This edition of Periscope focuses on the writing of Kevin Killian, the poet, memoirist, playwright, and fixture of New Narrative writing who passed away last June. The writers here—Steven Zultanski, David Kuhnlein, Kay Gabriel, Eric Sneathen, and Cam Scott—examine a wide breadth of Killian’s genre-spanning work.
If you’re not familiar with it: the New Narrative literary movement in which Killian played a key role started in the Bay Area in the late 1970s and spanned up into the 90s (with subsequent waves up to the present, depending on how you think about it). With its roots in community writing workshops organized by the poet Bob Glück—some open to everyone and others specifically for gay men and for seniors—and in Bruce Boone and Steve Abbott’s mentoring within that scene (Killian and Bellamy iv), New Narrative was always oriented toward a lateral exchange, rather than toward mainstream success or academic recognition. Killian arrived to the New Narrative scene in the 80s (Killian and Bellamy iv), amidst the AIDS crisis, and wrote, alongside other New Narrative practitioners, work that was heavily oriented to uncanny iterations of queer sexuality, the interpersonal, feelings, gossip, and daily life. New Narrative pushed against the sort of straightforward earnestness that often characterizes explicitly political work and, simultaneously, it engaged with Language writing while also pushing against its tendency to abstraction.
I met Kevin only twice, each time very briefly, but my experience with him seems to have been typical. I met him at the Poetry of the 1970s conference in Orono in 2008 in passing, and then again on a trip to the Bay to read in 2013, when he flattered me with a sort of wry excitement and enthusiasm about seeing one another, despite that I was very young and new to things and that this should have, by any account, been a one-side fandom situation. Meeting him felt like an invitation to go harder with poetry—he made me feel I was part of an expansive writing community, a sort of self-fulfilling invitation that he extended to many new poets. At the memorial for Kevin that Lee Ann Brown and Tony Torn hosted last year at Torn Page in Manhattan, we sat in a circle and young poet after young poet recounted their relationships with Kevin—Kevin was, apparently, keeping up correspondences with and commenting on the work of many young poets, nearly an entire roomful, more than really seemed possible. At one point, someone asked, “how did he have time to do all this?” and we all sat there astonished for several beats, wondering how.
Killian’s social attentiveness is echoed in his work, and his poetics is one of care via attention—often shot through with a sort of negativity. (As Zultanski points out in his essay, much of Killian’s work is very dark.) In Killian’s work, social interactions are weighted—I think of his account at the end of Fascination of his brief, crushy love affair, more a missed connection really, with the musician Arthur Russell, and the way that this series of nonconsequential interactions winds up feeling heavy with absence. I also think of Killian’s Amazon reviews series, weirdly the first writing of Killian’s I think I ever read. When Killian was recovering from a heart attack in the early days of Amazon, he started reviewing products—eventually writing a total of 2,638 gorgeous, baroque reviews that sometimes consider books and other cultural production quite seriously and also often spin off into glorious tangents. You can read all of them here on Amazon or a selection here. Just writing this introduction, and seeking out a handy link for the reviews, I read Brent Cunningham’s summation in the introduction to the selection of reviews. Noting that the point of the reviews is not really irony—which some readers might infer from the erudite treatment of mundane objects—nor earnestness, either, Cunningham writes that “Kevin seems to posit a situation where value is made anew in each and every case, reviewed freshly by the mind from the midst of its particular situation, with nothing less than the entire extent of being as its area of consideration.” And this applies to both the occasions of Killian’s work and how the work itself operates: Kevin’s approach to writing as a community activity in the early New Narrative workshops and then on until his death and then also the way that Kevin’s work attends to culture—giallo films, bread moulds on Amazon, his own past. Everything’s weighted, even when it’s negative—the world warrants a sort of attention we can only give it through writing.
Here Steven Zultanski, David Kuhnlein, Kay Gabriel, Cam Scott, and Eric Sneathen consider Killian’s work and its reception.