What a Book Is

Hey gang! I’ve been meaning to get on here and write something smart about books for a while now, but I haven’t been able to. Ya wanna know why? Cuz I got appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery! And wow did it hurt. I’ve spent the last week or so unable to do pretty much anything, but today I seem to have gotten back a bit of my old vim and zest, not to mention the INTELLECTUAL RIGOR you come here for. And since an interesting new title has recently been donated to the East Falls Zine Reading Room, I think I’ll take a moment to tell you about it.

A few weeks ago I attended the Philadelphia Art Book Fair as an exhibitor. We had a table—we being The Soapbox, the DIY print- and book-making center I belong to—and were selling prints, zines, and artists’ books made by our members and giving out information about our upcoming events. We sat next to the folks from Ulises, which is a bookshop and curatorial project that brings out publications, exhibits, and lectures on a different theme each season. They were lovely guys, and I made a trade with them: a few of my zines for a copy of their publication of Ulises Carrión’s The New Art of Making Books. (You can read the full text here.) Carrión, a Mexican conceptual artist, is their project’s namesake.

By this point you may be asking, What is an artist’s book, Katie? My short answer is,
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ! My longer answer is that an artist’s book is a book, but not in the usual way. It’s a piece of art in the form of a book. The artist may make just one of these books, or she may make multiple copies or versions. And sometimes the artist’s book won’t look much like a book at all.

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See, here’s what happens when you google “artists’ books.”

The Ulises edition of The New Art of Making Books does not have a spine and is not otherwise constructed like a book in any way except that it is comprised of text that has been printed onto paper. These prints are stacked up and stapled together at the top. This not-a-book structure helps guide us toward an understanding of Carrión’s definition of a book, which he delineates by differentiating between books of the “old art” and the new.

“In the old art the meanings of the words are the bearers of the author’s intentions. … The words in a new book are not the bearers of the message, nor the mouthpieces of the soul, not the currency of communications. … The words of the new book are there not to transmit certain mental images with a certain intention. They are there to form, together with other signs, a space-time sequence that we identify with the name ‘book.'”

About those “old” books, Carrión goes on to say,

“A book of 500 pages, or of 100 pages, or even of 25, wherein all the pages are similar, is a boring book considered as a book, no matter how thrilling the content of the words of the text printed on the pages might be. … A novel with no capital letters, or with different letter types, or with chemical formulae interspersed here and there etc., is still a novel, that is to say, a boring book pretending not to be such.” Haha! No tea no shade!

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So many layers of meaning.

Because The New Art of Making Books is not really a book, we had to get creative about the way we added it to our collection. Storing unusual publications like these is continually challenging, since we need to protect them but also want to store and display them for ease of use and reading. This hinge clip contraption from the thrift store does the job nicely, and serves to highlight selections from the library.

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Of these three, only Daniel Zender’s Escape Plans, on the left, is a “real” book. This edition of the zine You, on the right, takes the form of a photocopied letter inside of a paper bag.

In Carrión’s manifesto / essay / theory / art piece, he reminds us that in the first place, writers don’t write books, they write texts. Though The New Art of Making Books was first published in 1975, it’s even more relevant now, as I prepare this text you are reading to be “published” not as a book, but on a blog, where it can be accessed for free by anyone connected to the worldwide network known as the Internet. But that’s a conversation—about reading, literature, and the changing nature of literacy—for another day.

All Power to the Imagination!

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A batch of comics and zines from The Soapbox

I’ve been zonked out for a few days now, sick with what I’m calling a cold because I refuse to believe I got the flu after getting a flu shot in December. Also because I had the flu last year, and I remember how much worse that was. Still, I feel like hell. I haven’t gotten out of this armchair for two days, and I haven’t worked on the book I’ve been writing so diligently since the beginning of the year, either. My head hurt so much yesterday that I gave up on reading The Remains of the Day and watched the Merchant Ivory film adaptation instead. It was wonderful. I could look at Anthony Hopkins’ face for hours and not run out of feelings.

I’ve got good company in the form of these comics and zines, too, which is making me feel a little less miserable. I always have tons of zines around my house, but these are ones I haven’t read yet, on loan from The Soapbox, the indie print shop and zine library where I’m a member. On Thursday I’ll bring them to Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Kensington to do a sort of pop-up zine library there, which will consist of a few of us members sitting at a table, drinking coffee and inviting anyone with the interest to join us in some reading. Nice, eh?

And have you heard about Amalgam, by the way, the new place everyone’s so excited about? Like, everyone: Owner Ariell R. Johnson has been blowingUpThe internet. I haven’t been to her shop yet and I’m looking forward to checking it out. Ariell is the first black woman to own a comics shop on the east coast, and one of the few in the whole country. It’s a big deal, and by all accounts she’s doing well and attracting business with her idea to combine comics with good coffee. It’s such a good idea. Why aren’t there more places like this??

