“Finding the Ghost in Hoarded Objects”: William Lessard Interviews Kate Durbin

Kate Durbin’s art and writing have been featured in The New York Times, Art in America, Artforum, The Believer, BOMB, poets.org, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her books of poetry include Hoarders, E! Entertainment, The Ravenous Audience, and ABRA, which won the 2017 international Turn On Literature Prize.

In the following interview, Durbin discusses how a series of poems based around a popular reality TV show became an exploration of trauma, class, and desire in contemporary America

William Lessard: Your work seems to be the result of a specific process. What was the process like for this work? 

Kate Durbin: For Hoarders, I spent a year taking notes from the reality television show. I had pages and pages of notes. Then I wrote the poems, using my notes but also other research and my imagination. At that point, I was pretty far out from my original viewing of the show, creating something brand new, but with a ghost in it. 

WL: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the ghost. What sort of ghost do you mean—is it a memory of a memory, or a more tangible entity? 

KD: I like that way of putting it: “a memory of a memory.” I think all writing has a ghost in it, but the ghost changes depending on the project. Writing through reality television, the ghosts in my book are like a ghost of a ghost. There are my characters in my book, who are based on televised images of people, and then the flesh and blood people behind those images. I wanted all those echoes in the work.

WL: We’re talking about writing across boundaries. How do you know if you are succeeding or if the process needs to be adjusted? 

KD: I think my process needs adjusting if I’m not finding the form. I remember showing an early poem from Hoarders to my friend, the performance artist Ann Hirsch, who also makes work about reality TV. And she gave me a nice compliment. She said, “You always go right to the human inside reality TV. There’s no cynicism.” A lot of writing around media culture, whether reality TV or the Internet, tends to be cynical. I think that approach captures the defeat and irritation many of us feel right now, but I’m interested in how we have the same needs we’ve always had. How we are trying to get those needs met through these algorithms, these platforms, these screens, even as they are failing us. There’s something tender about that, but tricky to capture—the form has to be right. For Hoarders, that means the people and the objects had to share the sentences. This allows for a sincere conversation between the two.

WL: I’m hearing that you are the kind of writer who lets the indeterminacy of the subject take over, once it is clear that it’s their voice speaking. 

KD: People are endlessly interesting because of their complexity, and also their context–the worlds they live within, which become a part of them. All the art that means something to me honors this. In Hoarders, I didn’t want to sum up hoarding, as if it had only one cause. I didn’t want to flatten the profound and mysterious relationship between people and objects. It was important to me to allow each poem to end without resolution, unlike the reality TV show, because that’s how trauma is, that’s how life is in America when the American dream has failed you. It’s a daily thing, an ongoingness, while also being a kind of stasis. 

What Kristeva said about melancholy and depression could apply perfectly to Hoarders: “melancholy … leads … to … a skewed time sense. Time does not pass by, the before/after notion does not rule it, does not direct it from a past towards a goal. Massive, weighty, doubtless traumatic because laden with too much sorrow …. a moment blocks the horizon of depressive temporality or rather removes any horizon.”

WL: Not too long ago, every time I went to the supermarket and saw those empty shelves of toilet paper, I thought of Hoarders. What does it feel like having written one of the defining works of the pandemic? 

KD: That was a strange coincidence–one I could not have predicted! 

WL: There is a clear regionality to this work. Bisbee, Arizona. Topanga Canyon, California. Franklin, Indiana. These are a handful of the places represented. How was location a factor in choosing your subjects? 

KD: I wanted to avoid obvious major cities and show daily life as the rest of the US experiences it. Most of the US is a sprawling, lonely suburb. The other factor in choosing was the objects, which in many ways are tied to place. Hoarding Las Vegas casino memorabilia conjures specific feelings around a desert city that is constantly demolishing and building up new casinos–and dashing people’s dreams. That poem is really different from the one about Lularoe women’s leggings piling up in the bedroom of an unhappy housewife in the Midwest. (Lularoe, for anyone reading who doesn’t know, is a multi-level marketing company—basically, a pyramid scheme that has left many women in debt.) At the same time, looking across the country at these different lives, cities, and objects, patterns emerge. There are many of the same objects across the poems, because obviously you can go to Target, you can go to Walmart in any city in the US. And that sense of loss, and of society’s indifference toward human suffering, especially the suffering of one lone individual, spills across the book.

WL: Was Studs Terkel’s Working an influence? Hoarders also seems to draw from Dan Graham’s Homes for America.

