When I first met Jack Skelley in the fall of 2021, we grabbed coffee, talked about L.A. literary lore, and I, rather spontaneously, jumped into his car and we headed to Paul McCarthy’s “Part Make Up a Whole” at The Box. On our ride there, I observed the downtown buildings under another blinding sun. I listened to Skelley discuss his time writing about the infamous exhibition, “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” (Museum of Contemporary Art 1992), urban design, and architecture. I imagined a different L.A. superimposed upon the present through the lens of Jack Skelley.

Reflecting on McCarthy’s exhibition, there is a tangential connection between his mythic world and Skelley’s phantasms. Deconstructing and appropriating Snow White and the Disneyland joy ride Pirates of the Caribbean, McCarthy, like Jack Skelley, uses Disney archetypes to explore an underground psyche. In Skelley’s recent poetry collection, Interstellar Theme Park (BlazeVOX), he investigates, as Tony Trigilio writes, “the radiant debauchery of contemporary popular culture.” Skelley has always prized the contemporary to arrive at circuitous ways of analyzing consumer culture, pop icons, toys and contraptions, and always the immediate frenzy of music and experimentation before all else.

The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker (sometimes acronymed FOKA) publishes June 6. Written between 1984 and 1987, it comprises a very specific Los Angeles crossed with Skelley’s high-energy prose, twenty-something sexual obsessions, and sinister corporate surrealism. The novel was first published by Illuminati Press, as well as in multiple magazines. Semiotext(e) will publish the entirety for the first time, connecting several literary circles. At the urging of Kathy Acker’s literary executor and artist and writer, Matias Viegener, Skelley submitted it to Semiotext(e)’s Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti. It is a striking document of a specific Los Angeles (including the vibrant Beyond Baroque literary/arts community) through the zany haze of Jack Skelley’s mind. We discuss the meaning of literary friendships, Jung, the nature of language, William Blake, eschatology, and, of course, Disneyland.

Taylor Lewandowski: There’s this youthful rage and playfulness in Fear of Kathy Acker, alongside references to Reagan, the L.A. punk scene (e.g., Redd Kross), Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center, and great drives across Los Angeles from Torrance to Hollywood to Highland Park and back. How does this novel capture a moment?

Jack Skelley: While writing FOKA I was very “in the moment.” I wasn’t asking, “How will this be received in thirty-five years?” So, there are both obscure and recognized references to that period. Many of the names have endured. For example, Lawndale, my band, played with Sonic Youth many times. We were on the same record label, SST. They’re in the book.

This was not meant to be a memoir. And yet, much of it details my immersion in the L.A. lit and art scene, which included the Dennis Cooper “gang,” of Amy Gerstler, Benjamin Weissman, Bob Flanagan, Sheree Rose (Bob’s partner and artistic collaborator), David Trinidad, Ed Smith, Kim Rosenfield, and others. Benjamin, Bob, Sheree, and Ed make novel appearances of one kind or another.

The Beyond Baroque community was central to me, along with the art and music scenes. We’re talking from 1979 through 1984. That was the time I worked at Beyond Baroque. It was—and remains—the influential literary/arts center in Venice. At the time, Dennis Cooper elevated its reading series into a nationally recognized venue. I served various roles, including producing the music series, booking now-legendary punk bands: X, Wall of Voodoo, Meat Puppets, Minutemen. After Dennis left, Benjamin Weissman and I took over the performance series. When I left in ’84, Benjamin kept it going, but those were the crucial years for me. The novel takes place around that time and shortly after.

Were you were born and raised in Los Angeles?


You’ve always lived in Los Angeles?

Except during college.

Where did you go to college?

I went to California State University Humboldt. Way up in northern California. As far away from L.A. as you can get and still be in the State system!

Maybe it’s because I grew up in Indiana, but there seems to be some fantastical associations with L.A. Obviously Hollywood, but you also include in Fear of Kathy Acker and in your recent poetry collection, Interstellar Theme Park, the figures of Disney and William Blake, which oddly serve as a great way to describe Los Angeles.

Hmmm. Wow. How do you see the connection between Disney and William Blake?

