Kevin Killian, In Memoriam (1952-2019)

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Kevin picked me up in Berkeley in Dodie’s little sedan. It must have been 9am, or earlier, after a night with friends in the city. I’d met Anne Waldman the day before at the ALA, introduced via Kevin’s quick generous framing of even the most causal acquaintance. Nick Dorsky said something to me I’ll never forget. But then I was in the car with Kevin, his dark suit jacket, tote bag. I was exhausted, woozy. Kevin was excited, friendly, asking questions, already telling stories. We were on the new Bay Bridge, my first time going across in light. We drove to Jack Spicer’s grave at Cypress Lawn where he shot me for his Tagged series, sexy and bookish. I loved it. The space was all magic, doused in a misty green and red glow through the stained glass atriums in the mausoleum where Spicer’s ashes are interred. It’s called a columbarium, which sounds like it should mean “mystical card catalog.” All the named golden lists. The enormously heavy doors and marble echoes. There are these monstrous ferns growing in pots. Am I remembering this right? It felt like being in a nineteenth century orb. The hangover made everything simultaneously more and less beautiful. In the back atrium to the left, a little over head high, the thin plaque for “John Spicer”—catacombs section F, niche 16, tier 4—the site that Kevin had only recently, finally, been able to find. Afterwards, we went to a Jamba Juice in a shopping plaza by the highway and gossiped. It was finally getting hot. On the way back he told me about the Rose Library’s recent acquisition of a collection of errant Spicer papers. Questionable provenance and protective high profile booksellers. We arranged for me to send him digitized copies of everything as soon as it was processed. Kevin was very generous about this, since he knew the papers had an uncollected handwritten poem in them, a gem to be included in a forthcoming collection of Spicer’s uncollected poems. The Spicer papers also turned out to include an uncollected John Wieners poem. Everything that Kevin helped with felt like it had this cascading good fortune and ease around it. He facilitated that magic. And of course he’d set up a reading, too, where I read a long poem called “Alyson Hannigan Ordered Me To Be Made,” which Norma Cole called “beautiful.” Kevin made that happen, too. This was all in May 2016, so I only knew Kevin for about three years—which is nowhere near as long or deeply as others—and nevertheless he was a gigantic force in my world. He always had something to offer or tell me about. In our emails I was “Nicky,” “dude,” “pal”—I love Kevin’s unironic cuteness. He once sent me his own signed copy of Elio Schneeman’s In February I Think—the last book published by Ted Berrigan’s “C” Press—just because. Earlier this year he wrote me a gloriously sassy and selfless note to commend me on my essay about Bill Berkson’s memoir at the Poetry Foundation. I can’t imagine higher praise. Kevin’s style of scholarship—obsessive, personal, devoted, collaborative, sharp, aesthetically luminous, endlessly curious—is one of my central guides for how to do this work. Nothing was ephemeral to him. He was a collector and a fan, which made him an incredibly generous scholar and editor. God, what else is there. In 2014 I taught two sections of a modern drama class almost entirely out of Kevin and David Brazil’s Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater—a delight. I wrote a series of poems called “Flowers and Money” after a poem of the same title in Kevin’s Action Kylie—”I give you money // and flowers, because I’m so happy and / because I want to—buy your // friendship, I want to be pretty / and appropriate, I want to have fallen.” Kevin and Dodie’s Christmas cards. His Amazon reviews. All the cute boys and kindnesses and flirty spirit. Our last correspondence was about Dodie’s copy of the Jack Spicer tarot deck designed by Russell Fitzgerald. One of my students was doing a project on astrology and the New York School, and Spicer’s deck was a key precedent. He graciously sent a volley of pictures—“snaps,” as he called them. “Ah, for you, anything.”

The outpouring of remembrances about Kevin have already been so bright and loving. It’s absolutely unbelievable how vital he was for so many folks for so long. My deep condolences to Dodie and everyone for whom Kevin’s life and presence was a daily, local, loving fixture. KK forever.


