Channel the Howl: A Conversation with Kate Durbin and Kate Zambreno

Kate Durbin and Kate Zambreo explore why women should step up as “culture-changers” and their own roles as “illegitimate theorists.”


HER KIND: Ladies, Welcome to the Conversation. I’d like to get the ball rolling with a question to provoke you.  Virginia Woolf said: “To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves.” Do you agree with this statement?


Kate Zambreno: On some bizarre abject impulse, I went on Facebook yesterday and asked advice, from whatever masses were online on a Sunday afternoon, on whether I should get an MFA or a Ph.D. because I need a JOB.


People answered – well-intentioned – yes, you should go to an MFA program but only do it for fun or to have time to write but not for a JOB, you won’t get one anyway, and I wanted to fight with the world, and counter: but I have three books! And I have been in the adjunct trenches forever! I have been progressively making less money every year for the past ten years since I’ve become a writer and now make less than an extremely bad graduate stipend!

But I just erased it. Of course then I posted something on my blog, and then erased it. And now I have just been following you, Kate Durbin, on Facebook—silently/supportively, hopefully not creepily/stalkily—as you’re posting links to critical or negative or “didn’t-get-it” blog posts about your intriguing performances, talks and essays about Tumblr and Reality TV.

This makes me think about how when Green Girl was in the Tournament of Books recently, and I almost lost it trying to engage with people who were dismissing the book. I think Virginia Woolf, while I love her, spoke a lot of self-control and containment—in A Room of One’s Own ­especially—of controlling “one’s” emotions, of literature not being created in the “red light” of anger, but in the “white light” of truth.

That Charlotte Bronte is spoiling something by having her heroine Jane Eyre vent about the unfairness of her life and her circumscribed status in it, unlike Jane Austin who was happy in a small space, the sitting room; her literature didn’t suffer from any sense of agitating to get out. But even though she uses this fictional persona of Mary Carmichael, A Room of One’s Own is so much about her own alienation as a woman and as a woman writer, and she was someone who would stay in bed for weeks when reviews of her books came out, and she wanted so much to be taken seriously and read seriously. She thought of making her tortured girl Rhoda in The Waves a failed fiction writer, but didn’t, wanting to distance her own personal excessiveness and torturedness, so that she could be taken seriously, especially as a self-published writer, as a wife, as a girl raised in Victorian times.

I always think this is why she distanced herself from T. S. Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, who was a very talented yet toxic girl, who I think of in my upcoming memoir Heroines as one of Woolf’s Shakespeare’s Sisters. But this idea coming out of New Criticism that writing should be controlled, and then of course people’s emotions should be controlled—Eliot’s objective correlative—even though Eliot was a total hysteric in his life, like his wife, who he disciplined and controlled—she was forbidden from writing for their little magazine The Criterion, after it got out that the pseudonymous delicious, gossipy little pieces were penned by her, and then later more infamously institutionalized and silenced. Virginia was definitely of that generation of women who learned the hard way that she needed to control herself or she would be controlled—diagnosed as a child according to the time with “moral insanity” just like Vivien(ne), one of the cures for which was self-control, Victorian moral management, another cure being the “rest cure,” being sent away to a nursing home if she “acted out.”

So I think in some ways that transferred onto her criticism and ideas about writing and the emotions and being kind of out in her essays about being alienated and depressed—that’s why I love her journals in some ways best, for how fleshly and oozey they are, how much they’re really about the divided state of the woman writer. But I think it’s terrible to have to be so controlled. I don’t think that’s freedom at all. I think we should be able to vent. We should vent our anger at being alienated or marginalized in society. We should be able to vent our rage about Jonathan Franzen analyzing Edith Wharton in regards to her looks, or that it’s his blurb that sits on the front of the new version of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. At least to each other or on our blogs. During the time when I was feeling very raw—in a very public space, online—about criticisms of Green Girl, I was thankfully reading David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, which is such an ANGRY text, rallying against a closed and conformist society. At the same time a friend of mine sent me a worksheet on Dialectical Behaviorial Therapy, how I can figure out whether an emotion is too much or not, whether it’s maladaptive, I guess as a way to cope with my feelings that I was documenting so publicly—which was more than anything about feeling alienated—having Green Girl pitted against The Marriage Plot and found lacking, found not even literary, it didn’t seem to be fair, and more about privilege and power. This was someone who had a massive billboard in New York when his book came out. But I decided at the time my favorite works of literature are maladaptive (including Virginia’s, all of the mad scenes in Mrs. Dalloway).

