Action Kevin

Any poetic writing about and through pop culture wants to flush the residues of a Romantic ideology of original virtuosic composition without also thereby disposing of the subject. Kathy Acker describes the insouciant fun of unoriginal writing: “It’s like a kid, a toy shop opens up, and that toy shop [is] called culture” (93). Kevin Killian wrote on a principle homologous to Acker’s self-described plagiarism, composing poems under the sign of first Dario Argento, then Kylie Minogue.[1] A poetry in dialogue with pop culture proceeds via the proper name. It begins with collage: you can’t even say Kylie Minogue without introducing a synopsis of her cultural CV, and Kevin said “Kylie Minogue” a lot. He said it in his book Action Kylie, and then he kept saying it, in probably dozens of poems afterwards. A poetry of the proper name starts in the middle of someone else’s sentence; the first speaker of that sentence is the culture industry, the second is Kevin Killian, and the third is you, dear. So Killian’s Action Kylie operates on a similar principle to Acker’s Don Quixote, first quoting and then perverting a proper name. Collage links hands with detournement—of course it does.

Under other circumstances, and for another writer, this might be the moment to introduce the distinction between high and low culture, a distinction primarily of the market, and to argue that the relevant difference between Acker and Killian would be Killian’s inhabitation of pop culture instead of the literary canon that Acker draws on for Don Quixote or Great Expectations. You could compare the snobbish attitude that denigrates pop-cultural writing for failing to be sufficiently serious; you could then argue Killian’s project is primarily transvaluative, defying a rarefied sneering at pop to subsume pop culture into poetry, a rejection of the rejection. You’d be helped in this argument by observing that Killian’s idols tended towards the relegated category of the flop, comeback, or the commercially only-sorta-successful—B movies (Argento), budget Madonnas (Kylie). Pop culture would then be to Killian what the peintures idiotes were to Rimbaud: defiance of good taste, camp delight in the bad object, that kind of thing.

But I won’t make any of those basically dissatisfying claims. One the one hand, such a mode of argument mistakes the seriousness that Killian—and Acker—assumed towards culture in general. Killian’s writing metabolized culture omnivorously, without ever suggesting that the pleasure of this repurposing derived from violating cultural hierarchies of seriousness or appropriately elevated material. On the other, this mode of argument derives from something like a twee poptimism that trades on the feminized pleasure of the commodity, the feeling of isn’t it nice. But pop culture was never Killian’s object per se, and while Kevin had ample fun in his work, he began writing seriously during the social catastrophe of the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the US—in San Francisco, one of its epicenters. Pop appears as a third term between his writing and the events it addresses—AIDS, meth, gentrification, the Iraq war, sex, suburbs, language. “Heart is beating faster and / war is a disaster,” Killian writes, derailing Kylie’s “Fever,” substituting “war” for “work”; “get my mouth round that Xanax / it helps me with my panics.” The feverish drum of Kylie’s prechorus decomposes into a formula—compulsive, repetitive, and somehow no less fun.

“Getting your mouth around it” is sort of the point: you say something somebody already did, and in quotation it does, oh, something else. Isn’t that the point of his anagrams? “Kylie Minogue, I like em young,” he writes in Action Kylie. “Revenge is our way, Sigourney Weaver”; “Marcel Proust, corrupt males”; “No real charm beneath Helena Bonham Carter”; and “Michael Keaton the coke animal.” Killian’s anagrams provide something like an interpretive key for his Kylie work; he cites a proper name, he decomposes it into its letters, he produces a surprisingly apt sentence, what remains? Both fannish adoration and language’s uncanny admission of knowing more than it knows. It feels like a conspiracist kind of approach to culture, not so far off from the people who think that Avril Lavigne died years ago and a doppelgänger named Melissa does her photoshoots. But conspiracism is precisely a kind of fannishness, one that cannily expects the culture industry to slip up and express its bad conscience; only the real fans are prepared, paranoiacally, to take stock of that evidence.

Which Killian does, in his “Kylie Evidence”—part fan letter, part document of Minogue’s career, part ecstatic overreading that reasons its interpretation according to the self-justifying truth of paranoia. “Her name is an alphabet from which all meaning has been scooped out, denoting a powerful sovereignty,” he writes. “More often than not, the icon is in peril, at the mercy of words. Huge, dysfunctional words knock her over on her side.” Isn’t it relatable?—especially for Killian. He “thinks he likes Kylie because she reminds him of himself”:

I don’t have Dennis [Cooper]’s genius, not to mention Bresson’s, but like Kylie I can stretch out a second or third rate talent and make it mean something by a) insisting on its smallness; b) attempting to push the envelope, usually by collaboration wih others and c) feeling no guilt when, in a corner, at the end of my tether, or upset by something in my personal life, I retreat to my roots and produce version XYZ of the thing I know you’ll like from me.

