On April 8th, 2018 from noon to 6pm, Performance Space New York hosted a marathon reading of Kathy Acker’s notorious 1978 novel Blood and Guts in High School. The event was organized by Sarah Schulman, who brought together more than seventy artists - including many of Acker’s peers, friends, and mentees to read selections from this coming-of-age story, partly situated in the East Village. We invited the readers to share some reflections of that afternoon.
- Tess Dworman, co-editor
Blood, Guts & More
There was a parking spot right in front of Performance Space.
We drank coffee and ate cookies from a local Italian bakery.
Six hours of reading, I didn’t know if I would make it. I didn’t know if I wanted to.
In the front row, Matias Viegener, artist, curator, professor, writer, literary executor of Kathy’s estate.
In grad school, Matias gave me two items from Kathy’s wardrobe: a sheer black lace bodysuit and a Japanese linen dress.
I wanted to wear the bodysuit but it’s a crotch cutter.
So I wore the dress.
The dress, since stained with my own blood and guts through twelve years of ownership.
Jenny Schlenzka, director of Performance Space, told me I should mention that I wore Kathy’s dress when I read.
Her son Leonardo wore a Spiderman costume with padding in the chest and arms for muscles.
I sat with my friends. Veronica Gonzalez Peña. Nuar Alsadir.
I congratulated Nuar on her National Book Critics Circle nomination. Fourth Person Singular is one of the best book titles I’ve ever heard.
Before I had a chance to ask Veronica if a rough cut of her documentary on the artist Pat Steir was ready to screen yet, the reading started.
A sign in the all-gender restrooms down the hall forbid the use of the hand dryers during the event. A roll of paper towels, damp and fingerprinted by wet hands, sat on a folding chair beneath the hand dryer.
I brought hummus.
I ate it crouched in the hallway.
Hummus is noiseless to eat.
The readers I liked the most were people whose personalities transmitted through Kathy’s text, as if percolating her words through their bodies, without ‘trying’ too hard.
Some people had mic banter up on stage. Somehow the focused mood of the event didn’t feel accommodative to what would have been charming at a different reading.
Maybe because we wanted to feel the velocity of the text. Of Kathy.
Sarah Schulman assigned me a scatological chapter.
But first I took a break halfway through to walk around the East Village.
I found myself at a consignment store caught between a less expensive shirt and a more expensive shirt.
I will be responsible. I will buy the less expensive shirt.
Now I know, weeks later, that I am certain I will never wear the less expensive shirt, for it is the other that I really wanted.
Purchase in hand, room temperature hummus exuding its bodily scent from my bag, winter air pushing me down the sidewalk, I go back.
You missed Carolee Schneeman, someone whispered.
Though I did nearly hit her opening the door of the restroom, her cane in one hand, scowling at the brash and hurried manner in which I exited.
Number 29. I was next.
My chapter seemed uncannily suited to me.
I I I I I I I I I I I I…
I stink when I smear shit across my face.
Suck me, suck me, suck me, suck me, suck me, suck me, suck me, suck me, I repeated.
Sex is sweet.
Back on 1st Ave, my car battery was dead.
I waved my arms in the street, a pair of jumper cables dangling from one arm like a snake.
SARA JANE STONER
“So the doves cooed softly to each other, whispering of their own events, over Janey’s grave in the grey Saba Pacha cemetery in Luxor. Soon many other Janeys were born and these Janeys covered the earth.”
The day felt to me like a preordained funeral party for hard-working PT/FT hysterics, like we were all dead and alive together; like you were crouching through an ache that arced between the root and the sacral with a beer in your hand near a mouse-trap made out of paper loaded with shit and stars, lightly bleeding. Blood and Guts fucking READ ME all day long, its intensity like a promise and its blunt and glorious fucked up equivalations of sex and work and culture; its hot-handed and knifed around so many scenes and ideas and desire inside my own life and body, and it was brutal. And I was turned on and grieving, fantasized I was inside a room inside a book filled with people who know what it means to live big chunks of life outside of yourself. The text in all these different voices, all the survival work I heard—surviving Kathy, surviving something Kathy labored to access and understand, something Kathy didn’t survive, something we won’t either. (I keep thinking: THIS COLLECTIVE DURATIONAL READING IS SO IMPORTANT I WANT TO DO IT TOGETHER ALL OF THE TIME!!!) Pamela Sneed’s big devoted thunder-plush; Bina Sharif's delicious extemporaneous intertext; Stacy Szymaszek’s quick-voiced Carter pornography; Sara Mameni and Matias Viegener’s back-to-back Persian-English delivery of The Persian Poems section a fucking GIFT; Karen Finley's vocal-emotional swerves inside of the first abortion scene; Tracie Morris's tiny juggernaut of the Bear-as-girl voice, and her day-long gesture of getting us all to sign a copy of the book for Sarah Schulman; Avital Ronell’s punky voiced think-whatever-of-the-world reminding me of when we first met and she said I was her teacher in a past life; my new brilliant friend Kay Gabriel's forthright tang; row neighbor Max Steele’s hilarious 30-year-old man in the EV bakery; Chavisa Wood’s demure and knowing Genet to my Janey, her death departure of the final scenes, getting the threat-whisper in my own mouth: “The night is opening up, / to our thighs, / like this cunt which I’m holding in my hand / cuntcuntcuntcunt”—“You were so abject!” Sarah said, a compliment I think I've learned enough to take. So particular and intimate how she organized and actually kind of CAST the reading—I couldn’t deny I was a body in a hearing and voicing body something like the “community” that Amy Scholder named in a letter from Kathy as one of her big desires—which I talked about with Rachel Levitsky and others in the ebbing after...”Community” measured by the ways these different people nakedly gave the life and art in their particular voices to this particular book which goes SO HARD, goes SO HARD into its form, its fantasy nightmare ideas. Voiced over the day Blood and Guts really UNFOLDED its spatio-temporal and ideological architecture into such RAW presence. It felt like we opened up an Acker fractal, like I got to consult a collective Kathy on the problem of how to fuck (fuck up, fuck the fucked up world) inside a two-part question rather than a two-part narrative, where the no and the yes meet inside (or outside) of ________.
