YOU MUST CONTINUE AT ALL COSTS: talking with Kevin Killian about his TWEAKY VILLAGE
YOU MUST CONTINUE AT ALL COSTS
Kevin Killian is a prolific novelist, poet, playwright, photographer, and Amazon-reviewer known as one of the original New Narrative writers. He’s also the author of the new poetry collection TWEAKY VILLAGE from WONDER, 2014. It’s a wild and ranging collection of poems/narratives that deal with the author’s response to free-market capitalism, the constraints of the English language, the repetitious nature of porn, and much more.
I first met Kevin whilst TAing for Dodie Bellamy’s infamous “Writing on the Body” class at San Francisco State University. Kevin Killian taught (and still does) at California College of the Arts. One day Dodie was absent and her partner, Kevin, arrived as the substitute teacher. (What a pleasant surprise!) We performed one of his plays featuring Kylie Minogue and a host of 90’s celebs, unpacked some abject bodily poems, and left with our minds forever altered. I remember Kevin engaging a student who had very conservative/fundamentalist views about sex and drugs. Kevin kindly and patiently explained that sometimes you need those kind of experiences to figure out what kind of life you want to have. Here Kevin discusses making up for lost time, neoliberalism, genre collapse, loving Arthur Russell, San Francisco’s shifting economic landscape, Santa Claus as Bill Clinton, his photo project “Tagged,” and on and on and onward.
Matt L. Rohrer: Hi Kevin! Thanks for doing this interview! I LOVE TWEAKY VILLAGE Could you tell a bit of the story behind this book? What was going on in San Francisco, in your life, in the world that spawned these poems?
Kevin Killian: Thank you Matt. I suppose it is a book of defeat really. Just as while writing ARGENTO SERIES I came to realize how little I had done to stop the march of AIDS, TWEAKY VILLAGE is me wrestling with how little I did to combat neoliberalism, which manifests itself visually every time I walk out my door and see the new, hyperwired global capital that is San Francisco today. Another thing that happened is that I began teaching and thus mixing with younger people and the contradictions of their beauty (or youth, which is the same thing), and the shrinking possibilities our world, our country holds out to them makes me feel implicated in the very system I detest.
MLR: I remember the punks wearing Dump Tina pins on their jackets in the late 00s, in support of folks kicking methamphetamine usage. Meth was a big thing in Concord, CA, where I grew up. Every so often a cook-house would burn down. As skateboarders and graffiti writers we were always running into “tweakers” in those strange places that skating and graffiti take you. Drainage ditches, abandoned buildings, etc. I always thought of crystal meth as a rural/suburban, poor-white person drug. The fact that it was a party drug going around the Castro, having an effect on the spread of HIV, was a complete surprise to me. I was made aware by the “I lost me to meth” posters aimed at gay men. Can you talk about your I Lost Me to Meth poem? What was going on? Why did you title your book “Tweaky Village?”
KK: I guess in SF we were all tweaking, even those who, like myself, never got addicted to meth in real life: we were all getting off a little on that expansive blowout feeling of being somewhere developing very quick, perhaps the rush you’d get from staying on top of that big wave, Matt—which must have happened to you in your career—but it took me an encounter with those signs saying “I lost myself to meth,” to feel a tug at my heart, for I think all of us feel that we have lost ourselves and at least those sad skeletons in the sepia posters can pin it down to an actual thing, meth. For me it would have to be something like, I lost me to an ever-accelerating market index. In the poem, as you know, the speaker decides he lost himself “to them, them as an anagram for meth.”
MLR: TWEAKY VILLAGE has a range of form that is quite radical, shifting from lineated poems to plays to linear narratives, sometimes making these moves within the same piece. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to form?
KK: In my lifetime I’ve witnessed the collapse of genre, so that one feels free to move back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry, drama and image (at an informal talk I heard her give once, NY-based poet Eileen Myles startled me by arguing that all such categories were marketing devices invented by marketers of the 17th century, the third century BC, whenever). And yet, I sometimes feel, if genre has collapsed why does it still today seem to rule supreme? Anyone who has dipped even a tiny toe into the MFA system of creative writing knows what I’m talking about.
MLR: How do the ideas of New Narrative play out in your poetry?
KK: The ideas of New Narrative weren’t solely formal ones; as I understood what I was learning, we were trying to meld together a poetry ot witness with a poetics of excess, so people like John Wieners and, um, Pierre Guyotat and Jean Rhys and Samuel Delany were our heroes because they admitted so much—so much that ordinary narrative left out of what I hate to call “the conversation,” but there it is. I guess when you’re desperate to find ways to totally embarrass yourself in writing, you literally have no time to remember if you started your confession in prose or poetry—you must continue at all costs.
