I'm standing on a flat plain, and then, or so it seems, a little hole appears in the sand ahead of me (like that movie Tremors)? The hole grows larger in diameter, this is my sanity, and all the little pieces of my sanity are breaking up and slipping down into the hole. That's what it feels like. I'm trying to write this piece, "Poison," about the ways in which the writer's personality dissolves as it weaves in and out of the sentences he or she so painfully struggles to produce. While writing it I notice a host of familiar symptoms. Nobody calls me on the phone. I feel so isolated. I can't hear very well and wonder if I'm going deaf like Beethoven, like Brian Wilson. When people do speak it's with loud, ultra-charged voices, as though they're annoyed with me. I feel like I'm losing my mind and with my mind, the meaning of life I once held onto. I used to think that people are basically good at heart. I used to think I would be happy someday, but now I feel differently, that there's no chance for me, since that hole before me is opening up and soon everything I ever clung to will be sucked down into it and I'll be homeless and curled up on the gutter outside my former apartment on Minna Street, a crack-ridden block South of Market in San Francisco. I just bought a car and there's not really any place to park it.
How did I write a whole book? I'm trying to remember. In particular how I wrote Bedrooms have Windows, which I loved so much too, I wrote it in part as a shipwreck victim sends out a message in a bottle; in particular to my dear friend Terry Black, with whom I'd lost touch a few years before. The book has many appeals to him to get in touch with me. (Before the Internet, through which, apparently, everyone is available to or traceable by everyone else, this seemed my only recourse.) I longed to see it in print, feeling that he would pick it up and call me. But after it was published a mutual friend sent me Terry's obituary, he had died in Richmond, Virginia, of AIDS, the same month the memoir came out. This was not the answer I had hoped for. Part of me felt that Bedrooms have Windows killed Terry Blackdetailing as it did our sex life and its creation, the way we had made up sex to answer certain suburban needs for the authentic, the "real," the colorful. Naming names, his. Implicating others, him. What portion of one's personality is a fiction? It wasn't going to do any good to realize this was a sentimental fantasy, part of the mind's response to the inexplicable horror of AIDS, part of my own need to find myself on centerstage always. I went back to "Poison" as I delivered it originally, as a talk in Bob Gluck's series, In Context, a series of talks delivered week after week at Intersection, once an important writing venue in San Francisco. This was a happier time for meApril, 1987. When New Narrative writing seemed wide open, a place where something entirely new under the sun could be created. And that we were doing it, doing so. But "Poison" I found out was imperfect, it didn't help me. "Last week Dodie Bellamy's talk stressed the paradox of writing as a two-way street-the importation of the world into the self, and the generous export of the self back into the world. Bob's talk may have been allied to my own idea of writing as an expression of the death drive from Beyond the Pleasure Principlewhat he calls 'Freudian pleasure based on an instinct to return to the inanimate.'"
Every writing act is an act of dying, or killing, or mortification. Every time I write it's to expose to the air of the page a false part of my personality. I guess this goes directly against Bob's theory of writing, and links mine closer to Dodie's, though not in any way she'd like or approve of. My talk, I thought, would be a patchwork of quotations, writing about me written by others; some that I wrote about other people, lots I wrote about myself, and also work by others that didn't have me in it at allto give a wide scale against which I could test my propositions. And the first was from Alan Davies' book Name, which I found useful in its treatment of the tie between language and self; is language a function of the word or of the self? Or vice versa?
The cryptic tongue.
We are getting ourselves
in the mood to have been
done with having been done
with this again.
It's all very irreversible
which is what
makes its guts open up.
I wonder how long it will
be until this writes
my direction. And we
that it isn't true yet.
When I think of you
the sentences come,
but I don't.
Then I read a passage from Dodie's book The Letters of Mina Harker, in which Mina, a fictional character, reflects on her love life. In this passage I felt myself inextricably named and described, my human body a vessel for a flood of narrative concerns.
