Art by Shelley Marlow
Photographs courtesy of the author
When Kevin Killian died on June 15 the internet was flooded with remembrances describing his outsize influence on the publishing, theater, and art worlds, but little in the way of actual engagement with his vast body of work. I asked Lonely Christopher, who met Kevin Killian in 2010 and developed a friendship with occasional collaborations, if he’d like to write an overview of Kevin’s oeuvre and he decided to go for it. What follows is the first of four installments on the work of a singular artist who was a vital part of the New Narrative and poets theater movements, as well as one of the first writers to understand the role of a fictional persona in Amazon reviews. This is the first of a four-part series which will be published this fall in Evergreen.
I. Bachelors Get Lonely
Kevin Killian tearily abandoned the city behind the wheel of a clunker, bottle of whiskey in his lap and murder weapon in the trunk, only to get picked up en route to wherever by a hot guy in a snazzy Lotus who led him down some byway off the L.I.E. to an assignation motel where the beds had magic fingers and everything was covered in mirrors. The stranger’s chest and back were striped with scarification; he wanted young Kevin to tie him up and tease his flesh with a knife. That would get him off and then “it can be your party.” He had the knife, not the rope. Kevin’s kind of a hapless, horny dope in this story. He got an idea and went back out to his car, opening the trunk and “staring down at the rope that Tim Baillie had hung himself with.” He had just come from the wake of his grad school advisor with whom he’d slept to pass his orals. This was the late-70s, Kevin in his mid-20s. His youth was replete with transactional sex with older men, but he always seemed to cherish what he got out of it, even if it was only the experience of being in or out of control. Like David Wojnarowicz, only a year his senior: a sexually active kid who found traction in antisocial behavior, forging bodily through life’s tyrannies. If Kevin were a character in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, readers would say that guy is too outrageous. He remembered getting passed around by the monks and priests of his Catholic school upbringing, prescribing to himself in retrospect a sense of mature autonomy that overreached the emotional development of a child, or maybe getting fingered by the Good Humor man in the back of an ice cream truck (unless that was a “screen memory” covering up an alien abduction), but his surprising reactions of jejune pride and jealousy belied the darkness of such encounters.
Kevin’s grad school advisor had asked him to pick up a length of rope . . . to pack a trunk. “A trunk to death?” What a macabre errand to assign to a student that you’ve fucked. Kevin believed the false reason for his request. The extra rope that he didn’t need to kill himself went back in Kevin’s car, until it was serendipitously useful at the motel, where there were even mirrors around the bathtub. Kevin tied his trick to the shower rod, and was about to start drawing on him with the provided knife, but the weight of the man almost immediately caused the rod to break, shattering the glass on either side of them and raining down mirror shards in a burst of silver. “The room was imploding.” Kevin was miraculously unhurt but his companion, still bound, had been impaled in the abdomen and was leaking profusely. There was “pink mist erupting up the side of the bathtub, mist that grew red at its edges.” The guy was in rough shape but, given his fetish for bleeding stab wounds, he was also ready to cum. He demanded that Kevin give him a hand, so the poet masturbated him to completion while trying not to cut himself on the glass scattered everywhere or sit on the knife he had dropped. Feeling “blood and precum, greasy in my loose fist,” Kevin was “scared to death, but horny, too.” Then he left the motel and drove away. I was stunned, sitting in the back of the audience at the now defunct Books Inc. in the Castro, listening to Kevin read this autobiographical piece titled “Spurt.” It was written for the unpublished memoir Bachelors Get Lonely and eventually included in the 2009 short story collection from City Lights titled, after Kylie Minogue, Impossible Princess. The book won that year’s Lambda Literary Award for best gay erotica and from my undergraduate education in creative writing I knew it was a not uncommon trope for authors to insert fictionalized versions of themselves into their stories, like Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions. “Spurt” was reprinted last year in its original context when Kevin’s collected memoirs came out from Semiotext(e) in an edition edited by Andrew Durbin and titled Fascination.
“After the reading, this one girl came up to me [and said], ‘Did that really happen to you? You left this room where somebody is possibly bleeding to death?’ And I was like, ‘I know. I’m so ashamed and embarrassed about that.’ And she slapped me across the face. She said, ‘You don’t deserve to live.’”
