Gary Sullivan

Kevin Killian

Gary Sullivan: I was surprised, reading the Acknowledgments page of your forthcoming I Cry Like a Baby, to discover how many — ten of fourteen — of these stories are from other, on-going projects. One of those, Duets, is to be a book of collaborations; in I Cry Like a Baby, you include three of those: "Sin Is Crouching" with Lawrence Ytzhak Braithwaite; "The Range of Freedom" with Glen Helfand; and "Just for One Day" with D. Travers Scott. In the previous collection, Little Men, there are two collaborations: "Corpse" with Stephen Beachy and "Father and Son" with Josh Cherin. There’s also of course the book-length Stone Marmalade with Leslie Scalapino, and I think you just told me about an impending play you’re writing or just finished with Barbara Guest? I’ve just remembered a few others: a series of letters between yourself and Dodie that I remember reading in Ink many years ago; a chapter of yours that appears in Steve Abbott’s The Lizard Club; and of course the Spicer biography you worked for a decade or so on with Lew Ellingham — and what else? Well, this is a bit speculative or something, but thinking about the plays you’ve written and put on, and the fact that you’ve tended to use a fairly consistent stable of writer/artist-actors, that strikes me as a fairly collaborative enterprise. I wonder if you could talk about why it is you’re drawn to collaborative projects like this.

Kevin Killian: I don't know if I'm drawn more to collaboration than Joe Average. Oh, what am I saying, I know I am. On the face of it writing is a solipsistic or at any rate solitary activity, in my case with results almost invariably bleak and off-putting, so there's something of a desperate escape from one's own self involved in seeking others to work with. I think I was also, early on, moved by the political implications behind structuralist claims of the "death of the author"; yes, I resolved, that would be a very good thing indeed. But I didn't understand them very well. Nevertheless something of this death makes itself manifest when two (or more) writers resolve to work together. When I began to write, with my high school friend Terry Black, we embarked on a series of mutual projects and I had never had so much fun. When I look today at our so called novels ("Love in the Fog," "Laughs in the Cake," "Lulu at the Ritz," and many more, all of which began with "L" for some reason) I just want to curl up and die, they're so juvenile. And yet writing them at that time, in that place, brought me so much pleasure that I wonder if that period wasn't the seed of all my future development. Actually the reason all our stories began with the letter "L" was some kind of coded attachment to LSD.

Also I want to push my own envelope a bit. I'm tired of always writing the same kind of thing. When I joined up with Jacques Servin, for example, to write a story, I knew I'd be going into this weird alt.culture Donald Barthelme direction I'd never think to choose myself. I want to expand the ways I think, the ways I see things. For years I've bugged Bob Glück, Eileen Myles, Dennis Cooper, please let me write something with you, for what writer wouldn't want the access into their brains that collaboration brings? And for that very reason some writers are more guarded of their talent than others, the way the Amish people are said to shy from shutterbugs.

Writing with Barbara Guest is very different than any other collaborative method I've tried, and believe me I thought I've tried them all. Because she is who she is, this great treasure, I'd like to make a fabulous setting for her, with the care the Pet Shop Boys lavished on Dusty Springfield when they made "What Have I Done to Deserve This?"

As for Duets, who knows if this book will ever see the light of day, but over the years I've written I guess dozens of stories with other writers I admire. Thus Matthew Stadler and I wrote "Mother and Son," a kind of remake of the Goldie Hawn classic Criss Cross, layered over with the incestuous implications of Bertolucci's Luna. Henry Flesh and I worked up a great version of that terrible book Flowers in the Attic. Ours is called Flowers in the Main Part of the House, since it's a reversal — in our version the kids have trapped their parents in the attic. In the new issue of Shiny magazine there's a story called "Rochester" in which the young Rochester writer Tony Leuzzi and I pretended that he was from San Francisco, I from Rochester, and we took it from there. Simon Sheppard and I wrote a porn novelette together — that's harder than you'd think, since our sex fantasies are very different, they were difficult to meld together into a single piece. Bo Huston and I started writing a story, "Angel," which I finished after his death; with Sam D’Allesandro I began another story which remains a fragment. I regret never having written anything with Bob Flanagan or with Kathy Acker, but we were always so busy or so it seemed. Actually I think neither Bob nor Kathy really wanted to do it. They could have made time, or so I now realize in retrospect, if it had been something they really wanted to do.

I'm writing a new novel with Mark Ewert, my young friend I've known for 10 years, and another young writer called Brian Pera, the author of the recent novel Troublemaker. Each of us is playing a character, they are playing two young druggy twenty-somethings who haunt the circuit parties of the fashionable A-Gay world, and I am playing the older, jaded, Clifton Webb type roue who comes between them. This is a strange role-playing collaboration, more of a psychodrama than anything else, and it remains to be seen whether anything worthwhile will result from this exercise, which we are calling 3WAY. Sometimes I feel like Bjork suffering under the hands of Lars Von Trier while I undergo all the agonies of acting and writing at once!

