A Conversation with Kathy Acker By Ellen G. Friedman

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1989, Volume 9.3

ELLEN G. FRIEDMAN: I’d like to begin with your novel Don Quixote. The epigraph to Part II of Don Quixote reads, “Being dead, Don Quixote could no longer speak. Being born into and part of a male world, she had no speech of her own. All she could do was read male texts which weren’t hers.” In your parodies and plagiaristic writing, are you that Don Quixote reading male texts?

KATHY ACKER: There’s a certain amount of ironic distance between me and Don Quixote, a distance that varies, but at that point in the text, I’d say, yeah, I am.

EGF: In “reading” Don Quixote, you’re a woman reading Don Quixote. Is it a way of appropriating the language for women?

KA: Not really. I had the actual copy of Don Quixote, and as a kind of joke, simply made the change from male to female to see what would happen. I don’t think there was much more behind it than this direct and simple move. Whenever I use “I,” I am and I am not that “I.” It’s a little bit like the theater: I’m an actress and that’s the role I’m taking on.

EGF: There’s a great deal of overt feminism in your work. You do appropriate a lot of male texts and that’s an issue in your work. I’d like you to comment on that aspect of your work.

KA: When I did Don Quixote, what I really wanted to do was a Sherrie Levine painting. I’m fascinated by Sherrie’s work.

EGF: What fascinated you about Sherrie’s work?

KA: What I was interested in was what happens when you just copy something, without any reason—not that there’s no theoretical justification for what Sherrie does—but it was the simple fact of copying that fascinated me. I wanted to see whether I could do something similar with prose. I came to plagiarism from another point of view, from exploring schizophrenia and identity, and I wanted to see what pure plagiarism would look like, mainly because I didn’t understand my fascination with it. I picked Don Quixote as a subject really by chance. I think it was a bit incidental, perhaps consciously incidental, that it was a male text. When I grew up I went to an all-girls’ school. By the time I first heard of feminism, I was in college. I never really thought about feminism until I got older and realized that the society was deeply sexist. I don’t consciously write as a feminist, although there are a few places in Don Quixote where I was dealing with Andrea Dworkin. There is an attack on Andrea Dworkin in Don Quixote, not her personally (in fact I saw her on a TV show and quite admired how she stood up for feminism), but on her dualistic argument that men are responsible for all the evil in the world. Her views go beyond sexism. She blames the act of penetration in sexual intercourse. I find that not only mad but dangerous. With all the problems in the world, such a view doesn’t do feminism any good. But as a rule I haven’t thought, “I am a woman, a feminist, and I’m going to appropriate a male text.” What happens is that I frame my work way after I write it. The epigraph you quoted at the beginning comes out of my asking, “Why did I write all of these texts?” In fact, I wrote the second part of Don Quixote first by rewriting texts, out of a Sherrie Levine-type impulse. Then I wrote the first and third parts later. The Lulu segment had been commissioned by Pete Brooks as a play. And I think I did the Leopardi part early on as well. Then I actually had an abortion. While I was waiting to have the abortion, I was reading Don Quixote. Because I couldn’t think, I just started copying Don Quixote. Then I had all these pieces and I thought about how they fit together. I realized that Don Quixote, more than any of my other books, is about appropriating male texts and that the middle part of Don Quixote is very much about trying to find your voice as a woman. So whatever feminism is there is almost an afterthought, which does not invalidate the feminism in any way. I don’t say, “I’m a feminist,” therefore I’m going to do such and such. A complaint people have had about my work is that I’m not working from a moralistic or ideological tradition. I take materials and only at the end do I find out what’s going on in my writing. For instance, while writing it, I never considered that Blood and Guts in High School is especially anti-male, but people have been very upset about it on that ground. When I wrote it I think it was in my mind to do a traditional narrative. I thought it was kind of sweet at the time, but of course it’s not.

EGF: Sweet is not an adjective I would use to describe it.

KA: It’s about kids and kids are sweet. I was really in kid time when I wrote that. So that’s a very roundabout way of answering your question.

EGF: What about the schizophrenia and plagiarism. You said that was your original way into plagiarism.