Every time I’m in Los Angeles, I have these spiritual experiences that have nothing to do with drugs, but conversations or feelings that arise while I’m there. It’s often a series of events that speak to me in a certain way. Maybe that’s my own mythological projection or something.

I’m glad you have that experience. I imagine it can be very strange for an outsider. It is dream-machine central. This is where television, film, and music are created, and the narratives that define the culture at large. Disneyland may represent the dominant twentieth century myth-making apparatus.

This is a huge theme throughout my life and work. To this day I literally dream about Disneyland, and Disney symbologies are ingrained in the psyche. On a simply biographical level, I grew up always wanting to be at Disneyland. It was a pilgrimage that you made as a kid. But on a deeper level, its myths worm into your consciousness. And here, images of the dark ride, for example, overlap with Jungian archetypes of the labyrinth, the hero’s quest, and other alchemy-adjacent symbols that thinkers such as Carl Jung and Camille Paglia seized upon, and which poets have mined forever. Writer Norman M. Klein has fascinating takes on these.

But, since I was raised here, I have a particularly jaded perspective that wants to mock or undermine Disney. Irony towards received narratives is an obligatory function of being a writer in this day and age. Fear of Kathy Acker offers climactic scenes with the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Adventure Thru Inner Space.

In the preface, you mention Chris Kraus, Hedi El Kholti, Matias Viegener, Dennis Cooper, Amy Gerstler, and Sabrina Tarasoff as catalysts for this book. Those, I assume, are some of the people you reconnected with through the installation, “Beyond Baroque,” by Sabrina Tarasoff (part of “Made in L.A.: 2020,” by Hammer Museum and Huntington Library).

Correct. Sabrina was new to me. I hadn’t known her. But her astounding installation was a reconnection with Dennis. He, Amy, Benjamin, and myself are close friends again. David Trinidad too. We never completely lost touch, but now we’re hanging out quite a bit, which is a supreme gift.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of literary friendships, which sounds sappy, but I think it is important. How have these friendships impacted you over the years? What does it mean to have a literary friendship?

The literary universe—yours and mine—is a microcosm. It is an underpowered subset of much larger universes that are indifferent to our art. Therefore, relationships are crucial. They’re how you become inspired. You learn from each other, you share your work, and help each other get published and heard. I’m really happy you’re starting a bookstore in Indianapolis, because you’re helping to create a community that prioritizes the imagination: writing, music, and the arts. That’s incredibly fulfilling. Art-making, on this level, becomes an interpersonal experience.

Yeah. I’d argue the relationships provide the real productive dimension to the creative work. The books, if lucky, are what stand the test of time, but everything that surrounds this tangible thing is what provides some meaning in all our lives. I was also talking about this recently with someone, about the idea of literature creating consciousness. Yes, like Fear of Kathy Acker is pointing to this very specific moment in the eighties, but also preserves these relationships and creates new ones. It’s somehow creating space in our consciousness. It’s the only medium that you’re inside someone’s mind.

That is so true, right? It’s the only way to enter or share someone’s consciousness. Language, in the largest sense, creates culture, which is the prism of experience. The “reality” that humans take for granted is a construct of language. So when writers deliberately deploy—and creatively disrupt—language, they bridge our separate ids or recreate these constructs. They are “speaking their mind,” as you suggest.

Which is really a high level of communication. It’s timeless in a way. It reminds me of this part in the novel, where you write:

Words are a projection of desire and grammar is emotive. . . . But Language exists to fuck society’s constrictions up the butt. Language is the tool of the visionary, the anarchist, the child, the artist, the saint, the lover and Bob Flanagan. Everything else which sounds like Language but is really words used to corrupt people or chop them into little bite-size pieces is not Language, but Clop. Clop is something people swallow to kill themselves.

It’s a great excerpt! It also connects to what we’re discussing. So, thinking about Language as “the tool of the visionary” and the end of the sentence, “Bob Flanagan,” how are these ideas connected?