Kate Durbin: I thought of you today too, when I received that pile of criticisms and misreads of my work—specifically of your awful Tournament experience. I realized, too, the irony of having my work—which I have explicitly stated as being an incitement of how we ALL misread women in culture—misread. It both pleased me intellectually, that level of meta-demonstration, and wearied me. It was difficult to hear that one of the critics thought I should only exist online; that feels like a type of corralling or shaming, and so much of my work about Tumblr and teen girls is about the fact that girls feel freer online, but ultimately, off and online are just perceptions we hold, and everyone wants to be free in every interface, including IRL.

The other night I participated in a reading, wherein I presented The Hills, and I could tell that people were put off by the text. It was interesting too, because the way the reading operated, the audience could walk around and listen to different readers installed in the bookstore, so it was very easy for them to walk away from one reader and go to another when they wanted. While the overarching concept of the reading was really cool if one was reading lyric poetry or something more easily digestible or familiar for the crowd, I felt in that situation very panicky as my work was being “rejected” over and over due the construction or constraints of the event, and I often found myself reading to bookshelves, totally alone. Later only one person in the audience said anything to me directly about my work—as the other (mostly) lyric poets, two of whom were former Stegner fellows, good people, good poets, but lyric-familiar—received an abundance of praise. The person who talked to me about my work said: “At first I was really angry with what you were doing. I thought it was Warhollian and pretentious. Then you said something about one of the characters in The Hills slamming a car door. Then you said something weird, you said ‘the slamming is audible.’ I realized then that what you were doing was not just a straight transcription, that it had emotion behind it, and I thought it was brilliant.”

This brings up a slightly different interpretation of this notion of control. I know Woolf was thinking of the writer having control over her text as she is writing it, but I think for women writers what is sometimes even more dangerous is feeling so out of control over how the work is framed once it is out in the world. I often feel very out of control as to how my work is presented and received, even though I set myself up for a lot of that by leaving such a wide open framework with my projects—by giving the reader huge gulfing amounts of trust and hope that they will, in fact, fucking pay attention instead of walking away, and that they will encounter the work in freedom, without me having to tell them exactly how to read it and exactly what it means. That they will give the author, despite the fact that she is a woman, some trust that she might in fact know what she is doing. And yet, the world is a ravenous audience; that is part of the point. And yet, I am a woman, and for a woman to produce work like this without accounting and even maybe apologizing for herself, is to piss people’s “unconscious” off.

The problem of not having enough control of ones work in presentation is driven in part by forces you mentioned—finances, the “literary community,” the internet, etc. Unlike, say, Vanessa Beecroft of Marina Abromovic, who both have great control over how their work is presented, I often feel like I have to say yes to situations like the reading I just described wherein I end up being set up to be misread in the exact way that my work attempts to counter. I wonder if all women writers feel this anxiety of control over their work; how they counter it. You and I have talked so often about how hard it is to let ones work out into a hostile world. And yet, as you point out, absolute control, repression of emotion, or, “hiding,” is dishonest, invulnerable. In a way, opening up oneself for rejection and abuse and misreads seems integral to the work of a culture-changer, which, I think, is what we both are. I know: what an arrogant role for women to take on.

