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Kevin Killian (1952–2019)

Novelist, poet, biographer, and playwright Kevin Killian died on June 15. A member of the New Narrative movement, Killian was the author of the novel Shy, the memoir Bedrooms Have Windows (recently reissued by Semiotext(e)), the poetry collections Argento Series (which dwelled on the horror director Dario Argento and the AIDS crisis) and Action Kylie (an ode of sorts to Kylie Minogue), the story collection Impossible Princess, a number of plays, and (with Lewis Ellingham) the biography Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance. Along with the writer Dodie Bellamy, to whom he was married for thirty-four years, Killian was remarkably genial and generous to other artists and writers. He wrote 2,639 Amazon reviews. Tributes to the author, such as the ones that follow, have been showing up online all week, all of them pointing to Killian’s incredible presence.

I’m one of the many hundred (thousand?) of young writers and poets who were emboldened by Kevin Killian’s famous generosity. It was like some sexy fairy godmother had taken you by the hand and declared, softly, over tea and crumpets: Now you and me will be the dearest of friends, and when you visit here, I can host you, and when I visit near you, you can host me. OK, maybe not exactly like that, but you get the idea. KK wrote you a detailed email about your entire manuscript, just because! KK thought you were glamorous and should be a pin-up teen idol while your innate body dysmorphia was only too happy to be constantly clearing its throat. Years ago, before I had ever stepped a toe in San Francisco, Kevin had seen a silly video on Facebook of me lip-syncing to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” in a dingy rental car that was put-put-putting around Los Angeles at the time. Kevin wrote to me with tones much warmer than I deserved (we hadn’t met yet): “The whole city awaits you!” He may have meant himself, Dodie, the cats, all the endless artworks including that divine painting of Chewbacca I adored. Am I making that last image up? It doesn’t really matter. Kevin Killian’s Buddha nature made the world a substantially better place for decades; he was the scene wherever he went; and somehow, everyone in his company whom otherwise might not (as in most certainly did not) belong, belonged. Meals at Walzwerk. Free museum tickets. His reception desk. I miss them all. I’ll miss most his very precise nod—as if to say, no matter how wrong or off you were, “Yes, that’s right!” —Adam Fitzgerald

Without Kevin Killian gracing the world I know, it has less spunk and spark. Kevin was a vital presence, and a multiple in himself: He astonished as a playwright, poet, novelist, critic. Kevin responded to everyone, kept up a vast correspondence, read an ever-expanding universe of books. He was so kind to fellow writers, artists, loyal to his friends. Kevin was a warm room without a door; you entered, and he made you feel like an intimate, instantly. Kevin and writer Dodie Bellamy shared a great love, a marriage of true minds. And Kevin was great fun to be with; he generated happiness, and wanted you to be happy. Kevin loved life, he really did, and I wish it had gone on and on. —Lynne Tillman

When I heard Kevin was sick and then I heard he was really okay and then I heard he was really sick I called him. He sounded so good, full of energy and he reassured us both that he was well. I didn’t necessarily believe him but I was happy to have engaged in a bout of optimism with him. Kevin’s voice was explosively bright and gay and what you’d call an Irish tenor. He swept the new kid and the newly acquired famous friend or artist into his latest play. Everyone would laugh that X had played say John Cage in Kevin’s new play. Or you met Y when you were in Kevin’s new play. It was hard to understand how he did so much, knew so many people, reviewed so much, wrote so many poems and novels, went on so many gigs with Dodie and meanwhile even had a job. I met Kevin when he was a graduate student at Stony Brook and he invited a group of us—Tim Dlugos, Jane DeLynn, and Michael Lally—to do a gay reading someplace in the ’70s. He was a little younger than me and he was fully formed. We all went back to NY on the LIRR going who was that, smiling and laughing at this amazing guy. He had collected us. As long as I knew him, a wider and wider web of artists and writers and friends felt fine on the earth because Kevin knew them, loved their work, and invited them to play. He would walk into the room with scripts and hand them out and we would begin. Or about an evening you would say Kevin and Dodie were there. —Eileen Myles

