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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

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Spotlight on … Kevin Killian Shy (1989)

 

‘“The dead of winter,” is a phrase that unfortunately has become cliché. In Iowa, winter was for me the season of the dead. Reading Kevin Killian’s Shy and Bedrooms Have Windows kept the dead away from me—the apparitions who came to me at night, just as they have visited so many queer men these past two decades. “There were nights when he felt the recent dead getting into bed, climbing over him as if they had just come from the shower.” (Allen Barnett). “Each ghost has a hunger brought to me for his own fulfilling” (Aaron Shurin). My dictionary says that hell is a netherworld where the dead continue to exist. Iowa hell. Where could I hide from the shades of my past? Only by replacing my story with someone else’s could I escape, as if trading one soul for another. I bartered with my own memory—stories, people, boyflesh—Kevin Killian’s books replaced my dead with significant fictional others.

‘We can intellectualize the hell out of any writing; I know, I’ve done it. But the truth is that what really matters is how we respond to the work in the body. “Ladies voices give pleasure” (Stein). “I dilate you with tremendous breath, I buoy you up” (Whitman). “Why do we have to exhume all this paraphernalia when we could just walk forthrightly into a dark closet and read something.” (Steve Benson). In the bed, in the dead, in the closet that was Iowa, I took Kevin Killian into my body. Hot. My body giggled. My body wept. My body came. Doesn’t the queer writer know the flush in his cheek from reading something true about himself. Doesn’t the lesbian poet know the delight her tongue feels repeating words that have secret meanings, cow, jelly, belly. Pull back the covers and set your body free. Live.

‘As a queer spectator, I would be lying to say that I ignore a writer’s erotic appeal. Once, when I was reviewing a book by Peter Gizzi, I opened with Frank O’Hara’s famous dictum from his essay on personism: “As for measure, and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.” I chose this quote because it described Gizzi’s common sense approach to the line and because the poetry was informed by an obvious connection to O’Hara and to the New York school. But I was also aware that my attention was first drawn to Gizzi’s poetry because of the picture of him on the back of the book, a portrait of the artist as trade: rough, brooding, and (was this just me?) sexually available. “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” (Oscar Wilde). Yes, I judged Kevin Killian’s books by their covers.

‘The binding of Kevin Killian’s first published novel, Shy, looks suspiciously similar to those anthologies from Boyd MacDonald’s Straight to Hell: True Homosexual Encounters: Lust, Meat, Cream… Shy? Is this a trick? Speaking of “tricks,” the cover is a photo of a shirtless young man, hand on hip, bare feet crossed at the ankle, leaning against the refrigerator in a bare apartment and gazing out the window. We view him from behind—his vulnerable naked shoulders, his full, firm ass. He is available. The space between him and the window is filled by a pink bookmark with rough edges, on which is printed “Shy” and “a novel by Kevin Killian.” The title draws us into the space between the young man and the window like a come on. Trick. “Deceiving to the eye,” says Sandy Dennis in “Come Back to the Five and Dime…” Trick.

‘As Shy opens, Kevin Killian, a supplemental character in his own novel, shuts the refrigerator door to extinguish what light there is in his flat; he moves toward the window to see who’s moving into the apartment downstairs. Is Kevin Killian that same boy gazing out the window on the cover of the book? Throughout the novel, Kevin Killian the character is eavesdropping, spying through windows, mining the other characters for information; using them for sex. In turn, the other characters overhear Kevin Killian pounding on his typewriter into the night, ostensibly writing a book about Mark McAndrew, a “dead boy.” Alas (and fortunately), that book does not get written. Instead, the characters in the novel are transformed into… well… characters in a novel. Trading the dead for the living, trading the real for the fictive. Sleight of hand performed by Kevin Killian, secret hero of his own novel. Trick.

‘In his second novel, Bedrooms Have Windows, Kevin Killian is once again a character, though this time more prominently featured by Kevin Killian the author. Bedrooms is the story of Kevin Killian’s friendship with George Grey, the affable, sexy boy who teaches Kevin Killian how to be a writer. Again, from the front cover on, Kevin Killian leads us on a voyeuristic journey, peering through windows. That the novel is often categorized as “memoirs” is both accurate and inaccurate. Although Kevin Killian mines his life for material, the rubric “memoirs” is reductive, disallowing the transformative work that makes a novel from facts. As if autobiography is not a way of fictionalizing.

‘The history of queer literature in the modern era, after all (that is, beginning with the historical point at which heterosexuality and homosexuality begin to be socially differentiated as sexual orientations—a whole nother subject that could be written about and probably has) is resplendent with examples of fictions which are formed from queer writers’ own lives. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Picano’s Ambidextrous (subtitled “a memoir in the form of a novel”), Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Dorothy Allison’s Trash. Queer writers working with what is available to them as story. Wearing the drag of fiction. Or the drag of life. Those who know what to look for can spot the performer beneath the slap. Adam’s apple.

‘Oh sure, perhaps Roland Barthes was oversimplifying the condition of story when he asked, “after the Oedipus complex and marriage, what is there left for us to tell?” But Barthes recognized beneath that generalization the fundamental heterosexuality of classical plots. And yes, queer authors have co-opted these plots a-plenty, but they have done so to the exclusion of (or marginalization of) queer lives. How can I write a tale that ends in marriage (the classical notion of comedy) in a society where marriage is not available to me? And how can I write the tragedy of a queer hero without the hero’s queerness being perceived as the source of tragedy?

‘I do not wish to simply categorize—certainly, queer writers have been more inventive with queer characters than merely to present their own lives as fictions. But, I pursue this line of argument to show that autobiographical fiction is a queer genre; and, even though we have reached out into all manner of story—from Jean Genet to Radcliffe Hall to Sapphire—we own the autobiographical as a tradition, and we revisit the form as an expression of cultural identity.

