The eighteenth piece in our Polity of Literature series:
In the 1970s and ’80s, American writer Kathy Acker discovered that the surest way to develop her most innovative work and secure its eventual fame was by using the widely available parts of a parallel economy in the arts—a range of tools that included Xeroxed and stapled self-publishing, pseudonymous work mailed to a network of friends, chapbooks of poetry hauled in garbage bags from one bookstore to the next, and all manner of personal theatricality. She wrote as “The Black Tarantula” and “Rip-off Red” on her way to becoming the legendary Kathy Acker. Keenly aware of the logic and methods of the mainstream, Acker chose a parallel path. Most literature is born in the margins, outside of the punishing reach of power. Ironically—from Socrates to Dickinson to Rimbaud to Acker—the power structures that anoint and preserve the work we call “literary,” are, in life, enemies of the agency and freedom that literature entails.
Acker’s biographer, the Canadian writer Jason McBride, shows us in detail how this protean force of contemporary literature made persistent, daily choices that kept her, and her work, away from publishers of the literary mainstream, within a fertile margin of creative minds in the arts and music, where the work grew into books that (especially since her early death in 1997, age 50) have become permanent parts of literature’s long future. The report is illustrated by Ken Krimstein.
In July of 1973, after bouncing between her native New York City and San Diego for four years, Kathy Acker made her way up the California coast to San Francisco. She was 26 years old and had spent much of her adult life as a poet, self-publishing her first chapbook, a jagged, potent collection called Politics, a year earlier. Acker and her then-boyfriend, poet Lenny Neufeld, typed up, photocopied, and hand-stapled the book themselves, eventually making about 300 copies that they took around to bookstores and handed out to friends. It consisted mainly of diaristic prose poems, breathless, largely unpunctuated run-on sentences that detailed her and Neufeld’s brief time working in a Times Square sex show. In the poetry world she inhabited at the time—mainly the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York’s East Village, where her friends and lovers included Bernadette Mayer, Anne Waldman and Harris Schiff, among others—the book was received like it was made of plastic explosive. While everyone at St. Mark’s was familiar with the crude, unvarnished candor of Acker’s writing, they’d never encountered such a sustained blast of it. Several poets were unaware of Acker’s semi-secret life in the sexual underground and a few (all older men) grumbled about how inappropriate or unsafe it was. Schiff, for his part, felt the material was too sexually explicit. Others, like Waldman, found it provocative and thrilling. “There was a naughty, exhibitionistic girl-child at the centre of it,” Waldman told me. “What other women were doing this?” To readers who knew Acker less well, the book was even more controversial. But passed around like samizdat, it found a small but fervid audience, particularly among artists and writers in San Francisco (one poet likened it to Diane di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik, published three years earlier). In a journal, Acker noted with evident satisfaction the book’s reception: “…my desire to be seen and understood is naïve but i am pleased it feels so exciting when i know my writing is in the world and not just trapped in my mind or these pages…”
But Acker wanted to be more than a poet. She found the form limiting, the scene dull, insular, and self-indulgent. “I didn’t want to be a poet,” she later wrote, “for poets only talked to other poets.” Prose seemed to offer greater possibilities, creative and otherwise. The effects and influence of the nouveau roman (Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and other French writers) were still being felt in North America. Latin American literature was booming, with books as different as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Hopscotch finding eager English-reading audiences. In American fiction, postmodernism—a term that would soon be reflexively associated with Acker’s work, despite her abhorrence of it—was in ascendance. Since the mid-60s, experimental writing by the likes of John Barth, William Gaddis, and Donald Barthelme had turned mainstream literature on its head. In 1973, the most renowned, if critically divisive, American novel was Thomas Pynchon’s mammoth, vaudevillian Gravity’s Rainbow.
Acker, however, had other models in mind: among them, Gertrude Stein and William Burroughs. Both had been celebrities in their own right—Burroughs would become even more so in the next couple of decades—and both wrote prose that flickered productively between fiction and philosophy. Burroughs, Acker said, “wrote from ideas rather than from intuition.” She admired the formal experiments that he and Brion Gysin published in the Evergreen Review—the cut-up, the fold-in—and which they later collected in The Third Mind (Burroughs’ most important book, according to Acker). “So forth anybody can be Rimbaud if he will cut up Rimbaud’s words and learn Rimbaud language talk think Rimbaud…,” Burroughs claimed, offering in one sentence a skeleton key.
