III. Phantom of the Opera
Kevin Killian was driving away from the San Francisco International Airport in that junker he’d pick you up in—I’m not the kind of gay who knows the make of cars, so in my mind’s eye it’s just a vague brown station wagon that occasionally made concerning noises. The night before, he’d found a choice parking spot right near his pad on secluded Minna Street, what luck, but when he trotted down the front steps with a whistled tune on his lips, the keys spinning on a finger this smoldering morn (half of the state of California was on fire in the distance), he discovered a disrupted person dressed in a tattered business suit squatting behind the trunk with his pants around his ankles. The poor fellow was clutching the vehicle’s bumper with both hands, white-knuckled, face contorted in strain, with a turgid shit coiling out of his pocked ass that plopped on the warm asphalt behind one of the tires. After that dude had shambled off muttering ancient curses, Kevin realized that overnight someone had smashed a window to poke around in a pile of ungraded papers he’d left in the back seat. Little chips of glass littered the sidewalk like unwelcome confetti. He never kept anything of value in his car, the radio had been stolen too many times to be replaced again, but still an uninvited guest would break in at least every few months. It was like a tax for living in a state of social collapse. If you worked for Google, you could call a 1-800 number and Alphabet Inc. would send an undocumented worker right over to replace the window for you, no need to take it to the shop. But Kevin and his partner Dodie Bellamy were simple adjuncts who had watched this dystopia grow up around them. They had to hammer open the piggy bank every time some fresh mischance occurred.
With one of the windows missing, the drive was unusually breezy, not that his passengers were too bothered. Kevin enjoyed picking up friends at the airport; he’d print out a sign with your name on it and hold it up outside the baggage claim like a dutiful chauffeur. Today he was taking a few celebrity acquaintances directly to Cypress Lawn, the cemetery out in Colma, to visit Jack Spicer’s niche in its disused columbarium. Casper the Friendly Ghost was in the passenger seat. In the back Ramon Novarro sat next to Isadora Duncan, who happened to be clad in an extensive silk scarf that fluttered out of the hole in the side of the car where a window used to be. You could taste the smoke in the wind. Kevin kept stealing glances at Ramon through the rearview mirror. What a looker! He wondered if he could get the young man out of those pants to pose for a photograph later. Ramon was telling Isadora about what a difficult time he had getting his sex toys through airport security, especially this bejeweled lead dildo that had been gifted to him by Rudy Valentino. The TSA agents thought it might be some sort of weapon or explosive device, and were only convinced otherwise after the heartthrob gave them a demonstration of its usage, he was explaining (a little louder than usual, competing with the hissing air). Isadora nodded languidly, fondling the scarf wrapped tight around her neck. “This is red and so am I!” she declared. “It is the color of life and vigor. Kevin, you were once wild here. Don’t let them tame you! Thank god American critics don’t like me. If they did, I should feel hopeless. I give you something from my heart. I bring you something real. I can hardly dance here, where life is unreal.” Honestly, Kevin couldn’t really make out what she was saying over the noise of the road. Casper was rolling on his little butt, smiling like a goon. “Oh gee,” the ghost boy told him, “I can’t wait to meet old man Spicer. Is he really as lonely as they say, Mr. Killian?” Kevin told the lad he should really put on his seatbelt. “Oh, don’t worry about me, sir!” replied Casper, lowering his translucent white hand upon the naked flesh of Kevin’s wrist. Suddenly everything went red. A bolt of pain shot up Kevin’s spine and erupted into his chest. His skin felt prickly where the ghost had touched it. His vision started to warp and blur as he gasped for oxygen. The edge of Isadora’s crimson scarf that billowed out of the window was suddenly pulled under the back wheel and got caught in the axle. The dancer felt the fabric yank tight around her throat. “Je vais à l’amour!” she croaked, before being ripped out of her seat and onto the highway. The last thing Kevin heard was the snap of her neck. He woke up upside down, strapped in his seatbelt, the vehicle crumpled around him. Casper and Ramon were in pieces. Pages of bad student poetry rained down on the fiery wreck. Kevin opened his mouth but no sound emerged. The latest Kylie Minogue single played from the emptiness where the stolen radio used to be. “Help me, it’s a love attack! I’m never going back.” They’re going to . . . need . . . the jaws of life.