So—that’s where we’ll be on Thursday, but for now I’m still stuck in my chair at home, trying to resist the urge to read every single one of these zines before our event. Amazing how these tiny, oddball books stuff my head to overflowing with images and ideas. Some of them have no titles, and on others no author is listed. Plenty of them offer a little information, though, which has led me down a few pleasant rabbit holes of interneting, from websites to blogs to instagrams and new online friends. It’s so interesting to me to see this web of connection—the ways in which it’s the same as it was before the internet as we know it existed, as well as how it’s changed. More than anything, I think, it’s just faster. I remember how it worked in the’90s, when I was a teenager looking for connection. If I was interested in a band or a writer, I’d have to wait for the next issue of Spin or Sassy or one of the dorkier metal music magazines I was into, which always had ads in the back with information on joining fan clubs, getting pen-pals, and ordering t-shirts and tapes. Within zines themselves, writers usually included some kind of contact information so you could write them a letter (which they might print in a subsequent issue of the zine) or send them a copy of one you’d written. The information was out there, and there were networks of people who’d found each other in order to share it. It just took longer. You were dependent on the monthly publishing schedules of magazines and the time it took to send a letter through the mail and get a response. The methods we use to communicate with each other have changed (or at least increased) since then, but our reasons for doing so haven’t.

And actually, old-fashioned print zines still offer something that online publications usually don’t, though I find it hard to articulate exactly what that is. I think it has to do with the idea of an intended audience. When you make a zine—even if you’re writing on an extremely sensitive topic—you can feel a certain freedom to express yourself openly because the circulation is so small and limited. There’s something liberating about both sharing something you’ve written with “the public” and knowing that this public will probably only be a small number of like-minded folks. I suppose the same ends up being true for any number of specialty publications, including literary journals both in print and online—these simply attract fewer readers than big, general interest magazines do. But there’s something different about a form of publishing that exists within a subculture. If the intended audience for a poem or a novel is the world (the universe?), the zine writer’s audience is often understood to be other zine writers—or other anarcha-feminists, or other punks, etc. You get the idea. The readership is so small that zines become one half of a conversation, with an implied call to action in every one: If she did this herself, I could do it too.

A few of the zines in this batch are ones I’ve read before, and looking at them now—and becoming totally engrossed by them again—is reminding me of how much this feeling of membership and participation has meant to me over the years. Zines were my way into a community of artists as well as into punk; I used to read descriptions of house shows and grassroots organizing and think, Oh man, that sounds so exciting, I want that to be my life. All these years later I know how limited and fraught with ego and political bullshit this kind of activism can be—ugh, and I hate the word activism, to be honest, it’s so self-congratulatory; I wish people would stop giving themselves the title activist and just tell me what it is that they do—but the dream of all that is still alive for me. Making things on your own, rather than for school or work. Making things with your friends. Start a band, start a revolution. I know that sounds trite but I mean it, I believe in it. And when I start to feel burnt out or weary or jaded, reading zines gets my blood up again.

One of the zines here is an anthology edited by Cindy Crabb, who I have to remind myself is not actually famous because she’s so well known to zine folks. Her zine Doris has been around since 1991, and has probably encouraged hundreds of girls to give writing and self-publishing a try. This anthology, Support—which is a collection of pieces on sexual abuse and its aftermath—is very powerful, and includes letters people have written to Cindy, which she has reproduced by typing them up on a typewriter. At the end of the zine she lists resources for abuse survivors and the people who care about them, and tells readers they can write to her for a longer list. All of this could have been done online much more quickly and easily, and it’s even cheaper than a photocopy if you use a free blog platform. And I love the internet—for lots of reasons besides its convenience and cost effectiveness to publishers. But there’s something about reading stories or information in a print zine that gives you the sense of having discovered something, and I think that’s uniquely powerful. Disappearing into the zine, feeling the rest of the world go silent and fall away, I could be 8 years old again, or 12, one of those ages when no one wants me to know about the stuff I need to know about, so I find it out for myself at the library, alone in a quiet room with my heart hammering. The fact that this can still happen to me is something I find really stirring and moving and excellent.

The tiny print run of most zines makes them rare; as objects, they’re things you can hold in your hand. When you’re finished reading a zine you can put it in your backpack or away on a shelf, and it doesn’t go back to belonging to the whole world the way things you’ve found on the internet do. It’s yours.

A Good Year for Reading

long2I live and die by my datebook. In fact, since I haven’t marked down a date for my death, it’s likely it’ll never happen.

I use my book to make a note of every event I hear about and want to remember, and I draw up daily lists of tasks I need to do, which I happily cross off as I accomplish each one. Every September I buy myself a new book, since I favor the student ones. Don’t ask me why. I think it may be that I first developed a need for a daily calendar when I was in college, and all these years later I still think in terms of getting a fresh start in the fall.

This year I chose a brand of datebook I’d never used before called Bloom. It’s a really nice book, sprinkled throughout with stirring quotations and “reflections” that are lovely but don’t beat you over the head with their positivity. I’ve just come to a page at the end of the year that prompts you to list new things you tried and places you visited, etc., in 2015, with similar categories to fill in with plans for the coming year. One of the sections is called Best Books I Read in 2015, so I gave that a little thought and came up with these seven. More than half of them were written by men, which surprised me since I don’t tend to be very interested in fiction by or about men. But now that I look at it, two of these four men are gay, and the only fiction writer among them—Colm Tóibín—very often writes about the interiority of women. So there you go. I’ve already said something about most of these books or writers on this blog, so here are just a few brief thoughts on each:

  1. A Long Way From Verona, by Jane Gardam. This may be the best book I’ve ever read, actually. It’s up there with The Secret Garden and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, two other children’s books that I first read as an adult, loved deeply, and understood what makes them “classics.” (A Long Way From Verona was considered a children’s book when it was published in 1971, but like those others the ideas and humor are sophisticated and subtle and make substantive reading for any adult.)
  2. The London Train, by Tessa Hadley. Clever Girl is still my favorite of Tessa Hadley’s novels, but The London Train had the same wonderful affect on me, casting a kind of spell that made the real world drop away as I read. Her characters live in my memory as though they’re real people I once knew. Her new novel, The Past, comes out in the U.S. on January 5th, which will be an excellent way to begin a new year of reading. I plan to finish it in time to see Hadley speak at the main branch of the Free Library at the end of the month. If I work up the nerve I may even stay afterward to speak with her, which is something I never do because I consider it humiliating to wait in line for the privilege of telling someone I admire them. That attitude might belong in the category of “hangups” though, so it’s probably not a bad idea to fight it.
  3. I’d never heard of Helen Garner before I bought a used copy of her novel The Spare Room (which is apparently really a memoir, and quite frankly reads like one too). Fine, vivid writing from a strong and unusual personality brought this sad story to life. I’ll plan to look for more of her stuff in the new year.
  4. I freaking love Jon Ronson. I even concocted a reason to interview him once, years ago, just because I loved one of his books so much (Them: Adventures With Extremists) that I developed a silly crush on him after reading it. In 2015 he’s still at the top of his game, in control of his powers to amaze and amuse. In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he asks us to take a hard look at ourselves and the way we all participate in “shaming” people who have had a fall from grace. It makes for crawlingly distressing reading. I even lost a little sleep for a few days there.
  5. The Blackwater Lightship, by Colm Tóibín. I keep reading Tóibín’s fiction and trying to understand how he does what he does, short of witchcraft. I still don’t get it. It really is magic, the way he transports you. I especially love his women protagonists, like the main lady in Nora Webster, Nancy in the short story “The Name of the Game” from the collection Mothers and Sons, and Helen in Blackwater Lightship. All three of them have a certain canniness to the way they approach their lives; a solitary, dignified stoicism; and a wonderful dry sense of humor. They’re some of the realest women I’ve ever read, and their Irishness is both foreign and intimately familiar to me. Blackwater Lightship is about a young gay man who is dying from AIDS, and the family that gathers around him during his final days. It would be heartbreaking except that Tóibín doesn’t seen to want to break your heart. The whole novel is infused with the sadness of the impending loss, but there’s a gritty hopefulness at the heart of the book that bolsters you in the end. Wonderful novel.
  6. Ask the Dark, by Henry Turner. Because I used to review them for the Philly Inquirer, I have read dozens of so-called young adult books, probably more than 100 by now. And I don’t mind telling you that on the whole, these books do not make very interesting reading for adults. Occasionally, though, I’ll come across a YA novel that is more nuanced, surprising, and challenging than the majority. This crime thriller was one of them. It’s gorgeously written, in the vernacular of a poor Southern country boy, and it is scary AS HELL. I got the book a week or so after I moved into the house I live in now, and reading it in a place where I wasn’t yet totally comfortable was enough to keep me awake at night, staring at the ceiling with huge eyes. I hope this guy gets the attention he deserves for this beautiful book.
  7. Gary Indiana is one of a kind. He’s fucking funny and bitter and so smart it’s scary. Read his memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, if you’re interested in descriptions of modern-day Havana or San Francisco’s underground art-freak scene of the ’60s and’70s, book recommendations from a huge reader, gossipy accounts of the personal lives of well-known American intellectuals, or in Gary Indiana himself. He’s reason enough on his own, trust me.
    (Incidentally, I wrote about this book for the Utne Reader, and they’re giving away a copy of it as part of a year-end grab bag contest. I see they’ve also got cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan’s I Was a Child up for grabs, which reminds me that I loved that book too.)

lt3 garner shamed tiobin Ask-the-Dark-cover-e1422388041251 i-can-give-you-anything-but-love

Here are a few more books I read this year and want to tell you about:

  1. How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing, by Alison Freer. Charmingly written and incredibly useful. I recommend this book to anyone who cares about their clothing even one iota more than the average person. If it bothers you that store-bought clothes almost always have a slightly imperfect fit, for instance, consult this book for tips on how to alter them yourself—or make better purchasing decisions in the first place. I discovered Alison’s writing on xoJane, a guilty-pleasure website I spend way too much time reading and commenting on. She’s one of the site’s best writers, largely because she hits the right note: she’s unfailingly upbeat without seeming smarmy or fake.
  2. Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno. I have a real relationship with Kate Zambreno’s writing. Every time I see she has an essay somewhere, I read it and take it in—she always packs a lot into her writing that takes time to chew and digest … sorry for the disgusting eating metaphors—and I feel oddly proud of her too, as though I’m rooting for her career advancement. Reading her name triggers the same sort of complicated blossoming of associations and feelings that happens when you hear the name of someone you know. I guess that’s a testament to her talent for so-called personal writing; she lets you in, but not all the way, and half of what she says about herself is actually a swirling, heady list of references to books she’s read and films she loves. ANYWAY, I haven’t actually finished this book. I keep it in the bedroom, where I’ve been picking away at it piece by piece. I feel as if the girl in the story is me, when I was in my twenties and confused and pissed off at all the men who stared at me every time I went anywhere. I felt like an empty vessel and I needed their attention as much as I hated it; I mistreated myself and felt afraid all the time, too. I don’t think these are uncommon things for young women to feel, and Green Girl captures that mess of contradictions so well it makes me a little queasy—and, weirdly, wistful—to read it.
  3. Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg. Stone cold classic.
  4. Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, by Peter Hook. Still working on this one too. I had to return it to the library before I was finished. I’m a little obsessive in my love for Joy Division, so this book is one of many documentaries I’ve read / watched on the band. I’ve read a lot of “rock biographies” over the years, now that I think about it, from Richard Hell’s pretentious autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (great title though) to Nikki Sixx’s trashy, vivid (and illustrated!!!) book about his celebrity and drug addiction, The Heroin Diaries. My favorites tend to be poorly written, “real” seeming ones like this, come to think of it. Touching From a Distance was written by Ian Curtis’ widow, who is not a writer and was not in the band with him, either: It’s a family story, really, and one that succeeds in telegraphing a certain rawness of emotion and bleakness of personal circumstance precisely because it is so plainly rendered. See also: And I Don’t Want to Live this Life, by Nancy Spungen’s flipping MOM. Holy shit was that a good read. Super scandalous. (And look at the cover! I must have spent hours staring at Nancy’s face in that photo. Mesmerizing.) The mother is so carping and unkind, and her book is so tediously detailed, I find it amazing that it even got published. spungenAnd yet this is the type of junk I most like to read when I’m feeling nostalgic or morbidly curious about one of my music heroes. In contrast, Unknown Pleasures is, well, a true pleasure, mainly because Peter Hook comes across as such a lovely human being. He chose to write his account of the band in a chummy, conversational style (which I can tell you is much harder to do than it looks), and he makes liberal use of funny Northern English slang. He’s hilarious, and unlike some famous scenesters who have commented on other musicians they’ve known and worked with (I’m looking at you, Debbie Harry), he’s able to call someone a complete asshole without sounding bitter or even unkind. If he says it, you can trust that the person acted like a complete asshole. And I mean, sometimes it needs to be said.

After Josephine Pryde’s “lapses in Thinking By the person I Am”

Josephine Pryde: lapses in Thinking By the person i Am. Photograph by Constance Mensh for the Institute of Contemporary Art
Josephine Pryde: lapses in Thinking By the person i Am. Photograph by Constance Mensh for the Institute of Contemporary Art

I often hear myself telling people that I can’t drive a car. Don’t know how, never learned. It’s boring to have to explain this, but sometimes I meet people who think it’s odd to the point of being problematic somehow, so I tend to announce it upfront so that I won’t have to spring the terrible surprise on them later in our relationship. I grew up in an urban area with good public transportation, I always say. Learning to drive a car seemed like an unnecessary added stress, so I just never bothered. I’m aware that not driving is kind of weird for the same reason I’m aware that a lot of things about me are unusual—not because I think they are, but because other folks seem to. Truly, I don’t imagine anyone cares much about the details of my personal choices, but it does get to be a drag trying to justify my lack of a driver’s license to people who can’t imagine living without one.

What I don’t say, because it sounds even weirder, is that I actually love riding the bus. And the subway, and the trolley, and any type of train. I’ve done so several times a week, if not every single day, for many years now, and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. I love being alone in public, cozy in my bubble with other people close by. Sometimes they’re uncomfortably, crushingly close, but I never really mind. I think it’s lovely. It’s endlessly interesting to look at and listen to other people, but safe because, unlike at a party or something, I don’t have to talk to them. (Though I can if I want to, and often I do.)

It’s like what Divya, a young woman in my writing workshop, said about art museums: They’re one of the few places where it’s not socially awkward to be alone. That’s just how I feel on the train, which I can’t help but think of as a place to see and be seen. People who live much of their lives in public this way make an effort with their hair and clothes, I find, even when they’re just going to the store. I take a cue from those folks, trying out new outfits for the runway that is the aisle between two rows of seats. This is Philadelphia, so the bus can be smelly or too hot or, with people arguing with the driver over the fare or a missed stop, tiresome. But it can be unexpectedly glamorous, too.

In Pryde’s show at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, we see a series of close-up photographs of people’s hands with brightly painted nails, several of them holding smart phones. The nails seem to be the point of the photos, like a beauty spread in Glamour or Allure, or an ad. To view them, visitors can sit on a model of a freight train—perfectly detailed with bubbled tags painted on the side, not by Pryde but by a graffiti artist—and ride past on a track temporarily installed on the floor. It’s not unlike the sensation of taking the train to work and peeping on your fellow riders—who expect to have their pretty nails admired as they poke at their phones—as you trundle through the city on some beat-up conveyance that has been jazzed up itself by a graffiti painter who wants you to admire his attempts as beautification, too. The photos call to mind modern junk culture—fashion magazines, graffiti, cell phone chatter—and ask us to see them in the context of, ya know, real art. Here, the only “painting” is a reference to street art, and the advertising language of fashion photography is what hangs on the gallery wall.

After we visited the show with our class, I went home and painted my nails, which suddenly looked plain and boring to me. I told this to everyone when we met again the next day to write about what we’d seen, and another woman said, “The same thing happened to me!” Looking, I’m always looking at other people, at other women, for cues on how to be. I guess I’m not the only one. 

