The first time I met Ken Pienkos, Antioch’s librarian, I complimented his shoes. In the midst of the mayhem of my first residency, I’d found unexpected solace in his joyful pacing up and down the aisles of the computer lab. I wanted to thank him for it, but didn’t know how. Like the dot at the bottom of an exclamation point, his candy red feet were the obvious thing to note, turning an ordinary business suit into something remarkable. He offered a surprised, “thanks,” and returned to ready for his lecture on how to use Sakai.
Just a few days before flying to L.A. to begin my MFA, I’d watched The Red Shoes, a 1948 movie adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s story about a ballerina who dreamed of being the greatest in the world. She would have given anything to be the best and so, when offered the chance, she put on the cursed red shoes to dance the greatest dance that had ever been, the one that would dance her to death. In the computer lab, Ken regaled us with tid-bits about Antioch’s social justice history (the school stopped giving grades during the Vietnam conflict so its students wouldn’t qualify for the draft). I wondered what secret fire Ken’s red shoes symbolized. I wondered if the world could handle it.
By the time I met Ken, he’d been a librarian for most of his career, and I suppose that’s how most people at Antioch know him. But in the sincere and eager way he smiled at everyone he passed, I got the sense his presence on campus was more enduring than his six years at the University might suggest. He seemed to know everyone, from every department, and not just by name but by academic interest, too. Before arriving at school, the library seemed an aside, but Ken was an embodied reminder that the library was at the core of our education. And, as an alum of the MFA program himself, he holds an intimate knowledge of the school’s transformative power. “I didn’t start calling myself a writer until graduation day,” he says to me on our video call, no matter that he’d been writing for the better part of twenty years.
Ken started writing in 2001, just after his father died, after the twin towers fell, and after “I realized I wasn’t going to die like everyone else I knew,” he says. “I’d gotten very ill in the late 90s, like everyone who contracted HIV early on, I nearly died. But I was lucky because these Protease inhibitors came out in 1996—the famous cocktail. When I first started the cocktail it was eighteen pills a day. But I got through that time, and watched my T-cells grow and the viral load diminish, and that made me question: what do I want out of life? If I can have anything in the world, what do I want? And it was to write.”
In early 2002, he went to Turkey where he wrote his first young adult novel. Soon after, he moved to L.A. where, for the first time, he entered into a community of queer creatives, many of whom were also living with HIV. In their company, and eventually Antioch’s, Ken wrote essays and poetry and theater—in December he performed an autobiographical segment he wrote for a collaborative piece with Queerwise. In the packed auditorium at the Skylight Theater a lone spotlight shining on Ken, he resurrected a moment that came perhaps twenty years too late when a young doctor said: yes, you’re healthy, but have you dealt with the trauma of this disease?
Ken talks reverently about the rare times, like that one on stage, when his art allowed him to feel free, as if he’d actually achieved the intimate liberation he was after in his art. “But it was fleeting,” he says. “Always fleeting.” There is a particular kind of pain in expressing oneself clearly only to see it inspire fear in someone else. Eventually, Ken grew weary of the seeming incomprehensibility of the grief he carried, just like he did in the midst of our conversation when Ken pauses to ask if it’s all I want to talk about. It’s not. I want to talk about Ken, I say, about the man standing on top of red shoes, always with a smile that expresses a keen interest in, and love for others. I wonder if there’s a name for that kind of come-as-you-are hospitality that seems to be in such short supply nowadays.
“Librarianship,” Ken says, “a word that spell check will always tell you doesn’t exist.” We both laugh. “It’s a word that we start using in library school and hold on to as a coveted professional statement. For librarians, it encompasses the freedom to read, the right to access information, the objectivity required of a librarian. We vow to provide information about anything to anyone, to never restrict or censor.” He offers an example: say someone comes into a library and wants to learn how to build a bomb. “I will show them how to find that information, offer ways to consider it, and then invite them to draw their own conclusions—to initiate their own sense of value and responsibility.”
It’s a nice idea, I think—librarianship—but I imagine it takes a certain kind of courage, and trust, to implement every day of a lifelong career. But then there is Ken’s face on the screen, as patient and sure as ever, and I know he was meant for this vocation. It’s easy to imagine Ken could sit forever in Antioch’s library where he was so at home, but he won’t. He’s already gone. In June of 2019, Ken left his position with the University to move with his husband and two dogs to Palm Springs. He’s still working with the department from afar, heading up the inspiration2publication program as it expands to new audiences, and starring in a new, online library orientation that will be offered to MFA students before they arrive on campus for their first residency.
“I’m so glad you’ll still be the face welcoming students to Antioch,” I say in bittersweet recognition of his transition, secretly a little sad they will never get to see his red shoes. But I know Ken’s heart of fire will be self-evident.
“Years after they graduate, students will tell me they hear my voice in their head when they’re writing and doing research,” he says, smiling. “I hope that I have inspired people to identify their core values, to always assess them, to always seek their own sense of personal truth. That’s what intimate liberation is. Trust it. Because it’s fleeting.”
At the end of our call, it’s hard for both of us to say goodbye, perhaps because it symbolizes more than just the end of the interview. We small talk instead. Ken tells me about his trips to the grocery store where he has sometimes-too-long conversations with the eighty-year-old women who frequent the store. He tells me about treasure-hunting at the local flea market, of the time he accidentally bought a real Kandinsky for twelve dollars. He talks about how it feels good to be in Palm Springs, to blend in as just another guy on the street. But, of course, he’s a little lonely, too, and he talks about how hard it is to have time—the writer’s blessing and their curse. Maybe that’s why we both linger on the call, two writers content to have a little company in the midst of another day.
But Ken has to get back to work. He’s just finishing a children’s book about two kids growing up during the fires of Los Angeles. How lucky kids will be to learn about perseverance and kindness and hope from Ken, like so many of us have.