‘In Little Men, Killian presents us with his own self-interview, “Who is Kevin Killian,” in which he coyly asks himself questions about his shifting and subversive sexual identity. As interviewer he is bi-curious; as interviewee he is evasive and disinterested, as if sexuality could not be any more important than what he had for breakfast. But this cat-and-mouse game around the bed is precisely where Killian wants us—author as exhibitionist.

‘Just as Killian is changing roles and identities in his work (posing as Ryan O’Neal in one of his won plays; remembering in Little Men how his mother would chide him that he’d never get anywhere if he continued to act like Audrey Hepburn), he is manipulating the reader (with all of the sexual connotations inherent in that little phrase) into new roles and new identities. Perhaps this is in the end the most seductive quality of his fictions—that we can be sexually various, amorphous and as fragmented in our selves as Sally Field in the made-for-tv movie “Sybil” (a particularly Killianesque simile, that one). Oh, he is a dark master of the word, Kevin Killian, an inviting bridegroom and a voyeur who’ll let us play in his fictions until we’re spent. Trick.— D.A. Powell

 

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Further

KEVIN KILLIAN (1952–2019)
Remembering Kevin Killian Who ‘Gave Us Courage’
Kevin Killian: I Can Explain Everything
‘A Common Misadventure in Queer Bohemia’: Kevin Killian (1952–2019)
On the Work of Kevin Killian
Kevin Killian on being unlikeable in your work
Remembering the polymath poet
Kevin Killian’s Memoirs of Sexed-Up, Boozy Long Island
Kevin Killian @ goodreads
Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy papers
Peter Gizzi Remembers Kevin Killian
Kevin Killian on Queer Art and Coming of Age in New York
But I Did Learn to Swim: A Few Memories of Kevin Killian
REVIVING JACK SPICER: AN INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN KILLIAN
YOU MUST CONTINUE AT ALL COSTS: talking with Kevin Killian about his TWEAKY VILLAGE
‘One Small Blow Against Encroaching Totalitarianism: Imagine If You Can the Death of the Prison House’
AIDS as Monster: Kevin Killian’s Argento Series
‘Triangles in the Sand’
Podcast: Kevin Killian on ‘Bookworm’
A MEETING FOR RAY JOHNSON: THE MINUTES BY KEVIN KILLIAN

 

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Extras


Kevin Killian interview, 2011-03


Kevin Killian – Is It All Over My Face?


KEVIN KILLIAN | NPF KEYNOTE ADDRESS | 29 JUNE 2012


Kevin Killian (Condensery.m4v)

 

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THIS SENTENCE WILL ALWAYS BE THERE: AN INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN KILLIAN

 

Miranda Mellis: I’m excited to do this interview, but also unsure of where to begin. I feel at once an admiring, strangerly shyness and a knowing, readerly closeness with you. I imagine others have this dual feeling, of both shyness and intimacy. This is surely one of the effects (or affects) of working autobiographically and also gossiping, in the New Narrative mode, with readers as friends. It’s a sort of love triangle between the reader, the writer, and books. I can’t help but wonder: will you be like your writing?

Kevin Killian: I hope people aren’t as shy around me as I have been around others I admire, painfully so, or else I would get drunk to overcome my inhibitions and that was the other side of the coin. I can still recall the embarrassment of having one’s hand removed scornfully from the crotch of one’s idol. But if people have read my writing at all, they know I’m not exactly a smooth operator, so maybe they feel more kindly towards me, like I was the backwards little girl in the house across the way, who would be so pleased with a handful of daisies. Yes, that’s me. OK, let me think, the people who I have met who were least like their writing were Dennis Cooper, of course, so Sadean in his imagination and in the thicket of his writing, and yet, one on one, unimaginably sweet and considerate, and kind. Rae Armantrout, her poetry a brilliant zigzag of thought and feeling, condensed and sparkling, and in person, I think, my favorite gossip of all time. I suppose there are also the opposites of these two—a witty writer or artist, say, who shows the ravages of deep depression as did Tennessee Williams— or the Jean Stafford types, once geniuses, who now can barely flip through the pages of a glossy. New Narrative is perhaps not so much a style as a way of living in the world, in the terrible social world which is so excruciating, as well as in the socio-economic nightmare we’re all trying to breathe in and breathe through and we can’t. I don’t know now if Bob [Glück] and Steve [Abbott] and Bruce [Boone] were actually encouraging us to gossip, but we certainly felt we’d been given French leave to do so 24/7. Gossip shores up, even creates, community; community leads to action—to direct political action. Well, that’s a shorthand method of explaining what happens in Jack the Modernist and The Truth About Ted and The Lizard Club.

MM: On the subject of identification (“I am just the backwards little girl…”), in your keynote at Orono last summer you spoke of Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, and other gay poets in San Francisco in the 80s identifying as sages and mages, “without irony” as you put it. Does irony dip in the 80s then peak in the 90s? How does irony connect for you with your curiosity about the artist-without-talent, the magical confluence that drew you to Kylie Minogue? Is irony key because of arriving in San Francisco, as you put it at Orono, “after the party was over”? I remember being bombarded with sex positive and safe sex propaganda in equal parts in the mid-90s, the era of the “ethical slut.” Judith Butler’s performativity and John Cage’s indeterminacy were the theories that went with our practices: gender and sound as continuums. But where are we on the irony continuum today?

KK: I got caught up in your story about growing up when Judith Butler was already in the ascendant, already a fact of life, and your subtle interweaving of the concurrent insistence on safe sex and STD testing, with the fertility I have found in facing the blank canvas of the talentless, like he or she who would look at the sun during an eclipse, or the POP art fan who empties his or her intake of a Jasper Johns flag by glancing at the white gallery wall nearby and seeing the mocking Johns colors realign themselves into the good ol’ red, white and blue.

