Three weeks before the start of the NonfictionNOW 2017 conference in Reykjavík, I emailed the keynote speaker, Wayne Koestenbaum—poet, writer, painter, musician, author of several celebrity-based books and a literary celebrity in his own right—with a request for an interview:
“As a former ballerina writing a memoir, I’ve lived and worked in Europe for almost forty years, danced in ballets, musicals and operas, including three seasons at the infamous Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. Besides themes of writing and memoir, I would love to talk art and theater with you.”
Five days later, Koestenbaum emailed back:
“Apologies for my slowness in responding to your gratifying email! Yes, I’d love to participate in an interview/conversation with you. Thanks for the invitation. I look forward to our meeting in Iceland, and to our chance to speak about affinities.”
Affinities! Wayne Koestenbaum! My first interview!
It was also my first conference.
In the Seventies, pursuing a European dance career, I left North America on Loftleiðir Icelandic Airlines (“We are the slowest, but the lowest”), and took advantage of a bargain-price stopover in Reykjavík that included tours of thermal springs, mud formations, lava fields, waterfalls, and geysers. I lost and regained my balance near a volcanic crevasse, came close to being scalded by escaping steam and, overwhelmed by a fish-heavy dinner buffet, mistook a chunk of whale blubber for cheddar. It’s a wonder I didn’t confuse the entire country with cheese—Iceland’s otherworldly landscape was as alien to me as the far side of the moon.
Retired from ballet, I returned in June 2017 as a writer and a first-time NonfictioNOW delegate. Iceland appeared far more familiar now: tourism had boomed, English was spoken everywhere, and Reykjavík had its own Dunkin’ Donuts. It was my new persona and the opportunity to meet other writers that seemed exotic, more so than a volcanic island and its midnight sun. I’d never even worn a nametag before. After “Memoir Time,” a panel session with Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, Amitava Kumar, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Ira Sukrungruang, I approached Lisicky, proffered my identification, and was thrilled when he recognized my name—though it wasn’t through any familiarity with my extremely slim body of published work, but because I was the fan who’d retweeted and “liked” so many of his posts on Twitter and Instagram.
Even off-conference, my nametag was the flying wedge with which I connected with everyone and anyone. At the opening of Ragnar Kjartansson’s first museum show in his homeland, God I Feel So Bad, I searched two crowded floors of Reykjavík Art Museum for the artist I admire. When I finally spotted Kjartansson, he was surrounded by an impenetrable wall of well-wishers. Nearby, a tall, handsome man in a black suit radiated charm—in my direction, I thought. Pulling its black neck lanyard taut, I extended my NonfictioNOW ID, almost grazing his nose when he bowed unexpectedly.
“Hello, I’m Canadian.”
He beamed, “My wife is Canadian.”
“Oh! You must be the President of Iceland!”
Regrettably, Eliza Reid, the First Lady, wasn’t in attendance, but the star of the evening was still in my line of sight. I pushed the small talk toward an entreaty:
“Please, introduce me to Ragnar Kjartansson!”
With an authoritative wave and a loud whoop of “Ragnar!” Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson summoned Kjartansson and his entourage. I swooned and stuttered. Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson, the Mayor of Reykjavík (a title journalists often prefix with modifiers like “hot” or “sexy”), also joined us, as did his conspicuously attractive wife—and our group turned into an Icelandic VIP gathering. Only Björk was missing.
The day before, Wayne Koestenbaum, NonfictioNOW 2017 keynote speaker, had spoken to me of the inspiration he receives from minor fame:
“In my writing, even in my lounge act songs, I need to take a word or a phrase which creates an emotional situation for me. It’s often a star’s name, particularly a minor star’s name, a cultural particular.”
We’d met for an informal exchange in the Háskólatorg building of the University of Iceland, in the large foyer which houses the student cafeteria and bookstore, above the lecture rooms where the conference panels were held, in front of a curved white wall we both agreed was reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. I’d confided in Richard Hoffman that I was anxious about my first interview, and he’d calmed me with an anecdote about one of his own “firsts.” Now, Hoffman winked encouragement from across the room, while next to him, Michael Steinberg, no longer discomfited by my telling him he was a legend, smiled benevolently. Sitting vis-à-vis from Koestenbaum, with my multicolored shawl in serendipitous correspondence with his brightly pattered shirt, I was starstruck.