I was already in my early 30s when Carla Harryman and Tom Mandel, two of the Bay Area's prominent Language Poets, cast me in a play they'd written called Fist of the Colossus, alongside Eileen Corder, Nada Gordon, Lori Lubeski and I forget who else. I hadn't realized how much I would enjoy myself, playing another part, an American archaeologist in Egypt with some outlandish lines to say! I thought to myself, This poets' theater thing is my future, and I decided to try my hand at some plays myself.

Now I've written 31 plays. I've had some wonderful luck over the years with my actors, many of whom had never acted before. Of course giving a poetry reading is always a kind of acting! And some poets are more hammy than others, able better to give or invent out of some crazy pocket of mind exactly what I need from them. I remember playing an acidulous footman to Elizabeth Robinson's naive Princess Diana. In New York we did a version of Cut, with Bruce Andrews so cruel as Karl Lagerfeld, Lynne Tillman an ethereal Isabella Rossellini, and Kenward Elmslie and Eileen Myles so vicious as my mom and dad (a pair of feuding Berkeley academics). In the same play's premiere I was lucky to get Mary Gaitskill as the heroine, the tormented Mary-Tyrone-like Tippi Hedren. For the launch of Dorothy Allison's book Bastard out of Carolina I wrote a litle play, a spoof of Dorothy's book, in which she played "herself" as a child and I tormented her for various sexual favors. I revived Island of Lost Souls here at The Lab a few years back, and Hoa Nguyen played the wise Sister Bertille to perfection — the same role that valiant Rachel Blau DuPlessis played in Philadelphia. Last spring Brian Kim Stefans and I played Yoko and Linda in an excerpt from The Vegetable Kingdom, the play Rex Ray and I wrote together. I once got Laura Moriarty to play Laura Riding Jackson, ancient, cracked, philosophizing from her Florida porch, and once her husband Nick Robinson was the perfect post-horse Christopher Reeve, blowing through his neck and saying a word at a time. In each case I was extremely pleased. But in the main, you are right, I have worked often with the same core of actors, over and over again. It's not as stable as it sounds, though, since all of us are so busy that if I set a date for a production, chances are that X will be out of town, Y will be finishing a show, Z will be giving a reading in London, so then I call in A, B, or C. New York is my worst enemy as far as that's concerned, because in New York now live many of my greatest stars, Edmund Berrigan, Nayland Blake, Erin Courtney, Philip Horvitz, Andrea Juno, Eleni Sikelianos, Larry Rinder, Leslie Singer, Darrell Alvarez, the incomparable Michelle Rollman, Cecilia Dougherty, all live in New York. Carla (Harryman) moved to Detroit, Alicia Wing to Los Angeles, Rick Jacobsen and Ethel Chase died. As you know most recently my prima diva assoluta, Phoebe Gloeckner, left the Bay Area and moved to Long Island — she, the incandescent Callas of the poets theater stage, she, so beautiful she could have been a movie star if she hadn't decided to become a cartoonist instead, she who could play anything and make you believe it, even if it was on the unbelievable side. It's devastating not to have her here. However I still keep close tabs on the whereabouts of my remaining superstars: the artists Rex Ray, Wayne Smith, Scott Hewicker, Craig Goodman, Karla Milosevich, Kota Ezawa, Marisa Hernandez, and the writers Margaret Crane, Norma Cole, Leslie Scalapino, Jocelyn Saidenberg and Taylor Brady. They are all angels and with them we could do Hamlet I think. Yes, one does tend to write for the actor. I know, for example, that Norma will be superb at androgynous, sexy Marlene Dietrich types; Wayne plays the drunken butler to a T; Leslie is simply put the funniest woman in the world and proved it playing Nancy Reagan, rictus grin in place, in my play Political Animals. Am I making a community? Hope so.

GS: I’m not sure I have this story correct, but I seem to remember hearing about you first being approached by Lew Ellingham, who’d been working on a Spicer biography, to help him edit the thing … which turned into a decade-long involvement with the project that wound up being, of course, Poet Be Like God. Why Spicer? I can understand getting involved in it, wanting to help a fellow writer, but you obviously became fascinated with the project, with Spicer’s life, his personae. Even after the publication of the book, you continue to write papers (for instance "The Carola Letters," which appeared recently in Jacket) about Spicer and the people around him. What continues to draw you to him?

KK: I went to grad school at SUNY Stony Brook in the 1970s and somehow our professor, Louis Simpson, used to hold up Robert Duncan as his example of a weird West Coast way of writing that had its own cult interest. Digging around a little, I came up with Jack Spicer's Collected Books, which had been published a few years earlier. I asked if I could include Spicer on my orals. "No. He's not important."

