IV. Ghost Parade
In the spring of 2018, the East Coast poet and data scientist Katy Bohinc was promoting a newly published “occult poem to Hera.” Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian helped organize a reading for her during a visit to the Bay Area, where she turned off all the lights in the bookstore and dramatically offered her witchy poems “as invocations to Hera and the Divine Feminine with candlelight and incense.” An event with Kevin usually meant a loquacious dinner to follow, where he and Dodie would hold court among a friendly, gossiping, appreciative crowd of votaries and confidants. When Bohinc went out to eat with the couple, Kevin excitedly inquired, “Have you ever been to Jack Spicer’s grave?” She answered in the negative and he immediately offered to take her there the very next day, telling her, “You’re the perfect person to go with!” based on her demonstrated interest in the occult. He picked her up in his shabby automobile and drove out to Cypress Lawn, about a thirty minute cruise outside the city, telling her about the history of graveyards in San Francisco along the way. The city was chock full of cemeteries during the Gold Rush but the dead were eventually priced out of the area. New burials were banned at the start of the 20th Century (coinciding with a local outbreak of the bubonic plague) and the existing graveyards fell into disrepair. The town of Colma was created explicitly to serve as a much needed burial ground. Many bodies were exhumed and relocated to the cemeteries that were established in the new land of the dead, which now boasts a deceased population of around 1.5 million souls. Bohinc remembered, “I was kind of shocked because I’m closer to Dodie, we have that girl bond. I was honored and touched that Kevin wanted to spend his day picking me up and going out to see Spicer’s grave.”
When they arrived at Cypress Lawn, Kevin retrieved the key to the columbarium at the main office, where he seemed to be on friendly terms with the staff. The area is no longer used for new internments but is kept in decent shape with ferns and (fake) flowers adorning certain niches under the cool green light of an elaborate dome made of Tiffany stained glass. Bohinc recalled, “I put my hand on Jack Spicer’s tomb and I said, ‘Jack, this is for you,’ and I tried to channel him. We did bibliomancy, and we read poems, and Kevin was so cute, he took videos of it and all these pictures like he always does.” This seems to fit the description of many of Kevin’s pilgrimages to the mausoleum, which were both heartfelt and programmatic. There was something compulsive in Kevin’s drive to bring (often younger) writers again and again to this site and to perform specific tasks in front of the material remains of Jack Spicer, whether it be a poetry reading, a photo shoot, or a ritual. After finishing up with Spicer, Kevin took Bohinc on a tour of the surrounding grounds, where other famous Americans (such as William Randolph Hearst) are buried amidst the lush scenery. Katy noticed that Kevin had developed a pronounced limp, which was new. She recalled, “I wanted to ask him if he believed in ghosts and demons. What was his spiritual philosophy?” (Kevin was an avowed Catholic.) Instead, befitting the splendidly morbid occasion, she asked him, “Are you afraid to die?” Kevin took a thoughtful breath and answered, “No. No, I’m not.” He said he didn’t think about it that much and it didn’t bother him. Bohinc thought, “It was a sweet moment.” About a year later he was gone.
Kevin told the Poetry Foundation that, “I hardly know why, something Catholic in my blood I assume, or somehow connected to seeing that eternal flame of JFK at Arlington at too impressionable an age, but I remember so many trips to cemeteries over the years where I would pay my respects to the great artists I had either known or missed knowing.” Yet he had nothing on Walter Skold, the founder of the Dead Poets Society, who (before his own untimely death of a heart attack in 2018) spent a decade travelling around the country in a van documenting the final resting place of American verse writers. Kevin crossed paths with Skold after the gravesite enthusiast inquired whether the biographer of Jack Spicer knew where the poet was buried. Kevin wrote back informing Skold that his research had hit a dead end in that department. He knew that Spicer, suffering from acute alcoholism, had collapsed in the elevator of his building in the summer of 1965 and was then taken to San Francisco General Hospital where, without any identification, he spent several days in a coma in the poverty ward before his friends were able to locate him. He was delirious on his deathbed, although he famously managed to tell Robin Blaser, “My vocabulary did this to me.” When he died his family arrived to make the necessary arrangements, discovering for the first time that he was a homosexual, an alcoholic, and a locally esteemed poet. His brother remembered Jack’s wish to be cremated and disposed of in the cheapest possible way allowed by law. No funeral, no burial, no headstone. Kevin believed he had been inearthed in a (presumably unmarked) shared pauper’s grave. Skold responded that he thought he might have solved the mystery simply by entering Spicer’s name on findagrave.com. Apparently Spicer’s final resting place was in the catacombs of Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma (section F, niche 16, tier 4 to be precise), where he had been interred under his given name of John. This had not come to light until several years after Kevin’s biography was published. The information was entered on the Find a Grave website by a “cemetery fan” who collects the names and locations of Cypress Lawn’s more obscure plots. Kevin was elated that he “could confirm this occasion to Skold, and thus satisfy a huge longing in my own heart because, as I hope you have seen, for a man like me there’s no closure unless I go to the grave and fall down on it, as I did to John Ford’s grave in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, and embrace spectral memory as a living thing in my arms.”
