by Chris Kraus (from After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography)
I first became aware of Kathy Acker when excerpts from Blood and Guts in High School appeared in the Canadian avant-garde magazine Impulse in the late 1970s. It was the first fictional work I’d read that was able to do what punk rock was doing. Everything around it seemed dull by comparison.
Years later, I got to meet Acker at a MONDO 2000 event and we would quickly become close friends and (briefly… twice) lovers.
Now we have Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker. It’s a well-researched bio that revolves around her creative work… with enough discursive style to achieve some degree of Acker-ness.
below then… an excerpt from Blood and Guts in High School
Until she sat down to compose the manuscript at the end of 1978, Acker never conceived Blood and Guts in High School as a continuous, stand-alone book. Neither a serial project nor a “big novel,” the book was composed from an assortment of fragments and outtakes written and saved since she moved to Solana Beach with Peter Gordon in 1973 and began writing prose. The intricate pictograph dream maps she drew while she was writing The Childlike Life appear for the first time in Blood and Guts, preceding some fairy tales she’d composed but not used in Toulouse #4.
Teen gangs like the Scorpions had been on her mind since becoming involved with the downtown scene when she moved back to New York. In a 1974 letter to Ron Silliman, she gleefully wrote, I’m becoming a rock & roll lyricist, and copied her new “poem” for him:
NO MORE PARENTS NO MORE SCHOOL
NO MORE SOCIETY’S DIRTY RULES
SPREAD MY LEGS I’M SO POOR I WANT TO DIE
According to Judith Doyle, Acker saw punk as “this schoolyard nasty-girl desire thing.” Composed in the wake the hyper-narrative Kathy Goes to Haiti, Blood and Guts proposes a more aggressive and upbeat, less tragic form of rebellion than the schoolgirl conspiracies that unfold in The Childlike Life, drawn from her years at the Lenox School and the writings of Violette Leduc.
The Persian Poems — her ingenious, maybe real, maybe fake translation of such phrases as Janey is an expensive child/But cheap and see my cunt! into Farsi that form the middle part of Blood and Guts — was initially published in Sylvere Lotringer’s 1978 Schizo-Culture issue of the magazine Semiotext(e). The Persian Poems appeared again in 1980 as an artist’s book illustrated by Robert Kushner that was also funded and produced by him as “Bozeau of London Press.”
Early in 1978 Acker confronted, for the first time, the possibility that she might have cancer. Discovering a breast lump, she underwent a biopsy that turned out benign. Fear and dread of the disease course through the second half of Blood and Guts in High School: [In] my life politics don’t disappear but take place in my body, she writes in the section following The Persian Poems. And further on:
Having cancer is like having a baby. If you’re a woman and you can’t have a baby ‘cause you’re starving poor or ‘cause no man wants anything to do with you or ‘cause you’re lonely and miserable and frightened and totally insane, you might as well get cancer. You can feel your lump, and you nurse, knowing I will always get bigger. It eats you, and, gradually, you learn, as all good mothers learn, to love yourself.
By now she and Gordon no longer lived, or expected to live, as a traditional couple. Best friends and roommates, they had established completely separate lives. Still, that year they got married on a freezing February afternoon at City Hall. As Gordon recalls, the marriage was wholly Acker’s idea. There was no reception, party, or other acknowledgment of the event.
To Gordon, “Our marriage] was always kind of a mystery to me . . . I still wonder about it. Perhaps it was because . . . mortality had raised its head and perhaps there was a re-evaluation of the importance of the relationship.” A more crass viewpoint would be that it was for insurance reasons. But even though he’d signed up for insurance, Gordon’s employer neglected to pay for the policy, and they were stuck with the hospital bill.
Six months later they separated permanently. Gordon moved out of the apartment, into his East Sixth Street studio. They’d been together since 1972. Even though she’d been actively seeking a more — to her mind — suitable romantic partner for the past several years, Acker was devastated. The pain of their separation defines the comedic exchanges between “Janey” and “Father” in the opening of Blood and Guts in High School.
In Scene One, Janey’s father — like Peter Gordon — has started casually dating a girl and discovered that he likes her. Janey: You’re going to leave me . . . Father (dumbfounded, but not denying it): Sally and I just slept together for the first time. How can I know anything? Janey (in amazement. She didn’t believe what she was saying was true. It was only out of petulance): You ARE going to leave me. Oh no. No. That can’t be. Father (also stunned): I never thought I was going to leave you. I was just fucking . . . A series of tormented relationship conversations ensues:
Janey (searching for a conversation subject that doesn’t touch upon their breaking up): What’s Sally like?
Father: I don’t know. (As if he’s talking about someone he’s so close to he can’t see the characteristics.) We’re really very compatible. We like the same things.