“You must forgive me if I ever quote somebody else when I think I’m quoting Kevin. He lists a whole page of writers from whom he’s stolen lines: Tim Dlugos, Agatha Christie, Harvey Milk, John Wieners, Lisa Jarnot, and on it goes.”
In 2001, Kevin became an editor at Krupskaya Books, which also that year released his first collection of poetry, Argento Series. The publisher’s copy provides a timeline that, in part, reads: “1987, reign of terror, AZT approved by FDA, ACT UP founded NYC, 1988 death of Sam D'Allesandro, election of George Bush, 1989, Dennis writes ‘AIDS ruined death,’ 1990, empty, futile, importunate life, first boy Kevin ever loved dead Richmond VA, 1991 Kevin frozen, unable to think of a way to write about AIDS crisis, 1992 Kathy Acker suggests films of Dario Argento as a prism through which to take apart horror of living and dying in AIDS era, election of Clinton, death of Steve Abbott, Argento Series born, 1993 death of David Wojnarowicz, death of Bo Huston, 1994 FDA approves wide range protease inhibitors, 1997 death of Acker, ‘I saw something important I can't remember.’” Kevin said in an interview that Acker “suggested that Argento’s films perform allegorical functions for the way that AIDS works in the body and in the social system.” Argento Series contains many poems named after the films of the eponymous master of horror, including “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage,” “Cat o’ Nine Tales,” “Suspiria,” “Opera,” and “Inferno.” Kevin lists a whole page of writers from whom he’s stolen lines: Tim Dlugos, Agatha Christie, Harvey Milk, John Wieners, Lisa Jarnot, and on it goes. You must forgive me if I ever quote somebody else when I think I’m quoting Kevin, I’ve certainly made that mistake before. In the poem “Tracking Shot,” he writes, from “The killer’s POV” like the camera sneaking up on a blonde, “At the moment between now and falling asleep the ghosts rush in. I’m 45, time for ghosts, the dead fluttering their scarves./Like Isadora. Duncan. Snap.” Kevin displaces himself into a giallo flick. The killer writes their initials in blood on the wall: “H-I-V.” The poet expresses communal trauma and survivor’s guilt by blowing up those intense emotions to cinematic proportions and bathing them in the garish bisexual lighting of Italian horror. Are those stab wounds or KS lesions? Not even the trademark black cats are safe from feline AIDS. Udo Kier makes an outsized cameo, in life like in the movies. Anything could happen. “There are six of us on this tram/before we get to Minna Street/one of us will be murdered!” If “AIDS ruined death” was Dennis Cooper’s dictum meaning that you couldn’t romanticize what was at your doorstep, here maybe Kevin is projecting the monster into another realm, reclaiming the allure of the grave by metaphorizing it into a glittery aesthetic that still maintains its potency, like that room of razor wire the girl falls into in Suspiria. In an age of comparative empowerment, where (certain, privelleged) gay men have way more political capital and tools for sexual health, it’s hard for me to imagine the sense of unrelenting oppression that led a plague survivor like Kevin to so profoundly identify with the butchered victims of a slasher film. The generational gap is sprawling between Kevin and, say, his undergraduate students at California College of the Arts. These days the moralizing vitriol against queers is more muted, even coded, chased ever farther into the margins. It’s still insidiously institutionalized in many ways, but you’re less likely to turn on the television to find an elected official screaming, “Faggots burn in hell!” and gloating over mass death. In one of my favorite poems of his, “Phantom of the Opera,” Kevin expands the hate crime murder of Matthew Shepard into an allegory for the social martyrdom of the homosexual. Kevin becomes the deformed opera ghost, an angel of music swimming in the dark in a subterranean lake, bemoaning the cruel world above that shreds and devours beauty in hypocritical fervor. He eulogizes Matt, whose “little feet are green,” the helpless kid “set upon by thugs” and tied to a buck fence like a scarecrow chasing off “beautiful birds.” He names the boy’s assailants: “Russell Henderson, 21/Aaron McKinley, 22,/themselves slight,/who robbed you of your underwear.” And then he names himself: “It is true, Christine//I am not an Angel, nor/a genius, nor a ghost//I am Erik.” And he is also Kevin, not a myth but a misplaced man, lost in his night music in the basement, watching the world kill itself.
