A Conversation With Poet Kenneth Goldsmith

HE LIVES WITH HIS artist wife and children in an eclectic Manhattan apartment. He recently went through a tumultuous time, after a poem of his was severely criticised in the press and on social media. He gives a sophisticated and self-aware impression, but is obviously still smarting from the episode.

Illustration by Nello Alfonso Marotta.
Illustration by Nello Alfonso Marotta

For the past eight summers I’ve worn the same thing every day: all white linen. I buy them en masse at H&M – ten pairs of white linen pants and fifteen pairs of shirts, and at the end of summer I throw them all out and then the next year I buy them all over again. They’re durable, they breathe and they’re disposable. I think shorts are an embarrassment for men. As far as I can tell nobody has really thought about shorts, at least here in America. Most of them are hideous cargo shorts, Bermuda shorts, athletic shorts – they’re disgusting. I’ve decided against T-shirts also, I find them embarrassing as well and I don’t wear jeans because they’re too common. I wear button-down long-sleeve shirts in summer, because they breathe and you can roll the sleeves up or down, which is important here in America because of the air conditioning. I wear completely boring shoes: everyday soft suede loafers. They breathe well, they’re comfortable and they’re so unchic. I roll my pant legs up, wear round glasses and don a Panama hat, made in Japan. It’s a Twenties look, very colonialist. Being a Jew, all that waspy stuff is attractive, and when I put it on it’s completely wrong which makes it great.

Unfortunately, as I’ve gotten older, my nose has gotten bigger. I look a lot more Jewish now than I did in my twenties or thirties. Back then I was dressing like an artist, in jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. I looked like any other artist. As my features began to get more and more prominent I began to have to navigate my relationship to clothing. It’s hard to navigate heavily Semitic features with fashion. You fall into all sorts of odd relational situations with even basic clothes. I’ve got a giant nose; I’m just the most Jewish-looking guy in the world. I used to have this long beard which prohibited me from wearing little hats and long black cloaks because everybody thought me to be Hasidic. So during that period I wore great colours. Now I don’t have the beard anymore so I can go back to wearing dark clothes.

I’m very conscious of what I’m wearing. I live in New York, so the minute I step out the door I’m on a big stage. You have to be conscious of your costume. In New York I do not leave the house without thinking about what I’m wearing, never, ever. I think about what I wear to my shrink. My wife and I often go out together and she will be wearing something outrageous and I will be wearing something outrageous, but she will get no comments on her outfit and I’ll get thousands on mine. Everybody has something to say. ‘Wow, I really like your suit,’ or ‘Wow, that’s wild.’ When I was in France recently I was wearing head-to-toe Comme des Garçons because they’d just had a big sample sale. I had this insane deconstructed green plaid suit on, that’s, like, falling apart and held together by buckles. I had a white shirt with stars on, a deconstructed tie and my Panama hat, and people just freaked out. Then I looked at the women there and they were wearing things that were much more outrageous than I was. Then I looked at all the men and they were wearing properly French things: understated Oxford shirts, chinos, and I felt like a freak in France. I felt really Jewish – like Abbie Hoffman. Like, ‘look at the Jew in his costume.’

What happened to me was, I was a visual artist and I was making money. I was pretty successful at selling things. Then in the early Nineties I decided I wanted to be a poet which cut off all sorts of income so I had to go and get a day job. So from 1991 to 2001 I worked in the dotcom industry as a creative director. I had a regular nine-to-five job. It was fun and it was easy. I realised that everybody was dressed so casually, just the way I used to dress as an artist, and I didn’t want to dress that way anymore. I thought that it would be really fun to start getting overdressed for work. I became the only guy in the office in a suit. That’s when I really began to get into the idea of costume. I wanted to wear suits that weren’t regular business suits because that would mean I would be buying into the businessman myth. I began seeking out really brightly coloured things. I remember really liking the way Michael Caine was dressed in Austin Powers, in this really brash British dandy style, thick wide ties and thick lapels. I tried to swing a British dandy thing for a while and, again, being a Jew doing the British dandy is completely wrong. If I would wear that in London, people would look at me like I was absolutely out of my mind, it was so wrong. Then I got into furs, I was all Superfly. I got full-length fox fur coats at the flea market, and I’d wear them with cowboy boots and crazy Seventies glasses. At that time, my greatest fashion inspiration was the former basketball player Walt Frazier. He wears outrageous Superfly suits, which he can do because he’s a beautiful black man. When I wore those suits I looked like a Borscht Belt comedian in the Catskills. I’m not an English dandy and I’m not a beautiful black guy. I’m a Jew who looks weird and cheap in those outfits. That’s interesting to me.

