by Kevin Killian
I like to explore the intersections between parallel lines of development so when asked to join the “Tender Buttons” panel, I jumped on writing about Michelle Rollman’s The Book of Practical Pussies, the one joint production between Tender Buttons and San Francisco’s Krupskaya Books. When this project was being bruited I was one of the editors on the Krupskaya side, so I have my own memories, as well as the resources of the Krupskaya archives now housed at the State University of New York. How did this unique experiment inflect the course of these two presses? Does the exception prove the rule or does it get even more Brechtian?
What were the differences between the presses? In the beginning the most obvious difference was in output. Krupskaya was putting out four books a year, and that mounts up to a lot very quickly. Tender Buttons was more selective. In addition, Tender Buttons made its mark by printing experimental work by feminist poets (and published only ephemera, broadsides and the like, by male allies) whereas from the beginning Krupskaya had printed books by both men and women. Neither press had pursued a project so artist-driven as this one, though Krupskaya’s work with Caroline Bergvall’s GOAN ATOM had come close.
Where did it begin? I can think of one referent, the party that Lee Ann Brown threw for Dodie Bellamy in Williamsburg when Tender Buttons brought out Dodie’s book “Cunt Ups.” October 2001, strange time to be in New York, only a month after 9/11, and the city still on edge and in the grip of that strange anthrax scare. Planes had been grounded for weeks and we were on one of the first available flights. San Francisco, of course, is where one of the planes was bound when it was seized and some heroic Pennsylvania. Michelle Rollman, who was then living in New Jersey, came to the party and decorated the space with her drawings, for Dodie’s book boasted a Rollman drawing on the cover, a dark, alluring picture of—well, you couldn’t say what it was, not right off the bat, your eyes had to creep around your brain to give it a name and a shape, so deeply disturbing are Rollman’s night visions.
Recent discussions of the place of kitsch in art, the relation of kitsch to poetry, might as well begin with Rollman’s move from Colorado to San Francisco in the late 1980s. She became the assistant to director Laura Brun at The Lab, then one of the most interesting non-profit artist-run galleries in the Bay Area. Studio space was cheaper then, and Michelle was always making either gigantic installations or tiny drawings, or aquatints, or etchings in small sheets of aluminum. On the smaller scale her methods reminded me of the famous letter Jane Austen wrote her nephew comparing her own production to the “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” And yet Rollman was able to turn Austen’s deprecations on their head by their lurid, sensational and yet matter of fact depictions of animals enjoying sexual powers and fetishes of humans. It was a terrible time because of AIDS, and the culture wars made all artists feel that the rest of the world hated us and wanted us dead, and yet it energized and politicized us as much as or more than even the Vietnam war and our opposition to state power and corporate aggression. Rollman, trained as an artist, had as many friends in the poetry world as she did in the other chambers of her life.
Perhaps she was especially attracted to the deep kink of New Narrative, and soon she became a fixture in the Poets Theater productions of the day. We all of us who wrote for the poets theater wanted her: me, and Carla Harryman, Leslie Scalapino, Camille Roy, for she was able to spout huge chunks of disconnected dialogue even from memory if she had to, and make it all seem to make sense. She played the lead in Philip Horvitz’ audacious “Being Alive,” a stylized mashup of Eugene O’Neill’s gloomy Mourning Becomes Electra and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company; it lasted for hours but they flew by. In one of Leslie’s plays at New Langton Arts, Michelle recited a nine minute speech from memory, while suspended upside down on a weird cylindrical stage painted black, while revolving. Maybe I’m imagining this part, for Carla, who directed Leslie’s play, recalls that Michelle did no memorizing. I love what she adds about the Rollman style: “Michelle was very funny in the piece; it was hard to get the other performers to lighten up. Somehow in the plays Michelle worked on with me she spent a lot of time on the floor.” Yes! “Even when she was sleeping or performing as a kind of inert object on the stage she had an amazing presence.” That’s it! “Now here I am talking about Michelle in the past.” Like the past tense. “We are in now another world.”
