Kathy Acker, Pirate


Speaking of icons being people …  here’s an odd piece of memory to add to the mix. Way back in 1997, I was enlisted as the lighting person for a performance of the Kathy Acker-Mekons operetta Pussy, King of the Pirates, an adaptation of Acker’s novel Pussy, King of the Pirates, at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Then, just two months before her death, Acker was very frail. The Mekons were very rowdy. Throughout the weekend the whole thing teetered on the verge of implosion, held together only by wheatgrass juice (Acker) and whiskey (Mekons).

It was my first up-close encounter with either and I remember being so confused! The Mekons were a six?—eight? twelve?—person ball of howling chaos; Acker was thin and reserved, clearly gravely ill but silent on just with what, and saving her every energy for the moment when, perched on a stool onstage, she would did down deep into her abdomen and declaim: “THE WHOLE FUCKING WORLD COME DOWN AND BREAK, THE MOON EQUALS CRACKS IN MY CUNT.”

The show was a filthy, glorious mess of disco-dancing lesbian pirates and rickety plywood props, and I was totally besotted with it, and with her. To me, in that moment, in her wracked body, Kathy Acker became an icon off the page as well as on.  After she died that November, I went through a ravenous stretch, revisiting work of hers I had barely understood on first reading, and somewhere in there came across the three-part essay “The Gift of Disease,” published earlier that year in the Guardian. I read it like a sacred text, in which Acker-the-icon offered up her humanity on a spit. This rare thing disappeared from the internet for years, but when I went looking for it recently, I was overjoyed to find it had been republished last year in both English and Spanish by the blog Outward from Nothingness:

The Gift of Disease, part 1

The Gift of Disease, part 2 

The Gift of Disease, part 3

The MCA show was—sadly? wisely?—not documented, but I did find this hilariously terrible video snippet from another performance online. And if you’re in Chicago, next month, by a strange coincidence, two Mekons are back at the MCA, this time doing David Bowie.

Martha Bayne is a writer and editor in Chicago. She is editor-in-chief of Belt Magazine, an ensemble member with Chicago's Theater Oobleck, and author of Soup & Bread Cookbook: Building Community One Pot at a Time (Agate, 2011), a narrative cookbook drawn from the long-running community meal project she organizes at Chicago's Hideout bar. For more go here; find her on Twitter @marthabayne. More from this author →