Porn, Poetry, and Picasso: Wayne Koestenbaum’s Irresistible World View


A new collection of essays called Figure It Out by Professor Wayne Koestenbaum (The Graduate Center) offers the author’s magical musings on everything from porn to poetry to Picasso. “Each essay is like a set of emergency telegrams; being alive is the emergency, and I’m using the essay form to write myself into a state of momentary contentment,” he said in an interview with The Graduate Center.

At one point in the book, he writes: “Being spellbindable is my fate,” and readers can’t help but share that fate as he draws them into his irresistible world view as a gay man, an intellectual, an artist, and a passionate connoisseur of high culture, pop culture, and everything in between.

In one essay, he contemplates “the line” in both poetry (Emily Dickinson) and visual art (Giacometti). In another, he deconstructs Elizabeth Taylor’s tweets and a comment thread about Liza Minnelli checking into rehab, explaining: “I’m a lifelong student of star culture; in that school, I matriculated early. (At age four.)”

In Koestenbaum’s hands, even a subject as mundane (or absurd) as punctuation takes on a transcendent quality. He contemplates Hannah Arendt’s use of dashes, “the space around the period,” and a pair of short sentences by E.M. Cioran (“Short sentences put me in a good mood,” he writes).

The book also includes a number of oddly intriguing “assignments,” like one that instructs readers to take the subway to a stop they’ve never been to before, then write a poem titled with the station’s name. “Include the reasons you’d never disembarked here,” he says.  “Speculate on vistas and opportunities you’ve forfeited.”

Perhaps, as a New York Times review of Figure It Out suggests, the secret to the book’s “cerebral, smutty essays” is that they “playfully disobey the rules.” Or perhaps the book’s charms can be explained by Koestenbaum’s vision of his ideal reader: “someone who takes inordinate pleasure in the shape of a sentence — someone who likes strange sentences, someone for whom strangeness gives pleasure.”

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Figure It Out
Soft Skull Press, 2020

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Wayne Koestenbaum (Distinguished Professor, English) | Profile 1

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