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Ferocity and Vulnerability in a Posthumously Published Collection of Emails from Writer/Artist/Feminist Icon Kathy Acker
Kathy Acker died of cancer on November 30, 1997, the same year that her older contemporaries William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg passed away. At the time, many observed that these three deaths marked the “end of the avant-garde”—or, at least, the end of the avant-garde as it was known in the twentieth century.
In the years succeeding her death at age fifty, Acker’s work has been the subject of a documentary film, a symposium, and several scholarly works. Attention has mostly been focused on her as an exemplar of the “transgressive” genre of writing, performance, and art popular in the 1980s. Promoting herself more as a rock star than as a writer, she appears in numerous studio portraits taken during that era posed as a precocious child whore in a Victorian boudoir, displaying her extravagant tattoos and bulked-up biceps. Although she’d been actively writing and publishing in the East and West Coast art world and poetry communities since the early 1970s, it was not until the mid-’80s that her work was presented commercially. When her inventive, aggressive bricolage novel Blood and Guts in High School was reissued by Picador in London in 1984, she was hailed as “the high priestess of punk,” an avatar of resistance to the grim resignation of the Bush/Thatcher era. As her image solidified, so did her writing. While the writings that built Acker’s reputation are insouciant samplings of pornography, plagiarized classics, confessional memoir, and political satire, she began taking herself even more seriously than her fans and critics did. From the late ’80s onward, she adopted a somber high-modernist style, identifying herself as a postmodern poète maudit.
While Acker’s work has retained its underground cred during the seventeen years since her death, it’s only recently that her work has been embraced as a powerful influence on a new generation of (mostly female) contemporary writers. Her appropriating compositional style prefigures the oft-debated narrative strategies of writers whose recent novels are littered with emails, transcribed conversations, text messages, found conversations, and diary entries (as if a disjunctive narrative style had never been used before the advent of digital media). In a recent informal survey of Acker’s female contemporaries conducted by Emily Gould and Ruth Curry of Emily Books, an indie e-bookstore, Acker’s name recurs as a primary influence. Her image has faded but her writing remains vivid. This shift makes Semiotext(e)’s publication of Acker’s 1995 email correspondence with media theorist McKenzie Wark extremely well timed.
I’m Very Into You is a collection that includes 103 pages of emails that Acker and Ken Wark exchanged over seventeen days at the dawn of the internet era. Acker met Wark in Sydney during the summer of 1995, and the two had a brief but intense affair before she returned home to San Francisco. Wark, now a professor at the New School for Social Research and a renowned media theorist, was thirty-four when he met Acker (she was forty-eight). At the time, Wark was part of a Melbourne-based post-Marxist anarchist group that produced the political and cultural journal Arena. He had just published his first book, Virtual Geography, about the emergence of global media space and the transmission of world events as media spectacles. He was enjoying a precocious career as a national media commentator in Australia and advising government ministers on media access, while still living a kind of post-student life among artists and activists. He had boyfriends and girlfriends, often concurrently, and wondered about his identity, queerness and straightness, performance, butch/femme-ness, masculinity. Of course he’d read Acker. He’d been following her work since the ’80s.
The search for connection through sex is at the forefront of all of Acker’s writing. She was single for most of her life (and writing always from within her life, and around and beyond it). As passages from her novels show, on-tour flirtations and hookups and romances weren’t uncommon. While touring in the summer of 1995, something more compelling than a mere fling developed between her and Wark. His first email begins as a gracious note sent to a casual lover. He’d driven to work the next day in a daze; he’d enjoyed spending time with her and was starting to read the William S. Burroughs novel she’d talked about. But as he continues, he opens the door to something more complicated: “There are no words,” he writes. “I just want to say there are no words.… Bear with me. I’ll have something to say for myself sometime soon. When I remember who I thought I was in the first place. Even if I’ve been displaced a little from wherever that was.” She responds, delighted: through the exhaustion and jet lag of travel, “your message is changing the day… all the time there (in Sydney) that I didn’t know what was going on… what becomes/became present was how easy it is to be with you. Like: you are the one I want/wanted to talk to.”
