Today in Literary History – April 18, 1947 – novelist and poet Kathy Acker is born

Kathy Acker, the postmodern novelist and punk poet was born in New York City on April 18, 1947. She died in 1997 at the age of 50 in Tijuana, Mexico, where she was pursuing alternative treatments for breast cancer.

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Acker came from a wealthy New York family, but her father, Donald Lehman, left her mother before her birth. Acker’s birth name was Karen Alexander after her mother’s new partner, Albert Alexander, whom her mother eventually married.

Acker didn’t get along with her mother and step-father and was estranged from them for most of her life even though they continued to support her financially. In her excellent biography of Acker (which I recently read) Chris Kraus notes how Acker’s friends were puzzled by her protests of poverty while she was still able to afford homes in various cities.

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Acker’s work is difficult to classify, and for me at least some of it is very hard going. She employed pastiche and recycled works of other writers as well as scripted dialogue. She was influenced by the drug-and-violence-themed work of William S. Burroughs as well as his “cut-up technique” of scrambling text to lose the sense of continuity or chronology.

Later in her career her books, with heavy elements of autobiography, became more accessable. She had some mainstream success with books like 1984’s Blood and Guts in High School. She also began to publish prose, mostly on feminist issues, in publications such as The Guardian.

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She was also prominent as a punk poet and performance artist in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1970s. Acker had a definate punk aesthetic. She was elaborately tattooed and had many body-piercings. She also worked at bodybuilding and dressed with a unique cheap-chic style.

In the end, it is easy to her as a postmodern Oscar Wilde, who famously said “my life is like a work of art.”

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