OK—whether irony peaked in the 1990s. I saw the 90s dominated by a series of efforts to combat irony and to return it to minor league status, but for you, maybe that came later. I saw the whole rise of the internet as a force by which people would put aside their ironies and find love somewhere, even in dark corners, at which point they would be freed from irony’s thrall. But so much of that is subjective, depending on where one’s standing. Is Conceptualism, for example, all about irony, or is it irony-free? Is the work of Marina Abramovic or of Thomas Kinkade ironic in some way? I use irony to buffet my vanity from a host of perceived (or possible) enemies, but eventually when one has reached the 1 per cent on the one hand or has sunk behind the poverty line on the other, I will no longer need it. Those paying off their student loans must still need it, like drowning sailors their shards of driftwood.

MM: Cassie Thornton had the terribly ironic insight (on which she based subsequent projects) that as a graduate student, the art she was producing was debt, circulating invisibly. Talk about a non-site! Currently, I’m co- teaching a class on site-specific art, which tends not to be ironic. Who are the crucial artists for you, Kevin?

KK: In history, so many favorites but I always return to Picasso, Florine Stettheimer, Marsden Hartley, Duchamp, Pollock, Joan Mitchell, Frink, Warhol, Jacob Lawrence, Tchelitchew, Sturtevant, Mike Kelley. Oh—and Kylie of course! In real life I’ve known and worked with a few great artists and each interaction has been an important one for me. I’m spoiled, really. I’ve gotten to work closely with Raymond Pettibon, Fran Herndon, Kota Ezawa, Colter Jacobsen, Matt Gordon, Ugo Rondinone, Gregg Bordowitz, etc. Some do work in site-specific ways, but I can’t say that site specificity has ever been a big thing for me. If someone told me, “wow, we’re half an hour away from the Spiral Jetty,” I would say “driver, drive on, I think I see a Howard Johnson’s up ahead.” One story that appealed to me was the one that had Duchamp getting ready for war by making mini-versions of all of his prewar masterpieces, versions small enough to pack together in a single suitcase, one suitable for crossing borders. That said something to me, perhaps about nomadism, something about the times being such that we might all be forced to flee at any moment. All sorts of people love site- specific work: maybe I live too much in my head?

MM: I am a sucker for the Spiral Jetty. It’s so monumentally butch and yet… it’s a spiral made of crystals! Very witchy. But speaking of monumental works: you’ve just published a novel you have been working on for two decades, Spreadeagle (Publication Studio, 2012). Can you say something about what the novel allows that the story or poem does not?

KK: Stories and poems are all very well (that’s a nice Maggie Smith way to begin), but what a novel gives me is the challenge. I’m sort of a short-term memory kind of guy, so writing a story over a span of days is more difficult than for some others I think. I blame it on my day job, which is largely answering the phone. Has the phone ever interrupted you when you were writing a sentence? It can be trying, but when it’s what they’re paying you for, you answer it anyway, and this sentence will always be there when you get off the phone. And then it will ring again within two minutes time, so your style becomes disjunctive. I used to write ornately, now I write in little blips and squeaks, like Astro barking in The Jetsons. I start a sentence, the phone rings, I go back and I start a new sentence. Who cares about finishing that last one. And the subject of my phone interchange naturally colors what I’m writing. So in some ways the lyric form works better for me, for often I don’t have the energy to find my notes from yesterday, or even turn back in my notepad to half an hour ago. I’ve tried to write short stories with the heft and depth of a novel, as Faulkner did—and I have once or twice, “Greensleeves” in Impossible Princess (City Lights, 2009) was a novel in miniature, as was “Santa” in Little Men (Hard Press Editions, 1996). But in other ways I’ve a long-term mind—I’m a Capricorn, so I’m steady and loyal. I would like to have written more novels, and I have two or three in the works, some from years back, that make the 22 years it took to finish Spreadeagle feel like ten minutes ago.

I love biographies maybe for the same reason, the immensity of the task. Spreadeagle was more difficult to finish than either of my other novels, Shy (Crossing Press, 1989) or Arctic Summer (Masquerade, 1997) because of the social challenges first of all. When I began I was writing a novel about the AIDS crisis and the activist response. I kept a finger on the pulse of the storyline, mirroring it on my own experience in the middle of the homocore days (which were tremendously exciting in San Francisco), but with the widespread use of the so-called drug cocktails in the mid 1990s, some of the wind seemed to vanish from my narrative’s sails. I couldn’t even acknowledge that much, for quite a long time. What was stalling my own little novel was, of course, a great boon for society in general, so it seemed churlish, even evil to complain. Some folks asked me, why don’t you make it a novel set in 1990? But my first two novels were set in long ago historical periods and I felt like I wanted to make it a contemporary story, so the plot constantly shifted from year to year, and sometimes I thought I would never finish it, or that maybe it should have been written as two books instead of one. And also I didn’t know how it would end, as the Internet and allied technologies came along and one by one made obsolete every plot point I had counted on. In Spreadeagle, a handsome stranger comes to a little town and for a long time the plot was that the townspeople were wondering who he was, whereas nowadays they could just Google him. And the other plot was all about how I couldn’t reach him (so X and Y happened), and nowadays the question would be why didn’t you just reach him on his cell phone? I’m sure these two inventions alone have scuttled more novels than any others in all of literary history, or else I’m crazy. You couldn’t have Wuthering Heights with Google, right? Nor Evangeline if she or Gabriel had a cell phone.

MM: Forms are so contingent! Was Woolf the first to clearly articulate how money, gender, and genre are laminated? Disjunction has been claimed as the poet’s weapon against ideology and univocality, but as you point out, it’s also just a description of what time is like and therefore what forms
are possible when our labor is for rent. Which comes first the chicken of necessity or the egg of theory? How have theorists helped you do your work?

