An Interview with Kate Durbin - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Kate Durbin

Kate Durbin is a poet, filmmaker, and artist whose work engages practices of digital art, performance, and documentary poetics but is confined to none of these categories. The prose poems in her 2014 collection E! Entertainment (Wonder Books) position themselves in the midst of Reality TV Shows. These pieces—which record scenes, interiors, and even soundtracks from The Hills, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Girls Next Door, and The Real Housewives franchise—are able to be deeply interested in these shows—even loving them—without mirroring their blind spots or misogyny, retraining and recalibrating our “watching.”

I usually teach Durbin’s writing in my poetry classes during my unit on ekphrasis, where I try to nudge open students’ often cautious notions about what “writing about art” can look like. Something the students nearly always observe is that Durbin’s voice becomes a kind of camera itself, a way of seeing or filtering experience so that it moves beyond viewing, beyond reading, into an experience more akin to inhabiting. In this way, I see Hoarders, Durbin’s recent collection with Wave Books, to be both its own work and an extension of an ongoing project in which the apparatus of television, as a medium, is repurposed towards a rigorous destabilization of reality as it is fed to us, producing a radical empathy towards people, objects, and the spaces and relationships that hold them. You can feel the writer’s personal connection to the people and situations depicted on the show, along with the almost scientific, procedural accuracy of the stenographer—the one who is tasked with bearing the weight of “the record,” the what is happening, the what happened.

It’s Durbin’s exquisitely fine-tuned attention that is thrown into new relief in Hoarders, a book that chronicles the lived experiences of people who cannot let go of things, and the things that “glow” under the attention of being witnessed and inventoried by Durbin’s vivid and heartbreaking renderings. While immersed in her work, I found myself remembering objects from childhood, the sweet plastic smell of a Littlest Pet Shop figurine, a bucket of off-brand troll dolls, the pillowy pastel butter mints my grandfather kept in a crystal dish beside his oxygen tank. I was grateful for this opportunity to regain access to a lost catalog of things. Durbin and I hung out together in Google docs to discuss her highly-anticipated and urgent new collection. 

—Emily Skillings

THE BELIEVER: I’ve been listening to you read from Hoarders, following it around admiringly, since around 2015. Reading through the book, one gets the sense that it has been materializing, aggregating, collecting itself and the narratives it holds for a long time, that the process of making this book was a slow and meticulous and curious one. Could you talk a little about the germinal phases of this work, its first inklings, before you perhaps even knew what it was?

KATE DURBIN: My interest in uncanny objects really led me to Hoarders. I’d written about spooky or luminous consumer objects before, in my poems about The Girls Next Door, the reality TV show about Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends from the early 2000s, which I wrote about in E! Entertainment, my last book. Those poems are meant to be haunted landscape paintings, with half-filled bottles of Victoria’s Secret Body Wash and OPI nail-polish and no people to be found anywhere. Somehow writing The Girls Next Door led me to Hoarders, which is so explicitly about stuff. Though I didn’t know what I would find there. Writing Hoarders was like turning on a black light and discovering all kinds of glowing invisible tendrils, stretching not only between people and their stuff, but also between their stuff and all the stuff that came before it, the ghosts of objects past. I also have a personal connection to the material, coming from a family who could be on a show like this one, so that both drew me to the show and made me hesitant to want to watch it. 

BLVR: I love this image of these invisible connectors between people and their things—our personal histories with objects reaching back through time. It reminds me of this haunting image I had as an absentminded child who was always forgetting her things in different places: all my lost or misplaced or discarded things heaped into a giant pile. Whenever I lost something I loved it would just get added to that pile and it never stopped growing.

KD: I had a similar fantasy as a child, of all my lost things being gathered up in one place somewhere. Now I wonder if it was connected with my belief, at the time, in heaven. This idea that all that was lost would one day be found. I love that we both had these childhood daydreams of lost objects. 

BLVR: It’s interesting to trace this person-object thread through your work. I remember you saying that when you wrote E! Entertainment you wanted to focus on the background of these reality TV shows, the objects in the rooms, the music, the landscape outside the limousine window etc., so that you could avoid, in your reversal of the “subject,” replicating the male gaze and the gaze of the camera. This is especially true in the section of the book that focuses on the rooms in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion, your close watching and annotation of the interiors of “The Girls Next Door.” In pieces like “Pink Playpen” and “Vintage Vanity” you bring the background into the foreground. Hoarders seems to take this a step further, creating a kind of portraiture through a relentless cataloguing of things. This process reveals the connections between material, history, class, and trauma without recreating the voyeurism of the TV show. I think this has something to do with the attention and empathy of your writing. Can you talk about this translation process from the often exploitative genre of reality television into language? 