In London, at the height of her fame, Acker had been involved in an increasingly maddening long-distance BDSM romance with a married journalist referred to as “the German” and “the reporter” in her 1990 novel, In Memoriam to Identity. “Being with him made me remember that I’ve always looked for my childhood,” she’d write to Wark. Still, his control of her, which began as sexual play, became increasingly total as he suspended contact for weeks and cut short their meetings. What began as a fulfilling and sexy relationship between her “bratty sub” and his “strict Dominant” evolved into a draining, old-fashioned affair between a distant and married straight man and his long-suffering mistress. As she’d write at the height of her correspondence with Wark, fearing their friendship might take a turn in that direction: “So. Regarding het shit. These games. To me, top/bottom is just stuff that happens in bed. Who fistfucks whom. Outside the bed, I do my work and you do yours. I fucking hate power games outside the bed and have no interest in playing them.”
By the time she met Wark, Acker’s life had been in semi-tumultuous transition for years. Acker broke off relations with the German reporter in the late ’80s. Living alone in London and trying to finish In Memoriam to Identity, she found herself caught in a holding pattern. Then, in the summer of 1989, her relations with her UK agent and publisher exploded. The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec, one of Acker’s earliest self-published works, had just been repackaged and republished as Young Lust with a photo of Acker’s tattooed naked back on the cover. Like all Acker’s works, Lautrec was composed partly by sampling the language and plots of existing high and low literature. This particular work included several pages of a novel called The Pirate, by mass-market soft-porn pioneer Harold Robbins. When Robbins’s lawyer, Paul Gitlin, sent an injunction in an effort to pump up his elderly client’s fading career, Acker’s publisher took the threat seriously. Following instructions from management, her editor demanded she write a public apology. (Robbins himself had been threatened with a lawsuit in 1974 by a “Miss X,” who believed the adventures of The Pirate’s promiscuous protagonist, Jordana, were based on events from her own history.)
“The Harold Robbins Affair,” as her American editor, Fred Jordan, wryly described it, would become Acker’s official reason for leaving London. As she told Larry McCaffery, “[I]t was a horrendous experience that completely disrupted my life. I couldn’t even answer my phone for three weeks… I just had to get out of the country… I was also feeling very threatened as a writer.”
From London, she returned to New York, where she’d lived from 1975 to 1983, and bought an apartment downtown, between the East and West Villages. By 1990, many of her old East Village friends and associates had moved on to literary careers supported by mainstream publishers. Lynne Tillman’s well-received debut novel, Haunted Houses, had been published by Simon & Schuster in 1987; Patrick McGrath’s new-gothic novel The Grotesque had been published by Simon & Schuster in 1989. Critics discussed the books of Acker’s former peers, not their piercings and outfits. She found New York lonely and isolating.
Within months, she put her apartment on the market and returned to London, but then changed her mind and left London for San Francisco. Seeking a place within walking distance of nature, she settled into a Cole Valley apartment, just a few blocks away from the shared, sprawling apartment in the heart of Haight- Ashbury, where, nearly two decades prior, she’d written parts of The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, her self- published serial novel.
During the five years she spent in Cole Valley, Acker toured constantly. Inherited money and writing income earned in the UK during the 1980s enabled her to purchase apartments in desirable areas. But despite her international acclaim, she had no regular income or health insurance. Throughout these years she was consistently seeking the kind of tenured MFA program job held by many of her former students. Since none of these programs chose to employ her as anything more than a visiting lecturer, she depended on touring for income and to help extend and maintain the niche fan-base from Europe, the United States, and Australia that was essential to the sale of her books. (As she’d confide to Wark: “[T]his is the first time in some years that I’m not running five jobs at once, touring and writing a novel and journalism/theory writing and teaching and what other projects like the Mekons’ record, and I come up for air and who am I… lonely and scared.”)
In 1995, when she met Wark, Acker was still reluctantly living in San Francisco, a city she tried to mythologize as a frontier/queer/outsider-activist town, but which she was attempting to leave. While she had many friends, loyal students, and a comfortable life in San Francisco, it was still a provincial city where most middle-aged writers and artists were ensconced in domestic couples. She’d escaped New York’s intense competition, but nothing in San Francisco offered new information.
As her writing career existed outside the realm of respectable “high-lit” fiction, she cast herself as an outsider icon. Her Australian tour appearances were billed as “Kathy Acker: US Superstar, Punk Feminist Writer,” an increasingly awkward niche to inhabit by the mid-1990s. Since the publication of her 1988 novel, Empire of the Senseless, she’d been trying to shift away from her bratty and raucous punk-era persona toward something more mythological, classically modernist, stately. Before leaving for Australia, she’d turned in the manuscript for Pussy, King of the Pirates, a fragmented, rhapsodic account of the adventures of a brigantine gang of queer pirate girls written in Homeric style. As the title and description might suggest, the book served only to reify her long-standing persona.
