Kathy Acker, King of the Pirates, Comes to Washington, DC

by Richard Peabody

Kathy AckerKathy Acker was a sweetheart. You probably didn’t expect me to say that. Truth will out.

In December 1991, Lucinda Ebersole and I began Twisted Pisces Productions so we could bring Kathy Acker to DC. She’d never read here and told us she’d only been to Washington once before as a kid on a school trip.

When we asked what it would cost to make it happen, she said, “A lot.”

I hadn’t met her yet but had printed an interview with her in Gargoyle #37/38 the year before.  Our British editor at the time, Maja Prausnitz, had approached Kathy in London with a batch of questions we’d all assembled.  Kathy remembered a couple of sweet punk girls coming to visit her and agreed — the gig was on.

Finding Kathy at National Airport on a Thursday night wasn’t difficult. She was 5’ nothing, with dwarf-star white hair, and a black leather jacket that proclaimed “Girl” on the back, spelled out in blood falling from the thorns of one massive rose. The pointy rings on her fingers could scratch your eyes out.

We didn’t really know what to expect but Lucinda had arranged a room in a sleek Capital Hill hotel for her. First the card key didn’t work, and I rushed off to get another in the lobby only to get hit on in the elevator by the most beautiful hooker in the world. I rushed back flabbergasted with a new key card and Lucinda and Kathy laughed. “Why didn’t you bring her back to my room?” Kathy said.

Kathy Acker JacketThe plan for Friday was to divide the day with her. She was so much fun. She told us at one point, “You wouldn’t believe the shit people send me in the mail.” I laughed and told her we’d just had a woman contact us because she could pee like a man and had video footage she wanted to show Kathy. She shook her head. “Would you want to see that?” I asked. “What do you think?” I laughed. “No.”

We’d arranged to have her read on a Friday night at the 15 Minutes Club on 15th and K Street.  I asked poets Sharon Morgenthaler and Reuben Jackson to open for her.

What we didn’t know was that Kathy got stage fright on the day of a performance and was so anxious before a gig that she didn’t eat that day just in case, which would have been fine save for the fact that she had hypoglycemia. Our plan to wine and dine her was out the window. Lucinda called me mid-afternoon Friday and screamed, “She’s yours now, I can’t stand being around her any more.” Lucinda had driven her from bookshop to bookshop as Kathy did a classic Jekyll and Hyde switcheroo.

Right before the reading some nimrod double parked by the front door and sent his 12-year-old kid in to buy all of her books and get them signed. Kathy told the kid, stick around, she’d sign them after the reading. Lucinda and I realized that you can’t have a kid in a bar in DC and convinced her to sign them right then.

I introduced the opening readers to her and she blew them off. Sharon said, “I’m not reading for that bitch.” I spent a lot of time putting out fires. We’d seen the sweet side of her and were totally unprepared for how this was playing out.

Kathy Acker on BikeAnd then Kathy ripped into me for scheduling her gig in a bar. I’d assumed she’d want to read someplace like this, downtown, with booze. No, she said, why didn’t I get her a university gig. WTF? It had never even occurred to us to pursue that angle, not that we had any connections at the time, not that any local university had ever made an overture to her.

By the time of the actual reading Kathy was a barely functioning maelstrom, a vile smoothie of danger and venom.

Kathy wore a one-off Norma Kamali gown cut sleeveless on one side to display the tats down her right arm. She sat atop the bar and presented one long piece that she said she’d appropriated from a Japanese story and she aimed it that night at “Mayor for Life” Marion Berry. It was dense and difficult and again, not what we’d expected.

When she finished there was stunned silence. I stressed out on anxiety before the entire bar stood as one and applauded.  Just like that everything was perfect.

