“Interstellar Theme Park: A Conversation with Jack Skelley” — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Jack’s Skelley’s books: Monsters (Little Caesar Press), Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson (Fred & Barney Press), Interstellar Theme Park: New and Selected Writing (BlazeVOX) and Fear of Kathy Acker, publishing May, 2023, on Semiotext(e). Jack was editor and publisher of Barney: The Modern Stone-Age Magazine, an anthology series featuring major artists and writers. He is songwriter and guitarist for psychedelic surf band Lawndale (SST Records). Jack is also a publicist and journalist and regularly contributes to many magazines and journals.

Instagram: @helterskelley   https://www.instagram.com/helterskelley/

Twitter: @JackSkelley https://twitter.com/JackSkelley

KMD:  How did you discover BlazeVOX Books as a venue for publication?  

JS: Poet and essayist David Trinidad, a good and trusted friend, referred me to BlazeVOX. Of David’s dozens of books, two appear on BlazeVOX, including his literary memoir, Notes on a Past Life. I’ve found the publisher easy to work with and surprisingly efficient! It just a few short weeks between submitting my final copy to receiving printed proofs. Publisher Geoffrey Gatza was also very open to my ideas for including art in the book. I like all my books to have art, if possible.

KMD:  Your Author’s Intro cites as themes “the preposterous yet tenacious expression of the mythic in the personal –the poly-verse of sexual personae that molds our identities” How does the book manifest this?  

JS:  “Sexual Personae” is the title of feminist art historian Camille Paglia’s encyclopedia of imagery in art, music, movies, etc. through the ages. I return often to that brick-thick book, among other inspirations. Many – maybe most – of the poems and stories in Interstellar Theme Park play with ancient archetypes and how they filter into daily experience. This iconography expands in sexual, cosmological dimensions. At the highest levels, creation myths may encompass the jealous daddy-god Yahweh or the pan-gender deities of heretical Gnostic scriptures. And all may be sourced in the human psyche. Those entities and many others appear in the book, in updated dress.

My poem “The Gospel of Elon,” for example, revels in forbidden Gnostic forces of angel warriors, “mother-father emanations,” and an Adam powerful enough to dethrone God. Those old Gnostic texts (relatively recently discovered) are almost psychedelic, with long lists of celestial names and cosmic powers, and with sacrilegious doctrines of “redemption by sin” and sexual/spiritual liberation. As if these concepts aren’t outrageous enough in their original forms, the poem inflates and conflates them with contemporary sex icons, divas, pronouns and practices, as well as today’s billionaires, autocrats and bureaucracies. Hence the “Elon” of the title, who suddenly has front-page cache, doesn’t he?

A few of my texts are explicitly Paglian. “Tippi Hedren’s Talons” – one of a series of “Ekphrastic Movie Reviews” – takes the position that Alfred Hitchcock’s inscrutable heroine in The Birds is a highly cultured female defense against nature and its pandemics.

Tippi Hedren’s Talons

Plague-like and airborne, 
“Angry Nature” swarms 
to peck and claw civilization
to ruins – but not before 
haughty Tippi Hedren
wards-off the harpies 
with her blood-red
lacquer tips (and matching 
lips), poison-ivy suit, 
a Valkyrie helmet of hair, 
and about 17 cigarettes.

KMD:  Interstellar Theme Park also makes adept use of collages.  Can you speak to the importance of visual rhetoric in a literary text?  

JS: I love your question because visual rhetoric can appear in many forms. The book has nine original collages by Erin Alexander Including the cover art. I asked this darkly imaginative artist to illustrate themes from the eight sections of the book. The metaphoric titles include “Planet of Toys” and “Toxic Assets.” Collage is a post-modern medium: Like literary devices such as cut-up and the unreliable narrator, it is intertextual and “translexical”: Multiple source materials recombine and trade contexts in the minds of the audience.

Of course literary texts are inherently imagistic in every sense. (Even if the writer can’t draw a straight line, like me!) I recently found this quote by Anahid Nersessian about John Keats (from Nersessian’s new book Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse):  “The word that gets used most often in conjunction with Keats is sensuous. He is fascinated by how things feel, and by the capacity of metaphor to register the dizzying strangeness of being a body among others. “

Physical alienation feels more contemporary than ever, explaining the popularity of film and fiction genres such a body horror. Parts of Interstellar Theme Park touch on this. In “Phantom Body,” the absence of a lover manifests as ghostly dismemberment. In “Sack-Of-Skin Questionnaire,” an interrogative litany starts with, “Do you ever feel that being alive is shockingly bizarre?” And in “Artificial Heart,” the pumping organ is the bloody mess of romance.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a writer, you are an accomplished publicist and copywriter.  How has your career path empowered you as a creative practitioner?  

JS: I recently discussed this with a close writer friend who is a top-level ad copywriter, Jerome Sala, and who also just published a book, How Much? New and Selected Poems.

Jerome and I discussed how both ad copy and poetry may be powered by concision. For me, the most impactful taglines are the shortest: seven words or less of pure definition or motivation. Like epigrams. That’s not to say I don’t also love expansive, unconstrained verse and fiction. But I want every word to count. Which is why puns and wordplay – where a turn of phrase packs more than one meaning, making a little brain-orgasm – are so important in all kinds of writing. Including commercial writing. I also like to toy with marketing forms. My poem “Athena Del Rey” (in Interstellar Theme Park) is composed as a press release, for example.

KMD:  What’s next?  What can readers look forward to?

JS: The final section of Interstellar Theme Park – excerpts from my “secretly legendary” novel Fear of Kathy Acker—is a bridge to my next book. The highly respected literary press Semiotext(e) will publish The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker in May, 2023. Its publishing evolution is unique and bizarre. I wrote the novel way back in the 1980s. Parts of it appeared in chapbooks (Illuminati Press) and journals over the years. And it has had a cult readership all this time. But the entire book was never published in its entirety until now.

The essential text remains unchanged. And the book is not “about” Kathy Acker. Aside from the title, a couple playful name drops, and one brief passage that steals from her, KA doesn’t appear in the novel. But her vastly funny, scary, sexy opportunities for expression hit me at a susceptible period. I had little conscious concept of what I was doing (partly) under KA’s influence. But I saw how writing can go anywhere and do anything. It was a creative explosion.

To contextualize its time-capsule quality – and to celebrate its long-delayed birth – this edition includes essays by two magnificent authors: poet Amy Gerstler and curator Sabrina Tarasoff. It will also have an index of places and people found in the book, from Dodger Stadium to Madonna, and a corresponding illustrated map of L.A. I’ll also create a playlist of music from the period.

And I’m now writing my next book after that: a collection of stories and other prose pieces with the working title Walt Disney’s Head.