My writing practice has always been there for me, whether I’ve needed to sort something out for myself, or tell the world something that needed telling, or just to keep myself company. It’s always been a place I could go. But in the terrifying early days of the pandemic I couldn’t write. Didn’t even know what I’d write about, since the things I’d been working on before seemed irrelevant and the thing that had made them irrelevant felt too big to look at.
I did, however, receive invitations to contribute to other people’s projects, and this was a kind of rope to hold onto as I pulled myself back up the mountain. One of those calls for submissions came in the form of a questionnaire called Quarantine Musings from some lovely people I briefly a few years ago at a small zine fest in Newark, Delaware. They do a zine called Red Tent, a collection of visual art and writing that the creators make during the time they’re menstruating, the idea being that this can be a time of increased, or maybe temporarily altered, creativity. When they described the zine to me I had a strong emotional response to the idea, so I created a visual poem about menopause looming on the horizon and submitted it to an issue that came out in 2019. This time around, I contributed answers to questions the zine’s editors posed about the pandemic. Anyone could respond to the questionnaire, not just people who menstruate.
The issue came out a few days ago and I thought I’d share it with you since it’s free to read and really beautiful looking. It’s called “Escape From Middle School Bedroom.” The editors have packed a lot into these 76 pages, and you can feel the love and care they put into the project. Below is my answer to one of the questions; if you’d like to read my full interview and enjoy the other contributors’ photography, collage art, mixtape song lists, and clever pop culture references, you can read the whole issue here.
9. Exceptional or unusual interactions with friends/family/roommates/neighbors (positive or negative):
Tonight we ordered take-out from a pub in the neighborhood that we really love. They threw together a website for online ordering during quarantine and are doing curbside pick-up. Getting take-out could never replace sitting in that cozy place and listening to music while we eat or drink, but their food is great and we miss them. Today is Easter, and when we got back home and unpacked our food we saw that they’d put a big handful of foil-wrapped Easter chocolates inside a rubber glove and tossed that in with the stuff we’d ordered. The sweet gesture, together with the scary visual of the surgical gloves everyone’s been wearing, almost made me cry.
Content warning on this one, pals: mention of sexual assault, lots of F bombs
A long time ago now, I wrote a zine and published it under a fake name. It was an obviously fake name, a bit rude, and I picked it because it made me laugh. I won’t tell you what it was because that zine is still out there in the world, and if you knew—if anybody knew—that I was the one who wrote it, it wouldn’t feel the same to me anymore. To tell those stories properly I needed to pretend to be someone else.
On the surface, the stories were not that big of a deal. Just some childhood memories of a spooky religion and adults who weren’t very nice to kids, turned into funny stories by someone who was still mad about it. Since the writer of that zine had an obviously fake name, the stories could have been written by anybody, which had a way of making them larger than themselves. This was fitting, because I am not the only person these kinds of things have happened to.
I made an email address for that pseudonym, and she got letters from people who read the zine and wanted to share their own stories. Those stories were pitiful, too, but they were also always a bit funny. We weren’t talking about abuse or terror, after all—just the daily grind of boredom, befuddlement, and shame, the little indignities of life that we all suffer to some extent or other. I’d say that reading, writing, and talking about this stuff was cathartic for everyone involved.
Some months after I put the zine out I went searching for it online. I don’t remember why now; I think I was trying to see if any of the shops that carried it had listed it on their websites. What I came across instead, to my surprise, was a review of the zine on someone’s blog. I don’t remember most of what the review said anymore, just that the writer related to the stories and enjoyed reading them—and that they thought I was a fuck-up. The way they said it was something like, “this is where a fuck-up comes from” or “this zine is like the fuck-up’s origin story.” I will tell you right now that the moment I read this was one of the most satisfying in my entire life as a writer, or the public aspect of that life, anyway. I am not even kidding. It meant that something I had written had been a success in the realest meaning of the word: I’d set out to be completely honest, and someone had recognized it—they’d felt the “cut of truth,” as Natalie Goldberg calls it in Writing Down the Bones, her classic book about learning to write.
