``To be female, for me, is to want everything.''
- Kathy Acker, from her new CD with The Mekons
By Cynthia Rose
Most famous authors are not plagiarists. But, for Kathy Acker, thievery is the key to writing. All her best-sellers start with stolen property; their plots are those of authors ranging from Erica Jong to Dostoevski. ``I write,'' she says, ``by searching for a text. I always have to find it and have those words in front of me.''
But it's the way Acker writes that has made her famous, or - depending on your point of view - notorious. She has worked in many genres and produced 14 novels, numerous stories and essays, an opera libretto, arts reviews and features, a version of Medea - even a screenplay (``Variety,'' which was filmed in 1985).
With 1985's ``Blood & Guts in High School,'' Acker leaped from cult figure to literary celebrity. Her close associates remain a varied lot: bodybuilders and riot grrrls, bikers and tattooists - and writers ranging from Jeanette Winterson to Salman Rushdie. Now, Acker has even created a CD, made with her pop-folk singer pals, the Mekons.
That CD has the title of her latest novel (``Pussy, King of the Pirates''), and its punk sea chanteys complement its text. Like the book, it focuses on two girls (who are prostitutes) and their exploits among a crew of female pirates. Both CD and novel are based on ``Treasure Island,'' on Daniel Defoe's ``The General History of Pirates'' and on a Japanese film version of ``The Story of O.''
It is a story Acker has long wanted to write, a tale of girl gangs and pirate politics. ``I love romance and Robert Louis Stevenson! Once I changed all his men to women, it was really fun.''
Like all of Acker's books, ``Pussy'' plays with form and language. But with her, the verb is an understatement. Approving critics say Acker explodes the language. Others, however, are less enthusiastic. For every citation of her ``hypnotic prose,'' there are cries of ``smut'' and ``bile'' - or self-obsession.
Still, one thing is certain. As critic Linda Yablonsky noted recently, ``Once you do submit to Acker's language - symbolic, polemical, intensely private, sexual, often hilarious - things get pretty wild.''
For many years, Acker was described as a punk writer. These days, she's become ``a myth-maker for digital flesh.'' This change is just fine with her. For although she still drafts her work in notebooks (``I need the feel of writing in my hands''), Acker is a compulsive computer user.
Every night at midnight, she logs onto a different MOO (on-line, word-only, multiuser games). She's in touch around the world with e-mail. And she's turning her new novel and its lyrics into a CD-ROM. A highly disciplined writer and bodybuilder, she also teaches at the San Francisco Institute of Art. ``But if it weren't for teaching and the gym, I might never leave my house! That's how much I got into my computer.''
Acker's publicity tends to focus on her looks: cropped head, pierced flesh, gold tooth and tattoos. Yet when she performs, Acker lives up to the image. She reads in tiny dresses anchored by designer boots, flinging every finished page to the floor. Or she reads in leather pants and lacy tops, with a goblet of red wine in front of her.
``It's amazing,'' said one teen-ager, watching her read in Seattle. ``She comes out with just the toughest, craziest stuff. But somehow she makes it sound lyrical.'' He is not alone in his admiration; in a popular downtown bookstore, youthful fans line every aisle. Some, in the bookstore's cafe, even listen through the walls.
To some critics, these kids are sending a signal. Richard Dillard is a well-known author and poet, chair of the Pulitzer-stuffed writing program at Hollins College. He helped Duke University buy Acker's papers. Said he, ``She's in a very American tradition of writers, from Poe and Melville up to the present. They compel us to look at parts of life we would rather ignore. Yet by their art, they can help us to deal with things.''
He sees a special parallel with Poe. ``For about a century, in a similar way, Poe's work was the property of kids. They read Poe because he thrilled and scared and shocked them. Only later was he really recognized: as a groundbreaking and an intellectual writer.''
Much of Acker's bad-girl reputation comes from language that, in all her work, is both harsh and dirty. Dillard: ``She really understands language as a weapon. If a woman can speak as violently as a man, then men have forever lost a certain power. So the worst words pop up on Page 1; from the outset, she wants to assert that.''
