After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography

I will read pretty much anything Chris Kraus writes. This biography of the irrepressible Kathy Acker fills a huge hole by piecing together fragments from the post-punk plagiarist’s life while casually name-dropping the stars of the 70s/80s art and lit scenes of NY/SF/London. Kraus holds shards of Acker’s writing up to the light, framing them in a way that imbues spectral genius meaning, making it almost approachable. Perhaps I’ll give Acker another try now that I’m equipped with her backstory and guideposts to which of her works are easily consumed. Through no fault of her own, Kraus continues her tradition of making me feel dumb as I realize how much I don’t know, jotting down names of writers and artists and pieces and magazines. Weighted down by my own ignorance, it was a treat to have familiar faces bob out of the mist, like Bernadette Mayer and Pat Highsmith who both crossed paths with KA, either in a big way (Mayer) or tangentially (Highsmith through Lil Picard).

The book settles the conflicting opinion of whether Acker was wealthy or not. Yes, then no, then yes again once her grandmother died. With her inheritance, she seemed to purchase apartments in London and NYC at the drop of a hat, but at the end of her life, dying of cancer and refusing chemo, wasting away in Tijuana, she had very little left.

Kraus interviewed scads of Acker’s friends and acquaintances to pull together the overall view. You can sense her raised eyebrow when she got an email reply from Kathy’s first husband who said he was “surprised there’s any interest in the subject. I never see her books in bookstores anymore, and I visit bookstores pretty often.”

One of Acker’s main influences was David Antin, teaching a poetry seminar at UCSD and who, out of fear of having to read too many maudlin undergrad poems, instructed his students to “find someone who’s already written about something better than you could possibly do at this moment in your life, and we’ll consider the work of putting the pieces together like a film.” This layering of “found” text is an integral part of Acker’s work from then on.

David’s wife, Eleanor Antin, was also a huge help, donating her list of 600 friends/acquaintances and Acker copied Eleanor’s strategy of sending something once a month to the list as a deadline and a way to keep top of mind to this influential group. The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula went out in 6 installments to this list from the anonymous Acker, her real identity known only by hearsay. “Then, just as now, rumor and hearsay were far more effective tools for advancing a nascent reputation than plastering one’s unwanted name all over the place.”

Acker lived in a couple of locations in the Haight/Cole Valley: 46 Belvedere St. and 929 Clayton St. She also stayed with friends in Noe Valley and traipsed around to various punk/dyke/dive bars in the city. She produced pamphlets at a  Noe Valley print shop and bookstore called the Empty Elevator Shaft (1970s). When KA came back to SF in 1990, she fell in love with the welcoming community and found a kindred spirit in Avital Ronell (whose Telephone Book I’ve tried to read but may give Crack Wars a try).

A reminder of kinder, gentler times: “Throughout the 1970s, welfare, unemployment insurance, and disability SSI were the de facto grants that funded most of New York’s off-the-grid artistic enterprises.” There was also an abundance of grants. Acker applied for and won a CAPS (Creative Artists Public Service) grant in 1975 to travel to Haiti for research for a book.

Lil Picard, also applying for that CAPS grant at age 76, invited KA to participate in her performance piece, Tasting and Spitting, where the audience was invited to taste then spit wine at Acker. Pat Highsmith introduced Lil to the 10th St. galleries of the 1940s and Lil’s interest shifted from cabaret and hat-making to visual arts. According to Kraus,”Picard became a key member of the NO!art group, a transnational association of artists that included Boris Lurie, Alan Kaprow, Yayoi Kusama, and Jean-Jacques Lebel. The group embraced rebellion and stood against pop art, the celebration of consumerism, art world-market investment, and the amnesiac postwar consciousness that reigned in New York during the 1960s.”

Hilariously, Acker was banned from AOL in the mid 90s “for using obscenity in a chat room” before she moved on to another provider.  “Like many others, Acker was already skeptical about the transformative potential of the internet, an information superhighway already littered with commerce and trash.” Acker tells her friend Cynthia in Seattle that “if it weren’t for teaching and the gym, I might never leave my house! That’s how much I got into my computer…. The world of books is becoming like the world of opera.”  (e.g. obsolete)

  • Acker’s 1983 book Great Expectations, “arguably her best work… the novel she worked on for the longest time, and the shortest of her subsequent books.” (Then Blood and Guts in High School?)
  • Bernadette Mayer’s Memory exhibition in 1972; she also edited 0 to 9 magazine between 1967-69.
  • Spitting Image was a satirical show in the UK that featured “grotesque, scary puppets.”