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Interview: Writer & Literary Zine Editor Kevin Killian Talks Xerox Coup d’État

The Little Magazine, an exhibition of seminal small-press journals curated by Sophie Seita from the Poets House library collection, is on view at Poets House through November 21. Co-edited by Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy, Mirage #4/Period[ical] is among the magazines included in the show.

Prior to Mirage #4/Period[ical], Killian edited the San Francisco little magazine Mirage, which ran for four issues between 1985 and 1989; the last one, a special women’s number, was guest-edited by Dodie Bellamy. Bellamy and Killian continued as co-editors, renaming the magazine Mirage #4/Period[ical], and publishing 157 issues between 1992 and 2009, followed by a special issue in collaboration with a French magazine edited by the Italian artist Alex Cecchetti.

SOPHIE SEITA: Can you tell me a bit about Mirage, how it began, why you started it, what you consider(ed) to be its intervention in or contribution to a then-contemporary discourse on feminism, queer politics, and theory?

KEVIN KILLIAN: Oh yes, it is a well-worn story by now. In the early ‘80s there was a spate of New Narrative [1] and gay writing and art magazines, among them Soup and Little Caesar and No Apologies, and I worked on the latter of which quite closely with its editor, the poet Bryan Monte, who now lives in Amsterdam, where he runs the Amsterdam Quarterly. When Bryan began an MFA program at Brown, he left San Francisco and took No Apologies with him. The materials I had left over, gathered for No Apologies, I used to start up a new magazine, Mirage, which was the name of our neighborhood bar in the Mission District of San Francisco.

SOPHIE SEITA: How would you describe the “materiality” of Mirage, the processes of making and printing the magazine?

KEVIN KILLIAN: Mirage, like No Apologies, started off as a perfect-bound magazine and would cost about $1,000 an issue. That was a hefty sum for one man to raise in 1985 or 1986. I carried on like that for awhile until the fourth issue, the so-called “Women’s Issue,” which grew so much my guest editor and I could not afford to print it, so we delayed publication for four years and finally caved in. My guest editor was having an intense relationship with a young man who owned his own Xerox machine, and he offered to let her print it on that, so we did, “comb binding” each issue with his binding machine that punched nineteen rectangular holes in the paper and the covers. We didn’t call it “comb binding” back then, I can’t remember what the word was for it back then. But anyhow this system held up pretty well. The issue finally appeared, and Dodie Bellamy, my guest editor, wrote an introduction called “Four Years in the Making.”

For subsequent issues Dodie had the idea for her own feminist magazine, which she called “Period[ical],” and the next issue was called Mirage #4/Period[ical] #1, and it became even more low-rent, a Xeroxed 20-page monthly, stapled in the top left hand corner. From then on she was my co-editor.  Somewhere in there we got married.

SOPHIE SEITA: If you had to characterize the magazine, or place it historically, what would you say, or how would you delimit its shape and scope and contents?

KEVIN KILLIAN: Is “delimit” the act of removing limits from things, like lifting gates simultaneously in a corral, or opening doors in a boxcar? I don’t recognize the word. To characterize it, I would say that it was a zine now, instead of a journal, and like all zines deliberately contingent and inarticulate, but interested in the very latest developments in art and poetry, and sexual transgression, I guess.  We published everything we wanted to. We would go to readings and ask people to let us print their poems in the very next issue (i.e., within a month). The novelty of this instant approach was something altogether new and appealing to writers and artists. It was rather punk, you might say.

SOPHIE SEITA: Which magazines were you reading at the time of publishing Mirage? Did any magazines or other publications inspire you and Dodie to start or continue the magazine? Would you see, for instance, Soup, HOW(ever), Chain, and Big Allis, somehow related to, or in conversation with, Mirage or its later incarnation as Mirage #4/Period[ical]? I’m also particularly interested in your Women’s Issue…. But perhaps you were also influenced by much earlier magazines?

