Kevin Killian

Activism, Gay Poetry, AIDS in the 1980s
Excerpts from an address presented in June on “Activism, Gay Poetry, AIDS in the 1980s” at the National Poetry Foundation’s “Poetries of the 1980s” conference.

In San Francisco there was a different vibe on the street, than there had been in broken, dangerous Manhattan. In a bookstore window I saw an exquisite square book, “The Graces” by Aaron Shurin. His face on the flyer looked exquisite too. I called him up on the phone and asked if I could meet him. I must have been high, because he was so awesome it was like calling up an angel. We just had a coffee date thing. Nothing came of it. We were like moving islands tethered on Castro Street.

Soon our differences broke the smooth surface. I admired Aaron’s gay shaman persona, one I would have loved to emulate, but I couldn’t go there. But I loved San Francisco because it provided a non-ironic space in which this stance was possible. You had Robert Duncan teaching at New College, filling up twin blackboards with his beautifully willful handwriting, with different chalks to make different sorts of points, boards so gorgeous his students would photograph them, or draw them painstakingly in the primitive proto-Sharpies of our day. The magic of multiplication. You had Ronald Johnson on Elgin Park, the Phantom of the Opera, writing cookbooks, conceptual ones, like Simple Fare, in which no recipe had more than three ingredients. That was the magic of subtraction. Later he told me his publisher had vetoed the idea, and he had to put in recipes with as many as five or six ingredients. Thom Gunn I met at the annual leather sex fair, blithe as a kite, leaning against a lamppost in characteristic pose, the heel of one boot raised against the pole behind him, to raise his knee, where keys dangled from his gloved hand. There was Irving Rosenthal, the author of Sheeper, who had torn out the floor of the Victorian living room and dining room that made up his communal house, and he had a garden in it, with lawn chairs on a real lawn. Some said chipmunks. Bryan Monte told me that a fawn roamed through those rooms. I never saw it. In Buena Vista Park and in the Ambush and Ramrod, Michel Foucault was inventing a new kind of sex, or so he claimed when he came up for air, and there was a poetry in that, an operatic surrender, an exchange of symbols, an exchange of hours. When I met Robin Blaser he explained to me that poetry was by its nature hieratic, and brought together different orders of discourse, and then came a part I didn’t follow, but it was all about that poets were priests—that there’s a spiritual dimension to the work. And a political dimension too, though that wasn’t always easy to access.

But the shamanic was always there, woven in and out of ordinary life. “You, priest, must know where to strike,” Robin wrote. (It’s in "The Moth Poem.")
The cost has
been high     when all the world is loved by the
daimon of mediocrity,      you, unpriestly, among
hierarchs on fire       burned mouth

must know why you strike


We wanted to infuse stories of our lives with the rigors of theoretical discourse. We wanted to bring the body back to writing, by any means necessary, and so we employed everything from the litany of biology to the badlands of porn to get it there. Bataille was our god, and John Wieners our other God, because he was so abject. he seemed to have been the wax mask breathed on by Bataille, to make his word into flesh. Asked in 1984 by Raymond Foye about whether he subscribed to a theory of poetics, Wieners replied, “I try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of.” That’s what we did in the New Narrative. For me the great tragedies of life were then that life was basically too sad to live; like Wieners I cried when the stars died, and I remember my room on Guerrero Street, plastered with photos and posters and headlines of the one-two punch, the one after another deaths that slammed my world when first Princess Grace died, then Romy Schneider, both in early middle age, both Continental, each a hideous death, and one afternoon in the fall of 1982 I was standing up fucking a guy against that wall with big faces of Romy and Grace, and him saying, er, maybe a condom, I can see him peering back at me against the black and white engravature of Grace Kelly, sort of shy, but persistent, what you’d call a power bottom, his lips pouting in silhouette, a condom, why? For we hadn’t used them since I was a teenager I expect, and now I was in my 20s. “Because, you know,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “gay cancer.” I’d like to say I had a condom on me but no, and I’d like to say I went to safe sex right away, but now, these were just whispers in the dark, and by the time HIV was identified they say fully half of the gay men in San Francisco hadbeen infected, perhaps 55,000 men and at that moment, and for years afterwards, it was roughly the same as a death sentence. Half! That was like every other guy you saw as you walked down the street. I’ve often wondered how my one guy was so prescient, begging for a condom in that small voice, for then we didn’t know, we had no idea how to stay alive, or what it was that was pushing us off that cliff. [1]

[1] “By the time the virus was identified in 1984, approximately 50% of the city’s gay men were already infected.” (Sura Wood, “Rhapsody in AIDS Activism: New exhibit at the GLBT History Museum explores our past,” The Bay Area Reporter, Vol 42, No, 12, March 22-28, 2012, pp. 17, 29.)

Kevin Killian has written two novels, Shy (1989) and Arctic Summer (1997), a book of memoirs, Bedrooms Have Windows (1990), and three books of stories, Little Men (1996), I Cry Like a Baby (2001), and Impossible Princess (2009). He is the author of two collections of poetry, Argento Series (2001), and Action Kylie (2008). For the San Francisco Poets Theater Killian has written forty plays, including Stone Marmalade (1996, with Leslie Scalapino), The American Objectivists (2001, with Brian Kim Stefans), and Often (2001, with Barbara Guest). He has written on the life and work of the poet Jack Spicer (with Lewis Ellingham) and edited My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (2008, with Peter Gizzi) for Wesleyan University Press. Recent projects include Screen Tests, an edition of Killian's film writing, a show inspired by the late poet Elizabeth Bishop (in collaboration with artist Ajit Chauhan), and a book of Killian’s intimate photographs, Tagged, to appear in the spring. His new novel, 22 years in the making, is called Spreadeagle from Publication Studio.

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