An excerpt from Kevin Killian's
Keynote Talk: "Activism, Gay Poetry, AIDS in the 1980s"
Let me hold on to this figure, as an example of gay poetry in the 1980s, for Jack Sharpless was subject to all of the winds and weathers that raged the eighties. He is forgotten today, though I say that knowing that one or more of you is probably writing about him, for the academic readers who rejected our Spicer biography complained that Spicer was forgotten, and maybe no man or woman is entirely forgotten, but Sharpless was a strange case in that, during his whole career, he was so little known he never published a single poem in America. People wondered who was this dude. But even those people have died. Years after his death, Gnomon Press in Kentucky published a brilliant edition of his collected poems, “Presences of Mind.” Like the statue of Ozymandias, it remains. We thought of Jack Sharpless as San Francisco’s gay Zufoksky, if that isn’t redundant, and his partisans were Zukofsky’s. Duncan, who owned Zukofsky, proclaimed Jack Sharpless the best poet of his generation. Guy Davenport and Jonathan Williams wrote blurbs, and Ronald Johnson edited the book. He and Thom Gunn both loved him. He was like, the A-guy. He was two years older than I, he was my peer. When he died he was 37.
In England he was better known, and twice captured an important UK prize for best poem of the year, shocking poetry fans both here and there. I had an important point to make that drew out how San Francisco was England’s mirror, as much as it is Japan’s, and Peru’s. But I want to keep focused on gay poetry as I knew it, and how AIDS came along and brought the curtain down on a glittering world. Foucault denied it existed, AIDS, he claimed it was only American anti-sexual hysteria. Edmund White, too, I remember drinking with him at the Mirage, and he telling us that AIDS would never come to France. It wouldn’t dare. I was once angry with Ed Dorn and Tom Clark for the mocking cartoon they ran in Rolling Stock, of a beaker filled with red tainted blood poured across the names of the winners of the AIDS Awards for Poetic Idiocy. I waged a fatwa against them, well that’s what Dale Smith called it, and I would see red, literally, when I thought of how they had hounded Steve to death, but finally I came to see how it could have been anyone’s iconoclasm that did them in, under the guise of cultural satire, it could have been mine, for at first there was no way to predict how terrible AIDS was going to be. If I pushed the culprits closer to their deaths that’s my sin, and yet it didn’t take long to know this was going to be a war filled with sin on both sides. “I do not forget. I do not forgive,” I wrote, years later in my open letter to the Buffalo-based magazine Apex of the M. “A great wrong has been done and memory will never be silent. Memory persists in squawking its fool head off trying to make sense of the evil done to innocent sufferers. I’m hysterical today, let my hysteria explode inside the great white apex of Ed Dorn’s heart.” I was always hoping that my words would carry me away with them, like the figure in the barrel over Niagara Falls, so that the things I saw and did with my own eyes would recede, the casual cruelty, the malice, the spectacle of me, Kevin, poring through the used poetry section at Greenapple and tsk tsking when I recognized the books of Steve Abbott, the books of Ron Johnson, the books of Sam D’Allesandro, and all the beautiful things that came my way via this madness.
--Excerpts from Kevin's talk will appear at Publishing Genius and the piece in its entirety will be published in Paideuma. For a picture of Jack Sharpless, visit Mark I. Chester's web site here.