The Life, Death, and Afterlife of Kathy Acker
By Matias ViegenerSeptember 11, 2017
I met Kathy in 1989 at a party Dennis Cooper threw in her honor, and we bonded while poking through the many books he had on his shelves. Kathy was a trained classicist and a devoted, voracious reader. Since her adolescence, she regularly read up to 20 books a week, often alternating between two or three contrasting texts. She loved Latin poetry but her tastes ranged wildly, from philosophy to pulp paperbacks. Kathy read through the Western canon but she was also interested in Buddhist and Islamic mysticism. Often, the texts she was reading would be pulled into her writing, a form of what she called “piracy” — the term she preferred to “appropriation.”
During the last decade of her life, Kathy Acker settled in San Francisco, but I saw her often. She regularly came to Los Angeles to visit, or she and I would take road trips into the desert. In 1996, she was diagnosed with cancer and chose alternative healing over Western medicine. Many of her friends disapproved of that decision. I sensed though, that she was determined to follow her course; I was more equanimous and became her primary caretaker, accompanying her to the alternative cancer clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, where she ultimately died. I was the executor of her will and continue to be the director of the Kathy Acker Literary Trust, which manages her work.
MATIAS VIEGENER: I’m pretty sure I got to know you in the mid-’90s. I remember when you were at CalArts with Sylvère, and I remember going to the Chance conference you organized with Baudrillard in Primm, Nevada. Sylvère was my professor in college — and he changed my life — but I don’t think he actually introduced us. Certainly by the time Kathy Acker was dying of cancer, in 1997, we knew each other well enough to be in touch about it. Does that jive with your recollection of how we know each other?
CHRIS KRAUS: We got to know each other around Chance. You were very supportive. We became friends after that. We were pretty closely in touch, and had friends in common. I was one of the people you talked to before you left for San Francisco to see Kathy, and I relayed the news to Sylvère. Sylvère flew out right away, while she was in the hospital in San Francisco, and then he came back to see her in Tijuana. I went along for the ride, but didn’t try and see Kathy. It would have felt wrong, since it was Sylvère, not me, who she was close to. I remember getting your message on my answering machine the morning after she died. I’d been out all night, and it had been a strange night. I’d just ended a nine-month relationship that had gone on eight and a half months too long. Even though Kathy and I hadn’t been friendly, when I heard the news I was very upset and affected.
Kathy died in 1997, close to 20 years ago, and I remember that you were soon interested in writing a biography. A lot of people expressed interest at the time — Roz Kaveney in London, Cindy Carr in New York, and even Kevin Killian in San Francisco. Within a few years of Kathy’s death though, I could sense a lessening interest in her work, and suddenly people were asking who she was. I knew there had to be a biography; not only was Kathy no longer alive to promote her work, but she died quite young for a writer — at 50. My recollection is that you first started working on the biography around 2000, and certainly by then we’d discussed it a few times. Why did you pick up on it so quickly, and why did you put it aside until the past three years?
I wanted to do it immediately. Even though I didn’t know her, Kathy had been an important figure to me — at first, through her writings, and later on, through our uncomfortably similar relationships with Sylvère. At the height of her fame, I observed how people related to her, or her power and fame, and felt very ambivalent. Her glamourous persona was the opposite of my poetry-grunge aesthetic, but I felt weirdly protective of her — as if people didn’t understand at what cost her persona was cultivated. Clearly, I wildly and inappropriately identified with her. Dodie Bellamy wrote somewhere that “everyone” was trying to discourage me from writing the book because there would have been “too much sex” in it. But actually, it would have been too sentimental. Still, I did some key interviews between 1998 and 2000 with you, Mel Freilicher, David and Eleanor Antin, Bob Acker, Martha Rosler, Len Neufeld, and others. You generously loaned me some of her notebooks before they got sent to her archives. I wrote about that, and kept the copies of them with the interview tapes in a closet.
