Kathy Acker the New York born 750 Yamaha bike riding poetess and novelist who had a cult punk following for her prose and poetry which reached its peak in the early 80’s. She was aclaimed for writing punk porn and feminism to an underground but growing following. She was courted by book publishers, theatres and TV companies all interested in her work across Europe and North America. During the early 80’s she joined some UK punk poets John Cooper Clarke and Atilla The Stockbroker for a Euro jaunt of venues. Channel 4 made an arts documentary about her. Her work was infamous for blatant piracy and contortion of the works of such debauched literacy scholars as Toulouse Letrec and the Marquis De Sade. She also done a collaboration album with The Mekons using snatches of her novel ‘P*ssy’ put to music. She moved base from the Big Apple to San Francisco in the 90’s where she took up body building in her spare time from writing. Sadly she died in 1997 of cancer after exhaustive searches for alternative medicines failed to keep her alive.
AUTHORESS AND plagiarist Kathy Acker’s eight novels have been described as everything from ‘post-punk porn’ to ‘post-punk feminism’; they’re mostly controversial first-person narratives which combine detailed eroticism with detailed politics and what Acker calls “pop content”.
Their ‘I’ is deceptive: locations, preoccupations and content can shift at the drop of a paragraph.
“It’s a way of remaining invisible,” she says. “If you let people assume they know something and then play with their expectations, you can continue to be radical.”
When we met Kathy had
just come off a
European tour in
tandem with John
Cooper Clarke and a
set of more established
poets. She was in the
UK for a few days to
wow the Poetry Olympics,
sign her first upmarket
publication contract, and
finalise arrangements to
write a play for London’s
Channel 4 is also
planning to make an
arts documentary about
her this year.
The voice in which Acker speaks is apt to switch gender or place in time abruptly-plus almost all her characters and plotlines are plagiarised, accounting for titles like Great Expectations, or endpaper notes such as, “All events taken from The Marquis De Sade The Complete Justine Philosophy In The Bedroom And Other Writings by Count Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, Portrait 0f De Sade by W. Lenning, and myself.”
Consider a slice of Acker’s 1975 The Adult Life Of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec. Its seven chapters move from titles like “1. The Case Of The Murdered Twerp” through “3. The Desperation Of The Poor” to “5. How Love Can Lead Youngsters To Murder”. Chapter 5 interperses the affair of James Dean and a nine-year-old Janis Joplin – “Theirs was the perfect American love affair” – with Acker’s precis of Rebel Without A Cause, long expositions of the reason “Henry Kissinger is determining pur lives in the 1970s”, and fake reports from the National Enquirer and Photoplay on Dean, Joplin and drugs.
You have to be there of course; but when you are it’s immensely worthwhile, and also very funny. Acker says she’s gotten “more and more into” her plagiarisms – “because I feel that there’s no need to write the stories any more; it’s been done, why bother? Why make up this character and make ’em fuck or not fuck? Now what’s important is that you work in a context, and that context is social-political personal. Within that you see what needs to be done and what it gives you pleasure to do.”
ACKER CAME out of what she describes as “the straight poetry school: where you’re taught that you become a poet when you ‘find your voice’.”
She grew up in New York during the Beat era, with Lenny Bruce playing in the Village, where she observed that “the bigger the poets I saw became, the more they were telling people what reality was – which I had no desire to do.”
Her real inspiration came from minimal art. “You know, where they do everything they can to point the finger at whatever image they’re interested in. I wanted to point at what interested me, so to use other people’s material was part of what I wanted.
“Writing to me has always been a way to find out things, learn something. In life people usually tell me what to do or think, and writing became the place where I made all the decisions. But I don’t like anybody to think of my work as either true or false; like anything else, once it’s finished it’s not MINE.”
Kathy Acker is slight, polite, a tiny bit awkward and extremely tough. A pleasure to talk to, she crouches by the gas fire in a loaned London flat and flashes a metallic front tooth whenever she laughs, which is often.
She wonders aloud “why all these people are suddenly paying me all this money to do my stuff in ‘all these countries”, and why “they seem to be getting so much from it”. After all, she says, she’s not big enough for them to clap “just over who I am”.
Don’t people ask about the work and its New York context?
“Not really – they ask me about fame and… image shit. In Amsterdam they compared me to Lou Reed; they also thought I was some sort of murderer when I read my piece on the death of Pasolini.
