The phantasmagoria of Jack Skelley’s work pulls one into a place of far-fetched dreaming; escapades in which the POV narrator drives to his friend’s house to grab guitar gear for a show and runs into William Blake instead. The Semiotext(e) book, The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker, is packed with unrealities close to the patterns of one’s own mind. Written in the 1980s when Skelley drove and partied around Los Angeles as an existential, cunstruck young man, FOKA deranges all the senses.
The reader follows these dreamscapes, where friends phone asking to be included in Fear of Kathy Acker. The narrator replies: only if you’ve got something interesting to say. Skelley captures the shape and detours of thinking, with flashbacks of bad acid trips churning one’s stomach, to frettings about a sick grandmother, to being stuck in a hospital room for a week, craving an orgasm in the thin, gray light.
Fear of Kathy Acker is a distillation of the young mind with all its sensations and fantasies swirling together. The title includes the word “Complete,” as parts of the novel were published in chapbooks and magazines and performed at readings over the years. Now, finally, it exists in its fullest form. And it is essential. Among other issues, its inventive language explores 1980s politics that prefigure today. “And I’m sorry I can’t be anything else because shit there’s nothing else to be. So ha!” he says, after a litany of American flaws/scandals. The book reads like a flying comet. Look back at it at random, like the I Ching. It will tell you something revelatory and likely make you a bit hot in the face. Scenes arrive with big bolded titles: CAROUSEL (OF LOVE AND SUICIDE), THE FLAT FROG, and SEXY DMV WOMAN. The reader joins the narrator on the freeway, the DMV line, suspended in horniness and frustration on a Sunday at home. Our interview begins at my favorite section, LIFESIZE VIDEO GAME DREAM CAVE.
Talk about the “Lifesize Video Game Dream Cave” section, which ascends from outrageous sexual fantasy (dripping pussy juice, etc) into passages that get pretty metaphysical. Definitely a surreal kind of place to sit within the book, because you get silk, you get shimmering, you get snow… “My body drifts through matter like water. Every opaque wall is a door that shimmers into transparency under my gaze.”
Yes, I enjoy reliving these passages which spin sexual language into metaphysical realms. The “Lifesize Video Game Dream Cave” motif borrows imagery from the former Disneyland ride Monsanto Adventure Thru Inner Space: Here the narrator’s imagination penetrates an atomized reality and sense of self. And it climaxes atop Disneyland’s Matterhorn Bobsled ride, where sexual desire apexes to a holistic union with the universe… or one of several preposterous, sexed-up, lit/musical/scenester universes. All within the world of the “novel” as it’s being imagined on the page. Or something like that. But for sure, Disneyland imagery — and variations such as fun houses, mazes, caves — has been juicy lifelong material.
And do you have any idea of where the Disneyland fixation comes from? Or why you’re fascinated by it.
Literally to this day I have crazy dreams of Disneyland. And whenever I find myself entering Main Street for real it’s like materializing into a dream that’s always there and always morphing into alternate Disneylands. I don’t know how unusual that is, but it ties into those potent, trans-cultural archetypes including mazes and labyrinths. These are Jungian elements of the psyche and an individual’s evolution plopped into a pop symbology. Growing up in the “dream machine” environment of California probably contributed to these obsessions. To be clear, I’m not one of those Disney freaks who makes daily pilgrimages and collects tons of Disney junk. And the satirist and existentialist inside always mixes these archetypes with Disney’s insidious infiltration of minds.
You can apply a parallel irony to celebrities. FOKA is packed with them. So for instance, cartoonish 80s icons such as Madonna and Billy Idol share the page with surprise manifestations of great poets William Blake and Gertude Stein. Together they inhabit a high/low, anything-can-happen epic realm.
How did you come up with the bolding of words and headings? Because you don’t see that a lot in books, especially more literary ones.
