Private Pornography

George Harrison, rehearsal for Saturday Night Live, November 1976

Leopoldine Core, in conversation with Mary Elizabeth Borkowski

Leopoldine Core introduced herself to me. Or maybe I introduced myself to her. 

We followed each other. This is the language of Twitter speak, but it’s also the language of appreciation. And nothing could prevent me from introducing you to her work upon the release of her first collection of stories When Watched. Poet, writer, artist, theorist, patient observer, quasi therapist; it’s all there. 

Our conversation follows.

when-watched-1

MEB: How are things? This is your second book published, but your first story collection, right? And of course you’ve had stories published in different publications, but how is the process of this being your first story collection going? 

LC: Yes, this is my first story collection. It’s strange … on the one hand, it is something I have wanted—to publish this book. But there’s also an aspect of grief there too. To let go of this work once so private, years of talking to myself set loose in the world—there’s a touch of pain in that gesture. So I’m joyous and mourning.

Well, congratulations and condolences, too. Could you talk about that strangeness? Is it strange because of publishing and all that goes along with it? Or is it because you’ve been with the stories so much longer than they’ve been in “the world”?

It is strange because they have been with me longer, yes. And I identify them as mine the way my daydreams are mine—this private pornography.

How long have you been working on the collection? Did you know it was a collection at first?

I didn’t know at first. I just had a compulsion to write stories, even though everyone kept telling me to write a novel. But I had no desire to write a novel and the more people urged me to, the less I liked those people. Throughout my twenties I wanted to write poems and stories, so I did, and they accumulated. Then I realized that the stories were talking to each other.

But really there’s so much I don’t know about the work. And that experience of not knowing is amplified when one publishes a book. Because the mind is on full display but as the author, one can’t entirely see it. Writers know the least about their own work because they live inside it. So inevitably people will see things in this book that I didn’t see, didn’t feel, didn’t even write. And I love that—that the reading experience is collaborative, that I am collaborating with people I will never meet.

The stories in the collection are absolutely talking to each other.

Yeah, there are the conversations that characters have in a single story and then there’s the soul of the story itself—which converses with the souls of other stories, like all the distant planets in my mind calling out to each other. Before I started writing, I wanted to become a therapist. But it quickly became clear to me that I would get too emotional—I would be too worried about my patients, too moved by them and too disturbed by them.

Therapy and writing are very intertwined.

I wanted to write theory, also.  But then I decided I would rather write theory in a living, breathing context—in the context of a story, that is.

What kind of theory?  

About patterns in culture, gender, sexuality, shame, desire… everything really.

There are many writers in your stories, self-professed; could you talk a little bit about that? Sontag said a writer is a “professional observer,” and one of your characters said, “I’ve been hanging out with a camera all day” Stop me if you find the meta writing questions boring but I am always curious: is writing something you wanted to do or does it feel like you have to do it?

I do feel that writing is a compulsion. Yet there’s such anxiety wrapped up in the existence of the story teller, of being this beast who collects data and constructs alternate realities. It gives a person a certain gaze, like someone peering out of the woods.

Yeah, I do think it’s kind of a calling in the spiritual sense like “vocation” but not our modern understanding, more like “vocatus,” or “called to.”

I wanted to explore that phenomenon in these stories—the impulse to look, how we see and mis-see. How vulnerable it is to be watched and even to watch—to let someone see that you are looking at them. Honestly I don’t entirely identify as a writer of books. I have more of a visual brain. I have dyslexia and ADD and it was hard for me to learn to read. I still read very slowly and often have to read books to myself out loud to hear the words. My education as a storyteller was watching TV and talking to people. I feel like talking is writing.

How does your dyslexia manifest?

All my letters were backwards when I was learning to write and reading was incredibly difficult. I remember my father telling me that one day I would be able to pick up any book and read it and the comment threw me into a rage. I felt so certain that he was wrong and didn’t know me at all. But like most people with learning disabilities, I engineered my own ways of learning outside of school. And eventually to my amazement I could read.

Dyslexia is kind of a gift. I know it’s a struggle, but it makes you perceive more strongly in other ways.

Exactly. I found I could focus and hear the words on a page if I felt strongly—if I was fascinated and a bit in love. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot were two of the first texts I adored. But to this day, I can’t read a book I just sort of like.

You know, the parallel isn’t direct, but I sometimes think of things that Kate Zambreno writes about in her book Heroines when reading your work. Like the idea of a “bad reader,” which is fascinating. I think I’m a bad reader at times.