The truth cuts, and it heals. Since I had made up that ridiculous name I could say anything I wanted, the way you can in a diary. It happened that the things I wanted to say were insulting, a bit immature, and very angry. And wow did it feel good. I was surprised by how freeing it felt to write this zine, in fact, since I write about my life all the time and I’m always trying hard to be truthful; I mean, that’s the whole point of doing writing like that. But this little experiment of mine taught me that I can always dig deeper.
I have thought about this many times over the years, this idea of me as a secret fuck-up. By secret I mean that I probably don’t seem like a fuck-up to most people. In fact I might even seem like the opposite: Hard-working, stable, fortunate, my middle class background written all over my face. I’m polite and my house is tidy. I did well during those years I wrote about in the zine, even—I was the fucking valedictorian of my high school class! But I hated the way I felt sitting in those classrooms, humiliated and trapped. I hated most of my teachers, thought they were stupid, and felt suffocated and insulted by the oppressive religion I was subjected to every day. I hated the kids who believed in it, their prissy smugness, and the adults who let themselves be bullied by these weird authoritarians who’d convinced them they had heaven to offer. I hated it all until it made me sick to my stomach, but I balled up my bad feeling and used it for the energy I needed to study hard and get good grades. I did this because I understood that being angry all the time would somehow mark me as a fuck-up—the fuck-up I thought I was, even though I had so much going for me.
When I read that review of my writing I felt seen, and I know you know what a glorious feeling that is. It’s so rare, so precious, that when it happens you’re usually about a minute away from falling in love. I’m sure it helped that the writer of the review was using the term fuck-up affectionately—or, I guess, knowingly: From one fuck-up to another was the general feeling I got. But I would have treasured that comment even if they’d said it to be mean. I had shown my real self—one of my real selves, I should say—and someone has seen it. A split inside myself was healed. Or if not quite healed, at least patched up a little.
I’ve been going through some personal turmoil over the last few months, something very hard. It’s brought new ideas to the forefront of my mind, ideas about family and belonging, safety, secrets, and shame. About what it means to tell the truth, and how hard it is to actually do that. I’ve been thinking a lot about what honesty is and where it is, where in the body. When something feels too painful for you to look at, where do you put it? And if it’s been tucked down in there for a long time, how do you dig it out?
I don’t know much about the various schools of psychoanalysis and have tended not to be very interested in them as a subject, like intellectually, but as I say, I’ve been doing some searching. I read an essay recently about the Shadow Self, Jung’s idea of the Id. It’s the part of ourselves we keep hidden from ourselves but is there anyway, motivating some of our behaviors. Those hidden aspects of our personalities are usually things we consider negative, but positive stuff can get tangled up in the Id too. It’s a jungle in there.
I warmed to the idea of the Shadow Self instantly. It reminded me of my inner fuck-up, that poor, pissed-off girl who thinks no one can see her. The one who was so split from the rest of me, I had to give her her own name. She’s been tagging along behind me all this time, and I really do love her after all. She tells the truth and makes me laugh. I need to recognize her, integrate her more—I need to do some shadow work—and even though I’m not quite sure how, I’m on a path, and I’ve been seeing signs to guide me as I go.
Like: In the car last week I passed a street called Moonshadow Lane. Later that afternoon I found a jigsaw puzzle at a thrift store that had the word moonshadow in it, too. Like: “Dark Morph,” the new song by Jonsi and Carl Michael von Hausswolff, who made an album out of sounds they collected on a research vessel: whale song, the sound of bats flying, gorgeous and terrifying. It conjures half-seen things moving elegantly, slowly, deep beneath the ocean’s surface, where the light barely reaches. It’s as if everything in the world has a dark side, a shadow self, but I’m only able to see that now for the first time.
One of the things that has always drawn me to Wicca, though I don’t practice it as a religion, is the idea of embracing the darkness, or at least accepting it as the balance of the lighter aspects of life. Wicca is a nature-based religion, and with nature as a framework for understanding ourselves these ideas are easier to conceptualize. Life is a cycle, the year is a wheel, and every season is necessary. The seed of death inside the heart of every summer day—you can feel it there. The green life tucked underneath the frozen ground in winter—you can feel it there. Everything is everything.
