Close Encounter of a Biographical Kind
A portion of this interview appears in Border Crossings Issue No 143, Volume 36, Number 3, which will be available September 1, 2017.
Chris Kraus has written her seventh book, called After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography, which Semiotext(e) will publish this month. Readers can’t help but be engaged by subject and writer. It is an indispensable book. Chris Kraus was interviewed by Meeka Walsh and Robert Enright in the Border Crossings office in Winnipeg on June 28, 2017.
‘After Kathy Acker’ by Chris Kraus, 352 pages, hardcover, Semiotext(e).Courtesy of The MIT Press.
Border Crossings: What was it that made you decide to write a biography of Kathy Acker?
Chris Kraus: There were two waves. The first was right after her death. I thought I wanted to write her biography. I had just moved to LA, become friends with Matias Viegener, the guy who took care of her at the end of her life and is now her executor. So I was very much in the loop around her death in Tijuana. Sylvère came three times to visit but I didn’t. We weren’t friends and it would have seemed creepy and disrespectful. But I went down a couple of times for the ride to Tijuana, so I’d seen the clinic, I’d seen the set-up, I’d seen how many people were around for it—not very many. And it was utterly shocking and devastating to me. It was the same month that I was publishing my first book, I Love Dick, and I had looked at Kathy’s career with a mix of admiration and slight distaste, but a lot of envy and admiration for sure. And it was very shocking to see that, “Oh, this is how it ends.” There was something radicalizing and sobering about that. Fortunately within months of her death I went to San Diego and New York, and interviewed key people whom she’d known in her early life. That’s when I did the interviews with the Antins, Mel Freilicher, Len Neufeld, and Martha Rosler but it wasn’t the right time. I needed to write another book and I realized there would have been something cognitively wrong in terms of how people perceived my future work. It would have been wrong for my next book after I Love Dick to be about Kathy Acker. Especially because there was the fairly recent cross with her and Sylvère and people would have seen me as a Kathy Acker wannabee. The whole thing was this incestuous little pot. So instead I went on and wrote Aliens & Anorexia from the outtakes of I Love Dick, and then Torpor, and on and on.
So two decades passed before you get back to the Acker book?
Yes, and I wrote six books. Summer of Hate came out in 2012 and in 2013 I realized I wasn’t ready to write another novel. I was thinking about what I would have liked to work on, and I got an invitation from Reaktion Books in London. They have a series called Twentieth-Century Critical Lives and years before I had proposed a monograph on Kathy. They were like, “I don’t think so.” But in 2013 they wrote and said, “How would you like to do this monograph on Kathy?” And the format is very doable; it’s 40,000 words, like five 8,000-word essays. I thought. “I can do that.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted the book to be more than an academic monograph. That planted the seed, so I dug out and had transcribed stuff I hadn’t seen for years. And I decided to commit to it.
This is a book that is some 280 pages long, and has 50 pages of text afterwards indicating your sources. You must have had access to a lot of material.
Kathy’s archives at Duke are neither complete nor good. She didn’t keep very much or she didn’t give much to Duke. It’s other people’s archives, especially those at UCSD that were incredibly helpful. The material for whole first chapter, where she’s 23, newly arrived in New York City, and I’m re-creating the scene in the apartment, all comes out of the diary she sent to Jerome Rothenberg, which nobody had really seen. She sent him 100 pages of Xeroxed, handwritten diary and Rothenberg kept everything.
In I Love Dick you and Sylvère have become lovers, he’s gone out, and you’re browsing in his library, you pick out a Kathy Acker book, and there’s an inscription to him saying he was the best fuck she’d ever had. So your knowledge of her comes in unusual ways.
Maybe not so unusual, given the time and place.
Did you know her very well?
No. We did a German tour with Semiotext(e) Native Agents, but I had nothing to do with Kathy’s book. I mean, to the extent that Kathy knew me at all, she really disliked me, because even though she and Sylvère were not together when Sylvère and I met and got together - it had been two or three years - she somehow saw it differently. As well as the fact that I wasn’t very active as an artist, certainly not her peer, nor did I have anything to contribute.
