Ray Johnson: fort-da
Kevin Killian interviewed by Andrew Blackley.
[Photo: William E. Jones]
Kevin Killian is the San Francisco-based author of three novels, three books of stories, a memoir, fifty plays, and a number of other books. Recent publications include a volume book of poetry, Tweaky Village (Wonder Books) and a collection of his color photographs of naked artists, musicians, poets, musicians, etc., Tagged: Variations on a Theme (GR/TR).
3:AM: How did we get here, or, what brings you us here – in interest and practice – to these two publications and to Ray Johnson himself? Kevin, in that you wrote an essay for “Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson 1954-94,” what did you knowingly bring with you to that project? I should also begin too by saying thank you for your willingness to have this conversation.
Kevin Killian: I’m not much of a Ray Johnson expert really, a fact about which I’m pretty open in my introduction to Not Nothing, but the situation is even worse than you thought. About halfway through writing my introduction I decided that I really should see How to Draw a Bunny, the recent documentary everyone was talking about but which I missed. And oh what a shock when I saw it! I realized that the man I had sort of dated in New York in the early 1970s, and whom I had believed to be Ray Johnson, wasn’t him after all, but a completely different artist (I guess), whose name is now lost to me. He was not the charming, motormouth blonde we see in the documentary…. All this time I’d been thinking, well, I never had sex with Ray Johnson, but I could have!
The rest of my introduction I wrote in a mounting tide of respect for the man and the writer, untainted by the sordid and drug-filled haze of our attachment. I began thinking of him as a god, so noble so self-effacing, and always a clever quip. The thing that stuck in my craw was his determination. What sign was he? He had that steely look in his eye behind his smile, the one that many gay men know, the look that says, because I’m grinning and dropping charm you may think I enjoy eating your shit but once the tables are turned my ideas will prevail.
Secondly, when one begins with The Paper Snake, when The Paper Snake is one’s first book, few will call one pretentious—if some almost like some precious hippie trick, like Grapefruit, from which time removes the goof factor and it seems rare and perfect—like the Trojan Horse in reverse.
3:AM: I can fairly precisely recall the emotion – is curiosity an emotion? – during my first experience in the archives of Ray Johnson about a year ago; you have to drop everything you’re carrying on the street to prepare yourself for such a potentially philological experience. There’s a text I transcribed there that comes to mind now -
This is your official
Ray Johnson paper doll.
Create your own wardrobe
For him, keeping in mind
That he sees no new
Trends in fashion and
His ideal wardrobe is
A Mongolian gerbil
Named Chin. He describes
His clothing as “lucky,”
And the only comment he
has to make about clothes
is “Charles Manson.”
- which creates a variety/ies of a You, but never really any accessible moment of Me. As a reader foremost, where do you find or position yourselves? In what area are you filing this history and these texts?
KK: Okay, paper dolls are always appealing on the one hand, creepy on the other, especially to the extent that the dolls wear the expressions of dressed people but they’ve got their underwear on and that’s it. For gay boys of Ray Johnson’s generation, male paper dolls were the ne plus ultra of erotic investigation, and some of that gloating energy emerges quite charmingly from this poem. ”This is your official (line break),” it begins, and the note of the “official” is always there in Johnson, his satire of Cold War (I expect, of FDR-era) bureaucracy, the sort that flirted with an Orwellian identity parade. “Ray Johnson paper doll.” The Mills Brothers had their longest chart topper with the song “Paper Doll,”; it was #1 all through Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years when Ray was sixteen, when pop hit him hardest. ”I’d like to buy a paper doll that I can call my own,” was the refrain, basically in preference to a real life boyfriend or girlfriend, one who will always let you down.
The “Mongolian gerbil/ Named Chin” is rather tasteless, but he’s just warming up to Charles Manson. Many of us watching Mad Men’s current season are all freaked out because the writers and producers seem hellbent on rewriting the story of Megan Draper as a doomed Sharon Tate; so Manson’s much on my mind. (Tragic footnote to Mad Men season, the whole Manson subtext never blossomed into an actual storyline, remained a subtext, perhaps that’s the way of today?). I think that for Ray Johnson, any man whose name ended with “-son” as his was like a brother to him, or a shadow self, an identity you could slip on over your underwear. Tasteless, yes, but that was also the beauty of the official paper doll, it allowed the under-self to dress as the garment, commit the act, and then change clothes and slip away, essentially innocent or, where not, sort of funny, something a kid might try on.
