Reviving Jack Spicer: An Interview with Kevin Killian

by Joseph Bradshaw

In an age when most writers hone their abilities, applying them toward highly specific ends (e.g., the topical book-length poem, magical realist flash fiction, etc.), Kevin Killian stands as an alternative model for the wordsmith: relentlessly exploratory, unbound by generic proscriptions, and unsettlingly inclusive. Killian is the author of, among many other things, Argento Series, a beautifully nightmarish threnody in verse; Shy, a roman à clef documenting the communal malaise of arty and confused Long Island youths; and dozens of plays, which have been produced across the U.S. and Europe. He is also known for his often brash and always entertaining essays on subjects ranging from unconscious sexual desire in George Oppen’s poetry to the films of Whitney Houston. Many citizens of the internet will recognize Killian as one of Amazon’s most prolific reviewers, where he gives his undivided attention to everything from the newest book by vanguard poet Leslie Scalapino, to a Clearly Charming Monkey Smiling Italian Bracelet Link.

In addition to his own writing, Killian has sustained much editorial and critical work on the poet Jack Spicer, who in his brief life gained some notoriety as one of the leaders (along with Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser) of the San Francisco Renaissance, and whose reputation since his death in 1965 has continued to grow well beyond the Bay Area—due in no small part to Killian’s efforts. Along with poet and Spicer’s contemporary Lewis Ellingham, Killian cowrote Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan University Press, 1998), a sprawling biography of Spicer and the San Francisco scene in his day. Now, with the poet Peter Gizzi, Killian has coedited one of the most anticipated poetry books of the year, My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan University Press, $35), a book which will undoubtedly have a large impact on a generation of younger poets for whom Spicer is already a central figure. In the following interview, we discuss things Spicerian in honor of its publication.

Joseph Bradshaw: I was talking with the scholar Dee Morris recently about Jack Spicer's allure. We both agreed that he is a poet to whom readers are drawn instinctively, almost erotically; we also agreed that this attraction is hard to articulate. Why do readers feel such a pull into his texts? In responding, please talk about your own experiences with Spicer: what brought you to his work, what your experience has been and how it has changed throughout the years, and what keeps you engaged with him.

Kevin Killian: Joseph, my answers to your questions are almost embarrassingly personal and anecdotal, and they came to me in bursts like the fireworks in the Nausicaa chapter of Ulysses, in flares of melty sentiment! I remember going to graduate school in the 1970s and Louis Simpson advising me not to waste time on Spicer, saying that if I had to go all freaky California I should study Robert Duncan. And no, I couldn't put Spicer on my orals. Absurd notion. Then moving to San Francisco in 1980 and somehow winding up in Robert Glück's workshop along with Lew Ellingham, and falling in love with Lew during a particular spring night on 24th Street—walking alongside him on the pavement, fog low, at the knees of our pants perhaps, and thinking to myself that every step I was taking, and every word Lew was speaking about having known Spicer, and the perfection of Spicer's late writing, was bringing me into an erotic haze that I would never be able to find my way out of, so I barged on despite all the thorns in that wracked forest. He was fifty then, I think—younger than I am now anyhow—and I was in my twenties and thinking I was giving myself up to an older guy for purposes of transmission. (You see, I had a ridiculous mind, but I'm fond of that boy and I never regretted any of it.)

In my experience young people are often drawn to Spicer, perhaps as they are drawn to any brightly colored and mythical artist, and then there will come a moment of revulsion and one moves on to something like the austerities of Michael Palmer. The young are drawn to the legend—the dictation, the radio, the extreme purity, the death drive, the magic workshop, etc. There's a particular eros in Spicer and maybe it's composed of the residue of his own eros, so painfully naked inside the cage of the verse. He wanted love so much, perhaps one can't help but respond? He is also good at speaking directly to the reader, imagining the reader of the future, that young woman with one hand on the wheel, that boy on the farm in Ohio, articulating his readership almost as a sculptor.

My experience has changed over the years, and this I think of primarily in terms of having written (with Lew) that biography, and following helplessly what I subsequently learned were the three stages of biography. Stage one, you love your subject, and everyone else is wrong in some way. A lot of biographies seem to be of this booster sort. Then there's stage two, in which at a certain point you realize, uh-oh, he was just human after all, and he was filled with faults, and this comes as a giant shock—a shock which freezes some biographers into adopting a position in which their books become evidence for the prosecution. I don't know of course, but that's the feeling one gets, isn't it, when one reads Ekbert Fass's book on the young Robert Creeley or Tom Clark's life of Charles Olson, a book I admire a good deal but one that seems needlessly contestatory, like Olson was not the great Oz and everyone should know it. And then there's the third stage of biography, where you seek the balance between the good and the evil in your subject and find the actual person somewhere in there. I don't know, maybe that's how friendship works in regular life? Anyway, that's why I came away loving the new life of [Louis] Zukofsky, because Mark Scroggins had every right to stay in stage one and he didn't—he moved on to the dangerous shoals of stage two and pushed right on through to the bay of stage three.

