Ex-pat New Zealand writer Rubén Reyes has been living in
London for the last couple of years. At the beginning of 1997 he was
lucky enough to be granted an interview with novelist Kathy Acker,
with a view to it's being published in the Writing issue of LOG. At
that time Kathy Acker had been diagnosed as having cancer, but her
relentless pursuit of alternative treatment seemed to be working. Sadly,
Acker died in December 1997, and so this remains as a posthumous tribute.
RIP Kathy Acker.
RR - I've been reading Blood and Guts in High School and In
Memoriam to Identity, and one thing that came up for me was the sense
of the characters being damaged in some way.
Kathy Acker - Blood and Guts in High School was written during
punk days, based on my memories back then. I think of these characters
less as being "damaged" and more as vulnerable. People wore their
hearts on their sleeve, and they did it rather proudly. I mean the hippies
had come before, and their whole idea was that they could have the perfect
society, and I think there was a reaction against that. It wasn't working
because people weren't taking account of things like frailty, you know,
and how people were, like deciding that within the realm of sex and love
there would be no such thing as jealousy. There was a revolt, not against idealism,
but that kind of idealism. The punks ended up saying, look, I do
have these faults, I have these eccentricities, these peculiar habits,
you know, I like these things that I shouldn't like. There's a great deal
of joy in doing what I shouldn't be doing!
RR - Reading your work made me think about Georges Bataille's notion
Kathy Acker - Yeah, Bataille's been a great influence on me. I think
that when you distinguish between the workaday world and the holiday world
in a reaction to Marxism, rather than economics being the only ground,
we have to look for a different ground and start talking about the need
for a holiday, something other than just work and plodding.
RR - I suppose we could fit that to some sort of notion of fixity...
Kathy Acker - Fixity?
RR- I'm just thinking of the collage style of cutting things up,
say the identity of the work or the identity of the protagonist... it's
a move away from any sort of essence, isn't it?
Kathy Acker- Yeah, but my stuff isn't so much about collage...The
generation before me did a lot of very serious collage work, John Cage
and Jackson McLough, and on the other hand William Burroughs, and my work
was never quite collage in the same way as their's was, what I'd call `straight'
collage. If you go back to the first and second phase of cubism, their's
was very much like the first phase. But I always had a whole bunch of reasons,
all different in every book, about why I was putting sections in the way
that I was. So I wasn't working the way a `conventional' novelist usually
works. I wasn't working with linear narratives. But I never did chance
work and I never worked the way William Burroughs worked, which was to
basically try to destroy the word by cutting it up.
RR - Is there a destructive impulse in there?
Kathy Acker- Oh yeah, sure. It's a kids' thing, like building a
house of blocks and then watching it all come tumbling down. It's kind
of playful, but is there a murderous impulse? No.
RR - It's a funny level on which to play, because I can see that
playfulness, but I can imagine that a lot of readers would either not experience
that playfulness or would be too involved with the subject matter to get
Kathy Acker - That's quite true. I think it depends on the extent
the books were either cult or not cult. When the books are cult the readers
who come to them pretty much are people who understand that playfulness,
and the less they become cult, the more widespread the audience, then of
course people become upset and have problems with the playfulness.
RR- Has your readership increased?
Kathy Acker- Yes, over the years, sure. That's the way things go.
RR- What do you want to do now?
Kathy Acker- Probably starting another novel based on Orpheus and
Euridice, a non-fiction book.
RR- I've been thinking about the identity of the novel, and also
the identity of the characters as played with by the author, and I was
thinking about all these New Age approaches to the self, which allow for
more flexibility than previously. With respects to who you are, I wondered
if that's a natural progression you've been getting into, since you've
been doing something with healers...
Kathy Acker- Well, I've always been interested in psychics. I was
working with psychics before I got cancer, but I think that the basis of
a lot of my books, not all of them of course, has been a journey, so it
makes sense that I should open that up and investigate it more. My Mother
Demonology is very much the journey through death. That book is based
on Bataille, or rather on his major girlfriend. It's all in the voice of
this really incredible woman named Lara who greatly influenced Bataille's
RR- With that voyaging aspect, do you see novels as an exploration?
Kathy Acker - I don't see all novels that way obviously. I see my
own that way. I kind of see that the novel is a dying form the way it is.
I don't think that writing is dying, but I think it's hard for people
to read novels now, on the whole. They don't have the leisure, people work
too hard, they come home tired, it's easier to turn on the computer, or
whatever. I got interested because I don't think there are certain things
in the novel that are very vibrant now.
I think whatever's called New Age has picked up on a lot of that. Certain Jungians
have picked up on that...the movement in and out of objective reality, those
things are getting more and more interesting, but most of the people who are
hitting on them aren't really novelists.
RR- I hadn't read any of your stuff before coming over to England,
it's nice hitting upon a hardness, whereas New Age is generally known to
be quite soft. You can imagine losing that spark, trying to achieve personal
health or psychic balance or whatever you call it. The themes are interesting,
but to lose that energy...
Kathy Acker- I think that we're just at the beginning, you know,
and there haven't been a lot of major minds coming to it yet. A lot of
the stuff that the publishers are hitting upon is not the hard stuff, but
I think it's starting to come out.
RR- My major interest is poetry, which is what I've come to your
books from. I've read quite a lot of Steve McCaffery's work, do you know
Kathy Acker- He's from Toronto? He's one of the Four Horsemen? Yeah,
I know their work from a long time ago.
RR- Yeah. He and B. P. Nichol did a book called The Toronto Research
Group Reports, which is quite a lot like Blood and Guts in High
School, in a way, it has the drawings. He's got a book of essays called North
of Intention which has essays on Canadian poets, drawing a lot on Christeva,
Bataille. He posits the idea of re-educating the reader, he gives a Marxist
critique of signification, saying that the reader is alienated from meaning
because it's only ever a matter of extracting meaning from what the author
has put there.
I wonder about your attempts to reinscribe the reader back into that process
of creating meaning.
Kathy Acker- It's hard for me to comment on it because I haven't
read what he said. My work is so isolated from any politics. My books were
written first of all pretty much for me, and for the small community around
me. My friends would get it, right.
I never really understood why the books became as popular as they did. I could
see why they would be cult books really clearly, because they were for certain
communities, away from those communities it's hard for me to say what people
would get out of them.
As far as I can see they were kind of like journeys, most of them, there were
a few exceptions, and people would either get it or they wouldn't.
It wasn't a question of meaning, it was a question of; you go on a trip and you
find that every trip is different for everybody. And I was just setting up the
drug you could go on a trip with.
RR- How important is the imagination in all of that?
Kathy Acker- Real important. Imagination is way more important than
I never wrote a passage to say "Hey, I'm going to say this about abortion," or "I'm
going to say this about men and women."
It was rather that I would put down a lot of the area between men and women which
was problematic, and there's going to be good stuff and bad stuff.
I'm starting to put down stuff where I don't even know what I think about it,
RR - That's nice, that you don't have that control.
Kathy Acker - Yeah! Well that's why I write, cause I get
confused. So it's as if to say, boy, if I put this all down, maybe I can
get a handle on it.
RR- At the recent readings at the Slaughterhouse Gallery, what did
you think of Bill Drummond's work?
Kathy Acker- Obviously it was offensive and all that, but I have
a real fondness for that stuff, I think the guy was honest. I think he
made an honest attempt to put something down a lot of guys wouldn't put
down. And I think in the long run it was kind of sad, it was sad to reduce
everything to genitals, to ovaries.
It was sad to see that the greatest thing in his world is the creation
of other humans and not the other kinds of creation. To me the world's
not limited to
that physical aspect. So to me it was sad to think that he was caught in that
bind. He was saying "Look how sexist I am," with all the bravado there,
and I thought, he's trying to act really stupid, and trying to do the
punk thing, but I don't think he's that stupid.
RR- I felt that people were becoming quite uncomfortable, a woman
said something at some stage, but I thought despite what he was saying
there was something going on there which will be addressed, whether it
be in the next five or ten years, it's an issue that conversations have
to be created around.
Kathy Acker - Yeah, I agree. I felt he definitely said something
about the uncomfortableness of straight men right now. I found this book
of Bill Drummond's really interesting reading. Certainly one of the liveliest
things I've seen come out lately.
RR - Who else are your influences?
Kathy Acker - Oh God, a lot of people, partly that crew, I mean
Foucault was very influenced by Bataille, so it's that whole lineage, Rimbaud,
Genet, of course William Burroughs. I've done some readings with Bill and
I know him.
RR - With In Memoriam to Identity, the Rimbaud/Verlaine stuff,
how does that tie in to Capital?
Kathy Acker - You know it's really three short stories that I wanted
to do. The first short story is Rimbaud, and I was going to write
a book only on Rimbaud, but when I got to a particular part of his life
it was too yucky to write about the part where he went off and ended up
doing a little white slave trade.
RR - I got the sense that he transformed into the characters from
the other two segments.
Kathy Acker - No, no, it's just that I was reading William Faulkner
at the time. I was really curious how in Plyon he has two stories
and they just go ABABAB. So I thought I'd do that with Capital and Airplane.
I wrote the Rimbaud thing, I was going to do a whole book on Rimbaud
but I got to the point where I thought, "I don't want to write any
more," and then I start writing Capital and Airplane.
Those two stories were written simultaneously, so I just did the William
Faulkner thing going ABABAB.
RR - Do you do that as an author, stop half way?
Kathy Acker - Yes! Sure. I mean Faulkner did it. I was really into
RR- I couldn't quite work out the connection with Rimbaud and Faulkner.
Kathy Acker- There was none! It was really like three stories that
were separate except that the last two were cut into each other. There
was one central story, and all three stories were mirroring that central
story, but that's just like my little idea of how they fit in together.
RR- How does the plagiarism thing work?
Kathy Acker- Well I just use other text. I use other texts in all
sorts of ways;
I might use a character, I might use part of a plot line, I might use a sentence...
RR- And that's something you've always done?
Kathy Acker- Yeah, it's kind of like the way cubists use other materials.
I can't write without doing that, you know? I don't like blank pages.
RR- Are you going back to the States to teach now?
Kathy Acker - Yeah, that's why I'm so tired. I'm, basically sitting
on Campus at a girls college. I teach one course a week. It's not bad,
but it's sort of isolated. I'm not sure I'll be able to get food, the campus
is ten miles from the nearest food store. Much less a movie house.
What kind of magazine is it you're interviewing me for?
RR - It's an art magazine from New Zealand.
Kathy Acker - You know I'm banned from New Zealand. Blood and Guts is
banned, you can't buy it in New Zealand. Students at the University of Auckland
tried to get the ban rescinded, and they couldn't do it. I have the court case
RR- I haven't been able to read it on the tube because of the pictures.
What's your favourite of your own books?
Kathy Acker- Probably Pussy, the latest one, and then, Empire
of the Senseless.