I agree with your assessments of Woolf. I love her texts, especially Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves, and I especially love Nicole Kidman playing Woolf in The Hours. But I think she was repressed, not self-aware of that repression, as a woman. I have always had more esteem for Plath, as writer-mother, because of her willingness to delve into the black emotions, to channel the howl. Her craft was “controlled” yet harrowingly hysteric. And yet, who says even craft needs to be controlled? What are we so afraid of, in the emotion of a woman, that we feel we must control it before we’ve even felt it?

KZ: Oh, that reading you gave for The Hills sounds alienating and deeply symbolic:  you are the girly writer in the glitter-face standing in the corner, alone. I had a recent experience like that, and it wasn’t alienating on the skin, so to speak, but it was just another reading where I was the sole prose writer among poets—and feeling like an outsider, that people didn’t think of my writing, specifically my fiction, as “real” writing. I feel this a lot. That fiction writers don’t think of me as a “fiction” writer, i.e. interested in discussions of craft (and really, I’m not, not really, regardless of how enthralled I am to the “baggy monster” that Henry James called the novel) and the poets definitely don’t think of me as a poet, so sometimes not a “serious” writer, even though my experiences being read by readers unused to nontraditional narrative often dismiss it or describe my writing as prose poetry, or poetry, which is funny, because no poet ever thinks of me as a poet. Sometimes I feel isolated—and then I remember writers like you, and many others I met in the online community—that I share such an affinity and kindredness with, all of my weird sisters, and I feel very lucky.

And I do approach a lot of my work and my perspective through being an orphan, so I think I partially indulge in those feelings of isolation (in some ways Heroines is a séance with all of these modernist women who weren’t taken seriously). So I think I decided I wasn’t going to probably do readings for poetry series anymore, unless I have a book out that that’s a good fit, because it’s not the right audience for me, mostly, and the audience is disappointed mostly, and I am disappointed not feeling that sense of public-ness and connection which I guess is part of the reason we do readings.

I think it can be very freeing to learn to say no to things that stress us out and take us away from what’s important (our self-preservation, our engagement with our work). For a while I thought I had to be a really hard-working writer, and do tons of readings, do everything people want me to, and now I’m beginning to realize that that’s the same as wanting to be a good girl, a good woman, that sense of duty. I feel really inspired by Bhanu Kapil in regards to this – not only do I think she’s a genius, and inventing new forms, but she once told me she only does readings/promotions for her work in ways that feel right to her. I aspire to that. Of course she’s also connected to an amazing institution—Naropa, where I felt really privileged to spend some time recently for a week as a visiting writer for their Violence and Community symposium Bhanu curated—so that comes with it in a way a local community and ways to interact with all of these other writers coming in. I think there can be a freedom in having choice in how we direct our careers as writers—maybe part of it comes with being considered more established?—but a lot of that is possibly privilege, of being connected to an institution, and so feeling relaxed about whether you’re getting out there and being seen and connecting with others and being read by people you respect and published by people you respect. That’s partially why I wrote that status update about an MFA or a Ph.D.—I think coming from the stimulating community at Naropa, which I think is a rare institution—but that sense of belonging, of having a place, that I sometimes think being full-time at a university or college would give me, or at least having good well-paying quality part-time work teaching literature or generative seminars.

But that fear of being disciplined or confined is exactly the reason I am probably not meant for the institution, Kate (I have always had a fear of being institutionalized!). I honestly don’t think I would have written O Fallen Angel or Green Girl or certainly Heroines within a workshop or dissertation setting. I can’t imagine trying to explain to anyone else but people who love me and who I trust what I’m working on now—for example my hidden girl novel, certainly can’t imagine having to conform it or discipline it for a person in a place of power over me. I imagine getting an MFA in poetry is different—or I don’t know. But I taught for one semester at an MFA program—and the focus seemed to be on character and plot and all of these traditional elements I’m not really interested in. I’m interested in excess. I’m interested in texts that are monsters. I’m interested in breaking something with my writing and playing with new forms, in engaging with and sometimes alienating the reader—I know we share that in common, Kate. With a Ph.D. as well, which is the possibility I more seriously consider, I would be afraid more than anything of changing my language. I love to read theory voluptuously and bodily, but I would hate to use this programmed language, their language. I think we are theorists in our own right, illegitimate theorists, philosophers of girls and bodies and the Internet.

