I’m Very Into You: an epistolary review

I’m Very Into You is the collected email correspondence between novelist Kathy Acker and cultural critic McKenzie Wark. The emails, written in 1995 over the course of seventeen days, followed a brief affair between the two while Acker was on tour in Wark’s native Australia. Authors Jeff Jackson and Cari Luna conducted an email conversation about the collection, which is coming out this Spring from Semiotext(e).

From: Cari Luna

To: Jeff Jackson

Date: Wed, Jan 28, 2015 at 1:24 PM

Subject: I’m Very Into You

Hey Jeff,

Kathy Acker…such weight in that name. With any artist who dies young, you have to wonder what they — or rather, our ideas of them — would have become had they lived. Acker died in 1997, at age 50. The public version of Kathy Acker was a polarizing figure, and a larger — and yet more simplified? — character than an actual person could comfortably inhabit. And so we come to these emails — a private correspondence, one that was never meant to be made public. (In fact, editor Matias Viegener acknowledges Acker would not have wanted them published.) In these emails we find a complex, human-sized Acker. One fairly far removed from the writer I encountered in 1991 as a freshman at Bard College, where I sat in the first row of a reading she gave for Bradford Morrow’s fiction class and was, frankly, terrified of her.

The Acker of these emails is funny and fiercely smart, as we would expect, but also shows a very human insecurity and a deep need to be loved and understood; to be recognized as the human behind “Kathy Acker.” For me, this was one of the most rewarding aspects of I’m Very Into You. It’s not that Acker was rendered more likeable — because fuck likeability — but that the reader is privileged with a view to the real person behind the work.

This correspondence between Acker and Wark takes place in the seventeen days following their meeting/sexual encounter in Sydney. I think they were together in Sydney for all of three days? So, what strikes me right off the bat — in Wark’s second email, coming close on the heels of their having just had what we can presume in the days before email would have been a fleeting and finite affair — in just his second email Wark quotes a passage from one of her own books to her. It’s a highly sexual passage, and comes with the understanding that Acker filtered much of her life through her texts. So then Wark is coming to this exchange already with an idea of who she is based on her work. If Acker wishes to be seen as more/other/apart from the persona of Kathy Acker, she is already struggling against it here.

The reader, of course, comes to this book with the same larger-than-life Acker shadow. Much of my experience of reading it boiled down to, “Damn. I would have liked to have had coffee with her,” along with a slight guilt at reading emails that hadn’t been meant for my eyes. (And that guilt grew as the emails progressed and Acker became increasingly more open and vulnerable.)

I’m eager for your thoughts.

yours,

Cari

From: Jeff Jackson

To: Cari Luna

Date: Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 3:54 PM

Subject: re: I’m Very Into You

Hey Cari,

First of all, I’m jealous you got to see Kathy Acker read. A friend of mine saw her read around the same time and talked about her imposing presence. She casts a larger-than-life shadow, for sure.

In fact, I can’t think of another modern writer who worked to create such a vivid persona for themselves. Acker included self-portraits on the covers of her Grove Press paperbacks and presented novels with titles like Kathy Goes to Haiti and My Mother: A Demonology. Her narrators sometimes share her name and she plays with conventions of autobiography. Even when she’s reacting to famous texts like Great Expectations or inhabiting historical figures like Passolini, I can feel her presence reworking these material to her own ends.

But for all that, Acker wasn’t interested in undigested self-exposure and her self-portraits are the opposite of the “selfie” impulse. Her persona in her novels (and public readings, maybe) isn’t real or authentic — it’s a mask. For me, there’s something extremely theatrical about her prose; it feels like she’s performing on the page. That’s one of the things I love about her work. Throughout her fiction, identity is never stable and neither is style. She successfully employs so many different moods, tones, textures, and points-of-view partly because the larger-than-life Acker persona provides an anchor to orient the reader. Those self-portraits on the books aren’t vanity, they’re a strategy.

In the emails with Wark, I didn’t see her struggling against the persona in her novels so much as making a very clear distinction between her work and her life. Of course, her novels actively invite this confusion. And it’s a testament to the power of her work that even Wark — who comes across as extremely savvy throughout their exchanges — is tempted to confuse the two.

It’s interesting just how hard Acker works to define herself as a person apart from her fictions. It’s similar to how she tells Wark that she enjoys games and role-playing in the bedroom, but she can’t stand them outside that context. Where her work is complex and slippery, I was struck by how plainspoken she was about her needs and expectations in this blossoming relationship.

Like you said, in addition to being smart and funny, she’s also starkly vulnerable. Her personal voice is so electric throughout these emails (Wark’s voice jumps out as well) that her intimacy in their exchanges is sometimes close to heartbreaking: her asking for blowjob tips, confessing her awkwardness, the “solitude and mess” of her life.

One of the things that hit me hardest about I’m Very Into You was how thoroughly it punctures the literary persona Kathy Acker spent decades creating. I’m struggling with how I feel about that. Is it destroying something Acker cultivated? Or is it useful to have this more fully rounded portrait of her as a person? I wonder if these were published letters instead of emails if it would still feel as much like eavesdropping?

