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Kevin Killian. Photo: Daniel Nicoletta.
Kevin Killian. Photo: Daniel Nicoletta.

Kevin Killian (1952–2019)

Kevin Killian, a poet, novelist, playwright, art critic, scholar, prolific Amazon reviewer, and collaborator and friend to scores of artists, has died. Considered a pioneer of queer literature, Killian was a central figure of San Francisco’s New Narrative movement, which he once said was “not so much a style as a way of living in the world.” Killian wrote and edited poetry and short story collections—including I Cry Like a Baby (2001), Action Kylie (2008), and Tweaky Village (2014)—essays, three novels, a memoir, and more than fifty plays for the San Francisco Poets Theater on topics ranging from AIDS to the films of Whitney Houston. His wife, the novelist, poet, and essayist Dodie Bellamy, confirmed his passing.

Born on December 24, 1952, Killian earned his bachelor’s degree from Fordham University and his master’s degree at Stony Brook University before he moved to San Francisco in 1980. He penned his first novel, Shy—which followed a number of teenage misfits living in Smithtown, Long Island—in 1989, and his most recent novel, Spreadeagle, which took twenty-two years to finish, in 2012.

“Spreadeagle has so much going on—it’s an AIDS Novel, a Gay Novel, a Murder Mystery, a Comedy of Ill Manners, a City Mouse and Country Mouse—but is ultimately a satire of all those genres as well as of the two milieus that the book takes for its setting: San Francisco and a rural Central Valley enclave, the fictional town of Gavit,” Travis Jeppesen wrote in BookforumIf it sounds like a lot to take on, Killian gives himself plenty of space; the novel approaches six hundred pages, every one of which serves as a showcase for its author’s comic genius and wit.”

Throughout his career, Killian worked with Kota Ezawa, Fran Herndon, Colter Jacobsen, Raymond Pettibon, and Ugo Rondinone; had his poems anthologized in Best American Poetry (1988, edited by John Ashbery) and Discontents: New Queer Writers (1992, edited by Dennis Cooper); taught in the MFA program at the California College of the Arts; and—despite the poet Louis Simpson warning him not to waste his time on Jack Spicer in graduate school—coedited Spicer’s posthumously published detective novels and coauthored the biography Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (1998) with Lewis Ellingham.

Killian met Bellamy in 1981. She wrote about their “mixed marriage” in the Village Voice in 2000. In 1992, Killian and Bellamy revived the literary and art journal Mirage, which Killian edited from 1985 to 1989. They gave it a new name, #4/Period(ical), and released more than 150 issues through 2009, when it was shut down (“It was either get fired or submit to an authoritarian rule,” Killian said.).

Among his many accolades are the PEN Oakland Award, which he was given for his short-story collection Little Men (1996); the Lambda Literary Award, which he received for Impossible Princess (2009); and the American Book Award for The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (2008), which he edited with Peter Gizzi.