By turns languid and frantic, Acker and Wark’s correspondence unfolds as a kind of adult romance: a journey with words through distance toward connection and knowledge. In his second email to Acker, Wark asks: “Do we need to analyze our encounter with each other? Or can we just assume it, and see what kind of dialogue it anchors to a start in time?” Time was among the many productive obstacles to their virtual connection. A difference of seventeen hours lay between them. They inhabited different continents and different days. He had a tenure-track job and various lovers in Sydney; she was about to resume her part-time teaching job at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Neither of them expected their correspondence to lead to a relationship in a shared time/space future. But emailing sometimes six times a day, the leisurely self-revelation attained through an exchange of tastes and ideas that defines traditional courtship occurs almost instantly. They engage in a gentle-edged play toward intimacy. They discuss movies and TV shows and books, mutual friends, each other’s feelings and moods, and sex, both in general and in particular. Wark writes to Acker about Australia’s obsession with all things American; she looks at his life in Australia with wistful envy. “No wonder I’m fascinated with… by?… your relationships,” she writes. “… [W]e have the relationships of too many rats in a cage. No, rats who are hungry. No, rats who don’t have maps that work… I’m amazed by your culture: you have maps. Culture. Art. Boring dinner parties. RU [Sirius, the SF cyberpunk writer and activist] isn’t walking homeless through the streets.”
At the time, neither Acker nor Wark saw their exchange as a potential book, or even a project, but the correspondence nevertheless unfolds as a narrative, climaxed by misunderstandings. For someone who’s slept with his addressee less than a week ago, Wark talks too much about his current and former lovers, particularly since she, at the time, had no other partners. Still, they’d made no promises to each other. Acker treads on dangerous ground, drawing him out about his other partners, only to be offended later, when he foolishly catalogs them. “First,” she writes, “you’re worried about having babies with one girl and another lover is coming out of the fistfucking closet and there’s also an old boyfriend and then, of course, desire. Lord, honey, can you have babies and keep all this going?” In some ways, Acker and Wark’s correspondence amounts to a cautionary tale against casual sex, but, in a larger sense, they’re trying to forge a brave friendship that includes sexual and intellectual intimacy aided by total disclosure. Comfort matters less to them than knowledge.
She invites him to stay with her during his stopover in San Francisco en route to a conference in Canada, cautiously leaving the door open to sleeping either with her or alone in her guest room. When he accepts casually—“If you’re busy I can look after myself but if you have time I’d like to spend time with you”—she’s gravely insulted. “My apartment isn’t a hotel. I’m trying to be gracious, fuck you.… I’m really not into these out-of-bed games. Fucking just tell me what you want and I’ll go with it. That’s what you do when you do s/m scenes. You discuss rules beforehand. ’Cause otherwise it’s all too dangerous… Well, it’s the same for me, with vanilla sex or without sex.” Later, he concedes: “I think the problem was me talking about various emotional ties I have with certain people in the *absence* of talking about my emotional ties to you. I was deferring something until I found the words… but one never finds the words.” The emailing ends just before Wark leaves on this trip. They hung out for a day and a half at her house in San Francisco, and then spent a few days in a hotel in New York. After this, they emailed only sporadically. The last email—from Acker to Wark—was written on February 12, 1996, two months before a routine lumpectomy revealed what would turn out to be terminal cancer. She died less than two years later, at an alternative cancer-treatment facility in Tijuana. Acker became controversial again, in the wake of her death, for her medical choices.
For two decades before meeting Ken Wark, Kathy Acker collaborated with the artist Alan Sondheim on Blue Tape, a fifty-three-minute black-and-white videotape that documented their brief attraction and courtship. They’d met in New York through the poet Bernadette Mayer, with whom Acker had struck up a casual friendship. It was 1974: Sondheim, according to his remarkable, fragmented Auto-biography or biog.txt, was living on and off in a loft with Bernadette’s sister. Acker was living in San Francisco with her companion, the musician Peter Gordon. Alan and Kathy had dinner on her last evening in New York, and then spent the night together. Returning to San Francisco, Acker wrote a long text about their encounter.
I know who Alan is: Alan is my father. He’d better be my perfect father take care of me but not restrain me from doing anything I want. Touch me softly with his hands and voice, like everything I do. If Alan isn’t my perfect father I’ll turn away from him unless he touches me again. I’ll attack him… I’ll make him shrivel into nothing I have to think about myself be alone without lovers so I can think about myself Alan helps me.…
—and mailed it to Sondheim. The text, titled Floating Through Memory to Desire, is vintage early Acker, asserting a need and simultaneously parodying it. At the same time, the text asserts Acker’s highly literary intentions, cannibalizing the durational, total recall of Mayer’s contemporaneous Memory project, a fragmented recapture of consciousness so intense it was prefaced by Mayer’s psychiatrist into something more widely relatable, whiny, and Jewish.