These are emotions bursting into type. They’re not chapter headings, because the entire text is a borderless flow. It’s an exuberant technique Kathy Acker fucked around with. Her entire approach to narrative is “plastic” in the peak sense: She warps every convention into whatever shape she wants. Why not have fun with the type too? It’s eye-catching.
Let’s go back to FOKA’s juxtaposition of sexual language — often kinky or taboo — with more heightened, lyrical language. Are you speaking frankly about sex while trying to describe the joys and weirdnesses of fucking or wanting to be fucked?
For sure. Like its 80s milieu, FOKA is suffused in sex: Its narrator’s male/cis/het flagrance and normative excesses are signals they didn’t even have terms for back then! But I like how you picked up on both the joys and weirdness of fucking. Also of romance. Bliss can flip into alienation and back into elation, adding to the teasing uncertainty of identity. In FOKA, fucking is another portal for the mind to probe what about himself is real or not.
The amazing Afterword by Sabrina Tarasoff has rich insights into this and other constructs of the book: “Our poet is as skeptical as he is spaced-out and aroused by the natural activity of the self going outside itself, of becoming more, and so consuming more, wanting, desiring and needing more.” It sees a place where “girlfriends blur into twisted perceptions of networked space.” (Including TV networks.)
It helps to remember this is a Semiotext(e) book. They have published some of the most extreme sexual content, so this is nothing, comparatively. I took license from Kathy Acker in the 80s. As did Semiotext(e) editor Chris Kraus later with I Love Dick. At this time Dennis Cooper was just launching his sex-and-horror aesthetic. Many other writers from this explosive period were inspirations and liberators.
The male/het orientation of FOKA can feel shocking. It’s certainly not in vogue and that’s fine: Let the male ego, which for centuries fucked shit up, step back, and let queer and women’s voices be loud. I revel in the creativity of many of them. My latest writing takes “intertextual” influences from écriture féminine, (the term by French literary theorist Hélène Cixous in her 1975 essay "The Laugh of the Medusa.") It also pulls from Julia Kristeva. I really get off on their beautiful rule-breaking.
But even at the time of writing FOKA’s sex parts, I understood the dynamics at play and reflexively undercut them with irony, or framed them as a parody of pornography, etc. And for this complete edition of FOKA, I made no changes, no softenings of the text. That would have been contrary to its ethos of liberation.
Are there novels beyond Blood and Guts in High School and Acker’s others at the time, perhaps Naked Lunch, that inspired you to be completely blunt about sexual and other content?
Yes: William Burroughs, Henry Miller, quasi-memoir writers of the time such as Lynn Tillman (Weird Fucks) and Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries). I return to Acker because her approach is forceful yet layered. Her narrator exulting for cock can shift into sadness. But despite all her anguish she’s always standing somewhat outside of herself, conscious of her impact on the reader… including her extreme humor! Those emotions hit FOKA’s narrator. He’s fictional, so you can’t equate him with his author, but they’re both a 20-something poet swimming in a media/marketing environment where sexual imagery inflates innate desire.
In Skelley’s new work, he continues blending sex with the cosmos in today’s media-opaque atmosphere. Here’s an excerpt of “Rendezvous with God-MILF,” an eventual novel under many working titles (like FOKA, which has a full page of alternate titles to titillate you).
The Constellation Glamazon
Skimpy yet cloaked, was she radically normative cis-het, or hot trans tail trailing scent? Were her bronzed contours so all-caps to advertise jism cosms of divadom? Ditto the fat black starry lashes, thunder thighs, ruff-tuff creampuff shoulder-to-clavicle ratios, and anti-gravity ultra-high-projectile lunar boobs. These bookended a grande-sized Mariana Trench proportioned to slot phalli or interlocking pairs of nymph nips.
Oh, such sweet disorder in the mess. That gravelly laugh was her brain freeze chugging a beer and puffing galaxy dust. (Chokey weed, for sure, but I never saw her smoke a cigarette.)
Were the obvious surgeries rip-offs or tip-offs?
Was the bimbo confusion boyish, girlish or combo-pack?
Was that dummy dolly act for him or herself?
