Wayne Koestenbaum

Last updated
Wayne Koestenbaum performing at The Kitchen in New York CIty Lozkoes2.png
Wayne Koestenbaum performing at The Kitchen in New York CIty

Wayne Koestenbaum (born 1958) is an American artist, poet, and cultural critic. He received a B.A. from Harvard University, an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University and is a 1994 Whiting Award recipient. He received an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 2020. [1] He has published over 20 books to date. [2]


Koestenbaum works as a Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he taught poet and writer Maggie Nelson, and teaches painting at Yale University. [3] [4] [5] He lives and works in New York City.

Early Life and Education

Koestenbaum was born and raised in San José, California. [6]

Koestenbaum lived in New York from 1984 to 1988 while a graduate student at Princeton University. He notes that his early years in New York as the period when he discovered opera, literature, and gay culture. Koestenbaum wrote book reviews for the New York Native and the Village Voice during these years. [7]

From 1988 to 1997, Koestenbaum lived in New Haven, Connecticut.

Critical work

In Boston Review, Stefania Heim wrote that Koestenbaum's work —across genre— "obliterates any vestigial divide we might hold on to between play and thought. It revels in and broadcasts the risks and joys ( the risky joys and joyful risks) inherent in both." [8] Koestenbaum's rhapsodic criticism—containing autobiographical asides, and characterized by an analytic attention to small details, an approach indebted to Roland Barthes's theory of the "punctum"—focuses on celebrity, performance, poetics, film, contemporary visual art, and queer sexuality. [9] [10] His best-known critical book, The Queen's Throat , is a rigorous exploration of a phenomenon frequently discussed casually but seldom considered from a scholarly viewpoint: the predilection of gay men for opera. Koestenbaum's claim is that opera derives its power from a kind of physical sympathy between singer and audience that has as much to do with desire as with hearing. He says of the act of listening:

The dance of sound waves on the tympanum, and the sigh I exhale in sympathy with the singer, persuade me that I have a body—if only by analogy, if only a second-best copy of the singer's body. I'm a lemming, imprinted by the soprano, my existence an aftereffect of her crescendo. (42)

Koestenbaum's conclusion is that gay men's affinity for opera tells us as much about opera and its inherent questions about masculinity as it does about homosexuality.

Humiliation, Koestenbaum's critically acclaimed disquisition on the meaning of humiliation (both personal and universal), was praised by John Waters as "the funniest, smartest, most heartbreaking yet powerful book I've read in a long time." [11] Koestenbaum starred in a web series in support of this book, "Dear Wayne, I've Been Humiliated...", which was dubbed "the mother of all book trailers" by The New York Observer. [12]

Koestenbaum's 2012 book The Anatomy of Harpo Marx was met with mixed reviews. Brian Dillon praised the book in Sight and Sound as "charming and rigorous" [13] and lauded the book in Frieze as an "excellent example of a kind of delirious scholarship." [14] In New Haven Review, Jonathan Kiefer described the book as “a zesty and deeply literate joy to read. Just as his previous nonfiction work, Humiliation, seemed like an apotheosis of new literary possibility in the age of overshare, so Koestenbaum's new book reinvigorates film studies." [15] 'Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle , Saul Austerlitz suggested that Koestenbaum "sexualizes Harpo beyond all recognition, creating a figure about whom the author can say, in all seriousness, that 'courtesy of the anus, we can imagine, Marxist-style, a path away from family and state.'" [16] Joe Queenan, citing Koestenbaum's claim that Harpo Marx "has many vaginas," wrote that Koestenbaum "peppers his story with just enough tidbits of fascinating information that readers may fleetingly overlook the fact that his theories are barmy." [17]

Koestenbaum has published many essays, often lyrical or experimental in style, on such subjects as celebrity, classical music, contemporary art, literature, and aesthetics; some of these essays have been collected in the books, Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics, and My 1980s & Other Essays, and Figure It Out: Essays.

In 2021, Koestenbaum published his first collection of fables under Semiotext(e) titled, The Cheerful Scapegoat: Fables. [18]


Koestenbaum's poetry is often more measured than his criticism. It frequently comments on itself—on the disorderly process of poetry—as in "Men I Led Astray" (from The Milk of Inquiry):

I haven't said enough about the ragged sun,
its satisfaction in being the one to bind my life—
to bring the filthy pieces together,
on its way to more important tasks.

Koestenbaum's first book, Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems, was composed largely in syllabic verse and other fixed forms. In a review of Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems for Poetry Magazine, David Baker wrote that "[Koestenbaum] is... willing to exert the pressures of traditional formality, yet he is also likely to let the voice and experience of a poem grate against his own formal gestures..." [19] His subsequent books of poetry took on a more experimental approach to prosody. He returned to fixed forms for his book-length poem, Model Homes, which is composed in ottava rima. [20] His two most recent books, The Pink Trance Notebooks and Camp Marmalade, are experiments in what Koestenbaum refers to as trance writing. Ben Shields described trance writing in The Paris Review as an approach that "allows language to move freely" and "does not often adhere to expected thematic, syntactic, or logical patterns." [21] Publishers Weekly described the work in The Pink Trance Notebooks as "look[ing] and feel[ing] like the cut-and-paste fragments of a journal." [22]