“People really have got America wrong – and New York! What they don’t understand is that we live on the streets, whereas there’s no real street life here. Or they’ll say there’s no Leftists in America… They don’t know what there is.”
What about the other poets on the tour?
“They kept asking me if punk was fascistic. I had to say, Hey – you don’t see fascists in two-bit clubs, you dumbass; don’t you know where your fascists are? Don’t you pay your oil bills?
“I got along well with Cooper, though mostly we talked about braiding his hair; he wants dreadlocks. And I heard some great rap shit here which I love. Like (laughs] Atilla, y’know? He was kind of snotty to me at that reading but the sort of stuff he did, I like it; that’s lively! And there was a black guy too who was really doin’ it; I don’t know if I’d call it poetry or not, but it was really straight politics. I love that stuff.”
WHY IS THIS punk or ‘post-punk’ connection always made with your work? “Well, I was originally accepted within the art world. Then there was an alliance between the art world and the punk stuff. At that time I was part of a magazine called X and all the beginning bands played for a benefit for us… DMA, Mars The Erasers.
“In terms of work, I thought the
period was wonderful. I did really feel
alienated before – you know, I just
had no one I could really talk to.
Suddenly everyone was really talking
to each other about our work and not
just who’d ya fuck or something. We
were totally nihilistic but it was great
for work. Since that community broke
up, it’s been hard. You work 20 hours
a day, you see everyone in terms of
your work, boy it’s nuts.”
Do you still feel the impetus of the
old scene though?
“Well, it pushed my work forward,
sure. Also to me some of the best
American writing is like, early Richard
Hell. It’s really incredible stuff.”
Well, Hell is a good case in point.
Smithereens is pretty certain to give
him another career shot – the
camera loves him.
“Richard’s incredible. I used to go
hear him at GB’s every time, I was
just mesmerised. I tell ya, he’s been
through the art world plus he used to be a poet. Him and Tom Verlaine invented this great female poet who (laughs) kept having abortions every time she had to read so she never showed up. I think finally they had an abortion kick her off! Hell’s done all sorts of things and they’re all interesting, so I can’t wait to see the film.”
You’ll like it. It has its heart on both sleeves. I kept thinking how much Lester Bangs would have liked seeing Hell play himself, but himself set in this little morality-play context.
“Are you into Lester’s work? I am. It’s amazing what he meant to people – every one of my friends says the same thing. There was nobody else like that; every musician I know is in his debt.”
Your work is as rhythmically sophisticated, in an entirely different way, as his or as Sam Shepard’s plays. And as completely American…
“I love Shepard’s dialogue writing – he’s such a good dialogue writer; his voices are amazing. And they’re not just halves of voices, either. They’re absolutely particular. Really, really good.”
Does this strong sense of rhythm come from the fact you’ve each, in your way, been strongly affected by music?
“I think it’s more because American culture is real heavily black, actually. Though I live in a Puerto Rican neighbourhood and I hear more English in Holland than I do in New York.”
What’s all this controversy about sex in your writing?
“I don’t actually think there is so much sex but at least I’m getting less flak for it now than I used to. I think it had to do originally with people finding out I’d done sex films to support myself when I was buying time to write. I realised early on I was going to have to prostitute something and I was damned if it was going to be my mind. I just did a few films because I could live for a long time off the money.
“The sex in the writing has been sort of a pain in the ass but (grins) it’s not all innocent, either. I do think it’s funny to irritate people, get ’em a little bit upset. I mean, I like dumb humour, I like sex and people like to read ’em. I like to entertain people – I really do.”
There’s more about politics, though, than sex in your work.
“Well, you should only make up shit if you have a clear grounding for it. I think it’s as important as somebody working for the PLO writing on the PLO and realising that five million people may lose their lives if they say the wrong thing. But, Christ! Writers aren’t that way. They don’t think what they’re doin’ is important — and I ‘m not saying it should be important in a pompous way. It just should matter.
“People just can’t put it together that on the one hand I’m this intellectual engaged in these real experiments and on the other hand I use all this grotty material… It’s cliche, it’s habit — but if you write about sex or write a ‘spy story’ people think you’re dumb; if you’re in the rock business people think you’re dumb; if you say it’s some highfalutin’ shit the academics like, then great.”
Acker runs a hand through her rainbow-coloured locks.
This interview was first published in the New Musical Express early 1983