3:AM: Let’s talk about nothing, and alongside Nothing, we have the nothings; the lineage (as proactive) of Johnson’s Nothing, but also, accepting that, the something/nothing/other/I problem – one gestured to or suggested by others elsewhere in text or gesture. With Johnson it is as one of equivalencies dually and contra, fully, as one of non-equivalencies: Je est un autre, you are always another person, fields of the Other… Johnson. His range becomes recognizable as a line only in that it stops – drawing from 102 moticos: from machine for them all the way through to as is. The 100 between do not particularly account for the end caps in progress or perspective. Instead, as a set, there is an installation of vulnerability that ultimately renders the whole as empathetic, if not self-empathetic. It shouldn’t work, and maybe it doesn’t – perspective or progress aren’t necessarily our metrics – but just the same I’m even less convinced about sure and/or short accounts of self-circuit, or even feedback simply, as fitting dismissals or intelligences applied.
We (here I’ll reluctantly accept the having to be a reader too) have naturalizations, and embodiments, but, of course – as you entertained the question in conversation with me at some point previous – we have the powerful force and potentiality of negativity; that is the I as the negative nothing; the Ray Johnson as the not John Doe, shadow shelf, James Dean’s Levis, “the (hum), the (space), John Doe, Nothing, death.”
KK: I keep climbing down the rabbit hole of that 102 Moticos poem which you, Andrew, use as an example of Johnson’s spiraling negativities. Perhaps because I’m a novelist, or a biographer, but something in me wants to decode the poem in such a way that the key to RJ’s heart would click, twirl and open. Though part of me thinks, no way is that gonna happen. And yet I keep going back and trying to make sense out of its repeated allusions to ghosts, angels, birds (very Spicerian in this regard, or perhaps it’s the touch of Black Mountain, or perhaps an actual occult is beginning to form from the swirl of the cauldron). One column has “Marlon” in it, the other has “Brandos.” Can a surname be an “answer” to the problem of a first name? One column has “Wampum,” the other, “some papoose swinging.” There are colors (quite a few, was he riffing through some Pantone cards while writing it?), the word “yes,” Peru, Switzerland, Tokyo, Australia–shall we say, sites on many continents? There are trios, like “there, please, moon” and “love, feel, long to” in which the lyric impulse seems to pop up, perhaps to be mocked? I know it’s about the materiality of language and the power of the numeric–it’s like a Vito Acconci poem in that way–and yet there’s something alive that keeps bouncing, like a firefly in a jar, against its cold transparent shell and almost reaching the human.
3:AM: Well, with the moticos – as way and as thing – we’re already working with an anagramic form of the osmotic, or any particular osmosis, which here for Johnson seems so much about a twisted, shifted version of self-arranging the concepts surrounding equalizations of pressures and mass. It begs us to ask where does one locate a twisted rate and process of transparency and representation to the other – real, remembered, or otherwise – which would so much be a position of the something. We’re turned – twisted – to and towards Nothing. Or, when the membrane is shifted right from of our field of vision, and we see more mass and substance than process: what then?
So of course 102 moticos are read as a poem, or can be: what other method harnesses and enjoys so well battled power structures – that is of declaration or proposition, calls – for a result so beautiful, but particular and peculiar, as say, a rosebud. An acquired albeit esteemed taste. Nothing seems universal, and while it may be universally possible, I think few have been willing, and fewer today are looking forward, to take the plunge of never turning back.
Perhaps earlier I was wrong to suggest lineage – maybe I would be better suited in observing a history of ideas or propositional roles past available to assume, or to assimilate in the horizontal. I think we’re together – and, in conversations ongoing outside this one – also suggesting finding fun, in the rawer sense of pleasure that’s only to be later displayed in an examination of conscience, almost reaching the human (believably, almost for the first time) and the person on the other side of the glass or partition.