When I met Lew Ellingham in the early 1980s I fell for him, I mean erotically. He enchanted me right away. I made a fool of myself pursuing him, then I found out he had another boyfriend and chagrined, I licked my wounds awhile then began listening to him more closely. He was at that time (1982) beginning work on his social history of the Spicer Circle, interviewing this one and that one with enormous care. He produced a jumbo-sized book after a while, really an enormous book. In 1990 he asked me if, since I had shared with him so many of his biographical adventures, at least vicariously, I would take a pass over his manuscript by making it more linear, and more of a conventional biography. I was thrilled. For me it was like a second chance into Lew's life. He had the marvelous grace to give me carte blanche to alter whatever he did — and for eight years I worked on this project. Poor Dodie became a "Spicer widow" as some women are golf widows. It became an obsession with me, as it had with Lew. Biography is a funny calling, that's for sure, and in recent years people have asked me if I would write another biography. Briefly I considered writing the life of Ted Berrigan, and then of Kathy Acker. Gave them up, too complicated. Too many people still alive who knew them. Don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

Spicer, I think, appeals to the young because his poetry is filled with strong, resonant statements which are simultaneously denied, undermined, negated, just as young people are prone to large statements they don't "mean" the very next second. To people a little older, Spicer will always be a poet of extreme mystery and fascination because of his struggle with the materiality of language. In one way or another, language achieved a critical mass in his brain that threatened to topple his sanity. We're all flirting with that when we write. What's out there, and who are we compared to such force? I believe in dictation, I think, more sincerely than he did. I feel that not only is my writing a product of dictation but that my life has been led by someone else entirely, that the courses of action were given to me by strange creatures from another world. I'm living in their despond. No, I haven't finished with Spicer, nor with writing about him. For one thing new material continues to pop up — the biographer's nightmare. Peter Gizzi and I have been working on an edition of Spicer's letters, which are very beautiful, very instructive. I am always changing my mind about what Jack Spicer wanted.

GS: There’s a kind of — I want to call it a theme, but that’s not quite it — something running through your work, that for me, the epigraph to the short story "Spurt" comes close to pinning down: "The blood jet/ Is poetry." — Sylvia Plath

I begin, thinking about that (and knowing what happens — that gruesome ending — in "Spurt"), to see the Argento Series — what I’ve read (& know) of it from another angle, one that almost, not quite maybe, but seems to almost incorporate this passage of Argento’s:

"Horror is the future. And you cannot be afraid. You must push everything to the absolute limit. Or else life will be boring. People will be boring. Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing. And it will always come back. It can’t be hidden away like the guilty secrets we try to keep in our unconscious."

And from here, I want to address first this sense, and this may be a Catholic thing (I was raised atheist, so I’m guessing of course), a Catholic "guilt" thing … do you know what I mean?

From "Who Is Kevin Killian": "When I was young I had this friend who was very powerful in my life. He made me do these things I wouldn’t want anyone to know about. Things I hated myself for doing. But when I did them I got sexually stimulated."

I’m assuming these things are not necessarily the obvious (blow jobs, hand jobs and/or fucking), and may possibly be closer to the scene detailed at the end of "Spurt," although they may be something others would have found innocuous. Something that anyway flies in the face of your own ethics of behavior. And that there’s this kind of back and forth play, between the moral or ethical energy, I guess, or maybe it’s just simply guilt, and that which completely turns you on but which strikes you either before, during or after the fact as morally questionable or at the very least ambiguous.

But that’s too black & white or something, like Robert Glück saying "pleasure and safety are opposites" on the back of Little Men, which I agree with, but which doesn’t actually address what I’m sort of digging for here. That kind of binary brings up questions like: "Kevin, do you see the satirist as upholding a particular system or code of ethics or morals, or is the satirist the one who says it as s/he sees it, taste, morals, and so on be damned?" which, I’d actually be interested in your response to, although it’s not where I was headed with Plath’s blood jet.

I begin to think of art as this kind of willful, maybe precisely measured or focussed or pointed bloodletting — or shooting, spewing … and wonder if that isn’t a way in which you think about it too. And, if so, if I’m in the ballpark at all, if you might talk a bit generally about the "Argento Series" bearing some of the above, and especially Plath’s jet, in mind …

KK: In a roundabout way: Michael Lowenthal, who first commissioned "Spurt" forwarded me the response he got from one angry reader. This fellow was sitting there peacefully enough on a bus in Michigan, I think, or Wisconsin, the book in his lap, and when he got up to "Spurt" he read on in increasing horror and discomfort and, being prone to epilepsy, actually got into a fit and wet his pants. The urine traveled towards the person he was sitting next to, an elderly widow, a stranger, who complained loudly. He had to pay her cleaning bill and his own too and was writing to Michael asking for him to pay both bills (if I remember correctly). I always felt weird about that. In Buffalo I read "Spurt" to an audience and afterwards one woman came up to me, shocked, asking me what no one else had, "How could you leave that motel room not knowing if the other boy was dying or not?" Her voice was stern, she was quite upset. I didn't know what to say. I couldn't really remember why I left. I was drunk I know. I agree with the part of Argento's quote about life being boring without horror, though the rest of it seems pretty banal (I always think that the original Italian probably has more, mmm, resonance or something, though probably it doesn't.) Yes, I was raised Catholic and maybe I'm more given to guilt than others, though in every case, I always tell myself (and my readers), "I had my reasons!" There's also, and this I feel very deeply, a kind of survivor guilt in still being alive when so many have died of AIDS over the past 20 years. But that's not a Catholic thing, is it?

