Kathy Acker’s Houseboy — Jonathan Kemp

The night she died I was smoking the drugs she’d given me before returning to the States.

She hadn’t looked well at all: tinier than ever, like an injured bird, but was still maintaining that accidentally drinking some canal water from an Evian bottle had caused her to be sick. As Chris Kraus notes, no one believed her. I knew it wouldn’t be long. But it seems appropriate, somehow, that I was high on her pot at the precise moment she’d departed from this world her work so perfectly excoriates.

My first exposure to the work of Kathy Acker was the South Bank Show special in 1984. She’d just published Blood And Guts in High School Plus Two with Picador. I was 17 years old, still living at home, and if you said that just over a decade later I’d be working as her houseboy, I’d have laughed in your face.

I had already started writing dreadful poems and prose, but the idea of ever being a writer seemed an impossible dream for a working-class Mancunian queer. The world of English ‘letters’ seemed populated by tweedy, leather-elbowed posh white men. Acker blasted into my consciousness as the very antithesis of The English Writer, looking more like the punk singers I admired, Siouxsie Sioux and Patti Smith. She was a groundbreaker in that sense, for me at least: taking punk rock methodologies and aesthetics into the literary realm. I can’t think of anyone else who was doing that then.

That documentary also introduced me to the work of Jean Genet, William Burroughs and Robert Mapplethorpe and I began to imagine a very different way of being a writer in this world. At that age I wanted to be either a writer or a rock star, but knew I was far too shy ever to stand on a stage and sing. Seeing Acker on TV that night, embodying an aesthetics of existence that would, in time, inform my own, provided a valuable template for the writer I would become.

I moved to London in the autumn of 1989, after graduating from Nottingham Polytechnic, equipped with absolutely nothing other than a pretty face and the ability to touch type 60 words per minute. Somehow I made my way, living off my wits, finding ways to pay the rent; always writing and reading. And lots of clubbing, and lots of fucking (sometimes to pay the rent).  A decent welfare system and extremely cheap Housing Association flats made all this – my Bohemian dream – possible in a way unimaginable today.

JK Mid 90s 2

I read Blood and Guts around that time, and although its fractured style and unapologetically extreme sex and violence impressed me, looking like almost no other book I’d ever read, I didn’t read anything else by her for a good few years.

Then, in the summer of 1995, she took part in a conference on “90s Fiction” at the University of Sussex, where I was studying for an MPhil. Lynne Tillman and Gary Indiana were also on the bill. I’m pretty sure Neil Bartlett was there too. There was a big Serpents Tail contingent; I think it was their event.

That afternoon she talked about language and the body, and how she liked to write while masturbating and try to describe the architecture of her orgasms. I clearly remember her using that word, architecture, in relation to how she saw or experienced orgasm.  I was far too uncertain about my intellect to open my mouth at conferences, but it was exciting, listening to these writers and these ideas. They all seemed so exotic and self-assured, confident and smart in a way I coveted.

On the evening of the conference, some of the writers, including Indiana, Tillman and Acker, were reading from their work at the Zap Club in Brighton. Me and the friend I’d traveled down from London with hadn’t known about this and had made no provisions to stay over; he opted to return to London but I stayed. Acker always read her work phenomenally well and I can still hear that gorgeous New York drawl of hers walking us through the story of Ange and O from Pussy, King of the Pirates.

When the club closed around midnight, I strolled down to the old pier, beneath which, in columned darkness, men were cruising, and found my bed for the night.

Just over a year later, when she moved to London, a mutual friend recommended me to sort out Acker’s library.

Three things struck me on my first visit to that subterranean warren in Duncan Terrace, N1. First, the sheer amount of books. I’d never seen that many in a private residence before; second, the vast spill of bottles and jars of pills and powders in her kitchen; it was like a chemist’s: countless vitamins and supplements and herbal extracts, holistic remedies, Chinese medicines– I seem to recall some capsules of ground shark’s fin.

But by far the most surprising sight was the vast collection of cuddly toys spread across her futon. I’d not expected Kathy Acker’s bed to look like a window display at Hamley’s. It showed a much softer side to the rat punk riot grrl. I discovered much later that she eroticized her favourites; and her ability to eroticize almost any situation or thing is one of my strongest identification points with her, I think.

