1964 was a leap year, beginning on a Wednesday. It’s 2014. To verify anything about fifty years ago, I Google“1964.” What I might offer about the past, I’ll be serving from Wikipedia, buffet of data and nostalgia.
I’m thinking 1964 because in that year Susan Sontag published “Notes on ‘Camp,’”her first essay in the Partisan Review. Kevin Killian’s latest collection of poetry, Tweaky Village (Wonder, 2014), has me thinking about camp.
Should I be thinking about camp?
I’ll try to figure out whether or not I should be pitching a sequined tent in Tweaky Village. Which reminds me, already, of what Killian writes in “Violets in the Snow”: “We fear the man behind the curtain—//Thing is, there ain’t no curtain, it’s us”(15-16).
Sontag doesn’t claim to coin the term camp in her essay, but she does try to pin down qualities of “a sensibility.”In fifty-eight theses, Sontag attempts “to snare a sensibility in words,”an endeavor she acknowledges as complicated, even dangerous: “to name …to draw …contours and to recount …history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.”
In March 2012, Canadian writer-director Bruce LaBruce presented “Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp”at the Camp/Anti-Camp Conference in Berlin. Mocking the stuffy, buttoned-up mode of academic discourse, LaBruce began his talk by introducing new categories of camp suitable for our contemporary world—Bad Gay Camp, Good Conservative Camp, Subversive Camp, International Camp, etc.—and went on to contend with Sontag’s essay. From LaBruce’s vantage, Sontag’s piece hasn’t aged well—and she makes some unforgivable blunders: “[Sontag’s] most crucial betrayal of camp comes in her statement that camp is …‘disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical’…My perhaps idealized conception of camp is that it is, or was, …political, subversive, even revolutionary, at least in its most pure and sophisticated manifestations.”
Camp could lose some of its blinding campiness, should it be looked at too directly in 1964, which saw Sontag shielding her eyes. She writes, “to talk about camp is therefore to betray it.”She writes, “Any sensibility which can be be crammed into the mold of a system or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea …”
What effect does the the Internet have on camp and what effect does camp have on the Internet? Where does the truly subversive take place in our digitalized world? The culture + media machines of today take our sensibilities—those ephemeral, ineffable, gossamer leanings and habits that earmark an historical moment or an era—and emit hashtags and memes.
Does anything harden ideas faster than sanctioned excess? LaBruce goes on to posit that, in response to the irony-smothered ’90s, our oughty-age is one where everything is camp:
Camp is…a sensibility that has been appropriated by the mainstream, fetishized, commoditized, turned into a commodity fetish, and exploited by a hypercapitalist system, as Adorno warned. It still has many of the earmarks of “classic camp”—an emphasis on artifice and exaggeration and the unnatural, a spirit of extravagance, a kind of grand theatricality… But what’s lacking is the sophistication, and especially the notion of esotericism, something shared by a group of insiders, or rather, outsiders, a secret code shared among a certain “campiscenti.”
Tool and torture at our fingertips, the Internet, more than any of its precursors, aids in the decoding of esoterica, the colors and handshakes and buzzwords of sensibilities, societies, schools, and movements. For instance: should I want to know more about Kylie Minogue, one of Kevin Killian’s favorites muses (she’s the title-Kylie in his second poetry collection, Action Kylie, and she is present throughout Tweaky Village (TV) to ground the poems in scenes and settings (Disney Concert Hall, a stage decorated with a jeweled skull), she is merely a click away. On YouTube, I watch the black-and-white video for “All I See Featuring MIMS,”which shares a title with a poem in the second section of TV. There Kylie is, now in a Marilyn wig and vampish eye shadow, so thick I can see its stickiness; now in a latex, sexy-cop catsuit, black chains slung ashoulder; now with a smudged-out face and a chanteuse’s gown, blinding the camera with glitter.
Stories, histories, plots, characters. Kevin Killian is one of the original “New Narrative”artists based out of San Francisco in the early 1980s. Killian is an accomplished poet, novelist, memoirist, playwright, film critic, Amazon critic, cultural critic—in short, he’s a supreme artist and communicator.
In his essay, “Long Note on New Narrative,”writer Robert Glück, a founding member of the New Narrative movement, asks some questions and provides some answers about what he (and writers like Bruce Boone) were thinking when they reacted against L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry: “How can I convey urgent social meanings while opening or subverting the possibilities of meaning itself? That question has deviled and vexed Bay Area writing for twenty-five years.”
“Uh-oh, a border collapses,”Killian writes in “Trouble at the Pole.”Throughout TV, borders—between life and art, life and death, past and present, sex and love, consumptive or consumer, citation and appropriation—aren’t just collapsing; they’re vanishing, dissolving, dying off, perishing. In one of TV’s most affecting poems, “I Lost Me to Meth,”Killian’s speaker considers an anti-drug campaigns inefficacy. “Keep seeing these posters of hollow-eyed men/on the subway, on the door of the bus, on the billboards high/above the city streets, ‘I lost ME to METH.’”This imagery triggers in the speaker a recognition, even one that blurs the boundary between real and imagined experience: “But you aren’t on meth, a little voice kissed in my ear,/You’re fine, Mister.”
