Kevin Killian was everywhere at once in this town. There have been several lovely collage portraits dedicated to him since June; we wanted to create one based on an open call for memories of Kevin in the Bay Area — expressed however people choose, so long as there is some local connection. If you’d like to add your voice to the mix, email us at email@example.com, or simply leave a comment at the bottom of this post.
Gwen Allen and Alexandra Pappas
We saw Kevin shortly before he died. It was a Thursday evening in early June, and we were on our way to the opening of Jordan and Lindsey’s show of child art at City Hall. Walking there from the Mission, we took an unusual route. We were commenting on the fact that neither of us had ever walked that way before. Suddenly, Kevin appeared — we were apparently very close to his and Dodie’s apartment. He seemed delighted to have run into us, and we felt the same way. He was almost literally beaming with peacefulness and happiness — it’s hard to describe, but we both remarked on this afterwards. He told us that his life was and had been great. He said he and Dodie were maybe going to a Kenneth Anger screening that night. He insisted that we take group portrait. He told us that we should come over for dinner, and we promised to.
I keep thinking
of that last reading you set up at Alley Cat
& how I self-medicated too much
just to be in public
I used to think it was glamorous
but still get embarrassed
because the work needs the attention it deserves
Not all the downplaying banter
laced to disguise
I apologized a month later
at the Way Bay reading
You looked surprised and hugged me
like you always do
When I skated to Minna in ’99
wearing a crawfish trucker hat and camouflage
You and Dodie were so kind
giving me that Naropa Negative Capability shirt
The friends I grew up with
lived below y’all and I agreed they were horrible
& sucked hard and was embarrassed
but what could I do? Having moved across the country
from being teased by them
for writing poetry
Kevin took this photo after his lecture and walkthrough of the Louis Bourgeois and R. Crumb exhibit at Ratio 3 gallery. It’s an example of how Kevin lovingly and so gracefully immortalized poets, artists, and creators (including ones without books, like myself) through his words and kindness. He made everyone feel like a star. Pictured are poet Cedar Sigo, Rod Roland, myself, and curator Margaret Tedesco, who runs [ 2nd floor projects ].
I love the elegant flow and personalization of his caption, in which he states he is relieved the event went well and, ever so humbly, “a success I think.” I remember thinking, “I’m lovely? No! But if Kevin says so maybe I am!” I like the descriptor of poet Rod Roland being so mellow, and wondered if Kevin was also thinking of Cedar’s poem line which I always thought of as an homage to both Billie Holiday’s song and Rod: “Fine and mellow, all the things you are.”
It felt like a communal, wonderful gathering, Kevin bringing people together as usual. What a treat to hear him reciting the Joanne Kyger poem “The Maze” from her book The Tapestry and The Web in conversation with Bourgeois and Crumb’s work. I was living in New York and visiting San Francisco that summer of 2017, and was so happy to be back. I was also delighted Kevin documented this casual moment of us all talking; I don’t think I even remember him taking the photo.
Kevin spent a lot of time perusing the stacks at Alley Cat before readings; once, he came in and saw there was a used copy of Shy someone had sold us recently. It was signed with an inscription to an old friend of his, so he bought it to mail it back to them. I thought this was either very kind of him or some of the best writer shade ever thrown.
With Kevin it really could have been either. Or both. That’s one of the things I loved most about him: his openness and warmth were mixed with a sort of gentle darkness that was titillating — always hovering beneath the surface. He would give you an honest piece of advice or a word of kindness and it would be tied up with a bit of gossip he knew you would want to know, or some gentle flirting.
These things were the same sort of affection from him. I watched him emcee hundreds of readings at the bookstore, and it was always different and always quietly genius. He would play with the audience and readers’ expectations of him, dancing in and out of the spotlight with a sort of glamour and transgression that played against one another.
It was so perfect, and I thought it was some kind of performance, but over the years I learned it was entirely sincere and that Kevin was maybe one of the most honest and transparent people I’ve known: brilliant, ebullient, singular.
A Kevin Killian Poets Theater Adventure with Drew Cushing & Ralph Burr
A Dogpatch studio location long before anyone went to Dogpatch. When the city seemed larger and so many places impossibly far away from our Alamo Square apartment. But near the 22 bus line it seemed reachable. Kevin said it would be easy.
At the end of the line Ralph and I the only ones on the bus. The blocks are larger and more ominous-seeming than we expected. Walking to the address where the performance is to take place, we’re the only people on the street.
At the building there’s a handwritten sign directing us to the back. Adjacent to the building is a parking lot full of idling trucks, like something out of a certain Colt Studio genre porn. Later we learned it has something to do with the then-still operating Wonder Bread factory. Kevin likes my idea that it really is a porn set.
