This weekend is the Kathy Acker in Seattle symposium, exploring her visits to Seattle in 1980 and 1989, and the influence she had on younger writers, artists, and musicians. I was unable to attend, but I participated in the symposium via Skype. I read an essay/chapter that I wrote about Acker a long time ago, a text that I am still proud of – it is probably the greatest success I have ever had in not commenting on another writer, but mingling their prose with my own (thus mimicking Acker’s own technique as a writer). I am not sure how well it all went: there were sound issues with the Skype transmission, and I read much faster than I ought to have done, in order not to overrun my time slot.
But in any case, I prefaced the reading with a short remembrance of Kathy Acker, how I met her, and how I saw her both as a writer and as a person. I am reproducing this here:
I want to talk about Kathy Acker as a person, somebody I knew; but also about Kathy Acker as a writer. The two are not identical, though it is difficult to disentwine them. Indeed, Acker’s construction of her public persona as an avant-garde punk-feminist icon is certainly one part of her accomplishment as an artist.
But I still wish to put the emphasis where I think it belongs, which is in Kathy Acker’s accomplishments as a writer. There is something overwhelming about her fiction, which has to do with the way that it combines emotional intensity with rigorous and incisive intellectual abstraction. These qualities are generally considered to be entirely incompatible with one another. You can be raw and immediate, or you can be distant and reflective; but you aren’t supposed to be able to be both at once. And yet this is what Acker accomplishes in her writing. She conveys the urgency and excitement of sexual arousal, and the pain and rage that come from a lover’s betraying you. But she also takes us away from all these feelings — estranges us, as the old modernist critics would put it — in order to stop us from taking things for granted. Instead, her writing forces us to think, for instance, about how gender stereotypes work in our society today, and about how oppressive and constraining they are.
In literary terms — which always mattered to her, though they are not the only things that mattered to her — Acker is equally an emotivist and a formalist. She is widely known for being sexually explicit and vulgar in her writings, and for giving voice to womens’ feelings that were scarcely allowed to be expressed so openly before. But she deserves to be equally well known for the ways that she takes pre-existing materials, tears them apart and assembles them into new configurations. She makes new realities out of the debris of old ones. “Art is this certain kind of making,” Acker once wrote; “a writer makes reality, a writer is a kind of journalist, a magic one.”
Autobiographical material certainly plays a large role in Acker’s fiction, as Chris Kraus shows in her recent biography. But all sorts of other materials play a role too. Acker describes her writing method as piracy. She adapts, transforms, or “plagiarizes” a wide variety of sources, including novels, plays, movies, histories, philosophy texts, and so on. To give an almost random example, just because I happened to be reading it the other day: on page 16 of Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker splices an account of how her biological father abandoned her mother when she was pregnant, with an account of the suicide of the French Romantic poet Gerard de Nerval. Both of these are then juxtaposed with a reading of the Hanged Man card from the Tarot deck, together with a passage lifted from James Miller’s biography of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, explaining why Foucault retained an interest in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, despite the latter’s having been a Nazi.
The staggering result of these combinations is a vertiginous, unexpected new narrative. Tarot plus Foucault and Heidegger plus Nerval plus autobiographical trauma leads us to someplace we have never been before. Through this web of references, Acker invokes “the act of turning inside out, reversing, traveling the road into the land of the dead while being and remaining alive.” This is an impossible quest; but it is one that resonates throughout Western culture, from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (the explicit subject of one of Acker’s last writing projects, left incomplete at the time of her death) to the writings of the 20th-century French avant-garde writer Maurice Blanchot (whose work was always a touchstone for Acker). All this from a single page from just one novel.
To put this more broadly and abstractly, Acker is accusing our contemporary American way of life of being a culture of death. And she is asking — here and throughout her fiction — if there is any way for us to remain alive, and to be open to life and love, even as we are unavoidably stuck in this culture of death. Nobody would call Kathy Acker a utopian writer; she is too acutely aware of all the obstacles we face, both from existing social and economic structures, and from the unruly passions of our own hearts. Neverthelss, she continually asks us to envision new ways of living and loving together: to imagine a time “when there’s human pleasure in this world” (Pussy, King of the Pirates), or when “there’ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust” (Empire of the Senseless).
I started reading Acker’s novels at around the same time that I moved to Seattle, in the mid-1980s. The first book of hers I read was probably Great Expectations, which was published in 1983. It was also around this time that I first saw Acker give a reading, at an art space in San Francisco. I didn’t get to meet her in person then; but I become sufficiently obsessed with her writing that I tracked down and purchased everything that she had published up to that point. And I started buying and reading all her new books as soon as they came out: Don Quixote in 1986, Literal Madness in 1987, and Empire of the Senseless in 1988. Each of these was an important event for me: a communication from beyond, you might say.