KEVIN KILLIAN: The (affected?) punctuation of women’s journals like HOW(ever), which incidentally Dodie had a hand in designing,[2] and the Canadian—oops, now I’m forgetting the name, Sophie,[3] but it was even more goofy than HOW(ever)—inspired her to call her part of the thing “Period[ical].” The “period” was the idea of the KSW [Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver, BC] poet Deanna Ferguson, always an iconoclast, who asked her, “Dodie, you’re doing a zine that appears once a month, with a women’s slant? How about Period ha ha ha!” So “Period” it was, and the punctuation imps made it “Period[ical].” Yes, we were reading and participating in the other magazines of the period, though the ones you mention range widely and include some publications with much greater institutional support than ours. We patterned ourselves on the Spicer-run magazine Open Space, which was pre-planned to last only one calendar year (indeed the first issue of Mirage was called #0, to match up with Open Space #0, the “Prospectus Issue,” and our #0 was also our “Prospectus Issue,” and we appropriated the cover of Open Space #0 for our Mirage #0, a Bill Brodecky line drawing of George Stanley’s face, with the Duchampian legend, “This is not the cover of Open Space, this is a mask you can wear on your head” on it). Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips’ survey of earlier avant-garde poetry periodicals, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980: A Sourcebook of Information, credits Spicer and Fran Herndon, who edited J magazine, with beginning what they call the “mimeo revolution.” While Mirage started no revolutions, we were just one of many small publishing houses who did their best work after hours, the Xerox machine a-blazing, and you might call it a Xerox coup d’état. We did feel we were seizing power from the corporation, therefore from the state.

SOPHIE SEITA: Would you say that Mirage was a coterie or a deliberately non-coterie magazine, or put more positively: a community magazine? If so, was this community or “groupness” that the magazine might have established—or contributed to or witnessed—conceived of more aesthetically or socially or both? How far were your and Dodie’s friendships reflected in the editorial choices you made? Would you agree that—broadly speaking—many feminist and queer magazines from the ’80s and ’90s onward attempted a greater degree of inclusivity, both in terms of the poets’ backgrounds but also in terms of aesthetics? Was there also a sense of paranoia or anxiety about this need for inclusivity?

KEVIN KILLIAN: We were having a big debate about coterie at the time, for this was the period in which my life of Jack Spicer was rejected by Cal [University of California Press] on the grounds that (according to one anonymous reader’s report) it would cater to, and only be bought by, a “coterie of California homosexuals,” which seemed so perverse an objection. If Spicer’s audience could be dismissed as a “coterie,” then long live coterie; by the mid ’90s, Lytle Shaw was starting his dissertation on Frank O’Hara as a “coterie poet,” and once he started affirming it, we felt better about the word, much better. That said, we were indeed a community magazine, given out for free at readings or in our travels, and we wanted it to be a place where new poets could mingle with established ones, to break down those lines of age that continue to strangle poetry today.

For example, someone very close to me was excluded from a female poets’ group last summer, formed ad hoc to combat sexual violations within the poetry community, and the reason given was that she was then over 50. As one gets older, one realizes that the prison house governing our lives separates us from kindergarten on, into separate cells of age, of “generation,” to divide us perhaps even more thoroughly than by class.

In response to “Would you agree that—broadly speaking—many feminist and queer magazines from the ‘80s and ‘90s onwards attempted a greater degree of inclusivity, both in terms of the poets’ backgrounds but also in terms of aesthetics?”:

Especially in California and especially in San Francisco, a greater inclusivity was managed by a general ignoring of aesthetics, and by and large of quality. Frankly, we didn’t care whether a piece of work succeeded at all, much less having to be perfect, for San Francisco is the land of mistakes and its art practice has always been about the contingent, the misbegotten, the experimental, the botched, the ephemeral, and the freakish. We had a zine in which Barbara Guest could be found next to the poems of the school janitor. There was no shame in writing like either. Instead, a vitality and a complex multivalence was born.

SOPHIE SEITA: Did you ever participate in a forum (or forum-like section) in a magazine (I’m thinking of HOW2, Raddle Moon, Chain, Poetics Journal, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, M/E/A/N/I/N/G—all of which featured such roundtables, forums, and symposia frequently)? I’d be curious to hear if you feel that such forums forged a sense of solidarity among all or some participants, or whether such solidarity emerged rather from non-page-based practices and conversations. I’m also interested in establishing a lineage with earlier modernist magazines, which featured similar sections, in which editors posed questions about a magazine’s “project” or “future.”

KEVIN KILLIAN: In Mirage, we did have some special issues which focused on one topic. We had one stunt, you might say, in which we mailed tons of people we wanted to write for us a Xerox of the then-rare Hotel Wentley Poems and asked them to think about it and write something about Wieners. We took a whole party of local writers to a revival of De Sica’s Terminal Station and asked them to talk about neo-realism and the Hollywood system. Not sure if this is what you have in mind. I’ll have to consult my CV to see which of the five journals above I participated in, and what I did for them. Dodie was usually asked to do everything.