Kevin made an exhaustive case for the importance of Jack Spicer in the twin landmarks of his 1998 biography Poet Be Like God and the 2008 edition of Spicer’s collected poems My Vocabulary Did This To Me. The biography began as an extensive oral history project undertaken by the minor North Beach poet Lewis Ellingham, whom Kevin had first met in Robert Glück’s workshop. Kevin told Joseph Bradshaw that, “Lew had completed the book he wanted to write—an oral history of the Spicer circle in North Beach from 1957 through 1965—a wonderful book in its own right, but publishers wanted (if they wanted something on Spicer at all) a more linear biography. Lew asked for my help because, as a novelist, I had written narrative before and knew how to tell a story from A to Z.” Kevin told Gary Sullivan, “I was thrilled. He had the marvelous grace to give me carte blanche to alter whatever he did—and for eight years I worked on this project. Poor Dodie became a ‘Spicer widow’ as some women are golf widows. It became an obsession with me.” Kevin contributed his own scholarship and perspective, but most importantly honed the “enormous book” into a more precise shape and a relatively succinct length (for such a sprawling personality and with so much research) of under 400 pages. He specified, “My work divided itself into three main areas: turning oral history into narrative; working in research libraries, which I came to enjoy greatly; and interviewing more people on my own.” Over the length of time that Kevin worked on Spicer, the poet’s reputation began to solidify. The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited by Robin Blaser, was published in 1975 and made his work widely available for the first time, but when Kevin started shopping the biography around, one academic press rejected Spicer as a “coterie poet” only of interest to “a handful of California homosexuals.” He is now held in high regard as a classic and influential figure of the San Francisco Renaissance. Concerning the passion that Kevin developed for his subject, he told Sullivan, “Spicer will always be a poet of extreme mystery and fascination because of his struggle with the materiality of language. In one way or another, language achieved a critical mass in his brain that threatened to topple his sanity. We’re all flirting with that when we write. What’s out there, and who are we compared to such force?”
“Spicer made a point of ‘engaging the dead in his literary practice,’ which was a fundamental aspect of Kevin’s poetics as well, whether manifesting in tributes such as Tony Greene Era or old friends like Sam D’Allesandro showing up as characters in his fiction. Kevin’s work is both haunted and enriched by the dead.”