At the back of the building we encounter fellow travelers in search of the same event; together we decipher further instructions on the buzzer and elevator. The hallways are long, tall, and dimly lit, like something out of early Stephen King movies. We are glad we are not alone in walking this gauntlet. At last, around the corner, a table and the entrance to the space.
What had been an adventure in arriving quickly turned to the enveloping warmth of a Kevin Killian play. Familiars on stage and in the audience. Kevin fussing on- and offstage, organizing the last decisions, clarifying cues, being everywhere at once. Dodie Bellamy staunchly supportive in the front row.
Lights dim. Manic hilarity as we are transported to Jupiter, Florida, and the Burt Reynolds Theater for a soap opera epic drama full of plot twists, delicious dialogue, and some of the finest ham acting in Poets Theater.
From the moment I heard Kevin give an introduction at a poetry reading, I remained an enthusiastic fan. The last time I saw him at a City Lights reading, he came up the stairs, paused a second, then gave me a warm kiss and hug before finding himself a seat in the crowd. The other day I came across his correspondence with Jess at the Bancroft, and there wasn’t anything too special about it, as I wrote in an email to Jason Morris: “nothing huge but jez a reminder of like how human we are all.” I miss having his presence in town.
Kevin had this way of writing letters like he was totally crushed out on you — like you were some star and he an adoring fan, not the other way around. A few years ago, I was really just starting to get serious about poetry. Under the spell of, among other books, Kevin’s Action Kylie, I started a sonnet cycle about the Warhol superstar Candy Darling. A friend conveyed the project to Kevin, who wrote me a letter about it that still makes me blush to read. He activated fannishness as a genuine, reciprocal form of friendship — pretty astonishing when you thought you were the one with the autograph book. A few months later I met him for the first time in person at Alley Cat Books, where he’d gone through the trouble of setting up a reading for me, and where I learned he was just as warm and effusive in person. My story’s unremarkable to the degree that so many young queer writers sought him out in admiration; he hosed us down with his time, his attention, and his love.
Kevin, Come Back
The creamiest sun rises and sets over
San Francisco, the city I can see out
my bedroom window, scattered w/ undies
and the pink jacket that’s
good to wear on the windy edge of a lake
on Mission and 3rd
that’s good to wear to meet you in front of SFMOMA
to go get naked at a dead poet’s grave
like when my friends and I
used to go streaking through the
Salt Lake Cemetery, land of that punk
with blue hair, high up
where an ancient lake left
crooked lines on the hill
undressing and ogling ourselves a bit like
Hostess pastries before they get all smushed
and higher up turning
my head out the plane window
to see Mt. Shasta, Wintu
holy site others believe
is filled with Lemurians
one and a half million of them actually
much taller than us and full of
disdainful platitudes yet residing
in buttery, crystalline peace
like humanoid croissants
and even higher up
I think I can see the street
you live on, Minna, just kidding
I can’t, not even with binoculars
I can only see the troublesome outline
of that technocratic utopia where helicopters
swirl the air to soft-serv
and the youngest-looking people pretty much
have all the money
and fog oozes like in the second
Ninja Turtles, Secret of the Ooze
tho I can’t remember the secret
I know you would
My first Bay Area memory of Kevin arrives before I’m in the Bay Area: curled up on one of my parents’ couches in Maine, a fire going and a glass of wine, reading his and Lewis Ellingham’s Poet Be Like God as a means to begin understanding the world of Jack Spicer, whose Open Space our Open Space is named after. I would soon be editor in chief of OS, just as I would soon be leaving Brooklyn for Oakland; Poet Be Like God is one of the books that helped to connect me to the Bay, to understand the myriad artistic lineages at play here. … And then it’s fast-forward or rewind to walking down an SF street with Suzanne Stein and running into Kevin, who of course wanted to take a picture (I didn’t know yet what an integral part of his art that was). Memories refuse to stay in linear formation. … It was after both of these things or between them that KK offered me a reading in the Bay, my first group reading here (thus does community accrue). At Alley Cat. Of course. Maybe by then I had been to his and Dodie’s home for the first time, to hear Lucy Ives read. Everyone crammed in. … And when was it that we celebrated Dodie’s birthday in the back of that bar, the red room … everyone crammed in. Again. Everyone wanting to be close to each other, and to these two shimmering individuals. The rooms are emptier now. The rooms are smaller.
Jo Ann Low
Kevin was a toddler when Jack Spicer made a stinging aside that I was as exotic as Margaret Truman. Inexcusable that I forgot to share this with Kevin, but he was probably there for the comment as he is doubtless here now. So, no worries.
For Kevin Killian
Dates are forever slippery in my mind, but I think that I met Kevin Killian around 1994. At any rate, it was shortly before I had seen Rust and Diamonds, his collaboration with Wayne Smith. Their play, about window decorators and angels cavorting in Union Square’s high-end shops, shouldn’t have been such a marvelous surprise for me. After all, my first glimpse of him had been startling.
