by Trevor Dodge
From 1993-1995, Kathy Acker wrote Pussy, King of the Pirates [1996, Grove Press] and recorded an album of the same name with the Mekons [1996, Quarterstick]. In April 1996, we got together in Portland to talk about it and help the city dry out from the spring floods.
Kathy is sitting on a penny-colored couch. Her hair is criss-crossed in razor traces that make hundreds of little diamonds appear on her head. I always say that this particular cut, the same one she wore when I first met her in October, 1994, looks like frozen egg whites flowing towards the back of her neck. I don't know what that means exactly, but meaning is meaningless. We're just here to talk.
on authorship and intention:
When I write, I don't really do it for content. I write to create a world. If political content comes through it's not because I sat down with a political agenda for this book. It's because when you write, stuff comes out of you that you can't control a lot of times. You don't mean to write what you've written. I don't write in order to say this is what should be, and never wanted to say that Pussy is the only reality. I just basically wanted to do a girl's version of Treasure Island and what came out was my description of a certain scene in San Francisco, which is the scene I've been hanging with for many years. I never meant to say this is the only scene or the way things should be.
Well, the book starts off in Alexandria. There's a little bit that happens in China, but then it really starts off in Alexandria. I mainly wanted to start off with something that wasn't first world, or wasn't all white, because I started off the book thinking about race. A student had made the comment to me that I wasn't white. So I started thinking about it. I talked to a friend who said, "No, we're Semitic. We're Jewish." So I started thinking about race, about what it is, and why Jews pass as white. Where I've been living, in San Francisco, white is just another minority. I wanted to talk about what seems to be a world that is becoming increasingly non-white.
So, I started off in a place that wasn't white, and went on from there. I didn't see myself going anywhere deliberately because books are always a space of meditation for me. I wanted to meditate on this business about race, all the cons and hypes about it. So it goes from Alexandria, and then they [the principal characters, O and Ange] return to this white space, which is Europe. Most of the book takes place in Brighton, which is a town southeast of London. Then I made up this little island that's 90 miles from Brighton. So those are the spaces of the book.
on freedom and the Internet:
At the moment we're living in a society where there isn't much freedom. People are scared about money. The Net means a whole lot of things. It means the World Wide Web, where people can put up what they want to some extent, although that's slowly stopping. But the Web's not interactive, where MOOs and MUDs are, and the rules for those are more of utopia than of the society which created them. Gender, race, any appearance really, is completely up for grabs. In MOOs and MUDs, people tend to hang a lot up at the door when they go in, where in real-time they can't.
There are three types of people who live in Portland: those who are too busy to notice the rain, those who are constantly catching cold because of it, and those who fight it, breathe it, and fuck it through their art.
We're hydroplaning down I-84 in a metallic blue you-name-it-brand econo car, ten minutes after picking Kathy up from the airport (of the 20 or so passengers who were also on the shuttle from Los Angeles, she was the only one not sporting a tan).
"I've only been here once before," she says from the back seat. "They put me in the same hotel, but I got to read at Powell's last time. This time I'm reading somewhere else. Fuck if I know."
Powell's Bookstore is either the largest or second largest bookstore in the world, depending on who you talk to, and more or less records the artistic pulse of Portland's metro area. It occupies an entire city block, a building three stories high that boasts free parking. Yeah, FREE parking, so you know it's a bona fide happening. However, Kathy isn't reading at Powell's. She's reading at the 23rd Avenue Bookstore, one of a few dozen more comfortable bookstores in the city. The 23rd Avenue store looks like "Honey, I Shrunk Waldenbooks!", a die-cast miniature of something bigger that doesn't have to fake it. Next door is a convenience store where panhandlers shove a handful of change in your face and ask you to purchase alcohol and cigarettes for them. The man who approached us probably couldn't spell Harley-Davidson (despite the fact that it was embroidered in his stocking cap) but he knew exactly how much a 40-ouncer of Olde English malt liquor cost. Kathy skirts around him and checks into the bookstore.
"Sorry, but I gotta to read."
