Today marks the 74th birthday of the late Kathy Acker: titan of literary punk, defying genre and format, collaging autobiography and reference texts. There’s no shortage of great writing examining facets of Acker’s work—in Lit Hub alone, you can learn about her from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Douglas A. Martin, Teresa Rose Carmody, and Eileen Myles—but today we’re celebrating by going straight to the source and watching a live recording of a thirty-year-old Acker reading an excerpt from her lesser-known work The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec.
The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec is opaque, confusing, referential—Acker lifted over one thousand words from Harold Robbins’s The Pirate into this work without attribution—but it’s suddenly accessible when spoken by the living Acker. Acker gives an extemporaneous introduction to her work before she starts the reading, giving us a clear entry point:
I put down sort of the story of my life, and in the beginning what happened is, well you know about Toulouse Lautrec, that he’s a hunchback and very ugly, or she, I should say. And poor Toulouse was living in Paris in the 19 century. And because Toulouse, I should say myself, I’m a hunchback and a dwarf and I can’t really get laid or anything, I have this horrible problem and I also have these horribly ugly genitals. So I hang out with the other artists such as Van Gogh at this brothel . . . And one day getting hornier and hornier what happens is I decide that I’m going to join the brothel so at least I can get laid. Because at least if I’m a whore then when people come, you know, they’ll be people who’ll want some kind of perverted whatever, and they’ll pick me . . .
So we’re all sitting around one night in the brothel after work, this is the scene. And it’s very dark, just like this. and we don’t know what to do, because we’re very tired, we’ve had a long day’s work, but we can’t get to sleep because we still have that kind of funny frenetic energy you get when you fuck too much. So what we do to get each other to sleep since we can’t fuck or anything cause we’re so sick of it is we tell each other fairy tales. And what I’m going to read you is the second fairytale, which I, Toulouse, tell you, the whores, to get you to sleep.
Acker makes the slippage of autobiography easy: “Toulouse, I should say myself.” And she takes the audience to the scene: “It’s very dark, just like this.” And she gives us a way of hearing the story: as the whores, trying to sleep. Suddenly we’re far from the “deadly readings” she mentions earlier; we don’t have to sit up straight, we don’t have to analyze anything, we’re right there with her. How generous. What a kind way in.
Watch the video here.