In the late ’70s, Kevin joined my Small Press Traffic workshops in San Francisco. He attended the gay writers workshop as often as the workshop that was more a New Narrative laboratory, where he met Dodie Bellamy. Through the years, he’d sometimes say with a wave of his hand, “Bob taught me everything I know about writing!” It created in me—as it does in this moment—the feeling of anxious hilarity. Did I ever teach him anything? Or, more to the point, what did he mean? In the workshop, I would make a few comments and suggestions about some brilliant poem or story. (For Kevin, pleasure and safety were opposites, and his work turned on the moment when our hero sees the broader perspective of someone who wants to damage him. Then he gains, not value, but lack of value. Sexual invasion and danger are accepted and the little that remains is ready to be entertained by death or romance.) Next week, Kevin would exclaim, “Bob I followed your advice exactly,” but the improved piece, equally brilliant, would be totally different from the one he read the week before, unrecognizable. Was this sincerity, ridicule? Where is Kevin coming from?—I often asked myself. In fact, I used to say Kevin was the only person I ever knew who possibly could have come from a different planet—an enigma who possessed superhuman knowledge, baffling productivity, and, later, superhuman kindness. Bill Berkson once told me he advised his students to watch Kevin—Bill meant, to see what greatness looks like. —Robert Glück

What will we do without Kevin? That is a question so many of us are asking these days, in the dim light of time passing since he has left us. I’ve always noticed that when poets pass on, so many people rise up out of nowhere to speak their grief and honor their beloveds. I don’t want to pretend here in this sacred space meant to honor him that Kevin and I were the best of friends, because that feels like a lie and I hate lies. But yet again, we may as well have been because Kevin was the type of person who made everyone feel like he was their best friend. He had that certain Frank O’Hara energy about him. And so, maybe the question becomes: What will we do without our best friend? That is what every poet right now is asking themselves.

Intimacy is a word that could be easily applied to both Kevin’s person and to his work. This past weekend I submerged myself in his language as a way to both care for him in the space of his passing and also to feel like he wasn’t yet gone. Intimacy is a word that is in every single space he has left us. And I do mean every single space. In the spaces between word and letter, Kevin has left a tiny squeeze or kiss blown our way, lifting us filled with love, buoyant beyond capacity that someone who was such a genius could also love all of us so much. His words draw us in more than they could ever be capable of casting us out. His syntax pulls you in to hold you deep in its breathing, with its lush particulars and pilfering of shadows. Like his beloved Kylie Minogue sings, Kevin created a body of work that is “more than [we] dare to think about”––a “dark secret” that filled and felt “the need,” a deep need, in all of us.

Kevin and I shared so many special intimate moments that I will cherish forever. I always felt no matter what he was saying to me that he was telling me a big secret. He had that conspiratorial way about him that all the most charming people do. I remember once we were planning to read together in San Francisco and he wrote to me and wanted to know how I was getting from the airport to where I was staying. He was so sweet in this particular way that always felt like you were being cut open. He cared about you with a true practical imagination. When I said I would probably just take the train or even a cab, he insisted on picking me up and he conscientiously waited for me even when my plane was late and helped me carry all of my bags (I certainly can be a ridiculous overpacker) to his car. Then he took me back to his apartment to hang out with him and Dodie and then I think we went out to eat at this really cool vegan place before the reading. Of course, we went there because Kevin had asked me beforehand what I liked to eat and when I said vegetables, he made sure I got the best vegetable experience the city had to offer. Kevin was kind to you for no good reason other than he was a truly gracious and loving person. He was an ideal for all of us to live by.

Another special memory I have of him was when he and Dodie were in LA and they met my friend Robbie Dewhurst and I for dinner at a famous Jewish delicatessen (I forget the name of it). I think it had been a weird day with lots of awkward happenings, but seeing Dodie and Kevin changed everything and turned the day around into a night of possibility and happiness. We all started taking pictures of each other and when I complained as I often do that I was very unphotogenic, Kevin told us about the famous Hollywood trick of taking photos by jutting your chin out so that your neck looks supple and wild. We did lots of practicing together and took so many photos while laughing and snorting out sauerkraut and beet juice. I felt almost like a movie star in Kevin’s presence. Well, here I was in LA after all, in the presence of two gods (Kevin and Dodie). Whatever you did with Kevin always felt like it was pure magic and meant to be.

