Kevin Killian on Queer Art and Coming of Age in New York
Quinn Roberts Interviews the Eclectic, Influential Poet and Writer
In the story “Spurt” from his 2009 collection Impossible Princess, Kevin Killian employs a trick that would have gotten him banished from your traditional workshop: “Ever been really drunk, in a room full of mirrors? . . . That’s you—Kevin. You stroke the warm cock in your hand, you can’t decide if it’s yours or another’s. Click. The second person slips into the third. Kevin rose suddenly, the chenille bedspread sticking to his butt, and made his way unsteadily towards the far end of the room . . . He thought it was marvelous.”
Killian’s transition from second to third person is audacious, considering “Spurt” begins in the first. I can practically hear my own workshop rattle off something about craft, technique, rules, etc. And yet, why should Killian listen? “Spurt” is a joyride, wacky and cartoonish and erotically-charged, yet it moves deftly to a devastating, profoundly true destination. It is authentic storytelling, your MFA be damned.
Whether in fiction, poetry, editing, theater, or art, Killian has played by his own rules since the late 80s, producing an eclectic, influential body of work. He returned last year with two books: the poetry collection Tony Greene Era (Wonder, 2017), and the anthology Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997 (Nightboat, 2017), co-edited with poet and critic Dodie Bellamy (Killian’s wife). These two texts share a “ritualistic” goal to bring forth the contributions of artists and writers that have been forgotten or discredited due to academic gatekeeping, a conservative political climate, or the public’s short attention spans.
Killian and I also spoke about his beginnings as a writer, his notions of queer art and literature, the similarities between Donald Trump and book publishers, and the social and political role of a writer in gay male culture.
Quinn Roberts: What is the story behind your new poetry collection? What inspired and motivated you to write it?
Kevin Killian: Tony Greene Era takes its title from my love of the late California artist Tony Greene, who died of AIDS in 1990 at age 35. Even if you don’t know its particulars, Greene’s story is familiar to every artist, that at his death his work was completely forgotten by the art world, and remained so for 25 years or so, until his peers—his cohorts at Cal Arts, and likeminded individuals—attained their own power and fame and they could then bring Tony Greene “back” by staging some key exhibitions. For example, getting him included at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. It seemed like a visionary use of power for good, in contrast, perhaps, to the way power is ordinary employed to destroy. There was something ritualistic in the idea of an artist gone below, into the grave, into darkness for so many years and then revived and asked to speak again.
In my book I couple the figure of Tony Greene with the NYC-based photographer James Bidgood, who never died but did come out of obscurity after an even longer period, in the wake of his dramatic, kitschy, softcore photos of the most beautiful boys of the early 70s in his masterpiece “Pink Narcissus.” And there I had, not a theme, but a set of variations on which to spin my usual shtick of loss, anger, melancholy, comedy, and evil.
“There was something ritualistic in the idea of an artist gone below, into the grave, into darkness for so many years and then revived and asked to speak again.”
QR: Let’s talk about the New Narrative book. Is this an anthology, a critical text, both, neither? Did any other members of the movement contribute to the book besides you and Dodie Bellamy?
KK: There are about 40 writers in our book, some of them quite well known, like Eileen Myles and Chris Kraus and Dennis Cooper, and others you will not have heard of. Some died young, some stopped writing early on, and some were unjustly forgotten, some never published at all. I’m hoping our book brings renewed attention, and/or discovery, to those lesser known, and helps to further contextualize the work of our “stars.”
QR: What do you hope the book will add to the New Narrative legacy?
KK: Purists have long decreed that if you weren’t a member of Bob Glück’s Small Press Traffic-sponsored workshops in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, you couldn’t properly be a New Narrative writer. Dodie and I have thought about it for a long time and have somewhat revamped the territory, tracing the New Narrative “playbook” as a set of strategies that was developing not only in San Francisco, but simultaneously in a dozen other cities—and in little towns, too. Whether or not our vision is accepted remains to be seen, for some have found it far-fetched.
QR: What about this moment in time, if anything sticks out, do you feel makes the book more urgent and relevant to literature, art and culture than, say, last year?
KK: We first thought about this anthology back in 1991, but I’m glad we didn’t have the chance to publish it then. New Narrative was still a viable thing back then, and although of course it is still a viable program, it has a different energy today. So I’m glad we could see it through to 1997, when Kraus’s I Love Dick came out and when Lawrence Braithwaite’s first novel Wigger was published—in some ways both culminations of the principles of New Narrative, but also an announcement that a new era had arrived. Rob Halpern’s Trolley’s Kind and Renee Gladman’s Clamour (among others) began a second generation of New Narrative writing, and they got people asking questions, so that today there’s a new generation of critics, literary historians, and scholars who are going back to the origins of the movement, which they credit with many of the most interesting aspects of today’s writing.
QR: In 2006 Dennis Cooper wrote that American book publishing is in a “gentrified, conservative, and economics-driven state.” Do you get the same feeling, especially now that American culture is returning to conservatism?
KK: I don’t have a strong take on American book publishing, though I’m up to my ass in books all day long. My apartment is so crammed with them I smuggle a lot into my office, where I hide them in drawers and bins. I have some friends who seem to do very well with their book royalties and all that, but most novels seem to sell 1,000 copies and that’s it. I don’t know if the publishers have become more conservative as a result, if by conservative you mean hesitant to print transgressive material. It seems to me they will put out whatever they think will sell. All of them are hoping for another Fifty Shades of Grey, right?
But I have a feeling you’re seeking beyond that sense of “conservative” to say something about the new presidency and the neo-fascist state that Trump wants to bring down on our heads. It is hard for me to think of him as anything but a super-capitalist who wants to line his own pockets, and if that means allying himself with right-wing dunderheads, that’s fine with him. Book publishers are like that too, and would just as soon make a best seller of Ta-Nehisi Coates as of Bill O’Reilly.