Koestenbaum began to paint in 2005 after he finished writing an essay for a group exhibition called “Contemporary Erotic Drawing” at the Aldrich Museum. [23] He has had solo exhibitions at White Columns, the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and 356 Mission. [24] [25] [26]

In a 2016 Art News article, Ella Coon wrote that "his early work was figurative, and influenced by Warhol. He used a monoprint technique to trace images of male nudes, which he’d originally drawn from life, onto a black ground." [27] In Hyperallergic, his exhibition at the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky in Lexington was described as " all smack of bright, unblended color, sexuality, and a heavy concentration on line and ornamentation — qualities that speak to the artist’s admiration for modernists like André Derain, Henri Matisse, and Marsden Hartley." [28]


Koestenbaum's first piano and vocal record, Lounge Act, was released in 2017 by Ugly Duckling Presse Records.

He has performed at The Kitchen, REDCAT, Centre Pompidou, The Walker Art Center, and more. [29]



Wayne Koestenbaum performing at The Kitchen in New York CIty Lozkoes5.png
Wayne Koestenbaum performing at The Kitchen in New York CIty





Opera libretto

Lyric Essay

Related Research Articles

Marx Brothers American comedy troupe

The Marx Brothers were an American family comedy act that was successful in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in motion pictures from 1905 to 1949. Five of the Marx Brothers' thirteen feature films were selected by the American Film Institute (AFI) as among the top 100 comedy films, with two of them, Duck Soup (1933) and A Night at the Opera (1935), in the top fifteen. They are widely considered by critics, scholars and fans to be among the greatest and most influential comedians of the 20th century. The brothers were included in AFI's 100 Years... 100 Stars list of the 25 greatest male stars of Classical Hollywood cinema, the only performers to be inducted collectively.

Harpo Marx American comedian

Arthur "Harpo" Marx was an American comedian, actor, mime artist, and musician, and the second-oldest of the Marx Brothers. In contrast to the mainly verbal comedy of his brothers Groucho Marx and Chico Marx, Harpo's comic style was visual, being an example of both clown and pantomime traditions. He wore a curly reddish blond wig and was silent in all his movie appearances, instead blowing a horn or whistling to communicate. Marx frequently employed props such as a horn cane, constructed from a lead pipe, tape, and a bulbhorn.

Ammiel Alcalay is an American poet, scholar, critic, translator, and prose stylist. Born and raised in Boston, he is a first-generation American, son of Sephardic Jews from Serbia. His work often examines how poetry and politics affect the way we see ourselves and the way Americans think about the Middle East, with attention to methods of cultural recovery in the United States, the Middle East and Europe.

Ben Lerner American writer

Benjamin S. Lerner is an American poet, novelist, essayist, and critic. He has been a Fulbright Scholar, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a finalist for the National Book Award, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Howard Foundation Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a MacArthur Fellow, among other honors. In 2011 he won the "Preis der Stadt Münster für internationale Poesie", the first American to receive the honor. Lerner teaches at Brooklyn College, where he was named a Distinguished Professor of English in 2016.

Ross Gay American poet and professor (born 1974)

Ross Gay is an American poet and professor. Along with a National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, he is the author of the New York Times best-selling collection of essays, “The Book of Delights.” Gay compiled the book for a year’s worth of daily essays about things that delighted him, especially the small actions of individuals that create community. The Book of Delights, he said, “is about how do we attend to the ways that we make each other possible.”

<i>Parnassus</i> (magazine) Defunct American poetry magazine)

Parnassus: Poetry in Review was an American literary magazine founded in 1973. It ceased publication in 2019.


Bookforum is an American book review magazine devoted to books and the discussion of literature. Based in New York City, New York, it comes out in February, April, June, September, and December.

Maggie Nelson American writer

Maggie Nelson is an American writer. She has been described as a genre-busting writer defying classification, working in autobiography, art criticism, theory, scholarship, and poetry. Nelson has been the recipient of a 2016 MacArthur Fellowship, a 2012 Creative Capital Literature Fellowship, a 2011 NEA Fellowship in Poetry, and a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction. Other honors include the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism and a 2007 Andy Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant.

Douglas A. Martin is an American poet, a novelist and a short story writer.

<i>Jackie O</i> (opera)

Jackie O is a chamber opera in two acts composed by Michael Daugherty to a libretto by Wayne Koestenbaum. The 90-minute work, commissioned by Houston Grand Opera in 1995 and premiered in 1997, is inspired by American musical and popular culture of the late 1960s and episodes in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Kazim Ali

Kazim Ali is an American poet, novelist, essayist, and professor. His most recent books are Inquisition and All One's Blue. His honors include an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. His poetry and essays have been featured in many literary journals and magazines including The American Poetry Review,Boston Review, Barrow Street, Jubilat, The Iowa Review,West Branch and Massachusetts Review, and in anthologies including The Best American Poetry 2007.

<i>The White Review</i>

The White Review is a London-based magazine on literature and the visual arts. It is published in print and online.