Kevin said that Argento Series is a murder mystery that asks, “The HIV virus: how did it come to be? Why was our generation cursed with this plague that destroyed so many lives and killed so many men? How could this plague make the curtain come down on our fabulous world? I remember the days before AIDS as a non-stop paradise of the senses.” The poet becomes an invisible force, lurking in the shadows, waiting. I can feel his eyes upon me, his voice in my head: “I’ve been watching you since/you were a child/In the corner of the schoolyard playing ball/and reading Wayne Koestenbaum.” Kevin spoke of the “frustration of living through the AIDS epidemic, losing so many friends, and not being able to do anything about it in writing. Every time I tried to write something it sounded ridiculous—hokey, sentimental, or as if I were posturing. In any case, it seemed the enormity of the crisis dwarfed any individual response. And yet I always felt bad about it. Sarah Schulman has said that in the future History will judge all of us by what we did during that time. I was like, ‘uh-oh!’ because I had not done enough.” He lamented, “I’m not a heroic person.” But the way that he found to address the crisis in his writing isn’t maudlin at all, nor does it feel as if he was chasing a trend or forcing something out of a sense of obligation. In the work of Argento he discovered the skeleton key that unlocked portals to deathly realms of truth. In “The Door into Darkness,” Kevin imagined oblivion to be one doorknob turn away, lingering on the image of a reaching hand. These poems are bewitched by crimson residuals. “In despair the child says, I’ll do everything I can but it still won’t be enough! Love, Kevin.”
Where Argento Series is necromantic and grave, 2008’s Action Kylie is Kevin’s version of a pop album. Kevin said this poetry collection had to be “lighter” because “it’s the book of a man who has had a second chance to do over everything and start anew.” (He’d suffered a heart attack in 2003.) The collection is inspired, of course, by the personage and discography of the Australian singer Kylie Minogue. After going through the filmography of Dario Argento, he wanted a new subject. He said, “I was looking for a figure who had, as far as I was concerned, absolutely no artistic value whatsoever—but still that person could be a muse. I did realize later that actually she does have a lot of talent, but it wasn’t important to me when I began writing about her. She was a blank slate.” I don’t think his love for her was presentational, he had a genuine respect for her music and image that equaled his enthusiasm for using her as a postmodern instrument in his one-man pop group, the Kevin Killian Experience. He conceded, “My own identification with Kylie became near total during this period, and while she recovered from cancer, I recovered from a heart attack just as valiantly and touchingly, don’t you think?” The lyrics of Action Kylie are candy-coated and dreamlike. Drippy, melodic, and weird. One poem seems to take place inside the music video for the song “Your Disco Needs You.” Kevin once recalled that the first thing he ever did on the Internet was visit an anagram generator. One poem herein is simply a list of funny anagrams: “Marcel Proust, corrupt males,” “Kylie Minogue, I like ’em young,” “Julia Roberts, bestial juror,” or “No brains on a date, Antonio Banderas.” We interrupt this poetry for an essay on Kylie, “Kylie Evidence,” where Kevin explained the nectarous ennui of being an admirer. “There’s an anxiety in declaring oneself a Kylie fan,” he wrote, “similar to how coming out used to feel.” I just can’t get enough of needing it, oh baby. Despite the uplifting tone, Kevin insisted that “there’s an empty, spooky sigh at the heart of this work.” He wrote, “Cold hard tears seep from this work, tears shed for an implacable universe of wanting and wishing and denial.” The closest he ever came to demonstrating the influence of T. S. Eliot was dedicating a whole section of this book to poems about cats. There’s a poem about Kylie’s one line in the musical film Moulin Rouge (“Hi, I’m the green fairy!”) that was written on the day that Timothy McVeigh was executed. Baby, baby, baby, you know you like it like this. Don’t be frightened, just give me a little bit more. Now, you've got it, you're wow, wow, wow, wow.