“I have some friends who seem to do very well with their book royalties and all that, but most novels seem to sell 1,000 copies and that’s it.”
QR: What are some recent outliers? You speak highly of The Estrangement Principle by Ariel Goldberg, so I’d love to hear of some new books that you feel are also seeking to destroy all our notions of art, queer or otherwise.
KK: I was charging ahead to answer this one but the word “recent” stops me, for my recommendations would be in general the books that changed me as a youth—long, long ago. Let me think. Bruce Hainley’s recent biography Elaine Sturtevant: The Razzle Dazzle of Thinking profiles the late pop artist Sturtevant in a way that formally reflects the confusion we feel when we try to think of her work as “art,” so that each chapter is told in a different style. Not only expository, but one is a film script about apparently unrelated characters. Renee Gladman’s new Calamities is a sort of spiritual autobiography told in excruciating political times, and Brian Blanchfield’s Proximities attempts to tell the no holds barred facts of an artist’s life without consulting any outside sources, just relying on his own memory—then at the back of the book we find out where we went dead wrong and where he was queerly right all along. Let these three books stand in for those Ariel Goldberg looks forward to in The Estrangement Principle, where we must never get too comfortable in how we thought about art.
QR: How did you get started as a writer? What are some of your proudest moments in your career? How and why do you feel you’ve gained longevity in your career?
KK: My mother abandoned her dream of writing to marry and have five kids, but her manual typewriter was always around and I began to play with it as a toy when I was three or four, and typed out little stories on it. She said she liked them, and that was all it took for me to want to write more and more. (Now I wonder if this was a bittersweet pleasure for my mom, absently hearing the bell at each carriage return as an admonitory “this should have been you” prompt.) I wrote and rewrote all my favorite books and stories, then in high school I maybe wrote a novel, then another one, vast bulky monsters about teen life. I don’t know.
When I got out of high school I thought of myself pretty much as a writer, and I went to school in New York, which brought to me the mysteries of contemporary poetry. Gay classmates brought me to the Continental Baths to see Bette Midler. We wore towels. On Washington Square Park another more hip student pointed out the stylish, messed up enigma that was Patti Smith—not yet a songwriter, but an electrifying presence on the street. I encountered Amiri Baraka and Ted Berrigan and Allen Ginsberg, Robbe-Grillet and Margaret Mead. I went to the Berg Collection at the NY Public Library, where I heard they kept the Virginia Woolf papers, and asked the redoubtable Lola L. Szladits, the chief curator, if she would bring out Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. I didn’t know that Szladits was a figure who could make grown scholars cry. I had no idea. I was 17 with brass balls, and she looked at me and then said, “I will do this for you,” and brought out the letter. I copied it over in my school notebook. David Bowie was releasing Ziggy Stardust and Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs and Young Americans, and those were the chief events in my life of starting out as a writer.
The proudest moments? They are slipping from my mind, though I’ve had plenty I guess. However, some of them I couldn’t make you understand why I should be proud. I remember one time I went to an opening at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco for Nan Goldin, and in a crowded room I was just slinking around with my camera, hoping to take a picture of Ms. Goldin, a huge hero of mine, and from across the room, surrounded by fans, she approached me and said, “You’re Kevin Killian aren’t you? I was at your reading in New York last week.” It was like I died and went to heaven. I was proud when Dodie and I sold our papers to the Beinecke Library—I guess for the validation. Who knows what will happen tomorrow, or after I die, but at least somebody “got it” while I was alive, and paid money to get more of it. I was proud when John Ashbery picked out my poem “Pasolini” for the very first edition of Best American Poetry. I was proud when the Spicer book that Peter Gizzi and I edited won the American Book Award.
“David Bowie was releasing Ziggy Stardust and Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs and Young Americans, and those were the chief events in my life of starting out as a writer.”
Whatever longevity I have I owe to my luck in getting “in” with an amazing set of writers once I moved to San Francisco. All at once I got to study at the New Narrative school, with Steve Abbott and Bruce Boone and Bob Glück—that’s how I met Dodie, in Bob Glück’s workshop. We met all the Language Poets at the same time, and also the survivors of previous avant-gardes—the Objectivists, the New American Poets, the New York School poets—it was an incredible education for a young poet. And I met the artists and writers who were involved in direct political action, the struggle to defeat AIDS. They gave me the sense to see what I had not seen, that there are more important things than art or poetry or career, and that group action can make a difference.
When young people say they like my work, my early work perhaps, I never say, oh, that was mere juvenilia. To me it was my very best that I could do, but it all paled into insignificance in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. And oh, I think that New Narrative has demonstrated longevity because it is based on a questioning of the self, which every generation can feel and do something different with.
QR: Did/do you ever feel that a writer’s lifestyle was incompatible with gay male culture? I often feel that they are opposites—pragmatism/asceticism versus gregariousness/tendency to favor luxury and exorbitance.
KK: Ha, good one. I tried to deal with this over the 20 plus years it took me to write my novel Spreadeagle, which tries to attain a Dickensian sense of breadth and depth of social class. When I was a boy and I wanted to be gay, it wasn’t that I wanted to be rich. It was that I wanted to have the kind of sex my mom and dad would disapprove of. It was a revolution in the pants. Now that sex is out of the closet, what is actually left with which to create culture? In the world of Spreadeagle, there’s art and there’s kitsch operating side by side, but gays without money, and that’s most of us I assume, feel perhaps wrongly that we are more authentic than the A-Gay list.
I don’t happen to feel exactly that one needs to live an ascetic life to be a good writer, and I appreciate the gregarious more than those with a stick up their ass. So I don’t have a good answer for you there, Quinn.