KA: When I first started writing, I was influenced by poetry, mainly the Black Mountain school of poetry, so there’s a bit of poetry in that book. I was searching for my own medium. The middle section of the book interested me more than the other sections because I was working in a sex show, and this middle section was based on sex shows, diaries of sex shows. I was very influenced by Burroughs, so I was really writing out of a kind of “third mind,” through Burroughs and the sex show diaries. It was during the hippie days when sex was fun, when everybody slept with everyone else. I had another point of view, having seen it from the 42nd Street angle. I became politicized.

EGF: You say Burroughs was an influence on you.

KA: Oh, he was my first major influence.

EGF: Can you say what in Burroughs you admire or took?

KA: I came out of a poetry world. My education was Black Mountain school—Charles Olson, Jerry Rothenberg, and David Antin were my teachers. But I didn’t want to write poetry. I wanted to write prose and there weren’t many prose writers around who were using the ways of working of poets I was influenced by. Their concerns certainly weren’t narrative in any way. Any prose writer, even if he doesn’t use narrative the way narrative is traditionally used, is concerned with narrative. I mean the reader has to go from A to Z and it’s going to take a long time and that’s narrative. There’s no way to get around it; that’s the form.

EGF: So Burroughs seemed a natural?

KA: There were Burroughs and Kerouac really. I love to read Kerouac, but Burroughs is the more intellectual. He was considering how language is used and abused within a political context. That’s what interested me. The stuff about his relation to women and all that was really secondary for me to the main work, books like The Third Mind. I was also looking for a way to integrate both sides of my life. I was connected to the St. Mark’s poetry people at the time. On the one hand, there were the poetry people, who were basically upper-middle-class, and on the other, there was the 42nd Street crowd. I wanted to join the two parts of my life, though they seemed very un-joinable. As if I were split. Of course, the links were political.

EGF: There were political links between the two?

KA: A political context was the only way to talk about the link between them. Politics was the cause of the divergence. It was a question of class and also of sexism. The poetry world at that time denied any of this. Sexism wasn’t an issue, class, forget it. Money—we’re all starving hippies—ha, ha. That I worked in a sex show for money was not acceptable at all, despite the free love rhetoric. Warhol was interested in this convergence as well. I knew Warhol people who worked on 42nd Street, and his was the only group that did any crossover. He was interested in sex hype, transsexuals, strippers, and so forth.

EGF: What attracted you to 42nd Street? Was it the political aspect you’ve been talking about?

KA: Oh, no. I just needed money. I had gotten out of university and I had nowhere to go.

EGF: Where did you study?

KA: At Brandeis, at UCSD, and a little bit at CCNY and NYU.

EGF: We were talking about your early work.

KA: The first work I really showed anyone is The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula.

EGF: What about the schizophrenia?

KA: The thing about schizophrenia: I used a lot of autobiographical material in Black Tarantula. I put autobiographical material next to material that couldn’t be autobiographical. The major theme was identity, the theme I used from Tarantula through Toulouse The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec, the end of the trilogy. After that, I lost interest in the problem of identity. The problem had for me in a sense been solved by that trilogy. After that I became interested in plagiarism, working with other texts.

EGF: What comprises the trilogy?

KA: The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac, and Toulouse Lautrec.

EGF: And this trilogy was about identity? In Tarantula there’s a constant metamorphosing “I.” It’s a very unstable “I.

KA: Well, it’s a very simple experiment in Tarantula. When one first encounters the “I” in Tarantula, it’s the autobiographical “I.” Then the “I” takes on other, non-autobiographical qualities and gradually the invisible parentheses around the “I” dissolve and the experiment in identity proceeds from that. In Nymphomaniac, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t even thinking about how language works. So I began to explore language, how language works within the parameters of a particular problem. I began to work with memory and with repetition. How does the reader remember, or what does the reader remember when you repeat something over and over again? How do language and memory work even in the most well constructed, logical texts?

EGF: Do you know that Books in Print lists your books twice? It lists Black Tarantula by an author called Black Tarantula and then has a listing for Black Tarantula by Kathy Acker. The same with Toulouse.