And then I wrote other books. After Summer of Hate came out in 2012, I didn’t feel ready to start another novel, and was looking around for a new project. Vivian Konstantanopolis, an editor at Reaktion Books, invited me to write the critical biography of Kathy I’d proposed back in 2000, and they’d then passed on. Reaktion’s Critical Lives are a series of short, accessibly written monographs, about the length of five essays, and I thought, “Oh, I can do this.” But then I thought maybe I could do more — there was all this material. During the summer of 2014, I wrote a proposal for an agented full-length biography that eventually wasn’t accepted, but by January 2015 I decided to do it anyway. Hedi El Kholti and I talked a lot about what the book could be, and I wrote it for Semiotext(e).
I love the phrase “inappropriate identification.” I think it’s pretty widespread, from coal miners who identify with Donald Trump to academics who identify with historical figures, not to mention the many readers who identified with fictional characters like Madame Bovary, for example. Can you elaborate a little on your identification with Kathy? From reading the biography, I still didn’t get a full sense of why Kathy, why Chris, and why now. I’m also interested in how your novels and your writing practice relate to each other. While Kathy’s work was fantastic, inventive, or even pirated, yours hones closer to narrative realism, but both of you have had your work read through an autobiographical filter. As I recall, at an earlier stage you suggested the book might be as much a memoir as a biography.
I never said it would be a memoir! I didn’t know Kathy, and was never an active participant in those scenes, so there isn’t much to remember. Why Kathy, why me, and why now? I wasn’t ready to write another novel after Summer of Hate. Kathy was an important figure in my younger life. When I returned to the material in 2014, I saw that writing about her would be a means of writing about our shared worlds and influences.
There were two drives — to tell a dramatic and compelling story about Kathy, giving her the credit she deserves as a writer — and to be a historian of our tribe, talking to people like Leandro Katz (co-publisher of TVRT) who were important figures at that time, but don’t usually appear in the official art-critical history. It’s like the project we did with David Wojnarowicz (David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side, Semiotext(e) 2006). By talking at length with David’s friends and collaborators, Sylvère arrived at a much truer sense not just of David’s work, but of the whole East Village art world. Depictions of these eras, especially the ’70s and ’80s in New York, are so grossly mythologized. Richard Hell makes a passing aside to Kathy in his 2013 memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, about having sex with her. Somehow, that motivated me. I thought she deserved more than that.
You’re right, I’m more of a narrative realist — and I wanted to be as accurate as possible, about Kathy, her colleagues and friends, and those cultural moments.
What did you find hardest to get right? Did accuracy ever seem unattainable? Kathy was a fabulist, and often fabricated information about herself, not to mention the unceasing repetition of her own biographical details inserted into her characters’ lives, from Janey in Blood and Guts in High School to her very last works, Pussy, King of the Pirates and the unfinished Requiem. Not only are the ’70s and ’80s in NYC inevitably mythologized, but people like David Wojnarowicz, Cookie Mueller, and Kathy Acker pretty diligently mythologized themselves, don’t you think?
I’d say the tone, and the relation to writing about Kathy, were harder to get right than the “facts.” I always knew the facts would be questionable. Kathy was rigorously inconsistent, more so than most people. I’ve always been wary of writers and artists who are highly mythologized. I had a strong reaction against people’s myths, and often held it against their work. But now, after I Love Dick, I see it’s more of a confluence between other people’s expectations and projections, and the artist him or herself.
Myths arise whether we construct them or not. Kathy is a magnet in that respect. There was the myth that she had had twins and given them up for adoption, probably based on recurrent twin characters in her books. Right after she died, someone emailed me to ask if I had told the twins! Another persistent myth was that she worked as a hooker, and I regularly check her Wikipedia entry to remove that notation but someone regularly puts it back in. We know she worked as a stripper, and that she appeared erotic photos and perhaps a film, but that’s it. Her identification with prostitutes was deep — her earliest published work, Politics, contained transcriptions of stories the women on the stripper tour told her — and she would have had no issue acknowledging that she had worked as a prostitute, but here’s a case in which I want to patrol the truth. Are there other incidents like this that you encountered in your research and writing?
It’s a fine line. According to Eleanor Antin, Kathy worked at a massage parlor in Solana Beach for a while, and she did not give massages. Their veterinarian, a customer, had a big crush on Kathy and offered to hook her up at a “better” brothel up the coast. They all had a good laugh about this. She was also, at the same time, tutoring Latin.
If she didn’t give massages, what did she do? Should I restore the Wikipedia entry?