For when Lola croaked her throaty coaxes, the Ray Davies inside just about died.
You see, as technology dissolves barriers between mind and machine, cosmetics spiritualize matter. A mystic malleable persona is plastic in the peak sense.
(As Joris K. Huysman’s Against Nature extolled the perfection of fakeness: “He had done with artificial flowers aping the true; he wanted natural flowers imitating the false.”)
Envision her skin. Two highly attractive blackholes may swap spit in a death grip. We don’t see them: They go AWOL from the electro-spectrum. Now, however, hands-on analysis of Mary Mammoplaster Caster confirms Einstein’s far-fetched concept of “gravitational ripples.”
It works like this: Epidermis stretches over swelled orbs. These waves (not particles) softly klink and krinkle when she up-cups the boobs. The perfect fakies bolster and upholster a stick-figure in the stars. Connect the dots into a come-hither constellation pose. The silicone domes orbit radiant whore ports. And with a ruby manicured finger she tugs at a pout just out of collagen college.
And really, the scars of surgery, visible hair-weave clips, every botch or mutilation – indeed all crow’s feet, neck wrinkles and poked-out clavicles – canonize her. They are Saint Andromeda’s ripest most exquisite fondle fruits.
Among a bazillion Brazilian butt lifts, each pair is outfitted with nipples pointed heavenward.
Ah, the drag décor supreme Queen embeds in glam gloss: Magnify her godhead.
In your new prose work, “Rendezvous with God-MILF,” that frenetic, sex-obsessed media landscape — particularly trends involving body modification and gender transitioning — twists into a new language that we haven't yet seen. When you read about, say, BBLs or trans men and women, do you incorporate online debates and the newness of these issues?
My daughter is trans. So I’m personally attuned. But this focus on transformation of the body is more an extension of its imagistic and symbolic punch. BBLs, transplants and implants, hormone replacement therapy — and the more outrageous augmentations I imagine in that story — are fascinating medical/social phenomena!
There’s a lot of weaving of texts from the most base to the most lofty sources. The “God-MILF” piece includes astronomical references (String Theory, Big Bang, Einstein, astrology etc,) also psychedelic drugs and absurd evolutionary hypotheses.
This piece is from a manuscript with the working title MYTH LAB: Theories of Eros and Eschatology, with eschatology being the study of the end of time. So the subtitle combines eros/romance with the soul and the universe facing apocalyptic resolution: The Singularity.
I wanted to ask about your daughter, who’s trans, and how she inspires you if it’s not too personal. It’s a different generation today – what have you learned about being accepting of people for the way they are and what they teach you… so whatever you’d like to say.
She came out only a year ago and had been struggling with her identity for many years. She’s a hero to me. “Rendezvous with God-MILF” goes far beyond that to explore bodily, psychic and even spiritual transformation. There’s also a section playing with neurodiversity, which pictures psychoanalysis expanding autism, ADHD and other conditions into alternate mental states. To me, hyper-empaths possess a secret superpower.
I tie these themes to the survival of the human species, and prospects for that are not looking good right now, are they? One possible eschatological outcome may involve cybernetics and human/machine entities, for better or worse. To me it’s a lot of fun to explore all this on personal and social levels.
What public launches are you doing for The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker?
I’m super excited about the NYC and Los Angeles launch events with guest appearances: A chat with Chris Kraus at Skylight Books in L.A. Another chat with Stephanie LaCava at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn. I really don’t deserve such good graces. I will also do a multi-person, multimedia launch of FOKA. Event name: FOKAPALOOZA! For this group event I’m working with Uncensored New York, who produce very cool art, lit, film etc events in venues drenched with vibe. Earlier this year Uncensored New York published a talk between me and Lydia Sviatoslavky — artist and writer. Lydia and I are collaborating on this live FOKAPALOOZA performance, joining the FOKA text with Lydia’s visual collages plus music. Should be very fun. We’ll also produce it in L.A. at Poetic Research Bureau.