When I was MoMA poet laureate I asked Thom Browne to dress me. I would have loved to have worn his stuff but he never responded. When I was invited to the White House in 2011 I got a Thom Browne Brooks Brothers Black Fleece suit in the sale for five or six hundred dollars that was normally two thousand. It was a paisley suit with giant paisleys. I decided to wear it because Obama is a black preppy guy and I figured that he would understand the language of the suit. I had to have a photograph taken with the President and he looked at me and said, ‘You know, I’d love to wear a suit like that but my people would never allow it.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Well Mr President, that’s one way being an artist is better than being a President of the United States.’ Later I showed Thom Browne the photograph; we used to eat breakfast at the same place so I would see him there every day. When I showed him the picture, he looked horrified. He really looked horrified that a Jew, this weird, ugly Jew with a big beard was in his waspy clothes. I think that’s why he decided not to dress me – it was just too fucked up for him. Had I had a chiselled face with blonde hair and blue eyes, I bet he would have done it.

It’s interesting how much ethnicity is coming up. I’ve honestly never said these things before; I’ve never positioned Judaism in relationship to fashion. My family always denied Judaism and were interested in assimilating. Growing up, we wanted to play our Judaism down a little bit instead of playing it up. But today I sometimes think to myself that I really want to grow payot as a fashion statement. You know, the curls that the Orthodox Jews have? It wouldn’t be cultural appropriation, because I’m Jewish so I could do it without offending anybody. These days one must be sensitive about issues of cultural appropriation. I have to tell you, three years ago I was on a plane to Israel. I was wearing all white and I had this giant beard. At the back of the plane all the Jews were in morning prayer. I was coming out of the bathroom and one of the guys stopped me and said, ‘Brother, would you like to pray with us?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not Hasidim, I’m hipster.’

I went to Serbia some time ago and saw the Orthodox priests there and they are gorgeous. Really very right wing politically and probably awful but their look is phenomenal. So I thought wow, I want to start wearing some skirts. I’ve always wanted to wear to skirts, it seemed so easy and breezy and free in the summer, but when I was younger I never had the courage. You know, I didn’t put a skirt on until I was older than fifty; it takes a certain amount of confidence for a man to wear a skirt. The first skirt I wore was a hakama, which I wore when I was doing martial arts. I began wearing hakamas when I was just out doing everyday things: I loved the way it flowed when I moved. Then I realised there was a whole array of people like Comme des Garçons making skirts for men, so I bought a bunch of skirts from them. In America many women are so big these days that I fit into women’s clothes. For many years I would shop the thrift store racks for women’s sweaters and things because they were much more interesting than men’s, which were brown and grey and boring. I have a beautiful Yohji skirt that’s a woman’s skirt, the waist is actually a little big on me. But I stay away from things that are too short: I wear long priest-like skirts, billowing and bell-shaped. It’s funny, I’ve never had somebody yell ‘faggot’ out a car window, never. I’ve worn skirts on book tours in the middle of America, places like Salt Lake City and nobody has ever said, ‘You fucking faggot.’ I think it’s different for a gay guy to wear a skirt than it is for a straight guy. Many of my gay friends prefer to dress in a way that is about fitting in. Dressing as a gay man is a whole different semeiotic system. I mean, nobody ever mistakes me for gay, probably because I carry myself as an extremely straight man. When I put a skirt on, I actually feel much closer to punk rock.

I do love getting comments about how I look, I adore it. It’s special. It makes me feel special. It makes me feel noticed. It’s an identity, a persona, and I’ve built my poetic persona on these types of outfits. Sometimes it’s derided by people; particularly poets hate the fact that I have a persona because poets aren’t supposed to have one. You’re supposed to be yourself, authentic, natural in T-shirts and jeans. To me it’s all show business. Poets traditionally had great personas: look at Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde or even Allen Ginsberg. The male poet has always been a peacock, but then something changed and now they’re a glum and authentic bunch. My whole poetic oeuvre is made up of falseness, inauthenticity, appropriation and plagiarism, so if I was trying to pass that off as an authentic persona, it would be contradictory. So I’m playing my role as a poet as much as they are playing their role as poets. My role is ‘inauthenticity’ and theirs is ‘authenticity.’ It’s all a construction.

