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Close Encounter of a Biographical Kind

Chris Kraus on ‘After Kathy Acker’

Chris Kraus has written her seventh book, called After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography, which Semiotext(e) will publish this month. It is a can’t-put-it-downer kind of book. Her title carries a resonant naming; as a younger writer, she comes after Acker chronologically, and her subject died in 1997. She is also “after Acker” because she is in pursuit of her, maybe to the point of being a biographical stalker. Chris Kraus was interviewed in the Border Crossings office in Winnipeg on June 28, 2017.

Border Crossings: Did you decide from the get-go on the kind of biography you were going to write, or did the nature of the book evolve in the writing?

Chris Kraus: I knew right away that it was going to be a career biography. 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.

Chris Kraus. Photo: Reynaldo Rivera.

Had you decided you wanted to do a psychoanalytical biography, you would have had all kinds of material: a disappeared father, a suicided mother. You could have gone heavily into aspects of her psychology. But you stay outside of that?

Well, Kathy did that herself, so it would be completely redundant to go over that ground. Every single book regurgitated it in a different way and from a slightly different angle. The implications are all 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 combined the immediate, direct form of address as channelled from Catullus with conceptual art strategies she discovered when she arrived back in New York in the mid-1970s. By the end of the ’70s she had created a chamber art that totally blew away the puritanism of the conceptual art world. The conceptual artists and minimalists were a half-generation older, so Kathy and her friends hated them and wanted to ridicule them in any way possible. Kathy’s work does this brilliantly in a way that is both of the tradition and beyond that tradition. That’s the interesting thing to me. There were women experimental writers, but very early on Kathy realized that wasn’t how she wanted to be known. 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 poets and the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. By 1977 she was looking to proclaim herself as a novelist, and her new models were people like Harold Robbins.

Whenever she was asked about her influences, Kathy would always recite the male modernist canon. It was Bataille and Artaud and Blanchot and, later on, Pierre Guyotat. She would intentionally edit out any women.

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 the narrator is responding to. So that extreme mono-focus is both a strength and a weakness.

‘After Kathy Acker’ by Chris Kraus, 352 pages, hardcover, Semiotext(e). All images courtesy of the MIT press.

In Great Expectations, she comes to the realization, “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.

It’s devastating.

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. 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 stalker?

Any biography is a stalking; any kind of critical reading is a stalking.

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 appeared in the self-published pamphlet called Politics, the difference was amazing. She was teaching herself to make first-person personal writing more dynamic. Later, in Great Expectations, she’s animating her diary writing by splicing it into appropriated text. She found a way to ignite her personal writing and give it an energy that it didn’t have when she first composed it. That was incredibly admirable.

In I Love Dick you write, “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 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.

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-of-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.” ❚

Volume 36, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #143, published September 2017.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.