The New Universal: A Conversation with Chris Kraus. 30th june 2014
When someone told me at poetry book club that Chris Kraus was coming to Monash University for the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association Conference, I was pretty excited. Such was my enthusiasm that I found out she was giving a free talk at Monash university Clayton campus. I decided to go to that as well.
I wish there was a cool story about how I discovered the writing of Ms Kraus, but, there is not one. Chris Kraus and her work, became salient to me by watching a key -note address, from the Melbourne Writers Festival, on ABC Iview. I watched it in bed with my laptop on my knees. I sipped hot tea from my little miss sunshine mug and got inspired. The talk was by the adolescent wonder kid; Tavi GefInson (editor of Rookie Magazine). She discussed Kraus’s novel I Love Dick in relation to love and finding out through your own obsessions, who you are and what you want to be.
As soon as I had the money I went in search of this book and read it, loved it and loved Chris Kraus. It was inspiring what she had done. Ms Klaus by way of writing an exegesis of a woman’s heart break, had also written something rich and smart and critical. She had achieved exactly what I had hoped was possible. Because she had achieved this, it meant I could as well. There was power in humiliation. There is power in failing. It is human.
On the day of the free talk at Monash University, it was cold. It was raining. I had not brought along an umbrella. It took a tram, a train and a bus to get to the university. I stood at the bus stop. There was no shelter. The rain dripped down my for head and a drop dripped down my neck, sending shivers. Anticipation pulled me forward and onward.
On arriving at the tutorial room, I was surprised at the size. Not even a lecture hall. A small warm room, with three levels of seating going upwards. The seats were all swivel seats. I sat on one at the very front and promptly nearly fell off. I regained my composure and laughed out loud. Nobody noticed. They were all getting out notebooks and copies of I Love Dick, for the writer herself to sign. Rasberries, I think, should have bought along my book for her to sign.
When she enters the room with a University lecturer named Anne, I hold my breath a moment. I am that excited. Anne is the person who asked her to come for an academic residency. Anne is tall and all in black. It is funny as that is exactly how I imagined Chris Kraus to look like, if I ever met her. In contrast Ms Kraus is nothing like I imagined. She is not tall and her slip- on shoes a dark blue. She is not wearing high heels nor is she dressed head to toe in black. Her cardigan is dusty pink. She is smiling as she enters the room. When she sits down at the front of the room, she is so close I could reach out and touch her shoulder. I do not do this.
‘’This is like the world of Gunther.’’ She comments as a bald man hooks her up to a recording device. Her voice is kind and soft and she has a lisp.
It is important to find other ways of doing things. Other things than banging on doors. Kraus tells us that Kathy Acker who was an experimental novelist and punk poet in the 60s and 70s. She wrote many books in a style that was hard to pin point. We hear so much about the male beat poets and their manifestos and ideology. Little is known about the female peers. Is this a bad thing? Ms Kraus does not think so.’ It allows us to stay in the margins. To avoid the male power game. ‘
Kraus tells of her experience while hanging around with the French critical theorists and how antiquated their ideas were. ‘’The French men thought cutting edge American fiction was Hemingway and the beat poets. It was embarrassing and pathetic.’’ Kraus tells us of Kathy Acker’s novel entitled Pussy, King Of The Pirates was written in Acker’s head, for the most part, while she masturbated. I write down books and names as fast as she says them, If you’re A Girl by Ann Rower (1990). I want to read all of them all at once and internalize all the ideas and nuances.
‘’It is sensibility specific not gender specific.’’ Kraus emphasizes. ‘’At Native Agents publishing it was never about strictly women’s fiction. It did not want to sound like second wave feminism. At Emily’s Books they feel like they need to avoid the F word. They do not want to be marketed as a strictly feminist publishing house. They want to be specifically about experimental and underground fiction. There is an American sensibility to get legitimacy from 1st person female narrative. ‘’
It is there all the time underneath everything. That female first person cannot be trusted. It is ‘half truth’ or ‘misunderstood due to emotional blindness.’ A women story is not considered universal. It is ‘’womens’ business.’’ Yet a male 1st person narrative can be lauded as remarkable and a comment on the human condition.
Women are human too. Why is such a cliché sounding sentence NOT a cliché. This is why I used to think that I could never be a writer. Because, everything I had to say, was from my silly girl brain.