Now, a lot of people don’t understand that to sell books by a big name author you have to order the books in advance. You have to buy them straight up and after the discount this was the only money we were going to make to offset printing and publicity costs, et al. All of the unsold copies are returned and after 90 days Grove Press would cut us a check.  Needless to say, we really needed Kathy in a semi-decent mood so she’d move some merch. We were selling paperback copies of Literal Madness, Empire of the Senseless, and In Memoriam to Identity.

Lucinda sold books as fast as she could. I gathered fans into a scraggly line and Kathy said, “Where are we eating. I want to eat now.” “But you have to sign books,” I said. She grumbled. Fans held books out, told her how much they loved her, and she didn’t make eye contact or acknowledge them at all, just scribbling her name quickly, all the while her eyes on mine, “What are we eating?”  “French or Chinese. That’s about all that’s open.” “French,” she said. That calmed her a little.  Not being a parent yet, the idea of snacks hadn’t occurred to me.  Kathy seemed to be literally bursting with manic hunger.

That’s when the woman with the pee video showed up and asked me if I’d shown it to her yet.  (It was pretty amazing VHS footage. She could arc it a couple feet like guys do.)  I said, no, she took it, and handed it to Kathy, who looked over her head at me. I kind of shook my head. The woman told her about it and said, “You want to see my tattoo?” and pulled her jeans down revealing everything.


Kathy Acker French RestaurantWe drove to Georgetown, up M Street, and then Wisconsin Avenue to Au Pied du Cochon (which means “With a Pig’s Foot”), which was open 24/7. The three of us settled at a big table near the bar and bit by bit waves of fans joined us. Once Kathy had a salad and some French bread and wine she transformed back into her sweetheart self again. The change was amazing but way too late for Lucinda and me. We were completely fried and nodding out, trying gamely to follow the loud animated conversation that began with Kathy preaching Helene Cixous and “the phallogocentric power structures of language,” travelled quickly through Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, and Gilles Deleuze, to French feminists Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Bracha L. Ettinger, on to books she’d read, then people she’d slept with, and people everybody thought she’d slept with that she actually hadn’t slept with, and then people everybody thought she hadn’t slept with that she actually had slept with, on to tales of students, and other gigs, and places she’d been, to how much she hated NYC now and how much happier she was in San Francisco, and finally as the sun was rising, landed on non-allergenic makeup, motorcycles, and fitness. Wish I’d had a tape recorder.

Before we said goodnight, Kathy signed books and told us she owed us both thanks.  She really had a great time. Lucinda drove her back to the hotel and then to the airport on Saturday.

By the time of Kathy’s death almost six years later, Lucinda and I were partners in Atticus Books & Music on U Street, where we held a Memorial reading to raise money to help pay off her massive medical bills.  Matais Viegener was trying gamely to keep all of her books and manuscripts together and working to reconcile the estate. David Franks drove down from Baltimore to read along with Bob Angell.

Here she is reading from a bunch of different recordings and works — Kathy Acker (1947 – 1997).

We miss you Kathy.


Richard Peabody is the author of a novella, three short story collections, and seven poetry books. He is a native Washingtonian and teaches fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where he received the Faculty Awards for Distinguished Professional Achievement and Teaching Excellence. He is also the Beyond the Margins Above and Beyond 2013 Award winner for his outstanding service to the Washington, D.C. literary community, and he is Eckleburg‘s Patron Saint of Indie. He is the founder and co-editor of Gargoyle Magazine and editor of twenty-one anthologies including Mondo Barbie. His collection of short stories, Blue Suburban Skies, is out from  Main Street Rag Press. Read “Maraschino Cherries,” an excerpt from his collection, Speed Enforced by Aircraft (The Broadkill River Press, 2012).

The People

by Richard Peabody

In March of 1980, Michael Martone did something extraordinary — inviting a motley crew of indie press folks up to Johns Hopkins University. Martone, a student at the Sems, had begun a subversive mag with fellow Hoosier Michael Wilkerson, which they dubbed Indiana Mon Amour. The conceit? You had to write about Indiana to be eligible for inclusion. The concept a chippy response to the workshop lip service to “place” and very much in keeping with those two madcap zealots. Their zine experience plugged them directly into the indie mindset, which may or may not have been prevalent on the Homewood campus at that time.