Revealingly, much of what Kevin found valuable in Spicer coincided with his own priorities and practices. In their introduction to Spicer’s collected poetry, Kevin and his co-editor Peter Gizzi wrote that, “Like a grail search, what Spicer’s work ultimately accomplishes is not so much a declared goal but the gathering of a community for a potentially endless adventure in reading.” This construction is echoed in the delicious demimonde that Kevin cultivated as part of his art-making; how instead of asking an audience to impersonally consume his work, Kevin required an interactivity from those around him that informed the meaning and function of the writing. The quote is also a perfect description of Kevin’s involvement with poets theater, which comes to life through a social pact and is more about the experience of making it than the final product itself. In describing Spicer’s audacious book After Lorca, Killian and Gizzi made note of how the “orphic poet” flirts with necromancy in asking the deceased Spanish writer to pen an introduction for this collection of Spicer’s radical “fake translations.” Spicer made a point of “engaging the dead in his literary practice,” which was a fundamental aspect of Kevin’s poetics as well, whether manifesting in tributes such as Tony Greene Era or old friends like Sam D’Allesandro showing up as characters in his fiction. Kevin’s work is both haunted and enriched by the dead. They might be through with us but we’re not through with them. And both Killian and Spicer metaphorize the use value of loss and longing as a stage where the dead are required to return and perform once more for the living. The heartbreaking catch, perhaps, is that such resuscitations are only smoke and mirrors, a conjured image of what’s missing, which we may marvel over and glean from but may not bring back with us from the depths. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was awestruck by the image of Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships,” the bittersweet irony being that her beauty could never truly materialize and gratify the desire she kindles. Faustus implores, “make me immortal with a kiss [...] give me my soul again.” Helen can grant neither request, but that makes her presence all the more poignant. Finally, Killian and Gizzi remarked that, “For Spicer, reading and writing are repeatedly associated with a loss of boundaries,” which is more or less the thesis statement for the New Narrative movement, a mode that heroically menaces the relationship between reality and fiction. Kevin told Bradshaw, “That’s my New Narrative training where, we were taught, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, then the fact, then the legend,’ ad infinitum, so that the true and the false become a scrawl of intertangled interpolations calling each other out like faults.” The New Narrative sensibility is influenced by the poetics of Spicer in that it is, again in the words of Killian and Gizzi, “an art that eats its own borders.”
Kevin had a lasting impact on hundreds of young writers through his practices of teaching and mentorship. In an article published by the Poetry Foundation, Jacob Kahn remembered Kevin as the Patron Saint of Unknown Poets. Kahn wrote, “He had a Rolodex memory for artistic nobodies, tolling my name [for months] and giving me (and everyone) my first reading in San Francisco. After the reading, he bought several copies of my chapbook, and proclaiming ‘You need to read this!’ gave them to the most famous poets there. I was smitten. There was crazy charm in his careening daffiness and endless fascination with others, a legend who made himself a steward.” Kevin was especially generous with his time and attention when it came to young gay writers. (For years after college it seemed every visiting Californian boy I slept with knew Kevin.) He was sympathetic about much of what we were going through because he had similar experiences himself when he was younger. And it was important to him to see young gay men succeed in creating radical queer art. Although he by no means limited his grace to one particular demographic. Rachel Levitsky described Kevin as “uniquely not a misogynist.” Kay Gabriel remembered, “Kevin had this way of writing letters like he was totally crushed out on you—like you were some star and he an adoring fan, not the other way around. I met him for the first time in person at Alley Cat Books, where he’d gone through the trouble of setting up a reading for me, and where I learned he was just as warm and effusive in person. My story’s unremarkable to the degree that so many young queer writers sought him out in admiration; he hosed us down with his time, his attention, and his love.” Camille Roy called him a “sparkly instigator.” You could fill an encyclopedia with shared tales of his exuberant outreach and community building. After college Kevin took an almost twenty year break from the academy but starting in the late 90s he was a visiting writer for the summer program at Naropa University and in 2007 he began teaching creative writing at California College of the Arts.
Kevin blurbed my first book, which is why we started communicating. He wrote to me, “I didn't love everything about your collection but I loved the death parts, and the sexy parts, and the amazing imagination it must have taken to think of all those ideas! And your characterization, too, I could learn something from that.” He prioritized helping other people, giving his time, providing line edits, writing blurbs, granting favors, spreading the word, encouraging friends and strangers, and really listening. When I visited the Bay Area on my first book tour, Kevin graciously agreed to read with me at Moe’s Books and City Lights. Following both events he hosted a communal gathering with a tableful of local queer poets. I’m still friends with most of the people I met those nights. Kevin and I would always see each other upon my subsequent visits to San Francisco; he made time to hang out, gossip, talk shop, and was incredibly supportive in giving me different little opportunities. He asked to collaborate on a short story but I was too intimidated. When he first invited me up to his apartment on Minna Street, he coaxed me out of my pants, but not my underwear, to hold a Raymond Pettibon illustration of a penis over my own genitals. This was for his photography series called Tagged. Kevin called his portraiture sessions a “sex act without sex attached.” I was far too inhibited for a usable result but later he got some good shots of me pretending to be asleep in his bed. After SFMOMA gave Kevin a lifetime membership, I would swing through his office at the janitorial firm where he worked (as the front desk receptionist) and borrow it to get into the museum. It was a card that had his face on it, so I would make a show of pretending to be his assistant at the front counter: “Mr. Killian needs a ticket, right away!”