When I ride the 61 bus down Ridge Avenue, I can spy on things and people as they slide past my view. I can also see, through the crowd, details here and there of my fellow riders. Not usually the whole picture-not in person, cuz it’s impolite to stare. I’ll catch a glimpse of an old man’s hand in his lap, his yellowed nails. A thick gold chain necklace looks fantastic on a woman’s pure white cable-knit sweater: I’ll have to remember that for myself. A trio of teenage girls have each made tiny tweaks to their school uniforms to express an identity: slouchy knee socks, a shortened skirt, bright laces in the brown shoes. A tiny baby lies on its back and stares up at the ceiling, its eyes unfocused but bright. The crinkles on an old lady’s face, with soft red cream rubbed into her cheeks and a natty felt hat, so like something my grandmother would have worn. She grew up not far from here, come to think of it, just a mile or so back from the river. It’s the feeling of movement that excites me, even more than the seeing, and the way the motion affects the way that I see. It makes the world-or my time to experience it, anyway-seem as fleeting as it is, everything tearing past almost before I get to know it, everything ending even as it’s beginning. It just feels correct to me, a reminder that we’re always in motion, moving inexorably toward some unknowable end.

I used to play a game with myself every time I rode a train or a bus, or found myself in an especially crowded and warm bar at night, with the soft lights glowing and people around me laughing. Quick look around to assess the ages of the everyone there so I could then thrill myself by saying, “In X years EVERYONE ON THIS TRAIN will be DEAD!” Including me, of course, the center of it all. We had longer, as a group, if there was a baby on board; the thought was more sobering when the youngest person there was me. Maybe I’ve outgrown that game now, but I used to love the sweet melancholy pang I’d get when I thought of it. We’re here now, dammit! Life is for the living! Better take a look around while you still can.

Yes, snacks

It'll be fun
It’ll be rad

This Thursday the 12th, I’ll be giving a free workshop at the Kelly Writers House at Penn on HOW TO MAKE A ZINE. I plan to give a quick history of zines, punk, and DIY, then let everybody loose on the clip art, rubber stamps, and Letraset. Each student will contribute one page, and I’ll paste them up and make copies of our collaborative zine. Reception with snacks to follow.

Cycletherapy, that’s what they wanna give me!

Blurbing books is kind of a weird practice. I mean, it’s actually a very good idea, and I for one always notice who’s been quoted on the back (and sometimes front) of a book I’m considering reading. But I can tell you, as someone who’s written two books and was asked by her publisher to do so, seeking these blurbs out is a bit scary and awkward (though probably most people are very kind about it, as the writers I asked were). Famous and sought-after writers probably get asked to write blurbs often, which must be something of a nuisance.

Lucky for me I’m more infamous than famous, and am sought after by only a highly select few!

Elly Blue, the author of several excellent books on biking, asked me to read and consider writing a blurb for her new one, an anthology she edited called Cycletherapy: Grief and Healing on Two Wheels, put out this month by Microcosm Publishing. Elly is also the co-owner of Microcosm, which published my two books, White Elephants and Slip of the Tongue. Microcosm has been knocking it out of the park lately, if I may say so. My hubby Joe and I tabled for them at the Small Press Expo last weekend, and their books were a huge hit there. (Joe is also a Microcosm author.) SPX is comics-oriented, and Microcosm does indeed have some comics titles on its roster (the Henry & Glenn series being the best known and, frankly, awesomest), but other types of books were flying off our temporary shelves, too: The DIY ones by Raleigh Briggs; the more overtly political and wonderfully-titled The CIA Makes Science Fiction Unexciting; the silly-yet-totally-serious Manspressions, which makes fun of machismo using made-up words and charming illustrations; and yeah, my own pocket-sized memoir, White Elephants.

Cycletherapy was too new to make it to the expo, but it’s out now, and I’ve got my copy here. It’s a beautiful book. Highlights include Elly’s own essay, in which she writes about carting her partner around on a bamboo bike trailer on days when he’s too sick to bike himself; a short piece by Sara Tretter that touches on the awkwardness of burgeoning teenage sexuality; Julie Brooks’ chronicle of working through the grief she experienced after being struck by a car while riding her bike (she’s okay now); and Gretchen Lair’s fine illustration of her beloved bike Ariel, who was stolen days after their last trip to the beach together. She quotes The Tempest: “My quaint Ariel … Our revels are now ended.”

Lookit all their bike books!
Lookit all their bike books! (This is a photo of Elly and Joe Biel, from the Microcosm website.)