Well, hand jobs, probably. It’s stupid the prostitution thing is in her Wikipedia entry, but it sounds like whoever put it there is determined. I wrote something today about the book and looked at Acker’s New York Times obituary again. It’s outrageous that it mentions the sex show, which she did for four months, and not her teaching, which she did for two decades.
Can you say more about your description of Kathy as “rigorously inconsistent”?
Everyone is inconsistent, but Kathy excelled at contradictions. Throughout her life, she longed for community but whenever she entered one, she slept with everyone’s boyfriend and generally set up competitions. Often, I’d look at a situation thinking, “She really didn’t act in her best interests” … but, taking the longer view, given that her highest goal was always her writing, she chose perfectly. Painful situations repeated throughout her life were also productive. Boredom, which she avoided, much less so.
You write beautifully about Acker’s work, but did you ever feel that it stood in the way of understanding Kathy Acker, the person? How did you find a balance between the autobiographical material in her work and the research and many interviews you did about Kathy herself?
I don’t know if it would be possible to understand Kathy Acker, the person — or anyone else for that matter. Whatever biographical understanding I arrived at was synthesized from the sources. Interviews always tell you more about the respondent than the subject. I understood the person who wrote the letters, the diaries — but Kathy herself? She wasn’t there, so she remains elusive. I’m sure Jason McBride’s upcoming biography will present a completely different understanding of Kathy. It will be his reading of his sources.
Kathy lived most intensely through her work, so it was through the close readings of her texts that I felt the most contact. She used autobiographical writings as material. The trajectories of the works themselves are autobiographical, because they’re tracing the process and consciousness of the writing. But I think we’d both agree that autobiography, for Kathy, wasn’t the point. Still, it was interesting to look back to the original letters she culled and imported into her books. The letters were written in the throes of real-life drama and torment, and the culling was pretty selective. I’m thinking especially of the fragments of her 1983 letters to Peter Wollen that found their way into Don Quixote, and the parts that did not. She had the great pleasure of imposing a form. The torment within the letters is much more acute than what appears in the book, which somehow lifts it above the mess of real life. She writes a lot about power in Don Quixote. She’s determined to win, and she does. Composition is the purest exercise of power.
We do agree. Kathy was a pragmatist, and used everything that was at hand. There was a holistic aspect to her use of her own life; it would never have made sense to her to erase herself — not from her feminist perspective nor from her overall Gestalt.
Your book opens with scenes from Kathy’s memorial and the scattering of her ashes, but given the facticity of those things, turns quickly to the question of truth and lies, and to Acker’s reputation for lying. We’re now in a decade of lies, a presidency of lies, a world of social media in which truth and untruth seem inseparable. How did you sort through all of this? What kinds of untruths did you find, and what did they signal to you?
The friends who recalled 12 different versions of the same memorial weren’t lying. The difference between their accounts just shows how faulty memory is, and how subjective any history or biography will be.
Kathy’s own use of the truth is tricky. Her aesthetic depends on an atmosphere of intimacy and total disclosure, and yet, she lied all the time. Sometimes she told lies of omission, especially where finances were concerned. Her old work, written before she received her inheritance, was circulating more widely in the ’80s, and I guess she was trying to make her interviews consistent with the work.
Other times, she told straight-out mistruths. But anyone composing a version of the past tends to color the story in what they believe is their favor. My job wasn’t to call Kathy out on these mistruths. Rather, it was to identify them, and try to understand what purpose they served. Sometimes, apparently none! Which was mystifying. I was much more interested in examining how Kathy created her mythology, than in holding her to an objective truth. As her work began to circulate in academe, she became “a student of Marcuse” who “followed him to San Diego from Brandeis.” In a literal sense, that wasn’t true. She never took a class with him; she and her art friends in San Diego actually hated Marcuse. But attaching his name to her biography at that moment gave her work an intellectual legitimacy, at least in her mind, and this legitimacy was wholly deserved.
Do you think the financial lies reflected her class anxiety? Her family clearly wanted to be perceived as upper class, and Kathy mostly strived to appear more down-to-earth, if not working class. This was reflected in her retaining her strong New York accent. Did she hate the bourgeoisie?
