Wayne Koestenbaum’s themes of Jewish and queer life are apparent in his writings, which he read at Thursday’s Caxton Club event. The acclaimed poet, writer and cultural critic spoke in the Alumni Room.
Professor of English Natania Rosenfeld, who knew Koestenbaum from Princeton University where they attended graduate school, introduced him.
“His voice inspires me, makes me feel that I’m allowed to do whatever I want to in my writing,” Rosenfeld told the audience. “I think it is very important for writers to feel that way. É To quote Virginia Woolf in ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ ‘You can’t do that, you can’t do that. That’s not ladylike, your nose is too big.’”
Koestenbaum read first from “Humiliation,” his book published in 2011, which is comprised of a “number of fragments that are all sewn together, but also separable,” Koestenbaum said. The book deals with the concept of humiliation through very real and sometimes uncomfortable situations and anecdotes, such as an unspoken rivalry with a man in a wheelchair having sex in a public restroom.
“The purpose of this is to indicate the repeated humiliation undergone by the disabled and the regular humiliation undergone by anyone with a complicated erotic agenda. And every erotic agenda, I’d wager, is complicated,” Koestenbaum said after reading two versions of the anecdote.
His reading also included “Advice to the Young,” an essay written in 2002, in which he ruminated over giving advice and teaching. He also read various works of poetry including some from his collection “Bestselling Jewish Porn Film.”
Koestenbaum then read from “Anatomy of Harpo Marx,” a book in which he explored the third, harp-playing Marx brother who “never talks on screen, but had a taxi horn he would yell that could mean yes, no or maybe.” Koestenbaum said before he began reading, “His silence is not just funny but traumatic.”
Koestenbaum writes with primarily queer and Jewish themes and undertones, and he noted that this was perhaps his most “Jewish” book.
“It’s a minute anatomization of every second of Harpo’s silence. It was a maddening process of trying to annotate silence, and I’m not saying that’s quintessentially Jewish, but there are connections to be made,” Koestenbaum said.
The event was so well attended that students sat on the floor, and both students and faculty appeared to be engaged.
“This was my first Caxton Club event, and I’m definitely coming to more,” freshman Carly Berinstein said. “It’s a form of art I don’t get to experience much, the spoken written word. I was drawn to the themes of sexuality and the body.”
Caxton Club appeared pleased with the turnout.
“I liked that there were things he wasn’t afraid to talk about. He was very direct and very provocative,” senior Caxton Club member Alison Gaines said. “It’s neat, because I feel like writers and people can be really scared, and I like how he was very upfront and honest. It really makes you think about the way you write.”
The bestselling poet and social critic received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, his master’s from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. He currently teaches at City University of New York, where he is a Distinguished Professor of English in the Graduate Center.