The Killians Are More Than Just An Ale—They’re An Art

RealClear Staff


     There are a lot of artisan ales and craft breweries booming out there—more power to ’em—but what about the beers that’ve kept constant throughout the centuries? There’re brews that are bred from family tradition, hops and a lot of hard work. And nobody knows labor like the Irish—we’re talking Killian’s of course. Their story spans almost 200 years entailing a time-consuming craft that enabled them to immigrate from Enniscorthy, Ireland, to America.

[George Killian Lett | Source: YouTube]

Killian’s may not be the “cool” beer right now, but it’s a work of art in its own right—red or black, it’s always a safe bet. Like any great artisan ale, there’s always an artist behind it all. Their brew brings to mind another Killian whose hard work has put him in art history until the end of time.

While well known as a poet, playwright, author and editor, much of the time, you can catch Kevin Killian imparting his craft onto California College of the Arts students. But I didn’t see him in San Francisco; I caught Killian in Chicago—he was solicited to do a big piece for a major publication. To get out of the cold and off the streets of the Gold Coast neighborhood, we wandered into the most appropriate of pubs—The Kerryman.

I dispensed with the small talk and squared up to the man, to dig right in with my own inquiries. But we didn’t really start speaking until he was poured a pint of Killian’s stout. (Full disclosure, this Killian imparted his craft secrets onto me many years ago.)

RealClear: First and foremost, you went from Frisco to Chitown by sundown. What’s it like to be wearing short sleeves one minute then a sweater the next?

Kevin Killian: I’ve to tell you I’ve not seen snow in 13 years, then I come here and it’s like, ‘What is that white stuff?’

RC: Is there any relation to the famous George Killian—that you know of?

KK: Yes, definitely. My grandparents (all four of them) came from Ireland—‘The Old Country.’ They always boasted their relation to Killian’s Irish Red. I never [had the opportunity to have] met the man. I know very few, Irish people called George anymore—George Bernard Shaw of course, but who else...George Moore. I’m thinking of the members of U2—no Georges there. [It] must’ve been once a proud name.

RC: Killian’s started with a desire to have a “better beer to share with friends,” but when did your craft first kick in? Where were you living?

KK: Maybe it was the 1960s. (...looks away in recollection.) I was impressed by the success of Killian’s Irish Red, so I thought I would be the Killian who was always read—like a book. ...widely read. That’s what started it first for me—a long career of reading as much as I could. I tried to learn from the master (they didn’t have to be Irish; they could be anything). I was living in Long Island, a ‘suburb’ of New York City. It’s its own, little universe.

RC: Can you explain your craft to our readers?

KK: I belong to the New Narrative school, so we believed in writing about...we believe in contradicting the traditional narrative—say someone like Jane Austen, who ends with, er, uh, [Charlotte Bronte’s] Jane Eyre, which ends with “Reader, I married him...” Yeah. So that all novels were supposed to be leading toward marriage. It just didn’t seem like that was the traditional, bourgeois novel. But it seems unrealistic, so we decided to abandon the state in the course of revolutionary-writing action. Our writing would tell a story, but it would also depend heavily on continental theory [and] philosophy of all sorts. We would be interrogating sentences that came along, questioning—‘how do I know this?’—abandoning the traditional widespan prose of the author. The author is like God, and the characters are these little puppets. We became interested in writing about sex, transgressive behavior of all forms; we like to write about gossip...about pop culture. These were the things previously forbidden to serious literature.

RC: Now that those doors are busted open, you’re one of the trailblazers leading the way.

KK: I like to think I’ve a lot of followers, yeah.

[Author Kevin Killian | Photo: Ann Sterzinger]

RC: From the research, that’s a safe bet. What’s the process behind your poetic practices?

KK: Similarly to writing a novel, I thought that writing a poem also had these problems. You’re producing something that had been culturally approved. People would say, “’re a poet”—like you were something fancy and out of the world of daily labor and daily capital. It may be divorced from the market in the way a novel isn’t, because you could always conceivably look at yourself as making money from writing a novel—and only a handful of poets could do that from writing poetry. But as a poet, you could also get what they call ‘cultural capital’ for being highly educated and elite from this guild of people—only a handful of people [truly] understand poetry nowadays, so I wanted to write poetry everybody could understand (that could be accessible).

We enjoyed a short pause, as the bartender served us chips and Worcestershire sauce.

KK: It’s like a poem itself—this bundle of fries. They’re arranged in a dish every which way—it’s like a Picasso sculpture.

RC: A Picasso sculpture about to be seasoned with Worcestershire sauce.

KK: Go for it; that’ll put hair on your chest.

RC: The writing world’s always booming with new blood, and like your Killian’s there, you’ve not always been in the spotlight, but you’ve stayed a staple in your industry. What do you do to remain relevant and on the tip of your followers’ tongues?