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Crystal Set #18: Language by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit Press, 1965)

Language by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit, 1965; second printing 1970). Offset, 66 pages, "Designed and printed at White Rabbit by Graham Mackintosh - June 10, 1965." This copy from the second printing. [Cited page numbers for Spicer poems refer to My Vocabulary Did This To Me.]


Colored by love and judgment, constructed through a series of unmoored metaphors crossed with appearing-to-be-rational syntax that sheds as slight repetitions accumulate across sets of lines, built to showcase the otherworldliness of syllables simultaneously coalescing and floating off into a field of meaning constantly calling on the echo of myth, distant and funny and ragey—this is Jack Spicer’s Language. It feels like an ur-text for an entire poetics (i.e., Language), or a way to consider disobeying how a book functions, which is what nearly each of Spicer’s books seem to generate. Maybe because Spicer is so willing to be against something in his work, and to be so wickedly intimate and mysterious in his refusals, that reading Spicer’s poems always feels like a tremendous relief. Here is a poet showing you how to rage so sharply and strangely. I love that obscure, uncompromising music.

The entirety of Language is republished in Spicer’s Collected, My Vocabulary Did This To Me, but it’s different to read Language as its own discreet book. Not only are the poems laid out differently in the White Rabbit edition, with each poem occupying a single complete page rather than the condensed framing in the Collected, but the cover of the White Rabbit book is my favorite of any of Spicer’s covers, which are all notably just really good. Spicer’s covers aren’t merely decorative but clever, well-designed opening salvos in the critical and mystical aesthetic arguments his poems are the material of. Like the cover for Book of Magazine Verse (White Rabbit, 1966)—a facsimile copy of the then-cover of Poetry Magazine that Spicer uses as a send-up of the academic culture of respectability and professionalism tied to such publications—the cover of Language establishing a lineage for the book itself as it talks back to Spicer’s career as a professional linguist by reproducing the cover of the still-publishing flagship linguistics journal Language in which Spicer’s only professional publication was included. Daniel Katz’s description of the cover in The Poetry of Jack Spicer effectively describes the context and gesture:

“Indeed, the famous cover of Language can be seen as an assertion of this very fact: here one finds faintly reproduced a sepia green photocopy of the cover of the July-September 1952 number of the linguistics journal Language (which contained Spicer’s one publication as an academic linguist) but messily scrawled across it in a large bold red hand (probably Spicer’s own) stands the title “Language” and the name “Jack Spicer.” In truth, however, the book represents less poetry asserting its rights to language over and against those of linguistics than a different figure which the cover also suggests: the over-writing or overdetermination of a palimpsest.” (141)

You can actually read Spicer’s name on the original journal cover underneath the “ck” in the red handwritten “Jack” given as John L. Spicer, the name he would also be buried with (and which would prohibit his grave from being tracked down until just a few years ago). Spicer and his mentor David Reed’s essay “Correlation methods of comparing idioletcs in a transition area” is fascinating to skim through if only to see into the specialized interests of Spicer’s academic training (a PDF of the essay is available here). Copies of the first and second edition of Spicer’s Language are still available online from $40-$300, making it one of the still more accessible Spicer books to find, though it’s increasingly scarce. I especially love the paperclip that appears on the top center of the cover, as if casually left there while making copies of the journal cover. Katz’s description doesn’t mention this detail, though the paperclip seems to me a vivid indication of how Spicer’s relationship to publication as a fiercely local, small press-based activity within particular communities of artists anticipates the zine aesthetic of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

