:: Article

The Vivid Resurrection of a Post-Punk Literary Icon

By Des Barry.

After Kathy Acker review

Chris Kraus, After Kathy Acker – a biography (Allen Lane, 2017)

Chris Kraus’s writing to date is a mélange of critical theory, autobiography and fiction. Kathy Acker’s writing is a mélange of critical theory, autobiography and fiction, albeit in a radically different style. In After Kathy Acker – a biography Kraus’s investigation into the trajectory of a writer’s life and literary career is perceptive, erudite, dark, funny, harrowing and tragic. But how much of it is true? Kraus outlines the difficulty of her task:

Although she wrote first person fiction and gave hundreds of interviews in which she was asked to recite the facts of her life over and over again, these facts are hard to pin down in any literal way. Because in a certain sense, Acker lied all the time…

The biography begins with Acker’s death and cremation. We know where we’re headed. Death awaits us all. That we can be sure of. The circumstances leading up to Kathy Acker’s death are a mix of confusion, denial and medical nightmare. A cancer diagnosis, a double mastectomy, denial of the cancer’s metastasis, her death in a clinic for alternative medicine and the scattering of her ashes on the beach at Fort Funston park near San Francisco, where there’s a wrestling match over the urn and the wind inevitably blows the ashes back in the faces of the participants.

It makes for a powerful introduction.

Kraus’s biography then focuses on the beginnings of Acker’s life as a writer: Acker’s apartment on Broadway and 163rd Street in New York City, where she reads William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s “instructions for reaching simultaneous wraparound consciousness that will eventually be published in The Third Mind”. And reading Bernadette Mayer “who is already writing durational texts, graphing the process of emotional thinking”.

To make financial ends meet, Acker works in a live sex show on Forty Second Street and does some porn movies. Casual sex with multiple partners, a norm in the seventies downtown New York art scene, leaves her with PID. Three-ways with her lover Len Neufeld and a female partner leave her wondering about her sexuality. All the while, she’s reading and writing. And when Acker hears Patti Smith read at the Saint Marks Poetry Project in February 1971, she decides “she wants to be her”.

But where did Acker originate before she fashioned the iconic post-punk goddess façade she used as an embodiment of herself as artist, and behind which she could hide? Through Acker’s diaries, fiction, interviews, school records and more, Kraus slowly sifts through the levels of Acker’s early life, yea, even as far as her physical conception.

Her high school days were spent at a private girls’ school in competition with her friend-enemies, the Mueller Twins; and with her revered English teacher Jean St. Pierre; all of whom Acker transforms to take on fictional presences in more than one novel. Acker spends a short time at Brandeis, where she was one of the few classics majors, and meets Bob Acker, whom she married, and with whom she transferred to UC San Diego. Her marriage to Bob Acker was short-lived. But in San Diego she met David and Eleanor Antin. David Antin had a major impact on Acker’s literary development when he told his writing class: 

Go to the library and steal! Steal! You can write about anything in the world that you want, except somebody who knows more about it than you, and it’s already in a book in the library.

Parallels with Burroughs come to mind. Burroughs used to write in the margins of books he was reading GETS: Good Enough To Steal. Acker finds a way into her writing style that uses texts from Dickens, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Catallus, Harold Robbins, Pauline Réage, and on and on… In her book of essays, Bodies of Work, Acker writes:

When I copy I don’t “appropriate.” I just do what gives me most pleasure: write. As the Gnostics put it, when two people fuck, the whole world fucks…

If writing cannot and writing must change things, writing will change things magically. Magic operates metaphorically. So: I will take one text, New York City, the life of my friends, and change the text by placing another text on top of it… I know that writing or making is magic. I’m not referring to “magic realism.”

Kathy Acker and William Burroughs

Whatever her influences, Acker was experimenting to find her own inimitable style. And Kraus emphasises Acker’s dedication to her craft. Kraus quotes Constance DeJong talking about Acker’s obsession with language:

The writers I came across in so-called downtown New York weren’t interested in language or questions about narrative or structure… Kathy and I shared some interests in dismantling and examining the conventions, self-consciously using them or not using them. We had that in common, and she was great friend, because you can’t sit around talking about verb tenses with everyone! Actually, almost no one.

Referring to one of Acker’s texts The Childlike Life of the Black Trantula, Kraus points out that: “Beyond the Black Tarantula’s brash, trash-talking persona, what’s remarkable about this early work is the intensity Acker arrives at: accessing fleshy, emotive fragments of female experience within a framework of formalist rigour.” 

The appeal of this approach for Kraus is revealed in her novel I Love Dick: “‘Dear Dick’ I wrote in one of many letters, ‘What happens between women now is the most interesting thing in the world because it’s the least described.'”

On the mechanics of language, here is what Kraus has to say about Acker’s use of the colon:

A signature of Acker’s presence and style, the colons in Great Expectations simultaneously establish the narrator as an authoritative guide and draw us more closely into her train of thought… In Great Expectations, the colon functions as a slap, a jolt, an epinephrine shot that yanks the sentence – and by extension us – from grief’s downward drift into the present time.