JB: You mentioned that your friendship with Lew Ellingham began in 1980, and Poet Be Like God was published in 1998. Each time I open the book, I am struck by the sheer volume of voices in collision. Could you talk a bit about the process of collaboratively writing the book? How did it start? How did you sift through the mass of stories, lore, and remembrances of Spicer and the various poetry communities of his day?

KK: I think I met Lew in 1982, because he was already writing a book on Spicer. Basically I joined up full time sometime early in 1990, when Lew had completed the book he wanted to write—an oral history of the Spicer circle in North Beach from 1957 through 1965—a wonderful book in its own right, but publishers wanted (if they wanted something on Spicer at all) a more linear biography. Lew asked for my help because, as a novelist, I had written narrative before and knew how to tell a story from A to Z.

How did it work? Lew gave me carte blanche to all his voluminous materials, files, memories, and contacts. If you’ve looked at the online files for the Archive for New Poetry at UCSD, where Lew’s papers now reside, you know that he interviewed dozens of witnesses, many at great length, as well as securing all sorts of helpful odds and ends—he’d gotten a letter from Frank O’Hara to Jasper Johns for example, not just a copy, the actual letter!—and all of these were mine to plunder. And I had his vast manuscript as well, which he said I could chop and change as I saw fit. My work divided itself into three main areas: turning his oral history into narrative; working in research libraries, which I came to enjoy greatly; and interviewing more people on my own. Lew had done many, many interviews but some he’d avoided, or perhaps been given short shrift by—he had the great advantage of knowing many of the parties involved, but intimacy has its drawbacks, so there were some who knew Spicer who just plain didn’t care for Lew, and vice versa. Whereas I, whom nobody knew, could go where angels fear to tread. So I was looking for people Lew had avoided for one reason or another, and also people who had known Spicer in earlier periods of his life, since Lew had concentrated on the final years. Donald Allen had helped Lew to a limited degree, but he really helped me; the reclusive Jess (whom Lew had hardly dared to approach) gave me hours of his time over several months, admitting that he had sworn to himself never to speak about Spicer, but that now he was putting aside his vow in the service of an ultimate mercy and truth.

I was pretty shameless in pursuing my leads—if there’s an ethical code of biography I punctured it again and again. There were guys who wouldn’t speak to a straight biographer. There were some who didn’t want to deal with a gay biographer. Some expected sexual favors—or wanted them anyhow. I would target specific areas in Spicer’s life and try to bring them to life via human memory. I knew, for example, that he had taught one class at San Francisco State at the same time that he was teaching his magic workshop, but we didn’t know of anyone who was in the class. That was one of my targets, and before long I had spoken to three former students—including Pauline Oliveros, who is a real hero of mine—who knew she was in that class? I found myself with entrée to a lot of my heroes. Sure, I was rebuffed many times, but what’s that in comparison to when they say yes? And the research and the interviews continue, you know. Not long ago Lew and I took a guy out to lunch who had taught in the same department at the same time as Spicer and who had very vivid memories of him. I’m still looking everywhere and occasionally I turn up something very great.

As it happens, as with any cult figure, there were truths so obvious about Spicer that I didn’t want to believe them. His distaste for celebrity, for example, or the myth of his obedience to dictation. Or his misogyny. The facts were there, I just couldn’t see them because I had fallen victim to the myths Spicer spun about himself. I guess we all have that, that side of ourselves that creates its own legend as we proceed in life. The difference is that Spicer was a very great writer with more emotive power than most.

JB: I’m intrigued by your mention of the way that Spicer created a mythology about himself and his work, especially the "myth of his obedience to dictation." How has having a privileged view of Spicer—seeing his working papers, notebooks, unpublished manuscripts, and so on—changed your view of Spicer’s insistence upon dictation as the "purest" form of poetic practice?

KK: Everyone who knows anything about Spicer knows of his theories of dictation, and even before Peter’s edition of Spicer’s Vancouver lectures [The House That Jack Built (Wesleyan University Press, 1998)], we all gathered something of his feeling—you can’t read After Lorca without being sucked into the web of inner and outer space propounded within, the push and pull of the living and the dead, the desperate importation from the outside. I said that Spicer attracts the young, and it’s his dictation that gets them first of all, for it’s a system which flies in the face of common sense and yet, wait a second, it does make sense, more and more so, in the cyborg/robotic/half-"Martian" world we live in when we’re young.