I’m not a biker, not since childhood, really. I’ve always felt a little too chicken to get around the city on a bike, like so many of my friends do. (They’ve all been doored by parked cars or clipped by moving ones. Plus, I love to plug in and listen to music while I’m out and about, which isn’t such a hot idea when you’re riding a bike in traffic.) But I am a big walker. I walk everywhere because I don’t drive a car, and never have: My mode of transportation is my own two legs, plus whatever SEPTA conveyance I feel like catching. But I walk for pleasure and exercise and for my mental health, too. A lot of what the folks in this anthology (all but one of them women) wrote about biking resonated with me because I use long walks the same way, to keep my mind and body healthy and strong. Some days I push through physical discomfort or miserable heat and humidity to get to that feeling that my physical self isn’t creaky and cranky and tired, but like a well-oiled machine, taking me where I need to go. Going out in the evening is different, like gliding through dark water, thoughtful and quiet. I prefer to walk through city neighborhoods because I like to look at buildings and people, and peer down little alleyways and see grass growing up between the cracks in the concrete. But I live just up the street from the Schuylkill River, which has a paved path for walkers and bikers that runs alongside it all the way into downtown Philly from a little town 25 miles from here called Oaks. Sometimes I’ll walk down to the trail and stay on it till I reach the part of the river where the rowers practice, past their charming boathouses and the sleek boats themselves, sluicing through the water. I move my body to get my head feeling right and it always helps, at least a little, which is more or less what the stories in this book are about. It’s good to be reminded how useful that can be.

That girl, she holds her head up so high I think I wanna be her best friend

Years ago, when I was trying my hand at internet dating, I made friends with a guy from one of those sites, and we’d sometimes talk over the chat function. I asked him whether he’d ever gone out with a girl from another website, and he told me no, because “There are too many sluts on there.”

“WOW, I can’t believe you just said that to me,” I answered. “I don’t like that word. Don’t say that about anyone.” In response, he sent me a girl’s profile photo from the site, in which she was leaning over toward the camera with the word “slut” written across her chest.

Huh.

Showing me that photo didn’t excuse his calling her (or anyone else) a gendered slur, especially when he was talking to another woman, in my opinion. But it was thought provoking. What does it mean when a woman calls herself a slut, as opposed to when a guy calls her that? How about when other girls are the ones saying it, and everyone involved is 11 years old? Or when it’s the 90s and it’s Kathleen Hanna, and she’s performing on stage and she’s mad as hell?

slu*t

And what about now? Where do we stand with the word slut? I think it depends on who you ask.

In 2011 the Slutwalk was born. If you’re unfamiliar with that event you can read about it all over the internet, but in a nutshell, a group of women at a college in Toronto were enraged when a cop who had come to their campus to share self-defense techniques with them suggested that women could avoid physical attacks from men by not dressing in a “slutty” way. It wouldn’t have been the first time they’d had that idea run past them, I can tell you that. But I guess they were wishing it would be the last. They organized a rally that they called the Slutwalk, and the idea–and, I daresay, the name–caught on all around the world. We did a Slutwalk here in Philadelphia that year, and I was proud to participate in it. I met up with everybody in a small park downtown, and we marched with our signs and chants through the streets to City Hall, where speakers addressed the crowd.

But I had such complicated feelings about that name. I liked the idea of angrily taking it back–a la those riot grrrl punks who I so admired as a teenager trapped in a Catholic school lockdown–but, I don’t know, I didn’t really want to say it. I surely didn’t want to write it–not on my sign, which bore the slogan “DON’T PARTICIPATE IN GIRL HATE”–and not on my body.

I had to take the subway to the rally because I have to take the subway (or the bus, or the train) everywhere, because I don’t drive. Staying safe in public is something I spend a portion of every day thinking about, and that day was no different. Riding public transportation alone with the word SLUT anywhere on my person seemed like a bad idea.

I’m not mad that the event was called the Slutwalk; I get it, and more than anything I appreciate being asked to think about these ideas in more, and more nuanced, ways. But I was far from the only one who had issues with it. That day at City Hall, one of the speakers was the filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who said that she initially planned to skip the protest altogether because of the name, but decided to agree to speak about that very idea. She explained that many Black women in particular felt alienated or attacked by that word because they don’t have the same privilege white women do to “reclaim” it. What I heard was that the use of the word SLUT is one more way in which non-white women are made to feel ostracized from Feminism with a Capital F, which is so often, and so destructively and annoyingly, a white, middle-class, ivory tower sort of thing. Simmons’ talk (and other voices as well) made a big impact on me, and on the rally’s organizers too. The event has been renamed (somewhat clunkily) The March to End Rape Culture, and it’s still going strong. We’ll be marching again on October 3rd, which is why I’ve been thinking about this damn word again.

I’ve been reading SLUT, a play developed by Katie Cappiello, Meg McInerney, and the members of The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company. It’s a fictional story about a rape that was inspired by true events (which ought to go without saying) and is told in the realistic voices of girls in high school. In the print edition I’m reading, the play is preceded by several teenage girls telling their own stories of victimization around this word and its ideas. It’s one story after another of bullying, school-administration bullshit, humiliation, confusion, coercion, and sometimes physical attacks. These stories are disturbing because they are so very ordinary. They’re coming-of-age stories, in a way. I’d go so far as to say that no girl gets to grow up without being initiated into the SLUT mindset, and for many of us it’s a violent introduction. It makes me so angry, thinking of older women having gone through this stuff before me, and young women dealing with those same things now, but some days it just makes me feel blue.

But you know, the heart is a muscle the size of your fist: keep loving, keep fighting. The organizers of the March to End Rape Culture have been selling original art to raise funds for the event, so I spent a couple weeks embroidering the words NO, NOPE, and NO SIR! onto pretty floral tea towels. I’m going to make another sign and march again. (I think this year’s one will read TRUST GIRLS on one side and BELIEVE WOMEN on the other.) I’ve got my TRANS-INCLUSIVE FEMINISM ALWAYS badge to wear, and I’ll sew my self-defense patch onto the back of my sweater: It’s a picture of a woman kicking a dude in the crotch. I like it because when I first saw it, it made me smile. Once in a while, though, it makes me cry.

