INTERVIEW: Out Poet Kevin Killian on His Fascination With Kylie, Visiting Whitman, and the “Tsunami of Genitalia” He’s Bringing to Philly
Kevin Killian is a multi-talented writer who uses his novels, poetry, plays, and stories to talk about LGBT issues from the past and the present. I got a chance to interview him before his reading at Temple’s Tyler School of Art on Thursday, January 29th. I highly recommend going to this event if you enjoy a reading that is “queer and weird.” You can buy copies of his publications here.
How would you define your style of poetry for someone who isn’t familiar with your work?
I am from the East Coast and grew up listening to the poetry of folks like Frank O’Hara and Amiri Baraka, so I have a conversational, some might say musical rhythm to my poems, even down to the level of the line itself, and when later in life I moved to San Francisco I became bitten by the Jack Spicer bug, the theory of poetry as coming from some force outside the lyric self I had spent the first half of my life trying to get to. So I’m like a two-way street, and the two ways of the street don’t even see each other most of the time, they just drive on by.
LGBT themes play a role in the majority of your work. Why did you decide to stick so closely to that genre?
Maybe that was the priority of my generation, men and women born in the 1950s? Our sexualities were completely, or nearly completely, suppressed by the heteronormative majority. When, here and there, we could say something, we did, and resolved never to shut up about it, come hell or high water. I don’t even know that I’d call them “themes,” but they’re formal qualities perhaps.
You recently published a book of poetry called “Tweaky Village.” Why did you call it that?
When I began this work San Francisco was being plagued, and perhaps Philadelphia was at the same time, by a huge outbreak of meth addiction especially among gay men, and especially men on the down-low. 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 hyper capitalism reminded me, of course, of meth properties, its drive to kill the human being within, the soul of a city, its work force.
What inspired you to write the book?
Well, Mel, in a way it was to survey the landscape after I had “finished,” or so I thought, with the figure of Kylie Minogue who had dominated my previous book of poetry. I hadn’t, I was fooling myself that she was done with me. At the same time, the unending wars of our country, the disregard for racial parity, the viciousness of the right, got to depress me I guess, as I hadn’t been since the raging heights of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and early-’90s. So it’s a very bitter little book from a bitter little guy: plus Kylie.
Why does Kylie Minogue show up in so many of your poems?
She is the world’s greatest entertainer, if I were the type of person to say that this one or that one is the world’s greatest anything. Funny because when I started working on her, I had the opposite impression; I wanted to tale as a muse someone without any talent—to see what happened with my poetry.
Did you embark on any new territory in “Tweaky Village?” Any topics you’ve never broached before?
My aim in writing “Tweaky Village” was to infuse my poetry with some of the “fourth wall” insights of the theater, in which I have worked for many years. Why not have books of poetry interspersed with little plays? Jack Spicer did so with his very first book, “After Lorca,” and some of this impulse is preserved not only in his posthumously edited “Helen: A Revision,” but in a few of his very last poems, “A Play of Five Tragedies,” parts one and two. In my cast, I gave the script of a brief play The Pre-Poetic, which, when I first wrote it for Emilie Clark and Lytle Shaw in the ’90s, I believed [it was] too page-bound to stage, but in recent years I’d put it on twice, and the SF-based artist Ajit Chauhan has even filmed it. Also, in homage to my late comrade George Kuchar, I jotted down ripe dialogue from the fifties melodramas he used to love, and presented them as poems. They are fun to act out at readings with pickup casts plucked from the audience. Come to my readings in Philly, readers, and I’ll pick you!
I personally enjoy that characteristic in your poetry that makes you read it like a play, it makes the read more lively. What insight about theater were you trying to bring up in your poetry?
I suppose really the collaborative aspect, what do you think? In the theater you have a direct relationship to the body, in thinking about where they will be and what they will be doing when the curtain rises, whereas poetry often exists in a land outside of time—indeed, that’s why some prefer it to the hurly-burly of physical existence. Is it Canadian poet Christian Bok who is getting poetry implanted into DNA and sent into space? In a parallel development, that is exactly why God invented the orgasm.
But I forgot to mention my breakthrough in “Tweaky Village.” My real breakthrough, that several critics noted, was in me writing a poem refreshingly different than those I’d written before, much more a classical Objectivist almost, poem with short lines all about nature. It’s written out on the back cover. After the book came out, I found out that I hadn’t written it at all, but rather copied it from the work of a friend thirty years back, and when I found it in an old notebook I loved it so much I used it in “Tweaky Village” rather as a sweet, optimistic counter to the doom and depression of the rest of the poems. My friend who really wrote it was very understanding, and so were my publishers, it was just so long ago, and before my recovery, that I honestly believe myself the author of the thing! It’s great, I know you’ll like it. It’s called “Five Year Plan” and it’s by David I. Steinberg of San Francisco.