Robert Dewhurst has said that you have to make a decision about the kind of biography you’re going to do. Did you decide from the get-go on the nature of the biography you were going to do, or did the nature of the book evolve in the writing?
Chris Kraus. Photo: Reynaldo Rivera. Courtesy of The MIT Press.
I knew right away that it was going to be a career biography. What’s interesting about her is that she was a writer. That doesn’t mean editing out her childhood, her childhood figured hugely in the work, but also not overweighting its importance. The part that interested me is her study of literature and her will to invent herself as a writer. That’s the key to her work.
Had you decided you wanted to do a pyschoanalytical biography you would have had all kinds of material - a disappeared father, a suicided mother. You could have gone heavily into that aspect of her psychology. But you stay outside of that?
Well, Kathy did that herself, so it would be completely redundant to go over and over and over that ground. Every single book regurgitated it in a different way, from a slightly different angle. All the implications are right on the surface and Kathy draws the conclusions herself. But that’s not what’s most interesting about her work. What is most interesting is how she channeled the interest of the New York School in writers like Catullus with that form of immediate, direct address with more conceptual compositional strategies that she found in the visual art world she stepped into in New York. And how by the end of the ‘70s she had created a chamber art that totally blew away the Puritanism of the conceptual art world. They were the generation older than Kathy, you know, the Pictures Generation, so Kathy and her friends all hated them and wanted to ridicule and show them up in any way possible. But Kathy’s work does this so brilliantly in a way that is both of the tradition and beyond that tradition. That’s the interesting thing to me.
Her former agent says that experimental writing at that time was basically a male preserve, and that one of the most significant things Acker was able to do was to cross that border. She becomes a woman writing the way men wrote.
I have to disagree about that. Daphne Marlatt was well known as an experimental writer of that era; Gail Scott maybe a little bit later; Anna Kavan, so there was a tradition of women experimental writers. But Kathy very early on realized that she didn’t want to be known as an experimental writer. She wanted to be a star. And that meant writing big novels that would be accessible to other audiences. Even though they were her hugest influences, she went out of her way to repudiate any connection to the St. Marks Poetry Project. By 1977 she was looking to proclaim herself as a novelist and her new models were people like Harold Robbins. But whenever she was asked about her influences, Kathy would always recite the male Modernist canon. It was Bataille, Artaud, Blanchot and Pierre Guyotat later on. She would intentionally edit out any women. I don’t really see the traditions separated by gender. I mean, Simone Weil and Laure were both contemporaries of Bataille and they were very much on the same page, although taking different positions on the same subject.
Her personal memories very quickly began to transform themselves into myth, and she was its best articulator. You say that was both the strength and the weakness of her writing.
The way I put it in the book is that the subjectivity of the narrator is the only subjectivity that we ever get to experience in her books. Nobody else. Everyone else is just a walk-on actor that the narrator is responding to. So its extreme mono-focus is both a strength and a weakness.
One of the things that comes up is the sex thing in Fun City. You suggest that it’s something she constantly had to write herself out of. Why do you think that experience was so shaping and why did it keep playing through her sensibility?
I have no idea because there were other sex work things that were a lot more intense. She did porn loops out in Jersey the summer before. I don’t know if there’s any way to make people understand this. It sounds so debased and traumatizing to somebody who’s 25 years old and reading this interview that she did porn loops out in Jersey, but at the time it was very casual. It was really no big deal. I had a conversation with the filmmaker, Lizzy Borden about this recently. There’s a lot of overlap between Lizzy’s film, Working Girls, and Mary Gaitskill’s book, Bad Behavior, and that’s because it was set in the same house. All the artists worked there and it wasn’t internalized to the degree that people might internalize it now.
There’s an amusing moment where she has been working in a strip club and she decides she doesn’t want to do it anymore. She thinks she’s going to do something more respectable, so she decides to give Latin lessons but then she finds out there are no places to do it and it only pays five bucks an hour, so she decides to work in a massage parlour. That’s a pretty unconventional job description: from stripper to rhetorical Latin teacher to massage parlour worker. The humour of her situation is pretty obvious.