For his NonfictioNOW keynote address, Wayne Koestenbaum had composed four parables, or allegories and, for one of these, he’d taken a minor 1950s and 1960s TV and movie icon as a starting point:
“The words ‘Annette Funicello’ arrived half an hour before I started writing. I repeat ‘Funicello’ again and again in every sentence, like a chant, ‘Funicello, Funicello, becoming Funicello …’ I was very aware, when I wrote my four allegories, that the first one was nonfiction. I felt it had a kind of ornateness and roundaboutness that pushed against the straightforward narration of a couple of incidental encounters I’d had. I was aware, with the next two, that they crossed the line into fiction. Not because I wanted to flee nonfiction, but because of the humiliation issue. The thing I want to write about at this moment, I cannot just start talking about in public. I need to disguise to some extent, and universalize. I don’t have the distance or the wish to confess on that kind of level. It’s just too self-sabotaging. I was aware I had recourse to something like fiction, and I felt this certain amount of guilt, because of course it’s a nonfiction conference. But I try to think about that in the pieces.”
At a panel discussion earlier that day, Koestenbaum’s virtuosity in weaving together seemingly disparate anecdotes and ideas had mesmerized me, yet the simplicity of one statement stood out:
“Write what turns you on.”
Wayne Koestenbaum “turns me on.” His books are vibrant compositions, segmented into complementary and juxtaposed sectors, a style also common to his artwork. Humiliation offers variations on its title in fugues that reflect on embarrassment and regret—themes that resonate with the sense of degradation and insufficiency that imbued my classical ballet training. Another book, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, examines opera and queerness, and is dense with reflections on the art form, summoning up recollections of my own intense fascination for the music and its history when I first began performing together with opera singers and musicians. I asked him about Verdi’s Aida, which he describes in The Queen’s Throat as the first opera he saw as a child, mentioning that my mother had made her stage debut in Aida before World War II, as a young ballet apprentice at the Lviv Theater of Opera and Ballet.
“My father is from Berlin, but I think his father’s family came from Lvov—Lviv. I remember Aida, but I don’t remember my response to the singing. I have a visual memory, and I remember the color of the blue sky above the Nile in the third act, and I remember the height of the stage and the blueness. I had a couple of opera records, and was obsessed by the bilingual thing. I remember looking at the opera librettos. With Aida, I remember looking at the column of Italian words, and I’d never seen Italian. In particular, I remember the plural definite article and thinking it was so strange, gli, g-l-i … It was a cluster of opacities that fascinated me, with a wish to untangle them and kind of carve my way into a feeling relationship. There was deep mystery, and I remember vividly the sense of opera as an unknown, and that the unknown was desirable. When I paint, I respond very intuitively to color, relationships of color, ‘feeling toward’ the color.”
The subject turned to Switzerland, where I live. Koestenbaum mentioned Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage and its Swiss-themed suite, as well as a book about Robert Walser, Walks with Walser, by Carl Seelig. My very superficial familiarity with Liszt’s piano oeuvre, and Swiss literature and geography—Vallé d’Obermann is neither in Germany nor is it the origin of the name of a popular dog breed—threatened to embarrass us both. Navigating past the awkwardness, we remained in Switzerland, but returned to art. I mentioned the Rosengart Collection in Lucerne, which displays works by Klee, Picasso, and other modern masters. Koestenbaum continued:
“Are Picasso’s paintings fiction, or nonfiction? Obviously, for me, that’s a term that comes from a literary genre and not painting, but you could say that … Picasso’s paintings represent an emotional and optical truth, a cognitive truth. The transmission of energy from much of Picasso’s work is unmistakable, and it has a certain violence and aggression. I talk about Picasso in one of my allegories, actually, and I talk about his body and my body.”
More and more people drifted into the foyer. A baby started to cry, with the pitch and intensity, perfected through evolution, that ensures no infant’s distress can be ignored.
Lying on a table in front of us, a small video camera had recorded our conversation. An iPhone, meant to function as a second microphone, was on my chair, where it pressed into my left buttock, the slight discomfort balanced by my willingness to abase myself for a literary luminary.
I joked about the wailing baby, “Better here, than on the plane going home!”
Koestenbaum’s response was both touching and generous:
“But it’s cute! It’s very affirming, to know that there’s a baby here at the conference, and maybe the baby is the child of writers, who will teach it to love literature and language. May the children grow up to be happy readers and writers!”
The baby fell silent, and forty-five fluid minutes of insightful conversation also came to an end. Koestenbaum and I would meet again in two days, at his keynote presentation in Reykjavík’s futuristic concert hall, Harpa.
I leaned forward and tipped sideways, removed the iPhone, and switched it off.
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Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Genia Blum has lived and worked in Europe for over forty years and resides in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she is the director of a ballet school, Dance Art Studio, and presides over a dance foundation named in honor of her Ukrainian ballerina mother, Daria Nyzankiwska Snihurowycz. Her work, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in or is forthcoming from Solstice Literary Magazine, (b)OINK zine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Tiny Truths), and Sonora Review. She is currently working on a memoir titled Escape Artists. She haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.