I thank them both for the invitation to be part of their “People’s Republic of Reading Series.” Because we were a bunch of non-university affiliated long-haired bearded freaks (save for John Elsberg who worked as a book editor for the US Army and who we all mistakenly thought was British) gathered together in that huge auditorium. Sprawling? That’s how I remember it. Eager students as far as the eye could see. We were an alternative to the Canon, a strange and heady brew. And I don’t believe any of us had ever read our work in a university setting before.

Richard Peabody and Michael Martone
Richard Peabody and Michael Martone at AWP 2013

And who was that nefarious motley crew? Jesse Glass, whose Goethe’s Notes Magazine and press were published in Westminster, MD. Imagine avant-garde postcards, broadsides and a zine surrounded by a sea of rednecks. (He’d actually graduated from the Sems in 1979 and was the most experimental of our crew having helped Richard Kostelanetz with Assembling Magazine and he was already into Concrete poetry); Steven Ford Brown from Birmingham, Alabama, where his Thunder City Press and Thunder Mountain Review held reign; the rest of us from suburban Maryland and Virginia — John Elsberg, American Editor for the British mimeo zine Bogg, founded in 1968 by George Cairncross in Filey, North Yorkshire. (They’d just printed their 44th issue and John was soon to upgrade the printing and design by having the work done in the US by an offset printer in Annapolis, MD); Fiction writer Kevin Urick, whose magazine The Mill and White Ewe Press were based in College Park, MD. The press had recently published Oregon writer Al Drake’s In the Time of Surveys and George Myers Jr.’s first fiction collection, Nairobi; and me with Gargoyle Magazine based in Bethesda, MD. I’d just printed issue #14, which featured interviews with Hindenburg author Michael Mooney, local Sci Fi legend Ted White, and renegade pre-Beat writer/editor Chandler Brossard, and part of Raging Joys, Sublime Violations his novel-in-progress. Continuing with the Beat Generation theme the issue also featured Michael Horovitz (the British Ginsberg), Charles Plymell (a collage and an essay on “The Blues”), Herbert Huncke (the “Elsie” chapter of his autobiography), along with an interview with poet Janine Pommy Vega.

We’d also printed our first two Paycock Press books — Michael Brondoli’s Love Letter Hack about which —

“It’s a well written tale, with a nicely exotic flavor. He does indeed have a lot of talent. He also has a good sense of what a story is and how it ought to unfold.” -Guy Davenport

“A first book from this press, and a very fine beginning, indeed. A very touching and wryly humorous account of love and absence from home.” – Library Journal

along with Harrison Fisher’s Blank Like Me.

Harrison was one of the best DC poets of the late 70’s, bar none. He wrote some lyrics for local band Tru Fax and the Insaniacs. BLM was his 6th book in a matter of 3 years. Lots of language play. Harrison, like Brondoli, was connected to the Providence Baroque scene that orbited around Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop’s Burning Deck Press. (Providence poet Tom Ahern designed the cover.) The book is divided into two parts — “Immunization & Society” and “White Zombie.” The latter makes use of B-movie horror titles. I haven’t encountered anybody since who possessed such diabolical wit save maybe Susan Smith Nash.

So what happened? Well, we shared our publishing experiences, traded anecdotes with the students, and then it was time to read our work. This was my 11th ever reading and I’d gone from riding in like a rebel hero to feeling completely out of place. What were we doing reading to MFA students? I was almost 30. I started with a joke poem and they laughed and then everything went fine.

I’m sure Jesse Glass read his long “Mayakovsky Is Dead” poem.


Point your Poetry Gun in the air:

bang! bang! bang! Comrade.