I’ve always read Language as a parallel text to Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, not because Berrigan’s sonnet sequence and Spicer’s serial poems are directly related (though there is meaningful resonance between their work and attitudes, as I’ve suggested elsewhere), but because of an associative attention to repetition, seriality, wit, and the range of performative rhetorical gestures that both poets make. They’re also contemporaneous publications, with The Sonnets appearing in 1964. I like how reading one against the other generates new ways to describe their respective work. Even a title like Spicer’s “Thing Music,” which is the first serial poem in the book (see Anthony McCann’s awesome 2014 book Thing Music), feels like a Berrigan-esque title, a both serious and oddly humorous phrase that ambiguously calls on a range of referents and ideas. But it is only Spicer who could, over the course of these poems, refer to his heart as being made both of “silicon” and, later, “green cheese” (a particular kind of Spicer goofiness), and write lines like these: “Meow, meow; meow, meoww / Is it really on top of a yellow giraffe / Meow, meow, meow, meow. Meow, meow” (374). I get such a kick out of these lines, their nursery rhyme-resonate silliness, the “ww” anomaly that unloosens the repetition into a conceptual space, and the idiosyncratic, musical note-like use of punctuation. Or take these lines from later in “Thing Music,” which resonate with Berrigan’s attention to simultaneity but glow through Spicer’s unexpected metaphor: “Take each past, combine it with its present. Death / Is a tooth among / Strangers” (378). This frightening, magical statement becomes an aesthetic proverb in Spicer’s mythic-aural pantheon of wicked lines. Here are a few more irreducible lines from throughout Language: “the / radio dead but alive it can connect things / Into sound” (376); “Going into hell so many times tears it / Which explains poetry” (383); “And look at stars, and books, and other people’s magic diligently” (384); “Take a step back and view the sentence” (384); “We make up a different language for poetry / And for the heart—ungrammatical” (390).

But please, can we take a moment to appreciate how incredibly well Jack Spicer uses the word “fuck” in his poems, and to acknowledge that him, Alice Notley, and Amiri Baraka, really, are the ideal models for how to curse in American poetry. These lines from the series “Morphemics” are case in point: “Us exiles dancing on the banks of their fucking river. / They asked us to sing a sad song. How / Motherfucker can I sing a sad song” (391). This is some stunning incredible vicious insistence. The double expletive here becomes the dancing and singing that refuses to emote on the proper, sanctioned level. Or there’s Spicer’s casual virtuous spite folded into daily observation, exemplified by a line like “But real unfucking rain” from “Graphemics” (398). These lines are shrines from which to devise the future of literature.

Finally, I’m thinking of these lines near the end of Language from the sixth poem in “Graphemics”: “Walden Pond / All those noxious gases rising from it in the summer” (401). For a long time I’ve thought of these lines as a description of the pastoral and transcendental toxicity of sanctioned American poetic lineage, literature, and literary spaces that Spicer railed against. But looking back at the poem recently, I remembered an article in The Guardian about a new environmental paper on the ecological health of Walden Pond that describes how Thoreau’s happy lake is quickly becoming a phosphorus-dense sludge ball because it’s full of pesticides and human pee. Having been a person who swam in Walden Pond about 10 years ago, I found this alarming, accurate, and totally appropriate to Spicer’s poem and the nature of literary tourism. The article specifically mentions the use of pesticides on the pond in the 1960s, a likely candidate for the summertime “noxious gases” caused by increased algae growth from the chemicals in the water, which is perhaps what Spicer is referring to. One imagines Spicer visiting Walden during his short tenure working at the Rare Book Room of Boston Public Library in the mid-’50s, maybe even going with Robin Blaser or John Wieners and enjoying the abject landscape they found in the heart of America’s New England literary history. Language is cut through with these moments of joyous pessimistic vitriol, devotion, and mystical intelligence, a completely Spicerian trinity of aesthetic tenets, but all of Spicer’s work deserves to be read and reread, especially for its defiance and derangement of male literary heritage and tradition. In moments of tenuous and fraught inheritance, I’m often thinking of the last lines from “A Poem For Dada Day at The Place, April, 1, 1955,”: “‘Beauty is so rare a thing,’ Pound said, / ‘So few drink at my fountain.’ / You only have the right to piss in the fountain / If you are beautiful.” It turns out Walden’s urine-saturated fate is bound up with Spicer’s Duchampian irreverence more than he could have imagined.