I've been driven to expose myself in print, to unravel the mystery of my own personality, to discover why and how so many horrid things have been done by a man, myself, whom at bottom I consider as the sweetest soul on Earth! "I had my reasons," most of them having to do with sex or drink, and beyond these symptoms a general unease at the bourgeois pieties of family life, the suburban life my parents worked so hard to provide for me. In response to this blankness I inculcated in myself strong feelings, like any drama queen, that I don't really have. It was easy for anybody to draw me in, to make me their co-conspirator. Emlyn Williams' book Beyond Belief is one of my favorite books because he shows, so beautifully, how a certain type of person is always only one or two steps away from the most heinous crimes, the cheapest of betrayals.

"Blow jobs, hand jobs and/or fucking!" No, I always enjoyed all of these. I guess that under the Gothic murk of my sentence ("things I hated myself for doing") was my horror at hurting someone else, and at the same time my complete willingness to do so. I've often wondered if satirists aren't basically conservative in politics? Or are we the true radicals? What do you think, Gary, for satire's in your blood too? I began writing the poems of "Argento Series" at a time when I had despaired about ever finding a vehicle that would convey something of the socio-political issues around AIDS that had come to preoccupy me to the extent that nothing else in life seemed worth doing if it wasn't contributing to the war on AIDS. How could any writing move into the realms of horror and disgust we were confronting every day? It was Kathy Acker of course who demonstrated so simply, in a kind of Argento seminar, that the blood jet coursing through his films was poetry. Yes, Plath's "blood jet" has been variously interpreted and yes, to use this quote as the epigraph to "Spurt" was a kind of sick grisly cheap joke on my part, but I felt I was on to something with the poetry. It's not just that the HIV virus is a bloodborne pathogen, nor is it that Argento's characters are faced with the most debilitating and hideous fates, often in lovely settings (the way San Francisco is so gorgeous, almost Italian in its setting, the hills, the sea, the cosmopolitan city life, the food, the good-looking people — the opera!) — It was all of these things, and I began to remember Angus Fletcher, again in graduate school, and his theories of allegory and how he would argue that everything I thought was allegorical actually wasn't, and I began to nod, thinking, oh now I know what he was talking about.

But basically it (Argento Series) is a poetry of ghosts and the different figures some of whom I knew and loved, like Tim Dlugos, Leland Hickman, Bob Flanagan, Ronald Johnson, Bill Aronson, Steve Abbott, Rick Jacobsen, Sam D'Allesandro, et cetera et cetera, some I barely only met (like Scott O'Hara or David Wojnarowicz), began to coalesce somewhere outside my own life, indeed in death, and speak to me, and some of them did not die of AIDS, of course, and even those whom I had never known, like Matthew Shepard or Laura Nyro, I could see their ghosts trembling at the edges of her vision, it began to be a book of death and mourning, and when Kathy died, and Charles Watts too, they too began not to speak through me, but I began to feel this alternate presence all around me and I did not know of which I began to speak.

GS: I wonder if you might talk a little more about this "alternate presence" as it makes itself manifest in specific poems from the series. For instance, the poem I think I saw first from Argento, "Probability Zero," which was published in Laura Moriarty’s online zine, Non. Though he doesn’t use this poem as an example, Christopher Alexander, in an issue of Ben Friedlander and Graham Foust’s Lagniappe, did what seems to me to be a series of fairly insightful glosses on some of the poems from Argento … specifically, explaining how titles, dialogue and/or images from Argento’s movies were finding their way into the work. Anyway, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind going through "Probability Zero" with me, and doing that, as well as addressing the aforementioned "alternate presence" …

The poem begins with a chatty line that seems, when you get to the second line of the poem, gestural rather than chatty. "Gestural" probably isn’t the word I want, but. Okay:


Talking to my friend Emily, whose drinking
the corpses change but the party goes on forever,

so, already, there’s this kind of play here. The second line seems to suggest that the corpses change Emily’s drinking. In other words, I’m going to guess, illuminating her drinking … changing it somehow, forcing us to read her drinking, yes? Were you thinking along these lines as you wrote this?

