Kathy Acker

By: Lucy Sante
April 18, 2010

KATHY ACKER (Karen Lehmann, 1947-97) appeared out of nowhere in the early 1970s, writing prose unlike anything else on the scene: violent and plaintive, childlike and sexual, narrative but non-sequential, bluntly original but gleefully magpie. After her death, Peter Wollen summed her up: “Bookworm parrot Legba biker orphan pirate poet.” She was intensely literary, but she pitched her tent in the art world because writers didn’t know what to make of her. She first distributed her work on the mail-art circuit, pamphlets that she typed, xeroxed, and sent out serially to a hundred people or so. When her first real book came out, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by The Black Tarantula (1975), you had to look hard to find her name in it. She collaged wholesale from the classics, changing names and pronouns here and there: Great Expectations, Don Quixote, Wuthering Heights. She threw in Arabic glossaries, porn, travel notes, and chunks of her diaries, names unaltered. If you tried to read her books from beginning to end you might get lost, confused, bored — but that was never her intention. She did find a place in the theory-ridden identity-politics wasteland of the ’80s and ’90s, but she still has yet to be read.


Each day, HILOBROW pays tribute to one of our favorite high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes on that person’s birthday.

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What do you think?

  1. I wanted to like Acker’s books but felt they were too purposely obtuse. Still, I was intrigued enough to go hear her read at the SF Arts Commission Gallery sometime in the mid-to-late 80s. What a revelation! It was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever had the privilege to attend. P.S. I also saw her once or twice at the Kabuki Hot Springs — she had A LOT of tattoos when they were still a rarity on anybody but bikers and body artists.

  2. She was right up there on the piercings front, too–she hit all the fin-de-siecle “transgression” fads a decade or two ahead of time. And she was a heckuva performer, about 5′ 2″ but with a stadium-filling personality. Speaking of which, I hope a film record exists somewhere of the kind of mayhem that could ensue when she entered a party with Gregory Corso in tow.

  3. She was ahead of her time with the idea of rewriting other authors’ texts; but part of what makes her tough to enjoy sometimes is our lack of familiarity with her source texts, I think.

    PS: What’s with all these Brandeis coeds who make it their ambition to smash the System?

  4. Hmm. That could be. She was *such* a bookworm. You might expect most readers to have an idea of Great Expectations, but how many had read Laure (the masochist-martyr-mystic who was Georges Bataille’s girlfriend and left behind a bunch of fragmentary texts), for example? Anyway, Acker acted as if collaging texts was exactly equivalent to collaging images, which from the point of view of the reader/viewer is not quite the case.

    But who are those other Brandeis coeds?

  5. Three of the eight women who’ve ever made it onto the FBI’s Most Wanted list are Brandeis undergrads.

    Angela Davis (’65): Police claimed that a shotgun used during a lethal 1970 attempt, on the part of the Black Panthers, to free “Soledad Brother” George Jackson during a court appearance in Marin County, Calif., was registered to Davis. At Brandeis, she majored in French.

    Susan Edith Saxe and Brandeis roommate Katherine Ann Power: In 1970 they assisted fellow antiwar radicals rob a National Guard Armory in Newburyport and a branch of the State Street Bank & Trust Company on Western Avenue in Allston. During the getaway, an accomplice of theirs shot and killed a Boston police officer.

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