But I Did Learn to Swim: A Few Memories of Kevin Killian
I first met Kevin Killian in 2007, at the second launch event for the "Queering Language" issue of EOAGH, which took place at Robin's Books in Philly1. My initial gut reaction to Kevin was a feeling of being drawn to his gender, especially a quality about it that I would describe as casually femme, a sort of poise with an edge to it. There was something elegantly charismatic about his presence, especially his presence on stage—how he came to life when he stepped in front of the microphone. He didn't just read the poems, he performed them in a way that expanded to fill the entire room, taking on a vulnerable invulnerability that was larger than life2. The journal issue we had put together, co-edited by CAConrad, kari edwards, Paul Foster Johnson, Jack Kimball, erica kaufman, Stacy Szymaszek, and me was asking how poems could be queer, a question which gathered together in one place a lot of the queer avant-garde or experimental poets who had been around in the literary scene. Kevin had previously expressed his excitement about the project in an email to me:
Seeing the whole of the table of contents of the new issue of EOAGH is fairly overwhelming and quite an emotional experience! The other day Roberto Tejada and I were talking about what a long strange trip it has been living in a world where people who do "gay writing" look down on those who perform "experimental" writing, and those who are both are ghettoized by both camps. Gays and lesbians have of course been totally dismissed by 99 per cent of experimental writers, who have long clung to the privilege of heterosexual masculinity long past its sell-by date, when even so called mainstream poetry has begun to let us back in a bit. That's why seeing all the work you've put into this and the thrill of so many names participating in this project makes me cry a little, it is so beautiful and the fruition of at least one old queen's fondest dreams. I can only begin to imagine the immense difference your journal will make to the young poets around the world who will no longer have to keep one foot on two paths and from now on they will be able to walk which ever way they please.
This email gave me the beginnings of a map to work with, as a pre-transition (early) trans woman poet just beginning her literary career, that would help me understand the strange double-bind I was in, because it helped me reconstruct some of the dynamics which had been going on during previous decades, as belated coincidence upon coincidence piled up in the present making it difficult for me to thrive in the literary community as who I really was. In proposing the "Queering Language" issue to kari edwards, I had privately complained to her of what felt like the straightness of the avant-garde at the time, but Kevin's email suddenly fleshed out more of the back story.
The second time Kevin and I saw each other was in spring of 2010, when Kevin and Dodie participated with Eileen Myles in my talks series TENDENCIES: Poetics & Practice, on queer poetics, writing process, and the manifesto3. Kevin's talk was a reminiscence about Samuel Steward which included personal reflections about the literary scene in the early 80s in San Francisco:
I felt kind of schizophrenic on the one hand meeting all the Language poets and other avant-garde artists and on the other hand going to book launches for Homage to Housman. I understood myself to be working towards reconciling these interests in myself. Paul Mariah was in awe of Steward just like I was, for he had known Cocteau and Stein, etc.
After the Tendencies event Kevin and I went out to dinner with Eileen Myles, Dodie Bellamy, and Douglas M. Martin, and Kevin fleshed out more of the story that had been influential in helping me to understand and respond to my situation, telling us the story of what he referred to as the "poetry wars" that had begun with an argument between Barrett Watten and Robert Duncan. In late 2010 Kevin agreed to write a blurb for the first EOAGH book that I published, Nothing Is In Here by Andrew Levy, but when he saw the uncorrected proof of the manuscript he was justifiably horrified that Barbra Streisand's name had been misspelled as "Barbara Streisand," prompting him to ask me "How gay are you?"
A slightly different kind of gay, it turned out, given that I was running around at the time desperately trying to garner other writers' support for my impending gender transition by my hosting of 4 different poetry reading series simultaneously and showing up for most of them as Trace. By the time I visited San Francisco in 2011 for a reading at Small Press Traffic, Kevin could see that I was super active and exhausting myself doing this, and he had turned a corner and now really got what the issue was regarding my gender identity, which made it easy for us to connect. He was super supportive, showed up for my SPT reading and took glamour shots of me after the event, insisted that we meet for dinner and hang out—he was so consistently generous and so wonderful then, as he has been ever since. After I transitioned I was very impressed that he and Dodie were the only cis poets who made the effort to attend an all-trans poetry reading that I co-curated with D'Lo and Emerson Whitney as an offsite event for AWP 2015. They listened carefully to all the poets with great interest, and also made the effort to mingle with the crowd after the event.
In 2016 Kevin let me interview him at length, with Dodie, about the relationship between kari edwards and New Narrative for an article I was writing for Rob Halpern and Robin Tremblay-McGaw's book From Our Hearts to Yours. I was so nervous to make sure I got all the facts right and honor his relationship with kari in an appropriate way, but when I finally sent the piece to him he declared it "absolutely brilliant," and explained what he thought worked well about the piece. The last over-the-top super nice thing Kevin did for me and for my queer literary world was to write (on very short notice) a thorough and thoughtful Introduction for the new EOAGH book The Criminal: The Invisibility of Parallel Forces, by Max Wolf Valerio, in which Kevin generously and sensitively reflected on Valerio's presence on the Bay Area scene through a chapbook published by e.g. press--the same small press that also published Kevin's own first chapbook and the first books of many figures in the New Narrative movement at the time. Throughout the process of writing this introduction Kevin was so respectful and kind and even reverent toward the possibility of things he might not understand, even given his already encyclopedic queer literary historical knowledge.
Kevin's generosity is the overall impression about him that I am left with. The partial maps and historical fragments he provided me with helped me to locate myself and find a way out of my situation and into a better one where I could be uncompromisingly out in both my work and my life, and where I am only just beginning to say what I have always needed to say. My favorite book of Kevin's was probably Argento Series. Reading it absolutely blew my mind, and at one point I wrote to ask him if he might be willing to talk with me about the process of writing it. His answer was memorable:
I did feel I was in over my head, just drowning in the material, and trusting in the power of my feeling to see me through all that stream of consciousness I guess is what it is--really I should have thanked Virginia Woolf at the beginning. It was like learning to swim by plunging off of the placid beachhead into the stormy Adriatic, and actually I don't think all of me did survive, I think that book killed a little bit of something, but I did learn to swim.
This quote seems significant to me because it acknowledges a kind of awareness that powerful writing isn't immediately nutritious but is rather willing to include and explore pain and even to undermine itself--maybe something along the lines of what Leigh Bowery would have referred to as "the poison in it." On some level I identify with that self-destructive or poisonous impulse in writing that he described, and knowing Kevin helped me to figure out my relationship to it more clearly, to draw the distinction between its presence that comes and goes in my public writing and its existence as a personal boundary that at one time prevented me from becoming the woman I am today.
Kevin, I can't imagine queer writing without you. Your work will live forever.
- EOAGH: Queering Language (link) https://chax.org/eoagh/issue3/issuethree.html
Kevin's reading for Queering Language on Pennsound: https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/groups/Queering-Language/Philadelphia-2007/Killian-Kevin_25_Queering-Language_Philly_2007.mp3
Tendencies website link to Kevin and Dodie's event https://tendenciespoetics.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/49-bellamy-killian-and-myles/