SOPHIE SEITA: What were the contemporary responses to Mirage? Were there any reviews?

KEVIN KILLIAN: I just remember Charles Bernstein saying that Mirage was the absolute low end of high art.

SOPHIE SEITA: What were your (and other poets’) connections with other collectives (literary/artistic and activist/political)? Did your contributors think of themselves or others as “avant-garde” in a self-consciously historical or academic fashion (thinking through the tradition of the historical avant-gardes), and would they have described their own or other people’s practice as “avant-garde”?

KEVIN KILLIAN: We were in the New Narrative and, as such, we were thought of as fellow travelers to all other collectives. Not for us the war on Language Poetry, or later Flarf, or whatever upon which other poets sharpened their petards. Yes, we were in the avant-garde, but none of us were PhDs and I’m not sure about what “academic” means in terms of our thoughts about ourselves. We were outside of and opposed to the academy in general.

SOPHIE SEITA: Did you have launch parties for Mirage issues? What readings did you go to? And how did (or did not!) these readings reflect a print-community made visible through live readings or parties or political meetings?

KEVIN KILLIAN: Looking through my datebooks for the period, I see that I would attend three or four readings a week, and as many art openings; it was also an intensely political period and there were other sorts of organizational meetings and demos to attend. Sometimes, looking back, I don’t know how I got everything done, but one way was to skimp on my own writing. It took Dodie and me both many years to finish our second and third novels. I mean decades. Launch parties, none. Every reading was a launch for the latest issue of our zine, which we would bundle up and take with us everywhere. We did attend the launch parties of others—a magazine like Poetics Journal, which might appear once a year. You know about the special issue of Aerial on Lyn Hejinian? It’s been in the works for over 15 years. But we ran every month, due to the luxury of being crumby.

SOPHIE SEITA: How important was it to poets, artists, and curators to involve the public? Did you see magazines (your own and those of others) as providing a public forum of sorts? Did magazines create their own public (inside and outside the publication)?

KEVIN KILLIAN: I suppose we saw it as creating an audience from the public, or better yet, an assemblage, a funk-junk creation like the works of Bruce Conner or Jay DeFeo in San Francisco. We were one of the few zines, for example, to perform a lot of archival work. It wasn’t enough just to have men and women appearing together, or a wide racial panoply, or different ages, but we wanted to the living and the dead to appear in our pages, side by side, as though poetry was occurring in a séance.

What invigorating questions! Thank you, Sophie, for thinking of us for this.

[1] New Narrative emerged as a literary community in the Bay Area in the 1970s and was first named in the little magazine Soup by editor Steve Abbott in 1981, but it continues to have creative and critical purchase as a term and aesthetic practice. As a creative and community practice, New Narrative was committed to queer politics (especially so as it emerged during the AIDS epidemic); often explored critical theory and sex through subjective story-based prose; emphasized the body; and sometimes blended fiction, autobiography, and appropriated material from pornography, gossip, popular culture, and canonical literature.

[2] Dodie designed the HOW(ever) logo.

[3] SS: Do you mean (f.)Lip? KK: Sophie, you are exactly right, I couldn’t remember the name. I have heard these forms of punctuation referred to as “post-structuralist” and that seems right.

In addition to his past work as a little-magazine editor, Kevin Killian is one of the original New Narrative writers. He has written the novels Shy (1989), Arctic Summer (1997), and Spreadeagle (2012); a book of memoirs; and several books of stories. He has also written three books of poetry: Argento Series (2001), Action Kylie (2008), and Tweaky Village (2014). With Peter Gizzi, he has edited My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (2008) and co-authored with Lew Ellingham the biography Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (1998). For the San Francisco Poets Theater, Killian has written forty-five plays, and the anthology he compiled with David Brazil—The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945–1985—has become the standard book on the subject. With Dodie Bellamy, he co-edited Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing 1977 – 1997 (2017). He teaches writing to MFA students at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Sophie Seita is an artist working with language on the page, in performances, installations, and videos, and through translation and research. She is the author of Meat (2015), Fantasias in Counting (2014), and 12 Steps (2012), and the translator of Uljana Wolf’s Subsisters: Selected Poems (2017) and i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where (2015). Her first scholarly book, Provisional Avant-Gardes: Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital, is forthcoming from Stanford University Press in 2019.

This interview was first published by CLMP: Front Porch Commons and originally appeared online in September 2015.


Posted In: Interviews