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The Renegade Idealist

By Larrybob (larrybob@io.com)


May 23, 2003


Acker and Ginsberg

On two different nights last week I took a bus and a cable car to the intersection of Columbus and Broadway -- North Beach. In both cases, the occasion was a remembrance of a culturally important writer who died in 1997. That was a hard year for writers -- not only did the two recognized this week, Kathy Acker and Allen Ginsberg, die in that period, but so did William Burroughs, a writer who was significant for these two.

Kathy Acker was memorialized with a reading at City Lights Books. Kathy died six years ago. She had breast cancer.

I didn't really know Kathy Acker. I first saw her read when I still lived in Minnesota. She was brought to the Walker Art Center as part of a series called Cultural Infidels, which was curated by John Killacky, more recently director at the Yerba Buena Center. After the reading she signed my books -- "Acker." No first name. I think that's how she always referred to herself. After I moved to San Francisco I'd see her at readings or on her motorcycle on Valencia, near where she went to the gym. After one reading, I think at New Langdon Arts, I went with a group of people including Robert Gluck and Dodie Bellamy to a bar nearby. It seemed like Kathy was more interested in talking to a tough guy customer than to the writers.

The bookshelves in City Lights on the main floor had been wheeled back and small red plastic stools that looked like Devo accessories had been placed on the floor. There were a few chairs around the edge for readers and those who couldn't take squatting low.

The reading was introduced by Amy Scholder, who edited the new anthology of Acker's writing and another new book which collected two early novellas by Acker, Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective and the Burning Bombing of America.

Matias Viegener, who's Acker's literary executor, talked about being a corrective -- setting straight people who are overemphasizing various aspects of Acker. He said that currently the most neglected is the political Acker, and discussed her writings on Arabic culture.

Diamanda Galas was advertised for the reading, but she sent her regrets. She was represented by a recording of her reading Acker's writing at a New York reading last fall, accompanied by Galas' vocals. New York University, the site of a conference on Acker where the recording was made, has a collection which includes not only Acker's papers but also other notable writers such as Dennis Cooper.

Michelle Tea (reading fast as she reads her own writing -- afterwards someone noted that Acker read very slowly, something which was an influence on Dennis Cooper) read from Rip-Off Red, the new/old book.

Robert Gluck read from Great Expectations, noting that when Acker wrote it she lived with him. The excerpt included a section where Acker used an overheard conversation between Gluck and a friend.

Kevin Killian read a section from My Death My Life By Passolini -- a very experimental excerpt, influenced by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets.

Dodie Bellamy read a piece which was a pastiche of the film Susperia, in which penises dropped from the building's plaster and writhed like maggots. Kathy had introduced her and Kevin to the films of Dario Argento, which was important to them -- Kevin has written a book titled "Argento Series."

Rex Ray read I Am Erica Jong from the original chapbook. Ray brought forth the humor in Acker's writing. He's experienced as an actor in Killian's plays, which play with high and low culture -- for instance, a recent play posited Hugo Ball as the father of Lucille Ball.

Kate Braverman, author of Palm Latitudes, read from Kathy Goes To Haiti, which she said she had spent a week with when she reviewed it. I was not previously familiar with Braverman's writing, but she has been called a postmodern experimentalist in a similar vein to Acker and Burroughs.

Robert Gluck said that he had talked at the event in New York, and now he was speaking at this one, and he imagined that every six months or so for the rest of their lives, the writers who had known Acker would be called upon to speak about her.

While I was at City Lights, I noticed a flyer on a bulletin board on the stairs going to the poetry room. It advertised a screening on the coming Tuesday at Golden Gate of videos of Allen Ginsberg reading. The event was hosted by Kush of Cloud House. Kush has been taping San Francisco poetry events for years. He records a hundred events a year.

I saw Ginsberg read only once, in 1990 when I visited San Francisco for the first Out/Write conference of gay and lesbian writers. The reading was organized by Steve Abbott, who had organized a reading for Ginsberg in Nebraska in the 1960s which was an inspiration for Ginsberg's poem Wichita Vortex. Kush taped the 1990 reading, but that was not one of the readings on offer tonight.

I arrived at 303 Columbus, a restaurant called Golden Gate. They usually screen movies with their projector. There were a few people around for the screening, but not a big turnout. Aggie Falk stopped by to point out that one item in her art show currently hanging there is a calligraphic portrait of Ginsberg. The majority of what was screened was from a 1992 reading in San Jose. Ginsberg was burning bright like a tiger, hearty and intense. Accompanying himself on a harmonium drone, he sang a song about the first Gulf War and Iran-Contra. He played claves and sang his Don't Smoke song -- at the 1990 reading he'd performed the song with Don Cherry on trumpet.

Then the video cut to a 1994 appearance at the Noe Valley Ministry. Ginsberg gave instruction in meditation. Paying attention to the out breath and so on. I tried to follow the instructions but it was difficult in the clatter of the restaurant, my mouth still watering from the bruschetta I'd just eaten.

Next, more of the 1992 reading. This time reading rather than singing. I wondered whether there was any unpublished material in what we were hearing. He talked about Burroughs mailing him from South America parts of what became Naked Lunch, and read his poem responding to that.

To introduce his Sunflower Sutra, he asked whether people were familiar with William Blake's Sunflower. When there seemed to be some uncertainty, he sang the Blake piece as a "literary footnote." Then he recited his own Sunflower Sutra, noting that a sutra is a dialog, and that English is also related to Sanscrit, and that in English the word "suture" comes from the same root.

We returned to the meditation footage. After the meditation Ginsberg asked people to write down three or four things that had distracted them during meditation, making a list poem, so to speak.

After a few more poems, he entered into a series of haiku. He recited each twice, so they could be absorbed in their brevity.

There was more footage from the Noe Valley Ministry, where he talked about the idea of First Thought, Best Thought, and quoted Philip Whalen as saying "My writing is a picture of my mind moving." (He had also mentioned Whalen at the other reading in the introduction of Sunflower Sutra.)

There were some more of the haiku from the 1992 reading. And then some black-and-white archival footage from soon after Ginsberg was in Czechoslovakia. Ginsberg's beard and thinning hair still black. The film looked to have been shot at City Lights. Bookshelves surrounded the people. It was a little hard to hear the sound during the interview segment. There were questions about his experience in Eastern Europe. Neal Cassady showed up. In response to Ginsberg's well thought out comments on world politics in Vietnam, Cassady talked about the apocalypse and the Bible. The highlight of this footage was Ginsberg reading his poem Kral Majales about his election as King of May, after which he was expelled from Czechoslovakia. The poem -- with lines like "and I am the King of May, which is the power of sexual youth" -- was potent as he read it from the fresh experience.

The tape had to be ejected before it reached the end because the restaurant wanted to show a movie. So we did not reach the intended conclusion of Ginsberg singing "Father Death Blues," which Kush had also wanted for a resonance of a memorial for his own father's death.

We went to Spec's to talk for a bit with Mel Clay, who had stopped by towards the end. Kush is tired of dealing with bookstores and restaurants that have other agendas, and would like to have his own space to show his tapes and archive. Whatever I can do to help that happen, I want to do.