Take us through your creative process. What drives you to sit down and start writing?
The funny thing was about two years back, at the closing ceremony for the SF Museum of Modern Art, Dodie [Bellamy] and I read together for a very large audience as part of the festivities. Stephen Motika and Photi Giovanis were in the audience and afterwards one of them said, “I noticed that every single thing either of you read had been commissioned in one way or another.” That really underlined how different my practice is now; maybe it is a move away from “creative writing” into what Kenny Goldsmith has called “uncreative writing?” It seems now I only write when someone tells me what to write; sounds hideous doesn’t it, except that’s where I get my ideas from, from my masters, I suppose.
Like art, you can define anything as creative writing, whether it be influenced by someone or not, and imitation is the biggest form of respect. Do you believe that you’re keeping voices from the past alive that we’ve forgotten?
I think it’s bigger than that, Mel! The question that fascinates me, and other occultists, is how in general can we train ourselves to penetrate the membrane between the living in the dead, and then we can decide which time we are actually living in, theirs or ours—or does it belong to the post-human survivors who will be trying to contact us a hundred years from now? Occultists (maybe all romantics?) have always longed to break bread with the dead, it is the mystery underlying all things. And the dead, at least in Japanese and Korean horror films, always want to come back and scare the living.
In your opinion, what are the LGBT issues that need the most focus in 2015?
Oh dear so many, but support of the state in the form of marriage or the military are not high on my list. Some have said that I can afford to bemoan the assimilative drive that has made the fight for marriage equality such a hot topic. Why? Because I took the easy way out and married a woman, back in the ’80s—that’s the writer Dodie Bellamy I was mentioning earlier. It’s a long story and it just goes to prove that—oh, what was the name of that later, very late Lana Turner picture of the ’60s,where she and other middle-aged women hit the beaches of Mexico to attract Latin gigolos? Oh yes, that Love Has Many Faces.
What would you call your crowning achievement?
I don’t know, Mel, but if I go down in the books somehow I expect it will have been either my involvement in the New Narrative beginning in the 1980s, or my work with the San Francisco Poets Theater (1985 to the present), OR my involvement with an art-world avant-garde of the ACT UP Queer Nation era of identity politics, or my work with Lewis Ellingham, and Peter Gizzi, in returning to print the poetry of the San Francisco poet Jack Spicer (1925-1865), and watching the canon change a little bit because of our labors. I think those four accomplishments, maybe taken together, will give me little footnote status in a number of archives after the fall of the word.
Are you working on any plays?
My fiftieth play just premiered, for the San Francisco Poets Theater. Written with artist Tanya Hollis, it examines the whys and wherefores behind the new discredited “dinner theater” impulse that spread through American in the 1970s and ’80s.
What poets and writers have inspired you?
When I was young I loved the old legends who were still around. Sometimes I would wake up as a child, startled every time to realize, “Oh God, the oxygen coursing through my lungs right now is also being breathed by” (let me think) “Marlene Dietrich and Bayard Rustin and Charlie Chaplin and Agatha Christie and Satchel Paige and Hayley Mills and Djuna Barnes.” Now I’m more interested in what you young people are doing. You inspire me. The best reading I ever went to might have been one by Susan Howe in the 1990s. But in the top ten was when I read last year for the Poetry Center with Andrew Durbin, and he can’t be anywhere near thirty yet I don’t think!
I’ve been told you’re working on a photography project called “Tagged,” can you tell us more about it?
“Tagged” consists of my photos of mostly guys, almost all of them from the “creative class,” many of them naked, most of them concealing their junk behind a garish, brightly colored drawing of a cock and balls … I’ve been making these pictures for the past four years and have had a number of shows based on this work. I’m coming to Temple and lecturing on these photos on the 29th—you should come. It will be, as one admirer wrote, a veritable “tsunami of genitalia.” But I like to think of it as my investigation of masculinity and how the visible signs of our gender don’t necessarily dictate what lies beneath, within, ahead. In the digital age, who’s to say that our sex organs aren’t going the way of the appendix, another warped little organ with no function outside of the original imaginary? I have to admit I’ve convinced very few of my models that this is so. Most of them remain attached, in every sense, to what used—before I got hold of them—to be their private parts.
What do you plan to do when you’re in Philly.
Give a lecture, give a reading, visit with family and friends, take pictures of guys for Tagged, see something of the city I hope. Jason Mitchell said he’d take me to see the grave of Walt Whitman, so I’m psyched about that. Hope it’s not snowing, for if it was, I would hesitate about throwing myself on the grave and I don’t want to have to hesitate. That’s not the Kevin Killian way.