Look forward to hearing more of your reactions,
Jeff

From: Cari Luna

To: Jeff Jackson

Date: Thu, Feb 5, 2015 at 11:20 PM

Subject: re: I’m Very Into You

Ah, but it wasn’t until five days into their 17-day conversation that she was frank about her needs and expectations!

It was fascinating to watch their relationship unfold as it did, in an obsessive flurry of communication. In the opening emails, both Acker and Wark are more guarded and perhaps more flattering to each other. There’s a courtship dance to it. It feels intimate to the reader, because we’re aware that we’re reading the correspondence between two people who had recently become lovers, but there’s also an element of performance. Their friendship is new, and each wants to be seen as their best, most clever self. How universal and human, this desire to be seen and loved, but holding our best bits forward to the light first.

There is the intensity of the early emails, as they try to understand what kind of relationship they’re building, what each wants from the other. There’s an excitement passing between them, an overwhelming desire for frequent contact, the euphoria and neediness of the beginning of romantic correspondence. And then five days and many emails in, they’ve broken through that early stage — or rather, Acker smashes right through it in such an honest and wonderfully vulnerable manner. Wark’s initial response seems distanced and unsatisfying, and it’s only in a subsequent email that I feel he adequately addresses her concerns and gives her the emotional connection she was asking for.

It was interesting, too, to see that it wasn’t until after Acker made that first honest challenge that they began to directly address their time together in Sydney, what had happened and what it meant to each of them. In fact, it isn’t until page 112 that the reader gets a specific, detailed sense of what actually passed between them, what Acker and Wark both knew and referred to indirectly, but which the reader is kept in the dark about. And not kept in the dark as a literary device, but kept in the dark because the two people who were the only intended readers of these emails already knew!

And here, again, the voyeurism. Why am I being permitted to cheer on Acker’s vulnerability and boo Wark for appearing to be withholding? Why am I irritated to not have access to every last detail of their time together in Sydney, and then, on page 112, gratified to know how it was between them?

But the decision to publish this collection was made by the executor of Acker’s estate, someone who cared for her deeply. And Acker is long past caring, and Wark has given the project his blessing. So what then? Do I just give myself permission to sink in and devour the emails as if I had hacked into her computer or stolen her phone? Slipped a stack of letters out of a shoebox she kept under her bed? Reading something that I felt I shouldn’t have been privy to proved an unexpected pleasure of this book.

You and I are coming at Kathy Acker from very different positions, which I think for the purposes of our conversation is rather useful. For the most part, I appreciate her work much more than I actually enjoy it. And I have to admit that I found her literary persona to be, at times, off-putting. What I’m Very Into You has done for me is to tear down that oversized KATHY ACKER and give me instead this real, accessible person. She’s smart and she’s funny and generous and flawed. It’s made me more willing to engage with her work. So for this reader, I’d call it useful.

I don’t know that I would approach letters differently than emails as a reader, but I think the fact that this was an email correspondence absolutely affected the way Acker and Wark interacted. Letters between San Francisco and Sydney would have taken ages — weeks, maybe? (Who even remembers anymore the speed of airmail. Remember that super-thin blue airmail paper? The blue sheets that would fold over themselves and become their own envelope?) With email — and I think it’s important to recognize that email was new at the time, and so not a transparent, automatic experience for either of them — they were able to communicate almost instantaneously, several times a day. I expect that physical letters would have been more carefully constructed, revealing less. And without the immediacy of email, who knows if the correspondence would have amounted to much of anything at all.

How has I’m Very Into You affected you as a fan of Acker, though? Are you sorry you read it? You ask if it destroys her carefully cultivated persona. Did it do that for you?

From: Jeff Jackson

To: Cari Luna

Date: Tue, Feb 10, 2015 at 7:53 AM

Subject: re: I’m Very Into You

I’m not sorry I read I’m Very Into You, but I am conflicted. I certainly understand why people thought this correspondence should be published. I agree there’s a compelling dramatic arc to the way the conversation unfolds, withholds, and delivers information about Acker and Wark’s evolving relationship. I enjoyed their observations about pop culture, literature, theory, and their professional lives. It was fascinating to get Acker’s take on Maurice Blanchot and professional wrestling, and find out she was a fan of Elfriede Jelinek’s fiction. And it was sobering to read about her trouble getting steady teaching gigs. It’s amazing how many great writers struggled to pay the bills.

You’re right that it’s key this happened in the early days of email. There was some bleed-over from the practice of letter writing and these emails are probably more expansive and expressive than they’d be nowadays when the shorthand of texting has infected our communications. I thought the email format was a captivating read for the first two-thirds of the book, but as Acker and Wark started to carry on several conversations simultaneously it got a bit confusing. I had to keep flipping ahead and flipping back to follow the various threads. That was the one part of the book that felt like it could’ve used some editorial intervention.