KK: I’m not sure, Miranda! You know how hard it is to see the thing when you’re in the middle of it, and it’s in your nose and you’re just trying to swim through it, like Ellen De Generes in Finding Nemo. To get the big picture I have long depended on theory and criticism, though sometimes that turns into a different kind of immersion, the way that when one talked to Bruce Boone long enough in the 1980s, one became convinced that the world was pretty much run by disciples of the Societé d’Acephale, and that we should all be having SM sex and giving each other vast quantities of potlatch, while in the 1990s he convinced me that gnosticism was both the way out and the way in—and p.s., after all these years I’m still not 100 per cent sure I could tell you what gnosticism is, but could pinpoint it through rhetorical analysis of an ad or a reality TV show. But anyhow, broadly speaking, when I was your age I knew nothing except a little bit of Angus Fletcher and Northrop Frye and I.A. Richards, and Marx, Frazer and Freud, but today I know more. I think I write better now, but was that just quitting booze? I can’t say which came first, but I suspect it was several things. Arriving in San Francisco when I did meant a total brainwash, exposure to all sorts of new systems (including full time work!) which required gargantuan effort, against which my lazy ass received a new kind of pounding. I wonder what it would be like to have two weeks off for vacation—I’d just fill it in with professional work of one kind or another. I’d be the worst sort of father, that’s for sure—the sort of Dad who doesn’t remember his children’s birthdays or even their age. “Words,” Spicer wrote (in “Homage to Creeley”) “turn mysteriously against those who use them / Hello says the apple / Both of us were object.” I always, thanks to Bruce, read this as, “Both of us were abject.”

MM: Last year, Camille Roy sent me the Nag Hammadi text The Thunder Perfect Mind. It was so familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then I realized I’d heard it sung at the Reclaiming Collective’s Spiral Dance! A gnostic number, and here I thought Starhawk made it up. The dead live on in writing and singing.

In the short story “Dietmar Lutz Mon Amour” (Impossible Princess), memoir is cued by a plurality that includes all of the dead–history itself: “He and it and history and my age all prompt me to tell this love story as though Marguerite Duras were watching me.” I can’t imagine writing a memoir except as a fiction or a plurality, a collective composition. I find writing down actual memories, as scenes, immobilizing—turns me to sludge. What relation does your memory of yourself as a character in your fictions have to your memories per se?

KK: I wonder if The Thunder Perfect Mind isn’t what the authors of the musical Les Miserables had in mind when the despairing heroine sings that even at the moment when everything seems to be bliss, “the tigers come at night…with their voices soft as thunder”? It’s a word so vivid and yet one to which meaning sticks and repels like a brand of physics.

As you say, the dead live on in writing and singing. In the days since you sent your question we have heard of the death of French poet Anne-Marie Albiach, 75 years old, in Paris, whose work came as a revelation to me in the months leading up to her 60th birthday in August 1996. I don’t know French well enough to read it properly, but Albiach seems to have attracted more than her share of wonderful translators who gave it to me good, the equivocations, the hesitancies, the blanknesses of speech impermeably allied to a wild range of emotional and phenomenological tenors—I had almost said terrors. This part of being alive, of tending to the realm beyond our senses, was her bread and butter, de tous les jours. You cite my use of Duras in writing my memoir “Dietmar Lutz Mon Amour.” When a great love occurs between people of two nations, what author do you think of? For me it was her, the crazy NATO-isms of Hiroshima Mon Amour. “All these years I have been looking for a love impossible.” He points to her, “Your name is Nevers. My name is Hiroshima,” the places we come from substituting for our names. Speaking across the divide of nations as an allegory for speaking across the thin line between life and death. Really, she had it all—didn’t she?—and it wasn’t about making sense of things per se.

“I can’t imagine,” you say, “writing a memoir except as a fiction or a plurality.” I wonder if that might be because the event hasn’t come yet in your life that you want to treat in terms of non-fiction? I started as a novelist, wrote a Nancy Drew book when I was ten (laid in Japan!), but then as things mounted up that I could not deal with in life, fiction shrank from me like a wet piece of cellophane set on a bush in the mid-day sun. I do understand your sense that writing things down freezes them in one’s mind to a certain “immobilizing” totality. But when you’re on as much Wellbutrin as I, that’s exactly what you need, that and a camera. Collective composition—yes, I subscribe to that too. I write often in collaboration with others. For me it is a way of studying at their feet, of secreting their juices, like I’m the bee sleeping in the honeysuckle. Can you imagine what it was like for me to write a story with Gail Scott, with Glen Helfand, with Derek McCormack or Lawrence Braithwaite? Street cred isn’t the word for it!

MM: The events have certainly come that I ought to try to treat in terms of nonfiction, but I don’t know if I have the stamina. Or maybe it’s just my indoctrination: “Who are you to tell the story of your life!” As if the most ominous structure of authority of all is the idea of the individual (Maybe so!). I should co-write it with someone who wasn’t there.

A few years ago I asked you what you were working on and you said (do you remember?), “I’ve written enough.” So I’d like to ask you what you’re writing next, but I’ll ask a perhaps more capacious question instead: What is on the horizon?

KK: Funny thing but just this weekend your cousin Frances Richard and I were talking about this very subject! I was telling her that in the coming months I want to buckle down to the introduction that Dodie and I will be writing to our forthcoming anthology of New Narrative materials from the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. It’s almost as though, I explained to her, that we are the wrong people to write this critical introduction for precisely the reason that we were there through it. Not enough distance. Frances countered spiritedly that in her work on Matta-Clark she has found the primary materials (are they primary? I mean taped interviews with Matta-Clark and his circle, oral histories, etc.) absolutely the foundation for the things she’s thinking about today. This seems to chime in with what you’re saying about needing a co-writer who wasn’t there!

I’m working on a new novel; on a sequel to my memoirs called Bachelors Get Lonely; I’m starting a new play with poet Suzanne Stein, for the San Francisco Poets Theater. I’m continuing to add more photos to Tagged, my series of portraits of artists, musicians, poets, filmmakers, creative types, mostly guys, most of them naked or nearly so, their junk hidden, sometimes, by a drawing of male genitalia that Raymond Pettibon made a few years back. I’ve had a few shows with these photos, and a book, and I want to do more. It’s the funnest project I’ve ever done, I think. And I have finished a new manuscript of poems called Tweaky Village, now I’m entering it in contests and losing to people with MFAs of course. Sigh. So many projects that I won’t finish all of them before I die. But Dodie and I have secured a literary executor so I can rest easy knowing that life was better to me than to nearly anyone else I can think of. That’s one thing Miranda: I’ve been super lucky.