Kevin twice invited me to be a special guest in his classes at CCA, for which he would pay me a couple hundred dollars cash. I realized that was probably coming out of his own pocket and that the school had no involvement with or idea about these appearances. One time he had me in during a class on the history of California poetics, of which I am no special expert. I brought in a first edition of Judy Grahn’s A Woman Is Talking Herself to Death, which I had borrowed from Bay Area poet Richard Loranger. Kevin had given an assignment that originated from Jack Spicer’s Poetry as Magic workshop. It was a prompt from the application questionnaire: “What insect do you most resemble?” Kevin had his students read their answers aloud in a contest that I judged. I think the winner I picked was a diminutive young woman who said she felt like a cockroach. Her prize was a copy of one of my poetry books, gifted by Kevin. He gave the runner-up a box of Fig Newtons. (Isn’t there an urban legend that those cookies are full of insects?) We had dissimilar interests in Americana. He was the expert on Jack Spicer but I go out more for Hart Crane. I’ve never seen Lauren Bacall in anything and Kevin never went to the Disney theme parks. I was particularly shocked he didn’t share my Disneyphilic tendencies, I mean talk about kitsch. He fixated on the original gay icons that were extrapolated into Disney’s fairytale universes in the form of its flamboyant villains, so often coded as queer. More Clifton Webb than Captain Hook. I once tried to solicit Kevin for a never-finished anthology of experimental Disney criticism, suggesting that he visit the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Embarcadero to write a piece about the man and the myth, or to reflect on the musical output of the Sherman Brothers, or pen a tribute to Howard Ashman, the lyricist who guided the Animation Studios during the Disney Renaissance period, before AIDS got him. None of these prompts sparked enthusiasm but he responded cordially with, “I wrote an essay for the Hayley Mills Fan Club newsletter about Hayley versus Annette, which might appeal to you?” I had to look up Hayley Mills, the star of such live-action Disney productions as Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, and That Darn Cat! Helpfully, he also steered me in the direction of Dodie’s essay “Whistle While You Dixie,” touching upon the “carnal matters” lurking within Snow White. In the days, weeks, and months following Kevin’s sudden departure, I’ve felt like calling him up one more time, to ask him the questions I never asked, hear the stories I never heard, and conduct an exit interview for our friendship. But it’s not possible.
Oh yeah, and I’ve heretofore neglected to mention that Kevin was an Amazon.com “Hall of Fame reviewer” with over 2,600 entries, at times posting once a day or more. It was a writing practice that he began while recovering from a heart attack. At first, “I lost the need to write. And I was fine with that. The Wellbutrin made me permanently happy. [...] I figured that, hey, I had written a whole shelf full of books, did the world need to hear more from me? If they wanted to read something by me, they could just pluck a volume off the shelf.” The Amazon review format provided for a manageable splurge of writerly energy and weaned him back into creative practice. David Buuck recently wrote in Fence that, “I don’t think this project was merely some intervention into corporate exchange. [H]is love for cultural consumption and dish was an authentic expression of his devotion to the juicy details [...] demonstrating his attention to the nuances of pleasure and its sharing, however fanciful or make-believe.” The morsels of flash prose that Kevin offered in his role as a star reviewer were eccentric and paraliterary, written from a persona that was Kevin not quite Kevin. As Buuck commented, “Knowing Kevin’s background and insatiable tastes for the seemingly banal pleasures of lowbrow consumption, it makes it hard to decipher what’s invented and what’s real, what’s ironic and what’s earnest—which might sum up his poetics[.]” The reviews could work as postmodern cultural criticism and also functional assessments of the product in question. They live both scattered discreetly across the pages of Amazon.com and collected as literature in several small volumes titled Selected Amazon Reviews from Hooke Press in 2006, Push Press in 2011, Essay Press in 2017, with a fourth edition announced from Tripwire journal’s pamphlet series. As Dia Felix wrote, “In misusing this for-profit platform, Killian joyfully lacerates the supposed doom of the present.”