I was thrilled, therefore, when Larry Reid invited Acker to come to Seattle in 1989. I wanted to hear her read again. But also, in order to meet her, I offered to interview her for the art journal Reflex. I scarcely remember the details, any more; and I don’t seem to have preserved a copy of the article I wrote. We met in somebody’s apartment on Capitol Hill. The interview went well; we hit it off. This was partly due to common literary interests; Kathy and I were both in love with the transgressive French writers of the mid-twentieth-century, like Georges Bataille and Jean Genet. In any case, though she was quite different from me, or from anyone else I knew, by the end of the afternoon I felt like we were soulmates. We chatted for several hours, indiscriminately, about life and art and books.
I should point out that Kathy didn’t make any distinction among these topics. She wrote from life, and she also wrote from books. She rejected those all-too-common cliches that would oppose life and art to one another. She was, among so many other things, a voracious reader; she knew a much wider range of books than I did, or than I ever will.
Shortly after Kathy left Seattle, I received a letter from her, saying basically, let’s keep in touch. And we did. Not long after her gig in Seattle, she moved to San Francisco, where she remained until 1996. Kathy seemed to thrive in San Francisco; in those days before extreme gentrification, the city was something of a multicultural, queer, feminist utopia. I had lots of friends and relatives in the Bay Area at that time; I would go down there a couple of times a year. Whenever I went, I made sure to get together with Kathy. Sometimes I would visit her at her apartment in the Haight; other times we would meet at a restaurant, and she would show up on her motorcycle. We had dinner, or went to clubs, or to the movies. I remember seeing Jean Claude Van Damme’s Double Impact with her, on the day that it opened in 1991. She told me that, as far as she was concerned, Van Damme had “the perfect male body”; but she was disappointed in the film, because (in contrast to his previous ones) he didn’t give sufficient recognition and respect to the Asian masters who had taught him martial arts.
During her years in San Francisco, Kathy taught creative writing at the San Francisco Art Instutute. She challenged and excited her students, and in turn she was invigorated by her contact with them. Acker inspired a lot of younger writers and artists — predominantly women — both as a role model and as a teacher. The downside to her job at the Art Institute is that she was horribly underpaid. In those years, she was always looking for a teaching job at a college or university, anywhere in the United States, that would give her adequate pay and medical benefits. But nothing ever turned up.
Kathy left San Francisco in 1996, shortly after she learned that she had cancer. The last time I saw her was once again in Seattle, during the Labor Day weekend 1996, when she came to perform with the Mekons at Bumbershoot. This was a live performance of the album that she did with them: a musical version of Pussy, King of the Pirates. Acker was a writer above all; but she was keenly interested in other media, and especiallly in the new multimedia environment that was just coming into existence at that time, due to growth of the Internet. She told me that she was interested in adapting Pussy into a virtual environment or a video game.
I do not want to claim any special insight here. I would not say that I knew Kathy Acker extremely well; she had broad social networks, and at various points in her life, lots of people were closer to her than I ever was. But I got to know her well enough; and I can confidently say that she was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. She was interested in so many things; she was curious about everything and everyone. Her thinking was fresh, independent, and idiosyncratic. With most people, alas, once you get to know them a bit, you can pretty much tell in advance what they will say about any given subject. But Kathy was one of those extremely rare people whose takes on things you couldn’t possibly predict. I was always surprised, and stimulated, by her insights and opinions.
Kathy was a very demanding person: she expected a lot from others, just as she expected a lot from herself. She could be quite imperious at times: even (or especially?) when she was also feeling vulnerable and desperately needy. This often led to fallings-out with people she had been close to; or in my case, to bouts of anger, eventually followed by reconciliation. To this day, I am not really sure what she saw in me, or why she valued my friendship. But I think her liking for me might have had something to do with what she accurately perceived as my social maladroitness; or even with what could be called (in contemporary terms) my mild gender dysphoria: my failure to adequately perform straight masculinity, even as I am unable to imagine myself in any other terms.
One final, possibly embarrassing, anecdote. When Kathy was on her deathbed, in an alternative cancer treatment clinic in Tijuana, I called her to say goodbye. But being, as usual, socially maladroit, I said just about the stupidest and worst thing I could have said under the circumstances. When I got her on the line, I said to her: “Kathy, I don’t know what to say.” She responded, in a weak voice, ravaged by her illness, that I could at least tell her whether or not I loved her. So I said to her, “Kathy, I love you.”