MLR: How is the form of TWEAKY VILLAGE reflective of the politics of this book?
KK: I used to write and beautiful things seemed to happen without me making them happen—thus I began to subscribe to Spicer’s poetics of dictation. And yet now I surrender in the same way I once did, and terrible things write themseves across the page, so that my poetry once so pretty, is rapidly approaching the blank nihilism of my novels and stories. I am moving as one in an undertow, you as a surfer might know what I’m talking about more than I do—but a vast and almost imperceptible cross current that takes you far beyond your comfort zone and into a new, possibly deadly place? My book started out as a very linear sort of biography in verse of the contemporary photographer James Bidgood, whose work in the 70s I love: he made a proto-gay-porn film called “Pink Narcissus,” and my manuscript was proceeding from poem to poem, each one borrowing the title of one of the photosets he made in his impossibly tiny New York apartment into which he cantilevered enough set decoration to rival the resources of Kubrick making 2001, and all to make a handful of young naked men look like gods and angels. But then something came and interrupted my flow of thought, or the poem’s thought, and shoved it onto the back burner. I do hope to get back to Pink Narcissus some day, but possibly the more agitprop materials of Tweaky Village became more urgent and demanded expression immediately.
MLR: In your poem “Tightrope” you ask “In Japan or Israel are the poets into genre collapse, the way I keep my heart on the mattress like a tin can of nothing?” It’s almost like it pains you, this openendedness of form.
KK: It’s me complaining about the sameness of poetry—for the most part—the drive to make the line start at the left and head towards the right, then doubling back to the left to begin again, like an inchworm, depending on–what? The exigencies of the poem? The style of the couturier—the seamstress, snip, snip, slash? It’s not form’s openendedness that pains me, it’s what I consider its inevitabilities. It’s like complaining that one word follows another in a sentence. Straightforward, yes, tediously so, but what’s the alternative? Yet there must be one, perhaps in Hebrew or Japanese or languages that unroll in different directions than English, right?
MLR: That’s a great question… I grew up in a home without television. I lose always at Trivial Pursuit and am rarely able to remember the names of even the most famous actors. I read TWEAKY VILLAGE with the internet by my side, looking up many of the names you reference. I felt little spurts of pride and LOLed when I knew the characters without having to ask Jeeves: “(I) made a pass at David Johansen,– and Chris Johanson–and Hanson.” Yay! I know some things! Can you talk a bit about the function of naming, from pop superstars to more the obscure poetry personalities in your work?
KK: While writing his life of Frank O’Hara (City Poet, 1993), one of my favorite writers, Brad Gooch made a remarkable discovery, and was able to trace O’Hara’s predilection for naming his friends in his poems to a particular, and by 1993 long forgotten, essay by the novelist/poet/pedagogue Paul Goodman (1911-1972) in which he argued for the personal and domestic and the named as a way of pushing out of Cold War stodginess and grandiosity and the trap of the “universal,” and one way or another, I haven’t worked out how exactly, I came to believe that Spicer might have read the same essay, or at any rate heard Goodman and/or O’Hara argue the same points en passant—for he knew them both, a little.
MLR: I read an interview with you where you spoke about your photography of artists/poets/etc. as a response to the AIDS crisis. Do you feel like the act of naming is an attempt to preserve people you love?
KK: Did you ever, perhaps when you were a teenager, write down a list of girls with whom you’d made out or had sex with or whatever? I came across this notebook I had when I was in college and it went on and on with the names of guys (two girls, three hundred guys), like a poem, and even now years later some of them bounce back out of memory in response to reading their names. (And many nameless ones, Freckles, Combover, Army Underwear, Double-Jointed, etc.) Yes, naming preserves, at least it does for me. I’m uncomfortable with people unless I know their first and last names and how to spell them properly.
MLR: Ha. Yes. In middle school I carved the names of the girls I loved into the treehouse I’d built in my backyard…There’s a section in your book called “In Memory of George Kuchar.” Could you speak a bit about him?
KK: George and his twin brother Mike were two talented teenagers in NYC in the 50s when they began making these lunatic home movies and soon enough, they were rubbing elbows with a slightly older crowd, Warhol, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, etc. George moved to the Bay Area in the 1970s, began teaching film at the San Francisco Art Institute, and made hundreds literally hundreds of movies and tapes. “Pictures” he called them. I was a huge fan, and though I never had the honor of being in any of his pictures, we acted together here and there a few times over the years, and every time was a thrill. Happily there was a bit of mutual admiration, and my life came full circle when we were able to lure him into one of our plays for the poets theater, “Love Can Build a Bridge,” which I wrote with Karla Milosevich, and George played Donald Judd in it.