 

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Book

Kevin Killian Shy
The Crossing Press

‘Those who read past the disorienting first chapters of this gritty debut novel will be richly compensated by its intellectually stimulating and emotionally gripping prose. Killian produces a pantheon of distinctive characters–including himself as a young writer whose half-hearted work on a book about his murdered gay lover is stalled by his absorption in the dramas of others around him. The misfits, losers, adolescent rebels and rootless souls of Smithtown, Long Island (N.Y.), whose petty dreams and futile hopes the author sets forth with mercy, are the spiritual kin of Christopher Isherwood’s creations in The Berlin Stories. Killian displays a facility for developing teenaged characters, such as Harry Van who, at 15 or 16, is continually aware that his golden youth is temporary; and Paula, a romantic who finds enlightenment in the music of David Bowie. His work is also noteworthy for unlikely phrasings (“Her face lit up like a jack-o-lantern, from inside, with the incredible light and heat of love”)’ — The Crossing Press

Excerpt

 

 

*

p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, All of those, yes. ** tomk, Hi, T. Yes, I was very happy when I found that star-quality quote, you bet. ** _Black_Acrylic, Funny, I didn’t know he ventured there. I’ll find ‘We Are What We Are’ somewhere somehow, thanks, buddy. Happy you aced some relief for that disrespectful nail. ** Misanthrope, Hi. Hm, how far and wide have you submitted your stuff? I surely don’t need to remind you how many, many places rejected ‘Closer’ before someone finally bit. I understand the despair and the ego testing/ smashing process of submitting and getting rejected, but I say get the thing with Callum published and then see what happens. Once you’ve published one thing it becomes much, much easier. It’s that first leap that’s the big hell. Submitting anywhere when you have no track record and no ‘name’ at all is super tough for anyone. It’s up to you, but don’t put the cart before the horse and all of that. I think your general blah mood, as you’ve been describing recently, is probably a big culprit in this fatalism about your writing. Buck up, big guy. ** Tosh Berman, Based on what I know, which is mostly through Gisele’s work and her passing things along based on her great interest in puppets, mannequins, dummies, etc., yes, most ventriloquists have their dolls made, and they usually have at least one extra if not many, if they’re very successful. I think there were 8 Charlie McCarthys if memory serves. ** brendan, Thanks, pal. I mean …  don’t crowd out what you need, obviously. I’ll live. I’m in the 8th, near Concorde. The 5th is easy, maybe a walk from me but a short metro ride if nothing else. It’ll be amazing to see you! ** Bernard, Hi, B. You know, I’m not absolutely sure I’ve seen ‘Dead of Night’. I must’ve. I know it’s a biggie for Gisele. But I don’t think I have. And now I have to. Which should be easy, I would think. Thanks, sir. Let’s hang again in the next couple of or few days. ** Bill, I drove through Cincinnati once. On a road trip in high school. To somewhere. To NYC probably. No memory of it whatsoever. Is it near Cedar Point, I wonder? That would be another reason. As Frameline rejected both of Zac’s and films, I would have to concur. ** John Newton, Glad you liked it. I collaborate with a French theater director/ choreographer named Gisele Vienne, writing the texts. She’s obsessed with puppets, marionettes, mannequins, etc., and there’s only been maybe one of our works that didn’t feature one of those forms or another. I’m writing her next piece now, and, sure enough, one of the characters/performers is a ventriloquist dummy. There is a film of ‘Jerk’, and it turned out really well. It’s on DVD/BluRay and it’s streaming and playing in theaters in France right now. Not sure how and when it’ll get out internationally. Thanks! Huge amounts money for each and every one of us this very second! ** Okay. Today I spotlight Kevin Killian’s best novel, and, arguably, his best work in general, I maybe think. Unfortunately, it’s out of print to the point where copies sell for a small fortune. It was supposed to be reprinted at one point, but it never was, I don’t know why. Enjoy. See you tomorrow.

“My mom was a ventriloquist and she always was throwing her voice. For ten years I thought the dog was telling me to kill my father.” *

* (restored)

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‘At the Vent Haven Museum the unsettling amazement is unremitting. In one room you almost feel as if you have bumbled onto a stage surrounded by a peculiar audience, each listener gawking in silence. In another the figures are arrayed in rows like Pinocchios who have finally made it to school. Just as no two humans are smart in precisely the same way, no two of these creatures are dummies in precisely the same way.

‘There is nothing quite like walking through the museum’s three small buildings on a residential street here and finding yourself mutely stared at by 1,400 eyes and grinned at by hundreds of painted lips over leathery chins. You are sharing company with beings barely this side of cartoon, bearing long proboscises or protruding goggle eyes, shapeless torsos and eerie charm. Lining the walls are photographs of these very figures perched on the knees or cradled against the shoulders of the men and women who once gave them voice: dummies and their ventriloquists.

‘The Vent Haven Museum grew out of the passion of William Shakespeare Berger, a Cincinnati businessman, who began accumulating the paraphernalia of the ventriloquist’s art in 1910. He later served as president of the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists and before his death, in 1972, endowed this museum, which began in his home.

‘Ventriloquists, or vents as they call themselves, continue to donate dummies and photographs. In various rooms there are tributes to 20th-century vents like Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell and Shari Lewis, along with displays about great dummy makers like Charles Mack, Frank Marshall and the McElroy Brothers. And while the 750 or so dummies do not seem overly impressed, their guild’s masters apparently are: every July more than 400 vents gather nearby for a “conVENTion,” which includes a visit to the museum to pay homage.

‘Walk among the dummies though, and you can almost hear the nattering rustle of jests and jokes. Two heads from 1820s London, made with papier-mâché and glass eyes, have the intensity of fine sculpture, with expressions so strong, they could not have been that versatile. Others, demonstrated by Ms. Sweasy, seem like autonomous beings who might consider becoming vents themselves.