In terms of the experience of having Green Girl enter the mainstream, I don’t think it was necessarily all bad, or in reality it was a learning experience. Experimental novels tend not to be received well by a reading public-at-large, which often wants something different out of their reading experience. I realized I need to try not to be infected by other people’s opinions of my writing, a protectiveness I feel, say, with not believing countless editors or agents who rejected Green Girl, or realizing I have a singular vision that I wouldn’t want to defend in workshop, but that I don’t yet feel on the Internet. In some ways I am very interested in the performance of vulnerability and doubt, of public transgressions, of crossing boundaries.

I think it’s very important how both of us have become critics, partially in a way to defend our projects—this is what fucking T.S. Eliot did, why can’t we? I am really interested in how female artists are often portrayed as unserious—remember that jackass Kate who didn’t realize that the title of your book The Fashion Issue was taken from Barthes, suggesting to me to suggest to you to read Barthes? I hate that. It’s so masculine. I think people look at our project and don’t realize, yes, we have read others’ theories, and we are also using our own theory. I think for poetry conceptual writing can seem so masculine to me—and you’re subverting that, you’re also problematizing what can be the subject of literature, the subject of important inquiry. Women that use their bodies in the ways that we do—both of us in a way engage in the self-portrait—are often dismissed, have been dismissed historically, seen as attention whores, narcissists, etc. I think both of us have been interested lately in the notion of the girl-cipher—Green Girl  was inspired as well with the celebutante, with Britney and Lindsay—and how the girl is interpreted in public, is over-interpreted. I feel that Heroines and now Slapping Clark Gable, a new critical memoir/essay book I’m working on now—are trying to theorize how female artists are perceived, especially women who write of worlds perceived as “unimportant” or “unserious” or who write the body or self or emotions in any way—and to attempt to trace the genealogy of all this.

Okay, I’m now going to go to bed, here in the South, i.e. go read something online or watch something pulpym. I will end with a question—Kate, what is freedom to you?

KD: I thought about your question when I was dyeing my hair mermaid blue last night, while you were probably watching Girls or Gossip Girl, and again today while I walked around the Norton Simon looking at the Rococos and at Camille Claudel’s.

The reason I began writing when I was a little girl was because it offered me freedom— freedom from my parents’ rule, freedom from the constrictions of a world that didn’t see me. I could make anything happen; I could insert myself in the stories I wrote and give myself agency.

And yet, now, I am thinking of how much of our conversation has revolved around our material, financial and work situations, the complications of my love life. In effect, the lack of agency we have often experienced as female artists/writers who refuse to compromise our visions. I think as a child I really thought that writing was magic and would change my life dramatically–that by doing it, I could make the world change, and be taken seriously as an artist, could make the world better for girls and women. I still believe that, and have seen it happen in my life, but it’s of course much harder than I thought it was as a child. And yet as a child I could write for days straight, hours and hours and hours, so it was still hard work, even then. But pleasurable.

I am spending June and July finishing up E! Entertainment’s Diamond Edition and the Gaga Stigmata book simultaneously. This is the only time I have to write these things, because until recently I was teaching six days a week, some of those five hour class sessions far from my home. I was teaching so much I made myself ill, so much so that I was dizzy 24/7 and had to teach sitting down, and have been in and out of the doctor’s office ever since, sans insurance.

For the Gaga book, I am writing a piece that talks about Marina Abromovic and Gaga, in part. There was this interview Gaga did with SHOWSTUDIO, wherein Marina Abramovic called in— many celebs called in. Abramovic asked Gaga the question: “Who creates limits?” Gaga answered, “We do,” and then she said to the interviewer: “You see how simple her [Abramovic's] question was? That’s because she’s fucking free.” The interviewer asked Gaga to explain, and she said, after gushing about seeing “The Artist is Present” in NYC, and gushing about “Rhythm O,” Abramovic’s famous performance wherein she let the audience abuse her, almost to the point of death, without surrendering or bowing her head:  “That bitch trusts herself, and she trusts her art.”

To me, to be a woman, an artist, and to be free, the bitch has to trust herself, has to trust her art.

That could look like different things to many people, but for me, lately, that looks like two letters: NO. No to anything that feels wrong in my gut, no to reading bad reviews, no to compromising my vision, no, even, to “accepting” a life of poverty just because I am an artist. I am saying no to those things. Not “no” for the sake of no— no for the sake of my YES. I am saying YES to trusting my art, for continuing to believe in and work for a better world, wherein women and girls can make a success of their life and art, no matter who in the audience is holding a gun (that can be interpreted in various ways, used as a metaphor for any number of financial and other restrictions). Because— as that performance of Abramovic’s exemplifies, to me at least— no one can take away your trust in yourself and your work, if you refuse to let them, if you won’t bow your head.

I love you and admire you and your work tremendously— it has given me freedom. Any time I have been stuck in my life, whether in an abusive marriage wherein my ex was trying to have me institutionalized like your Zelda, or in a bad relationship with a poet-who-shall-not-be-named mooching off of me financially, or just in one bad adjunct situation after another, you have always encouraged me to move toward freedom–to believe in myself, my power to take care of myself, to find real good love (and now I have!), and to love myself and believe in my work. I think our friendship was founded in freedom, more than the USA (hah).

KZ: I was asked to do something yesterday which would be very good for my career. And this thing will involve having my picture taken, and it was all so weird, and kind of jolting, that I’ve been looking at clothes online all day, even though I CANNOT buy any more clothes, and then I’ve realized I probably have to get Shapewear—  because remember that dress I was wearing at AWP? The long black one? I love it but currently photograph like Gertrude Stein in it, and then I’m premenstrual, so kind of nervous and vertiginous and edgy, and I just polished off half a thing of coconut milk chocolate ice cream. What a cliché I am. I should be intoning something in a thoughtful, earnest voiceover while typing in my laptop while someone films me. I am glad that Lena Dunham forwent the earnest voiceover device in Girls, even though I’m not in love with the show, I like it, but as we’ve discussed, and as you’ve brilliantly theorized, horror is perhaps the best genre for the girl, I think, not television.

And I’m imagining when some male authors learn they will have to get their pictures professionally taken they don’t obsess about what they’re wearing, or think about writing a Facebook status update wishing there were Spanx for arms, but then not writing it, or erasing it before posting it, because realizing that that’s very body-obsessed and ANTI-feminist, and if I was truly body-obsessed I would probably exercise. Anyway. And then throughout that this wanting to LOOK like an AUTHOR, whatever that means, so smart and sophisticated, but not a hag, and as you know, since I’m turning 35, this has been obsessing me more than I’d like to admit, Eve versus Edie Sedgwick, that dialectic. And Eve Sedgwick wrote about fat, as well, in her poetry, her fear of fat. The fear of being a hag. The desire to be pretty. Why does the idea of being photographed make that internal monologue go again?

So of course I didn’t get any work done today. “Work” being now binging on books and trying to think about all of it for an essay. Yes, on girls. And on boundaries, and radical oversharing.