KK: Gary, I hope it won't change your opinion of me as a master of line and sense, but the two lines that begin "Probability Zero" are actually the first and last lines of one of Tim Dlugos' poems, the poem called "Pretty Convincing" which was first, I think, published in Bomb and then in his Selected Poems, and now I find it most easily in the new Talisman anthology of postwar gay male poetry Word of Mouth. You should read it, it's really an interesting poem and when it first appeared absolutely thunderous and yes, convincing, in its early treatment of the AIDS epidemic in poetry. I was very moved by "Pretty Convincing" and called Tim to tell him so, not knowing then, that he had HIV too, when you read the poem you'll see why it's in question. It remains one of my favorites. I think I was trying, above, to encapsulate (?) Tim totally by quoting the 1st and last lines of the poem, to set him up as my subject the way, when we were young students, we were told to begin with a topic sentence.

Perhaps this enjambment also amounts to a critique of Tim's writing? Yes, that's there too. That is, my own practice varies so drastically from his own, for his poems are usually these meditative, quiet, oblique, witty pieces about life and whatever, very much drawn from life, and mine are very different. I love Tim's writing but I wonder if how much of that is because I knew him, he is a great example of a poet whose person and writing remain inextricably tangled, and I wonder what people make of this work who didn't know him; perhaps this is why the posthumous publication of his work, introduced, lovingly assembled by his friends, has been a little dicey. If I sit back and forcibly try to remove my memory of him from the writing, it seems a little cold, perfect, icy. And yet one time when I read "Probability Zero" out loud at a reading, several people gasped when I began the poem, recognizing as they did the lines from "Pretty Convincing."

Indeed to conclude another poem in Argento Series, the elegy for Matthew Shepard that appears in Blood and Tears, the Shepard memorial volume, I used for the very last line Tim's line, "the corpses change but the party goes on forever."


Had this been a heterosexual these two boys decided to take out and rob, this never would have made the national news. Now my son is guilty before he’s even had a trial.

His little feet are green.
Take the barrel off the wright
for his green feet. For a load of
chops. Matthew Shepard, 21
Propellor to the stars, the green stars, high over Laramie’s
outskirts and weary and back to the base line
the fence on which they found him
a scarecrow

I fell apart when he approached,
a dizzy fog flailing round my skeleton
arms flapping, and used this
to write novels

the beautiful birds this dead boy scared away
the welts forensics took for burns

this weakness—
in intensive care
Nurse figures in transit, and swift about it
Doctor, stat,

have you ever seen feet so green
he’s been stepping on clover
a piece of state scum

dunked into a barrel. Boys
said the queen of Minna Street
have you been set upon by thugs

Russell Henderson, 21
Aaron McKinley, 22,
themselves slight,
who robbed you of your underwear

Boys don’t forget me
I’ve your welfare at heart
said the queen of Minna Street
his pale feet in the rug of their scalp

As they walk away
their asses throb like chlorophyll

A is for Kevin
B is for missed the bus on O’Farrell Street, standing there,
         my paper and dick
C is for AIDS deaths dropped in half in 1997, now only the
         15th killer in America
D is for plastic sheets, two men huddle beneath, dancing,
         performance and E is for the night we
saw Louis Malle and Uma Thurman in that restaurant
         and met Kiki Smith

"F," as in Clint Eastwood, hairy stare
         K to the I to the double-L
anagram = Old West action, what do they spell

Matthew Shepard, 105 pounds, five foot two,

"G," — other causes leap out of the pack
         accident, suicide, murder, sign of the cross
                  as AIDS drop down to 15
                           after 15 years
and murder in Laramie
         "A" is to axe and "H" is to hatchet
"I" is for "iris" and "J" is for "jacket"
He took a long turn to 405,
kept the cure, his neck burnt black
"J" put the stopper in perfume X
took the wheat from the Blistex bottle
"K" for the almost perceptible slur
in your bankbook, I don’t remember half
of these guys, that got key-toned

Exist now as letters only —
alphabet mired in gum
"L" is for Matthew, who sat on a fence, scaring crows,
"M" did the wild thing on my dime

The pop art [George Oppen wrote] — a Disneyland tour of Dadism? or the anger, the destructivness of the homosexual, the totally disconnected, the man without natural valences — to him not only the structure but the purposes of society must seem AT ALL MOMENTS totally absurd.

Black plantain cross rosary plate
on snowy white linen
snarled with your drool
so I keep my books in plastic sheets
I am the little boy who went in
          to the sea to rescue your scarf

from misery heap, picked over by
hungry —
and —
It is true, Christine

I am not an Angel, nor
a genius, nor a ghost

I am Erik

Forget the name of the man’s voice

the corpses change but the party goes on forever,

In "Pretty Convincing," which you should read, it has a very different effect, alluding as it does to the pleasant Irish custom of a wake with plenty of singing and liquor and camaraderie.