I thought that Sarah did a magnanimous job - Inviting everyone to read without even including her own chance to do so as well.
The first come, first read was also a simple but important approach of non hierarchical methodology as well as solo, duets, trios, and group ensemble reading moments. Of course the juicier texts are later in the book and there were some really wonderfully dramatic readings by Tracie Morris, Jack Waters, Karen Finley, Bina Sharif, Pamela Sneed and Penny Arcade. Reading along with my New York Public Library copy of Blood and Guts in High School was fun to anticipate the next readings and keep track of the various sections. I also noticed a number of folks in black leather pants. Was this fashion drag something Kathy had a thing for?! It was a long day but the variety of intergenerational readers kept up interest and energy. Someone even suggested it should become an annual event!
Plus, these are my initial introduction notes which seemed too long to read given the number of folks invited to read as well as to keep the focus on the text and not personalities:
Good afternoon My Name is Peter Cramer and I’m an Ackerholic! Thanks for the invitation to participate in this reading. I’m a proud Kathy Acker award recipient and I hope that Matias will allow Clayton Patterson to continue honoring the East Village artistic legacy that Kathy represents for many.
I am also co-founder of the Lower East Side garden Le Petit Versailles where in 2004 we hosted Flo McGarrell who did an erector set type of installation in the garden and then the next time I heard about him, they were working on a film based on Kathy Ackers book - Kathy Goes to Haiti. - SO allons y a Sang et Stupre au lycée.
It was not an easy day even though it was a Sunday. I didn't want to wear black but I did. There was something very teenagery about it. I probably would have done something illegal if I didn't know better. Felt sullen. The weather was stupid but the sun was shining for once. Did I have enough coffee (no). Should I go off coffee again (not yet). Should I bring sustenance (yes). Always hungry. Tending health. When I got there Sarah asked me if I could be Death. I wanted to know what my options were, but Death always wins in the end. I asked Sarah for a piece of gum. I wondered if I looked like Death. When I got to the mic I wanted to say, "I am wearing Kathy Acker's Kotex right now." I held an apple while onstage. I snuck a tiny bite and fell into a strange sleep and dreamt of tiny men peering at me through my glass coffin. People were taking pictures, casting spells, incanting. We were all more or less awakened. The event was good for morale. Everyone will complain no matter what you do. They will complain about time, about order, about chaos. The important thing is to show up while you can. You'll be glad you did. It's pretty easy.
My closest personal connection to Kathy Acker was through my friends Sarah Schulman and Aline Mare who were among the people supporting Acker through her illness and death. At that time I hadn’t read Kathy yet but knew of her as a major figure in art and culture in the milieus of radical contemporary art and culture that I was becoming more of a part of in my creative expression, and in relationship to co-facilitating collective actions at Abc No Rio and related venues. From this perspective of extended community I followed Kathy’s downward spiraling health by way of Aline and Sarah’s reports as they sought support and provisions for Kathy’s care and comfort. Kathy’s legacy lived for me over the years in the celebration of the kindred and common associations of the community she inspires through the award ceremony celebrated in her name established by Clayton Patterson and associates. In 2016 I was proud to be the recipient of this honor with my partner, Peter Cramer. Being a part of the all-day reading of Blood And Guts in High School was a true reunion - a living invocation of this community that now spans generations. The celebration was a testament to ways in which the living art of a forbearer will outlast this current age of branding, logos, and networking.