All of Kevin’s poetry collections are broken up into chapbook-length sections that often are their own discrete undertakings. Many of the individual sections were first published as chapbooks, sometimes handmade by Kevin himself and distributed only to friends. Kevin’s 2014 book Tweaky Village consists of seven serial pieces with titles like “Repetition Island,” “Wow Wow Wow Wow,” and “In Memory of George Kuchar.” He humbly submitted the manuscript to a contest that the small press Wonder was running to cover its production costs, proving that Kevin was not beyond reaching for his credit card to get into a slush pile. Tweaky Village, though more technically varied, carries on the poppy textures of Action Kylie while still functioning as what Kevin once called in an interview, “a book of defeat.” He said that Tweaky Village saw him “wrestling with how little I did to combat neoliberalism, which manifests itself visually every time I walk out my door and see the new, hyperwired global capital that is San Francisco today.” Tweaky Village is like the Castro, buzzing with wired dudes, tweakers and techies, hiding out on the cloud, head in an app, thrumming along through the hardware of late capitalism, watch out, some guy is shitting blood in the street, there’s a needle sticking out of his neck, I don’t think he remembers. Kevin told Philadelphia magazine: “You’d meet a really sweet, cute guy and within months you’d see him ravenous, biting his hands off, casting his eyes to heaven like a jumpy Job. That was the tweaking I was thinking of, in our village of the Castro. Simultaneously, with the newest tech boom of Facebook, Twitter, and so on, the city began a program of gentrification as severe as London’s, where nobody but a millionaire could possibly afford to buy a house here. The hypercapitalism reminded me, of course, of meth properties, its drive to kill the human being within, the soul of a city, its workforce.” Meanwhile, somewhere way too far off in the distance, an honest-to-god war rages on and on. In “Ten Years In,” Kevin remarked that perhaps “the only way out of the neoliberal globalism we’re drowning in, is a complete return to irony and Marxism, and both of them failed in the first place because they could not withstand the homosexual.” In “I Lost Me to Meth,” Kevin deconstructs that ad campaign with the “tragic clever” slogans that made him feel “perilous” until he reminded himself that he didn’t use meth (“You’re fine, Mister”). But he rearranged the letters on the poster: “I lost me to THEM, THEM as a way of reading ‘Meth.’” Kylie Minogue cameos here and there, as if Kevin thought he might be done with her but she wasn’t done with him. He memorializes the life of avant-garde filmmaker George Kuchar. “The day before your diagnosis, I mailed you the life of Tab Hunter, but you had gone before it came to your door.” Another legacy to keep alive.
Kevin would take on people as projects. In an interview with Tony Leuzzi for the Brooklyn Rail he revealed, “Like Carl Van Vechten and like Thornton Wilder, I’m an enthusiast. I wanted to change the map of cinema so that Argento would be revealed as the filmmaker who told more of the truth about AIDS than any of his peers or successors. I wanted Spicer to be the poet whom students would be able to turn to when they had finished reading O’Hara or Baraka or di Prima or—or Milton. And I wanted Kylie to be appreciated as the greatest entertainer of our time—after having first taken her as a talentless doll.” Much of this activity was about recovery and conservation. Many of his “projects” were men lost to AIDS at risk of being forgotten. Sam D’Allesandro and Steve Abbott were friends, then they died, and became projects. In an interview with the young writer Quinn Roberts, Kevin said of his 2017 poetry collection from Wonder, “Tony Greene Era takes its title from my love of the late California artist Tony Greene, who died of AIDS in 1990 at age 35. Even if you don’t know its particulars, Greene’s story is familiar to every artist, that at his death his work was completely forgotten by the art world, and remained so for 25 years or so, until his peers—his cohorts at Cal Arts, and like-minded individuals—attained their own power and fame and they could then bring Tony Greene ‘back’ by staging some key exhibitions. For example, getting him included at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. It seemed like a visionary use of power for good, in contrast, perhaps, to the way power is ordinarily employed to destroy. There was something ritualistic in the idea of an artist gone below, into the grave, into darkness for so many years and then revived and asked to speak again.” That’s the great comfort of a poet, I suppose, that people will read us after we’re gone. “Soft