video game character Katamari Damacy. How he rolls up objects in the world around him into an ever-growing giant ball of stuff. I felt a little like him, writing.
I’d love to talk more about the space of the poems you mentioned. Each page is dense with objects, but not actually very dense with text. I love that effect. How were you thinking about the use of white space in these poems? Is it as much a part of the poems as the text?
Each line is meant to be like its own still life, so it was important that the reader have space to slow down and look at each one. The white space gives the reader breathing room in what might otherwise be a claustrophobic environment. The space is also part of respecting the feelings the characters have toward their things. To create a sort of glow around each object.
I like the white space as breathing room, because there are definitely some moments in Hoarders that feel difficult to breathe in. How do you imagine your readers, and your relationship to them, with these poems? Do you feel like you’re trying to force us to look at something, or look at people and objects differently? Or, do you feel like you want these poems to make us feel more than examine, examine more than feel — the possible tension between affective and effective?
I don’t really see a tension between feeling and thinking. I think they go together. I believe if you give readers room to feel, and don’t tell them exactly what to think, they actually think and examine more, not less. Speaking of feeling, Hoarders is often a sad book. As someone who comes from a family with hoarding, substance use, and mental illness, I felt like it was important not to provide resolutions to everything. Which happens a lot in poetry and often feels false to me. Or at least, it doesn’t feel like my experience of life. I hope Hoarders holds that breathing space for readers to encounter people and objects in new ways. We haven’t done the best job as a species of understanding our relationship and responsibility to our stuff, and, moreso, to each other.
I’m thinking a lot about that responsibility lately. It brings up an important point because it’s a political question, right, what we owe each other, and how we see each other. The political in Hoarders is really interesting, though, because it feels like a different expression than in your other work. Viewed casually, it might not look political to some people. Where do you locate the throughline in Hoarders, in that regard? Does it feel as politically charged as your other work to you?
It’s interesting that you see the poems as possibly less political than my other work. When I first read the Hoarders poems, at the Poetic Research Bureau in Los Angeles, my friend, the poet Joseph Mosconi, said to me, “Oh, these poems are very political.” As if they were perhaps more political than my last book, I think is what he meant. But I don’t feel that Hoarders is less or more politically charged than anything else I’ve done. The poems in Hoarders deal with environmentalism, the traumatic effects of the military, the misery of consumerism, the alienation of the suburbs, the straitjacket of gender roles, the abysmal state of healthcare in the US, even the ethics of how we treat non-human objects. There’s a lot to unpack in terms of Hoarders’ politics! I do, however, believe in space for interpretation in art. I think an artwork should be experienced first and foremost. I hope that Hoarders captures something of what it feels like to live in the United States right now.
You mentioned earlier that you spent a year taking notes for Hoarders. I have to imagine there are a lot of objects and people who didn’t make it into the final book. Do you feel haunted by anything you didn’t include? Haunted enough to share any of them here?
I feel very haunted! My biggest regret whenever I write about any reality TV show is that I cannot realistically write about every single episode, which is what I really want to do. I want to contain it all somehow, like a magic tiny orb that holds the universe. This connects to an anxiety I’ve had since childhood about wanting to record everything that’s ever happened, which is perhaps simply a fear of my own mortality, as well as the mortality of everything in this beautiful world.
In any case, I cut about twenty poems from the book. I can’t be so precious, and wanted the final book to be really contained. I do feel haunted by certain people that didn’t make it in, like Randy who collects arcade games. And objects I love that didn’t make it. Like a lenticular postcard of Munch’s The Scream, which could maybe be the heart of the entire book! Also a tower of Amazon boxes, The Message Bible, a snow globe with a sunburned Santa on a beach in Hawaii buried in sand. Oh and one of those blow up Christmas lawn ornaments of a gingerbread man inside a cup of cocoa that shivers like he is cold, when you plug it in. I also regret that there’s not one single Minion in the book. A Minion would have been wonderful.
By Kate Durbin
Kyle Francis Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is an MFA Candidate at UT Austin’s Michener Center, Interviews Editor for Full Stop, Director of Communications for Chicago Review of Books, and A Public Space’s 2019 Emerging Writer Fellow. He is on Twitter @kylefwill.