It was at the Victoria Theater where I showed up for a reading by John Ashbery; he was being introduced by a local poet, who turned out to be Kevin. Now, I had known John for years, encountering him at readings, openings, dinner parties, and on the subway. He was invariably witty, acerbic, the epitome of New York School cool: in a word, unflappable.
Kevin made John flap. He began by peppering him with questions about Smithtown, the setting for A Nest of Ninnies, John and Jimmy Schuyler’s novel. John was flummoxed and sat blinking in his chair, wordless. To him, Smithtown was just a stop on the Long Island Railroad on the way to the Hamptons. But to Kevin, it was his home town.
I’ve forgotten what John finally read, but I’ve never forgotten Kevin’s introduction.
In 2015 I flew back to SF and drove to Colma with Kevin for his photo project Tagged. We had been corresponding for months, about photographing in front of where the poet Jack Spicer’s urn is placed.
The first stop he wanted to show me was William Randolph Hearst’s giant mausoleum.
The stone building has Corinthian columns, and we did a little photo shoot there. I remember looking into the dark tomb of the gate to the building.
The second structure was this brick silo wrapped in green vines, isolated and gated off in the distance. We walked over to see what we could find by looking through the modern fence. There was this sort of Greek stage/bleacher area covered with vine; the cement floor at the bottom had caved in and we joked about how we could see something crawling down there.
After this we drove to the gates in front of where Spicer’s urn is placed. We parked in front by the heavy, impressively medieval metal doors. Kevin had the procedure of opening the gates down. I remember seeing the light from the stained glass on the white hexagonal tile before walking in. I was mesmerized by the aisles of glass and dark wood cabinetry encasing the urns of people’s ashes.
An awesome tropical tree stood between the room where Spicer was interred and the green aisles. We staged some of the Tagged photos here. I wore the Raymond Pettibon drawing around my waist.
We walked around and filmed videos, constructing a narrative for the model shoot before ending up at Jack’s plot. Kevin pulled the metal staircase over and told me about the séance we were about to conduct through reading Spicer’s poetry.
I was fairly new to photography; I think taking pictures as a secondary practice was something Kevin and I related to. The photos I took are in collaboration with Kevin at this very special place and they’re here to be shared.
The worn tote bag he always had hung around his neck: it was a little bit like a rakusu, right? Only his was worldly, it had stuff in it. He drew people to him, too; as a teacher, a collector, he was zealously inclusive. And so the people I always wanted to hear about — each time I learned about a new one, a poet or artist or musician — invariably I learned he’d known them. And in every case, he was shy about the connection. “Well, this one time…”
Back when there were phonebooks and landlines, I used both to call Kevin, whom I’d met only once at that point, to boldly ask if I could help him edit the Collected Poems of Jack Spicer. He said yes. Although I can’t recall the details of the call, I remember he said lots more than just yes: despite his having a dance card that was perpetually full, you never got off the phone with Kevin, or out the door of his apartment, without discussion — generous and warm, full of digression, intelligence, and gossip, which still managed to be a totally personal engagement. It’s true he knew everybody, but he remembered exactly who you were in the moment. He had a totally relevant story or question ready for the occasion of running into you, and whenever he did, he’d say, “Oh good, I’ve been hoping to run into you.” He meant it.
What Kevin was not: stingy. He wasn’t pretentious, and he didn’t mind if you were more closely attending some other teacher at any given moment. He was, too, after all. And so his capability for learning made him also a peer. You were in the same class. Like his hero John Wieners, Kevin insisted on meeting in places way too déclassé for others: Subway is where we usually met for lunch. He never stood on ceremony. And he sure as hell was never boring.
At the opening for Will Yackulic’s New Weights & Measures at the Gregory Lind Gallery, April 27, 2017, the young Lorca Ballard snapped a photo of Kevin snapping a photo of her (a customary exchange). In addition to this moment, she took a great photo of Kevin and the poet Neeli Cherkovski.
She favors the greats that see the light in her eyes.
Long live our friend Kevin. Rest in Power.
In this moment, I’m in a fish on a hook, somewhere just holding on.
Blue lingcod and chips in the sun, typing to the end of the line,
as far as it will take me. Heartbeat stamp, forever inked and wasted.
I’m off course and the crickets are jumping onto my knee.
Tall heron, if you see them don’t look at the camera,
they have no interest in you, god of field and port.
We are the one hundred motorcycles with flags and leather.
Stolen beers at 10 a.m. Tomorrow is church and I’m the deacon
and I’m in the choir. I choose to sing this way because no one can tell me
otherwise. I’m dismissive and proud, so many ideas for a better world,
which is free and smaller. Just three stores instead of the internet.