Sondheim was fascinated. On one hand, he felt ripped off and used by this text—on the basis of a single meeting, he’d been deified as the object of her fabulation—but on the other, he believed she’d opened terrain worth exploring. Besides, as he’d later recall in his Auto-biography, “I was falling in love with her, from a distance, from what now would be considered the virtual, introjection…” At thirty-one, Sondheim was five years older than Acker and well respected within the hippie-high-minimalist SoHo art world, one that was already enchanted with Acker’s The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula. She’d borrowed her friend Eleanor Antin’s mailing list, the same list Antin had used for 100 Boots, her renowned conceptual project in which she photographed a collection of boots in fifty-one places and mailed postcards of them to famous people in the art world. Acker’s technique of viscerally inserting herself into found histories and biographies in a declarative first person (“No one touches me; I’m constantly horny; I think only about sex. I don’t like sexual explosions getting mixed up with hampering my work. I’ll do anything to fuck”) was like a nuclear bomb dropped onto the minimalist horizon. Sondheim raised funds for her flight, and within weeks she was back in New York to make Blue Tape.
In the first scene, Acker faces the camera, sitting against a white-painted brick wall. At twenty-six, she looks like a young Emma Goldman. Her brows are untweezed. Her hair is shorn into a fuzzy brown buzz cut. She wears round, rimless glasses and a thick cotton scarf. Most of the themes that will emerge in her later work appear in this video. She begins, matter-of-factly, to lay out her cards: “I met Alan Sondheim when I was in New York… We talked mainly about certain gestural and mental similarities we had both noticed that existed between us. And at the end decided to do a piece together.… I started writing down everything I had heard about Alan or heard about his work and knew about him before I met him.” The camera stays on her face as Sondheim reads from her text. They attempt to discuss it, but the conversation quickly devolves into a bickering match about power. Sondheim complains that she’s “using him as an analyst to get to memories,” but at the same time, he’s moved by her dilemma. Acker asserts her right to maneuver her personal life for artistic purposes: “I feel that when I write I can do anything, so long as I’m not viciously saying something about somebody they don’t want said about them. For my purposes of exploration.”
At the height of the argument, Sondheim remarks presciently: “You’re a very powerful person. At this point. And god knows if you’re powerful now what you’re gonna be like in a couple of years. There’s gonna be hell to pay for anybody who gets in touch with you.” The camera is on Acker. She nods, listening seriously. “You’re gonna burn people. You’re gonna kill people, you really are.” Her face lights up. She nods and smiles.
In the next scene, Acker is naked and fondling her breasts while Sondheim reads from his treatise on phenomenology and language. Scene three cuts to a medium close-up of her cunt. He finger-fucks her as she barks instructions. Then they get dressed and discuss the various power relations existing between them. Finally, she sucks his cock while he narrates the event, adding phenomenological and political commentary. Blue Tape ends with both parties exhausted. It’s a pleasureless, darkly comic encounter, deconstructing the ethos of casual sex and psycho-experimentation popular during that era. As Sondheim recalls, the exhibitions of Blue Tape that year became a litmus test of the audience: At the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, “the audience wept; at Yale, they laughed. It depended on the first responder; everyone followed suit, everyone was on an emotional edge.” They parted dubious friends.
Throughout her career, Acker spoke often about her discovery of appropriation through her studies with the poet David Antin (husband of Eleanor) at UC San Diego, and the early influence of Charles Olson and other Black Mountain poets. She described this as a crisis of voice. As she’d tell Larry McCaffery, “The problem was, I couldn’t find my own voice. I didn’t have a voice, as far as I could tell… what I was trying to do in Tarantula was to see if, rather than trying to integrate the ‘I’, if you could dis- integrate it and find a more comfortable way of being.”
As Gary Indiana describes her work: “Her first writings—quirky, stream-of-consciousness, deceptively confessional—are whimsically strewn with pornography, violence, black humour and incongruous cultural references…. She routinely dropped into her writing records of the things she’d done or talked about or overheard during the day, mixing them up with send-ups of classical texts and mythological references to create droll, disorienting collages. Reading this early work was like being stoned in a taxi speeding through an unfamiliar city.” Like the Oulipian novelist Georges Perec, Acker is never merely a formalist. Both writers devised intricate textual structures to contain an excess of feeling. Acker’s compositional strategies enact a more intimate space between writer and reader than most conventional narratives do, because they’re so consciously, willfully performed for an audience.