Kevin predominately critiqued household items, films, and books, including a lot of memoirs and biographies. Upon reading about the life of comedian Paul Lynde, he was scandalized to learn that the Hollywood Squares star had murdered his boyfriend Bing at a hotel party in San Francisco in the summer of 1965. Bing had fallen out a window: “The last thing he saw was Paul Lynde’s leering face hovering above him as one by one his fingers slipped. Bye, bye, Birdie! Kenneth Anger left this lurid story out of his book Hollywood Babylon. Was he paid off I wonder? Kenneth Anger: we thought you had integrity!” (This incident comes up repeatedly in Kevin’s play Dinner Plus Theater.) Most of his ratings are five stars. “I wouldn’t give this one five stars, because it was pretty ‘badly written,’ but we live in an age of contingency and I don’t really care about what’s good or bad in that sense,” he said, regarding Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars by Scotty Bowers, which he gives four stars. You would think that Kevin would savor the parade of Hollywood leading men who went up Scotty’s rectum but his main comment was, “I had no idea how bad Katharine Hepburn's complexion was; at any rate Bowers describes it here as a cross between old burlap and brand new steel wool. She always looks so good in the movies!” He critiqued the Hollywoodized portrayal of a literary event in the film Scream 4: “It’s almost as if the filmmakers have never actually been to a bookstore in their lives.” A review for a collection of interviews with the creator of the comic strip Peanuts is titled “Theater of Cruelty” and begins, “Charles Monroe Schulz was a household name even in France, where I as an American boy growing up in French provinces had my own subscription to the International Herald Tribune from ages 6 to 10.” The Amazon.com version of Kevin had broad tastes, an optimistic attitude, a Prime membership, and loved curling up on the couch with his wife and the cats to watch Psycho II (a “respectable stab” at a sequel) or something newer like National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (“Better than the original. I had no idea that there was an actual Book of Secrets that all American Presidents are forced to read and hide!”). And I guess he spent his youth in rural France and had kids of his own, whom he sometimes dressed up as Abraham Lincoln. Buuck notes that he also forged “a fake foodie’s sensibility (Kevin often subsisted on microwave meals and Tab).” This Kevin was Kevin’s consumerist doppelganger, surfing the market, who lived out his pleasant existence in a digital San Francisco, tucked within the code of the Amazon machine, benevolent provider of media and the world’s general store. “Other reviewers recommend Advil for its ease of use,” Kevin declared, “but I’m here to tell you the main reason to buy it is that it is tasty and sweet, rather like a cherry. If common sense and doctors’ warnings didn’t preclude it, I would be popping Advils all day just to get that delicious taste in my mouth, like a kid in a candy store.” (Use as directed.) The project was an infiltration, a performance, a series of intimate disclosures, and a cunning subversion of the review system that he dominated while deploying to his own creative ends. Alan Gilbert has remarked, “I’m confident that one day his Amazon reviews will be seen as one of the major literary contributions to our time. In my last conversation with Kevin, I told him this and that I was currently teaching a selection of these reviews, and he said that Amazon was slowly deleting some of them, so I hope an effort is being made to rescue and collect them all for a future Library of America edition.”
In 1995, when Lyn Hejinian and Travis Ortiz founded Atelos, an indie publisher of writers influenced by Language Poetry and New Narrative, Dodie and Kevin were asked to co-author a title. They attempted to write a memoir of the San Francisco poetry scene, which they planned to call Eyewitness, but the project was swiftly abandoned. “It seems to me that whenever you collaborate, the result sounds like a piece by Kevin Killian, and my ego is too big for that,” Dodie told her husband. They didn’t return to the idea of collaboration until it was almost too late. Following Kevin’s cancer diagnosis, he and Dodie opened up a discourse in manuscript form. They were going to write about a thousand words a week to each other on predetermined topics such as “origins” and “mortality.” They wanted to work on this for a year but Kevin died eight weeks into it. The resulting manuscript, heartbreakingly shorter than expected, was made into a chapbook that was distributed at Kevin’s memorial at SFMOMA and also included in the new anthology Dodie Bellamy Is on Our Mind, both from Semiotext(e). Kevin wrote to Dodie about things such as the roll of Lifesavers that poet John Wieners purchased during a visit and left in their bathroom cabinet. (Lifesavers, fun fact, being the invention of Hart Crane’s candymaker father.) When Dodie and Kevin sold their papers to Yale, they threw that roll of Lifesavers into one of the archival boxes. It’s tucked away in a library somewhere. I was able to gaze upon this sacred treat in Kevin’s bathroom once myself, before it disappeared. (He told me where it was, I wasn’t rifling through his medicine cabinet.) Kevin wrote, “I feel like opening that dentist drawer one more time and looking at that candy. But it’s gone.” Dodie and Kevin were married for thirty-three years. She recently wrote about losing her husband: “People say I’m handling it well. People are wrong.”