MLR: Dear George, is beautiful and tragic and made me cry. The poem felt slightly different than the rest of the book. Perhaps a bit more direct. Did you feel a responsibility to address the loss of your friend in a straightforward way?
KK: I think rather that the materials of Tweaky Village were missing something that would be an actual account of a friendship important to me. And yes, I guess this time around I wanted it to be pretty clear to all who read it. LOL after all in my previous book I had written what I considered a heartbreaking account of a brief affair with an iconic musician, and very few who read it understood it as anything like a confessional. People would ask, “Oh, it sounds like you knew Arthur Russell!” “Knew him! I fucked him!” I would reply, and again it was me questioning “can’t you read?” but sometimes, I know I should be asking myself, “Can’t you write?”
MLR: That’s hilarious and amazing. I can also empathize with that feeling of “this is tragic and real, but nobody seems to get it…” As a fan, I’m very tempted to ask you all about your time fucking Arthur Russell.
KK: Of course you are. Tim Lawrence, the British music writer, asked me to write down everything I remembered about Arthur for his book, now the standard biography, Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992.(Duke University Press, 2009). You can probably read the pages about me via Google Books or the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon, but yeah, it was a brief shabby affair in 1980, and we weren’t a good match (and I didn’t actually fuck him, though there was sex involved).
MLR: Can you talk a bit about the poem “Repetition Island?” I read this poem’s “protag” as trying desperately to laugh in the face of his abjection, trying to front like he’s doing ok. He gets fucked in the ass constantly, is screamed at by his director to drink loads of milk, is bitten by fleas, and “humorously” retorts to his pain, “ Would somebody please stick something up my butt and shut me up?”
KK: A curator I greatly admire, Raimundas Malasauskas, challenged a bunch of us when he announced an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou (was it?) that was going to be based on repetition, and it was going to be called “Mardi,” (Tuesday in French), and when I was asked to think about repetition I thought instantly of porn and how its static, repetitive structure is what’s so vital about it—not the sex it shows but the order in which it’s shown, in gay male porn inevitably moving from oral to anal and only in that order, —though once upon a time, in the so called golden age of porn, no such stratification existed, or at least the sequence hadn’t hardened into the dominant monolithic paradigm. I was thinking of “Mardi,” too, one of Melville’s South Sea romances, and decided to make my Mardi the twink wanna-be porn star who for now handles all the scut work. It would be a diary, and show how every day is more or less the same, like a Beckett novel, and insofar as possible I would vary even the sentences very little, to correspond to what is wanted, by the market, from Mardi’s milk-white ass.
MLR: I’m interested in the tension in your work between campiness/humor and very serious issues you explore: AIDS, war, homophobia, death, sexual violence. How do you approach that line?
KK: I always return to the 1980s debate about how AIDS should be written up, and it’s been often rehearsed so I won’t repeat all the details here, but in short a great novelist argued that AIDS was our Holocaust and thus should never be mixed with humor, and in reponse a great filmmaker argued that he had everything backwards and the total systemic terror of the epidemic was exactly the reason we needed to employ humor—that it could be our secret weapon. I think it’s a battle people still take sides on today. Indeed even for myself there are some things I don’t think should be joked about (like Kylie Minogue’s decline in popularity since the mid-2000s). But it’s a touchy area and I have often been accused of a vicious amoral vision, a flatness, a lack of affect, because I’m not always as neoliberal as I should be to get by.
MLR: Could you speak more about that? I’m interested in how you’re perhaps connecting your approach to this content to an affront to free-market capitalism. You’re using the word neoliberal how some would use “politically-correct.”
KK: My parents were always liberals and so was I, but I was never very sophisticated politically and this led me to admire people’s president types like JFK and Clinton—oh, how I worshipped Clinton, and it was that populist way he had that blinded me to the way personal charm can distract one from seeing that underneath it was just more of the same old horsehit about the rich becoming richer and the poor seeing their jobs disappear into the black hole of a free economy, a NAFTA world without protectionism, in which everything is for sale, including all public and common spaces. My poem “Trouble at the Pole” speaks allegorically of my love on Clinton by imagining the revolt of the enslaved elves against good old Santa Claus whom everybody loves and….
MLR: I’d like to switch gears for a moment and discuss your ongoing photo project, “Tagged,” in which you photograph male poets and artists wearing nothing but a penis-and-balls drawn by Raymond Pettibon. Could you discuss this project a little bit?