KD: Sontag talked about how the photographic image inherently objectifies people, an idea I don’t know if I agree with in every context but I think it fits with reality TV. So the first step for me is moving from the image to page, a space of imagining instead of numbly looking. Then, writing through the objects in Hoarders, becomes a way for me to explore the experiences of the people on reality TV. It’s kind of like archaeological objects and what can be gleaned from them. I like the gap or mystery in archeological objects, how there is a sense that you can’t ever truly reach the person who the object belonged to. That gap is very present to me with reality TV; we as spectators are always held apart from the interiority of the people onscreen. Writing through the objects on screen, I am able to honor the gap while also coming to some understanding. In Hoarders, I started with an agreement: these objects are so important to these people that they won’t part with them, no matter how much trouble it causes. Starting there, I was able to see the objects in new ways, including seeing their beauty, even the beauty of more abject objects—beheaded Barbies and rotting fruit and oozing Breyers ice cream and even feces.  I found bringing my attention to the objects made them glow for me.

BLVR: Yes, the beauty of these pieces, even as they acknowledge the abject, the grotesque, reminded me of my favorite still lives, the ones where fish entrails and dead animals coexist with fruits and table objects that seem to transcend time. An apple in a painting has lasting power, even a rotting one, and you’ve cared for and preserved these objects by suspending them in your writing, just as the hoarding folks were unable to let them pass through their lives and had installed them permanently in their homes. It’s like bringing the landfill inside. There seems to be an honesty to this regarding personal consumption. Dwelling with your waste instead of having it “disappeared” for you. Another thing I think your book acknowledges and works against is this capitalist hallucination that the objects and things we buy and order and that show up at our houses just materialize, that they weren’t made by someone in a factory, packaged in a warehouse, that the purse wasn’t a cow, etc. That an object involves not only an owner (or a series of them), but a designer, a maker, a mender, and a destroyer. I was also reminded that there is no reality TV show “exposing” and urging therapy for those who hoard wealth, for instance. Did writing this book alter your views on ownership and consumption in a broader sense?

KD: The capitalist hallucination is such a perfect way of describing the weird shadowy obfuscation of the time and material and energy that goes into even, like, a hamburger wrapper. When I was writing Hoarders, I think the biggest thing it did was give me a tenderness toward not only the people on the show but also toward garbage. We call something garbage and think that suddenly it can just vanish. But instead it collects in the Great Pacific garbage patch, in the throats of animals, in landfills. When people hoard they don’t really see things as garbage, and there is something compelling about that, to see an item as valuable, even if it’s not “useful” practically any longer. I am not saying this is a functional or liveable position, only that it makes sense on some level. And to acknowledge that many things cannot just disappear or decompose easily, like plastics, they will just sit sadly in a landfill. Placing these objects intended for obsolescence into the poems, painting Big Gulp cups slowly into these still lives, made me feel a mournfulness for them. I remember a conversation with my sister, who works at Starbucks, about the color-changing cups. I asked her how many people bring them back to Starbucks to be refilled with coffee, since that’s what they’re supposed to be for. She said almost no one brings them back. There’s a few Starbucks cups in the book. They haunt me, these color-changing miracle objects, that are just made really for that brief moment of purchase. 

BLVR: There are many object-oriented poets and writers who connect the materiality of language with physical “thingness.” I was thinking, especially, of Stein and Tender Buttons, but also Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings and Francis Ponge’s The Nature of Things, writings that bring the “stuff,” the object, front and center. Can you speak to some of the supportive or influential texts (or other types of art) that helped you to understand or develop this project?

KD: Tender Buttons continues to be an important book for me. It made me realize you could have a lot of things in a poem, and that things themselves could be a poem. And that things have a language of their own! In general, I don’t read writing that may be closely related to my work while I’m working as I want to stay in my own space, but there are a lot of writers who write about “stuff” in ways that I like, including Ponge and Mullen. Another is Mónica de la Torre. I love her poems about corporate office chairs. I also like the relationship of the narrator to things in Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. She relates more to the items in the konbini, the coffee drinks and the boxes of cold noodles, than she does to people. Grey Gardens, also, has something of the energy of Hoarders to it. I thought about it when I was writing the plant hoarding poem toward the end of the book, where the plants are overtaking the house. 

BLVR: I’m obsessed with Mónica de la Torre’s The Happy End / All Welcome and actually taught excerpts of it alongside Hoarders this semester, so it’s great that you mention it here! I love the theatrical and bureaucratic landscape she creates in that book. It’s like a set you travel through. There’s that great poem that is just an inventory of different furniture pieces. Some of them feel tangible and others more conceptual. The whole book really made me think of how to evoke a form in writing: be it the form a thought takes or a series of physical shapes that make an object.

