Whitehot Magazine

Jack Skelley, Fear of Kathy Acker, (Semiotext(e) published Spring 2023)


Adult Bedtime Reading: Poet Jack Skelley is not the only one of us who was afraid of Kathy Acker. Even from the safe distance established in his witty eponymous tribute to the world the legendary feminist poetess might have inhabited, she leaves something of a menacing shadow. With her blackened piratical front tooth and ragged designer punk leather cladding, the BDSM mistress of 1980s literary cut ups stalks the margins of Skelley’s masterfully erotic deflowering like a What Would Jesus Do? kind of gif. Acker’s stylish samplings and semi-fictional biographical longings are widely regarded as one of the most influential literary inventions of Skelley’s (and my own) world changing 1980s epoch. But as Skelley continually demonstrates, hers is by no means the only innovation. He’s a gifted poet and he lives through his love of words. While his “Fear of Kathy Acker” manuscript began in 1984, the closer he gets to the essence of his experiences, the further he leaves Acker’s own deliberately desensitised literary intentions behind. 

Though she barely appears in “Fear of…”, Skelley’s few references to her are poetically placed. Late in the story, the line “And Kathy Acker walks through London rain in scruffy black cowboy boots…” quiets his chattering headspace with melancholic chilliness. In her introduction, American poet Amy Gerschler writes; “Acker is important here as inciter, permission-giver and methodological precipitator…” I’m not sure I completely agree. With or without the influence of such a legendary instigator, I’m pretty certain Jack Skelley would have written this standout auto-fictional work. Because, in sampling some of the poetry from his Interstellar Theme Park; New and Selected Writing (BlazeVox Books, 2022), it is not hard to recognise that he is after all an artist who has always had “permission”. In fact, his entire idiom is about ‘permission’, whether assumed, seized, stolen or violated. So, to me Gerschler’s observation seems more about the late 1980s hyper capitalist take down of the US underground art scene’s longstanding creative love affair with poetry and the poets who wrote it. “Fear of Kathy Acker’s” Index reads like a fantasy 1980s club opening guest list, filling Skelley’s room full of friendly influences with identities like Sonic Youth’s “Lee Ranaldo, Eno as in Brian Eno, Inventor of music to hear/not hear… William Blake.  All deities reside in the human breast.” Dave Childs, Lawndale drummer, producer of the Liquid Kitty Punk Rock BBQ and poet Bob Flanagan see Fun to Be Dead: The Poetry of Bob Flanagan, ed. Sabrina Tarasoff. Published by Kristina Kite Gallery, Pep Talk. See too The Pain Journal, Semiotext(e)…” 

As genre-bending was one of the foremost artistic aims of our 1980s epoch, it’s no surprise that lately that we’ve started recovering the rich originality of a far wider range of voices. Some of whom, like Jack Skelley, are proving to be far more potent than the current established cool school curriculum of go-to heroes or heroines. I find some of his beautiful words unbearably drenched with the longing for ideological companionship.

“Everybody, you’re all there, right? Running from everything that holds us back. Right? Blasting the doubts that block impulse, that breed enmity and jealousy. Right? Destroying the big doubts that clank down the walls of skin and matter and thinking funneled into ruts of impotence. You’re still there, right?...” 

Set in his own head, Skelley advises “Fear of Kathy Acker” readers that we may or may not feature in caricatures of the 1980 art world, kitsch and pop culture, Reagan’s rightwards slithering America, Marie Osmond, dirt bands, Bambi, bars and the streets of nineteen eighties downtown LA. His stylish narrative unspooling takes on dream-like characteristics depending upon the substances being consumed. Raising the question of whether an inventory of literary tropes found under the spell of the pharmacopeia could be usefully commissioned? Regardless, as the pace of Skelley’s sexual fantasies quickens, his prose amplify his passion for language and his heightened literary adventurism. For this reason, among many others, “Fear of…” is an immensely hard book not to love. Another excuse to lie down with Skelley’s excitable reveries is his genuine love of women, or so it would seem. In multiple orgiastic scenarios set everywhere from the front seat of his car, to the license renewal counter at the LA Department of Motor Vehicles, his sketches of amatory projections lavish praise and attention upon the multitude of his female cyphers. Who else remembers the shape of a woman’s hair? 

Jack Skelley’s writing is also very very funny. At which point, I’m obliged to proffer a Spoiler Alert. After a beautifully gruesome account of an amateur amphibian dissection, all the entrails are removed but still the frog is breathing. Jack Skelley is an original punk, with a stomach shamelessly capable of taking on the strongest images of glorrific disgust. Because, then the frog “… flaps across the street and is run over by a car! And now it’s so flat that you can barely see it anymore…” Just at the moment we readers can shudder no more, Jack Skelley pops up again like a prowling monster child. “Coming to get you...” 

Deft, deadpan, dreadful, deliberate, delirious. Perfect adult bedtime reading. WM


1. Jack Skelley is also a songwriter and guitarist for the psychedelic surf band Lawndale, whose newest album Twango is perfect background music for reading “Fear of Kathy Acker.” 


Jane Rankin-Reid

Tasmanian based writer, curator and art critic Jane Rankin-Reid writes fiction and critical essays. An amanuenses to the artist Rammellzee, she is 1980s New York legacy graffiti artist Koor 1’s biographer. The former Keeper of The John Deakin Archive (UK), she has worked as a foreign correspondent, editor and columnist in newspapers, art magazines and journals in the US, India, Nepal, Japan, Europe, UK and Australia. A US Editor for ArtScribe UK, Art+Text Australia and Senior Writer at Tehelka, New Delhi, her essays and feature articles have been published in Le Monde, The Guardian, the Australian Financial Review, the Mercury Tasmania and First Post India, among others. 


It Would Take a Diagram is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Color of Night, Jane Rankin-Reid’s unpublished memoir of the 1980s downtown New York art scene. Photo by Caroline Darcourt, Paris, 2021

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