GS: Yeah, I’ll have to track down another copy of Powerless. I used to have it, I think in Minneapolis, in which case I sold it with like 500 other books when I moved to NYC. There was this whole crowd of poets that I would lump him in with, accurately or not, that I guess I associate with Dennis Cooper and maybe, oh, the whole Beyond Baroque world of maybe the 1980s? Another book, long gone, was this anthology that I think had Dlugos in it, along with Cooper (who was one of the co-editors?), Cheri Fein, I think? And Eileen Myles, Bob Flanagan I’m pretty sure, and David Trinidad. Donald Britton? Maybe twenty people in all, I think from just Los Angeles and New York City. I remember in there a reference to someone’s book: Je Suis Ein Americano, which sometimes I used to say to people, and which no one else ever found as funny as I did. Oh, well.

But, you know, I don’t remember that particular poem of Dlugos’s, I’m embarrassed to admit. Still, knowing now that the two lines were collaged into your poem, I think it produces a really interesting effect … though obviously, knowledge of Dlugos's poem would completely change the meaning, or effect, of the opening.

Anyway, so now I see how your title, "Probability Zero," is playing off his, wow. And the poem, your poem, continues …

flat tax soars while it’s true, I haven’t yet seen vaccine
In the interim he’s puffing up, like a large green bullfrog
on the lily pad of the hospice, wet eyes yellow and glaucous
burning holes through the visitor
Probability zero, but don’t let a sordid fatalism
give you that Monica Lewinsky fifth amendment

so, what’s happening, here? The obvious is that someone, Dlugos I’m assuming, is in the hospital. But there’s this interesting, almost immediate, filmic cut from the first two lines, where we’re at this party, to suddenly being in this hospital. The hospital reality of course impinging or making itself manifest in the present-of-the-party, I guess. But what else? How do you feel about Lewinsky popping up here?

It continues …

until there’s a cure, but from what deep pockets
does the money appear When you’re sick, the last
thing in the world is
Fit, the false falls into place, but sick
I don’t know, but an erratic passion blows into our world

so, here, what I remember being most taken with when I first read this, was how the third line above clicks into the fourth "is/ Fit," like that, and the result, because of the slightly different directions of both lines, you have this feeling of "the false fall[ing] into place," just as you say there. I mean, the poem doing what it’s saying. Do you know what I mean? That these lines don’t quite match up, in other words, but that their having been jammed together like this, if "falsely," the poem still runs. This happens, or something very much like it happens, a bit later on, where you’ve got

rituation normal
all fucked up, rnafu, or a "system is moving in"

this whole thing about the weather, "naturalness," and of course the unnaturalness of AIDS, although it’s a disease, and diseases are natural, occurring in the natural world, presumably cooked up by nature. (Though there’s of course no agreement about that with respect to AIDS, as with certain kinds of cancer; that they’re man-made, or a result of the man-made.) So this kind of tension between the two senses of what a disease is, if that’s not too convoluted a way of thinking about it. And, of course, the two "r"s substituted for "s"es, kind of underlining that, especially in the phrase "situation normal" which becomes here "rituation normal." Anyway, I want to stop with my own reading or misreading or over-reading of this, and wonder if you might go through the poem, more or less line by line or at least phrase by phrase and talk about how it was made, and what, now that it’s here, it seems, to you, to be doing …

KK: I wrote the poem in an immediate historical circumstance but one actually removed several years after Tim's death, so "in the interim" is my brand of poetic license, though not really. It's about my anger that, in the years since Tim's death, not much had changed in the way of a cure for AIDS. There was no vaccine. Even after the bruited change from the Reagan-Bush administrations to Clinton's, little progress made. I was feeling sordidly fatalist and wanted to correct that immediately, then this was right when the accusations about Lewinsky came up which disgusted me similarly about Clinton (a man I absolutely adored at one time, as I do Gary Cooper or someone). Yes, did Clinton let his dick lead him to a place where he wound up ineffectual and no longer able to crusade, IF IN FACT HE EVER DID DESPITE ALL PROMISES, for the rights of gay people and or for the end of AIDS? I think so. So it (my poem) is kind of about being disillusioned with a man you once loved.

"Until there's a cure" was the slogan of AMFAR at the time, plastered up on all the bus kiosks. The economics of the search for a cure. The deep pockets. But then I tried to imagine myself inside the mind of someone who was dying, and then back and forth, between the states of "fit" (when you're healthy you don't really care & can swallow any administrative "repressive tolerance" — the "false falls into place") and "sick" (when on the one hand you don't really care about anything and on the other hand a deep anger eats up all our energy), I gave up. "An erratic passion blows into our world." I.e., despite everything life goes on.