People tend to gravitate towards that passage. It starts as a cliché. You’ve heard it: “Poetry is the language of the lover, the madman, the saint, etc.” I extended that list into more dimensions. I remember wanting to comically climax the list with a particular poet: Bob Flanagan, because Bob represented that power. Language lived within him. He was one of the greatest improvisers I have ever seen. His work was brilliant, meaningful, sad, and super funny, especially concerning his own death, which was always imminent. We’re fortunate that Bob’s writing is coming out soon in a long-needed collection, because his poetry is hard to find. He’s known more for his performances—many with Sheree Rose, which were of course amazing, and now the poetry will be heard.

I’m very excited about it. I haven’t had the chance to read any of his work.

It’s beautiful. He epitomizes the strength and exquisite constraints of language for me.

What do you mean exactly?

It lived in him. A living, breathing entity. I was in two bands with Bob. One was Planet of Toys, which was basically a punky pop group in which we co-wrote songs. There was another band, Idiot Bliss. That was myself, Bob Flanagan, and Mike Kelley, and supporting people. The concept of Idiot Bliss was complete improvisation. There were no setlists, no chord charts, no song titles. We’d get on stage, I’d start playing a riff. Mike Kelley joined on drums. And Bob would start singing. We’d create songs in the moment with just one rule: They had to be under three minutes. Bob would do it every time, creating a complete song, with verse, chorus, bridge, and then we’d start a new one. Sometimes Mike would sing, too. He was a maniac!

Strangely, even though this force was so vital in Bob, he always had terrible writer’s block. Some of his books, such as The Fuck Journal, are diaristic end-runs around this block. He assigned himself a task: I will force an entry every day for a year, hopefully about fucking. Often it became about not fucking, which was also interesting. These are chunks of prose—loose, free, amusing. At the same time, his poetry is very formalistic, packed with high-level wordplay. These took him a long time to hammer out. His poetry collection The Wedding of Everything—included in this new anthology—has a poem called “Fear of Poetry,” which is all about that block. It’s spectacular and became his signature poem during the Beyond Baroque days.

So you can see how constraints were essential to Bob both artistically and as an S/M bondage performance artist.

Who was an early inspiration? Possibly someone who made this tangible, or enacted the idea that this could be a real vocation for you.

David Trinidad, Amy Gerstler, and I often reflect on discovering poets such as Frank O’Hara. Those “I do this, I do that” poems give you the license to write about—to enshrine and elevate—the most seemingly prosaic experiences.

I also acknowledge the work of Elaine Equi and Jerome Sala. These were then—and remain today—great pop-culture poets. All of us members of Dennis Cooper’s “gang” reveled in cartoons, TV, movies, ads, pop music. During this period, Dennis would write an insane story about The Flintstones and Amy wrote about Archie comics. David Trinidad still mines this field. And we all extend this freedom of subject matter till today.

Kathy Acker provided an equal license, but in prose. Her novels were just breaking into the lit world in the early 1980s, and I remember exclaiming, “You mean you can write about sex in the most flagrant way? Wow, you can do anything in prose!” I was blown away. It’s not just sex. It’s her whole approach to dismantling the novel, and all the conventions it represents: politics, language, family. Blood and Guts in High School is full of outrageous political rants. The most audacious statements possible.

It’s interesting to think of the period when Fear of Kathy Acker first appeared, because this is the genesis of the whole “autofiction” thing. That genre, which has now exploded, didn’t exist then. I mean, Kathy Acker wasn’t the first person to fuck with first-person narration, and not the first to gleefully steal from other sources—two freedoms that inspired Fear of Kathy Acker. But her approach stimulated me and others. Writers such as Chris Kraus ran with it, and now this genre, although perhaps ill-defined, resonates with new generations. Kathy Acker was the Velvet Underground of autofiction.

I’m so fascinated by these writers, like you, Dennis Cooper, Chris Kraus using the contemporary through a thin veil of autobiography to write about issues they’re preoccupied with in a tense, dramatic way.