All the books were unpacked, but they weren’t in any order. Bookcases crammed with books were lined up in all the rooms and along the narrow corridor off which the rooms ran – there was even a bookcase in the kitchen. I started to alphabetize them. I don’t recall there being any surprises. All the usual suspects were there: John Arden, Ballard, Bataille, Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Crowley, Deleuze & Guattari, Derrida, Foucault, Freud, Nietzsche, Simone Weil, The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The only room in which the books were in any kind of order was the bedroom, where there was a bookcase full of porn: Fanny Hill, de Sade, Story of O, Story of the Eye, Satyricon, Teleny. A nice contrast to the fluffy animals.

The curtains were always closed and the place smelt of incense or scented oils.  The furniture was dark, a leather sofa and armchairs; the bookcases cheap and functional. The place felt very cramped and claustrophobic, but also witchy. Gothic. Cthonic. It seemed right that Acker lived underground.

She had her computer set up in the living room, on a dark wood dining table. On the walls, facing each other, hung an original Burroughs painting, a blue abstract, signed to her by him, and one of Mapplethorpe’s portraits of Acker. That Southbank Show contains footage from the photo-shoot, and another strange echo occurs.

There was another, smaller, room where she also had a desk, upon the green leather surface of which, in the left-hand corner, she had sellotaped a postcard of Richard Avedon’s photo of Jean Genet; next to it this quote: “Nothing will prevent me, neither close attention nor the desire to be exact, from writing words that sing”, from Miracle of the Rose. (She used this line in at least two of her books).

“It’s there as a reminder”, she said.  I didn’t need to ask what of. For Acker herself, her picture to me now, is a reminder. To be bolder. To push it.

Acker wrote: “I’m not sure if my memories are historically valid; I never am”. I know exactly what she means. Writing this, I wonder: what does memory mean? Isn’t it always a creative act rather than a process of recollection?

At first I was a bit star-struck around her. Since the conference in Brighton I’d become a huge fan and had read most of her novels, and, although she was always friendly, charismatic and cool, it took me a while to feel relaxed around her. But she liked the company of gay men and pretty soon we got on fine. Despite the shorn head, the tattoos and piercings, the leather and the whole Acker persona, underneath she seemed fragile and those big brown bush-baby eyes were both intense and warm. There was something about those eyes that made you know you were being seen, being heard.

JK mid 90s

I’d go over once a week, spend a couple of hours sorting the books and an hour cleaning. I might also do some shopping for her, or take items of clothing to be dry-cleaned. After a few weeks, and before I’d completed the task, she said I should leave the books, so then I just ran errands.

She wasn’t always home when I went, but I always hoped she would be.

One day I arrived to find her screaming in pain, clawing at her eyes. She’d put one of her contact lenses in without neutralizing them first, and so had basically poured bleach in her eye. I’ve done it myself once (it’s the kind of thing you only do once). She was manic with pain, but we managed to remove the lens and rinse her sore red eye. Another time, she was on the phone to a friend as I walked in, and she turned to me and said, “I’m just telling X you’d make a perfect wife. Will you marry me?” She laughed, buoyant, eyes twinkling, and I realized I was probably a little bit in love with her.

The only time we talked about her illness was when she published her article “The Gift of Disease” in The Guardian in January 1997. I told her my sister had died from bowel cancer in 1992, aged 28. When I mentioned that the doctors had given Louise chemotherapy despite knowing it was not usually effective with that type of cancer, Acker said, “They poisoned her! That stuff is just poison”. I was upset by this at the time but what do you say to a woman so deluded she thinks sharks’ fin is going to cure her?

That Spring I was about to teach a class at Birkbeck on Our Lady of the Flowers (the first teaching I’d ever done) and we got chatting about Genet one afternoon. “What I love about him is how completely he creates his own cosmology”, she said, “Perhaps more than any other writer.” She told me that the thing she liked most about teaching is how much it taught you. Was it during that conversation or another time, that she told me the older she got the more elitist her views became? Memory blurs. She went back to America briefly that summer, a teaching gig in Roanoke.

She had a tendency towards the paranoid in those final weeks. Once she rang me in distress over some bread I’d bought for her, asking if it was gluton free because eating some had made her feel ill. I assured her it was.