Kevin’s existence was defined by the AIDS pandemic. As Jack Spicer wrote in his early poem “Berkeley in Time of Plague”: “Plague took us and the chairs from under us,/Stepped cautiously while entering the room/(We were discussing Yeats); it paused awhile/Then smiled and made us die.” Within Kevin’s own community a plague extinguished the lives of artist after artist, friend after friend. In Spicer’s words, “We died prodigiously; it hurt awhile,/But left a certain quiet in our eyes.” Kevin and others scavenged through the wreckage, trying to save what they could. There are many stories that Kevin recouped and propagated. We need survivors like him. “You and I lived through AIDS, and during those fifteen years there was literally nothing but hopelessness, nothing but death,” he told Dodie. She responded, “I disagree; it was also a wonderful time for community and art. And love. My heart was so open in those days.” Kevin said, “I think that there’s more hope these days so that there’s less community, less art, less operatic passion.” If there is more hope today, it is because of people like Kevin. Some gay men were activists who put their bodies on the line to perform direct action. This caused significant beneficial change. And some gay men, like Kevin, did other vital work. They became our historians and our philosophers. They reshaped genres to make room for these waves of trauma crashing against our shore. Kevin didn’t want to go. Who would? In the end, most of us want to live (most of the time). Kevin had unfinished business. “Oh Dodie, I have so much to say still about Peggy Lipton and Doris Day!”
When my mother was dying of cancer, before she couldn’t talk anymore she went through a phase of remarkable bitterness. I’m sure that emotional lability is common under the circumstances. The kind of drawn out, chemical-soaked death that she experienced looked ghastly. I’m glad Kevin was spared the worst of it, as his decline was unexpected and rapid. He told Dodie, “I honestly thought that chemotherapy was not going to be a big deal. I thought I was going to have 4 or 5 sessions without any difficulty. Instead after one session I wind up in a place where I don’t know where I am, in grievous pain the likes of which I had never known.” Under the haze of what must have been a pharmacopeia of poisons and painkillers, Kevin tried to make sense of the senseless thing that was happening to him. A “catastrophic reaction,” they call it. He wrote, “As I’ve come to view my life in the poetry world, I realize that the struggles of poetry led me into a hideous depression that wound up giving me cancer. [T]he very poets who gave me cancer were the ones who loved me most.” Losing somebody close is like being in a car crash that doesn’t end, the chassis just keeps flipping down the hill. Kevin was intubated and put into a medically induced coma. His voice dropped out of the conversation and didn’t return. Dodie was left by herself on the page. She wrote, “Before they put you on the breathing tube, you said, ‘We had a good long time together,’ and yes we did, but not nearly enough.” He passed away on June 15, 2019 at the age of 66.