KA: In those days, we did a lot with performance. We performed for each other. This was in the same vein. I put Black Tarantula in the phone book. Much of women’s art had to do with performance and identity. At art parties at the time, there was a lot of cross dressing, playing with gender and with identity.

EGF: Let’s get back to Don Quixote. You know, of course, that Borges also has his Don Quixote story. Were you playing with both Cervantes and Borges?

KA: Not really. I reread Borges’s story somewhat toward the end of writing my Don Quixote.

EGF: Here’s a quote from Don Quixote having to do with semiotics: “What it really did was give me a language with which I could speak about my work. Before that I had no way of discussing what I did, of course I did it, and my friends who were doing similar work—we had no way of talking to each other” (54). Was there an element of truth in that statement?

KA: I felt very isolated as part of the art world; I could never talk about my work until the punk movement came along and then I don’t know for what reason or what magic thing happened, but suddenly everyone started working together along the same lines. But we had no way of explaining what we were doing to each other. We were fascinated with Pasolini’s and Bataille’s work, but there was no way of saying why or how. So Sylvdre Lotringer came to New York. His main teachers were Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze and somewhat Foucault. That’s why I didn’t want to use the word “semiotics” because it’s slightly inaccurate. He was looking in New York for the equivalent of that scene, which wasn’t quite Derrida’s scene. What he picked on was the art world, especially our group, which was a kind of punk offshoot.

EGF: Who was in your group?

KA: Well, there were my friends Betsy Sussler who now does Bomb, Michael McClark, Robin Winters, Seth Tillett. People who started the Mud Club. Bands were forming, such as X, Mars, and the Erasers. Bands with ties to Richard Held, Lydia Lunch. Very much the Contortions. It was that amalgam of people he found. Sylvere started hanging out at our parties. I knew nothing about Foucault and Baudrillard. He’s the one that introduced me to them, introduced everyone to them. But it wasn’t from an academic point of view, and it certainly wasn’t from a Lacanian point of view or even from Derrida. It was much more political. When he did the Italian version of Semiotext(e), there were very close ties with the Autonomia, and it was very political. When I went over to France, friends of mine were working on the Change. There were connections with Bifo and Radio Alice. For the first time we had a way of talking about what we were doing. It was mainly, for me, about decentralization, and in Don Quixote I worked with theories of decentralization.

EGF: Empire of the Senseless seems to indicate a new direction for you. For instance, the plagiarism is not so apparent.

KA: Empire is a new direction, but I did use a number of other texts to write it, though the plagiarism is much more covered, hidden. Almost all the book is taken from other texts,

EGF: What other texts?

KA: I’ve used tons of other texts—sometimes it’s just a phrase. You know I’ve gotten very good at it. There’s a lot of Genet for instance. The beginning is based on Neuromancer, a book by William Gibson. But from page to page, I’ve adapted a lot of other texts. I couldn’t even say exactly. The first part is based on the oedipal complex and of course, there’s a lot of Freud in it. At first, I was going to name everyone after Freud’s patients, but I didn’t do that for all the characters. The first chapter is, on the whole, de Sade because I thought if anyone has to find the oedipal society, it’s de Sade. He was quite a brilliant man in that as he personified evil, he was at the same time reflecting what was going on in society. The first chapter of Part 11 is about the Haitian revolution and about voodoo, and then there’s A Thousand and One Nights and there’s some Genet. The reason for these particular texts is that I try to find writers who describe the particular place I want to get to. The third part of Empire is Huckleberry Finn. That’s one of the primary American texts about freedom and about how you live free in a society that isn’t.

EGF: What is the new direction you’ve taken with Empire?

KA: The search for a myth to live by. The purpose is constructive rather than deconstructive as in Don Quixote. What I particularly like about Empire of the Senseless is the characters are alive. For instance, in Blood and Guts, Janey Smith was a more cardboard figure. But I could sit down and have a meal with Abhor. However, it was the structure that really interested me, the three part structure. The first part is an elegy for the world of patriarchy. I wanted to take the patriarchy and kill the father on every level. And I did that partially by finding out what was taboo and rendering it in words. The second part of the book concerns what society would look like if it weren’t defined by oedipal considerations and the taboos were no longer taboo. I went through every taboo, or tried to, to see what society would be like without these taboos. Unfortunately, the CIA intervenes; I couldn’t get there. I wanted to get there but I couldn’t. The last section, “Pirate Night,” is about wanting to get to a society that is taboo, but realizing that it’s impossible. The CIA is symbolic.