‘But as Steven Connor’s 2001 book, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism, shows, such dummies are a recent phenomenon. The word “ventriloquist” comes from Latin roots alluding to speech from the belly — which means speech from anywhere but where we expect. The ability to throw one’s voice is cited by Hippocrates and alluded to in accounts of oracles. Cardinal Richelieu is said to have used a ventriloquist in 1624 to frighten one of his bishops. It wasn’t until the 18th century that it became widely used as entertainment. Modern ventriloquism was a rationalist rebellion against spiritualism; magic was turned into magic show.

‘But it wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th century that the disembodied voice found a secure home in a puppet. Here it isn’t just the voice that is thrown; it is the imagination. Psychological realism generally trumps physical realism: the dummy gives voice to the psyche. It is really the dummy who vents, saying things the vent cannot.

‘In horror films like Dead of Night (1945) or Magic (1978), the dummy, unleashed, wreaks havoc. On the other hand, vents like Shari Lewis cultivated the innocence of the thrown voice, while Señor Wences, with great virtuosity, turned a head in a box into an occasion for playful patter and farce. (Search YouTube.)

‘In recent years ventriloquism itself has come to seem less central. But not at Vent Haven. It is hard to imagine another place so clearly evoking the manifold powers and passions of the inner voice, simply by displaying figures who are its empty vessels — signs awaiting significance.’ — NYT

 

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‘Fear of ventriloquist’s dummies is called automatonophobia. It also includes fear of wax dummies or animatronic creatures. This fear can manifest itself in numerous ways; every individual who suffers from the fear being different. Similar to automatonophobia is pupaphobia which is the fear of puppets. Since inanimate objects do not pose any real harm to people, this fear is considered to be irrational. The cause of automatonophobia is currently unknown though it has been theorized that the fear derives from the members of a society’s expectations for how other human beings should behave. The inanimate objects associated with automatonophobia represent human beings, most being portrayed very realistically. People expect the same type of behavior from one another. These inanimate objects, though closely portraying humans, do not behave quite the same as real humans.

‘The origins of automatonophobia can be dated to thousands of years ago. It has been said that through necromancy, or divination by communication with the dead, “…that ventriloquism finds its origins.” At about 1500 BC the Israelites were outlawed from practicing necromancy. Even with the penalty of death enforced, the practice of necromancy still continued. Very similar to ventriloquists today, belly speakers arose. These speakers, or prophets, would pretend that dead spirits were speaking through them. To convince their audiences, the belly speakers would implement strategies that are still used by ventriloquists today. They would exercise tight lip control along with a voice other than their own. Necromancy, despite the many laws that were passed throughout the centuries, continued to flourish. Eventually it grew into a form of entertainment that the world associates with today.’ — collaged

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‘I’m at the Vent Haven ConVENTion where, each July, hundreds of ventriloquists, or “vents,” as they call themselves, gather from all over the world. For four days, they attend lectures on the business, getting advice on AV equipment, scriptwriting, or creating an audience through social networking. They listen to a keynote address by Comedy Central’s ventriloquist-in-residence, Jeff Dunham, who exhorts his notoriously defensive colleagues to “quit complaining that people say we’re weird. We talk to dolls. We are weird, ok. Just own it.” They eat at a Denny’s off the highway and visit the creationist museum down the road. And they don’t go anywhere without the accompaniment of their alter egos.

‘At the convention, the puppets are a slim but boisterous majority. They crowd in around you. They critique you. They grope you. They chatter continuously. Being around them approximates what it would be like to read people’s minds. It is a most unpleasant experience—a great deal more unsettling, of course, isn’t what they say but that they say anything at all. All over the hotel, in conference rooms, in hallways, at the bar, ventriloquism is practiced in its purest form: not as a stage show, but as an ongoing, unscripted social interaction, a live conversation between humans and their golems. At a drunken party one night, in the hotel’s “hospitality suite,” I witness one dummy operating another dummy, as the human source of both voices sits silently nearby, pretending to compose a text message. The mini bar has lips, which cruelly insult anyone who walks by, the origin of its voice impossible to determine. Almost as soon as I join the party, I am molested by a busty lady puppet, a faded showgirl. She swoons onto my shoulder. “Godaaamn,” she slurs. “Where have you been?” Her vent is a burly, unsmiling dude with a shaved head, a muscle shirt, and camo shorts. He smells strongly of whiskey. …

‘As I later learned, my brain was contending with the “ventriloquist effect,” first noted in a study in the 1890s but named by a research team in the 1960s. The basic insight, that “visual information biases the spatial localization of auditory events,” is a key finding in behavioral and neurological research. When it comes to spatial processing, human vision is, by dint of evolutionary adaptation, generally stronger than the auditory sense. (Which is perhaps why it’s infuriatingly difficult to locate a cellphone that is ringing two feet away from you if it’s concealed under a couch pillow.) Human perception, which functions by fusing simultaneous streams of sensory information, works on the assumption that if auditory and visual stimuli occur in proximity—close in both space and in time—they must be caused by a single source, the one you see. So when we watch lips moving in sync with an unrelated sound, our brain simply denies the confusion, the strange coincidence of these two events, and instead processes them as though they were one very normal speech act. Thus, a ventriloquist can modulate his voice to make it sound near or far, as though it were muffled in a box, or gurgling up from underwater, but he doesn’t actually “throw his voice” in any particular direction; he just tosses it to the audience and they—their eyes, their brain—place it in the lips of the dummy.