Kate Zambreno

Kate Zambreno is an American novelist, essayist, critic, and professor. She teaches writing in the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University and at Sarah Lawrence College. Zambreno is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction.

Felix Bernstein is a performance artist, video artist, writer, and cultural critic. Bernstein was born in New York City to poet Charles Bernstein and artist Susan Bee, and attended Bard College, graduating in 2013.

Nightboat Books is an American nonprofit literary press founded in 2004 and located in Brooklyn, New York. The press publishes poetry, fiction, essays, translations, and intergenre books.

Daniel Borzutzky is a Chicago-based poet and translator. His collection The Performance of Becoming Human won the 2016 National Book Award.

Felix Bernstein and Gabe Rubin are an artist duo whose interdisciplinary work consists of noise, camp, and poet’s theater. The two artists have collaborated since meeting in 2010 at Bard College, where they both studied film. Bernstein and Rubin have presented film, music, and theater together at MOCA Los Angeles, Issue Project Room, Anthology Film Archives, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

David Humphrey is an American painter, art critic, and sculptor associated with the postmodern turn in painting that began in the late 1970s. He is best known for his playful, cartoonish, puzzling paintings, which blend figuration and abstraction and create "allegories" about the medium of painting itself. Humphrey holds a BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art (1977) and a MA from New York University (1980), where he studied with film critic Annette Michelson; he also attended the New York Studio School from 1996 – 1997. He has been the recipient of many awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002, the Rome Prize in 2008, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Award in 2011. He was born in Augsburg Germany and raised in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. He lives and works in New York City.

Muriel Leung is an American writer. Her work includes the poetry collection Bone Confetti, which won the 2015 Noemi Press Book Award. She has received multiple writing fellowships, and her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her forthcoming second book, Imagine Us, The Swarm, received the Nightboat’s Poetry Prize.

Tobi Haslett is a critic and writer. He has written about art, film, and literature for n+1, The New Yorker, Artforum, The Village Voice, and more. He lives and works in New York City.


  1. "Graduate Art Seminar: Wayne Koestenbaum". ArtCenter College of Design. Retrieved 2021-04-28.
  2. "Wayne Koestenbaum". Nightboat Books. Retrieved 2021-04-28.
  3. "WAYNE KOESTENBAUM". The Graduate Center. CUNY. Retrieved 13 May 2020.
  4. Als, Hilton (18 April 2016). "Immediate Family". The New Yorker. Condé Nast. Retrieved 13 May 2020. 'She found a friendship with her instabilities and turned it immediately into questions that are dazzled, rather than narcotized,' the writer Wayne Koestenbaum, with whom Nelson studied at cuny, told me.
  5. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/wayne-koestenbaum/
  6. "Bookforum talks with Wayne Koestenbaum". www.bookforum.com. Retrieved 2021-04-28.
  7. "Bookforum talks with Wayne Koestenbaum". www.bookforum.com. Retrieved 2021-04-28.
  8. Heim, Stefania. "Future Doors". Boston Review.
  9. Firth, Andy. "Having Glaze Both Ways: Talking to Wayne Koestenbaum". Los Angeles Review of Books.
  10. Koestenbaum, Wayne. "Q/A Wayne Koestenbaum". Spike Art Magazine.
  11. Waters, John. "Praise for Humiliation". Macmillan Web Site. Picador. Retrieved 13 July 2011.
  12. Miller, Michael (11 July 2011). "Wayne Koestenbaum Will Help You Cope with Your Humiliation". The New York Observer. Retrieved 13 July 2011.
  13. Dillon, Brian. "Harpo Speaks".
  14. Dillon, Brian. "Energy and Rue".
  15. Kiefer, Jonathan. "New Haven Review".
  16. "'The Anatomy of Harpo Marx': review".
  17. "The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, by Wayne Koestenbaum" via The Globe and Mail.
  18. "The Cheerful Scapegoat: Fables Wayne Koestenbaum - Google Search". www.google.com. Retrieved 2021-04-28.
  19. David, Baker. "Culture, Inclusion, Craft". Poetry Magazine.
  20. "Model Homes".
  21. Shields, Ben. "I'm the Marmalade: An Interview with Wayne Koestenbaum". The Paris Review.
  22. "Pink Trance Notebook".
  23. Coon, Ella; Coon, Ella (2016-03-17). "'When Perverted Looking Becomes a Home': How the Indefatigable Writer Wayne Koestenbaum Became a Painter". ARTnews.com. Retrieved 2021-04-28.
  24. "White Room by Wayne Koestenbaum". White Columns.
  25. "WAYNE KOESTENBAUM: Unfamiliar Grammar, Paintings from 2010-2015". University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts.
  26. "Wayne Koestenbaum: A Novel of Thank You and Other Paintings". 365 Mission.
  27. "'When Perverted Looking Becomes a Home': How the Indefatigable Writer Wayne Koestenbaum Became a Painter". Art News.
  28. "The Visceral Visual Art of Writer Wayne Koestenbaum". Hyperallergic.
  29. "Wayne Koestenbaum". Nightboat Books. Retrieved 2021-04-28.
  30. "Wayne Koestenbaum". Poets.