Yes. I think it helps to have a sort of bent perspective. Misunderstanding is so inspiring to me—the things I strain to see but cannot—because I wind up seeing something else, and discovering something.  In school I so resented the notion that a poem meant one thing. That one thing was never the thing in my mind. I always saw something else.

I love that. Because the linearity is so false. Also this aspirational idea of writing a “novel” as you mentioned earlier. What if you don’t want to write a great American novel? What if you don’t even want your writing to be great? The idea of great and writing is so male.

Yes greatness and “quality” … when I hear people say they like “quality writing” I feel actual pain. The word “quality” makes me think of something that looks like other things—things that were deemed superior in the past. But good writers live somewhere in the future, fumbling and inventing. There are so many writers I have wanted to echo when writing a sentence, but I’ve always failed. And in my failure, I became myself.

What did you study? Either formally in school or auto-didactically? You went to Hunter, right?

I went to Hunter for years, yes. I was in school part-time, working at a restaurant at night. I liked Hunter. I liked taking classes with people of all different ages and classes and races and sexualities and genders and walks of life. I would be in a creative writing class and find that the nursing student was the most brilliant prose stylist in the room. And I would try to convince her of this genius and she would brush it off.

Are you a “convincer of genius”?

I think I am. I always make a point of telling someone when I love their work because they ought to know. I want them to know. It’s important to tell them, even if they’re shy—or maybe especially if they’re shy.

But maybe it’s intrusive? I don’t know. …

No, I love it. Maybe its intrusive if it’s a movie star—I wouldn’t do that. But a poet or a painter, I think they can handle my love.

You said earlier that you experienced a lot through TV. I think I still do, and sometimes I’m ashamed of it because it doesn’t seem serious. But I consume stories. I used to read a lot of David Foster Wallace on his TV obsession and it made me feel better. Like you can be intellectual and also consume TV. But it does seem dangerous. Like the Internet. What do you think?

I love David Foster Wallace. I love his story “It Never Happened.” One can certainly be an intellectual and watch a lot of television. The most interesting intellectuals are often seen as slackers, because they learn in other ways, from what is lying around. They wander and scavenge and find their own truth.

I like the Internet too but I have an obsessive streak so sometimes I fall too deep into a vortex of images and wind up paralyzed. A computer is, in a sense, the wrong object for a writer—the wrong tool.

Seriously. It does too much.

I really want to talk to you about desire. I find that’s kind of the big emotion, for lack of a better word, or impulse, running through When Watched. Desire for dogs, for a homeless person, a lover, a stranger/lover, arousal and revulsion – or in your words “pin-balling between arousal and revulsion.”

Thank you. Yes, desire propels all of these characters, who I see as outsiders, and I think that for most of them, rather than wanting to make contact with insiders or become insiders themselves, they want to find other people who are also outsiders—they want to meet at the fringe and talk and fuck and be known.

They are orphans, really. Desire is so crudely understood. We associate it with sex but it’s so much deeper. I guess it’s the life drive but… I can see you as the therapist, in a sense, but you are better than a therapist because you are showing these people as they are. Many practicing therapists aren’t very skilled.

Thank you. My initial desire to be a therapist actually stemmed from a bunch of shitty experiences I’d had with shrinks as a child.

What is your relationship to NYC? You’re a native. I always thought when I was there that it was neither a good place to fall or stay in love or to write. But I think I was also bitter, about many things.

Well on the one hand its a very sexy place because you wind up going back to someone’s—usually very small—apt and going into their tiny room and maybe they have a roommate so you have to get very close and talk softly

It can be hard for me to be around that volume of people in an emotional sense. When I lived there, I thrived off the energy but it became self-destructive. It’s an intense place. Most lifers I know go out to the country when they can.

I think my way of going to the country is staying in my room. I love being in bed. I do almost everything there.

Then there’s an opposite space of intimacy and anonymity in the AA meetings you cite. “The rooms” – I was in AA meetings and Al anon and CODA my last 9 months in NYC. You bring this world into two of your stories. How did that come about?

I like using AA meetings in stories because there’s an intimacy that is also somewhat controlled—there are rules.

Right. A code of conduct.

And one could feel that they know someone or feel close to someone because of what this person has revealed about themselves—and then wind up being very wrong.

Meanwhile, people feel as “tender as teenagers,” as you say.

