After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography
In March, Performance Space New York (formerly Performance Space 122) devoted a month-long program in their new “East Village Series” to experimental novelist, post-punk poet, and feminist Kathy Acker. The program included readings of her works and the works of others inspired by her, video screenings, and an exhibition curated by artistic director Jenny Schlenzka and artist provocateur Bjarne Melgaard. The focus on Acker follows on the heels of a resurgence of interest in her work, including notably Chris Kraus’s long-anticipated biography, After Kathy Acker, and Douglas A. Martin’s book of criticism, simply titled Acker, both published late last year.
Acker is both an apt and ironic figure to represent the East Village. Though she grew up in New York and spent a significant portion of her adult life here, she led a peripatetic life, moving frequently between New York, San Diego, San Francisco, and London. She became an icon of New York’s downtown scene precisely when she left it for London in 1984, just as Blood and Guts in High School, her first work to be published by a mainstream press, was gaining popular and critical attention. At the same time, for those of us on the West Coast in the 1990s, Acker was indelibly linked to the Bay Area’s leather dyke scene, of which, for a time, she was a part. Placing Acker at the center of the Performance Space series highlights the extent to which the “East Village” seems less and less to reference a reliable countercultural geographical location, but instead a nostalgia for a certain anti-establishment creative ethos, and a very real desire to see its legacy extended into the contemporary moment. What the reading series and recent publications attempt is to restore Acker to her rightful place as a progenitor of post-punk feminist writing and performance, as well as to remind us how necessary the urgency and clarity of her writing—of the body, of power, of gender, sex, and experience—remains today.
During her lifetime—she died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 53—she published nine works of fiction, in addition to various collected works, a libretto, a screenplay, and the early self-published serials that made her reputation. Influenced by William Burroughs, the Black Mountain School, French Critical Theory, the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and a lover of Latin (the poetry of Propertius and Catallus in particular), she mixed high theory with pulp forms, gleefully appropriating existing texts of all stripes (from Don Quixote to Harold Robbins), and was rigorous in her formal experimentations. Towards the end of her life, she gravitated more and more to music and performance as an outlet for her writing, telling a young Kathleen Hanna that if she wanted to make a difference she should start a band rather than become a writer.
Performance Space’s exhibition title, Who Wants to be Human All the Time, quotes Acker, referencing her impatient, sardonic escapism. But Kraus’ depiction of her is decidedly human, painstakingly tracing the ambitious, often needy, and furiously disciplined writer through the agonizingly slow and not at all certain path to fame and success. Acker’s ambition is a central theme of Kraus’ biography, not least since Acker wrote about it frequently in her works and diaries. One oft-quoted line from Blood and Guts has a character asserting, “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.”
Kraus notes the intertwining of Acker’s work regime and the pursuit of security throughout her life and career. She pays close scrutiny, for example, to the ebb and flow of Acker’s finances as indexes of her ambition, commitment, and recklessness, as well as reminders of how marginal and precarious the fortunes are of an avant-garde artist. She won only one literary prize in her lifetime (a Pushcart Prize in 1979), residuals and advances were unreliable and sometimes unpaid, and in her last years she desperately sought a permanent teaching job, if only for the health care.
Part of Kraus’ project is to demystify Acker’s mythology as well as affirm her proper place as an innovator in feminist autofiction. This entails a very close reading of Acker’s life, diaries, and published texts, in addition to interviews with friends, lovers, and former classmates, tracing the transmutation of her experiences into her writing and formal experimentation. Kraus is meticulous, covering details that Acker was forthcoming about (her father’s abandonment before she was born, her mother’s emotional abandonment, her abortions and struggles with pelvic inflammatory disease), while also debunking the half-truths Acker actively promoted about herself (Roman Jakobson had not been her mentor at Brandeis; she did not study under Herbert Marcuse at UC San Diego).
At the same time, Kraus allows so many critical voices to counter Acker’s mythology that Kraus’ own purpose can seem muddied. The uncovering of Acker’s high school classmates, the Mueller twins, whom Acker fictionalized throughout her writing, is a nifty find, but it does not necessarily serve Kraus’ purpose of elevating Acker’s literary status. Kraus also does not venture to characterize the nature of her relationship to Acker. Anyone familiar with Kraus’ work, and I Love Dick in particular, will know of her former marriage to Sylvère Lotringer, who also had a romantic and professional relationship with Acker. Given Kraus’ mostly generous and diplomatic sorting through of Acker’s romantic life, this omission remains surprising.
Tina Satter, founder and artistic director of the ensemble Half Straddle—who organized an afternoon of Acker-related readings at Performance Space—told me that when she recently read Acker’s Pussycat Fever, she felt she was encountering something that was already inside her, suggesting both Acker’s surprising disappearance from cultural memory as well her capacity to create urgent, visceral connections with the reader. At that same reading, two images of Acker were projected over the space, a reminder that part of Acker’s influence was her look, her presence, her consideration of her own body as a malleable work of art. A frequent subject of Robert Mapplethorpe’s, Acker’s look was unmistakable. An early advocate of bodybuilding, her hair often bleached and cut short in crop circle spirals, she famously left behind a trove of punk couture, Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Comme des Garçons, and more.
Poet and artist Diamond Stingily introduced her Letter to Kathy by surmising, “I don’t think I’d be friends with her—if she were around today and we were the same age.” Reading Kraus, I often thought I might prefer the myth to the person revealed therein—disciplined and brilliant, she was also by many accounts confounding, needy, manipulative, and often competitive, especially with other women writers. In When the Sick Ruled the World, Acker’s contemporary Dodie Bellamy affectionately recounts, “wherever she went she left a trail of victims.” A typical passage in Kraus’ book has a friend recalling, “Acker’s stance was girly, victimized, ruthless, cagey, business-oriented and unpredictable. You never knew where you stood. Always putting everything into the mean typewritten letter she wouldn’t say to your face.”
In light of the complicated personality that Kraus conjures, it is surprising that she ends with something of a lament. Given the fluidity of gender in Acker’s work, her focus on her sexuality, violence, and her powerfully raw and unapologetic language, it is easy enough to understand her continued relevance today. Kraus however seems to view this connection as somewhat superficial, and worries that Acker’s other qualities, her intellect, her anarchic humor, and her formal inventiveness may not receive the same level of attention.
The programming at Performance Space suggests that Acker’s influence will always be multivalent, reckoning with and taking inspiration from all these different aspects of Acker at once, the disciplined risk-taking, the conviction over her own talent despite the lack of institutional support, the rabid mix of high and low, the astute cultural criticism, extravagant myth-making, and the fantastic messiness of a striving, imperfect life.
INGRID DUDEK is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Art Asia Pacific, Art in America, and the Brooklyn Rail