He laughed. ``Many people don't get what she's up to. But to younger readers, it can seem heroic. She's like some little lady faced with a gangster: She just walks right up and grabs his gun.''
Acker, though, is more than a dirty talker. She is a storyteller par excellence, and her hardness is balanced by a goofy humor. The New York Times Book Review relishes this tradeoff: ``Intellect and wit make her a writer like no other.''
Stranded in Seattle recently by Oregon floods, this singular character is busy with interviews. Rarely, however, is she what the callers expect. Acker's hotel suite is crammed with workout clothes, Chinese herbs and classic books (two: ``The Complete Joyce'' and ``The Portable Poe''). Visitors bring her presents of another nature: fanzines, animal skulls and erotic drawings. From her press cuttings they foresee a tough cookie, not this baby-faced author who is keen to please.
Taking one journalist to a quiet dinner, Acker is mobbed by fans - to the interest of other diners. Asked one elegant blonde: ``Can I find your book in a normal store?''
``It's on sale at the airport,'' replied the writer sweetly.
Outside, after autographing a raft of menus, she remarked that ``real fame'' must be ``terrible.'' Acker says she feels such pressure only through work. ``People do expect stuff from me-the-writer. And that is a horrible place to find yourself. You feel, `Should I give 'em that? Or, should I not?' So, with this book, I ask one thing: Where can joy be found in our society?''
Once she had that aim and she had her pirates, Acker made a choice about her language. She had been thinking about the ties of body and language. ``I tried to figure out what words go through us when we are involved in physical acts. Real intense ones: sex, athletics, dreams.
``When I started,'' she said, ``I thought this was visual. I was certain I saw images during sex. In point of fact, I thought I always saw clothes.''
But she wanted to know just what she saw. So Acker decided to record her thinking, without any change or impositions. At the crucial moments, she was scribbling notes. And what they contained, she said, startled her.
``It was really quite architectural language. Lots about shifting spaces, and elemental stuff. Being in the woods or being in the water. And I'm not a writer who deals in nature!''
Much of what passed through her mind was cliche: hills rising, water flowing, fire and wood and wind. Was this really the language of a moment - or a social language for expressing it? In her novel, this question still remains.
``What I came to think about these cliches is that, actually, they are representations - if just partly - of what happens inside us. Of things in our bodies we can't access. Such as how our energies ebb and flow. They're the only words we have for that.''
Language is a ruling passion for Acker, who is hooked on all its permutations. She loves heavy-duty post-modern thinkers, 1940s pulp style, 18th-century diction. She loves erotic literature, classics and criticism. It's her bond with writer friends round the globe.
So has an unselfish interest in their own progress. When her friend Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death, Acker - then living in London - joined with the Muslim women who opposed his fatwa. Among the veils and saris, her clothes drew second looks. But her intentions and determination prevailed.
Acker, in the main, is a real enthusiast. And she feels that literature is currently healthy. ``I love reading a writer like Cormac McCarthy: these rich, violent, real Southwestern histories. There are so many people I love reading! And good young writers who aren't yet published, people like Heather Lewis and Lynn Breedlove.''
Still, she notes, the novelist's position is changing. The world of books ``is becoming like the world of opera.'' In response, Acker widens her frontiers: into MOOs and MUDs and CD-ROMs and performance. Without becoming ``pale imitations of film,'' she sees graphics, text and sound combining.
It makes her eyes sparkle. ``I really like this. You know: Go here and a thing is this. But go there, and it's something wholly different. So you don't need endings or beginnings. To me, that's the most exciting thing! But the literary world won't accept it yet.''
Acker huddles in her sweater, earrings jangling. ``Still, if you're a real worker in your culture, then you go where that excitement is.''
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``Pussy, King of the Pirates'' is published by Grove/Atlantic ($20). The CD of the same name by Kathy Acker and The Mekons is available on Quarterstick Records. Acker's work is discussed in the on-line book ``Doom Patrols'' by University of Washington professor Steven Shaviro at http://dhalgren.english. washington.edu/(tilde)steve/doom.html; a slower student-fan site can be seen at http://www.uidaho.edu/(tilde)dodg9102/acker.html
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