Definitely. One of the reasons she returns to Fun City over and over is because of her relation to Len Neufeld and the way that she increasingly comes to cast him as the pimp and the villain. It puts her in this position of the victim who’s being led on her descent into hell. That is a much better myth than, “Me and my boyfriend needed to make some extra money that summer.”
Kathy at The Lenox School. New York City 1952 – 1964.
In Great Expectations, she comes to the realization that, “All my life is endings. Not endings, those are just events, but holes. For instance, when my mother died, the ‘I’ I had always known dropped out.” There’s something extremely poignant about that admission.
So there are times when her writing is revelatory in a way that is intensely emotional, rather than being dramatic and theatrical.
Absolutely, and that’s the great strength of her work. I think Burroughs blurbed that book and he put it so well when he said, “Acker gives her work the power to mirror the reader’s soul.” There’s something about her writing at that pitch when you feel her voice inside your head as if it could be you. It’s so incredibly intimate and invasive and perfect. I especially feel that in her early work. Later on, as she was commercially published and had to bang out one book after another, that quality went away.
Is the biographer sometimes a literary stalker in that they have to follow the person? Nobody would want to be followed that closely and with that degree of intensity by you or by anyone else, if they were alive.
Any biography is a stalking; any kind of critical reading is a stalking. Today, in the Plug In Summer Institute the critical reading we did in our group was a kind of stalking of a stalker. We read the Roberto Bolaño Labyrinth piece. It was in the New Yorker, where he took the photo of the Tel Quel group, the intellectual superstars of his day, and totally raped them through description.
One of the things that often happens in writing a biography is that the biographer ends up liking the subject less. Did your disposition towards her change by the time you finished it?
Because my agenda was never to write from a fan girl position I would say I liked her more. My agenda was to demythologize the myth and to bring into the story people who are usually written out of it. A lot of our work at Semiotext(e) does that. In the course of the research I learned more about her intense discipline and process and dedication. She would talk about it, you know, “I write four pages a day, I do this, I do that.” Okay, okay. But when I actually looked at her first published work which came from her diaries, and saw the changes between the way it was written in her diary and how it was appeared in this self-published pamphlet called Politics, the difference was amazing. It was in the way she was teaching herself to make first person personal writing more dynamic and, in Great Expectations, the way she’s animating her own diary writing with the appropriated text. She found a way to ignite her personal writing and give it a charge that it didn’t have the first time around. That was incredibly admirable.
She’s learning that on her own rather than learning by reading other writers? The discipline is self-discipline?
Well, she came up with the A-B track that she used in Great Expectations. She probably wouldn’t have come up with it if she hadn’t studied with David Antin and wasn’t so immersed in the whole avant-garde tradition. But what she did was very original and very appropriate to her situation and her time and place and circumstances.
She’s gutsy. She writes a letter to Susan Sontag, saying, “Why don’t you read my books and make me famous?”
I don’t know if it was ever sent but it was read in a performance at the Mudd Club and it was in Great Expectations. It’s hilarious because that’s what everybody thinks, but would never say.
At a certain point in a writer’s life, certain people seem to be significant. Did Acker have a model as a writer who would have been an inspiration?
Yes and it changes, even from month to month. You find someone who is an exemplar of a problem you’re pursuing at that moment. Kathy had a lot of those and she used them all the time. She cannibalized voraciously. She used a lot of Pierre Guyotat, she used a lot of Bataille, Laure, she actually used a lot of Constance DeJong. She and Constance DeJong were friendly while Constance was writing Modern Love, and you can definitely see a lot of that book in Kathy’s work at that time.
Kathy at The Lenox School. New York City 1952 – 1964.
Why do you think she was so much more popular in England than she was in America? She goes away for five or six years and by the end of it, the reviews are getting vicious, but for a period she’s the Queen of London. What was it in the British sensibility that found her so attractive that she wasn’t able to capitalize on in America?