In Carla’s full length “Memory Play” Michelle played the “Child,” the heroine of the piece, and one way of looking at this enigmatic masterpiece is to view it as a bildungsroman in which the Child grows up, gets bigger, attains agency. “In the beginning,” intones the Reptile character, “there was nothing to hold and nothing to hold in mind, since there was no beginning, no nothing, and no mind. The end also did not exist. Nothing stopped. There was no gender, no extremes, no image or lack of image and no money. There were no pencils…In the beginning, there were no names…no apoliticized moment of the absolute and no political critiques. Neither was there the hibiscus flowering bearded orchid cunt juices or a male suspect. Neither black nor brown nor white. No maiming and nothing to maim. There is no future. Nothing to preserve.” In a past before race, before gender, before separation of human and animal, Memory Play unfolds. I got to play the “Miltonic Humiliator,” and I remember rehearsing for four months before putting my foot down and asking the director, “Am I supposed to be a human? A thing? Why don’t I ever get to say anything?” I envied Michelle Rollman her hundreds of lines.
In my plays she played everything, and carried it off with a Colorado sophistication and grace. She had a youthful face that could convey innocence or a bewildering experience. She looked like Baby Bjork, but she could look like Mink Stole too. When it came time for us to write stories or plays or memoirs based on her drawings of these perverse animals, we all fell in.
For her own project Michelle had the name, The Book of Practical Pussies, a takeoff of course on the famous children’s book of T S Eliot, “The Book of Practical Cats,” but bringing the genital pun into it, perhaps aa more subtle precursor of what Dodie managed with her recent Cunt Ups sequel Cunt Norton (Les Figues) which grew out of her idea to “cunt” (as she terms it) the “Burnt Norton” poem from Eliot’s Four Quartets, but now I wonder if The Book of Practical Pussies wasn’t somewhere in her head when she worked on Cunt Norton. Michelle had the drawings, and she invited ten writers to riff off of them and then publish the results with the drawings now seeming to pass as illustrations, when really it was the other way around; our texts approached the status of signage, illuminating the strange power that this body of work exerted over us all. That there could even be this confusion between what’s primary, what’s secondary, shows I think what an integral part the visual had, has, in our writing practice., how closely aligned the two arts were, in our time. And the time was—well, the era of neoliberalism we associate with Clinton and Bush.
In a review of the book Michelle Tea wrote,
Michelle Rollman’s cat illustrations are totally perverted. They morph between human female and feline female in ways that are truly disturbing, like they are both realistically cute the way cats actually are, not cartoonish, and then sexy the way a femmed-out lady can be, and the chimera is truly grotesque. But cute! And then you feel sort of sickened by the way in which it’s cute, because it’s like the sexy lady part is somehow molesting the cat, even though they are in fact the same thing. Something is being defiled by this Frankenstein’s existence, I don’t know what, maybe me, the viewer.
I was writing the poems of Action Kylie and it seemed natural to make them stop and focus on the figure of the cat, the “kitten with a whip.” Here’s my poem, “Something the Cat Dragged In.”
Such a lie.
Somewhere there must have been a cat that brought a
And it was pretty foul from the sound of it.
Such a lie,
I have had two cats who gave nothing,
brought nothing, just waited, stood intent until
I turned myself inside out to see
into their eyes, pale and aglow,
then their little knees buckled and they
sat on my chest, a question and its answer.
Dodie was writing Academonia while her two cats, Blanche and Stanley, were dying, so she wrote that into Michelle’s book.
I gob flea killer on the backs of their necks, squirt liquids down their throats that makes them squirm and gag, I mix baby food with water and squirt it down his throat, when he’s too weak to sit up I feed him baby shrimp, one by one from my palm, every day I walk to Safeway to get him fresh shrimp. I open capsules and mix the contents in cat food which they sniff, walk away from and screech for something untainted. I rub thyroid medicine in her ears twice a day for three years, if I rub a certain spot her hind legs twitches uncontrollably. Thin, flexible hairy triangle, inside her ear less fur and pink. I decide when it’s time for them to die. His lungs empty their final load with two deep sighs, she slumps over silently, eyes staring. As I walk through the apartment afterwards, soft strands of fur dust the corners, invisible bits of dander cling to the hair on my forearms, wedge beneath my nails, enter my eyes, my mouth, my nostrils. (Dodie Bellamy, “Blanche and Stanley,” from Academonia.)
—Thanks to Carla Harryman for her help with this—KK.
Drawings from The Book of Practical Pussies, courtesy of Michelle Rollman and by arrangement with Tender Buttons Press and Krupskaya Books.
Kevin Killian is a San Francisco-based novelist, playwright, poet. His recent books include a novel, Spreadeagle, a chapbook of poetry, Pink Narcissus Poems, and a book of his color photographs, Tagged: Variations on a Theme.