Speaking of form, I want to acknowledge a facet of Hoarders that I found so interesting, this way that the objects kind of butt up against either the dialogue or the gestures of their owners, almost like the people you investigate are being interrupted or mirrored by their things:

from “Cathy”

There might be something in here that might still be important to me Lexmark printer still in the box

I’m not sure what it is second Lexmark printer still in the box

My family thinks I’m selfish five Swarovski crystal encrusted Starbucks cups 

from “Jim”

If I see a beautiful tool, I’ll pick it up and bring it home busted bench vise 

Since 2007, the city has been pressing me to clean up toilet with no seat 

I live in America dirty football helmet 

You own property and pay the taxes over broken box springs

from “Maggie”

“After I got a concussion, no one came to help, no one was there Care Bear with a dirty pink heart nose lying in the dirt.” 

How did this evolve in the text, this charged seam between character and object?

KD: When the form came, in a flash, the book came alive for me at that moment. As I worked, the form sort of bent for me. The person and the objects became like a mobius strip. On a mobius strip it appears there are two sides until you trace a plane and discover it’s just a single surface. Yes, there are these points of friction in the poems, where the object and the person might be in contradiction, having an argument with one another, but the two are also an inextricable part of one another.

BLVR: Was there a specific poem or person that was particularly difficult to write? Or that you found you had to approach from a different angle?

KD: Writing Hoarders I often felt sad, and worried for the people on the show. I thought of my family, their experiences with mental illness and substance use and hoarding, how we could be on a show like this one. The poem “Maggie,” about a woman who hoards and says she has demons in her house, was one I wrote a few times, because I wanted  to understand this relationship between demon possession and objects. That poem eventually spoke to a central mood in the book, of loneliness, the isolation of the suburbs, and also this idea of objects having a kind of life or spirit of the past in them. I also wrote a lot of poems that didn’t make it into the final book. The magic was usually in the objects actually. The relationship between the person and a specific type of object, like books or rotting food or vintage Las Vegas casino items or even data, as one of the characters hoards TV shows on tape. If there was nothing in that relationship, nothing I could go into, then the poem didn’t work and I had to throw it out.

BLVR: Speaking of “throwing things out,” writing is often framed in terms of economy of language, what gets left out, and I’m struck by the realization that this project, though its subject follows the inability to “edit” one’s possessions, must have required so much necessary omission. To see the pileup of things, it was likely crucial for you to be incredibly selective in what you chose to include. Can you talk about this tension between what gets recorded and what doesn’t (or what remains and what gets shed) in terms of the book’s larger project? Can one be a hoarder in their writing?

KD: I experience a form of Obsessive Compulsive disorder called Memory Hoarding. And so my desire to write through reality TV, to write down everything on the screen, relates in some way to the way my mind works, a compulsion I have experienced since childhood. With Hoarders, I really indulged this compulsion through note-taking, where I’m pausing every frame, writing down everything I can see and imagine on the screen, then going into research online, looking up all the types of Beanie Babies, for example. Then, in the final poems, I have to work against my impulse, cutting things down ruthlessly to allow the poems to become themselves. I ended up cutting so many objects that I wish I could have kept in the book. There were endless possibilities of inclusion, many other objects that could have been incorporated to create many more moods and textures. But I had to let them go. 

BLVR: I’m fascinated by the way your process (across books) involves the practice of transcription, and this kind of builds on my earlier question about moving from TV to writing. In his lecture on poetry and dictation, Jack Spicer calls this “the business of taking poetry as coming from the outside rather than from the inside.” But I think whereas Spicer is talking about a kind of spiritual dictation, becoming a conduit for outside language, your process of transcription seems much more related to technology, to recording. Can you talk a little about what it means for you to transcribe? How this fits into the generation of material?

KD: I really like the idea of material memory. Like a chair being connected to all the chairs that have ever been made and sat in. There’s a Barbie poem in Hoarders and one of the Barbies is the original 1960s Barbie with winged eyeliner, a Barbie my mom played with as a kid. As I was writing that poem, I kept thinking about that first Barbie spawning into ever more specific and strange Barbies over the years—that are actual real Barbies that are in the poem—like Gustav Klimt Barbie, and Walk and Potty Pup Barbie, and Tooth Fairy Barbie. This idea of material memory connects for me to my writing process. I’m watching intently, then note-taking carefully, generating a ton of material. From there, I’m crafting something brand new but with a ghost in it. 

BLVR: That’s such a wonderful image: writing an object is a composite of historical references to that object, which creates a kind of ghostly trail. I’m curious about what you’re working on next. 

KD: Right now I’m working on two books, one about my childhood, and another about a reality TV show I’ve wanted to go deeper into for awhile. Both are novels, I think, or something like novels. To return to the origins of my obsessions with pop culture, in my younger years, has been especially surprising for me. 

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