Poking around the library the other day, I found a small book called Two or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison, a writer who I have loved for her brainy and fearless truth-telling. This book is too short to be a proper memoir—less than 100 pages long—but it is about her life. Allison, who grew up very poor in rural South Carolina, always writes about her own life in some way—and because of some of the details of her life, she also writes about secrets, shame, stories, and truth. In this book she writes that her stepfather raped her, beginning when she was five. She writes here, and has written in other essays and books, that she refuses to feel ashamed of who she is and where she comes from. But reading her writing, something more powerful even than that proclamation comes through: She very clearly just isn’t ashamed. Her honesty and love—love for her mother and sisters, her partners and queer community, as well as for herself—make that apparent.
Allison also writes that she didn’t tell the story of her abuse for a long time because stories like that have a way of defining their teller. She didn’t want to wear the coat of many colors, the one in the Bible that’s so brilliant no one can see the person wearing it—they can only see the coat.
“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t.
Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.
Behind my carefully buttoned collar is my nakedness, the struggle to find clean clothes, food, meaning, and money. Behind sex is rage, behind anger is love, behind this moment is silence, years of silence.”
I think this is excellent, this image of stories like matryoshka dolls, one inside the other. In a sense this is the hardest part of writing, figuring out when the story begins. You have to strip away so many layers to get to the truth, but how do you when to stop? Do you need to tell them all for the picture to be complete? I don’t know yet. What I do know is that, one way or another, we need to find a way to integrate all of our stories if we want to become whole.
Everyone who knows me knows how devoted I am to secondhand shopping. Even a few people who don’t know me personally might know this about me, since I’ve written about it so darn much. I wrote a book about visiting yard sales with my mother, I wrote a zine that lists and describes all the cat-themed objects in my home and one about my favorite thrift store mugs, and I’ve written many essays on a variety of other old objects I own and the complicated mix of feelings and ideas they stoke in me.
For Christmas this year Joe gave me the entire back catalog of a zine we discovered a couple years ago, then forgot about: Thrifty Times. What an awesome gift. The editor, Sarah B. MacDonald, puts out an issue every month and has done so for at about 5 years. Each issue has the same recurring features and a letter from the editor, in the style of a magazine (or, more accurately, of a magazine-like zine from a certain era, the 80s and 90s I suppose). MacDonald writes most of the pieces herself, though she also has a regular crew of witty, cheerful contributors: Sarah Spence, who frequently writes the romance novel review (“Isn’t It Romantic”) and Nick Burgess, who does the monthly thrift-themed comics on the back cover and sometimes writes about video games. All of these folks have an excellent sense of irony and a sincere love of kitsch, nostalgia, and inexplicable tschotschkes. MacDonald’s favorite decade is the 70s and the avocado-green throw pillows and mushroom motifs produced in that era; she’s a funny writer and it is a pleasure to join her on her trips to local thrift shops and feel her excitement at finding something good. I think she must be around my age because she often writes about the 90s music CDs she finds (Live, Marcy Playground, Soul Asylum) in the way that you might if you’d been a teenager back then. It’s all such fun to read about. I worked my way through the large stack of zines slowly, enjoying every article and reading a number of them out loud to Joe.
I have thought about, and written about, the pleasure of pawing through other people’s old stuff so many times by now that I ought to understand, on a deep level, what precisely it means to me, but I’m not there yet. It’s just that somehow, when I’m digging, everything is a gem. Everything is something I’m glad to have seen. Even when I don’t buy anything (well, I almost always buy something); even on days when all I’ve got is the grubby Salvation Army, where nobody ever sweeps the floor and grim announcements come over the p.a. about the anger management group about to commence next door. When I’m staring down the length of a boring afternoon, the thrift store—some thrift store, somewhere—promises to fire up my imagination. It’s like visiting a museum, only you’re allowed to buy the stuff and bring it home if you want. And thrift store people are my people, whether I’m in the mood to claim them or not.