Twenty-one year old me was confused, possibly aroused. My summary above can’t even suggest the cinematic sleights, erotic tensions, and crafty subversions coiling through the story, but there was an emotional honesty behind the uncanny sardonics that pricked me in my seat with the dreadful surety that whatever he was doing, he was telling the truth. I went up to him afterward and quizzed him on the tale’s veracity. Did that guy, like, die or something? “Oh, um, yeah, I’m not really sure what happened to him,” he answered in a nonplussed Warholian lilt. I squinted, as if that would help me decide whether he was being serious. It seems to me now that Kevin knew the difference between being factual versus being honest. That’s the heart of metaphor, after all. In his introduction to Fascination, Durbin wrote that the memoirs don’t dwell “on the provable connections between the living writer and his character so much as they attempt, in their corrupt desire to ape and supplant reality with their own exigencies, to stand in place of private memory as a public document, as this book you hold in hand: the realer deal than whatever was once real.” That may be too much of a postmodern cop-out for some. Kevin himself told me that when editing these autobiographical manuscripts about the 70s and 80s, he was “surprised at how sadistic and cruel I was.” In an interview, he disclosed a performance of “Spurt” that went much differently than the one I witnessed: “After the reading, this one girl came up to me [and said], ‘Did that really happen to you? You left this room where somebody is possibly bleeding to death?’ And I was like, ‘I know. I’m so ashamed and embarrassed about that.’ And she slapped me across the face. She said, ‘You don’t deserve to live.’ And that always stuck with me. It’s probably true.”
I wouldn’t begrudge Kevin his Catholic guilt, but that anonymous woman was wrong and her comment and the ensuing slap were foolish. Long before she was born, Kevin had matured from a cocksure enfant terrible who would ditch a man passed out in his own blood into a literary figurehead and community leader. I wasn’t around for the transformation, either. If there was a remarkable before and after, the likeliest to have intimate knowledge of the process would be Kevin’s widow, Dodie Bellamy, author of such breakthrough works as Cunt-Ups, The Letters of Mina Harker, and When the Sick Rule the World. They met only a couple years after “Spurt” takes place. 1981, when AIDS was first identified. Kevin had grown up middle class on Long Island, too big for his britches, altar boy gone awry, lost in a haze of liquor and drugs, lusting for strange flavors. “I talked a good game, as any bright student can, and did my best to get out of my schoolwork, so I’d have more time to develop my homosexuality,” he wrote in Bachleors Get Lonely. His desires were pathologized by normal society but he had a knack for sniffing out fellow deviants. When the big bad city is a bus ride away, mothers of corruptible youth have reason to fear. In his memoirs he writes almost nothing of his family. His main father figures seem to have been his much older boyfriends. He once participated in a group porn shoot knowing the consequence would be that he for sure would never be elected president. His extensive knowledge of the golden age of Hollywood starlets was a niche attraction.
Kevin was an inveterate autograph hound. There was almost nothing he wouldn’t do to snatch a desired signature. I once read with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge at St. Mark’s Bookshop and Kevin reached out to ask if I could collect their autograph for an “internet boyfriend in Chicago” who “worships the ground that GBP walks on” but adding, “if this is too embarrassing don’t do it.” I dutifully acquired P-Orridge’s signature and mailed it to the Windy City. At a memorial for Kevin, soon after his death, held at “the historic home of Rip Torn and Geraldine Page,” the young poet Stephen Ira recalled the time he gave a poetry reading attended by Kevin. Stephen’s father, the actor Warren Beatty, was also in there to support his kid. Most of the literati were unaroused by this celebrity guest. But Kevin marched right up to Beatty after the reading and unabashedly proffered an autograph book for him to scribble in. “Mr. Beatty, whenever I visit Hollywood I know I’m sure to run across a few stars, so I always bring this. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind?” This was a lifelong obsession for Kevin and he accrued some rare ink. He wrote of his youth, in Bachelors Get Lonely, that “I guess the worst thing I did was this one star, I wanted his autograph terrible, and nothing seemed to help. I mean I wrote letter after letter, pleading for his autograph, and then I caved in on myself and said I had the HIV virus, and right away, snap, he sent me this long letter, saying to me, don’t give up, a cure’s right around the corner. I felt so guilty. Also it seemed like such bad karma, know what I mean? I had to take another test right away. It just seems like a miracle.” He was suddenly haunted by a previous incident that could have led to his seroconversion. He was straddling a bar, “so drunk I couldn’t see,” with the bartender fucking him raw, probably cumming inside him, then following that up by spraying the soda gun up his ass to see if he could taste the different flavors. “And drunk as I was three times out of four I could guess right.” Six months later, the bartender was dead.