Flaccid, KK's penis is endearing, so velvety and shybut the trouble with babies (as my mother always said) is that they grow upyour bed inflates to the breaking point with thirty-three-year-old male desire panting and prodding the thing inside burst through her belly, horror props, sausage links and ketchup around my neck KK fastens a locket filled with a snip of his hair to protect me from evil I cross the street with my eyes closed, cars screech then cease to exist, the atom remains unsplit forever, cells multiply at a reasonable rate every death is from a natural cause LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE remember when his nails were half an inch long, thick, hard, yellowedhe clipped them off for me parting my capillary pink flesh without a scratch all it took was one "ouch" claws retract, breathing softens. He extends his palm from the bathtub and says, "Sit on it," human form follows function, in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast gloved arms poke out of the walls holding candles, their flames trembling as Beauty recedes down the endless corridor I wish I could walk through mirrors our entwined bodies tighten into a circle, a champagne bubble about to be swallowed by Marilyn Monroe pushing the metaphor to the breaking point, in a word: orgasmic when we fuck we are two great hands shaking his cock a thumb in an explosion of light the bearded creator in Blake's watercolor points from the heavensmortal heads bow or stare up in awe and terror the way I do whenever I'm naked a woman's hair is never thick enough to hide her thoughts KK reaches for a condom, fumbles with its little blue capsule PRESS FIRMLY ON DOT AND PULL APART town fathers pack data in time capsules burying them underground, schoolchildren dig them up, crack them open a hundred years later. Things.
I used to ask Dodie, "Shouldn't it be, 'When we fuck we are two great hands shaking his cock a giant thumb?' Wouldn't that make the passage clearer?"
She said, "No." That's all. Just "no."
At first I was embarrassed by this passage and many others like it in her writing, for if at any time my penis is flaccid I don't want to know about it, nor the world to suspect it. At the same time, I felt flattered, singled out by her language as I felt singled out by her love. "Beauty recedes down the endless corridor I wish I could walk through mirrors." The sense of the syntax issues a seductive invitation into a mystery worldand I am that mystery. Then the cold water hit me; with a start I came to and asked the difficult question, is it I who is being described? The Letters of Mina Harker seem to describe the sex lives, the love lives of two actual people, but of course they don't, they don't even especially want to: their veiled and mediating nature hints at this:
extends his palm from the bathtub and says, "Sit on it," human form follows function, in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast gloved arms poke out of the walls holding candles, their flames trembling as Beauty recedes down the endless corridor
and so forth, then the phrase "pushing the metaphor to the breaking point" nails it. Do you know the funny feeling you get when a stranger waves on the street, you wave back, and then you realize the stranger's waving not at you but at the little weirdo behind you in the brown fedora? One's identification with the words that seem to conjure one up like "I Dream of Jeannie" out of black letters on a white page is likejust like-the way your heart then sinks and a blush colors your face; except it's even more mortifyingthat stranger on the street's waving all right, and you wave back, then you turn around and it isn't even a person that stranger is really waving at, but an atmosphere perhaps, a draft of air. Only convention associates the wave (or the sentence) to a corporeal body like one's own.
My next example I wrote. I quoted from Bedrooms have Windows to give some idea of what goes through a writer's head when he decides to name real people in potentially scandalous situations-sexual in this case, but scandalous only insofar as they deal with the body; also to suggest the peculiar vanity of the writer-and then I'll give it a fairly close reading.
One evening several years ago I was lying in bed, after some unsatisfactory fumbles towards "safe sex" with a writer I once admired, Dennis A. He turned his head-exactly as he'd turned mine, an hour earlierand get this, he said, "Why didn't you think to take home that Tom Boll too and we could have had a threesome." "Why didn't I think," I replied, an echo of disbelief. "Dennis, I did think; I thought and thought. Had I thought any more, I wouldn't be having this safe sex. Madness wouldn't have been safe from me." I felt attracted to him when he spelled his name in plastic magnetized letters on Aaron's refrigerator. Then he spelled mine with the same colorful letters. Language fused. It was like William Carlos Williams. "There were plums in that icebox," I said to him. "Forgive me. Forgive me. I couldn't help it; they were so ripe and so purple and so cold."
I doubt if "memoir," the word "memoir," really disguises from the reader, or listener, that something very close to a real event is being described. And naturally many people will correctly identify "Dennis A.," the writer "I used to admire," with the Australian historian and sociologist Dennis Altman. I figured out that I call him "Dennis A." to make the narrator's personality kind of coy and obnoxiousand it works, doesn't it? Maybe I was miffed because the sex we had wasn't very perfector maybe I thought, "He's forgotten about me, I'll employ this sentence to haunt him." Writing as an act of revenge, and naming names a superior way of taking it. Like a virus, the poison of this passage will break down, over time, whatever goodwill and nice feeling that Imy bodywill have by then createdlike some ghastly race between life and death, immune system and viral infection. Bob's novel Jack the Modernist begins with a paradigm of intention, deadly intention, "You're not a lover till you blab about it," where the ugliness of the syllable "blab" is meant to suggest a whole medicine cabinet's worth of emetic antidotes to the possibly-too-pretty word "lover."