It’s fun to explore the deliberate muddying of the autobiographical author with the first-person narrator. The “I” pretends to be the author, while giving the reader a nudge-and-wink that, of course, “I” am a fictional character. It’s a vehicle that allows the writer—and the reader, vicariously—to travel in any direction. In Fear of Kathy Acker this includes some far-out places, as “Jack” anxiously—“tensely” as you say—peers through the minds of his friends, sexual yearning, drug trips, hangovers, societal illusions, capitalist oppression and even the nature of the ego within the cosmos, struggling to pinpoint his “real” identity. Sabrina Tarasoff provided an incredibly psychedelic Afterword to the book which illuminated me decades after creating this thing. She writes, “No point in trying to wake-up from the hallucination of self. It drifts in the obscurity of others’ interpretations, in mirror mazes, mirages and holographic rooms, in static transmissions and blaring miscommunications: The ‘I’ 4ever dreaming in a faux real distorted by perceptions.” Sabrina Tarasoff’s essay is inspired equally by astronomy (the search for invisible matter in the “cool universe” of deep space) and by Disneyland. (Yes, she is a Disney obsessive as well!)

That’s another example of the power of literature in a lot of ways, because the I on the page is not you, or like when I’m writing, it’s fragments of things I’ve experienced crossed with the imagination through the multitude of associations the reader brings to the text. And when it’s working on a high level, it exists as a real person.

I was conscious of this back then. There’s a passage in FOKA called “BUT THAT DIDN’T REALLY HAPPEN.” The narrator admits many of these experiences didn’t “really” happen to him, but perhaps to his friends. There’s a tension in that, because people reflexively want to know what’s autobiographical and what’s not. When you read Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, the tension becomes excruciating. “Did she really do all these outrageous things?”

In FOKA, the anxiety of identity can flip to hyper-elation. For example, there is this section employing Disneyland’s Monsanto Adventure Thru Inner Space:


At the end of Fear of Kathy Acker, you have an index of people who appear in the novel, which is something you added just prior to publication. In regards to an anecdote about Lydia Lunch, you write, “I’m sorry. I take it all back,” which is funny.

Yes, there’s a passage where Jack invites Lydia Lunch to do a reading. He walks away from the experience annoyed about her New York attitude. I actually think she’s great and I’m very happy she’s performing these days. I should send her the book.

What does Fear of Kathy Acker speak to in the present? Why publish this now?

I’ve received wonderful feedback from strangers out of the blue, including very young people. One reviewer tells me he will attempt to “write through” the voice of the novel. That would be a fitting transference of Kathy Acker’s inspiration through me to another writer. I’m hoping there are themes in the book that transcend time and place, even though it’s rooted in the Los Angeles of the 80s art scene. Perhaps themes of a hyper sex drive, hanging with friends, taking mushrooms or getting drunk and going to parties, thinking about consciousness and language and other big ideas—sometimes all on the same page—are enduring themes.

Totally. And you talk about Ronald Reagan as this overlording, shadow figure, which has its parallel to today.

The concept of language as a controlling construct extends to the Reagan political apparatus and marketing domination. Reagan is an emblem for all that. He took over the political cultural space. As a symbol this was everywhere, manipulating millions of minds. Reagan’s slogan was “Make America Great Again.” That was his tagline. Trump stole that.

Yes. Those themes. Those very American themes are unfortunately always present.

There’s a scene during the 1984 Olympics when Reagan is controlling TV and the narrator yells, “Death to the Megacorporations!” over and over again. That was more Acker-esque or maybe William Burroughs-esque hyperbole, because it felt good to trash such overbearing capitalism!

What are you working on next?

I’m extending these themes of language and consciousness into social media algorithms, artificial intelligence, sexual and gender mutations, human evolution, and planetary catastrophe. And I’m trying new forms, including mock hypotheses. My new manuscript has the working title of Myth Lab: Theories of Eros and Eschatology. I may eliminate that last word, because no one knows what the hell eschatology means. It’s a theological term denoting the study of the end of time, the end of creation. It asks, what happens to the human soul when technology exponentially compresses with consciousness to a conclusion.

Taylor Lewandowski is a writer from Indianapolis, Indiana. He has written for Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, Forever Magazine, and The Gay & Lesbian Review, among other publications.

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