Art” is an ode to all things soft, soft machines dripping soft-serve ice cream, “The Soft American,” a baby’s bottom, a soft answer, Soft Cell, a soft factory, soft talk. “Pink Narcissus” is dedicated to the work of James Bidgood, who in many ways seems like a character out of a Kevin Killian novel. Kevin said, “In my book I couple the figure of Tony Greene with the NYC-based photographer James Bidgood, who never died but did come out of obscurity after [a long] period, in the wake of his dramatic, kitschy, softcore photos of the most beautiful boys of the early 70s in his masterpiece Pink Narcissus. And there I had, not a theme, but a set of variations on which to spin my usual shtick of loss, anger, melancholy, comedy, and evil.” Bidgood, who sacrificed everything on the altar of aesthetics, decked out his boys in golden crowns and painted for them a shimmering sky. Bidgood, toothless welfare case toiling in a rent-controlled studio, obscure connoisseur of pastel dreamland. In “First Cover,” Kevin implores, “First cover your arms with suntan lotion then exacerbate the way you feel by dipping your torso into the tight red and black matador outfit James Bidgood has stayed up all night in his tiny room sewing for you.” Kevin identifies Bidgood as a fellow traveller, “building sandcastles in the air,” or rather elaborate sets in his bedroom. In Bidgood’s name, the poet wrote of “gay wallpaper” and a kid “In the prison of your Levis,” as “director announces traditional last meal prepared for boy about to die in service of making movie.” Then Kevin turned his attention to Tony Greene, thinking of losing him, of loss in general. In the title piece, which is an essay not a poem, he remembered, “Many my age kept address books and crossed off the names of our friends as, one by one, they died in hospice or took their lives or simply disappeared, like elephants crawling away to lose themselves in the jungle. So many names that you couldn’t remember all of them. Some were artists, some activists, some both or neither, it was a pool of death deeper than imagination itself, one that swallowed everything, a kraken.”
“Is poets theater even a genre at all?” Kevin and David Brazil asked in their introduction to the volume they edited together, 2010’s The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater. The name would suggest that, fundamentally, poets theater is theater written by poets—and that is the broad definition to which I personally subscribe. In my estimation, Euripides’s The Bacchae, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Goethe’s Faust, Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, Auden’s Paul Bunyan, Cummings’s Santa Claus, and Scalapino and Killian’s Stone Marmalade all qualify as poets theater. However, I am not a scholar of poets theater (if there is such a thing) and I know other people have more specific conceptions of the form. David Buuck has written that poets theater is expressed through “performances” that are not, strictly speaking, to be considered “plays.” If a poet writes something that’s too well-crafted, it becomes a proper “play.” Only if the script possesses a quality of “rigorous amateurism” may it fall under the rubric of poets theater. Yet he says works of poets theater are not “merely skits or sketches” but rather “spontaneous life-art.” Other hallmarks of the genre that he identifies include staged reading format, zero budget, homemade props and costumes, non-professional actors, and plentiful in-jokes. At a certain point Buuck’s definition begins to sound like a celebrity rider, including the demand for a “backstage open bar” and the stipulation that every performer must have “at least one friend in the audience.” These qualifications may not apply to every strain of poets theater, but they deftly illustrate the form as practiced by Kevin and his acolytes who practiced New Narrative Poets Theater. Patrick Durgin backs up some of those assertions in writing that he doesn’t often “think of ‘poets theater’ as something that is legible in the work of those who primarily identify as dramatists. Its vitality, or the opportune indeterminacy of its generic definition, has to come from the infiltration of poets into the world of the stage.” His personal reading is that of “a loosely structured genre that arises out of the need some poets feel to explore the demands of setting, character, dialogue, scene, and other narrative and performative concerns of the theater.” There are many reasons why dramatic work by poets would happen outside of a mainstream theatrical context, but I tend to believe that it has more to do with the general obscurity of poets than it does the boundaries of “professional” theater. Anyway, as Killian and Brazil suggest, “like porn, we know it when we see it.”