I love all of what you say here about freedom. It seems to me, when I was unpublished, I was a lot freer as a writer. Yes, I didn’t have a community, yet, I had to invent this invisible tea party, like Sontag’s Alice in Bed, except it was with Zelda and Jean Rhys and Colette Peignot (the woman known as Laure). But I had no sense of the scene, of the climate of publishing, of who my contemporary peers were, or what genre whatever monstrous project I was envisioning would be shuttled into, or who would publish it, or how much I was going to have to struggle to get published, or what people would write or say about it. So I wrote and wrote, a girl-Darger, and dreamed and wrote in my journal and I remember this period as a magic time, like your girlhood, that I wish to get back to.
Like the Shapewear, sometimes I find the life of the writer rather confining. For me, freedom would be freedom to be absolutely brave, and so for me it is an internal freedom – a bravery – an ability as you say to refuse things, to choose to hole back up in that hermitage (and also, a freedom from the poisonous internal monologue that sometimes the demands of feminine beauty can narrate). It is very important for me that I continue a discipline that seemed to somehow fall to the side in the rush of touring, editing, getting things ready for production, doing stuff for publicity, worrying over reviews, etc. And beyond the discipline – the talent of the room, as I once heard it put – the deafness or dumbness, the refusal to think of my work solely in the context of some contemporary scene, or to be paralyzed or atrophied by an anxiety of not being a genius, but trying, trying, trying, always to break something, always to not fit into a mold, because to me that’s interesting writing. Every project I work on I want to finally succeed in breaking something. I recently read Anne Carson, in the introduction to her translation of An Oresteia, bring up Francis Bacon’s quote (I’m rewording) that when he makes a painting he removes a boundary.

So freedom for me I guess is about boundaries – putting the boundary up in my public life, taking it away in private to allow me to be monstrous and marvelous in my interior world.

Oh, Camille Claudel. The opposite of freedom right? I mean she was absolutely brave – and then contained. I guess it’s about not allowing ourselves to be contained—to be stopped, or silenced.

You are always taking risks, Kate Durbin. I admire your fortitude to continue with your projects, your singular vision. Sometimes I look at myself, or some of the woman writers a bit younger than me—and I think it’s not really about talent, succeeding as a woman writer, which I think means continuing, going forth, pushing on, but it’s about whether we’re strong enough. I think we need these sorts of bonds and confidantes to assure ourselves that we’re not crazy, we’re not weak, that we’re original, that we’re brilliant, when sometimes we don’t know it ourselves. It’s like Mademoiselle Reisz feeling Edna Pontellier’s shoulderblades in The Awakening, seeing if she was strong enough to fly away from the voices of prejudice and conformity, in order to be an artist.

That book is so much about female friendship, isn’t it? My students always thought of it as a love story, like Twilight, Edna and Robert, but he distracts her. He doesn’t see her for the gorgeous monster that she has become. He ignores her becoming.

*     *     *

Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based writer and performance artist. She is author of The Ravenous Audience, E! Entertainment, and The Fashion Issue.  Her projects have been featured in Spex, Huffington Post, The New Yorker, Salon.com, AOL, Poets and Writers, TMobile’s Your Digital Daily, Poets.org, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, berfrois, NPR, Bookslut, 1913, LIT, Fanzine, and The American Scholar, among others. She is founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, an online arts and criticism journal about Lady Gaga, which will be published as a book from Zg Press in 2012.

 Kate Zambreno is the author of the novels O Fallen Angel and Green GirlHeroines, a critical memoir revolving around her obsession with the wives and myths of modernism, will be published by Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents in November. She blogs and tweets at @daughteroffury.


  1. This exchange is really insightful. I kept returning to W.E.B. DuBois’ notion of double consciousness. I wonder if we can somehow free ourselves of this, as it permeates everything we do and think about doing. I take solace in the fact that other women are experiencing this and are willing to discuss it openly. VIDA is the perfect forum/catalyst for these conversations.
    Don’t ever compromise your ideals, you are doing great things. You ladies rock!

  2. Really loved this whole dialogue. Not sure what else to say really, it was just so fascinating!

Speak Your Mind