Hopkins Class
Hopkins Class

He had three chapbooks out at the time, plus Closed Casket, a play that had been performed in The Netherlands. I’m sure John Elsberg read from his chapbooks Walking, as a Controlled Fall and The Price of Reindeer. Kevin Urick might have read part of his experimental western The Death of Colonel Johns, or some of the stories from his Nakedness collection. Steven would have read some of his surreal poems from Apples that are Mirrors, Mirrors that are Apples and Against the Old Propellers of the Twilight. I read from my first book of poems I’m in Love with the Morton Salt Girl.

Why the stroll down memory lane? Well, a couple of reasons. John Elsberg passed away from cancer late in 2011 and I miss him and the rest of the old crew. And nothing like that auspicious March 10th ever happened again. Martone at that time had published one fiction chapbook, At a Loss, and though he was a couple years younger than most of us, he was a peer in every meaning of the word. We were a comfortable crew, hungry to get published, hungry to discover some poets or writers among those gathered in the audience. The big name conferences weren’t interested in small fry like us, so the entire experience was a heady, raucous, educational joyride.

I remember eating at a great Italian place with Martone, writer Gina Maranto, and poet Theresa Pappas (Martone’s wife to be). Was Wilkerson there? Neither of us can remember. Wilkerson won the Elliott Coleman Award in Fiction Writing at Hopkins that year before becoming the director of the Ragdale Foundation, eventually landing at Indiana University where he remains to this day. Martone has of course gone on to be a driving force at Fiction Collective 2, to teach at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and to produce an impressive shelf of fiction, faux travelogue, essays, and anthologies. Steven Ford Brown is in Boston publishing translations of work by Juan Carlos Galeano, Jorge Carrera Andrade, Angel Gonzalez, while also working as a music critic. Kevin Urick taught law school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore for many years and is now a practicing attorney in Elkton, MD. Jesse Glass runs Ahadada Press (among other things) and is a Professor of American Literature at Meikai University in Chiba, Japan.

We were all so young. We were all so passionate. I thought at the time that our combined energy was going to have a real impact. A lot of chapbooks, and books, and magazines were born of those times. Some of us are even still slinging words out into the ether.



richard peabody 1976Richard Peabody is the author of a novella, three short story collections, and seven poetry books. He is a native Washingtonian and teaches fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where he received the Faculty Awards for Distinguished Professional Achievement and Teaching Excellence. He is also the Beyond the Margins Above and Beyond 2013 Award winner for his outstanding service to the Washington, D.C. literary community, and he is Eckleburg‘s Patron Saint of Indie. He is the founder and co-editor of Gargoyle Magazine and editor of twenty-one anthologies including Mondo Barbie. His collection of short stories, Blue Suburban Skies, is out from  Main Street Rag Press. Read “Maraschino Cherries,” an excerpt from his collection, Speed Enforced by Aircraft (The Broadkill River Press, 2012).

AWP 2013 Boston

AWP 2013. Boston. Hmm. Monster conference set on sleep-deprived surreality hashed on kick ass party reading, Steve Almond, Derrick Brown, Amber Tamblyn, Sun Parade and hallucinatory academia anxiety and did you see so and so yet? And holy shit, supposed to be there and here, a stop by the Hobart table and Barrelhouse table and Gargoyle table and Sewanee table and Dzanc table and McSweeney’s table and Redivider table and Rumpus table and PANK table and Tin House table… And run to catch Michael Martone at the end of the corridor then run to catch lunch with so and so then back to the book floor and is it time for a nap? No, no, time to go back to the Hobart table for a clutch of books and a whiskey shot, fuck, I forgot my bag at the other end of the world or the mall or whatever the hell subterranean place this is but the shot is warm and good, and right, we need to eat. Let’s get food now before the next round and hello, hi, how are ya, wanna grab a bite, a beer, a couple of gatorades? Caffeine? Caffeine? Yes, caffeine is good. Or maybe crash and sleep till next week. No, no, Delillo is reading. No, no, time for LDM. Meet you across the street at McGreevy’s…