Over the course of the 1980s, Linda Mary Montano interviewed one hundred and eighty fellow artists. In 2000, the University of California Press published a hundred of these under the title Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties. Divided into four categories—sex, food, money/fame, ritual/death—this is the gold standard as far as interview anthologies go. Yet, the eighty remaining talks are filed among Montano’s papers at the Fales Library & Special Collections at NYU, including this conversation with Kathy Acker conducted around 1983. The Rail is pleased to publish this for the first time to coincide with the publication of Chris Kraus’s literary biography, After Kathy Acker (Semiotext(e), 2017) also featured in this issue by way of a conversation with
Jarrett Earnest. Special thanks to Kelly Haydon, the terrific Fales’ staff and, of course, to Linda Montano herself.
Linda Montano: I became acquainted with your work, your books, when I was living in San Diego. You use sex as content and I wanted to interview you specifically about sex and performance. How did you feel about sex as a child?
Kathy Acker: I don’t think that I separated sex from anything else when I was young. I went to an all-girls school and all-girls camp and I literally didn’t know a boy except my father until I was in the eighth grade. I don’t think that I thought much about sex simply because I didn’t know what it was. I do have some memories of camp though. All of the girls were competing with each other to see who was whose best friend. There’s a lot of hierarchal competition at that age. There was also a big thing about who you’d sleep with at night because we’d crawl into bed with our best friend. I don’t know if that’s sex or not. It was about friendship. I didn’t think about sex—I thought about being loved and liked. We were little girls and it was important to know where we stood in the power structure and this depended on who was your girlfriend.
Montano: Was your home life repressive or allowing?
Acker: Very repressive. They never mentioned sex. Actually, in a way they were very allowing. My mother’s relationship to me was complicated, so it wasn’t a clear way of being allowing or repressive. She was what I’d call typically bourgeois because, on the surface, I had to behave like everyone else. Normalcy was the god. But underneath that surface, it was wild: anything goes. It was a totally amoral way of being. So they never mentioned sex.
Montano: Then her silence gave you permission?
Acker: Yes, in a way I had a lot of freedom because she proved her dislike of me by ignoring me. She acted like a mother and I acted like a daughter. I knew sex was bad but no one was telling me anything at all so I was given a double message. I’d have the typical Yale boy pick me up so that I’d calm everyone down and then I’d go out and do what I wanted.
Montano: You forthrightly adopted sexual images in you work. When was that?
Acker: I was brought up a rich kid, went to college and decided that all I wanted to do was be a writer. At graduate school, I found myself in a life I didn’t want and David Antin said, “Get yourself to New York. What are you doing here, Kathy?” He was talking what I thought was sense to me and I still think it’s sense. So I did it even though I was very naive about the world and didn’t know about jobs and money. My parents had disowned me but the graduate school had been paying very nicely for me, so I’d never really known what it was to be poor. I got to New York and found out that I wasn’t really top of the world at all. I couldn’t get a job, I got very sick, I was dumb about men. I lived with a guy and paid his alimony. I essentially didn’t know the world, no. I had to make a lot of money and ended up doing porn films. Obviously I did it for other reasons but the money was desperate. I was very sick and had to pay for medicine because I learned that if you’re poor and sick and have to go to the clinic, you’d end up dead if you didn’t get out of that situation. So I was in this extremely vicious cycle of having to work to get sicker, in order to pay for the medicine to get well and on and on.
Doing these fake sex shows on 42nd Street was about the only way I could manage. To keep myself surviving mentally at that point—as if there’s a difference between mental and physical—I simply wrote all the time. I went from high class to low class as far as my identity was concerned so I had to write. Genet was correct when he said that when you’re on the bottom you have a chance to see people in a different way. It’s a real situation of power, in some ways, if observation is a power.
Montano: What happened in the sex shows?
Acker: We’d have to do a half-hour skit and someplace in it I’d have to pretend to come. Basically, I’d have to take my underpants off for five minutes. I worked with my boyfriend all the time and he and I could do anything we wanted unless the customers complained too much. If they saw your naked body and you went, “ah, ah, ah,” three times, the customers didn’t complain.
Montano: Was your writing thematically sexual before coming to NY?
Acker: I think I was writing poems, some erotic, but not any more than a girl writing a lot of love poems. I was imitating Pound, or what I thought was Pound.
Montano: My theme is religion. I keep repeating it so that I can understanding and demystify or even mystify it. Is sex your theme?
Acker: I work structurally. I just finished a Grillet novel, Topology of the Phantom City. At one point I was thinking he’s describing the city I would want… the city of pleasure. I thought, what would my city of pleasure be? The glory of that book is the fact that Grillet was able to go over and over the things he obsesses about. It’s just one obsession after another, without restriction or shame. I wondered, what are my obsessions? And I though that one of them was rejection. I don’t think about sex or religion but about narrative myths. The myth of rejection. That myth is very sexual but it’s also parental, familial… it’s about power, it’s about all sorts of things. I don’t have Prince Charming myths as much as I have daddy/father/mother/sister things going on. But it’s all about rejection. And the myths change.
My first book, Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, was totally obsessed. In fact I had a real crisis about my writing about a year ago because I wasn’t really obsessed and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to lose the guts and yet I didn’t want to tell the same story. I worry that what I’m doing isn’t too grounded, that it’s too pleasurable. But it’s alright. The range of material increases as the obsession gets a little less.
My latest book is Great Expectations, and formally it’s really interesting because it’s all about rhythm and breath. When I’m writing a sex scene, in a way I’m not writing content at all—it’s all about breath. More and more I’m thinking that’s what writing is about. It’s not breath the way Allen [Ginsberg] talks about breath—it’s more like Walter Benjamin to me.
Montano: Does the work have to be performed in order to be breathed properly?
Acker: It doesn’t have to be oral. You don’t have to speak my work. I like the more complicated textures of written stuff.
Montano: How does the reader perform it?
Acker: Words regulate the breath and as the eye moves, the writing regulates the reader’s rhythm. Also their body rhythms. There’s something going on between the writer and reader which is somewhat like being touched sensually and sexually. Language is alive and active.
Montano: Who or what are your teachers?
Acker: Art is our real religion, and, if you just follow art carefully, you learn a lot. It’s a very, very good teacher. That’s what I feel I’ve done. I also meditate every day, but I feel that my real teacher is poetry, and that just gets better and better all the time. It teaches me incredibly.
Montano: How do you feel about sex now?
Acker: Very complicated. I’d like more of it. It would be nice to have someone where it wasn’t such problem. My favorite film is Pasolini’s Arabian Nights—the promise of paradisiacal sex and sensuality. I think that world does exist and I’d like it to exist: where everything is just feeling, where there is a balance between everything.
But there are all kinds of problems with sex. Sometimes I’m celibate because it’s just too painful. I don’t understand zombie sex and I don’t understand how people can sleep around without getting hurt and burned. I mean, it’s hot stuff. I sometimes associate getting hurt and sex much too much, and I get hurt.