I’m always being made to feel uncomfortable by the literary community by the way I dress. Much of the criticism of my poetry is criticism of my apparel as opposed to what I do. Last year, I read a slightly altered autopsy report of Michael Brown, the teenager who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. I read it as an epic poem, and called it ‘The Body of Michael Brown.’ It took about thirty minutes to read, and I stood on a very darkly lit stage with a picture of Michael Brown projected above my head. At the time, I had a big beard and I was wearing a Paul Smith broken pinstripe jacket, a Comme des Garçons beautiful bell skirt, black leggings and Dr Martens boots. When I was later criticised for the piece, people said that I was dressed in Hasidic garb – which was completely untrue – and that as a result I was performing some sort of religious exorcism on Michael Brown’s body. Nobody understood what I was doing with the tools of fashion, and the whole thing was a misread. It was like, ‘You fucking Jew, you’re taking over the black guy’s body.’ On stage I rock rhythmically back and forth in a way that is very reminiscent of Hasidic prayer, it’s called ‘davening.’ People thought that this Hasid was performing a spell or something on the body of Michael Brown – again, completely untrue. It was all so badly misread. In the poetry community I’m often referred to as ‘a clown’ because of the way I dress; I wear clown suits, so obviously the whole thing must be a big joke. ‘The clown is trying to fool us.’ Much of the criticism around the Brown piece extended into anti-Semitism: ‘Here’s the Hasid who’s getting paid a lot of money to exhibit the body of a poor black man.’ A lot of the criticism was related to Jews, money, power, greed. Like, ‘Maybe he’s manipulating us?’ It all came from dress. If I had been a blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy doing that same thing, the whole critique of the piece would have been in a different tone.

I get so much flak from what I do and wear, mostly because people don’t like the way I write. I remember appearing on The Colbert Report on TV in 2013, in a Pepto-Bismol pink Paul Smith suit, a bowtie, a straw hat and saddle shoes worn with one red and one green sock which I took from David Hockney. Oh my god. The criticism I got… It didn’t matter what I said – I was a clown appearing on TV. Bear in mind, these are things nobody would ever say to my face. People don’t engage with me or with what I write directly. That way they don’t have to read anything, they don’t have to think, they just have to go, ‘Look at that freak.’ It’s easier than having to do actual literary criticism. Of the thousands that criticised the Michael Brown piece, nobody ever read it; I never published it, no one saw it. The critique was based on an image on the Internet that looked like a Hasid raping the body of a dead black man.

There is this odd play of ethnicity and identity going on. A lot of poets say we’re ‘identitarian’ poets, we’re black poets, we’re gay poets. I don’t write poetry about being Jewish but I’m performing Judaism in the entire oeuvre of what I do and that includes sartorial matters. My poetry is called conceptual poetry which means not writing anything of your own. It’s an appropriated practice that goes back to Marcel Duchamp where you take something from someone else, reframe it and call it your own. A lot of the critique of my work has been colluded with typical anti-Semitic notions of labour: ‘He’s just moving things from one place to another.’ I’m bringing art world strategies into poetry and I’m not from the poetry world, so to many I’m an outsider, manipulating the strings from the inside. That’s another critique of Jews: pulling strings from the inside to get yourself an Ivy League job, to get yourself rich, to get yourself on TV, to get yourself to the White House without even writing anything. This shit is right out of a Nazi Germany playbook. I have had anti-Semitic cartoons drawn of me, people have had no problem calling me a ‘kike’ on Twitter. All anonymous of course: nobody can actually call it out for what it is. I wish they would, I wish they would call me a dirty Jew instead of having to whisper it. I think it would be more honest.

After the Michael Brown piece I got death threats; people were so angry and there was such outrage at me that I kind of just wanted to fade and be another persona. I wanted to be less conspicuous so I shaved my beard and changed my style. Now I’m doing this Twenties style and I started wearing motorcycle boots. My wife likes to say that I’m doing Bob Dylan in his ‘Desire’ phase. I wear big scarves and long coats. I’m kind of invisible now. After the scandal and the death threats, I’m not invited anywhere in America, nor will I accept any invitations to appear in public in America.

My current signature style is my white Panama hat in summer and a brown broad- brimmed felt hat in winter. My winter hat is chestnut brown, not black – black would be too Hasidic. I like playing into the idea of a cowboy sometimes, an all-American cowboy. They ain’t Jewish either. I’m stuck with my Jewishness, no matter what direction I turn I’ve got to confront it. There is no American, or even European iconography based in Judaism. All the iconic styles that I’m attracted to: the cowboy, the British dandy, the deconstructed Japanese stuff, black culture – none of them are connected to Judaism. Ralph Lauren is a Jew but his style has assimilated into waspiness – that’s what American Jews do, they try to assimilate. Ralph Lauren doesn’t look Jewish – he’s probably had plastic surgery. Certainly his name was not Lauren. There are no Jewish style icons, it’s always false in some way. When you’re trying on an iconic style as a Jew, it’s always as if the clothes don’t fit you right. You’re swimming in them in some way. There’s a part of me that wishes that I could just be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed wasp. I’d love to fit into one of those stereotypes and wear the clothes authentically as opposed to as costume. To me fashion is all play, all fantasy, but a part of me longs for being able to wear it for real.

This interview was originally published in Vestoj’s latest issue ‘On Masculinities,’ available on www.vestoj.com and in select bookstores now.

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s Editor-in-Chief and Founder.