EGF: The CIA is symbolic of what?

KA: That you can’t isolate yourself from the world. Two examples: Say, the hippie movement in which the goal was that you make things better by isolating yourself from society and going your own way. The same sort of thing with the separatist feminists. You form your own group. In the end you pull things that way a little, but it can’t work successfully. Neither one is in any way a viable model of true separation. It’s impossible. In the same way you try to imagine or construct a society that wasn’t constructed according to the myth of the central phallus. It’s just not possible when you live in this world. That’s what I wanted to do in the second section of Empire, but the CIA kept coming in. That’s what I mean by the CIA being symbolic. It could have been anybody. So I ended up with “Pirate Night,” You can’t get to a place, to a society, that isn’t constructed according to the phallus. You’re stuck with a lot of loneliness, so how do you deal with that isolation and loneliness? The third part concerns that issue. Also I’m looking for a myth. I’m looking for it where no one else is looking. That’s why I’m so interested in Pasolini.

EGF: The myth never surfaces?

KA: The myth to me is pirates.

EGF: Pirates is the myth?

KA: Yes. It’s like the tattoo. The most positive thing in the book is the tattoo. It concerns taking over, doing your own sign-making. In England (I don’t know if it’s so much true here), the tattoo is very much a sign of a certain class and certain people, a part of society that sees itself as outcast, and shows it. For me tattooing is very profound. The meeting of body and, well, the spirit—it’s a real kind of art, it’s on the skin. It’s both material and not material and it’s also a sign of the outcast. So that’s what I’m saying about looking for the myth with people like that—tattoo artists, sailors, pirates.

EGF: They represent the outcasts?

KA: Not just outcasts—outcasts could be bums—but people who are beginning to take their own sign-making into their own hands. They’re conscious of their own sign-making, signifying values really.

EGF: The wordplay in the book is quite wonderful, the relation between “tattoo” and “taboo,” for instance. That’s one of the things I was going to ask you about, tattooing. Is the tattooist an image of the writer?

KA: No, the tattooist is an image of the tattooist. I’m much more simple. The tattooist is the tattooist. The tattooist is my tattooist. I’m heavily tattooed.

EGF: But you were just talking about the tattooist as a sign-maker.

KA: Oh, the writer could do the same thing. I’m fascinated with the relationship between language and body. That’s something not many people have started working with, I’m interested in the material aspect of the tattoo. I admire Pierre Guyotat because he’s very much concerned with the body as text. This business of “When I write I masturbate.” Erotic texts at their best—I don’t mean pornographic, which is something else—are very close to the body; they’re following desire. That’s not always true of the writer, whereas it’s always true that the tattooist has to follow the body. That’s the medium of the tattoo. If you’re looking for values, it’s where the ground would be for real value. Whereas the ground for the values we have now, such as religion, there’s no reality to it, especially the evangelical movements, other than politics. It’s now something very sick. I have that feeling about the whole spectrum of what’s going on in America, from malls to religion, it’s very sick. It’s not real.

EGF: Why did you leave the United States’

KA: Not enough money.

EGF: You do better in London?

KA: It’s better for a writer over there, for me. There I’m an accepted writer. Here it was very difficult; I was sort of an adjunct to the art world. I really wanted to get out of New York. I’m forty now. I was thirty-seven when I got out of New York. I was feeling that my life was never going to change. To survive in New York is to be a little like those hamsters on a wheel, the wheel turns faster and faster. I felt that either I had to get very famous, just as a calling card for survival—I had to write movie scripts, I had to do whatever writers do here, write for popular magazines—or else become like a lot of poets I know who are very bitter about their poverty. And I don’t want either alternative. What I like is the middle ground. And I didn’t see it possible to maintain that middle ground.

EGF: And it is possible in London?