Kylie Minogue makes possible a decidedly, purposively amateurish writing. She does so in two ways: first as a sui generis diva, the sometime Australian soap star now on her fourth or fifth incarnation, the comeback pop princess; second as an example of a type, one particular iconic addressee out of the reified gunk of the culture industry. “Iconic objects take on eerie lives of their own and no one knows their business, not even the moguls at Skywalker Ranch who control everything else,” Killian continues. In Kylie, Killian recognizes the estrangement that characterizes the Marxian fetish-character of the commodity, the social process that compels the world of dead labor to dance on its head. Pop culture shapes a crummy sort of commons, but what commodity doesn’t? Anyone at minimum can talk about what’s forcibly made available to all.

There’s something even in the form of Killian’s Kylie poems that suggests a determinate negation of poetry professionalism: he wrote a whole book of poems about Kylie Minogue, and then he kept writing them, as if to insist that the consummation of his poetic at market wasn’t exhaustive of or sufficient to his obsession’s seriality. You couldn’t string the Kylie work together into a single life-poem, but he showed no signs of stopping; he loved her that much. If Killian’s revel in Kylie’s haunted pop bears after all the trace of Rimbaud’s love for subpar handiwork, we can better understand this less on the order of a Sontagian camp, more by way of Jack Spicer’s intense negativity towards poetry professionalism—think especially of Spicer’s Book of Magazine Verse.

Consider then an instructive example in Killian’s busted version of a sestina, from Tony Greene Era (2017). Killian’s sestina, a form cartoonishly synonymous with poetic “craft,” takes place under Kylie’s alluring sign:

Get Outta My Way (A Sestina)

As a party game, we used to ask, like Kylie Minogue: “What’s the worst thing that could happen to you?”

I don’t play that game no mo. I’m lucky I guess, but is there such a thing as occurrence without agency? Inside the belly of the sestina,

I survived just like Elaine Stritch,
the life inside the sestina of Scotch,
Bringing those key words back again and Stritch,
at the close of the sestina, I’ll have a Scotch

She sang about the things she survived, did Elaine Stritch,
The ladies who lunch, J. Edgar and Herbert Ho-oo-oover, and Scotch
Plugged in my bowels a silicon of pewter, rub it, it will stritch,
What’s the worst thing that could happen to Scotch?
To be trapped inside this sestina with the Memphis blues a Stritch,

If so I could be the poster boy for Scotch

Now I’ve showed you what I’m made of, Stritch.

Now I’ve showed you what I’m made of, Scotch, Stritch.

Instead of the sestina’s canonical six words, which normally change places across seven stanzas in highly conscripted form, Killian supplies only two, viscerally gratifying to say, sonic echoes of each other. One of them’s a proper name—that wouldn’t fly in Scrabble, and here it feels like a second, permissive kind of cheating. Versus the constipated process of the canonical sestina, Killian’s moves easily, willfully. (Shitting seems like the right metaphor here, following the “rub it, it will stritch” of Killian’s bowels.) Like a cat falling gymnastically off a couch, Killian really writes two poems in one: on the one hand the DIY sestina that’s also a collage of Elaine Stritch singing Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,” on the other a second collage of Kylie’s “Get Outta My Way”—first lyric “what’s the worst thing that could happen to you,” last lyric “now I’ve showed you what I’m made of,” neatly identical with the position of those quotes in Killian’s respective first and final lines. “Is there such a thing as occurrence without agency?” he asks, a question that displaces Kylie’s “What’s the worst thing…?” Killian’s new question sharpens a focus on the poetics of collage themselves. Even the close of the poem—which sutures both collages together in first one, then a second terminal line—transforms both original materials, suggesting “Scotch” and “Stritch” as the stuff that Killian’s made of, predicates in apposition to an indirect question.

To risk repetition, then: is there such a thing as occurrence without agency? Decomposing its object in an exquisite detournement, collage answers with an undeniable no. The point in a pop-cultural writing, Killian-style, would then be something like locating the subject, ludically, inside the commodity’s false commons.



[1] The stageism is Killian’s own, tracking the publication chronology of Argento Series (2001) and Action Kylie (2008). He writes in “Kylie Evidence”: “I suffered some credibility loss while under the spell of Dario Argento, but nothing like the waves of shame and misery that engulf me when people say, ‘Kylie who? That girl who did ‘The Lo-comotion’?” (2008, 52).

Kay Gabriel

Kay Gabriel is a poet and essayist. She's the author of Elegy Department Spring / Candy Sonnets 1, an Emerge-Surface-Be Fellow at the Poetry Project, and a PhD Candidate at Princeton University.