And yet by far the most compelling aspect of her work before Empire of the Senseless is the eruption of her unforgettably strident and funny, dirty, direct, conversational voice within an elaborate textual edifice. Her character Janey Smith, the protagonist of Blood and Guts in High School, speaks for nearly every straight girl in late-1970s America when she writes:
Janey’s rolling off of Johnny. Johnny’s pulling the black pants he’s still wearing over his thighs because he has to go home. Janey’s telling him she has to sleep alone even though she isn’t knowing what she’s feeling. At the door to Janey’s apartment Johnny’s telling Janey he’s going to call her. Johnny walks out the door and doesn’t see Janey again.
Janey Smith is confused by the sexual-revolution taboo against feeling, and, worse still, attachment:
Whenever a cock enters me every night three nights in a row, I ask myself regardless of who the cock belongs to should I let my SELF depend on this person or should I remain a closed entity. I say: I’m beginning to love you I don’t want to see you again. The man thinks I’m crazy so he wants nothing to do with me.
Such eruptions of feeling are never treated as soluble “problems” in Acker’s work. Coexisting with pastiches of classical literature, political rants, and burlesques about the nuclear family, feeling is transported out of the realm of the female-abject, becoming part of a new universal that is, to borrow a line from Acker’s contemporary Ted Berrigan, “feminine marvelous and tough.”
Once Grove Press and Picador began republishing Acker’s work in the mid-1980s, her career as a late-punk-era icon was sealed. People were either for or against Kathy Acker. (She jokingly-not-really wrote in Great Expectations: “Dear Susan Sontag, Would you please read my books and make me famous?”) She was widely read and supporting herself as a writer, which was more than could be said of many of her former contemporaries. As she entered middle age, rather than distancing herself from the physicality and sexual content of her earlier work and persona, she chose to amplify them. Citing Yukio Mishima as an influence, she dedicated herself to weight training, tattooing, and body modification. After Grove Press was acquired by Atlantic, in 1993, her books were reissued with glamour portraits of the author costumed, tattooed, and pouting. In Memoriam to Identity, an endless and incomprehensible narrative of fisting, rape, incest, wrist-cutting, and whoring, ends with the words “Sexuality… sexuality.” Pussy, King of the Pirates was written, she boasted, almost entirely while masturbating. Her image, frozen in time and bound to a mid-1980s punk sensibility, didn’t age well.
“Got home drunk and did the French editing… and then burst into tears… why am I flipping out… what the fuck did Australia do to me,” Acker emails to Wark at 3:19 in the morning. During one of her first rambling emails, she mentions in passing that she’s consulted her psychic about him.
Acker’s executor, the writer and artist Matias Viegener, writes in his introduction to the correspondence that, while Acker would never have agreed to this publication if she were still living, “Perhaps we will know her differently now, and him [Ken Wark] as well.” Wark’s agreement to publish the correspondence, the reading of which, Viegener reports, one unnamed contemporary compared to “rooting around in someone’s underwear drawer,” shows a tremendous commitment to contradiction and truth and to the cultural works that embrace it.
Writing in the first person about her encounters with recognizable lovers and friends, Acker was frequently praised for the “vulnerability” of her remarkably transparent style. But it was a constructed vulnerability. Her texts and her persona were ingeniously controlled and conceived. As her career and reputation advanced, she became increasingly guarded, reshaping her past in numerous profiles and interviews in ways she believed would enhance her credibility. The Acker who, parodying herself as Every Punk Girl, declared, in Blood and Guts in High School, “I have to work as hard as possible so I can get enough fame then money to get away from here so I can become alive,” was not the middle-aged woman who, after achieving precisely those things, we find shyly disclosing to Wark: “…I do want to sleep with you again… I’m not very good at total ambiguity… I’m very into you.” The awkwardness of the correspondence is truly awkward, and it’s precisely this quality that makes the book feel so contemporary.
“We’re all the same, don’t you think?” the artist Martha Rosler remarked. We were talking about Acker, whom she’d known well in San Diego during the early 1970s. “Of course we’re competitive. But that also means we can identify with her. I could’ve been Kathy; Kathy could’ve been me. I don’t know. I could’ve been you; you could’ve been me. We all could’ve been Eleanor Antin. It’s all the same. And by that I don’t mean we’re not who we are. But you know what I mean.”
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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