Paper is so expensive you have to consider every word. My $10,000
poem just peaked. We are only allowed three images per day.
Science fiction is called science and fiction is history and history
is philosophy and religion is sex and cars. Everyone can breathe
and the typewriters are painted gold. We have a reason to smoke,
our brand is quality above destiny. We walked the Pacifica Pier this morning,
I meant to tell you how I was feeling, mostly good, turmeric mustache,
then we went into a stranger’s home, more a cottage on the beach roads,
their name was Alexander and they were high or drunk and gave us a joint.
We wondered why we were there in the first place. I’m invited to think
when I’m already doing it, some thoughts for Kevin: kind and welcoming,
always ready to talk, who is here? who is there? and what are they doing?
What have I done lately? Nothing, but I was there when I needed to be
and I heard them read. Connections are never lost when you tease them out
every few months with a hug as you leave the bookstore, where are you now?
Back in their arms or are you the arms holding them right over Bernal Hill?
Champion of the final version, visionary of gay literary politics, see the art
then make it.
The time Kevin ghostwrote me a poem:
About fifteen years ago, I was invited to read at Canessa Gallery in North Beach. Moved by the spirit of hijinks, I asked friends to ghostwrite poems for me which I would read, mixed in with poems I would ghostwrite for myself at the event. Kevin, ever generous and well-acquainted with a certain celebrity obsession I had, wrote this astonishingly magnificent poem that is so Kevin no one would have mistaken the ghostwriter’s identity:
For Nicole Kidman
With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
I was about twelve years old when I first saw you,
in and out of the frame like a bird,
like the bird in the famous legend by the Venerable Bede
who swooped down on the lighted mead-hall
in one window
First it was playing in that Civil War thing,
“Cold Mountain,” then that blessed nose prosthesis
for Virginia Woolf — Meryl Streep like a modern version of you,
but do we want a modern version of you? —
and a scary one I haven’t seen,
bird goes up to a window and says,
can I come into your lighted warm palace
I promise I’ll fly out the opposite window
just let me warm my feathers on your armor,
Nicole Kidman, I said “no” to the bird,
negativity my primer,
whereas if it were in a bar you’d be,
“Bird enters a bar, asks for a mead,
bartender says, can you show me some proof.”
With your chain mail memory of cannery row,
And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go,
they tossed you the roles that made you work the hardest,
Eyes Wide Shut and Moulin Rouge,
Who needs that kind of pain?
Ill-advised remakes of The Stepford Wives and Bewitched killed your career,
but to me you will always be the Kidman Nicole.
Should I leave this flattened bird by your gate,
or, Nicole Kidman, should I wait?
I was flashing back to watching VHS tapes of films Kevin had made with friends. He showed me one of himself playing Edith Sitwell and a dying friend (Joel?) playing an ill Denton Welch. Kevin’s ornate dialogue, turban, and his glancing back at the camera at the precisely right (wrong) moment were incredible. He proceeded to show me a video of his ’99 summer Naropa Poets’ Plays class performance (under the big white tent) that somehow moved into a private screening of a B-movie rumored to have used Jack Spicer as an extra, standing up in the bleachers in unison with everyone as the motorcycle race swept past.
Kevin Killian was indeed a singular human being, but my experience with him seems to have been far from singular. His generosity of spirit and creative encouragement were such ever-radiant aspects that they form a common baseline for all stories told about him. I sent Kevin a copy of my first book of poems and received a remarkably thoughtful response. He then invited me to read at the poetry gatherings he curated for Alley Cat Books and offered a blurb for the back of my second book of poems. Long may his warm laughter echo throughout this city of poets.
A Well-Respected Man
With time handed over
sun and clear blue morn
the clank of metal and cement
as the workers break down scaffolding
with street and safety talk. Spanish
words I only recognize fragments
of while waiting for the digital
tune to alert that the cycle is complete
Don’t spend too much time with the lines of the hand
stories aren’t told that way
There is time
and fresh ribbon
for the Royal
that leaves holes
in place of Os
Franz Schubert’s The Trout tones as an anthem set for a bugle
in its digital calling. The whites are ready to be hung
The sunflower seeds
planted last Monday
have busted their black shells
is coughing, never opens his window
for the chill. He can be heard
through the walls. Smell his habits
My mind drifts to Kevin
how I wanted to talk about the shadows
in Spain. The histories. Streets
how I wanted to talk. More. Again
The lace curtains
need a wash after the traffic
has sent its dust for a dozen years
Some things collect like that
when given proper placement
A Lou Rawls’ record and another cup of black coffee
should clean the slate enough for remembrance
The hand carved pipe. Frankincense.
Tobacco Road shifted light
Farewell Transmission now opens
The whole place is dark
and he is here. And not
at the same time