In a story, I like always to present a certain side of someone and then shatter that existence or broaden it. That story, “Orphans,” was actually inspired by a very beautiful homeless man with very blue eyes who I kept seeing in my neighborhood and who I wanted to talk to. His face kept intruding on my thoughts when I would sit down to write. So often my inspiration is a face. I’m very turned on by the face, so much happens there.

It’s one reason I write in the third person: I like to describe the surface of the face and how the body looks. Someone speaking in the first person can’t describe their own face. Another reason I write in the third person is that I want the reader to feel like an outsider. The characters themselves are outsiders and I want the reader to join in that perspective.

I noticed that in “Hog for Sorrow,” Kit is worried she will attack people when stoned, and in “Pleasure Kid,” the woman feels the devil nearby. They both have this sense that there’s something terrible lurking inside of them. It’s almost self-awareness but as though they’re afraid.

I used to have terrible fears of doing something crazy. The fact that it was possible to do a crazy thing—that I had the option—haunted me. Like I would be talking to a teacher and think don’t kiss them! Don’t do it!

I didn’t want to kiss them but was mortified by the opportunity I had always to do it—the absolute wrong thing.

Where does the fear of being an awful person come from? It goes back to desire too, desire that’s disgusting, especially women’s desire. Like in “Chubby Minutes.”

Everyone at some point fears their innermost parts—the greatest mystery is one’s own self and for a person who is sensitive and imaginative and anxious and depressive, it is easy to imagine that the devil could live in their own heart.

Zambreno says “when I write I am an ugly woman.” I think that’s the super fear: that one is ugly as they are.

I love Zambreno. An ugly woman is always thinking, her mind won’t stop ticking. I feel like an ugly woman. I’m always looking hard at my behaviors and looking hard at others.

That is such a pure vulnerability though. It’s moral, in the sense that the people who worry me the most don’t seem to fear they could do wrong.

I am definitely open to the idea of being wrong, and have been wrong plenty. In a way, my stories are counter-moral.

Counter-moral?

In that they take issue with the construction of morality. Like in “Hog for Sorrow,” we start with Kit as a sort of victim—someone it is maybe easy to feel sorry for, but then she winds up behaving violently. She isn’t so innocent, you know.

Right, that goes back to what you said about kind of exploding the assumptions around a character. “Hog for Sorrow” is such a complex story, but then you have Lucy who doesn’t seem to feel much. Kind of like Gretchen in “Underside” or Lenora in “Paradise.” These women who, for different reasons, are detached.

I like that moment of turning the tables in a story, showing how people are infinitely more complicated than simply a victim or a predator. Because, you know, even after Kit behaves violently, one might still have empathy for her or like her. Or maybe not? It could go either way, and that is what I want. That moral hologram.

I feel empathy for all of my characters while also wildly disliking them plenty of the time.

I love that. Like family.

People are so complicated. It isn’t just sexuality and gender that exist on a spectrum—the many components of a personality live there too. No one is simply an angel or simply an asshole.

I noticed in rereading that in “Teenage Hate” the mother is experiencing something similar to Theo in “When Watched,” in a way. They both want to be noticed. I found the comparison interesting because they are inverted positions.

I saw Theo as having an adult sadness and the mother in “Teenage Hate” as having a teen sadness.

Yeah, exactly. They’re flipped. The mother is definitely the teen. But Theo is something else. That story blew me away. When you write “kidnapping was a compliment.” That is such a specific thing that children feel, like when I’d run away for twenty minutes and hope my mom noticed.

Well, Theo wants to be seen by her mother and by the culture and is also afraid of being murdered — but she has eroticized this fear. She sees dead females as getting the most attention and she is right about that.

Look at JonBenét Ramsey. She’s like a cipher, that image of a child. It’s terrifying but it is so overexposed to be almost pornographic.

Absolutely. Yes JonBenét was very much on my mind when I wrote that story. As a child, I saw so much coverage of that story, and I was alone a lot, watching awful TV movies about children being kidnapped. It was a huge thing in the 90s and it really frightened and me to see the culture so ravenous for the death of a girl.

Yeah, I remember. I lived in the bay area, so I remember when Polly Klaas was kidnapped; I don’t know if it was a big story on the East Coast, but this girl, twelve years old, was kidnapped at her own slumber party and then raped and killed. My mother reminded me that the media treatment of the story was pornographic. She used those very words, which was startling at the time.

It’s good that she used that language because it’s the absolute truth. Everyone fantasizes about their own funeral at some point, but for a young girl to do it, it means something else. It means she feels that her life—her actual, breathing self—is of no value at all.