What Punk Means to Me (in 2,000 words or less)

philly_zine_fest_2015
Photo credit: Joseph Carlough

A couple weeks ago I received a friendly email from a writer who was reporting an article about the Philadelphia Zine Fest. She was most interested in its history and wanted to talk to me, she said, because she’s been attending the event for years and always sees me and talks to me there. I had to smile at that. “Yep,” I wrote back to her, “I’m an old-timer for sure!”

I’ve been tabling at the zine fest for almost as long as it’s been in existence. Its first year was in 2003, and the only reason I didn’t go to that one was because I only heard about it after it was over. The following year, I was ready.

Sort of. But actually, I was scared. I’d been writing about books and art for a local newspaper for a couple of years by then, and I was proud of this job and enjoyed doing it, but was surprised to find that, on its own, it wasn’t enough to satisfy my need to express myself. (I’m not sure why that came as a surprise.) I was in my mid-20s then, and when I wasn’t writing for work, I was almost compulsively making these found poems. I can still remember how exhilarating it was to, well, find them. Once I started looking at text in this new way, I saw symbolic meanings and irony everywhere, almost like secret messages or fortunes–in an old Boy Scout Handbook, the owner’s manual for an oven, the titles of Lifetime movies. All I had to do was rearrange the text a little, or remove a small part of it, to display its double meaning for other readers to see.

I was more proud of these weird poem-stories than almost anything else I’d written to that point, and I wanted to share them, so I began compiling them into my first zine. I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom and pulling apart a zine I already owned to try to understand the mechanics of laying it out. It was painstaking, but I eventually got it. There are lots of good books out there now that give instructions and tips on how to make a zine–I’ve even contributed to one of them!–but I didn’t know about any books then, and my hands-on method worked just fine.

When registration for the Zine Fest opened that next year I signed up for a table, and paid something like 5 bucks to rent the space for the afternoon. I had no idea what to expect, and was actually so nervous about sharing my book with these strangers that I took my mom with me, and she sat at the table for a few hours, keeping me company. I now recall that afternoon as one of the happiest events of my life. I knew that zine fairs existed as a means for people to sell their work, but I didn’t know that they would be so social, that people had formed an artistic and ideological community around zine making and liked going to the events to see their friends. That was the day I found that out, and joined them. I had conversation after conversation with some of the most interesting people I’d ever met, folks who were keen to listen to me talk about my poems and just as excited to tell me about their projects: zines, bands, paintings, shows. None of them batted an eye at my mother being there. Everyone was gentle and kind, eclectic and dynamic, and had interesting hair. No one thought I was weird or, if they did, they didn’t mind.

For several years after that, zines were the biggest and most important part of my writing life, as well as my social life. I’ve made dozens of the things at this point, and although my output has slowed up a bit, I’m still into it. Participating in zines has led me to join The Soapbox, the independent publishing center started by a couple of friends of mine. Through that organization I’ve been able to participate in readings, art shows, and workshops, and their kind support has helped me to feel like a real part of the Philadelphia art scene. In the last several years my zines have been in a number of gallery and museum shows around the U.S. and in other countries, too. They’re archived in public, university, and grassroots libraries. I’ve taught workshops on how to make zines to little kids at the free library, to older students on college campuses, and to adults at arts festivals of different kinds. A few years ago I participated in an artist talk at MoMA’s PS1 on the topic of zines, and I was so nervous about doing it that I nearly cried. One year a reporter from TIME freaking magazine called to interview me about zines, which is just ridiculous, but it was so exciting. I’ve published two books now, and both of them started out as serial zines I’d been writing for some time, one about yard sales and the other about linguistics. After the first one came out my publisher introduced me to Michelle Tea, who is one of my all-time favorite writers and a person I deeply admire. She invited me to read in an installment of her monthly series in San Francisco, which you bet I did, and I’m pretty sure I cried about that, too. I lived in a converted shed for two weeks in Nova Scotia, where I was the zine writer in residence at a community art center. I was supposed to spend that time writing an issue of my zine, White Elephants, but I frittered most of it away reading comics, going for walks, and swimming in the ocean. Zines are the reason I know a lot of the people I now call good friends, including about 25 pen-pals and my husband Joe.

And throughout all of this, there was the Philly Zine Fest. I never missed a year except for once when I had the flu. Walking into the smelly, sweaty Rotunda–the building in West Philly where the event is always held–has come to feel something like coming home. Still, there were a few years where I wondered if I still belonged there, or if I cared enough. Sometimes the event was sparsely attended, and other times it was packed with people who were attracted by a spike in the trendiness of zines, and it didn’t feel like my crowd. I’ve watched the scene change more than once, and I haven’t always liked the direction it seemed to be going in. Some of the new transplants to a city I consider “mine” have really rubbed me the wrong way. I felt my age catch up to me at a certain point too, and worried I wasn’t making books that were relevant or interesting to people (especially the younger ones) anymore.