KD: I haven’t seen either of these projects but I’m looking them up now … I always love your recommendations. Seeing Homes for America, I’m having an epiphany that one of my inspirations for Hoarders was something I did as a kid in first grade. I went to a small religious school, and for two weeks we took a field trip every day where we got on a bus and visited all the homes of the kids in our class. The houses were so varied—I remember a rich kid had a horse running across his lawn, a giant jacuzzi, and stairs covered in those plastic sheets people had in the 80s. Whereas our house was tiny, and my schoolmates sat in a circle on our forest green carpet and ate my mom’s chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven. I can’t overstate how exciting that week was for me—I felt I was gaining access to something private and sensuous. I remember standing on the porch of each house buzzing with energy. 

WL: What you say about trauma reminds me of Mike Kelley’s More Love Hours Than Can be Repaid (1987). Is there something particularly American about seeking objects to imprint with painful emotions? 

KD: I don’t think there’s something uniquely American about seeking objects to hold our trauma. I think that’s just human and goes back to our ancestors’ carving stones and sticks into gods. But our consumer culture is constantly producing objects that promise to soothe our traumas, and to distract us from our pain. These products also create new desires in us. I was at the pharmacy the other day, and the technician told me he is addicted to buying those Funko Pop Disney figures. “I can’t stop,” he told me. “Once I started, I just needed them all.”

Symbolically, I think American objects can carry American traumas in uncanny ways. Take the Yankee Candle, for example. I put a lot of those in the book because there is something so American about them. It’s in their names, like Santa’s Cookies, Beautiful Day, Cottage Breeze, or Home Sweet Home, the ways in which so many people’s realities fail to live up to those aspirations of almost ecstatic coziness. And then there’s the fact that they’re made of paraffin wax, which is totally toxic.

Of course, objects also hold other things, including potential. One of the saddest objects in Hoarders to me is the single-use items, like shrink wrap. There is an inherent absurdity to shrink wrap, since it’s not supposed to serve more than a momentary function. The fact that some of the characters in the book think shrink wrap should live a much longer life is compelling to me.

WL: Hoarders uses pop culture to explore issues of class. E! Entertainment (2014), your first book, drew on similar content. What was different this time, and what drew you back? 

KD: One big difference is that E! is about the rich—the Kardashians and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, among others. Whereas Hoarders is mostly about middle-class and working-class Americans, though there are a couple of rich people in the book too. American aspirations and even some of the same tchotchkes spill across both books, and it would be interesting to read them side-by-side for the ways they mirror one another. There is a void at the heart of American materialism that pervades both books, but also a tactile pleasure in objects. Hoarders deals very directly with the ways in which the American middle class has been let down economically, abandoned and isolated, the desperation of being without healthcare and other forms of social support yet surrounded by stuff that is supposed to be evidence of American abundance. 

WL: Sophie Calle’s Hotel, recently published in a new English translation by Siglio Press, reminds me a lot of your work. But while there is an element of surveillance and voyeurism in Calle, I didn’t feel anything except empathy for the people you profile. 

KD: I love that project, and Siglio put out a gorgeous edition. I feel a kinship with Calle, although I think there are maybe generational differences that inform our relationships to privacy. Every artist works within the bounds of a specific time and place. For her, peeping into strangers’ luggage in a hotel has an air of fantasy to it, an impish impropriety. While I have written about reality TV for many years, at this point I feel that aspect of my work is more of an ambient condition than anything else, because we all live inside reality TV now. Within that entrapment, I choose to believe we can still feel for each other.

WL: Tell me about these feelings. Were they difficult to turn off at the end of the project?

KD: There were a lot of difficult emotions in writing this book, though I did find pleasure in it too of course. All the feelings are all still turned on…there’s hoarding in my family, mental illness, and substance abuse, so in a way writing the book gave me more tools to deal with that but it was also hard to face and I’m still facing it. Every writer probably carries every book they’ve written with them forever, I think.

WL: Since you mentioned your own personal history, I would be angry with myself if I didn’t ask one last question: Isn’t all art-making a form of hoarding? Warhol’s Time Capsules make him the heavyweight champ of this concept. But Portia Munson’s Pink Project also springs to mind.   

KD: Those are both great projects, but I’d make a distinction here, small but important. Hoarding is about not being able to throw anything away. About endless accumulation, about a total rejection of the functional. Whereas artists edit and delete all the time, even if a work gives an impression of being otherwise. The artist as collector, though; that makes a lot of sense to me. One of the things I love about being an artist is holding onto things that other people might overlook: moments on reality TV, trash on the street, Yankee Candle names. I feel fortunate to give my attention to these things, when so often we pass them by without notice.

William Lessard is Poetry & Hybrids Editor at Heavy Feather Review. His work is appearing or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Best American Experimental Writing, FENCE, Southwest Review, and Beloit Poetry Journal. His chapbook, instrument for distributed empathy monetization, was published in April 2022 by KERNPUNKT Press. 

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