KA: Yes, very much. It’s a very literary society and you don’t want for money, so you can work.

EGF: Do you have a community of writers whose style of writing is closer to yours than here in America?

KA: No, I’m probably closer to people here. I have very good friends in London, but the people I’m closest to are people here.

EGF: Are there any contemporary writers whose work you’re following?

KA: Oh, I have friends who are wonderful writers, Lynne Tillman and Catherine Texier—very much I’m following their careers. I was just sent a novel by Sara Schulman called After Dolores, which is just lovely. But what would be the feminist writers in England don’t interest me that much.

EGF: Too ideological?

KA: No, it’s not too ideological; I don’t mind that. It’s just social realists. It’s too much, “I used to be in a bad nuclear marriage and now I’m a happy lesbian.” It’s diary stuff and the diary doesn’t go anywhere, and there’s not enough work with language.

EGF: I understand.

KA: I’m more interested in the European novel now. Pierre Guyotat. Duras’s work interests me. Some of Violet Leduc, early Monique Wittig. Some of de Beauvoir’s writing, Nathalie Sarraute. There is Elsa Morante’s writing. Luisa Valenzuela, I like her work. Laure, an amazing woman, a French woman from the upper classes who lived with Georges Bataille. Wonderful writer.

EGF: In Pasolini there are letters from Emily to Charlotte. Why the Bronte’s?

KA: Because they were Catholic.

EGF: Because they were Catholic?

KA: Well, anything Catholic was the point. You see, I was setting up the text so that all the connections were based on nominalism. So about Pasolini’s childhood, the son/sun pun became important, anything that had to do with the son, the son is Catholic, Pasolini was Catholic.

EGF: That’s fascinating. Can you talk a little more about that?

KA: The book’s structured that way. I think it’s probably unreadable, but it fascinated me to write it.

EGF: No, not at all. It’s one of my favorites.

KA: The idea fascinated me. I’ll never do it again. It’s as far into structure as I’ll ever go. I wanted to fashion a book out of different ways of ordering that weren’t causal. Again, I was fighting against oedipal structuring. The first part of the book is about the death and the second about the life of Pasolini. So there were two sections to death and life: In “Death” I was fascinated by his murder and also by the media around his murder. In the media, the idea advanced was “porn maker, homosexual” murdered in gory, homosexual murder. Everything was covered over at the trial. I was fascinated with why the media sensationalized it, what they were getting out of it. I always wanted to write a crummy crime book. It started out that way. I was going to write an Agatha Christie version of Pasolini’s murder.

EGF: An Agatha Christie version?

KA: It just started out that way.

EGF: It’s far from Agatha Christie, though.

KA: The first books I ever read came from my mother’s collection. My mother had porn books and Agatha Christie, so when I was six years old, I’d hide the porn books between the covers of Agatha Christie. They are my favorite models, the books I read as a kid. That’s why I originally became a writer—to write Agatha Christie-type books, but my mind is fucked up. I was going to write the Agatha Christie version of Pasolini’s death. But it didn’t turn out as planned. I picked three ways of solving the murder, I wanted a non-political way of solving it. So I picked three categories: sex, language, and violence. They had to be three appropriate categories. The way of solving it was by way of nominalism. Once I had the categories, anything went. Once I had the category sex, anything went that was about sex. Language was any language experiment, so I played with language school theory. In the end I wasn’t so much interested in solving his death as I was interested in his life. As I got into solving his murder, I didn’t learn how he died, so much was covered over. What I did learn was how multileveled he was. He was a man whose life was his work. He would always make the material of the body his subject. He never allowed people to ignore the body. He didn’t exploit the body as many thought. As I became more and more involved in his work, the “My Life” section of my novel became more important. The influence of Pasolini’s theories on my work is particularly important. He refused to separate genres-film, poetry, criticism. He refused to separate body and mind. When he was an old man he demanded that a series of pornographic pictures be taken of him.

EGF: Who’s your ideal reader? Do you like academic readers?

KA: I don’t imagine an ideal reader. I write for myself and maybe my friends. Although as I give readings more and more, I try and see whether the audience is bored. So in that way I’m aware of an audience. There has to be that element of entertainment, really, or there’s limited accessibility. So I do care about my readers in that way. Academics-I feel a confusion about academia.