KK: First of all, you have to abandon the hope of being relevant. The modern, digital age moves too fast. The things I say today will be old news tomorrow, and nobody will want to hear them. You have to speak from a position of deliberate antiquarianism. Otherwise, you look a bit pathetic, trying to stay young.

RC: You’re not worried at all about becoming irrelevant? Then again, you’ve managed to stay relevant for decades.

KK: Sometimes, I look back on [an event where I read] or read [something I’ve written], and I don’t even understand what is was anymore—it could be from a month ago, and I won’t remember. Possibly, I was inclined to have—hoped to serve the principles of—wrote something that would’ve worked better with some universalism. I run out of mind in my brain for tracks Kylie Minogue, my muse, laid down. Some people would try to trap me. Name a song from a band.

RC: Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

KK: Yeah, and then they would challenge me to play it, say, on the piano. And I could usually do it pretty well—every time. But as a human jukebox, I eventually wore out.

RC: You’re a master of the written word. In your poems and prose, what do you think is the potency that keeps folks following you?

KK: In the New Narrative, I made a specialty of trying to think of the worst things about myself and disclose them. Maybe it’s that confessionalism—that air of honesty that people like. They find it attractive—or they find it repulsive, but it keeps them guessing. I’ve done a lot of terrible things, and I’ve written about all of them.

RC: When teaching your craft to college students, what’s the most important ingredient in that process?

KK: Opening them up, so they’ll realize you don’t have to be a Thomas Pynchon to be a success as a writer. You don’t have to write any, one, which way. You could write 14, different ways on one page, and it would still work for me. Too many students suffer from the bug of consistency. They’re looking for consistency, and people are telling them, “That doesn’t sound like your voice.” Pressures of voice always perplex me. Why should it be their voice? What’s so interesting about their voice? Let’s try other voices—a diversity of voices. Let’s mix up the formal methods. Be willing to jump in the deep end—do something you [normally] wouldn’t do. Be a good sport. When I was a kid, I was always happy to see people who would forget about their dignity, try to do something they didn’t know how to do...jump into it.

RC: Do you ever check up on your apprentices, ensure they’re keeping in line with your intended recipe for great writing?

Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” faded in at the perfect time.

KK: Not ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’...I let them go and grow up. Everybody finds their own way, and you keep changing through life—with writing especially. I think I’ve become simpler as I’ve grown older. My wife feels the same way about her writing—wildly experimental at first, but that doesn’t seem as important. Part of being experimental is the desire to be so and impress people—to seem like you’re brilliant. I don’t want to say you should just ‘be yourself;’ just keep surprising yourself.

[Killian emulating a scene from Battleship Potemkin (1925) | Source:]

RC: You’ve mentored many in your career, but the writing world’s tough to tackle. How many of your mentees actually make it in this field?

KK: In a writing program, maybe five years after graduation, I find only 15-20 percent will still be writing at all—much less achieving success. But those years they spent learning were not a waste. They’re just applying those writing skills somewhere else, doing some other kind of work.

RC: As a mentor, how does that make you feel?

KK: Like a valuable person. Maybe I told them enough hardcore truths to make them stop typing. [Writing’s] not an easy thing to conquer. It’s hard to make money out of it—hard to make a living. I always recommend having some other kind of job.

RC: How do you simultaneously teach, shoot photos, spin yarns and make a marriage work?

KK: I take a lot of naps—that’s my mainstay. Twenty minutes and I’m good to go. I try to cover two or three naps every day—that really gets me going. I get bored easily, so when I’m doing something for half an hour, I stop and do something else—it takes me a long time to finish any, one work (because I never spend enough time on it). But I’m always coming back to it—recycling, recharging through the endless list of tasks (both for writing and art). [That goes for] friendship, love and everything else. I’ve been married for 30 years.

RC: What’s the secret ingredient to your success?

KK: It’s really a matter of outliving everybody and knowing where the bodies are buried.

RC: What do you think is the best thing about George Killian’s ale?

KK: It’s robust and aged in the cellar. I think this particular pint has been aged over 40 years.

[Source: Pinterest]

RC: When taking a pull on your pint, what are some words that come to mind?

KK: Fulfilling, grainy...I taste cheese in it. There’re also some ashes, a little undertone of velvet, almost a hint of sewage—it’s a complex ale.

RC: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

KK: I came from thousands of miles away to sit for this interview—it was worth it! You’re a keen interviewer.

If a famous master of the written word’s inspired to ingratiate this Irish brew with such poetic points, doesn’t it deserve a place on your palate? Keep going with the craft beers, but don’t forget about the foam that has forged friendships for about a bicentennial. Killian’s brew is bent on being a bridge between buddies—especially artists.



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