Kathy Acker and Alan Sondheim's Blue Tape (1974), exhibited in "Kathy Acker: Who Wants to Be Human All the Time" at Performance Space New York, photo by Sara Jane Stoner
I thought the marathon reading arranged by Sarah Schulman was a grand idea and it went well. I enjoyed being there listening to everyone else and me being part of the epic event. Kathy's writing was a special treat, funny, absurd, experimental, disjointed, bold and very fresh. She was a courageous writer of immense talent and her work speaks volumes of the current atmosphere. There should be more events like this at Performance Space, a perfect place for voice so brilliant and with a bitter bite.
April 18, 2018
Dear Amelia and Tess,
This morning in Paris I am looking for all the pieces of paper from the Blood And Guts in High School Marathon. I can’t find my program onto which I scrawled who’d read what as the whole thing was happening. I wanted to take a photo of it for you and I wanted to talk about the uncanny sense we all had that everyone got the part of the book that spoke of themselves most as they were reading. I got a piece from the Dimwit section of the book that is a poem. Why do I call it a poem. What is the difference between Kathy’s narrative prose and her drawings and diagrams and this notion I have to call what I read “On the desire for love” a poem. For one, it can’t be read like sentences. Its grammar and word order is cut up, multiple, shifting and also it is beautiful and unabashedly romantic. From my reading assignment, “On the desire for love”:
Psyche, by no fleeing labours hard times, Love
the ferocity of all-mighty she battled:
Sometimes the castle’s her-mind-gone she would wander through shifting
so she was wild meeting beasts;
physically beaten up. Worse: rejected
Practicing it for my turn, which came two-thirds into the six hours, having had a sleepless night, oddly sitting behind a recent profound ex-lover.
A friend who came at the end, an observer who didn’t read, noted on seeing it all from the back, that it was very Acker, all of the configurations. How many stories were happening such in that room. I keep erasing all my particulars they are so personal. The collected personal interwoven stories in the room that day a multi-volume epic. All the heart breaks and disappointments. And yet it was a room. A room filled room.
How did we all randomly get our perfect parts. The magic that is Sarah Schulman. You can see she is a witch if you look closely. I am only fully seeing this in her now but it is as it always was, there. Sarah certainly made magic this day. I went to extremes to make it, knew I had to. Extended my stay in NYC. Not just because I’ve never said no to the beautiful boredom of a fully read aloud and difficult book (stalwart of Gertrude Stein Making of Americans marathons), or that this one had nary a boring moment, was wildly dynamic, dramatic and poignant throughout, thirty or forty different ways, its seasoned and performance ready readers and direction, and because in particular this Acker marathon with the readers Sarah included allowed all the volumes of stories in us and Blood And Guts to continue existing in these eviscerating times. Yes, it was multi multi generational as Penny Arcade memorialized as she closered the event. Among the artists, performance artists, biographers, radical fiction writers, publishers, Sarah included the fifty years of downtown poetry people (we sometimes call ourselves neglectorinos), we, from just to the slight west of Performance Space, seeing and including the peoples and histories and all the parts of Kathy’s great collage of a project, gathering the kind of community that Amy Scholder referenced in her introduction quoting from something Kathy said and letters Kathy wrote, something that is there, beyond definition and needing seeing in order to exist as supporting. I thought we looked like we’d all been through something like a war. Somehow making it through, arrived to be spoken of/to and supported by...first Kathy. Sarah, Matias, Amy, Ira, Lynne, Carla, Douglas etc. We could see each other, know something about who we were. Embattled, radical, singing.
Sending love and light from the 20th Arr.,
A small group of avant garde poets and musicians were among the earliest supporters of my painting/constructions. Jerome Rothenburg wrote me from where he was teaching in LA to tell me about a young writer, student — Kathy Acker— whom he felt shared issues and formal explorations close to my own….and that we were both flailing within our radical aesthetics, anticipating a feminist context.
Kathy and I became friends through cross-country letters, and then subsequent intense and joyful times together in New York City, in San Francisco, in San Diego, in London. We were like some jungle flowers, increasing our foliage through time and destinations. I loved her in all her guises, which were fiercely variable, but always uniquely Kathy-defined….. be it inscription, publication, the lovers, the motorcycles, the family drama, the gym, writing, the library, travel, friends, betrayals, the lovers, devotions, and then the nightmare confusions of cancer and death (which was so not a Kathy destination).
Matias Viegner, who has been Kathy’s executor and protector of her books and possessions, became a host to me and my cat, Treasure, when I was teaching at CalArts. He offered me something of Kathy’s — and I have a rayon skirt, printed with birds, covering my bedside table — which, from time to time, will be stacked with books by Kathy, by Chris Kraus, by Sarah Schulman — who brought us all together for the wonderful group reading on April 8th, 2018.
What a joy to all assemble for a Kathy festival. A gathering of so many friends with such myriad histories to shake out together, renewing, revitalizing, and celebrating.