Stein, meanwhile, was no less than “the mother of us all.” Many years later, Acker typed out a list, never published, of ten women writers that were important to her: George Eliot and George Sand, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Christa Wolf, Maya Deren, Luce Irigaray, Marguerite Duras, and Stein. Stein mattered, Acker wrote, because “her meditative stance in writing — her insistence on breath, her refusal to subordinate any part of the narrative text to any other part, her refusal to exist in writing anywhere but in a calm which is joy — is an implicit rejection of the 19th century myth that the artist must suffer in order to create. Writers and others have yet to explore and use her work.” Acker could, and would. Stein, as she suggests here, made language present, equated language with breath. Acker likewise wanted to write prose, to write novels, in which language was not merely mimetic but primary. “I always felt that language was more real than what it was supposed to be mirroring,” she told an interviewer.
But, for her, what would that language look like, what could it look like? She wanted to create new forms. Politics had been one path, and subsequent, disjunctive long poems like 1973’s “Stripper Disintegration,” which chronicled her life in San Diego—now with a new boyfriend who she would eventually marry, experimental musician Peter Gordon, and now stripping in sailor bars—were a continuation of it, both in form and content. But around the same time, Acker was also making her first forays into narrative prose. One of these was The Burning Bombing of America: The Destruction of the U.S., written in 1972, a visceral, violent response to Pierre Guyotat’s Eden Eden Eden. Then, over a few weeks in the spring of 1973, Acker wrote Rip-off Red, Girl Detective, a “pornography mystery story” (her words) that she thought might make her some money. It didn’t (neither book, in fact, would be published in her lifetime), but it was her first long investigation into narrative strategy, her first experimentation with genre conventions, the first inklings of the staccato, hard-boiled style she would deploy throughout her future writing. In a letter to Bernadette Mayer, she likened the book to the cult anti-Western film, Billy Jack: “You’re so entertained and so much sex you don’t know you’re being blurped on the head until you fall down.”
The real answer, though, for what her prose might look like was not in literature at all. Or rather, it was in how literature could borrow formal techniques from conceptual art and experimental music. It was in publishing books outside of conventional literary channels, of cultivating a different, more open, means of publication. It was in disavowing the very idea of authorship itself. Just before she left San Diego, Acker gave herself two pseudonyms, Rip-off Red and The Black Tarantula. Rip-off Red was the author of the eponymous novel, designed more or less to disguise its actual authorship. The Black Tarantula alias, which Acker would use for her next few books, would be far more enduring, helping to establish a menacing, outlaw persona that propelled and plagued Acker’s entire professional life. There was no real thought behind the pen name, Acker claimed—“it’s just another name,” she told friends, “and I like black, very sleazy”—but it obviously had a number of alluring connotations. It conferred anonymity and secrecy, suggested violence and danger. It might have been the name of a superhero or a spy. It made her something other than a woman, other than human. It placed her identity, her existence, up for grabs. In Acker’s next book, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, which she started writing in San Diego, the narrator fractures or refracts, describing a constantly shifting physical appearance and worldview. Now they are a woman, now they are a man, now they are a spider. Now they are Kathy, now they are Silver Gold Lamé, now they are the Black Tarantula. Now they are a node, a network, a nothing.
“I look at my body as if it were a web,” she writes in The Childlike Life, “solely a way of asking people to touch me. My body doesn’t exist. I watch myself: I’m now heavy and even more beautiful: huge curves of thighs zooming into the valleys around my belly I begin to love myself as if I’m someone else no I realize my attractiveness coldly, I basically couldn’t care how I look; I can see anything in a set of shifting frameworks. I’m interested solely in getting into someone else. I find the heavy flesh sensual, as if it were permanent. I’m not sure if I think of myself as a person.”
In San Diego, Acker’s most important mentors, her surrogate parents really, had been Eleanor and David Antin. Eleanor, or Elly, a conceptual artist, and David, a poet and art critic, were New York Jews who moved to the city in the spring of 1968 so that David could teach and run the art gallery at the relatively new University of California outpost there. In an overwhelmingly white, Republican part of the state, a stone’s throw from the Camp Pendleton Marine base, UCSD’s art department became an unlikely avant-garde bastion, attracting, in the next few years, faculty like Alan Kaprow—creator of “The Happening”—and artist John Baldessari. (Eleanor would join the faculty a few years later.) Acker had been in California since 1966 and was just finishing her undergraduate studies at UCSD. She felt adrift, writing poems that she didn’t think were any good, showing them to very few people. The Antins arrived, bearing beguiling artistic ideas, connections to the art and literary worlds, and news from home. There was immediate, mutual admiration. “She was a very charming person,” Antin remembered. “Very lively. She was interested in new experiences. She was looking for liberation.” David Antin, who was 36 old then, and Acker 21, thought of the latter as a kid sister, or even as a second child. (The Antins already had one, a baby boy, whom Acker often babysat, named after the French modernist writer Blaise Cendrars.)