The response to Kevin’s death was nearly flurried, with countless of his friends and acquaintances offering ardent testimonials on social media and in memorial articles about what a genuine and amazing person he was. Dodie described it as a “horrible outpouring (from the point of the widow who wants to mourn privately).” Because Kevin was so social and popular, torrents of people needed or wanted to share the grief at his passing. Richard Loranger remarked, “When a famous poet dies, the circus comes to town,” relating to me the chaos that ensued after Allen Ginsberg passed, with people hurrying out of the woodwork to stake a claim to his legacy. But the reaction to Kevin’s death wasn’t predatory so much as overwhelming. The scope of his caring was reflected in the sheer number of people who had a story to tell about his graceful influence on their lives. The Evergreen Review, concerned that the importance of his writing would be overshadowed by a profusion of platitudes and anecdotes, commissioned this retrospective of his career. His forthcoming posthumous publications will continue to strengthen his position as an eminent talent of our time: there are plans to bring his poetry back into print, at the time of his demise he was working on a volume of Jack Spicer’s letters, and Semiotext(e) will rerelease his novel Shy and novella Desiree in a new combined edition. A celebration of Kevin’s life was held at SFMOMA in late August of 2019. He was eulogized by Robert Glück, Phoebe Gloeckner, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Andrew Durbin, Kota Ezawa, Gabrielle Daniels, Matt Gordon, Eric Sneathen, Ariana Reines, Eileen Myles, and his sister Maureen Killian. There was music, a reading of one of his plays, and cake. Diana Cage and Maxe Crandall described the event as “high art punctuated by erotica, camp, and four-hundred people in Goth daywear. We overheard Laura Moriarty call it the Poetry Oscars; it was like going to queer church. Artists flew in from Berlin, New York, everywhere—enough to pack SFMOMA’s Phyllis Wattis Theater, with people left sitting on the floor and in the aisles, and a full spillover room upstairs with a livestream. In other words, it was just as Kevin would have wanted—a highly-attended social event shot through with queer pathos.” I wasn’t there, but I have this image of the end of Derek Jarman’s film adaptation of The Tempest, where Elisabeth Welch appears bedecked in a golden gown to serenade a bunch of young men in sailor outfits with the song “Stormy Weather”: “Don’t know why/There's no sun up in the sky/Stormy weather/Since my man and I ain’t together/Keeps raining all the time…”
Dodie flew to New York in October for the East Coast memorial held in St. Mark’s Church by the Poetry Project. The event was organized by the editor in chief of Frieze Magazine, Andrew Durbin, who was named Kevin’s literary executor. The New York scene has always felt inhibited and neurotic, which was reflected in the reserved yet chic vibe, contrasting what might have been more of an ecstatic and friendly party atmosphere in San Francisco. But it was an absolutely lovely experience. An A-list of local personalities read some of their favorite Killian pieces: Douglas A. Martin, Lynne Tillman, Alan Gilbert, Lee Ann Brown, Cecilia Dougherty, Kathe Burkhart, Kay Gabriel, Trace Peterson, and Ishmael Houston-Jones. Tony Torn directed a performance of Kevin’s play The Lenticular featuring a blood-splattered nurse and goldfish crackers used as props that were then served at the refreshment table afterward. The night ended with a film program featuring clips of video pieces featuring Kevin by D-L Alvarez and others. There were the couple, side by side in Michael Turner’s short “Interview with Dodie and Kevin,” projected flickeringly on the wall of St. Mark’s Church, like sitters for a Warhol screen test, staring out of the dark, silent, becoming light. Other tribute events were mounted around this time in different cities and even more are still in the works. Exalting Kevin will never go out of style.
Shortly following Kevin’s death, friends of Dodie launched an online fundraising campaign to help her cover funeral arrangements and various legal and organizational costs associated with his estate. This proved that all the posthumous praise wasn’t just hot air, because people put their money where their mouths were to support Dodie during such a devastating time. The goal was set for $35,000 but that was blown past by 414 individual donors who raised a total of $43,386. The major stated expense was to purchase Kevin’s resting place in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park. It was decided that Kevin would be cremated and the most suitable location for his ashes would be the old columbarium he so often visited with guests, right next to Jack Spicer. As Elizabeth Thomas explained, “A few empty niches remain near Spicer, as no one has been placed there for decades. What a perfect place for Kevin to stay for eternity, in this grand space—the setting for some perfect noir film, or poet’s theater production, or furtive literary climax. In this spot of his own ‘spectral memories,’ he will have the company of his beloved Spicer, and the trickle of visitors who will now be presenting themselves to him.” Dodie was able to convince the cemetery management to sell space in the disused room, two rows below Spicer’s niche. She wrote, “It’s been so long since any spaces have been sold in this old part of the mausoleum, the person who makes the brass front plates retired and Cypress Lawn couldn’t find anyone new to make one.” The sculptor Chris Bell committed to fabricating a custom made front plate with design input from Dodie. This project is still in the works as of this writing but soon enough the great Kevin Killian will be installed in his final home, where devotees may visit and commune with both him and Spicer in one swoop. It’s uncanny that during all those field trips where he brought his friends to this space, he was in a sense showing them his own grave. We owe him so much. And we can save him, preserve him, keep him alive, the way that he did for Steve Abbott, and Sam D’Allesandro, and Tony Greene, and Jack Spicer, and others besides: by talking about him, by sharing him, by reading him. Oh Dodie, I have so much to say still about Kevin Killian!