The question is put forward in regards to the consequences of writing as oneself. What are the consequences of this oneness own truth? It is a flip of the power dynamic in narrative and fiction. Like in the 90s when singers such as Kathleen Hannah, Courtney Love, Lydia Lunch and Pattie Smith started signing about sex and their world and how angry they were. They shifted the power dynamic of the testosterone heavy rock world. They were no longer simply characters in songs written and sung by men. They were singing about themselves and it was the men who flitted in and out of their narrative. Writing as oneself , the pure process and action of doing so, helps the truth come out. You learn as you go. It is in your hands.
‘’It is the quality of Candor that matters. The ability to have ‘aplomb.‘ A young Kathy Acker writes to Susan Sontag and asks, ‘Can you read my work and make me famous, please?’ There are certain conditions of patriarchy that are no longer tolerated. But, the game is still rigged. It is much less important who prints the book and far more about who the writer is. Who their friends are.’‘ This was what happened with Kathy Acker. Her personae became more important than her work. Chris Kraus informs us that she will be writing a biography of Acker’s life. I think it would be wonderful to read about the life of a writer who had such an engrossing life and who was so prolific in her work.
‘‘The margins are always shifting. What is legitimacy? ‘ Kraus asks hypothetically. ‘Is it something like reception? The respect of your peers? Is the grand plan of starting out writers, to be received by fellow writers? The important thing is to connect with people who are doing what you are doing.’ This comforts me as I feel the lightening of every heart sitting around me. We feel nurtured by this speaker. She is the intellectual mother we can carry around with us in our heads.
‘You need to create a flow for the circulation and flow of ideas. You need to find out who absorbs and appreciates your work?’ The pie charts of literary success show what is going on but they do not show and cannot show legitimacy. The books that are important in a cultural sense or in a theoretical sense, are not shown on The New York Times bestseller list or on the Harpers list of best sellers.’ Krause goes on to explain that one of the main goals of her Publisher, Semiotext(e), is to create a buzz of excitement. They want to free people from a narrow view of success and legitimacy.
‘If you continue to put stuff out there, it gets attention.’ Kraus says to her small gaggle of intelligentsia. ‘’When a friend gets onto the New York Times list of best sellers, I am happy for their success.’ Kraus tells us. But, it does not make them any more legitimate than the person writing to an unknown audience as yet. Someone asks Kraus about the distinction between reader and writer. Is it still a concrete thing? ‘The interaction between reader and writer is incredibly important. The internet is breaking down the walls that used to exist between the two.
‘How much do you need to worry about remaining literary and breaking into mass culture?’ It is a question I have never asked myself. I have no desire to be Mathew Reilly. His books make me cringe. One of the reasons I quit my writing course was to get away from the 20 year old gym junky, who loved to voice his fandom of Mr Reilly. It took all my self- control not to sigh visibly, every time he started on an impassioned rant. It is a question that Kraus answers simply.
‘You don’t need to worry at all.’
Ms Kraus goes on to quote Emily Gauld; a co founder of the indie e-booksellers called Emily’s Books. ‘If you own your humiliation, you have already topped it.’ In doing this, you are reversing the charge of negative affect. It could also be seen as a feminist strategy. I will embrace my shortcomings and acknowledge them before some drunk guy at a bar or a boyfriend, can point them out. I am inspired by this notion. I can feel the itchy feeling of my brain start. It warms my fingers as I hold my cheap ballpoint pen. A young man puts his hand up behind me. Anne tells Chris Klaus that this guy is doing his thesis based around the question, can computers write poetry? I feel my eyes rolling up in my head. Wow, way to make me feel redundant. I think snidely.
‘Is the space of a girl. Is that state of mind open to everybody?’ He asks.
‘The idea that identity is fluid is just one of the sensabilities that define Semeotext(e).’ Kraus replies.
Someone asks the question every single person sitting infront of her, wants to ask. ‘What do you look for when publishing work by people?’ Kraus pauses before replying.
‘I like work that is funny. I like work that does not take itself too seriously. It could be described as realism. I like to get a sense that I am reading something real. As the poet and writer, Susan Howl said the human presence is required for it to be considered literature.
Anne poses a question to Kraus for all of us sitting there. ‘’What could you say to all those wanting write?’ Kraus looks at us and says.
’Really all I can say is what your mother should tell you. Just keep going, really.’’
I left that small over heated tutorial room, with one single and all encompassing goal.
To be the new universal.