Acker never officially took any of David’s classes but she did audit them, considering herself his apprentice. Antin was antic, droll, erudite. A few years after meeting Acker, he created his own microgenre, the “talk poem”—improvised public presentations, equal parts digressive, rollicking grad-school lecture and highfalutin barfly spiel, that Antin would record and, if deemed interesting enough, transcribe. He had studied engineering and talked about writing in such terms. “The technology is language,” he said. “In order to invent something useful, you have to know what is needed now, but also you have to know the present state of the technology.” In one class, bored and frustrated by his students’ soul-baring poetry (and their sensitivity to his criticism of same), he provided a crash course in found materials, appropriation and collage. “I’m not versus creative writing,” Antin said, “I’m versus self-expression.” He gave his students an assignment: they could write about anything, but first they needed to go to the library and find out if someone had written about that subject already. Once they found those books and did that research they could steal from them whatever they wanted. The work would be in putting those pieces together. Within a month, he said, they were combining Aeschylus and plumbing manuals, and creating “these wonderful, quickly shifting things,” like race car drivers changing gears.
The friction of such a method immediately appealed to Acker. It was reminiscent of Burroughs’ Third Mind promise—anybody can be Rimbaud by using Rimbaud’s words!—but it also jibed with Acker’s profound insecurity about her identity. As she notoriously and compulsively detailed in her books—from Politics to the last thing she wrote, an unproduced libretto titled Requiem—Acker’s early life was traumatic: a birth father who abandoned her, a mother both oppressive and neglectful (and who would eventually commit suicide), an aloof stepfather who was also, possibly, sexually abusive. Haunted by a persistent sense of abandonment and betrayal, with a tendency towards obsession, Acker seesawed wildly, especially in her teens and 20s, between great confidence and crippling vulnerability, solipsism and self-abnegation. “I’m sick of not fucking knowing who I am,” she wrote in Politics. But she was also reading R.D. Laing, the radical Scottish psychiatrist, and was fascinated by his writings on schizophrenia. Madness, for him, was liberation and renewal, mental illness more theory than fact. “Insanity is a perfect response to an insane world,” Laing famously wrote (a sentiment that Acker, in turn, borrowed in a later essay on Goya and Caravaggio: “The only reaction against an unbearable society is equally unbearable nonsense”). Acker was never diagnosed as schizophrenic or with any kind of mental illness—she repudiated psychoanalysis, or any kind of psychotherapy, her whole life—but Laing (and then, later, Deleuze and Guattari) suggested a way to productively, as she said, “crack up the old identity god.”
This reading coincided with Acker’s increasing uneasiness with the idea of literary voice. As she claimed in several interviews over the years, one reason Acker retreated from poetry was what she perceived as its emphasis on a single, totalizing, authoritative (and usually male) voice. “I remember Robert Creeley taught that a writer, a poet, is a real writer when he (or she) finds his own voice,” she wrote. “I wanted to be a writer; I didn’t want to do anything else; but I couldn’t find my own voice. The act of writing for me was the most pleasurable thing in the world. Just writing. Why did I have to find my own voice and where was it? I hated my fathers.” And not just in the poetry world. She despised titans like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and even writers as apparently inventive as Pynchon or William Gaddis, all of whom, in their strenuous effort to produce universal, worthy literature produced only, she thought, its opposite. “The main thing was to keep writing,” she said, likening herself instead to the prolific, protean Jean-Luc Godard. “All right, you make mistakes. You’re not writing the Great Novel. What is the Great Novel? Just a kind of macho fallacy anyway. The main thing is to just keep producing, and people do their work, and everyone’s community, and you say, ‘Oh, that’s good, that’s bad, I can work from it.’ Just to keep going on in a community.”
Acker’s own community was expanding, thanks partly to the Antins but also to Acker’s own appetites. In San Diego, then New York, and then, again in San Diego, which she returned to in 1972 (having dumped Lenny Neufeld and now living with future husband Peter Gordon), her circle widened to include several significant poets and emerging artists: Jerome Rothenberg, Jackson Mac Low, the St. Mark’s crowd, and, significantly, conceptual artists like Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, and Dan Graham. They taught her that an artist, first and foremost, needed to know why she created the way she did. It was not enough to simply sit down and write, to blindly use the language and methods given to you, something she believed most English-language novelists did. Acker wanted to write prose that was useful, liberating, weaponized. Following Poe, she wrote, “writers should present the human heart naked so that our world, for a second, explodes into flames.” She wanted to see if, rather than integrating the “I,” she could disintegrate it.
