Thursday

Section 9



Kathy Acker: The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec,
by Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1975 / 1978)


Lecture 9:
Collage & Cut-ups (ii)

Cities of the Red Night


Texts:





Kathy Acker & The Mekons: Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996)


Pussy, King of the Pirates

This writing is all fake (copied from other writing) so you should go away and not read any of it.
– Kathy Acker, ‘Translations of the Diaries of Laure the Schoolgirl’ (1983)


This section of the lecture notes for the course constitutes a case-study of one particular story. First of all, it's probably necessary to introduce you to Kathy Acker (that is, if you haven't encountered her writing before). I don't know if I can do better here than refer you to my obituary for her, published in our short-lived counter-culture Arts quarterly the pander in 1998:
It was November 1987, and I was snouting through the shelves of a little second-hand bookshop called Till’s, in Edinburgh. Seeing the title Blood and Guts in High School on the back of a big white Picador book, I took it down and began to leaf idly through. On page 30 there is a large, crude line-drawing of a cock, with the caption (in typed caps): TURN MY EYES INSANE. On page 46 the dream-maps begin, followed by Persian language-lessons, translations from Propertius and César Vallejo, ranting poems, Mallarméan prose texts … I was amazed, exhilarated – cagey. What was all this about? Was there anything of substance here, or just the thrill of unbridled experimentation? Page 110 read:
SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME
SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME
SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME
SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME
SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME
SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME
SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME
SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME
SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME
SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME
sex is sweet

I wanted it to be true, I wanted this to be good – but I wasn’t convinced. One thing was certain: the possibility was worth two pounds.

After that experience, Acker became my god (or should I say "Goddess"?) Curiously enough, a short time later she went through one of the worst experiences of her life, when the republication of one of her earlier collage novels in a UK paperback edition caused her to be sued by schlockmeister supreme Harold Robbins.



Kathy Acker: Young Lust (1989)


Here's the front cover - complete with provocative pic and title - for the British reprint of The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec (written 1975, published in 1978), together with Kathy Goes to Haiti and the short prose text Florida (both 1978). And here's the back-cover blurb:



Kathy Acker: Young Lust: blurb


Interestingly enough, the analogous American edition Literal Madness (1988) had coupled Florida and Kathy Goes to Haiti with the later fictional autobiography My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The Toulouse Lautrec text wasn't reprinted there until 1992, in Portrait of an Eye.



As it turned out, her American publishers were right to be cautious. There had been a lot of changes in Acker's ‘sampling’ (or plagiarism – she herself had no particular problems with the word) techniques since that early trilogy of collage-novels composed under the persona of the Black Tarantula. And perhaps the packaging of the UK edition was needlessly provocative, too.

My brother happened to buy a copy of it just before leaving the UK to go to Paris for the weekend. On the way back, he was stopped by the British Customs at Dover, who threatened to confiscate this ‘filth’ and to prosecute him for trying to bring it into the country. It was in vain that he told them that it had actually been purchased in Oxford. "We decide what is and isn't allowed here," they told him.

He told them it was a work of postmodernist literature, rather than a piece of pornography, but that didn't cut much ice with the men on the Customs desk. They did finally let him pass with the book, but it's improbable that such a thing would have happened with one of her other titles, given their less sexualized cover images.

Acker believed that she'd been hung out to dry by her publishers and her agent. The threat from Robbins seemed likely, for a time, to bankrupt both her and them - as you can read in her essay on the subject, ‘Humility’ (included in your Book of Readings).



Alison Fell, ed.: The Seven Cardinal Virtues (1990)


Judge for yourself. I've included both Robbins' original text and her marked-up version of it, together with an analysis of just exactly what she did to his prose. It may not be writing as we understand it ("That's not writing, that's typing," as Truman Capote is supposed to have said of Jack Kerouac's On the Road), but that's no reason to assume there's nothing to be learned from such savage techniques of textual appropriation.





Discussion of ideas and workshopping of portions of text for your final portfolios.



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