Well, it was still the early and mid-’80s where things were very backward and provincial in London, and they had never seen someone who could combine the qualities of erudition that Acker had (and that were much more highly valued in the UK than in the US), with this incredibly brazen, pornographic sexuality with the tight black leather and the outfits. To hear a rock star talking about Wittgenstein was radicalizing for people. Michael Bracewell was really articulate. He met and heard her when he and his friends were in their early 20s and they were absolutely blown away. They’d never seen anything like it. That combination of scholarship and sex was really off the charts in the UK.
In I Love Dick you write that, “Who gets to speak and why is the only question?” What was it that allowed Acker to speak? What do you think gave her the voice?
She found it and took it. You have to credit her for that. That was her great achievement. There was no space in the culture prior to her for work like that and she created it by blasting her way through with dynamite. There was that whole 20th-century tradition of the iconic male writer as culture hero—Genet, Burroughs, we can think of a bunch of them. But can you think of any female writer who existed in that way? I can’t. Acker created the idea that a female writer could become an avant-garde household word.
In Pussy, King of the Pirates in 1996—and I want to quote her again because it’s so revealing—she says, “If you ask me what I want I’ll tell you.” And then she says, “I want everything. Whole rotten world come down and break, let me spread my legs.” There are two things here worth remarking. One is that her quest for knowledge is insatiable and the other is that she thinks the knowledge will come through sex. Was it such a determining thing for her?
She started to pursue that a lot in the second half of her career, when she got more involved with bodybuilding and tattooing. For her, knowledge could only truly be experienced through the body.
But it’s a specific part of the body. When she says “let me spread my legs,” she’s not talking about the power of muscles in her thighs.
Right. It was definitely an essentialist vision of sexuality. You know, Realm of the Senses, like that degree of essentialism.
It’s a kind of pussy epistemology.
In her earlier work there was a lot of sex, but the sex parts were much more social and having to do with relationships and careers and social mores, so that was a comedy. In her later work it becomes much more sombre and modernist. That’s where her work lost me. I favour the satirical, social comedy aspect.
But she also recognizes there’s a demon in that notion of using the body as a source for everything. In Outside the Law, Which Is Language, she admits the opposition between the sexuality and the self-knowledge that comes out of it, “is tearing me apart.” So she was aware this was a troubled way for searching after knowledge.
Yes. But what search isn’t troubled? If a search is sincere, it’s never easy.
In an online conversation between you and Eileen Myles you both say there’s a point when a new generation comes to an awareness of your work and it gets renewed. Has that happened to Acker? Is a new generation more sensitive to and more appreciative of what it is she’s doing?
Yes and no. I think maybe the first wave of appreciation of her work focused much more on the content and the LGBTQ gender studies aspect of it, and less on its formal innovation. My hope is that the biography will help shift the lens a little bit toward her formal originality. I feel that about Eileen Myles’s work, too. Because she’s a working-class dyke who writes out of that subject matter people think she’s innovative only in terms of bringing that subject matter into the world. But that’s not true. She’s an incredible formal innovator. Eileen invented this discursive way of speaking that has been profoundly influential on so many people. The formal properties of a writer’s work is the heart of it; that’s the most important thing. I would hope that’s what people can now recognize about Acker.
Kathy Acker to Bernadette Mayer and Ed Bowes. August or September, 1973.
In Aliens & Anorexia you use Joseph Conrad’s definition of glamour as, “that moment when you’re standing on a cliff, you don’t know what will happen next, and you’re about to jump.” Was Acker ever on the glamorous precipice?
She kept herself there all the time. Her whole project was to stay there.
Your writing distinguishes itself by a palpable sense of your own presence in each book. When you’re doing a biography of someone like Acker, and you have so much access to her diaries, journals, and her own writing, does it take the voice away from you? Do you have to give your voice over to her?
