Poet Wayne Koestenbaum’s archive ‘a memory lane of mental calories spent’

Wayne Koestenbaum
Wayne Koestenbaum (Photo credit: Tim Schutsky)

Over the course of a varied and prolific career, Wayne Koestenbaum has published poetry collections, volumes of cultural criticism, novels, and a libretto. Two years ago, he plunged into an entirely different sort of project, one that involved managing Excel spreadsheets and contemplating his unpublished work.

Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library has acquired Koestenbaum’s literary archive. As part of the acquisition, Koestenbaum offered to help process his papers so they could be available to researchers more quickly. He has provided the library with spreadsheets of information detailed enough to guide scholars through hundreds of folders of correspondence, journals, notes, drafts, unpublished work, photographs, and ephemera dating back to his childhood.

The Beinecke’s librarians are at the forefront of archival science, and they believe in getting writers’ papers to scholars sooner rather than later,” said Koestenbaum, Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. “Not being world-famous — I’m not Gertrude Stein, or Ezra Pound, or a contemporary equivalent — I was concerned about how long a thorough processing of my papers might take. I had the energy and the knowledge to provide Yale with my archive in an organized state with the contents clearly identified so it could be available in the reading room as soon as possible.”

Koestenbaum’s archive offers a wealth of compelling material, said Timothy Young, the library’s curator of modern books and manuscripts.

Wayne’s work has legs,” Young said. “He has found all sorts of innovative ways to think about and discuss culture. His papers feature correspondence with interesting people. It has all the makings of a great archive. Wayne’s papers join those of other authors whose papers are at Beinecke — writers who engage with threads of contemporary American culture, analyzing, refracting and commenting — including David Rakoff, Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, and Eileen Myles. Having evidence of their creative process in our collections allows students and researchers to engage deeply with their work.”

That Koestenbaum volunteered to help process the papers was an added bonus, Young said.

We’ve been focused in recent years on acquiring archives that are well organized and don’t require a lot of processing before they’ll be ready for research,” he said. “It’s not something we’ll do in all acquisitions, but Wayne was willing to work within our system, and he understood the level of effort required, so we took him up on his offer.”

A collection of tiny notebooks and pocket diaries from the 1990s and the 2000s. Post-its indicate the year Koestenbaum used
A collection of tiny notebooks and pocket diaries from the 1990s and the 2000s. The Post-its indicate the year Koestenbaum used them.

Michael Rush, the library’s assistant head of the manuscript unit for accessioning, provided Koestenbaum with an Excel template and a crash course in archival processing.

He was a model archives student,” said Rush, who oversees the processing of the library’s newly acquired materials. “Lots of writers provide us lists of their archive’s contents or hire private archivists to get their papers in order, but Wayne was the first to offer to work with us directly. It was a huge help and, as a result, his papers will be open to research a lot sooner than otherwise would have been the case.”

It was a formidable project as Koestenbaum’s archive is large and complex.

I’ve been a fastidious and compulsive retainer of all of my correspondence, manuscripts, drafts, ephemera — especially unpublished stuff,” he said. “I had a particular sense of custodial responsibility for the thousands of pages of unpublished poems and autobiographical jottings — the pejorative term for that abundance would be ‘logorrhea.’ I am a fervent and rather lunatic producer of sentences.”

He hired an assistant, Ben Shields, and together they dove into a lengthy exercise in interpretation, description, and data entry.

The spreadsheet template included fields for recording basic information, such as the title of a given folder and the dates of the materials located within it. A “scope and content note” field for each folder served as a space to provide additional detail, such as titles of individual poems or the names of Koestenbaum’s correspondents. It was particularly useful when working through complicated ephemera, he said.

Koestenbaum’s great-aunt Alice Gutfeld pictured age 41, in her reisepass, or passport, she used to leave Germany.
The archive contains a collection of books and papers that belonged to Koestenbaum’s great-aunt Alice Gutfeld, who fled Nazi Germany in 1937. Gutfeld is pictured here, age 41, in her reisepass, or passport, she used to leave Germany. “[A] face I recall as stoic, vigilant, impassive — the look of someone who has been robbed but remains serene,” Koestenbaum commented on Twitter.

I have books and papers from my great aunt, Alice Gutfeld, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany and had fled to Caracas and then to San Francisco,” he said. “In cases like that, I allowed myself to tell a little story in the scope and content note. I wanted to explain who she was to me and why I think her materials are significant.”

He said he valued the opportunity to wade through masses of drafts and notes that eventually led to published work, explaining that there is important continuity between drafts, notes, and his published work. He kept a “process diary” for each published book or poem — a typed daily chronicle of his mood and discoveries as he worked on a piece. All of these materials were sorted and described in a manner that seeks to tell the story of the revision, recasting, and learning that went into each finished project, he explained.

Koestenbaum’s first poetry collection, “Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems,” was among The Village Voice Literary Supplement’s “Favorite Books of 1990.” His latest collection, “Camp Marmalade,” was published in 2018. His other poetry collections include 2015’s “The Pink Trance Notebooks,” 2012’s “Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background,” and 1994’s “Rhapsodies of A Repeat Offender.”

His cultural criticism includes “Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon,” a 1995 rumination on how Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis influenced perceptions of personal identity and style. His 1993 book, “The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire,” was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

His unpublished pieces along with the scraps and fragments of unfinished projects are just as important as his published work when it comes to understanding his perspective and writing process, he said. 

Koestenbaum, who taught in Yale’s Department of English from 1988 to 1996, recalls visiting the Beinecke to study Gertrude Stein’s papers and being impressed by the amount of unpublished writing it contains and how that material helped him more deeply understand her as a writer and thinker.

From 1997, the first page of a first draft of an experimental warm-up for an unpublished novel.
From 1997, the first page of a first draft of an experimental warm-up for an unpublished novel.

When I think of myself as a creative producer, as a writer, or a maker, I think of the whole process, and so the fragments and drafts are important to me,” he said. “I am proud of my published work and grateful that I could get it out into the world, but to me the unpublished and the published materials form a totality.”

While sorting through his unpublished work, he would stumble upon a forgotten line from an unfinished poem and reflect on how some projects flourish while others flounder or fade away, he said.

In unpublished stuff in particular, I’ll see a line or a sentence that seems to shine,” he said. “In a way, I feel maybe a regret that I wasn’t able to find the proper context or frame to make that fragment legible to an outsider, which to me is really the task of publishing a book or a poem: encasing the passing felicity in a frame that will permit somebody to comprehend it.”

Working in the archive was a constant reminder of the strenuous mental labor that writing often requires, noted Koestenbaum, who is also an accomplished visual artist and has taught painting at the Yale School of Art.

My archive is a memory lane of mental calories spent,” he said. “I don’t know how I ever had the energy to push a book to completion. All that striving itself seems a performance equal to the performance represented by a published text. It made me realize that more of my life has passed than hasn’t, and that I can’t reproduce the amount of energy that all those materials in the archive represent.”

The occasional reflection on his own mortality notwithstanding, Koestenbaum said he had fun with the project. His papers contained no shortage of engaging material to share on Twitter and Instagram, he said.

When I found something juicy, I would take a picture of it and post it on my Instagram story, but more often in a Tweet,” he said. “Those got a lot of likes.”

He completed the project in two installments. The first batch arrived at the library in late 2017; the second at the end of last May. Together, it consisted of 139 linear feet of material housed in 136 boxes. 

Folders of unfinished poems and prose
Koestenbaum noted that many trial flights are buried in these folders on unpublished poetry and prose from 1993 to 2000, including “Sticky Goalie,” “Breeze on Penis,” “Peephole Slurs,” “I Like Hospitals,” “The Prim and the Quick,” and “Poem for Hervé Guibert."

The spreadsheets will provide the basis for a finding aid — a tool that contains indexed information to help scholars navigate an archive. The archive is expected to open for research this fall.

Wayne provided a much higher level of useful detail than we could have otherwise produced,” Rush said. “The archive’s organization very much reflects him. If I had gone to his apartment and simply scooped up all the papers, the archive would not possess that personal quality. Researchers will benefit from all of the context he provided.”

Koestenbaum said he appreciates that the library’s staff was so quick to embrace his efforts and responsive to his requests for help.

Mike Rush answered so many questions, including ones about the nitty-gritty of Excel spreadsheets,” he said. “I would send him a photo of a moldering scrapbook and ask whether I should keep it in the same storage box as more recent papers. He would provide me direction. It made the work so much easier. Really, the whole staff was a treat to work with.”

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548