This is one of the first books of email correspondence, but I bet we’re going to see many more in the coming decades. There’s a long tradition of publishing people’s letters that adds a patina of respectability to the enterprise — rightly or wrongly. Maybe it’s a technological bias, but it feels more illicit to read somebody’s private emails than their letters. Right now, the issues around email and privacy are particularly fraught and politicized. Probably I’m extra sensitive about this having just watched CITIZENFOUR, that documentary about Edward Snowden which makes plain how governments and corporations want us to embrace the idea that privacy for individuals has vanished and normalize the fact our emails are routinely intercepted. That was lurking somewhere in the background of my reading.

No doubt Acker’s executor thought publishing these emails was ultimately in her best interest and apparently Wark agreed to participate as a gesture of radical transparency. But it’s hard to get beyond the admission that Acker herself never would’ve allowed this to be published. You said she’s long past caring, but I think an author’s intentions about how they want their work presented should be respected after they’re gone. Especially given how carefully she cultivated her persona. She wanted readers to have to deal with the oversized Kathy Acker and not the vulnerable person. Why not respect her wishes? If this were a lost novel or something she’d sent to her archive, that might be different. But private emails that she probably never imagined would be kept?

I appreciated how Acker’s executor was upfront in his preface that a novelist had declined to write an introduction because reading these emails “felt too much like rooting around in someone’s underwear drawer.” That was close to my reaction at points. Overall this didn’t alter my feelings for Acker’s work. I’ve read enough of her books that I doubt it will tarnish her persona on the page for me, but I do worry newcomers may be more interested in these personal details than her novels.

Then again, I’m Very Into You has made you more willing and excited to engage with Acker’s work. And that’s great. Maybe that’s the crux — whether these emails send people back to the work. It’s clear reading their messages that one of the strongest bonds that united Acker and Wark was a dedication to their work, the sense that his critical writings and her novels were themselves the main event.

From: Cari Luna

To: Jeff Jackson

Date: Tue, Feb 10, 2015 at 2:18 PM

Subject: re: I’m Very Into You

We certainly don’t approach email anymore with the sense that it’s truly private, do we? When I first started emailing — hell, up until very recently, I would say — I didn’t feel it to be a permanent thing. It seemed so much more ephemeral than a written letter. Now? I’m aware of everything I put in writing. I feel constantly observed. That can’t be a good thing.

I, too, found the multiple concurrent email threads between Acker and Wark to be confusing. The realities of digital communication didn’t mesh very well with the form of a collected work, particularly toward the end, but that didn’t pose a major problem for me. It’s a fascinating book, one I’m glad to have read, though I still harbor some discomfort with the questions of Acker’s wishes. But I’m uncomfortable with most (all?) posthumous publication, and I acknowledge I’m in the minority on that. In general, I would rather have access to less work from an author and be certain that what I do have access to was published with their consent. I was just talking to Lincoln Michel about this the other day (on the public record! On Twitter!) with regard to the question of consent around the new Harper Lee novel, and Lincoln rightly pointed out that this is bound to get trickier in the coming decades, thanks to the Cloud.

Idea for a horror film: NOTHING IS EVER DELETED.

The pleasure in the epistolary form is the pleasure of gossip. I’m Very Into You is no different in that regard. But as you said, it has sent me back to Acker’s work, and added to my understanding of and appreciation for her work. And had she not died at the beginning of the email age, before social media, maybe she would have had a different position on the publication of the emails. Imagine if Kathy Acker had had a Twitter account.

From: Jeff Jackson

To: Cari Luna

Date: Thu, Feb 12, 2015 at 9:12 AM

Subject: re: I’m Very Into You

Wow, I’m trying to wrap my mind around what Kathy Acker’s Twitter account might’ve looked like. A shame we’ll never find out. McKenzie Wark is active on Twitter, though given his focus on media that seems like a more natural fit.

Consent for posthumous publication is tricky and you’re right that it’s only going to get trickier as technology keeps changing the way we share and store information. NOTHING IS EVER DELETED is a truly horrifying thought — but for me it’s oddly coupled with the dread that NOTHING IS EVER READ. That there are so many interesting books, movies, and performances which tumble into the void without finding an audience. Which makes me wonder how many people today still read Kathy Acker?

I was just flipping through Grove Press’s Essential Acker compilation, thinking about the proper way to navigate all these issues of publication and privacy and love, when I stumbled on this fragment from her novel Don Quixote. Thought maybe it was only right that we give her the last word:

It’s not necessary to write or be right ’cause writing or being right’s making more illusion: it’s necessary to destroy and be wrong.”

***

Mira-Corpora-Cover

Jeff Jackson is the author of the novel Mira Corpora, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Five of his plays have been produced by the Obie-Award winning Collapsable Giraffe theater company in New York City, including Witch Mountain/Black Tarantula, partly inspired by the work of Kathy Acker.

Cari Luna

Cari Luna is the author of the novel The Revolution of Every Day, which is currently a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Jacobin, The Rumpus, PANK, Avery Anthology, failbetter, Novembre Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

About the Author

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