The concept of poets theater has gained traction with different groups at different times. Gertrude Stein began writing plays that challenged the boundaries of the form in the 1920s, perhaps her greatest dramatic achievement being the opera Four Saints in Three Acts (a collaboration with Virgil Thomson, which played on Broadway twice, believe it or not). Cambridge Poets Theater was founded in 1951 while contemporaneous activity was happening at Black Mountain College. The Maidens were a queer sorority of poets in San Francisco, including Robert Duncan and Helen Adam, who put on self-referential plays in the mid-50s. New York Poets Theater was a company active throughout the 60s, founded by James Waring, Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, and others. Also at that time Reverend Al Carmines’ Judson Poets’ Theater was operating out of Judson Memorial Church, frequently adapting the work of Gertrude Stein into musicals. San Francisco Poets Theater was a project begun in 1979 by Eileen Corder and Nick Robinson. It operated for six years and included many writers associated with the Language Poetry movement. The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985 features dramatic writing by Jack Spicer, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Koch, Anne Waldman, Joe Brainard, Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Kathy Acker, among many other serious names that are not generally considered playwrights. Kevin identified himself as part of a second wave of San Francisco Poets Theater because, as he told Heidi Bean, “there was a vacuum into which, I thought, I could harness some New Narrative energy. And gay it up a bit—it was a terribly straight place. Maybe not earnest, but straight.” He cast other writers and the rehearsal process was extremely short, perhaps meeting the day of the show to work out entrances and exits and minimal blocking. Light costuming may have included a robe or Halloween store cloak. His actors held scripts so they didn’t have to memorize their lines, but that meant they weren’t looking at each other. Their performances were varying degrees of amateur, which rather than inducing cringes provided for a vital sense of authenticity. When I was a kid, I remember presenting one acts about Greek myths to bored relatives in my backyard. It’s easy to put on a show. Kevin noted that watching poets theater foments the idea of doing poets theater. Its homespun production values make it eminently accessible and reproducible. But to pull it off, you need other people. So it’s almost a community generator. Kevin’s dramatic output began just as the established practice of poets theater seemed to be losing steam. Starting in 1988, Kevin wrote and produced numerous plays at venues such as Intersection for the Arts, Kiki Gallery, the Poetry Project, Small Press Traffic, San Francisco Art Institute, Naropa Institute, Berkeley Art Museum, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and SFMOMA.
Kevin’s plays often demonstrate a mixed and matched dream logic with frisky absurdist humor. His dramatic dialogue is both looser and more withering than his verse or fiction, full of tossed-off one-liners that would have them rolling in the aisles on Hollywood Squares. This is Kevin at his campiest, writing hilarious star turns for his regular group of players, which included Leslie Scalapino, Rex Ray, Norma Cole, Kota Ezawa, Phoebe Gloeckner, and many others. (Kevin frequently cast himself, as well, although not usually as himself.) Last year Kenning Editions released Stage Fright, which collects ten of Kevin’s plays. They have a communality about them that jumps off the page. The plays seem to be written to amuse both an audience and the artists that are acting it out. The general mood is that of a billowing farce performed by graduate students. Kim Basinger, Alec Baldwin, Sinead O’Connor, Kate Bush, Sheena Easton, and Mavis Staples all appear in Life After Prince, which takes place in “San Francisco unemployment court.” Cut features a roster of famous children of famous parents: Princess Stéphanie of Monaco, Melanie Griffith, Isabella Rossellini, and Jamie Lee Curtis. They pretend to be postmodern theorists for a conference on the cinematic work of Alfred Hitchcock (a director who had worked with all of their mothers). Every time somebody says “cut,” the scene changes. THAT is a comedy of manners concerning local real estate drama with heiress Barbara Hutton and the writers Paul and Jane Bowles thrown into the mix. Throughout the play a youngster named Kevin Killian is chased by his father (also named Kevin Killian), who just wants the runaway tot to return to his side, so he can tie him up in hemp rope like a good boy. “My son is missing—my only son, Kevin Killian, and he owes me money,” wails Kevin Senior. “I loved him the way you or I would love a pet, I brushed his fur with a number of awkward strokes. If I went against the grain, am I to blame?” In Island of Lost Souls, Julie Andrews visits a far-gone Jack Kerouac on Long Island, hoping to make a musical adaptation of On the Road. Kerouac is found either slumped in a chair nursing a bottle or heard desperately banging out his next Beat masterpiece. “Jack’s been typing steadily, but we’re a bit uneasy because he seems to be snoring too.” (The typing was prerecorded; turns out Kerouac’s mother was ghostwriting him all along.) Wet Paint was commissioned by the San Francisco Art Institute, which charged Kevin to produce a new play about the creation of Jay DeFeo’s painting “The Rose.” The setting is North Beach, 1959 and Walter Benjamin, who secretly survived the war after faking his own suicide, becomes reborn as an immigrant named Hall Mark, who wants to start a greeting card company. Michael McClure, Janis Joplin, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Kenneth Anger all wander in and out of the picture. Kevin wanted to include Bruce Conner as a character in the play but the artist threatened legal action (what an asshole move). All Kevin’s wackiness nearly scandalized SFAI, but Wet Paint became one of his most beloved dramatic experiments.