Yeah, we bought for him.
writing as terrorism:
As far as I know, "terrorists" are people who use chance methods to hurt people in a society in order to get the rest of that society to realize a particular political situation. I'm not sure you do that with books. I've never taken someone by chance and hurt them, or killed them, in a way that would wake a society up. What I did in Blood and Guts in High School was to attack a certain relation between a political situation and literature. It seemed to me that in high culture there were certain presuppositions behind high culture and these were political presuppositions that had a lot to do with class structure. What I was interested in was attacking the very close relations between a fairly rigid class and structure and high literature. I don't think that's terroristic. That is, I wasn't kidnapping someone by chance.
What I was doing was taking books that are part of the culture, and, basically, the word would be "deconstructing" them. And I'm not the first author to have done that. That's what I did for many years until I got sick of it. I thought there wasn't much need anymore in this society to deconstruct, and what was really needed was to find ways to construct. Ever since Empire of the Senseless, I've been into methods of construction. One of my main interests in Pussy was to find out how to construct narratives, and what different narrative constructions have to do with different social forms.
"Excess is bliss," Kathy once wrote me in an email message. This must be true for bookstores, too. The next day I realized it was also true for Portland. After nearly 16 hours of straight rain and 3 hours of sleep, I went to pick up Kathy for the interview and some lunch. Grove Press had put her up in Portland's ultra-swank, hyper-snob Heathman Hotel, and as we passed through their gold and glass turnstile she muttered,
"Jesus, is it STILL fucking raining?"
This, coming from someone who lived in London for 8 years, and who has recently (as in the last two weeks) decided to move back, as soon as her teaching gig is up at the San Francisco Art Institute.
"I got hit by a cab when I was in London last week," she said, as we rumbled through Portland's red-bricked, one-way streets in an extended-cab pickup truck. "I was completely not paying attention and just walked out in front of this moving car, fuckin' knocked me up in the air and shit. I was real lucky. Just bruises, nothing broken."
She twisted her head from side to side, rubbing her neck. "Maybe I can get a massage later."
on Europe and America:
Europe's changed a lot since I wrote Pussy. It's changing rapidly, because America's changing so much. As America becomes more and more right-wing and staunchly set in a certain economic condition, I think those Europeans who have been following America, and deeply wanted to become Americanized, began to freak. At least the Europeans I know. Everyone's starting to see America as this strange and scary place. I think there's a strong movement in Europe away from America right now, and it might not have to do with governments. It's one thing to talk about people and another to talk about multinationals. The people I've talked to, in England and elsewhere, feel very dubious about America at the moment. Ever since the fall of the [Berlin] Wall, and what's happened in Eastern Europe, the entire map is in trauma, They've really gotta renegotiate the various political forms. I'm not a political theorist, but it does seem that there's beginning to be a turn away from the right in Europe. There are little signs of it everwhere: the strikes in France, what people are saying in Holland, England will probably get rid of the Tories, stuff like that.
on collaboration with the Mekons:
I usually start a book because I have certain things I want to explore. Pussy started partly because I wanted to explore race, but then it goes somewhere else, and in that respect it's a sort of journey. When I start it, I have no idea where it will end up. The same thing with the record with the Mekons. I didn't know it would end up the way it has. I was using material from the book, but I think it's also partly something else. Something you get from the record itself, or from the live performance.
I never know how something's gonna come out. I mean, if I knew how something's gonna come out, I probably wouldn't bother doing it. The record was fun to do. To me, it was interesting to explore how to put music with words. The form was the interesting thing. It wasn't the content. The content, for me, was just little dabs of the novel. I was interested in getting to a bigger audience, having to simplify, yet trying not to simplify, content. I just don't know of another record that has that form, where words and music and songs dovetail in that way.
Kathy Acker has written ten novels. She is an artist, a teacher,
Here's what I've learned so far:
that language can change the future,
that time travel exists,
that love is the ultimate freedom,
that hardwood floors and London taxis are speed bumps, not roadblocks
that reality is a fucked-up place to live, and we can do better,
that Portland rain is a suicide watch,
that conversation is key to construction and construction might be fun for a while
that rubble and decay aren't good enough,
that Pussycat Fever is a delirium that can be induced if you just try hard enough,
that learning itself is language and language makes living possible, not easier, but possible,
that Punk Boys and Pirate Girls are rocket fuel for the present,
that to love is never to covet because we all covet ourselves as it is,
that technology is only as indifferent to sex as you and me,
that real-world sages do exist,
that this list will continue to grow.
--April 15, 1996
*This interview first appeared in Carbon 14 #8 (1996).