KK: Elizabeth Zuba, the editor of the new Ray Johnson Selected Writings mentions in her own introduction that the puzzling word Johnson uses, “moticos,” is an anagram of the “osmotic,” whatever that may mean. Maybe it’s as you suggest, Andrew, it stands in for a “self-arranging the concepts surrounding equalizations of pressures and mass.” The self-arranging bit makes me think of anagrammization itself. Isn’t that what we do, push around the scrabble tiles until something clicks? And the “osmotic” makes me think, through a process of irrelevant association no doubt, of “Osmondosis,” the legendary Kylie Minogue instrumental track that has never been released, though often leaked. In her case, the producers called it “Osmondosis” because it samples a synthesizer riff from one of the singles of the US family band the Osmonds, who conquered the UK in the 1970s and whose records were among the first young Kylie (she was born 1968) loved. Has anyone charted Johnson’s involvement with the Mormon faith? There must be something there, don’t you think? In which case “lineage” would be everything, Andrew, so don’t dismiss your insights so quickly.
I think that his writing holds out words as empty vessels, as one who might leave a pan and a pot out during the night and hopefully, in the morning, dew and rain can be brought back under one’s roof to serve against the next day’s dryness. The “102 Moticos” don’t mean much on first sight, but under the osmotic pressure of meaning, or condensation, they return refreshed, renewed, nigh invulnerable. Thus, from nothing to something.
3:AM: I would think that our speech acts here, undermine Ray’s work only if we think that they could, or would. I’d tend to think not, and I would hope that if they did undermine, they’d also underline any said – secondary – attempts to undermine. Speaking for myself, I think it’s all the more obvious (here) (,) (now) that language throughout the artworks and writings culled together by Siglio Press, overseen and introduced by the two of you, is material and, for Johnson, a material. For some reason or another, as I respond this evening I cant shake from my mind Warhol’s “A” : the recognition of writing as a speech, and in doing so underlining the improbability of both, onward, as truly separate. Secondly, a line early in Zweig’s Post-Office Girl: “The substance passes, the form remains.”
KK: Ray Johnson seems to somewhat cannily and somewhat uncannily explore the limits of speech and the limits of surveillance. His writings show really wonderfully how increasingly sophisticated techniques of surveillance put to shame the countrified and suddenly campy old fashioned means of keeping track of your peeps…. the roll-call…. the gossip column…. the postcard….. the language of mass journalism into which names are fed like fluoride…. the list itself…. who’s in and who’s out, the shifting meanings of “in” and “out—
All of these forms feed into Johnson’s art, but, just like all Black Mountain art, it was being made in a world in which the naming of names took on the atmosphere of a saturnalia—or that a death sentence. Johnson was keeping all these names awhirl in his mind like the ringmaster of a three-ring circus commanding a cadre of jugglers and clowns, and —who was the Russian who theorized the carnival—Bakhtin? And who was the grim garment district worker in Dickens who sat and counted and knitted the names of the condemned into her endless scarf—Madame Defarge. The work in Not Nothing reanimates the modes of Bakhtin and Defarge, filtering them through the cheerfully etiolated mode of kitsch—sausage goes in, sausage comes out, but in tinier atoms of it, and meanwhile, the machine grinds on.
3:AM: How do I make myself a machine, Kevin K.? Or, perhaps instead: a radio transceiver and a radio transmitter? I feel like you might have some advice on the matter – - that is, how does one grinds on in the most noble sense; that is: life as literature
KK: Jack Spicer it was who advised us poets to become, not transmitters, but radio sets, the portable radios we used to wear on our shoulders at Jones Beach, and to keep up the purity and utter vacancy of our machines. That way the voices from the “invisible world” could find their way into our planet, as they do on the car radio in Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphee. We are but vessels perhaps, not even machines, but shallow bowls into which holy water can be splashed. I ask again, who in the art historical community is now working on the vexed question of Ray Johnson vis-a-vis Mormonism? Somewhere in that desert basilica lie the beaten panels of Joseph Smith and maybe the truth about nothing and not nothing….
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 8th, 2014.