EGF: You’ve come out of the academy?

KA: I absolutely hate it. I’ve seen too many English departments destroy people’s delight in reading. Once something becomes academic it’s taken on this level—take the case of semiotics and postmodernism. When I was first introduced to the work of Foucault and Deleuze, it was very political; it was about what was happening to the economy and about changing the political system. By the time it was taken up by the American academy, the politics had gone to hell. It became an exercise for some professors to make their careers. You know, it’s just more of the same: the culture is there to uphold the post capitalist society, and the idea that art has nothing to do with politics is a wonderful construction in order to mask the deep political significance that art has—to uphold the empire in terms of its representation as well as its actual structure.

EGF: What do you mean “in terms of its representation”?

KA: In England, for instance, they don’t have an empire anymore though they refuse to recognize that fact. What they have is Milton and Shakespeare. Their attitude toward Milton and Shakespeare is something absolutely incredible. A person’s speech denotes his class. Those who can speak Milton and Shakespeare are in the top class. It goes much deeper than this, obviously. The literary world should be a populist world, it should be the world in which any class can discuss itself. But in England, the literary world is so tightly bound to the Oxford-Cambridge system. Nobody but nobody gets into that world who hasn’t come from Oxbridge. It assures that its representation of itself always comes from its upper class. And those classes which are not Oxbridge have no representation of themselves except in fashion and rock and roll. So you really have two Englands: one represented by fashion and rock and roll, and one is the literary representation.

EGF: That’s very true for England, but not so much for the U.S.

KA: No, but I still think there’s an element of it here.

EGF: Fostered by the academy?

KA: Yes.

EGF: So when you get a book that’s experimental or postmodernist …

KA: I think that sometimes the word “experimental” has been used to hide the political radicalness of some writers. Oh, they’re “experimental,” that means they’re not really important.

EGF: They’re marginal?

KA: What this society does is marginalize artists. ” Oh, artists, they have nothing to do with politics.” So the experimental—it’s a way of saying things. I hate this way of saying things. I want to say “fuck, shit, prick.” That’s my way of talking, that’s my way of saying “I hate you.” But what they’re doing is marginalizing the experimental and that’s why I hate the word “experimental.” It’s another form of sticking people into the corner.

EGF: You grew up in New York?

KA: Yes.

EGF: Manhattan?

KA: Yes, 57th Street and First Avenue.

EGF: Ever married?

KA: Married twice. The second marriage ended ten years ago.

EGF: What hasn’t been noticed about your work?

KA: Well, I’ll use the word “experimentalism,” my work with language and postmodernism—that’s been noticed about my work—it’s been noticed quite a bit now. Feminists hate me. Well, that’s not true anymore, Ten years ago, I was damned by them. But even in England, they are finding something to like in my work.

EGF: Here in America you’ve certainly been praised by feminists.

KA: In England the complaint is that I’m a “bad” writer. The sex is OK, but they mind my coming out against the literary culture.

EGF: Are you a bad writer purposefully?

KA: Yes, sure—”piss, fuck, shit” scrawled over a page—sure, of course. This appalls the literary establishment. When I appeared on a radio program, the announcer said, “We now have Kathy Acker, the author of Blood and Guts. She’s the most evil person in the world.”

EGF: That really happened?

KA: Sure, that happened, though it’s hard to believe. Another time, I was interviewed on radio by an upper-middle-class woman who said, “Why do you talk about poverty all the time?” and I said, ” I’ve been very poor. ” The disparity between the classes is really pronounced in England, so they parade me as a freak, that’s the role I play for them. Here, it’s not as true.

EGF: What are you working on now?

KA: The book I’m working on now, a third of which is finished, is a life of Rimbaud. I chose Rimbaud because I wanted to remember who influenced me, to explore the history of the imagination, and of dreaming and of art, how art can matter politically in the society. For me, one lineage that I’ve come out of is that of Rimbaud. So to investigate Rimbaud is to go back to the beginning for me. He saw myth as a way out of the mess I was talking about to you before.

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