Dodie Bellamy recalled in an essay for the Village Voice, “I wasn’t particularly interested in Kevin at first. He was this weird guy who wrote even weirder poetry and drank too much. Besides, everybody knew he was gay, very gay.” But somehow it worked. They married in 1985. I can’t say what it is about Kevin that allowed him to fall for a woman after profoundly establishing his homosexuality for all the world to envy. I’m not sure it’s worth intellectualizing. You can’t really chock it up to bisexuality because Kevin didn’t claim that label. Their marriage wasn’t one of convenience but mutuality, closer to what straight marriages might look like if they weren’t doomed by received tradition. Kevin and Dodie functioned as a unit, generative not performative, and their marriage produced not biological heirs or heteropatriarchal orthodoxy but rather community and fulfillment. Kevin was not trying to appear straight for social benefit. He was bent all the way; in fact, falling in love with a woman, marrying her under the eyes of the law, and spending the rest of his life cohabitating and creating art and being cat parents with her was, like, the most fucked up and radical thing a guy like him could accomplish. There’s been conjecture that their union had something to do with AIDS, which both authors have addressed. Dodie wrote, “We met at a particular historical moment, the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. When Kevin fell in love with me, perhaps he was in unconscious retreat from homosexuality at such a dangerous time for gay men.” It’s true that Kevin did survive, only to be struck down too soon by other maladies. But he made it through the Plague Years without being murdered by the state. In Bachelors Get Lonely he remembered, “I was really frightened, for myself, then after those tests less frightened for me, more frightened for the whole fabric of society. I felt this funny twinge of fear when Anthony Perkins died.” Kevin seemingly underwent a reformation during those terrible years: giving up risky sexual behaviors, maybe forgetting the smutty allure of men’s hairy asses altogether, hopping on the water wagon and planting himself there after an entire youth spent brined and smoked, settling down with a missus, picking up employment at a janitorial firm, and becoming a role model for a slew of young writers of all persuasions and points of origin. But he remained a pervert at heart.
Kevin once discussed his version of monogamy during a public talk, saying that his partner Dodie “thinks of it as being faithful. I don’t, but I do it anyhow, because I don’t want to hurt her. That’s the only reason. She says, you’re in love with that boy, or that man, and I say, like, no. I’m not. Why aren’t you? she says. You’re gay! I say I don’t know, I’m in love with you. She says, it’s not natural, how can I satisfy you, you’re gay! So I’m gay, doesn’t mean I’m a cheater.” There is a surprising amount of ambiguity around this, despite their copious remarks, but I can only speculate that if Kevin dallied with select men, that occurred in a boundaried space that wouldn’t affect his primary relationship with Dodie. He intimated to me that his sexual interests were somewhat esoteric. He once told me, “I've got one particular fetish only a handful of guys really get into, and if I don't have my way, I pout like an unsatisfied baby.” It sounded to me like nothing more than spanking and bondage, but I never pressed the issue. The mechanics of his marriage eluded me. This was a situation where the standard definitions weren’t useful. But it wasn’t worth challenging because the functionality and success of their partnership was self-evident through the daily practice of their love. I don’t know two people who were as perfect for each other. They just modelled everything differently. And together they positioned themselves at the crux of one of the most important literary movements of their generation: New Narrative. Dodie stated that, not unlike their marriage, “The queer writing we envisioned would collapse the boundaries between literary forms and confound the categories of sexuality.”
The New Narrative movement began in San Francisco in the late 70s, founded by Robert Glück and Bruce Boone and given a name by Steve Abbott. Their scene was headquartered at a bookstore called Small Press Traffic, where Bob would facilitate state-subsidized creative writing workshops. New Narrative was developed out of the advancements made by Language Poetry, but was decidedly more queer, diverse, and radical in composition and intention than that movement. Dodie and Kevin together edited the 2017 Nightboat Books anthology Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997 and in their indispensable introduction they wrote, “Language poetry was indeed built on the discredit of narrative, and New Narrative was to be built on a complex combination of alliance with and interrogation of Language poetry’s basic tenants.” The aesthetics differ between the two groups: Language is analytic where New Narrative is subjective. I would argue that Language is closed-circuit while New Narrative is intersectional. New Narrative remained invested in theory because, “We wanted to infuse stories of our lives with the rigors of theoretical discourse” while, praxis-wise, they fostered “a movement politics born out of the gay rights struggle and the cultural and poetical initiative of second wave feminism.” Identifiable techniques of New Narrative include politicization, collaboration, appropriation, metatextuality, pastiche, kitsch, lists, in-jokes, name dropping, gossip, anecdotes, pop culture references, malleability, autobiography, and overt sexuality. Everything purposed “to open up the field to a wider range of subjects and subject positions.” In his manifesto “Long Note on New Narrative,” Robert Glück stated, “In writing about sex, desire and the body, New Narrative approached performance art, where self is put at risk by naming names, becoming naked, making the irreversible happen—the book becomes social practice that is lived.” Both Language and New Narrative writers dabbled in poets theater, and certain writers including Kevin also wrote verse, but New Narrative is considered to be a prose-based group predicated on poetics. Dodie and Kevin recognized it as “a body of prose that could not exist without the poetry missing from its center.” There was a stylistic relationship to Belles-lettres and French literature, finding the camp value in everything from La Fontaine to Balzac to Proust to Bataille. Glück identified that “Bataille was central to our project. He finds a counter-economy of rupture and excess that includes art, sex, war, religious sacrifice, sports events, ruptured subjectivity, the dissolution of bodily integuments—‘expenditure’ of all kinds. Bataille showed us how a bath house and a church could fulfill the same function in their respective communities.”