But I don’t know how far Spicer believed in it in practice, and the more one examines his papers, the less one can be sure that he worked via dictation only. You know the extreme case in which two poems in the Book of Magazine Verse are identical, for Spicer was "given" this poem twice? That’s a tough one to swallow, and after a while I began thinking of "dictation" as an instance of willfulness—the very exemplar of the willful. At least when it came to the manuscripts, you can see that, for example, when Spicer wanted to begin Language, the famous poem that begins, "This ocean, humiliating in its disguises," he could summon up, or the Martians helped him remember, a poem he had written four or five years earlier that was then part of a very different series. So we would find a single poem being used in different ways in different series, the way that a single letter will be part of 24-down in a crossword puzzle as well as 42-across. "Thing Language" itself is like a fantastic repository of remnants, I think, of different serial poems that were (perhaps) all being woven at the same time, or within a similar range of months. "A redwood forest is not invisible at night" is indistinguishable from the other "Map Poems" Spicer was writing in 1964, and yet that’s the one he picked out for "Thing Language." Why? Don’t know. Was it the best of the "Map Poems"? I don’t believe so. I hesitate to say that he had genius—but if so it was perhaps that his genius, like William Faulkner’s, lay in collaging already existing texts (or modes) into new combinations that amount to new forms.

However, it took some time before one could actually recognize this drift, due to the sheer kryptonite strength of the blinders we were wearing, the blinders which Spicer himself put up with his well-known responses to those who asked him, what happens to a serial poem if the Martians don’t deliver? I throw it away, he would say. Not so, Joseph. Not really. I think the poems were patched up in various ways and Spicer’s inspiration came, not only from the "outside," but from all the usual sources poets have been working with for eons. There’s one amusing turn in the notebooks where Spicer is drafting a response to a want ad for a teaching job, and then he turns the page and uses many of the same business-y phrases from his letter, and makes a poem out of them:

Fifteen False Propositions Against God, IV

Real bad poems
Dear Sir: I should like to—
Hate and love are clarifications enough of themselves, do not
belong in poetry, embarrass the reader and the poet, lack
Or the dignity of a paper airplane
That you throw at someone’s face
And it swoops across the whole occasion quickly
Hitting every angle.
Hate and love are clar—
Dear Sir: I should like to make sure that everything that I said
about you in my poetry was true, that you really existed,
That everything that I said was true
That you were not an occasion
In a real bad scene
That what the poems said had meaning
Apart from what the poems said.
Dear Sir:
My mouth has meanings
It had not wanted to argue.

JB: I’m intrigued by your understanding of dictation as a particularly forceful willfulness, which reminds me of the sixth section of "Graphemics" from Language: "This is an act of will and the flame is / is not really there for the candle, I / Am writing my own will." I’m also intrigued by your mention of the ways Spicer’s private papers contradict the public statements of the Vancouver lectures, especially his re-contextualizing of individual poems into different series. I’m wondering if you could talk more about Spicer’s habits of revision: Did they change throughout the years, or from project to project, poem to poem? What do you think the impact of dictation had on his habits of revision, if any?

KK: The particular tendency in Spicer I spoke of—working in several series at once, to the point of crisscrossing—isn’t my own discovery nor anything new really. Anyone who knows Spicer’s poetry has seen this process in action, watching the 1940s Berkeley poem "Dardanella" turn into the poem "Rimbaud" in The Heads Of The Town [up to the Aether], or finding the Minneapolis poem "All Hallows Eve" emerge in the middle of "An Exercise" (1961) with a new title, "Always in October," and considerable revision. It’s always been there, just hard to recognize as an ongoing practice for Spicer.

Spicer’s habits of revision do undergo a sea change. The manuscript of "Homage to Creeley" is a mess, and yet in the marvelous notebook for "Explanatory Notes," "he never blotted out a line," as Jonson wrote of Shakespeare. After the period of The Holy Grail, he seems to have revised very little. The manuscripts we have of Golem (1962), "For Harris" (1963), Map Poems (1963-4), Language (1963-5), and Book of Magazine Verse (1965) are remarkably clean even in comparison to the projects Spicer worked on immediately prior to this final period—For Major General Abner Doubleday, Lament for the Makers, A Red Wheelbarrow (all 1961). But as I say, all of these projects, bar the Book of Magazine Verse, come with "out-takes," poems which for one reason or another failed to make it into the associated books, and in a few cases, I think, he just forgot he had written them! (The extradiagetical Language poems, or should I say Language-era poems, are, for me, the most precious and surprising, especially if we include Map Poems among them.) But yes, I think that as his theories of dictation developed, his practice followed—or perhaps his reception improved? Even his technical prose, such as the very late (1964) linguistic analysis of Arthur Gates and Miriam Huber’s 1951 reader for children (Splash!), runs for pages and pages and pages with hardly a cross-out or a sign of hesitation.