With all this in mind, and Antin’s nudge towards bricolage, in May, 1973, Acker became The Black Tarantula and started working on The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula. To figure out who she was, she would begin with who she definitely knew she wasn’t—a murderer. She raided the crime and law sections of the UCSD library and checked out all the biographies and autobiographies of female murderers she could find, books with titles like Enter Murderers!, Blood in the Parlor, Rogues and Adventuresses. Then, she reworked sections from these books and entwined them with descriptions of her daily life—her romances (including a short, torturous affair with Dan Graham), her troubled family history, her money fears, her health concerns. If this was an experiment, she said, these autobiographical sections were the “control.” She wanted to see what this process would do to her, as a person, as a woman. In a letter to the poet Jackson Mac Low she described her technique: “The Black Tarantula series…is basically my way of making myself schizophrenic, schizophrenic w/o the censor (identity, superego, causes of similar patterns) I have [sic] make up my own words, half use other people’s jargon which slightly fits…if I’m [sic] do this slowly and don’t scare myself by sudden shocks I’ll be able to deal w/ other people more honestly & directly, evolve new ways of being with people, better ones, I’ll break thru my overwhelming paranoia…”
Acker called it “The Black Tarantula Series” because her 30-page whatsit (a story? a chapter?) was meant to be the first installment—entitled “Some Lives of Murderesses”—for a much larger, longer serial. Dickens had done it, she knew, and there was also a long tradition of serialization in pulp fiction. Her next installment would borrow from the life of a 17th-century pickpocket, Moll Cutpurse, and then her appropriation aperture would gradually open to include works by Alexander Trocchi, Yeats, Sade. Each additional text permitted a different kind of exorcism. She wrote quickly, one a month, partly as a way to obviate rewriting, but also because she wanted the books out in the world. She talked a local newspaper press into printing them for free and hauled them around to bookstores in a green garbage bag.
But if David Antin taught her a method, Elly Antin taught her about marketing. In 1971, Elly Antin started on 100 Boots, a now-legendary, Fluxus-like work, in which she took one hundred pairs of black rubber boots and positioned them in a variety of landscapes and contexts—a hundred boots at the supermarket, a hundred boots visit a cemetery, a hundred boots go to the drive-in, etc. There were 51 such tableaux, which she photographed, turned into postcards, and then mailed to hundreds of people around the world. Acker often helped Antin with the mailings. It was a cheap way to make and disseminate art, eight cents a postcard. Antin conceived of the project as a picaresque novel, in the vein of Huckleberry Finn or On the Road, and when Acker began writing The Childlike Life, she suggested that Acker use her mailing list and send the installments to those same people. Soon, art-world luminaries like Vito Acconci, John Perreault, Alan Sondheim, Leandro Katz, P. Adams Sitney (another ex-boyfriend), and Carolee Schneemann were receiving these mysterious packages. Acker tucked her own small, wry card in her envelopes, and it read, “You are on the enemy list of The Black Tarantula.” The pamphlets were popular. Her web grew. “She became the darling of the art world,” Elly Antin said.
By 1973, however, San Diego began to feel stifling and provincial. Bored by what he considered UCSD’s emphasis on “rigid, post-serialist modernism,” Acker’s boyfriend, Peter Gordon, decided to transfer to Mills College in Oakland, an epicenter of experimental music. John Cage had taught there, and in his wake, it became a haven for the musical avant-garde: Terry Riley and Robert Ashley were on the faculty; Steve Reich, Trisha Anderson and Laurie Anderson were all, at one point or another, students. When Gordon moved, Acker followed. The couple found a large apartment in the Haight, at 46 Belvedere. They had the ground floor of a three-storey Victorian, with separate parlors that Gordon used as a studio and Acker a writing room. They had pet hamsters named Art and Revolution, a pair of parakeets named Jackson Mac Low and John Cage. Around the corner were a few other musicians, all of whom were loosely affiliated with Mills and all of whom had adopted their own winsome stage names: Blue Gene Tyranny, Clay Fear, Phil Harmonic. They shared a house dubbed the Honeymoon Hotel. It was an age of aliases.
In July, Acker started another installment of The Black Tarantula with the title, “I Move to San Francisco. I Begin to Copy My Favorite Pornography Books and Become The Main Person In Each of Them.” San Francisco seemed a hospitable place to continue her experiments. It was a beacon for the Beats; home of the San Francisco Renaissance poets, including Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer; the cradle of both the New Age movement and the sex industry. An enormous gay and lesbian community flourished there—the early homophile organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, whose dances Acker had attended in Manhattan, was founded in San Francisco, and their male counterpart, the Mattachine Society, relocated there from Los Angeles in 1955. (In 1969, there were 50 gay organizations in the city; by the time Acker arrived, four years later, there were 800.) The Cockettes, an anarchic, gender-bending theatre troupe that emerged out of a Haight-Ashbury, and which Acker often called an influence, had more or less disbanded by 1972, but their spirit lived on in the equally outrageous Angels of Light.
The same year Acker and Gordon arrived in the city, the local conceptual artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson created a fictitious alter ego named Roberta Breitmore, whom Leeson “played” in a series of actual, real-life activities-cum-performances—getting a driver’s license, renting an apartment, undergoing psychoanalysis. A Canadian mail artist named Anne Lee Long reinvented herself as Anna Banana when she moved to San Francisco in 1973 and created Vile magazine to parody General Idea’s File (itself a parody of Life), for the disdain it had shown for mail art. Like The Black Tarantula, Anna Banana used mail art as a way to cultivate a community, to ferret out fellow travelers.
“It was about setting up friendships,” Acker said of these early pamphlets. “As if they were little letters to people that I sent out.” The communication, in some cases, went two ways. In 1974, for example, Carolee Schneemann published Cezanne, She Was a Great Painter, an artist’s book comprised of letters, fragments from her notebooks, manifestoes and performance scripts. Included was a poem (or song; instructions are to sing it to the tune of “Where or When”), “For The Black Tarantula,” which argues, midway, in all-caps: “OUR CIVILIZATION IS TO SPEAK TO EACH OTHER/CIVILIZATION IS THOUGHTS OF OUR BODIES.”
The Black Tarantula stayed in San Francisco until February, 1975, when Acker and Gordon moved back to New York. In California, she completed two more Black Tarantula books—I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec—and by the time she returned to the East Coast, the serials had captivated a number of art and literary world luminaries. “Kathy Acker’s so cool,” Ed Ruscha told Elly Antin. Sol LeWitt bankrolled a Printed Matter edition of The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula. Soon, Burroughs’ amaneunsis, James Grauerholz, would offer to be Acker’s agent. And soon after that, Acker would be published by the venerable Grove Press, purveyor of Burroughs, Genet, and Duras, Acker’s beloved transgresseurs. In London, where she would move a few years later and be published by Sonny Mehta’s Picador, Acker would become a celebrity.
In New York, The Black Tarantula, as author, vanished in favour of the author named Kathy Acker. If being The Black Tarantula gave Acker a kind of freedom and agency, allowing her to enter the publishing world almost surreptitiously, as Kathy Acker, the publishing machine bent her to its needs. Acker only ever wanted to write, she said. That was her entire ambition. But in order to keep writing as uncompromisingly as she did required her to now become, for better or worse, a kind of rock star. “Cracking the identity god” was a perpetual process, it turned out, and one abandoned it at one’s peril. As The Black Tarantula, Acker had no image, no face. But Grove put her figure—notoriously tattooed and pierced—on the cover of every single one of her books. It was an image, of course, that sold books and got attention, but it was also, over time, an image that started to feel like a trap. As The Black Tarantula, she was able to slip the constraints of her gender and her background—or at least to complicate them—but as Kathy Acker, that shape-shifting became more and more difficult, the image more oppressive. As she told the philosopher McKenzie Wark, once briefly her lover, in an email, “the KATHY ACKER that you want (as you put it) is another MICKEY MOUSE, you probably know her better than I do. It’s media, Ken, it’s not me.”
Now, more than twenty years after Acker’s death, when confronted by the texts themselves, these questions feel almost immaterial. The shape-shifting of Acker’s life is effaced by the shape-shifting of what she wrote. The political spaces that they provide to readers, the possibilities that they open up, are now arguably more important than when they were first composed. They remain instructive, essential, emancipatory. When Acker was writing as The Black Tarantula, she liked to show friends what the work meant to her. She would draw a circle. “This is writing,” she’d say, of the circle. “This is freedom.” Everything else was the world.
Jason McBride is a Toronto-based writer and editor who has written on culture and politics for the Globe and Mail, New York, The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, Maclean's, Slate, The Walrus and many other publications. His biography of Kathy Acker will be published by Simon and Schuster in 2022.