She’s very serious; that’s what she’s like. She’s an intellectual.
Janey (showing no emotion): Oh. What does she do?
Father: She’s hasn’t decided yet. She’s just trying to find herself. She’s into music; she writes; she does a little of everything.
Janey (trying to be helpful): It always takes awhile.
Father: She’s trying to find out everything . . .
Janey: Are you going to want to live with me again?
Father: I don’t know right now. I’m really enjoying the emotional distance . . .
Janey: When do you think you’ll know if you ever want to live with me again?
Father: Oh, Janey. You’ve got to lighten up. Things just got too entangled. Everything between us is still too entangled for me to be with you.
Janey: I see. That means no . . .
Father: Right now I just really like opening my door to this apartment and walking into my own space. I’m going to be here through September and then I’ll see what my plans are. I don’t think you should bank on anything . . .
“We were basically living separate lives” Gordon recalls. Kathy had her own life and I had my own life, with Kathy in it. The relationship was not going to change, and I was now marked as a married man. I realized I had to get out..
The exchanges between Janey and her father comprise the first scenes of the book, but they were clearly the last to be composed. It could be that the disturbance of her final separation from Gordon prompted Acker to arrange this collection of outtakes and unpublished writings into a disjunctive but emotionally continuous work.
I think soon things are going to start happening again, Acker had written Ron Silliman in 1975 after arriving back in New York, and by 1978, she was right.
During that year, Eric Mitchell, Vivienne Dick, James Nares, and Beth and Scott B premiered new feature-length movies, shot mostly in each other’s apartments on Super 8 film. Brian Eno released his compilation album No New York, featuring No Wave bands like the Contortions, DNA, Mars, and Lydia Lunch with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith had a joint exhibition of their photographs at Robert Miller’s Fifty-Seventh Street gallery; David Wojnarowicz began photographing himself behind a xeroxed mask for his series Arthur Rimbaud in New York; the Wooster Group performed Nayatt School at the Performing Garage; and the Mudd Club opened its doors at 77 White Street.
Acker’s close friends at that time included the photographer Marcia Resnick; the writers Victor Bockris, Jeff Goldberg, and Gary Indiana; the dominatrix and writer Terence Sellers; filmmakers Bette Gordon, Becky Johnston, Michael Oblowitz, and Tim Burns; Semiotext(e) founder and editor Sylvere Lotringer; Bomb magazine founder Betsy Sussler; the theater director Lindzee Smith; and James Grauerholz, who’d just begun working as a secretary to William S. Burroughs at “The Bunker” on 222 Bowery, a former YMCA.
As Gary Indiana recalls, “We all wanted to do as many things as we possibly could, all those readings and performances . . . because we had so much energy at that age. And drugs . . . Just about everybody converged on the same four or five places every night . . . At that time, a “close friend” ended to be someone you did things in public with or met for drinks or whatever a little more frequently than other people.”
That summer, Acker republished The Childlike Life and Toulouse Lautrec with Printed Matter books, an imprint founded by Lucy Lippard and Sol LeWitt and directed by Ingrid Sischy, who would go on to edit Artforum and Interview magazine. Unlike Ted Castle and Leandro Katzí’ inspired and hobbyist TVRT Press, Printed Matter had a real office, distribution, and staff. TVRT had already helped Acker publish Toulouse in pamphlet form. While they were preparing to produce Toulouse as a bound book, LeWitt proposed a Printed Matter “co-production” with them.
As Katz recalls, “Ted Castle and I worked very hard designing the project. The publication was going to be funded by Sol [LeWitt]. I did one cover, and Bill Wegman did the cover and illustrations for Toulouse Lautrec.
“We thought Sol was doing this to help both TVRT and Printed Matter. But after the two books came out, Ingrid called me and Ted to a meeting and made us sign an agreement saying we had no claim to the publications. I think Kathy decided to have Ingrid handle the hatchet. We ended up with fifty copies each of the books, if that.
“We were very upset, and I guess that was the end of TVRT. Things were changing. It was the start of the í80s . . . For me’ it was not a question of money, but loyalty. I stopped speaking to Kathy.”
* * *
Acker finished the Blood and Guts manuscript sometime in the fall of 1978. On August 3 she wrote her old friend Lafayette “Lafe” Young, the proprietor of San Diego’s Bargain Books, that she just had to rewrite first 60 pages [of the new book] in the next few weeks before I blow up into out . . .