CRYSTAL SET #4: Book of Magazine Verse by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit Press, 1966)

Book of Magazine Verse by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit Press, 1966). I don’t know if Jack prepared the book for publication, but it was published the year after he died and the chronology in his collected poems does say he wrote it in spring/summer of 1965 and sent some of the poems out. According to the SF public library website White Rabbit put out 63 books between 1957-1968, including Jack’s After Lorca (1957). Book of Magazine Verse has 7 sections, each one titled something like “Two Poems for The Nation” or “Seven Poems for the Vancouver Festival,” the conceit being that Jack wrote each set of poems as a submission for that magazine, or whatever else, knowing they would likely be rejected. So the book is this joke about how writing poems becomes this business of publication and how editors police aesthetics. This kind of gesture seems in keeping with Jack’s snarky wit, sometimes remembered as him just being an asshole, but the book also represents his insistence that poems are not of this world, that they aren’t made to be discrete objects held in place under some lit mag’s temporary clout. This is the book’s dedication: “None of the poems in this book have been published in magazines. The author wishes to acknowledge the rejection of poems herein by editors Denise Levertov of The Nation and Henry Rago of Poetry (Chicago).” I don’t know how much it had to with the press, but in 1960 Spicer tried to start an art space in San Francisco called “White Rabbit College,” the name being a slight fuck you to Black Mountain College. Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Robert Duncan is the place to go for more about the intricacies of Spicer and Duncan’s relationship, one that was often very fucked. I remember one story where Jack sent a young male poet from his entourage to Vancouver with a message for Duncan and the kid saw him at a party, was all excited to given Duncan this message, and said to him something like “Jack wants to know if you can tell the difference between a poem and a streetcar” and Duncan freaked out on the kid, like who the fuck do you think you are, get the hell out of here. Years earlier, when they were very close, Spicer and Duncan had said about a poet they didn’t like that he couldn’t tell the difference between a poem and a streetcar. An amazing example of how far Spicer would go out of his way to piss someone off. But from our perspective 50 years later it also seems like such a devoted gesture. It’s hard to imagine Spicer, despite all the fights and shit talking and protesting against other poets, didn’t love his friends.


In the notes to his collected it says the cover, which is a replica of an old Poetrymagazine cover, was designed by Graham Mackintosh and Stan Persky. Each section is printed on a different kind of paper to simulate the kind of paper used in the magazine the poems were written for, from the glossy pages for Ramparts, a 60s-70s expensively produced political/lit mag, to the leafy brown newspaper-like pages for The St. Louis Sporting News, a section made of 4 poems “about” baseball. The poems remind me of Berrigan’s sonnets, maybe because they look similar on the page and have these off-kilter repetitions, but also because a whole poem repeats from one section to another. A note from Robin Blaser shows how this was in keeping with Spicer’s beliefs about dictation: “Jack did not know he had duplicated a poem until he read the poem to Stan Persky and me and we pointed it out. He looked surprised, checked them, and said that was the way they had to stand.”

I bought The Book of Magazine Verse at The Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville, North Carolina, a place Steven Karl, Alexis Orgera, and I stumbled upon after eating vegan sausage on our way to Raleigh. Asheville is the Portland of North Carolina, a hill city still weird and thriving a few miles from Black Mountain College. The Captain’s Bookshelf is poetry dork heaven with a ton of rare editions and a poetry section full of treasures. I also bought a first edition of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In the back the owners, who were so stoked to talk to us, showed us a painting that is a portrait of Kenneth Patchen with light and energy streaming out of Kenneth’s head. I think it was called Kenneth Patchen as a Spiritual Being. The Whitney Museum had just visited to appraise it for their collection but they didn’t want it because it had been mounted or something. Kenneth Patchen is from Ohio and one of the greatest least talked about poets and seeing this painting, I was kneeling on the ground looking at it, is one of the most important moments in my life. This is all to say that how I came to own The Book of Magazine Verse is bound up in some intense magic.

The Book of Magazine Verse is the last section in Jack’s collected and the last poem is about Allen Ginsberg with the first line “At least we both know how shitty the world is.” The poem is such a complicated articulation of the difficulties of love and freedom in terms of the public and the private and, because of its insistence on that difficulty, a totally incredible last poem for a book and for a life. Kevin Killian recently tracked down Spicer’s grave and you can read about that here: Daniel Katz’s new book about Spicer is also really good: