Kathy Acker (1971–1975)
(Éditions Ismael, 2019)
In the forward to Kathy Acker (1971–1975), editor Justin Gajoux lays out the scope and mission of the book: it is not a comprehensive account of Acker’s early unpublished work but, rather, a meticulously researched selection of typewritten texts that correspond to the author’s published output during those years. Culled primarily from the Acker archives at NYU’s Fales Library and Duke University’s Rubenstein Library, the texts are organized according to context, intention, and chronology. Selections include diary entries, letters, and transcriptions from performances shot on video. Weighing in at a hefty 656 pages, the elegantly designed compendium of the elusive author’s earliest mature writing offers not only a thoroughly-researched selection of early Acker deep cuts, but also a compelling addition to the extant criticism, providing detailed insight into the creative processes that entwined the author’s life and writing.
Acker’s friends and collaborators Alan Sondheim, Emily Cheng, Peter Gordon, and Jill Kroesen are afforded due space to explain their perspectives on Acker’s praxis, both in the form of contemporaneous reactions to their experiences with the author and more recently published statements on their collaborations, shedding light on the truly reciprocal creative relationships she maintained throughout her life. Further commentary is provided by two creatives whose practices overlap with many of Acker’s primary concerns: writer and performance artist Claire Finch’s essay and editorial commentary provides illuminating context and criticism to Acker’s experiments; and visual artist Anna Maria Pinaka applies her method of “porno-graphing”—that is, a means of examining the creative dynamics and myriad subjectivities of sexual imagery rendered via lens-based media—to Acker’s Blue Tape (1974) (also referred to as [Untitled Tape 1]), a video documenting sexual acts between Acker and poet Alan Sondheim interspersed with their discussion of the phenomenology of romantic relationships.
While the years in the book’s title correspond to Acker’s published output, the earliest texts included were actually composed in 1969, an early formative period when she was still attending UC San Diego and met fellow student Lenny Newfield, with whom she would move to New York and begin performing live sex shows at a venue in Times Square. Indeed, Kathy Acker (1971–1975) frames Acker’s sex work as a primary vehicle through which she recognized and subverted the power structures in both her life and writing during these years, and Gajoux’s essay examines the effect her sex work had on the formation of her understanding of subjectivity. The filmed sexual interactions between Acker and Sondheim (who she met in 1974) are highlighted as a turning point for the young writer; a particularly revelatory 1974 letter from Acker to Sondheim wonders, “How close can I get to someone? Will we become each other? …I thought we could send each other as much information about ourselves as possible, not only [via] tape, written, video, but also overwriting, redoing…establishing complicated feedback relations.”
Many of the writings feature various structural language experiments, which often read as a cinematic, stream-of-consciousness sequences but are actually montages of her fantasies and memories interspersed with narratives sourced from other literature or the memories of people with whom she interacted, including fellow sex workers. These sections are enriched by Acker’s often exhaustive documentation of her daily life; her diaristic sensibility is perfectly suited to reflect the truly fragmentary nature of memory, as well as its inherent, ongoing mutability. In such passages as “Stripper Disintegration” (1973), the nascent style for which she would become known later in the decade and throughout the 1980s is apparent, if not fully formed:
in a huge white stone room hidden passages at all ends I’m at an orgy […] I press a button a second door slides up someone’s in there we go into the opposite room I sit on the sidelines the Satanists move down the center of the way their head is a woman beautiful! yellow hair man’s face smooth muscles I’m in love with her she walks over to me […] I want her to crush me in her arms her people are trying to poison us I have to return home she lets me fly […] I disintegrate I’m a criminal and pervert it doesn’t matter who I am anymore
Kathy Acker (1971–1975) emphasizes the extent to which the writer was motivated to enact her own approach to montage, not only as a method of writing, but of living; for her, dreams, memories, sex, performing, and literature coalesce into a paragon for a punk sensibility, yet, as Gajoux is careful to draw out, one based on an earnest desire to upset the social structures that oppress—rather than the mere nihilism through which much of the criticism of the movement is often discussed. The book does perhaps the best of its illustrious canon to testify, rather than discuss or pay homage, to the truly palimpsestic nature of both Acker’s life and her work. As sprawling as it is vivid, Kathy Acker (1971–1975) demonstrates the necessarily recursive methods through which Acker’s sexuality and writing affected one another in an organic, often agitated, and nearly always political manner.