As evidenced above, celebrity cameos abound in this work, like those old Looney Tunes shorts set at a Hollywood nightclub populated by caricatured stars. Lars Von Trier, Pablo Picasso, Woody Allen, David Bowie, Oliver Stone, River Phoenix, Lindsay Lohan, and Valerie Solanas are among the ill-behaved degenerates that appear in these scenarios. Sometimes the references strike closer to home and well-known poets, including those from Kevin’s own expansive coterie, serve as the stars. Norma Cole teamed up with Kevin to write the script for Art Colony Survivor. Their follow-up, Afterglow, sees Barbara Guest return from the grave to form a Charlie’s Angels–type gang with other deceased poets—Leslie Scalapino, kari edwards, and Stacy Doris—in an attempt to stop the Pulitzer Prize from being awarded to “an author who didn’t deserve the two she already has!” The contested writer, Helen Gilmore, appears to be named after a silent film starlet who later reinvented herself as the editor of the tabloid Movie Mirror Magazine. (Only in Kevin’s world would a figure like her be on the receiving end of such accolades.) An emblematic one-liner: Ray Bradbury asks Barbara Guest, “Have you ever heard of an alternate universe?” She retorts, “Oh for God’s sakes, I lived in the Hamptons!” Probably my favorite play (that I’ve read) of Kevin’s is one titled The Shakers, co-authored with Wayne Smith. It was presented first in 2000 at the San Francisco Art Institute and revived in 2010 at Small Press Traffic. It is a history play that takes place in a community of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing at the end of the Civil War. The Shakers are busy rehearsing their annual pageant, “Christmas in July: the Life of Mother Ann Lee,” when beset upon by a variety of visitors including a trader, a poet, a veteran, and a prominent couple from Amherst in search of their missing daughter. Since the chaste Shakers don’t reproduce, they can’t be that picky about whom they let into their ranks. Hijinks ensue. A wheelchair user named Amos shows up, claiming to be a wounded vet, but he’s really a deserter faking a disability so as to avoid any of the physical labor that the Shakers relish. He is seduced by a male nurse named Walt Whitman who ambles through the village to sell boxes of his Whitman’s chocolate samplers. Trader Joe (get it?) begins to suspect that one of the Shaker girls, an amnesiac going by “Polly,” is really the Amherst poetess Emily Dickinson. When Emily’s parents show up looking for her, that clinches it—although her whimsical manner of speech coupled with an idiosyncratic use of dashes might have already given it away. Meanwhile, young Sister Peg is stressed out because she hasn’t been able to invent anything since the wooden coat hanger that she named after herself. Peg boasts that before she came up with the peg, “people just laid their coats on the bed or on the floor and it looked messy.” Another newcomer, a woman of ill-repute named Belle Adore, recognizes the town Elder as a man she once had an affair with when he was visiting Amherst for a Shaker convention. Following the outline of a situation comedy, all these different conflicts froth to a boil and subsequently the whole village burns down and somebody invents the broom. In the end, everyone gathers round and sings “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
When we first started talking in 2010, Kevin was rehearsing to star in a version of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. He was a marvelous actor within a specific range and frequently appeared in his own and friends’ plays. Gabe Rubin and Felix Bernstein cast him, as a creepy photographer, alongside CAConrad in their 2015 film Boyland, which includes a stirring passage with Kevin laconically reciting “Two Loves” by Lord Alfred Douglas while Jarmanesque twinks frolic in a pollinated meadow. In 2016 Kevin invited me to visit San Francisco and perform at his reading series that he organized in the back of Alley Cat Books. I pitched the idea that we do my two-man play Endymion Dreams the Moon together. One character represents the moon, who casts a sleeping spell on dear Endymion, portrayed as an ingenuous teenage poet, to preserve his youth and beauty. Unfortunately, due to lack of time and resources, I had to cast myself, against type, as the object of affection. Kevin played the more experienced Stranger who lures the Kid into endless conversation. “Just the part I was born to play,” he told me. We rehearsed a couple times via Skype and once at Ugo Rondinone’s studio inside a desacralized church in Harlem, where Kevin and Dodie were staying as the artist’s guests. Kevin made me feel vaguely worthy of the adoration his character heaped on mine. It was an intimate experience. We hadn’t figured everything out to my satisfaction but were both fairly confident that we’d get it on the day. Bolstered by performer’s adrenaline, everything did come together for us at Alley Cat. I was going to play the second act in my underwear but got cold feet and brought along pajama bottoms to change into. Kevin grabbed my arm before the show and sternly instructed that I was going to take my pants off. And when the time came, it was easy. Kevin did his own costuming, which included a custom piece from jeweler and poet Paige Taggart and a flowing green robe with black fringe by Charlene Tan. His performance was delicate and melancholy. It was very generous of Kevin to jump into the project with such enthusiasm.