KK: I’m a photographer the way that all of us are photographers now, we all have our iPhones and take selfies and pictures of cute dogs or stunning sunsets. I just got lucky because I found a schtick maybe three years back. I had this drawing by Raymond, a life-size square of male genitals, and I began photographing my friends wearing it, initially over their clothes. As a way of interrogating or complicating antiquated ideals of masculinity it didn’t get much better than this huge, and somewhat comical, overdetermination painted large. It was our genitals–at least up until recent history–that have “tagged” us, that have provided much of our identity, but was that era shifting? One curator suggested I find someone who would strip naked, wear only the drawing, and intersperse that photo among a lineup of clothed men, see what happened. The poet Ted Rees and the filmmaker, George Kuchar, were my first “nude” models.
MLR: Can you talk about how this project has been received and how the process has been for you and your subjects?
KK: “Tagged” has been well received, I’ve had a number of shows based on this work, and a book has appeared, from the San Diego press Gravity & Trajectory, edited by Darin Klein, introduced by Rob Halpern, who wrote an essay that made me seem like a genius. I’ve been well launched indeed, and continue to work on these pictures, which form I realize sort of a diary of my life over the past couple years. Most of my “models” (I use the word as Bresson did, when referring to his actors) are guys I’ve known for a long time, but many are strangers, poets and artists new to me, and the day I take their pants off is the first time I’m meeting them, returning me to an earlier stage in life, –the Arthur Russell era, I guess. I would say that ninety percent of these guys, straight, gay, or what have you, have never posed nude before. They’re doing it for art’s sake, or in solidarity with my quixotic search for meaning. As a way of breaking the ice, establishing intimacy, there’s nothing like this practice. It is the funnest thing I’ve ever done, though when it goes south, it goes south fast.
MLR: If clothing can represent a conscious reflection of identity, what does it mean to have your subjects remove it for this project?
KK: They’re surrendering some of their badges, in essence, and becoming clownish caricatures of male privilege. One fellow wrote a bar code over his ass. It’s a little pervy, but I’m no Terry Richardson. I’ve got more credibility than I used to have, and if I take 100 pictures of you, in one or two of them you’re bound to look beautiful. I remember when I heard you and Marisa were returning from Brooklyn to give a couple of readings here in San Francisco, a light came on over my head and I thought to myself, “Matt’s a poet, he’ll be sympathetic to this project,” and I sprang it on you ahead of time through e-mail, and happily you agreed. What was running through your head? You and Marisa came over and we did the shoot and I had the benefit of all your ideas and of her advice too! I tell you, if it weren’t for straight guys with open minds, I’d have a super slim portfolio. When we did our shoot I gave you a camera too, and asked you to take as many pictures as you could, yourself—not easy when your other hand is trying to hold a drawing over your dick. I felt honored, and touched, and a little turned on of course, and I felt like an artist, grateful for your support and trust. And you—how did you feel?
MLR: I agreed to do it because I wanted to cross a boundary that I hadn’t crossed before. Also it was an excuse to hang with you. ( : I appear nude on the cover of the great poet and teacher Truong Tran’s FOUR LETTER WORDS, but I was hidden behind a veil of plastic and string and photographed along with a group of friends. The photoshoot with you felt more intimate and thus more scary. I certainly enjoyed the attention and left feeling exhilarated and perhaps a little more comfortable in my own clunky body… I was talking with a friend the other day about sexual orientation being fluid or spectral. In hindsight, I think I was relieved to have Marisa along to remind myself of my straightness, in face of the fact that on more than one occasion I’ve been excited to strip down and be photographed by gay men. If everyone’s a little gay, maybe everyone has their own internalized homophobia…
KK: Recently I was in Chicago and a young artist and curator I know there asked me if I’d ever photographed a woman for “Tagged,” and I said, no, I was too bashful, but she persisted and she succeeded in becoming my first female model. Raymond made a female version of his drawing, but she definitely wanted to understand what it might be like to have a dick for an hour. It flashed me back to working with you, and how you tried on the vaginal drawing and looked great with that on too. You have an easy way about you that’s very attractive, and you don’t look clunky, you’re fit, athletic, tall, all right your hair’s a little crazy, but you have a powerful chest and arms, a tight waist, and a great butt!
MLR: Thanks Kevin! You’re not so bad yourself! ( : I want to end with a more general question about your writing/art life. Your bio could be five people’s bios combined. You’re so incredibly prolific. What are your driving forces? How the hell do you do so much?!?
KK: I wasted most of my life, I guess, in the coils of alcohol, drugs, and a quest for sex pleasure that would take me away from the suburbs that imprisoned me. Until I was thirty I hardly drew a sober breath—so I work always under the consciousness of being a late starter None of my books came out before I turned thirty, I’m working overtime trying to turn out the stuff I might have long ago, if i didn’t waste so much time trying to find myself. I found my “self,” but lost the world, and now I’m trying to get it back.