KATHY ACKER (Karen Lehmann, 1947-97) appeared out of nowhere in the early 1970s, writing prose unlike anything else on the scene: violent and plaintive, childlike and sexual, narrative but non-sequential, bluntly original but gleefully magpie. After her death, Peter Wollen summed her up: “Bookworm parrot Legba biker orphan pirate poet.” She was intensely literary, but she pitched her tent in the art world because writers didn’t know what to make of her. She first distributed her work on the mail-art circuit, pamphlets that she typed, xeroxed, and sent out serially to a hundred people or so. When her first real book came out, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by The Black Tarantula (1975), you had to look hard to find her name in it. She collaged wholesale from the classics, changing names and pronouns here and there: Great Expectations, Don Quixote, Wuthering Heights. She threw in Arabic glossaries, porn, travel notes, and chunks of her diaries, names unaltered. If you tried to read her books from beginning to end you might get lost, confused, bored — but that was never her intention. She did find a place in the theory-ridden identity-politics wasteland of the ’80s and ’90s, but she still has yet to be read.
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