The year prior, when he found out I would be in town, he asked me to cameo in the large cast of the play Dinner Plus Theater, which he co-wrote with Tanya Hollis. It went up for one night at Little Boxes Theater in Dogpatch as part of Small Press Traffic’s annual poets theater festival. It takes place in the sordid world of the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater, which was a real thing that happened from 1979 to 1989. Burt Reynolds operated a dinner theater outfit in Jupiter, Florida where his actor friends would slum in the sun for an easy paycheck. Killian and Hollis had great fun imagining awkward billings for previous shows, including “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring Phyllis Diller and Charles Nelson Reilly [and] A Doll's House, again with Phyllis Diller, and Dom DeLuise.” Phyllis Diller expects the role of Blanche in the upcoming production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but rumors swirl that Burt is going to offer it to 1985 Academy Award winner, and former flame, Sally Fields (“You like me! You really like me!”). Similarly, gay comedians Jim Nabors and Paul Lynde are both vying for the role of Stanley. They were played by Craig Goodman and Rebeca Bollinger respectively, without impersonations of each character’s trademark voice and mannerisms. They’re equally charming but Lynde has sinister undertones. Meanwhile, Tennessee Williams finds out about Burt’s plans for Streetcar and implores him to cease and desist. They end up going forward with an off-brand knockoff called The Love Bus. It was madcap farce the primary reason for which really did seem to be simple fun. Like the concept of dinner theater itself, Kevin’s personalized take on San Francisco Poets Theater was a rare and aspirant bird, with a unique logic and set of rules to which Kevin applied his own New Narrative sensibilities and Tinseltown preoccupations.
Kevin was the main promoter of his own performance work and also the lynchpin of the vibrant poets theater scene in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I think his dramatic legacy will endure. Not least of all due to the efforts of Kenning Editions, in its support of putting poets theater into print. And then I think the writers that Kevin invigorated to create poets theater, many of them younger, are going to keep his tradition alive. In the considerable research I undertook to write this retrospective, the most exciting aspect of the project was taking a deep dive into the genre of poets theater—to the point where I was inspired to found my own poets theater company in Brooklyn, which has fundamentally altered my life and relationship to the writing communities in which I’m involved. I, like innumerable others, owe a lot to Kevin. He is woven through our culture in so many important ways that it is a shame, as previously mentioned, much of his work is at present unavailable or obscure. None of the poetry collections discussed above are currently in print as of this writing, although there is a near certain chance that this will be remedied in the next few years. Kevin had a few publication projects in the works before he died and his literary executor Andrew Durbin is collaborating with a popular independent press on the possibility of releasing a new collected edition of Kevin’s four poetry books. When this happens his poems will become accessible to a whole new audience and are sure to have a continued effect on the landscape of American poetry. Although New Narrative is essentially positioned as a prose-based movement, several of its members are notable verse writers and Kevin’s approach to creative writing was uniquely holistic. His influence will reverberate well into our doomed future, no problem. As Kevin wrote, stealing a line from Tim Dlugos about Irish wakes, “the corpses change but the party goes on forever.”
“I Can Explain Everything” will conclude in Part 4! It will focus on Kevin’s role as “the patron saint of unknown poets,” teacher and mentor to hundreds of young writers. Explicating more personal reasons why he’s a man dearly missed by so many. And then there’s the fascinating matter of his position as an Amazon.com “Hall of Fame reviewer” with over two thousand flash essays on different books and films as well as household products, etc., which cultivated a gently yet purposefully fictionalized personality for the prolific Internet critic. And then, in closing, a narrative of the last days of Kevin Killian.