But something really beautiful happened this year. The room was packed all day long, and you could feel people’s excitement in the air. A dj from WKDU played good music, but it wasn’t too loud to talk. I spent hours hugging and gabbing with people I’ve known for years, as well as ones I met just that day. I sold almost everything I’d brought with me, and got some reading material from other tablers that I’m looking forward to studying more closely. I talked to two librarians about the zine library that Joe and I have set up in our living room, which we’ve been working on turning into a quasi-public performance space. A woman found me to tell me that she’s included some of my zines in a two-year traveling art exhibit called the Artmobile, which will travel to grade schools and high schools around Bucks County, Pennsylvania beginning on September 19th. She said she thought I’d like to know that my work will be a part of it, and I do. I do like to know it. Someone else told me she wants to commission me to make her an embroidered wall hanging, which is My New Thing.

philly_zine_fest_2015-2

Most of all, I felt like I’d been a part of things long enough to have really earned my place in the community. I’ve weathered the changes and I’m still here. An unusual thing happened too: An old friend I haven’t seen or talked to since we were in college together–in the freakin’ 90s, guys–stopped by my table and we had a great conversation, as if 20 years hadn’t passed. But of course they have, and I’m happy to report that I feel good about the way I’ve spent at least a little of that time. I mean, I’m at least 50 percent asshole, just like the rest of you, but it is so incredibly sweet to be able to look back on a portion of your life and feel both proud of what you’ve done and thankful for what you’ve been given. So thanks, Philly Zine Fest. I’ll see you next year.

Longest way round is the shortest way home

Photo credit: The Rosenbach Museum and Library
Photo credit: The Rosenbach Museum and Library

Been reading the essays in that Nuala O’Faolain book and saw that one of them is about Bloomsday, which I meant to tell you about earlier this summer and haven’t yet. So why don’t I do that now?

We do a Bloomsday celebration here in Philadelphia in the form of a day of readings from Ulysses. Dozens of prominent folks are scheduled in advance to stand up to the microphone on a gorgeous leafy street of brownstones in downtown Philly, outside the Rosenbach, a rare books museum. Brothers A.S.W. and Philip Rosenbach, who were book dealers and collectors, acquired the original Ulysses manuscript back in the day, so since the museum has the precious thing they host this day of readings and music every year on June 16th, the date on which all the events depicted in Ulysses take place. The Rosenbach’s Bloomsday might be my favorite thing that happens in Philadelphia. I go every year, and when the wonderful actress Drucie McDaniel does the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end, I always, always cry.

I spent some time in Ireland several years ago, and while I was there the subject of James Joyce (inevitably?) came up with a friendly acquaintance. I proudly told him that we do Bloomsday in my city too. “That must be a bit difficult!” he laughed, because of course in Dublin, Bloomsday entails tromping through the city on foot, retracing the steps taken by Stephen Dedalus in the novel. I felt kinda silly at the time.

In a piece O’Faolain wrote for The Irish Times in 1997, she talked about how Dublin has changed so much that it is no longer the city we see in the novel. She didn’t mean the that the buildings were gone, though some (but not all) of them are. She meant that the novel depicted Irish city life in a way that was intimately realistic and familiar to Irish people. It was the life of the wanderer, of people without much money or jobs or even any thought of a job, who spent their days roaming, stopping in on friends and drinking in pubs. The kind of living in public that people do because, as O’Faolain wrote, they had a place to sleep, maybe, but not a home. That Dublin “was alive until money killed it,” she wrote.

In these columns O’Faolain often wrote about poverty and the way it characterized and shaped Irish culture and thinking, and about what it meant when—in the 90s, abruptly—the money came in. I was there during Ireland’s boom, and I remember seeing cranes everywhere in Dublin, building new offices and stores and apartment complexes every day. I saw how shopping as a hobby, still a relatively new concept anywhere in the world, was brand new there, giddy and doomed. Thanks to that influx of money many people were able to find a way out of poverty, get educations, travel, get jobs and then better jobs. But some of the changes I saw scared me because they lagged behind the ones that happened here, so I felt like I should warn everybody that they wouldn’t all turn out so great. That icy feeling of alienation, people afraid to look each other; pissed-off women driving gleaming SUVs. Never having enough (or any) money is awful, and having enough (plus a little extra) is so sweet. But it seems like when there’s too much of it things start to get nasty.

O’Faolain described the old Dublin as having a sense of a condition shared. I’ve been thinking about what that might have felt like. Not having been a part of it, I can’t say for sure what it even looked like. I can say that Philadelphia is a place of a lot of just-getting-by, and as a big old European-style city, it’s certainly a place where a lot of our living takes place in public, as compared to suburbs and cities developed after the invention of cars, where people can avoid being around each other much of the time. In the neighborhoods folks still have some of those old ways, I’d say. I like to take long epic walks all around the city, through neighborhoods I know as well as down blocks I’ve never been on before, looking at buildings and people and trees. I do my errands that way too, out of necessity: I’ve never learned how to drive, though that itself is a choice. But there are other people here in this city who have much more time than I do to wander and roam, or who know their neighbors because they’ve lived next to them for 40 years, and both of them have parents and grandparents who lived in the neighborhood too. It was beautiful to read what O’Faolain wrote about those folks from the old Dublin. She didn’t romanticize poverty; that would be stupid. But she knows that they had something special that you can’t really borrow if you don’t come by it naturally. “We are provincials, compared to their urbanity.”