‘Ventriloquists tend to think of themselves as living on the cusp of extinction. (Even the word haven in Vent Haven suggests this sense of besiegement). In conversation, they deal with their angst by talking nostalgically of the days of vaudeville and of the era when Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were household names, back when vents were appreciated. But the best contemporary practitioners know from experience that when a ventriloquist act is executed well it is as mesmerizing and oddly irresistible as ever. An audience for it exists, as it always has; vents continue to be disdained and admired. The rise of Terry Fator is a case in point. Fator was a struggling vent from rural Texas who made his way to America’s Got Talent. When he walked up to the mic, one of the judges rolled his eyes and said, “Oh no, a ventriloquist?” By the end of the performance, however, the judges and the audience were on their feet. Fator won the competition and went on to sign a $100 million contract to headline at The Mirage, one of the largest entertainment deals in Vegas history. As long as there are humans and decoy lips, the ventriloquist effect will live on.’ — Avi Steinberg, The Paris Review

 

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How-To-Be-A-Ventriloquist

‘When a skilled ventriloquist talks with the tongue without moving the mouth or face while sitting beside a figure (or “dummy”) that has a moving mouth, it looks like the figure is talking. It works because humans use their eyes to find sound sources. When the ventriloquist is not moving his mouth but the puppet’s mouth is moving, people think they “see” the figure talking.

‘Sit in front of a mirror and make a slight smile with your lips parted. Make your teeth lightly touch. Your tongue should have room to move. If you see your tongue moving in the mirror, then change your smile until the tongue is hidden. Your goal is to breathe easily and read aloud these 19 letters without moving your lips: A, C, D, E, G, H, I, J, K, L, N, O, Q, R, S, T, U, X, Z.

‘Practice the following sentences until they sound clear but your lips don’t move: “Hey, this rocks, dude! It is sooooo easy. Anything you can say, I can say, too!” If you sound muffled, try making your voice come from some higher place in your head as well as your mouth.

‘There are seven trickier letters: B, F, M, P, V, W and Y. These letters normally require you to move your lips. To say them without moving his face, the ventriloquist borrows from the easy alphabet, some other letters or combined sounds to “fake” the tricky letters. Use these substitutions: B = D, F = “eth,” M = N, P = T, V = “thee,” W and Y = O+I

‘B = D: Instead of saying “The Bad Boy Buys a Basket” the ventriloquist says, “The Dad Doy Duys a Dasket.” Try this in the mirror. At first, this substitution won’t sound right; but with practice, D can be made to sound like B. [Hint: When your tongue rises to the top inside of your mouth to make D, let it stick to the roof of your mouth a little longer before releasing. Also, say D but think B.]

‘F = ETH: Instead of saying “Phil is a Frisky, Funny Fellow,” try saying, “Thil is a Thrisky, Thunny Thellow.” Say the “eth” sound but think F as you do it.

‘M = N: “Mary Mashes Many Mangos” becomes “Nary Nashes Nany Nangos.” Make the N vibrate against the roof of your mouth. Keep thinking M.

‘P = T: “Peter is a Practice Pilot” becomes “Teter is a Tractice Tilot.” Try holding the T a little longer, then release with a little puff of air behind it.

‘V = THEE: “Vinnie Very much Values Victory” becomes “Thinny Thery nuch Thalues Thictory.”:

‘W AND Y = O+I: W and Y are treated alike. By quickly sliding the letters O and I together you can say “O-Aye” and it sounds like Why. Try putting a fast O to the front of the following: “Why Would Wally Walk?” You’ll be saying “O-Aye O-ould O-olly O-alk?” Now drop the O (or say it silently in your head), and you’ll be saying a clean W sound without using your lips.

‘In a short time, these substitutions become automatic. Practice for 15 to 20 minutes a day and in about a week you’ll see some serious results! Practice your ventriloquism with a relaxed puppet-like voice that is higher or lower than your own.’ — Boys Life Magazine

 

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‘At the risk of making a blanket generalization, people who devote their lives to pretending they’re having animated, ostensibly comic conversations with carved and painted blocks of wood tend to be seen as losers, weirdoes, lifelong virgins, and shut-ins. Ventriloquism is generally considered both a much-maligned and increasingly anachronistic facet of show business and a socially sanctioned form of mental illness, where the deeply unhinged are rewarded for arguing passionately with imaginary friends despite being adults.

‘Surely, one of the oddest things about the collision between the world of comedy and filmmaking is the meager supply of quality films featuring a protagonist who is a ventriloquist that aim strictly for laughs rather than fright. The ventriloquist’s dummy has somehow managed to transcend from a figure of humor in real life to an icon of horror on both the big and small screen. If you take a moment for perusal of this disconnect, I think you will agree that it verges on the exceptional.

‘It also raises the question of why audiences have found ventriloquist acts funny for as long as film has existed, but filmmakers apparently have not. True, the popularity of ventriloquism has waxed and waned over the years, but as an example of just well-liked this form of comedic entertainment can be, consider that one of the most popular radio shows of the Golden Age of Radio featured Edgar Bergen interacting with his dummy named Charlie McCarthy.

‘Let that fact sink in for a moment. A man making his living by fooling people into thinking that an inanimate doll is having a conversation with him by perfecting the art of speaking without moving his lips became a radio legend. Of course, in Bergen’s case, radio may have helped since he wasn’t the best at keeping his lips from moving. But the weirdness factor remains in place: Bergen’s massive radio audiences couldn’t have seen Bergen if he’d been moving his lips in the exaggerated fashion of a diction teacher!

‘Over the years, wildly popular ventriloquists who made audiences double over in laughter have included Shari Lewis, Jay Johnson, Willie Tyler, Paul Winchell and Jeff Dunham. You might be surprised to learn that legendary entertainers who performed as ventriloquists early in their career include Johnny Carson and Don Knotts.

