Jaylan Salah’s tribute to the late poet Kevin Killian

Poetry No Longer Kitsch – In Memory of Kevin Killian

(Tony Greene Era & the Impossible Princess

By Jaylan Salah

Poet Kevin Killian (photo by Daniel Nicoletta)


It’s not unusual these days to have a public celebration of a poet’s –or writer’s- death.

In the age of social media, everything becomes a headline, an outline for a bigger reality. So when Kevin Killian died, and multiple American friends mourned him, I did not expect to feel. I did not expect the thought to eat me from inside. Another dead poet? What should we do so that his troubles and years spent in contemplation and feelings of not belonging should be put to rest?

As a poet myself, I struggle with demons of my own. All the frustrations, mixed emotions, and impulses that define me in defiance of patriarchy, bigotry, and judgment are merely tools through I which I fight what I hate the most. That’s where Killian’s poetry came in handy.

A friend of mine shared this excerpt from Killian’s poetry which made all the difference;

To become obscure
among human beings,

but clearer
in all relations,

I thought to myself, “Weren’t those lines also applicable to me?”

Kevin Killian and The New Narrative

Kevin Killian was born in 1952 on Long Island. He was a member of the 1970s New Narrative movement which –as described in an article in The Paris Review- is a form of poetry and fiction that places the writer as the center of the writing; a form of writing about the writer themselves. Killian included himself in the narrative, he became part of what he wrote.

His death did not come as a shock, but rather a mean to compare the effect and the legacy that his poetry left on readers worldwide. It was my pleasure as a 30 something Egyptian poet to examine his poetry and ultimately, his poetic and human self.

Tony Greene Era and the Mystery of Peeling Oneself for Art

In his poetry collection Tony Greene Era (Wonder, 2017), Killian examines the intimate moments of a casual blowjob that paved the way for a more intimate, nostalgic moment:

…though I put my card into

the breast pocket of your soft white shirt, I know sometimes

I send my shirts to the laundry but miss those pockets

entirely …”

Killian uses the opportunity to freeze a moment and expand it, shirts pile up into the laundry and the card that was forgotten in the breast pocket transforms into crumpled paper, lost as probably the vague, impersonal erotic moment that it represented.

Elements of the American culture and history could be found in Killian’s poetry; the abandoned city of Croatoan, the hot actor back then Mel Gibson, Matt Damon, Obamacare, Mad Men’s titular character Don Draper, in addition to a list of American cities with details defining each one of them separately.

As a queer poet, Killian bravely treads the forbidden ground of female anatomy. He does not fear the forbidden grounds of menstruation;

in the 80s, Chris asked me and Dodie, for a young poet what is the

easiest way to get into Sulfur?

And she said, write about the menstrual cycle,

And he did, and he sent it in, and the editor snapped it up.

Then he ends the verse describing his friend Chris as the “golden boy of the dark red blood cave”.

Wow! Only a poet like Killian can pull this off!

Killian penetrates the deeper layers of the language, using the human body as a tool to explore further linguistic territories, and proving prowess;

Underneath the dermis and the epidermis a wide, flat, interstitial

space takes the shape of a mask,

In a critique of the American society, Killian does not spare his words.

The Soft American

His own back broken he needed to have sex six times a day to relieve it.

Killian toys with language. He curries favors, describes the perhaps and mishaps feelings, crushes walnuts with his nuts, and orders the “poetic movement” to remove the gag, which he refers to as the constrictive bib.

Tear off the bib, Pip, spit up the pap, Pop, shut down the radar, fuck

Pop and Mom.

So which “constrictive bib” is he referring to exactly? The language, the false impression of having to like the poet behind the poem? Societal and personal censorship?

In “He was a Writer”, Killian beautifully states the impossible relationship between a bookstore clerk living a tidy, orderly life and a writer whose main passion is his penis!

Impossible Princess and the Art of Eroticizing the Reader

In his 2009 short story collection Impossible Princess, Killian’s main playground is the narrative style and voice. His stream of consciousness collides with an unreliable narrator; changing coyly from first to third person, defying the very thing that Killian must have –like us modern writers who aspire to belong to the New Narrative- hated the most; sticking to one tense, one gender, one narrative style.

Impossible Princess is everything Killian boasted about his image; sexual, depraved, insane and intimate. You stare into the face of promiscuity with “Cat People”. In “Spurt”, the air was thick and hot like soup, beauty of the language juxtaposes the transition from first to second person, unravelling and revealing his intentions to misdirect us into a tale where we do not have our footing. Who is Kevin talking to?

You can’t swallow fast enough. Your kisses get sloppy, your vision too. All of a sudden there’s a little click in your head, and the first person turns into the second person. That’s you—Kevin. Have another drink.

In an interview with “The Creative Independent”, Killian mentioned how grateful he was for people who wrote about his book, especially those who liked it. It filled me with grief that I did not get the chance to write about him when he was alive; and then would have made a new friend. But my solace lies in the hope that what I write transcends beyond time and generation, reaching many possible “future friends” whose common interest is Kevin Killian’s poetry.

More about Kevin Killian here. 

Author Jaylan Salah

One thought on “Jaylan Salah’s tribute to the late poet Kevin Killian

  1. Pingback: Synchronized Chaos July 2019: Presence and Absence | SYNCHRONIZED CHAOS

Comments are closed.