The bookstore in Brooklyn where I first met Kathy Acker no longer exists, but I can still smell the dust wedged in between each book, and I can still feel that moment, when I first picked up Blood and Guts in High School with cracked grey cover dislocating Kathy’s face. I was in my mid-twenties, searching for the misfits that seemed to be banned from popular shelves. I always longed to be a writer and had many brain cells already explode due to other groundbreaking female-identified writers like Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde…. but I was still waiting for my (k)night: For the one who would feed my organs fire. For the one who would twist my tongue into alternating shapes and colors. I picked up her book and smelled the dust and age. Old books are the best drugs to inhale. When I let my thumb pick through pages, my eyes widened. Pictures. Diagrams. A map of dreams! Persian poems. And illustrated genitalia.
I didn’t know what this was, but I knew I needed to read it. Kathy made me believe in shattered mirrors. She reminded me that just because something is called one thing, doesn’t mean there isn’t room to defy that. I carry that lesson with me everyday. Everyday I try to understand this dislocated body I live inside. Everyday I try to remember why I (should) exist.
After Blood and Guts, I read Empire of the Senseless and Portrait of an Eye and Kathy Goes to Haiti and everything else I could find that had her name on it. What she opened in my soul, led me to Kim Addonizio and Dodie Bellamy and the great Lidia Yuknavitch. I started to realize that there were many more women who were breaking the traditional mold of fiction and memoir and even poetry. I’ve spent most of my life having a difficult time following the rules (even still) and gravitate toward these women who remind me the rewards of getting lost.
Now, as a teacher, I bring Kathy’s work into my classroom. Last semester in my Intro to Women’s Literature class, I taught her essay “Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body” and played a video of Kathy reading one of her poems. I enjoyed hearing students’ reactions to her fearlessness. So often we are told to look a certain way and behave in a manner suited toward our gender, race, class, occupation. Whatever that means, I am still unsure. What does a woman look like? Because if you answer long hair, then what do we call the ones without? And if you answer, ‘wears a dress’, then what about the ones who slide their limbs into other types of fabric? And if you start to mention genitalia, well then, I think I’d like to jump off the ledge of this page.
There is no one-way to be and Kathy taught us that. We can be wild and loud and unapologetic and messy and dirty. We do not need to cross our legs or button up. We don’t even need to brush our hair. We can be zig-zagged and full of eraser rub-outs. Kathy’s words keep me alive because she reminds me of the wild inside me, inside my writer-me. We can all be that person who inspires another. We can all be that person who changes another’s life. Just for existing. Just for writing some sentences down. Or stanzas. Or whatever the medium.
That gives me hope.
Aimee Herman is a Brooklyn-based performance artist, poet, and writing/literature teacher at Bronx Community College. Aimee has been widely published in journals and anthologies including cream city review, BOMB, nerve lantern, Apogee and Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books). In addition, several chapbooks including rooted (Dancing Girl Press) and carpus (Essay Press). Aimee hosts a monthly series in NYC called Queer Art Organics, featuring LGBTQ writers and performers. For more, go to aimeeherman.wordpress.com