I don’t think so. I made a very conscious decision that I was going to be as sparing with the first person as possible. I think I might say “I” only four times in the whole book, and it’s only ever a very reportorial “I.” I leave out any anecdotes where we cross in life. But I feel like I made a very intimate connection with her. For me, the dramatic arc of the book is some kind of fusing through the research so that I can get behind it and present it in a much more electric and visceral way than a traditional biography would. Almost like a séance; like summoning her into the room. It’s a close encounter between one writer and another.
It’s interesting you would use the word reportorial because a lot of the time your book is extremely objective. It would be easy to make her story subjective but you don’t do that. You maintain a sense of distance. Was that a natural thing to do with this particular book?
Inference was a better way to say what I wanted to say. I was very strategic. When I presented a piece of evidence that was mythologized, in the next paragraph I’d present another piece of evidence that would make you question or undercut it. And vice versa: when something came up that was really damning and negative, I would follow it with something that might twist and soften or mediate it a bit. It was a way of controlling the information flow to create the portrait and how the reader would experience it. So that you’re asking those questions and the writer of the book is not having to voice them.
From “The King of Solana Beach” by Eleanor Antin, Solana Beach 1974.
That’s interesting because Eleanor Antin talks about Acker’s decision to have a double mastectomy in one of your interviews. She calls it an “act of self-hate.” She gets into Acker’s psychology and you use her statement to raise that as a possible interpretation of what Acker was doing. Your interview with Antin is a way of you not saying something.
Absolutely. I’m ventriloquizing everybody.
Apart from the money that came from the family, for a while she was making a not-bad living, and then that precipitously falls off. By the end the books were hardly selling at all. What happened to the Acker brand?
She was so incredibly present as an icon in the ‘80s; always featured on covers in Victorian underwear, showing the tattoos, with the tattooed back and the motorcycle, but it dates. All images date. By the early ‘90s the aesthetic had really changed. That kind of ‘80s bad-girl glamour thing started to look really corny to younger women, who had a definite aesthetic and definitely a different ethos of cooperating with and supporting each other. So the whole image thing turned and worked against her by the end of her life. It has taken time for the image to fall off and we can now just go back to the work.
In Great Expectations, you sense she was trying to find a new place for her writing to go? She knew what she wanted to do to change the writing. She didn’t want to remain the post-punk bad girl.
Right. She was constantly complaining about that. Her last book, Pussy, King of the Pirates, crashed and burned critically and was pretty much universally ridiculed. But it succeeded as a performance. She did it with the band The Mekons, and it worked as a trash-rock opera. Already in the ‘90s she was looking for forms outside of literature as a vehicle for her work. She was doing CD-ROMs; she was doing performance poetry; she was performing with bands. I’m sure she would have found her way back to literature eventually.
You end the book with an unusual statement, which is a bit of a conundrum for me. Martha Rosler says that we all are incredibly competitive, and then adds, “But we were so similar, even though we maintained our individuality.” Was that meant to be tributary or critical?
I found that incredibly touching. I didn’t remember her saying it but when I read it in the transcript, it gave me goose bumps because it’s so true.
It’s interesting how the life can easily overtake the work. Twenty years after her death, we can get a sense of her achievement. We have a perspective, which means we can get outside the event. If you’re inside the event, it can swallow you up at the same time that you think you’re controlling it.
Yes but wouldn’t you also agree that every era reads a text differently for its own purposes. If you see a 19th-century novel adapted as a movie three different times over the course of 60 years, each era sees that same period in a completely different way, in a way that reflects the period of its making.
This is a remarkable time for you. The Acker book is coming out, your other books are available everywhere, there’s the TV series. Have things changed for you? Has the TV series made any difference at all in the way that you’re being perceived as a cultural figure?
Yes. The book has somehow pushed my work towards this other place, this more lifestyle, mainstream place, with more focus on personality and gender politics than I might have opted for. I sent a story to an editor for an anthology this week. It was a dry, talking-out-the-side-of-my mouth recount of working in the hustle bars when I first moved to New York City in the late ‘70s. And he’s like, “Would you add a few words about the gender and feminist implications of what it means for a woman to make that choice?” I wrote him back and said, “I thought it was clear. This is a story about capitalism and misanthropy.”