Here is a photo I took of Kevin that night, where he is showing us the subtle yet beautiful effects of the Hollywood pose:

And here is one of us that he took, where we are practicing his teachings:

Maybe I have said enough here, as all I feel now is grief and regret that is beginning to move beyond vocabulary. I wish I could have said more to him in our real lives and told him how much I loved him. I definitely probably never expressed to him how much he meant to me, partly because I am very bad at expressing my real feelings and also because I never could have imagined I wouldn’t have another chance to. Kevin, I feel your sweet sweet heart folded into mine in this moment. I will read your work religiously now and will, of course, dream of you. I hope you know: We will miss you forever. —Dorothea Lasky

Since he passed, I keep re-reading Kevin’s Amazon reviews. In one from 2005, “If you don't mind yellow,” he takes stock of a pair of Michael Kors khaki shorts he bought while feeling flush one afternoon in April. They were too big and had “a flock of yellow butterflies” sewn to the crotch and ass. At first, they made him look like “an idiot,” but soon enough the shorts grew on him, “and now I wear them everywhere.” I never saw Kevin in those Kors, but I can easily imagine him shuffling along in butterfly stitchery. What would he have kept in his pockets, which were so big “you could put literally the whole contents of your knapsack”? A few books, possibly the autobiography of some lesser-known British theater maven, printouts of poems—by students, friends, himself. Gum? A pen? A few crumbs of kitty litter. Lint, certainly. A photograph of a poet-friend with a Raymond Pettibon drawing strapped over his cock and balls. His iPhone (this was pre-iPhone, of course), with missed calls, answered and unanswered text messages, a hundred emails worthy of a long response, pictures of artists and poets. So much belonged in those bottomless pockets, including the city of San Francisco itself, which was, for me, somehow always his city; it lived in him more than he ever lived in it. Now, his address is everywhere. —Andrew Durbin

I found it difficult to be so far away from San Francisco when I learned of Kevin’s passing. It’s true that the internet brings those participating in it closer and it allows our times to overlap (my morning was your late night perhaps when you posted this heartbreaking news) or if not quite achieving overlap it allows our times to follow and precede each other messily throughout “the day” (the day, this year I’m away, being stretched beyond recognition). And there, in it, I found Arnold apologizing as if he’d done something wrong. I don’t know where he was when he received the news but I suspect it was not in Berlin, where I’d woken to David’s post; maybe Arnold was in Chicago. I don’t know what time it was in Arnold’s body or how his body held the news. At that moment of coming to know, of having woken to this new knowing—but, now I’m thinking it was the reverse: I’d lain down to sleep for the night when I’d learned we’d lost Kevin, so it was afternoon in California; or, no, it was morning and I was waiting for Danielle to wake. I’d been lying quietly beside her—I’d seen the photograph of Kevin; I let my thumb refuse the caption. Not yet. Let this be some other kind of announcement. What are the conditions when someone posts a beautiful photo of us, at our most elegant, our most clever—usually we have died. In the moment of my learning the news I found myself too far away, then I found myself in relation to a triumvirate of men: one having left, one announcing the leaving, and one profusely apologizing. Kevin, David, Arnold. Make the angles tight, contain the secrets, leave the humor in the bodies. I didn’t add my voice. I was watching something. I was thinking something. I was thinking how a light had gone out. Kevin Killian was gone, and a light had gone out. We sometimes think this about certain people, people who were luminous, who charged a room, who brought levity, who erected bridges everywhere they went. We acknowledge the world going just a bit dimmer without them. So, it was true, the world went a bit dimmer just as I was thinking “there’s less light now,” but no sooner had a light gone out than another came on. It’s not an encore exactly, not like a backup generator. It’s abundance. Having so much light in you that the world stays bright even after you’ve left, stays full of your brightness. I’d never thought of this before, but now I will look for it where I can. Thank you, Kevin. —Renee Gladman