The grief that Kraus is writing about concerns Acker’s mother and grandmother. Kraus quotes the third paragraph of Great Expectations: “On Christmas Eve 1978 my mother committed suicide and in September of 1979 my grandmother (on my mother’s side) died.” In a more brutal quote from a short piece called ‘Girl Gangs Take Over the World’: “This is the way THE CUNT my mother committed suicide…”

Acker’s biographical details reveal that some of the starkest recurring tropes in her writing are drawn from life events beginning with the moment of her conception:

As Acker would write over and over again – and as her surviving relatives concur – Claire became pregnant during a brief relationship with Donald Lehmann, a German-Jewish businessman from Buffalo. Claire was then twenty-one. When she told Lehmann she was pregnant, he fled.

The biography doesn’t lack literary gossip: who is fucking whom in various combinations in the seventies art scene; who’s having a breakdown; who is struggling to become famous; who becomes famous; who falls into relative obscurity; who is an unwanted guest in who’s apartment… often, it’s Kathy Acker. Acker’s self-destructive impulses appear almost as strong as her drive toward self-creation.


From another anecdote gleaned from the writer, Constance DeJong (from whom Acker was subletting an apartment) that concerns a reading/performance on which Acker and DeJong were billed together, Kraus describes this scene:

The night before the first show, Acker called DeJong and said, You know, we really need to talk about the order… “And then,” DeJong recalls, “Kathy said, I’ll tell you that you don’t want to go second, because what I’m doing is so amazing, you cannot follow. The floor just kind of disappeared. Because, this is my friend. Oh, I see, not my friend. I think that was the initial – Thinking about it as a game board, that was Kathy’s first move to winnow me out. But I was shocked…When she wouldn’t leave the apartment after the sublet was finished, I just wrote that off as a quirk. But this was an indicator…”

DeJong went on first and received a standing ovation. The next week, Acker cancelled her performances “due to an illness”.

If Acker’s actions could be collated into manual entitled How Not to Treat Your Friends, some sections of Kraus’s book might give aspiring writers, determined to get their works seen and read and heard, some ideas for reaching an audience. Acker launched persistent and effective campaigns for the independent distribution of her work. By the ingenious use of an artists’ mailing list to distribute the series of her Black Tarantula pamphlets, Acker got her writing into the hands of people she believed influential in the art world. These pamphlets were eventually collated and published in book form.

Kraus’s revelations of the small press scene are fascinating in themselves: TVRT (The Vanishing Rotating Triangle Press) that didn’t survive so long, or Station Hill Press that still survives as a print-on-demand press. One small press that thrived and still does is Semiotext(e) that was founded by Sylvère Lotringer (who was married to Chris Kraus from 2006-16). Through publication in these prestigious small presses, and through Acker’s work as performer and self-promoter, her novels came to the attention of major trade presses in the USA and in Britain.

Performance was a key aspect of Acker’s work. The St Mark’s Poetry Project was one venue where Acker chased fame. As she got more well known, the invitations to read/perform grew exponentially across the United States and Europe. Kraus points out that while other contemporary women writers “were widely respected for their achievements as writers, they never sought or attained the iconic status Great Writer as Countercultural Hero that Acker desperately craved. Until she achieved it, no woman had.” But what Kraus also emphasises is Acker’s obsession with her work as writer. Her constant linguistic research via her reading obsessions and through intense discussions with her lovers, or non-lovers, ideas that were absorbed into her own fiction. Kraus writes: “Throughout her career she described herself as a pirate, but she was also a time traveller, smuggling avant-garde histories into the media culture of the 1980s, which, except for the absence of complete connectivity – isn’t so different from the one we inhabit today.”

The final third of Kraus’s biography examines the peak moments in Acker’s life as the literary post-punk goddess that she wanted so much to be. And deservedly was. And the crushing and painful fall from grace when the media that built her up as such turned against her. There’s a certain irony that it was Britain that opened up to her the literary fame that she wanted, where the literary establishment considers it gauche to admit to wanting fame but who rely on their Eton and Oxbridge chums in the media to provide it. Kraus points out that it was a consummate performance by Acker for Melvyn Bragg’s The South Bank Show, recorded in New York, that Acker made a major breakthrough in her career:

Throughout these interviews Acker – highly composed, focused and calm – sits before Bragg on an overstuffed gold velour couch… The South Bank Show mattered, and Acker’s improvised script and performance is masterful… Dismissing all peer competition, she explains, There are almost no novelists my age doing anything besides second and third generation Philip Roth – they’re just imitators…

Building on The South Bank Show’s highbrow seal of approval, Acker moved from New York to London in time for her Picador book launch. As Kraus puts it, “in the UK, where ‘high’ literature was both revered and highly exclusionary, Acker’s unique mix of erudition, high fashion and porn made her sensational”.

After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus

What Kraus shows all too clearly is the danger of being the darling of the British press for a year or so, and the emotional damage when it turns against the writer: “Early supporters were now more than ready to question their initial enthusiasm. Was she the enfant terrible they’d declared her, or merely a fraud?” Her new book, Pussy, King of the Pirates, was ravaged by the London press. But as her cultural caché dwindled, Acker continued to write and to perform. With The Mekons she did a recorded version of Pussy, King of the Pirates that is beautiful and haunting. And Kraus writes of other collaborations that are musically a little quirkier:

Previously she’d worked with Tribe 8 on a version of My Mother: Demonology:

The work would be called Redoing Childhood.

Each take was done virtually nonstop and Ralph Carney recalls Acker jumping up and down in the booth while Tribe 8 played… “Her voice in general, there was something so lush and luscious and embracing and sexy,” Ira Silverberg told the Seattle Weekly…”

After Kathy Acker engenders a powerful desire to read (or reread) all of Acker’s work in the light of Kraus’s revelations of the connection between Acker’s lived life with the art that emerged from it. Not that it’s necessary to have read Acker before reading this biography – hopefully Kraus’s book will help new readers find the work. Acker’s writing is like a literary wrecking ball: often obscene and pornographic reworks of literary classics. She places herself in this ‘black tradition’ of writing. In the first essay in her critical collection Bodies of Work, Acker says, “American culture now is insane. Well measured language, novels which structurally depend on the Aristotelian continuities, on any formal continuities, cannot describe much less criticise such culture.”

In the second essay of Bodies of Work, referring to the rawness of William Burroughs, she writes:

Most English novels, forgetting those of Ballard, bore me… Burroughs never does for, he and other writers I think of in “that tradition,” the “non-acceptable literary tradition,” “the tradition of those books which were hated when they were written and subsequently became literary history…” present the human heart naked so that our world for a moment explodes into flames.

The last time I bought a book of Kathy Acker’s was on Tuesday 30 June 2015. I came across the Picador edition of Blood and Guts in High School in a junk shop on Glebe Point Road, in Sydney. Blood and Guts in High School is the first book of Acker’s that I read in the late-1980s when I lived in San Francisco. I loved the rawness of the prose. The dream drawings from the section called ‘The World’ had put me in mind of the Mayan drawings in William Burroughs’ Ah Pook is Here. I remember the excitement I felt to be reading a writer, and a female one at that, who was making such a whole-hearted attack on bourgeois literary culture that I’d always admired so much in William Burroughs – I still feel that excitement now. Kraus’s book deepens the experience of reading Acker by her revelation of the ordinary humanity behind the author persona. Pre-punk, punk, post-punk? What does any of that mean “in the broad general scheme of things” as Bill Burroughs would say?

Blood and Guts

A massive amount of research has gone into Kraus’s biography. There are thirty-eight pages of notes that don’t obtrude on the text but do serve to reveal the thoroughness of Kraus’s research. Aspects of Kraus’s personal connection to Kathy Acker – however tangential – are largely kept out of view. This discretion enhances rather than diminishes the book… a kind of unseen authorial presence that suffuses the easy flowing prose style. Kraus handles Acker’s struggles, failures, successes and tragedies with a critical cool, an intellectual rigour, and a deep shot of warm humanity. The biography reveals how much love Acker could engender in her friends, and how she could betray that love and affection in the most callous of ways, and still have people care for her. Above all, After Kathy Acker is an exhaustive portrait of a woman totally dedicated to her work and her career as artist. I don’t share in the binary polemic of fragmentary versus Aristotelian writing. Writing can succeed or fail either way. But I always found Acker’s writing exciting, and a fuck you to those whose aesthetic is some kind of elitist middle-class highbrow notion of what “good writing” ought to be.

After reading this book, would I have wanted to know Kathy Acker? Maybe. Maybe not. I’ve always thought that writing and where it takes the reader is more important than the personality, although in Kathy Acker’s case, her persona was as much a work of confrontational art as her novels. Acker’s writing connects with a raw part of the psyche. After Kathy Acker is a definitive, exhaustive and brilliantly written biography of a writer who lived a chaotic, victorious, tragic, destructive and painfully romantic life; a writer who flared brightly in the literary world of the late twentieth century, and burned up like a meteor in the raw atmosphere of her own life’s creation. Chris Kraus’s biography resurrects that messy, post-punk, goddess-vision, and gives a tantalising view of how to approach Kathy Acker’s inimitable writing.


Des Barry

Des Barry has published three novels with Jonathan Cape: The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday and Cressida’s Bed. His shorter prose has been published in The New YorkerGranta, 3:AM Magazine and in anthologies including Sea Stories and London Noir. He’s putting the final touches on a Faustian novel set in New York City. His alter-ego David Enrique Spellman wrote Far South, published by Serpent’s Tail. He tweets from @farsouthproject.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 19th, 2017.