Acker’s friend Becky Johnston was then working full-time as the publicist for Urizen Books. Founded in 1975 by veteran publisher Michael Roloff, Urizen built an impeccable reputation publishing translated works by such international writers as Peter Handke, Augusto Boal, and Julia Kristeva and by American writers like Sam Shepard and Michael Brodsky. Roloff was in close touch with the downtown New York world, and when he and his partner, Wieland Schulz, decided to launch a downtown New York list, Johnston gave them Acker’s Blood and Guts draft. At best, they were ambivalent. Schultz hated the book, but Roloff, although he “didn’t exactly love it,“ realized that “it struck a nerve with the downtown crowd.” A contract was signed, but Acker pulled out when Roloff suggested omitting The Persian Poems. As Acker complained to Lafayette Young, Michael Roloff is a sexist creep and HE WANTED TO REWRITE THE WHOLE THING!
Still reeling from the controversy surrounding Toulouse and Great Expectations, she told Young, I’ve never had to deal with publishers before, and it is not a pleasure. Suffering again from PID, she was in bed reading Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, enjoying the way they made her world “into pageantry.” By then, all she could think of was leaving for Mexico on August 17: I want to be anonymous & write. I’ve saved up, by this time, borrowed $300, and am leaving.
In a 1979 letter to Sun & Moon magazine editor Douglas Messerli, Acker reports that her new novel BLOOD AND GUTS IN HIGH SCHOOL will be out from Stonehill [Stonehill Communications, a New York trade press from 1971 to 1981 whose authors included Philip Agee, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, and Christina Rossetti] in July. This negotiation dragged on for two years, but it was never to be.
By this point Acker might have prevailed on such art world supporters as Robert Kushner or Sol LeWitt to publish Blood and Guts in High School, but she did not. Mainstream commercial publication seemed just a heartbeat away. While Acker’s talk about her career in letters to friends at this time became more circumspect, her ambitions are disarmingly strewn across the opening pages of Blood and Guts: I’m beginning to have some fame success, now women want to fuck me. I’ve never had women want me before. I want everything. I want to go out in the world as far as I can go; and I have to work as hard as possible so I can get enough fame then money to get away from here so I can become alive; and, regarding career, There are two levels. It’s not that I think one’s better than the other, you understand, though I do think one is a more mature development than the other. Second level: It’s like commitment. You see what you want, but you don’t go after every little thing . . .
As Michael Roloff would later reflect, “What looked like the ‘greening of America’ in that neck of the woods metamorphosed into the wildest kind of neo-liberalism down in Tribeca and the East Village.”
* * *
When Blood and Guts was finally published by Picador in London and Grove Press in New York early in 1984, its aggressive charm and dizzying sweeps between high culture and low would turn Acker into a post-punk icon for the Bush/Thatcher years. Fragmented, bratty, and raw, the book took on new life as a mass-cultural object that would not have occurred had it debuted in 1978 with Urizen or a smaller, more exclusively literary trade press. She was the first to admit that Blood and Guts was conceived more as a collage than as a continuous text. As she’d later explain in a long 1991 interview: [Grove and Picador] got the end mixed up. They got the last two chapters in the wrong order. No one noticed! I told them they’re in the wrong order and they said, Have a glass of champagne. (laughs) So I guess it’s not the most tightly structured . . .
Acker wouldn’t set out to write another “big novel” until December 1979, when she began Great Expectations in the wake of her mother’s suicide and her grandmother’s death. Arguably her best work, Acker’s 1983 Great Expectations was the novel she worked on for the longest time, and the shortest of all of her subsequent books.
In it, among other things, she finally exacts her revenge upon Peter Gordon for finding a girlfriend he likes. Dear Peter, she writes:
I think your new girlfriend stinks. She is a liar all the way around because her skin is yellow from jaundice, not from being Chinese like she pretends. She’s only pretty because she’s wearing a mask. You’re hooked on her tight little cunt: it’s only a sexual attraction I know you’re very attracted to sex cause when you were young you were fat and no girl wanted to fuck you. What you don’t know is that this cunt contains lots of poison — not just jaundice — a thousand times more powerful than the coke she is feeding you to keep you with her — especially one lethal poison developed by the notorious Fu Manchu that takes cocks, turns their upper halves purple, their lower parts bright red, the eyes go blind so they can no longer see what’s happening, the person dies. Your new girlfriend is insane and she’s poisoning you.
Had her publishers listened to her, the final sentence of Blood and Guts Shall we find our way out of all expectations? — would have been repeated within the title of her next book, Great Expectations, creating a kind of prose sestina.
But by then her image was everywhere — have a glass of champagne — and it would no longer matter that much.
Chris Kraus is the author of four novels, including Aliens & Anorexia, I Love Dick, and Torpor, and two books of art and cultural criticism, all published by Semiotext(e). She was a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow and teaches writing at European Graduate School.