‘Now let’s look at some actors who have played ventriloquists in the movies. Erich Von Stroheim, Lon Chaney Sr., Michael Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins. Those actors assaying the role of the ventriloquist are hardly what you’d call icons of comedy. So what’s the deal? Why is the ventriloquist and his dummy in real life right up there among such luminaries of the world of comedy entertainment as the impressionist, the clown, the insult comic, the cartoonist and the song parodist, but in the movies the exact same type of performer exhibiting the exact same talent is usually a psychopath suffering from some kind of multiple personality disorder?’ — collaged

 


‘Magic’


‘The Dummy’


‘The Ventriloquist’


‘The Unholy Three’


‘The Ventriloquist Cat’


‘The Pharmacist’


‘Dead Silence’


‘Tales From The Crypt/The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’

‘The Dummy’


‘Devil Doll’


‘Black Devil Doll from Hell’


‘When A Stranger Calls Back’

 

 

*

p.s. Hey. ** Misanthrope, Hi, G. Well, they must be quite good friends then. I thought you were writing or at least editing your fiction, no? If that doesn’t keep you from being bored, you’re kind of cooked. I have a week of work (writing 4 Gisele) and searching for money. Not gonna be my fave. ** David Ehrenstein, Amazing that you got to see ‘A Woman of Mystery’. ** _Black_Acrylic, Ack, fucking drat, man. Can they put you into twilight sleep or something? I guess ice packs wouldn’t be enough? Sorry, I’m no doctor, just spinning my wheels. Obviously, I hope they sort the right method very quickly. ** Tosh Berman, True, true. ** Bernard, Hi, B. The heat sucked, but it wasn’t anywhere as bad as that hell we went through the last time you were here. I just made an upcoming post about Marisa Berenson of all people, so I was thinking about ‘Cabaret’ by default. Glad you saw Diarmuid. Did you bump into Martin and Karolina @ Freud? A lot of people are having seasonal allergies right now, even me in a mildish way, so you’re not alone, at least symptomatically. Never seen ‘Talk to Her’. Huh. I have a post coming up this weekend about Karel Zeman whose films are full of dreams which I’m sure you know. I think I would kill someone horrible if it would make ‘Confusion’ have happened. Kind of the best idea ever. Ha, thank you about my ears. Anyway, text with you and hopefully see you today. ** Brendan, Big B! Holy moly, wait, you’re coming here practically instantaneously? Whoa. I’m around and happy and ready to see you at your convenience. Great! Oh, wow, if it’s really easy and no sweat, I would love some Mac ‘n’ Cheese, the kind that has Velveeta in it. There’s something in it that makes it impossible to sell in stores in France, and, yeah, if it’s no sweat, I would love to have some of that stuff. Dude, see you so soon! Let me know your availability and etc. when the time’s right. ** Stephen M, Hey. I read ‘Moby Dick’ in high school. I went to a private boys’ school that assigned us difficult stuff like that. I’ve seen two Kiyoshi Kurosawa films, both of which I liked a lot: ‘Tokyo Sonata’ and ‘Pulse’. What do you recommend? Yeah, seeing ‘Husbands’ when it was released was one of those formative ‘wait, a movie can be this?!’ moments for me. Thanks, man. I’m good. You too? ** Godot, You’re bored? Oh, no. you do some seem like someone with whom boredom would have a tough entree. I’m sorry. Maybe it’s summer, but I hate summer, so … There are so many exciting films and books and artworks out there, though. You just need something that will give the right kind of attack. Hm. I’m mostly just trying to raise funds for Zac’s and my new film, and it honestly is not exciting, or I guess it would be were I being more successful at it than I am. Eek, about your scary ex-. Well, gosh, obviously I hope you get a windfall of inspiration before the sun sets today. Love, me. ** Steve Erickson, Yeah, even after years of it, the ease and humanity of health care here in France absolutely blows my mind. I heard one track off the black midi album and liked it a lot. I’ll go full blown re: it. ** Bill, It’s weird to me after doing this blog for, what, 16 years or something, that there’s still great stuff out there I haven’t eaten up with a post yet. Highsmith doc, I’ll find it. Isn’t the Castro theater being turned into a music venue or something? ** Corey Heiferman, Hi, buddy. Oh, man, serious envy on your getting to do Temenos. One of these years. Fantastic! You good generally? ** Suzy, Hi, Suzy! Thank you, thank you for the link. I’ve read some of your stuff — some the Garfield pieces, for instance — and I was crazy about them. Awesome! Everyone, Suzy, who is the wonderful writer Suzy V, links us up to a page on Caesura Magazine where you can read a bunch of her work. And it’s super great. She has these fantastic comix-style pieces that to do with Garfield, just for example. Anyway, very highly recommended that you click this and go feast your eyes, brain, etc. Also, she has a tip for y’all: ‘… if anyone here has poetry, stories, criticism/essays/etc they’re looking to get out into the world, consider to submitting to Caesura. Friends of mine, cool people, and fearless publishers.’ I’m up to no good in the sense that I’m searching for money which is kind of the epitome of good’s opposite. Otherwise, okay, funnish, middling. What about you? ** John Newton, Hi. The Allmans were excitingly cramped on the tiny stage of the Whisky. They weren’t really my thing, but they were impressive at that point. Mm, I think I would need to be stressed by something before I knew that it stressed me. Money, having or rather not having it, stresses me, but that’s pretty universal. Not too many things stress me, but when they do, the stress is pretty consuming. I mostly did meth when I was living in Amsterdam in the mid80s where it was known as Pep. It was intense. I did it as an experiment to get out of my normal self re: my fiction. It made me semi-crazy, very horny and simultaneously impotent, which was exactly what I was looking for at the time. No, not hard to stop. I never got addicted to recreational drugs, luckily. I only went to two old school gay bathhouses in my life, one in LA and one in SF. That was enough for me. I would say, yes, it is definitely the best time to be an interesting fiction writer in the US right now due to the plethora of fantastic indie presses than it has ever been in my life. I didn’t find the Mineshaft very interesting. It wasn’t my thing, but objectively, it was probably interesting. There was a bunch of fisting and public WS going on there, yes. I didn’t see John Preston or Larry Townsend there, but I knew Preston a little bit socially. I very rarely get sick and usually very mildly when I do and for pretty much my whole life. Lucky ducks. ** Right. I simultaneously decided to resurrect this informative dead post and force you to look at more ventriloquist dummies than you have ever wanted to look at in your entire lives. Sorry, and/or you’re welcome, depending. See you tomorrow.

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