Dodie and Kevin met through one of Bob’s workshops. They weren’t present for the earliest years of the scene but they arrived in time to learn and grow tremendously from the hotbed communal atmosphere and establish themselves as important figures within the movement and, by extension, the history of contemporary creative writing. Together they were New Narrative’s most careful stewards and ardent promoters. From 1992 until 2006 they co-edited a little magazine called Mirage #4/Period[ical] that featured a who’s who of hundreds upon hundreds of experimental writers active during that time. After the heyday of Small Press Traffic (which still exists, now in an iteration hosted by California College of the Arts), and in the style of Bob’s original workshops, their modest, rent-controlled one-bedroom on Minna Street, a packrat’s paradise of poetry and art, functioned as a formative social space for artists to gather, workshop, invent, and stimulate each other. Kevin wrote of their place: “When we moved in, it was after the big earthquake of 1989, and tenants left this building in droves because of the rocking and rolling it underwent during the revenge of Loma Prieta—and if you weren't on the somewhat more stable ground floor, you moved your kit and kaboodle back to Kansas or wherever you had come from. But rents were cheap then. Now we pile up our books and pictures as though they could keep us alive, though it's fairly obvious they can't.” At one time or another their compatriots included Kathy Acker, Judy Grahn, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Eileen Myles, Gary Indiana, Sarah Schulman, Chris Kraus, and the breakout star of them all: Dennis Cooper.
They were writers to the death. And some of them were struck down by cancer or AIDS. Dodie and Kevin wrote that “When Sam D’Allesandro grew too weak to sit up and write, he dictated his stories into a tape recorder, leaving it to others to rewind and transcribe, to find the words between the long labored gasps and clicks his throat made.” It was Dodie who completed that transcription work (the title of the story, “Travels with My Mother”) and Kevin became D’Allesandro’s literary executor, editing Sam’s posthumous collected stories, The Wild Creatures. He wanted to keep the names of fallen friends alive. He was also a scholar of San Francisco Renaissance poet Jack Spicer, having co-written his biography, Poet Be Like God, and co-edited the collected poems, My Vocabulary Did This to Me. He seemed much more comfortable advertising for other writers than building up his own career. Kevin was always extremely deferential toward Dennis Cooper, for example, in a manner so obsequious that it bordered on parody masking jealousy, except the surprise was that Kevin didn’t envy Dennis, he was truly excited for Cooper’s international success and felt proud of him like a kid brother. Dennis is a remote and withdrawing genius, Kevin was an interactive and forthcoming genius. Whereas Dennis eventually disappeared to a disused nunnery in France and mostly communicates with people through his blog, Kevin was a man about town who made himself accessible to his community, students, and audience. Their fiction is similar in that they both push thematic boundaries and explore the relationships between sex, pain, and power. Robert Glück recently noted in Bookforum that, “for Kevin, pleasure and safety were opposites, and his work turned on the moment when our hero sees the broader perspective of someone who wants to damage him.” Cooper’s existential protagonists are cynical in their wasted blankness but Kevin’s characters skewed more Dickensian, driven by a friendlier irony. Both were committed to an outré spirit, willing to go places and make disclosures that fell outside the realm of the academy or polite society. Kevin’s fiction was catty, brave, and often heartbreaking. It could be maddeningly erotic and shocking at once, taking risks and getting intimate.
Stay tuned for the sequel! This is a four-part series, after all. Next, I’m going to take a deep dive into Kevin Killian’s surprisingly troubled publication history, getting a real good look at what’s going on under the covers. His award-winning fiction has a dedicated fan base despite being mostly out of print. His oeuvre deserves more critical attention and conservancy for its edgy and affecting éclat. What does that portend? Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! Plus: spank-happy freaks, horny ghosts, meth addict grifters, autograph forgers, and human skin used as boudoir decoration.