She hated, she envied, she loved. When she and Bob Acker fought, she’d scream at him: You low-class Pole! She wanted Ken Wark to think she was upper class, with her stories about New York and the Plaza Hotel. In her writings, sometimes she was the outsider at an exclusive girl’s school, other times she was lumpen-creative Janey Smith in her crappy East Village apartment. Like every other part of her identity, her identification with social position and class was pretty fluid.
My favorite part of your biography is what you unearthed from the 1970s, the decade in which her literary voice took its distinctive shape and in which the persona of Kathy Acker congealed. In The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, we witness Kathy inventing new forms that came to characterize her mature writing. You found the elusive Bob Acker, her ex-husband, and got fascinating interviews with Lenny Neufeld and many others. The Acker persona, as we might call it, has its roots in that decade but it’s a far cry from a Warholian persona. What role did Acker’s studied persona play in attracting readers to work that was difficult, raw, and experimental?
Kathy truly believed that her iconic image would make her work accessible to more readers, and she was right. It worked, and then later, it worked against her — because an image is frozen in time, and times change.
I think the two big turning points in Kathy’s persona were when she moved to New York in 1975, and in 1981 when she received her inheritance. In San Diego and San Francisco, she was just doing her work, living more of a post-student life with Peter Gordon. When she got to New York, she saw right away that something important was happening, and she could be part of it. She wrote to Ron Silliman, “people band together, the art community’s incredibly strong here. In SF I thought no one gave a shit about my books here I’m some kind of star…” And later, “What’s happening here is not going to get to SF so easily …” and she writes him about Laurie Anderson, Chris Burden, Dan Graham, Willoughby Sharp.
Then, in 1981, George Quasha told me he noticed a complete transformation in Kathy after she’d inherited her money. She dressed more consciously, began wearing more makeup and jewelry, even her accent changed. She took the first of her glamour portraits then, with Robert Mapplethorpe. She had a picture in her mind of possibility then, and she stepped into it. And she started communicating with her old friends via lawyers!
You mention that her persona later worked against her. I think this too. By the mid-’90s it might have seemed a little ’80s, and also she often said men responded not to her but to an image they had of her. She says as much to Ken Wark in the 1995 emails published in I’m Very into You.
Exactly. Not just the ’80s look, but the celebrity ethos. People found it off-putting. And I think Kathy’s extreme image could be a reason her work receded in the years after her death. The portraits on the Grove book covers looked all wrong 10 years later. They should have made new editions. At least it’s happening now.
Recently in the Guardian you were asked about Kathy, with the writer citing Eileen Myles, who said you were “entirely obsessed […] wanting to be Kathy.” Earlier you mentioned the “uncomfortably similar” relationship you and she had with Sylvère, and yet that triangle is elided in the book. There was the infamous Semiotext(e) German tour, with all of you plus Eileen, Lynne Tillman, and others. Kathy seemed to hold you in a similar place as Leslie Dick — she’d had relationships with both your eventual partners, Peter Wollen in Leslie’s case, and both were complicated men straying from their marriages. And yet neither of them left their wives for Kathy though they did eventually for you and Leslie. Kathy conveyed this as somehow damning, which wasn’t a generous sentiment, but it did signal that some kind of rivalry had persisted. So, the triangle: were you really obsessed with Kathy?
Eileen wrote that I was entirely obsessed with wanting to be Kathy, but I don’t agree. I was obsessed with wanting to have a career. She was a powerful force, and I admired her presence and work but I didn’t know her at all. She was a significant person in Sylvère’s life, but I wasn’t jealous. She’d left New York by the time Sylvère and I got together, and I always felt badly about their missed connection. The big drama for me during the German tour had nothing to do with Kathy. It was about editorial credit: they’d promised to credit me as a co-editor of the anthology, and then didn’t. Instead, there was a wifely acknowledgment in the back of the book. I was furious about that, and Eileen was the only person on the tour who felt that as a political question. Kathy was someplace else — posing on her motorcycle, having a brief romance with the producer. We rotated the order of readings, and one night Eileen preceded Kathy and stole the show. After that, Kathy stipulated that she’d always read last, and Eileen couldn’t precede her. So, that was that. But whenever people criticized Kathy, I felt strangely defensive: she’d developed her image at huge effort and personal cost, and that demanded respect, if nothing else.
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