"I forget your name, Dale," had something to do with the surprise back and forth of the narrator remembering the very name he is confessing to have forgotten, and I think I put in "Dale" at a time, way back a few years past, when the poet Dale Smith and I were having quite a heated debate about issues of representation (in the poetry world), kind of a silly debate, no not quite because we were (I thought) arguing about larger questions about what poetry means, its appropriate channels, should poetry have a "subject" and can it, poetry, change anything in the world? Anyhow in the face of AIDS, both its so-called "human" face and its socio-political face, I decided, or this poem decided for me, that hard feelings weren't important in view of a larger crisis. So "I don't know" is repeated. I really don't know very much. Then the poem slips into a kind of personal reverie about survivor guilt as I've explained already, and then the poem gets disgusted again about my own inability to separate my own broken-hearted memories from the medical facts of HIV. The love of "self" is a ritual, a "rituation," and if you think back a few years to the moment I wrote this poem, it was the time when Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" was popular, reintroducing the word "snafu" (WWII slang for "situation normal: all fucked up") to a forgetting public. And the weather report? Life as usual? I remember Tim's poems, perhaps unfairly, as being all about the weather. It is always in the poems, what the clouds are like, how warm it is, typical New York School stuff that I both love and hate in poetry. And then, abandoning all this confusion, the poem takes a header right into two different times, first when I met Tim again after he'd been diagnosed and was writing all those poems about his illness, etc., here in San Francisco where he had returned to give a poetry reading I helped organize, and then, thinking backwards ten years or more to the time when I first met him in the late 1970s and he was this total, ultra chic, charming, acerbic kind of guy with this DEVO geek style he and others like him had pioneered. And how, although I tried to get him to have sex with me, he didn't, and yet we did have one kiss in Brooklyn, and yes, a rainbow followed the awkward silence and he joked about it. How it was like something out of DH Lawrence, which it was! And how I thought, then, that I had only about 1 minute to live, because I was such a mess, and he seemed well poised and groomed to be the next big thing of poetry, fashion, journalism, art writing, whatever indeed he turned his mind to. No wonder I wanted to do him. It all came back to me while watching Monica Lewinsky in that beret greeting Clinton in that clip the networks always turned to in the early days of Monica coverage, and how she seemed so alive, so loving, so pretty, and how he, Clinton, was such a dick. And yet how over the years I found myself liking Tim's poetry less and less, rather admiring it less and less, and thinking to myself, or realizing, I don't want to be a poet in that way. And it's very possible I think that only the AIDS epidemic made me veer my course as I did. So —? Was his a poetry which could not, with its emphasis on the naturalness of everything, withstand the disaster of AIDS? Again, I don't know. And if you loved Tim Dlugos and his writing, as I did, as I do, don't get me wrong. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I keep thinking he might have understood me.

GS: Reading what you have to say about Dlugos, your relationship to him and to his writing, I keep thinking back to that anthology I mentioned before (I just remembered the title: Coming Attractions), and also to this sort of sense I have of you as being, and maybe having been for a long time, part of this larger group of poets and novelists, not necessarily those who are in your plays, although of course some of them, too. Probably because I became introduced to your work in the mid-eighties, through David Highsmith's Talking Leaves Bookstore and his e.g. press, there's this kind of chain of associations I have: Dodie, of course (the first reading I went to after moving to San Francisco was Dodie reading from The Debbies I Have Known), and Steve Abbott and Bruce Boone. And I remember getting a copy of Jack, the Modernist at David's store, and a Kathy Acker chapbook spoofing Erica Jong, although I actually learned about Acker originally from Michael Rubin, a great class he had on the experimental novel at SF State. Cooper, for me, another I immediately tend to associate with you, was a little later; Dan actually took me to see him and Gary Indiana read, at Intersection for the Arts. Although, did I read that issue of Abbott's magazine Soup that Boone guest-edited in 1985 that had, among many mentioned above, Cooper as well? (And your wonderful piece on Dallas and Dynasty.) Oh, and I want to mention Michael Amnasan, too, though the connection itself might be a bit vague (on my part). My chain of associations is of course inaccurate, or at any rate personal to me & my own coming-to-your-&-others'-work, but if it's not too egregious a way of proceeding, I've always been curious about when you first came to the Bay Area (I'm guessing the late 70s or early 80s?) and began making some of these friendships. Or did you know some of them before moving out there? I remember sort of looking up to you, and by "you" here I mean of course you, personally, but also the "new novelists," as an alternative to the language movement, which a roommate of the time, Brent Sunderland (who introduced me to most of the above), was also getting me to read back then. Anyway, I remember first reading Dodie's The Debbies I Have Known, your own Desiree, Boone's The Truth About Ted, Abbott's Skinny Trip (although that was a bit later, I think), Glück's Jack, the Modernist, and Acker's Great Expectations, pretty much all around the same time, you know, and realizing, Holy shit, I really can do anything I want! It was completely different than reading the language texts, which at the time were totally perplexing without being at all enticing in any way. (That's since changed.) Anyway. My sense is that it was a particularly exciting moment you were in the middle of; indeed, helping to create. What was it like for you, then? How did the various friendships you made develop? Was there much back and forth with respect to ideas and talk about aesthetics?