JB: I’d like to ask you now about how you perceive changes in Spicer’s reception over the years. For instance, I’m sitting here in front of a copy of Acts 6, A Book of Correspondences for Jack Spicer, published way back in 1987, and I’m struck by how it presents Spicer primarily as a San Francisco writer—more than two decades after death, his presence was still tied to the city, as if haunting it. But now, another two decades hence, this isn’t strictly the case. In editing his collected works, what are you currently seeing as far as his reading public is concerned: Who is reading Spicer, and where are they? Are they, as I think you’ve implied, mostly young poets? Are there different Spicers nowadays—a Spicer for San Francisco poets, say, and a Spicer for Midwesterners?

KK: It has been sort of strange watching someone enter the canon, so to speak, since over the years as I have kept working on Spicer—even vaguely and without official sanction—his stock has largely risen, and you see him included in anthologies now, in general histories of the period, indeed he has become a general fact of the weather, a rather different situation to the one that prevailed some years back when an academic reader declined our biography of Spicer on the grounds that he was a "coterie poet," whose work had appeal only to a "handful of California homosexuals." Even in the anthologies in which his work does not appear, there’s a bow to this exclusion—I think of the Rothenberg-Joris Poems for the Millennium, and how, when volume II appeared, Pierre wrote me a note assuring me that they loved Spicer and that the inclusion of his translations of Lorca in the first volume was a positive form of "representing" him, and that this view of things enabled them to find space to include Robin Blaser. Which was great, of course. The past twenty-five years have made me wonder if a certain amount of patient slogging and nagging, such as I have done for Spicer, would be enough to put any dead figure into the public mind. The old gnat-in-the-ear theory.

I’m not sure who is reading Spicer nowadays, though I suspect it is not only the very young. When I was introduced to Donald Revell, he picked me up and hugged me—just like Richard Gere picking up Debra Winger at the end of An Officer and a Gentlemen!—in recognition of the efforts that Lew, Peter, and I have made for Spicer’s memory. It was exhilarating; I cried a little. And yes, there are different Spicers. There’s my Spicer, for instance, the man who struggled to overcome his own misogyny and the misogyny that became a social construction for gay males of the period; the man who worked with and encouraged Kay Johnson, Fran Herndon, Joanne Kyger, Jay DeFeo, Helen Adam, etc.; and then there’s the Jack Spicer of Maggie Nelson’s new study Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions—an otherwise excellent book which, infuriatingly enough, presents an unreconstructed, anti-female Jack Spicer on just about no evidence at all, just word of mouth and a cursory cruise through two books by Michael Davidson.

JB: To end, I’d like to ask you about how Spicer has affected you as a writer. I just read an interview you did with Gary Sullivan in which you said: "I've been driven to expose myself in print, to unravel the mystery of my own personality, to discover why and how so many horrid things have been done by a man, myself, whom at bottom I consider as the sweetest soul on Earth!" On the surface, this strikes me as very un-Spicerian. Or maybe, judging from various things you’ve said in the course of our interview, this is precisely Spicer’s influence on you? Talk a bit about how you—being a writer who runs the gamut from fiction to theater to biography and so forth—see yourself in relation to Spicer.

KK: I’m an artist with a complicated relationship to California and to the class in which I was born. I guess I’m more like Spicer than I thought. People got on my case for mentioning (in Poet Be Like God) that Spicer fretted that his genitals were too small—and I was surprised this would be an issue for readers, and it sank in that gee, maybe I’m in the minority here, thinking that genitalia are a legitimate subject for discourse. (To this day, when I meet somebody, they will often bring that up first. Not, "Oh, you’re a poet," or, "Oh, you live in San Francisco," but, "You wrote that book that said that Spicer had a small penis." As though I should be ashamed.) And the truth is that shame, guilt, and hysteria are my subjects and always have been. Maybe I gave the world a Spicer more haunted than he had to be, a man more compromised than another biographer would have painted him. But that’s my New Narrative training where, we were taught, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, then the fact, then the legend," ad infinitum, so that the true and the false become a scrawl of intertangled interpellations calling each other out like faults. In my own writing, I let myself be totally swayed by my received notions of dictation, and I’d write a poem and then have no idea what it meant. But as I look back on my production I see, a bit to my chagrin, that everything has a meaning, indeed usually the meaning a monkey could have read into it. I do see Spicer as—I almost said "more than a poet," but I mean he was not entirely invested with poetry; like his master Aleister Crowley he believed himself capable of writing novels, plays, manifestoes, stories, light verse, how-to books, whatever. Among the most appealing things in the Spicer papers at the Bancroft Library is the sheer insouciance with which he approached, flouted, confounded genre restrictions: "you can do anything" was the whole of his law. And I appreciate that.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009