I was dating a hairdresser at the time and he went with me to Acker’s one night because she wanted tram lines and she told me no hairdresser she knew would or could do it. I seem to recall she wanted it for a reading she was giving somewhere in Europe, I think. She said she was looking to buy some “Patti Smith boy clothes”. While I busied myself with packing stuff, in the kitchen my boyfriend dyed her hair the colour of raven’s feathers and shaved intersecting lines across her head.

She’d recently purchased some computer software that generated your astrological chart if you knew the time you were born, and she excitedly ran off one for me and my lover. In payment for the haircut she took us out to a Japanese restaurant in Angel, where over sushi she told us she’d been having sex with gay boys but was bored because all they ever wanted was her to fuck them with a strap-on.

At a night of readings of Acker’s work in London recently, I bump into an old flatmate who tells me one of his friends used to get fucked by her, and I feel an odd kind of jealousy as another echo is heard, another connection made.

In the days leading up to her departure, Acker threw away loads of stuff, everything she wasn’t shipping back, or didn’t want. I would turn up to find a clutch of bin bags stuffed with junk to be carried upstairs to the street and left for collection. I would, of course, always go through and take whatever caught my magpie eye: a small metal ashtray shaped like a skull; a brand new, unopened Tarot pack which I started to teach myself how to read; a bunch of sex toys, including a stainless steel dildo and some handcuffs decorated in leopard-print fun fur; a blue ceramic oil-burner and various bottles of oils. Like Dodie Bellamy, I think: “Will Kathy’s stuff change me, will it work some spell on my life? I walk through my days vigilant for evidence”.

Before she left she asked me if there was anything I’d like and I said, a copy of Pussy, King of the Pirates. There’d been a box of them in her office and I’d been reading bits now and then when I was there alone; too poor to buy it, too well-behaved to steal it. (I’d been hoping she might give me one as a parting gift.)

“Oh honey, they’ve all been shipped. You should’ve just taken one.”

It was then, I think, I realized I wasn’t her friend; I was just the houseboy. Perhaps that’s unfair: she gave me all her marijuana, after all, either that day or the following week. Memory blurs.

She also let me choose from what remained of her library before a dealer came to take the lot, and I remember carrying my own bodyweight in books down Pentonville Road to my flat in Kings Cross.  I still have most of them, but the two I wish I’d kept are Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, with handwritten edits/scribbles in Acker’s inimitable hand (perhaps she was working with Proulx’s text in her new book, I thought; and perhaps that is how she works, physically marking the books she rewrites or plagiarises); the other was a book on numerology, in which she’d written the name Karen Alexander, along with the numerological calculations. (Alexander was her stepfather’s name). I sold them both to a bookdealer because I was young and I needed the money.

The last time we spoke was on the phone. On her arrival in the States she’d been contacted by a friend in London who’d been around to her place and seen there were still pieces of furniture in the flat. I’d arranged a dealer to collect first thing the following morning, but this person had chosen to ring Acker up and unnecessarily worry her. She screamed at me across the Atlantic that if the flat wasn’t empty by midday the sale wouldn’t go through or she’d lose money, and it took some time to calm her down and convince her it would all be okay. I was disappointed with her for not trusting me, cross with the friend who’d snitched, and sad that our final exchange had to be this one.

About eight weeks later she was dead.

Months later, I dreamt of Acker. We’re in a classroom and she’s getting me to write with a blade on a corpse that is sprawled naked across a desk at the front of the class. She’s demonstrating how to do it and offering me the blade but I can’t do it.

Last night I dreamt of her again. This time, I was in a secondhand bookshop and kept finding books and DVDs about Acker that I never knew existed. Dozens of them, like some other, hidden archive. I was extremely excited to have found it.

Jonathan Kemp’s debut novel London Triptych (Myriad, 2010) was acclaimed by The Guardian as an “ambitious, fast-moving, and sharply written work” and by Time Out as “a thoroughly absorbing and pacy read.” It was shortlisted for the inaugural Green Carnation Prize and won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award in 2011. He teaches creative writing at Middlesex University. A story collection, Twentysix was published by Myriad in November 2011, followed by a second novel, Ghosting, in March 2015. His first book of non-fiction, The Penetrated Male, was published by Punctum Books in 2012, with a second, Homotopia? Gay Identity, Sameness & the Politics of Desire in 2016.