KK: Hmmm, yes, it was awfully exciting.  I think even then we thought we were doing something entirely new, though in hindsight and after historicization maybe it wasn't all that new.  The best account of the birth of the "New Narrative" movement is the one written by our General, Bob Glück, in the opening issue of the on-line journal Narrativity, though his account of course is a partial one, purposely so, and doesn't really give a sense, due to an uncalled-for modesty, of how fiery in his mild way Bob could be, and how he really inspired us to "give it up."  He pointed to the castle of the Novel, and instructed us not to return till it was rubble.  And our other General, Bruce Boone, was even more so a La Pasionara figure to us. He would brook no insolence from anyone.  The other day I got out from the library a book of "Gay and Lesbian Parodies," called "Wilma Loves Betty," an awful book for the most part but one awful story in it is called "The Glück Clique," written anonymously (by whom I wonder?) in which Bob is represented as a Stalinlike commando operating from the back of the old Small Press Traffic bookstore on 24th Street in San Francisco, surrounded by a bunch of brainy sycophants who robotically nod and cheer at everything he says.  It isn't a good story, nor very funny, but it certainly represents another step in the historicization of the New Narrative — and some of it, at least, is "true"!  We took it that Bob and Bruce were modelling our revolution on the successful revolution of the Language poets, who seemed then very much a guerilla cadre who had, through sheer organization, taken over the reins of all the important cultural institutions of the Bay Area (the Poetry Center, Intersection, New Langton Arts, etc., etc.). and we were shocked, I mean really shocked, to find that these poets were the first ones to soften up towards us and invite us into their world.  In solidarity, I remember, Dodie and I invited Barrett Watten to read "Progress" in that same back room of Small Press Traffic where ordinarily "The Glück Clique" held our tri-weekly meetings. And this was at a time, you'll recall Gary, when Barrett was absolutely under fire everywhere you turned in the Bay Area thanks to the so-called "Language Wars." It was a wonderful, horrible time — horrible only that we were, or so we thought, at war (again it took the development of HIV to show us what war is really like).

But yes, we were reacting against the Language Poets and what we took to be their program of abolishing narrative, the lack of fun in their writing, etc.  We agreed with everything they were doing except the density of their non-fun.  We wanted pleasure and disgust mixed in about equal proportions.  And also we weren't as well versed in theory as our Language compatriots — I remember Steve Abbott, disgusted with our non-knowledge of anything, organizing a theory class on Berlitz principles, total immersion in Benjamin, Adorno, Barthes, Jacobsen, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari, the Situationalists, winding up with Jameson, Steve sat in the middle of the room (the back room) and gave us this Theory for Dummies week after week and do you know, we actually learned some of it!  I remember Dodie was somehow invited to be part of Berkeley's Foucault conference, with Foucault in attendance of course, and white-faced she walked into Modern Times and bought a Foucault anthology and crammed!  "Is he alive?" she asked.  Bruce had us all reading Bataille's Literature and Evil and Story of the Eye and indeed everything about Bataille, always urging us to find Bataille at the bottom of all our S/M adventures.  (And even when walking down the street, he would point up how we were all, even the well-dressed denizens of Noe Valley, creatures of Bataille's gnostic imagination). And I well recall Bruce having a lavish party once, and the main feature was dimming the lights and playing the spidery tape cassette of Spicer's final reading of "The Holy Grail."

Other texts we thought important, besides the ones you mention, included Brad Gooch's first book of stories Jailbait; Michael Amnasan's book I Can't Distinguish Opposites; Steve Abbott's The Lives of the Poets; Dennis Cooper's books The Tenderness of the Wolves and My Mark; Marsha Campbell's Wearing a Tough Jacket (still unpublished, but which we all read and marvelled at for its complete utter frank harsh poetic account of her affair with Michael [Amnasan]); David Wojnarowicz' "Rimbaud in America" project; Jane De Lynn's Don Juan in the Village; Bob Flanagan's Fuck Journal; the stories Benjamin Weissman was writing in LA; the stories Francesca Rosa was writing in our back room with us; Sam D'Allesandro's Slippery Sins, and more importantly, his stories that were eventually collected in The Zombie Pit; Bruce Boone's "My Walk with Bob," "Century of Clouds," and his big novel Carmen (again, unfinished, but a book like Truman Capote's Answered Prayers which was "being written" for years and years); Eileen Myles' Sappho's Boat and her little Hanuman Books; Carla Harryman's various plays, texts, novels; Lynne Tillman's Haunted Houses and Madame Realism essays; William Burroughs' Cities of the Red Night; Lyn Hejinian's My Life — but here I should stop, seeing as I am sliding off into the territory everyone remembers from the 1980s.  Did we do anything else besides read, write, organize and gossip?  Oh yes, we had those cool, torrid affairs.  And I was drunk every day, drunk not just with our joie de vivre but with actual alcohol, it was marvelous and couldn't last, something else would have come to break it all up.

Kathy of course was skeptical, and famously she asked Dodie, "New Narrative?  Why can't we just call it sex?"

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