The same watchful watchdogs will naturally conclude that this pick-up scene takes place not just in anyone's kitchen, in the kitchen not just of any old Aaron, but in Aaron Shurin's kitchen. Maybe they already know of my admiration for his writing and his influence. When I first met him I had just read his book The Graces, and I was so struck by it I could hardly connect its author with a living human being; it was, maybe, a gift from another planet like something out of Chariots of the Gods. And since then I've gotten to know Aaron better "as a person," but still blitzed by this admiration whichI see now!is another form of objectification, turned outward instead of inward. Hence there was little psychic difficulty in turning his name, like a totem, into an amulet to adorn my prose. Hence the repulsive, shy-making casualness of using that name, "Aaron," and the social-climbing note its use strikes here, as though I were his intimate, or perhaps his boyfriend, and what is it in actuality but an incursion on him, aimed squarely at him at his most domestic and private, the kitchen setting, the letters on the refrigerator, perhaps the implied sneer (leftover from the 60s) that the letters are made of plastic. A plastic language. Doesn't sound like a recommendation, does it? It's true that telling stories, "narrative," does involve a local, in the sense that this quote of mine does have a certain atmosphere, a sophistication, but it isn't really mine, it's borrowed or stolen, the way you or I might borrow someone's boyfriend or wife, return it to them and destroy a relationship like breaking a milk bottle. (This isn't to suggest I haven't thought of the pleasure it brings to writer and reader both, butmaybe because I'm a Catholicit's a guilty pleasure; there's pleasure in guilt too, and even if there isn't there's the dying fall you get when you string one word after another, after another, onto another, like bugle beads. The pleasure of accretion.)
Next I'll read something I wrote for the "Jack Spicer" issue of ACTS. My intention here was to get at what I saw as the malice characteristic of Spicer's poetics, and I couldn't think of another analogy except to describe an occasion from my own life, an occasion when I felt malice directed at me.
My aim was to develop a visceral writing, a writing that would as closely as possible parallel the effects of the anonymous letter: insult, horror, shock and embarrassment. But did my face turn red when I received one myself:
Dear Kevin Killian:
Your piece "Tom-Tom" in the latest issue of No Apologies aroused my suspicion that you must be an asshole. First of all what is a gay man doing writing about a psycho-killer of women and getting off on it? I'm suspicious that it's easier for your fantasy screw to get off when the victim is a (dehumanized) "Miss Thing" than if your homicidal maniac lusted after boys likejust like-you . . . So what's your story? If it isn't a good one, this dyke'll write you off entirely.
Threats. Intimidation. A whole map of misreading of my adorable piece. Again and again I read this letter, each time with increasing unease and paranoia. I howled into the open air, "What have I done to deserve such venom? Who wrote this tripe?" Despite the writer's declaration, I wasn't fooled into believing him a woman. In my heart I knew this letter is from one of my so-called friends-of the male species. My only questions were, which oneand why? I'd been put into the abject position, one I was to maintain for a long time. Writing produces deracination, I decided, by own best example. So much for theory. My content upset "her," I thought to myself. "Take away the psycho-killer storyline and there'd be nothing even a child would object to." And "her" form upset me. Isn't "dictation" Jack Spicer's word for "receiving the letter"? You don't know where it comes from; so you react badly. Martians are writing you, altering the furniture in your room. I wanted a drink so bad I wound up in North Beach! Bats flying from wall to wall, the whole schmear, and voices writing all my poems and signing them with Dennis Cooper's name!
Here the dominant note of my writing becomes real plain: I'm talking about hysteria. I mean that seriously enough, a line that runs a beat too fast, that's capable of all sorts of unexpected connections (which is good) but because it's hysterical is equally capable of making false connections or ignoring the valid (which is bad). That is to say, in my heart of hearts I don't really believe Dennis Cooper is signing all my poems. Why, I don't even know what I meant by that. That's paranoid, isn't it? But I had to find out, what are my rights as a narrator and character?
When I put myself in this false position, I run the risk all divas take: we might prove too much for even our greatest fans. And so I've noticed the characteristic note when others write about me is comic, often picking on my frailties as a real person and usually, by the way, noting either that I love the stars, drink a lot of Tab, or also, you know, drink a lot, of, you know, alcohol. The next passage is from a story by Francesca Rosa called "Canidae" (the Latin word for "dogs"). In it I thought I recognized myself as the writer, "K.":
As K. speaks, a worried-looking dog pokes its head through the blue gauze curtains separating the reading area from whatever is behind it. A black dog, except that its fur is so sparse the skin shows through, a gray and black dog then with running eyes; the wattles of its throat a livid pink. It brings the rest of its body through the curtain and walks upstage of K. who is telling us a story about Long Island. The dog explores, listlessly sniffs at the floor, the podium base and K.'s ankles. It walks back and forth a few times, turns a slow circle while digging its teeth into the root of its tail, and then stops to stare at us, the listeners, again. Not at all shy, confident, as if resigned in its desolation, like one of those Kafka characters that have survived their own death. K. does not, or decides not to, notice his center stage companion, and takes us from Long Island to New York and then back again.