Yeah. Theo, for example, the girl, I think she is reflecting the culture.

Yes.

Do you write every day?

No. I write when I want to. I like to have an idea developed in my mind before I write, so I lie around thinking and talking and waiting to write until I feel the outline of the story in my head. I waste a lot of time. That’s important to me. I get my best ideas there, in that excess.

Are you a part of a writing community? Who do you share your work with?

I’m not part of a community. But I have several close friendships. Maybe that is a community? It feels different though. I guess my community is a set of private dialogues. Private love.

I think the writing scene is problematic because the work is so solitary. It feels so much a part of you, the writing, that it’s not really something you can share in the way that music scenes or even visuals arts are. They’re more immediate.

I think some people like a more public writing scene, and it’s definitely out there. I’m just another sort of animal. Maybe it’s about time. If you are talking to tons of people, you have less time for each person. When it happens, I also like meeting people and talking to strangers. But I like spending extra time with a face, a mind.

I think that comes across in your writing because there’s great humanity in the stories. I wanted to touch on the notion of creativity “George Harrison and the End of the World” story, the last in the collection. When the woman talks to her professor father and he says there are no new stories, but the specific iterations CAN BE new. It reminds me of Diane Arbus’ teacher in a biography of her, who told her that “the more specific you are, the more general you will be.” The idea that you can be original in your specificity.

Yes, that sounds true. But I also think there are new stories that haven’t been told.

If course, because so many people have not had a voice.

I wanted the character in that story to ask all these men for writing advice (both her father and the imagined man she lusts after, George) because I wanted her to realize—and I think she does—that she knows better than both of them. Maybe she is a depressed person and an anxious person but she knows how to write a story.

Are you a George Harrison fan? I know you have him pinned on Twitter ? I love when you say the Beatles wrote children’s songs but George wrote the weird ones.

I’m a huge fan. That story began when I was at the fine arts work center and a bit depressed and I was listening to his songs and had the booklet from the CD pinned to the wall. I started talking to it (much of my stories began while talking to myself) and it produced this story about my fear of finishing the collection.

It’s a great ending.

I felt such relief to insert that fear plainly into the story and to dissect it and to let myself have this fantasy. I love George Harrison but I also think of him as someone who was more interested in spirituality than women because women were so available to him, while God was not. I wanted to use that idea of him in the story: a man who you can’t really “have,” not only because he is dead, but because he wasn’t so awed by women when alive.

I appreciated that he comes off as kind of an asshole, though he was the rock star I least associate with that.

I never knew George Harrison … but I wanted to use my idea of him, and treat it as fact.

I think you kind of do know him. That notion that when a text is out there the author is dead and it’s free… I think that’s true for the dead, too. We can project onto them and use them symbolically to understand ourselves. Because they’re not changing, we are.

Yes. I felt some guilt about that. Pouring my own mind onto the image of an actual person. But I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted the character in that story to have this idea that she wanted to please two people: a male love interest and her father—but then she’s wrong. The person she wants to please is herself.

I’m the one that I want!

Yes. I wanted to use George Harrison as a sort of portal—for her to see herself. Because that voice of his is hers too, she’s generating it. But because it is a voice of authority, she imagines it to be male.

I always feel like I can understand men more when they’re far away. But especially when they’re dead. Because I find the male presence so destructive. I mean not always, but largely. That’s my cross to bear, I guess.

It can be a male presence that is destructive. But it’s the face of power, really—power that poses as “reality,” and women can project that too.

Yeah… it’s kind of like magic too.  Your writing sort of feels like hanging out in someone’s room that they love. Like if writing was a room….

A room! That’s a huge compliment. I want always to create a sense of space, a kinesthetic bond between me and the reader.

Follow up Question …. Drumroll pppppleaaase:

“Within you, without you” or “My Sweet Lord”? And why?

MY SWEET LORD! Because it mirrors my relationship to God. All this wanting, wanting, wanting—but it doesn’t get you any closer to the sweet unknown. God remains a distant planet. What we have is poetry, the resonance of our own desires, our own questions. When George sings I really want to see you / Really want to see you / Really want to see you, lord, we know that he will always live there in that wanting. There is no breaking on through to the other side—this is the other side. It’s where we live.

 

Teenage Dream

Now a feature film, Jon Savage's history of 20th century adolescence Teenage is a modern classic on kids and demographics. Savage talked with TNI co-founding editor Mary Borkowski on youth culture now and then