“I Lost Me to Meth”contains several Killian signatures: an external situation is presented (i.e., speaker sees posters), external situation leads to internal situation (i.e., speaker isn’t on meth and speaker begins to think how “I lost being gay”), internal situation is manifest in language contortion (i.e., “on the way home on the plane it hit me/I lost me to THEM, THEM as a way of reading ‘Meth’). In other poems, like “Acronyms for Derek McCormack”and “Fetish Photography,”these contortions drive the poetic engine, building speed and intensity as the alphabet barrels forward. Anagramming meth into them allows Killian to broaden the reach of the message he sees in the poster, to illuminate a simultaneous truth—in Glück’s words, “subverting the possibility of meaning itself.”
Elsewhere, Killian’s subversion takes the form of appropriation (as in a poem like “Autumn Leaves,”which collages dialogue from the 1956 film) and pastiche. “Camp sees everything in quotation marks,”Sontag writes. “To perceive Camp is…‘to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.’”Part of what makes Killian’s poetry so readable, so engaging, is his ability to play whatever role the poem calls for—maybe this is a by-product of his versatility as an artist. In “Jonathan Williams: Gone Fishing,”Killian is poet-scholar, elegizing the San Francisco renaissance; in “Ten Years In,”political-poet; in “Repetition Island,”a long prose sequence that casts and recasts an imaginary porno shoot, poet-spectator-direct: an objective, invisible narrator.
“We were thinking,”writes Glück, of the movement that sprang up from his and Boone’s concerns, “about autobiography; by autobiography we meant daydreams, nightdreams, the act of writing, the relationship to the reader, the meeting of flesh and culture, the self as collaboration, the self as disintegration, the gaps, inconsistences and distortions, the enjambments of power, family, history and language.
In Tweaky Village, Killian isn’t just investigating the meeting of flesh and culture: he’s directing and orchestrating and documenting the collisions. Inhabitants of Tweaky Village include: Leonard Cohen, Nico, Abraham (the Biblical), Lincoln (US-16), Nemo, Alistair McCartney, Billy Blake, Jack Spicer, John, Allen Ryan, Danii Minogue, Kylie Minogue, Sean Penn, Damient Hirst, Derek McCormack, Hal David, Burt Bacharach, Jackson MacLow, Robert Creeley, Philip Whalen, Lee Hickman, Joe Brainard, Ethel Waters, Carly Fiorine, Nero, Vladimir Ulyanov, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Willie Mays, Frank O’Hara, Erica Jong, John & Yoko, David Johansen, Chris Johanson, Hanson, Claude Cahun, Marcel Moore, Gene Tierney, Syd Barrett, Arthur Lee, Ezra Pound (indirectly), George Kuchar, Deborah Remington, Elijah Burgher, Donald Judd, Naomi Judd, Winona Judd, Ashley Judd, Judd Nelson, Travis Jeppesen, Lynn Bari, Sal Mineo, Tab Hunter, Zalman King, Rosa Luxembourg, Wordsworth, Worth, Gustav Stickley, James Bond, Primo Levi, Emma Flaherty, Kelis, Yvonne Rainer, Barak Obama, David Cronenberg, Alice Notley, Cornell Woolrich, Heath Ledger, Henry Miller, Bob Cratchit, Attis, Kim Novak, Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart, Tom Phillips, Javier Bardem, Britney Spears, Kate Bush, Lindsay Kemp, Rene Predd, Alain Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, Ellen Burstyn, Robert Mulligan, Alan Alda, Gary Glitter, Keith Urban, Nicole Kidman, The Monkees, the Koch brothers, Beyoncé, Etta James, ChloëSevigny, Gina Lollobrigida, Tony Franciosa, Vera Miles, Lorna Green, Joan Crawford, Mubarak, Asia and Dario Argento, Laura Nyro, Peter “Sleazy”Christopherson, Tim Dlugos, Udo Kier, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jim, Ross, Raymond, Bjorn, Benny, Justin, Steve, Jennifer, Zito, Tim, Dodie, Mike, Craig, Scott. And in our age, when Heath Ledger is as searchable as Jack Spicer or Lindsay Kemp, perhaps those intimacies of the artist—Craig, Dodie, Tim, Scott, more or less randomized by their first names—will come to be seen, to use LaBruce’s term, as the ultimate campiscenti, bearers of biographies unknowable (or at least less knowable) by Google.
Peopled such, Tweaky Village can’t help feeling at least a little campy. Languaged with knockout sex and peacock feathers and oysters oozing into parking meters and milk-creamed buttocks and clots of incandescent tapioca, Tweaky Village maybe isn’t LaBruce or Sontag’s definition of campy—Sontag might argue TV too serious, LaBruce too normative—but it is an excess of riches. Kevin Killian’s unparalleled nimbleness with the stuff of our public and privates lives makes him—regardless of the genre within which he writes—one of the most “continually incandescent”(to take from Sontag) writers writing today. If “camp taste is…a mode of enjoyment,”(again Sontag), I happily take abode in Tweaky Village.