When I first heard this story I remember she was sitting on stage and I was sitting in the audience, our narratological positions reversed, and my ears got red, and a voice rose up in me with a strangled scream, "You can dish it out, Kevin, but you sure can't take it!" In Bob's talk,"Truth's Mirror is No Mirror," he says, "I wonder if we are at the point of reversing Flaubert . . . by accepting an artificial self, with its own scale, depth and continuity. Eastern religion responds to a 'made-up' world with compassionbut with a fatalism that is the flip side of Flaubert's scorn. To the degree we 'see through' Flaubert's scorn, we suffer from and enjoy a self-contempt that is close to bragging . . . I wonder if it's possible to be aware of the artifacted nature of the local and not be contemptuous of it?to understand it as a construct and be moved by its depth?"
I was telling my sister Maureen that I was giving a talk on the fiction of personality, and she nodded and said she knew what that's about. Sometimes, she said, when she's walking down the street she hears in her head her theme music so she feels she's starring in her own TV show. Elizabeth Bowen wrote, "Nothing gets on the page that you started with, and nothing you started gets on the page. To write," she said, "is to rave a little." To this formation I've added my own strategy, to rave a little before I begin to write, to exploit the "fiction of personality" and to see, if not blinded by the brushfire, what happens then on the page. When I was seventeen and living in my parents' house on Long Island I threw lots of parties, so did my friends Terry Black and Lance Mallamo, we did so to enjoy ourselves and to write about them afterwards. This is from a story one of them wrote about a party I gave, a story that begins with me warning my parents to stay away from my party and my fun and my personality and my fictions:
"All I know," pouted Kevin, "is that I care about this house as much as anyone else and I think you're a hideous couple even to think I'd let anything happen to it. Why I just can't explain the chills that go up my spine every time I see it. It's like finding a lemonade stand in the middle of a desert. When I think about the beauty and splendor of this house tears come into my eyes. Its white walls, its grapefruit shingles, its collapsible mailbox, the one-of-a-kind sodded lawn, and, to top it all off like the cherry on a banana split, I think our Spot, our pedigreed dog, out in the backyard rolling in mud and barking at all passersby as if to say, 'I'm black and I'm proud!'"
Kevin's fit of love and tears was interrupted by the doorbell. "I just want to say one more thing," he said in a hurt voice. "If I see either of you downstairs from now until tomorrow morning at ten o'clock I'll set both of you on fire. Don't think I don't mean it either because I'm pretty sure that I do."
With that he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Later in the story Terry himself is in a car driving to my party.
"Terry," said Mary Phipps, a girl in the back seat. While drinking a swig from a bottle of cheap apple wine she continued, "I'm glad you're acting like yourself again instead of like Kevin Killian."
"Thank you," the courteous Terry replied through gritted teeth. Mary Phipps smiled at him and he could not help smiling back. They were true friends and he knew he should listen to what she had to say whether he liked what she said or not. So he did.
"Not that we don't like Kevin," joined in another good friend of Terry's named Sam Rye. "It's just that you're not him and we liked you better as you."
Terry resigned himself to the friendly rainstorm of advice, opinions and admonitions that followed. He could not help wondering though why it was that Kevin always got almost all the attention and he, Terry, so little.
But I've argued myself into a corner if I insist that New Narrative makes room for the stupid, the overblown, and the nastythese are three different veins of my writing, each with its own jet flow. The bizarre thing was that, after I delivered this talk on April 27, 1987, the woman who had written me the anonymous poison-pen letter lifted her hand from the audience and said, "Oh, I wrote thatbefore I knew you better." Do we get to know people that much better that we can change our minds so quickly about them? I was stunned. I remain stunned. I think of life as a big empty desert placecooler than Death Valleybut just about as big"I know! Let's call it Life Valley!"
Where, as I pause for a second, clearing my head, trying not to write, dragging myself from that particular abyss of memory and missed opportunity, there a small hole appears before me, about fifteen feet before me. And all the things I brought with me to this valley are in my trailer, fifteen yards behind. And one by one I lose them down the ever-expanding holecans, jars, movie magazines, photos, food and books. The hole keeps caving in on itself. My little home on wheels is silver, rounded like the new Volkswagen models, and drives like a dream. Its doors shear off with a sudden crunch of metal, bright in the noon air, they slither across the desert floor into the hole. I'm next perhaps, hold on to me.
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