One day this winter, while I was still happily working my way through my stack of Thrifty Times, I suggested that we go check out the little shop in Germantown, an old neighborhood in Philadelphia. The shop is charming and small and has bona fide vintage stuff, not just recent castoffs. We decided to walk the few miles there since the weather was mild and it’s interesting looking over there; you can take your time looking at the old brick buildings and tiny churchyards and viney stone walls.
It ended up being a quintessential thrift store visit. By this I mean that I (a) found something I’d been actively searching for, (b) found something hilarious, and (c) had an interesting interaction with another person. The thing I found that I had been looking for was a small wooden spice rack, which I have since altered by prying off the tin eagle (??) that originally adorned it and painting it with pale green craft paint. Then I hung it on my kitchen wall and put my collection of essential oils in it. While Joe and I were paying for this and a few other things, a lady who’d been having a kind of in-depth conversation with the woman at the register gave Joe a long once-over.
“Young man, will you look at this computer for me please?” she asked him. I was amused and touched that she assumed he’d be able to figure out whether or not a laptop she’d found could be made to work again because he was both a lot younger than her and also a guy—and of course by looking at it for a few minutes he was able to figure this out. The lady was disappointed by his assessment: that she probably wouldn’t be able to get into the password-protected machine and use it the way she wanted.
As she led poor Joe back into the store toward the electronics section, I occupied myself by looking at the books. There I spotted a shining jewel that I now wish I had bought, if only so that I could tell you more about it. It was a late-80s how-to guide called Garage Sale Mania! that opened with the chapter “Garage Sales: What Are They?” and ended with the wonderfully titled “Count Your Cabbage and Smile.” Count your cabbage and smile! This is the sort of phrase that will stay with me for years and bring me pure joy every time I think of it. It’s the linguistic equivalent of a secondhand knick-knack that I can put on my bookshelf to look at whenever I want, and feel the warmth of connection across decades and styles of expression.
I see that the author of Garage Sale Mania! has continued writing and publishing books since the 80s—an impressive number of them, most novels in a few different genres. There are just so many books out there, oddball things I never would have known about if it wasn’t for the thrift shop, which in my opinion can be just as good a place to look for a book, if not better, than a used bookstore. I’m not alone in holding this opinion, for whatever that’s worth. Weird books are the best books, and zines are the weirdest books of all.
Hello, friends! I’m excited to announce a new issue in my Cat Party zine series: “Lost & Found.” This one anthologizes the writing and visual art of 5 contributors, all of whom reflected on cats who have come into their lives by surprise, or disappeared unexpectedly. It includes comics, drawings, and essays by visual artist and performer Julia S. Owens, musician Marina Murayama Nir, comics artist Ashley Punt, writer Alexis Campbell, and writer, baker, and activist Ailbhe Pascal.
Please allow me to share the introduction I wrote for the zine with you here, beneath the photos. If it sparks your interest, why not pick up a copy of the zine for $4, either from me or from Microcosm Publishing?
Welcome to the cat party! If you’ve been here before, welcome back.
My name is Katie, and I wrote a book about cats that was published by Microcosm Publishing near the end of 2017. Microcosm and I go way back. They’ve sold zines of mine for many years, and now that they’re a real-deal publisher, they’ve published three books I wrote, too. The first one was called White Elephants, and it was a memoir I wrote about palling around with my mother after my father died. The second one was Slip of the Tongue, a collection of essays about language. Last year, Cats I’ve Known came out. I set out to tell stories about all the cats in my life, and ended up sort of writing about my whole entire life, like I always do. But to at least some degree the book really is about the cats: family pets I had growing up, beloved cats I’ve shared my home with as an adult, strays I keep bumping into on the street, and the friendly bookstore cats I look forward to seeing whenever I stop in to browse. Each story was illustrated by a talented artist named Trista Vercher. When the book came out, I had a cake made by a local bakery that was based on one of their drawings; in both the drawing and the frosting, the cat’s fur was a lovely shade of grey that was actually quite purple. It tasted delicious.
In the months since the book was published, I have had many good conversations with people about the cats that they know and love. Each time I set up shop at a book fair or sign copies of my book at a bookstore, I meet people who want to tell me stories about a special cat they know who loves to pose for photos, or the adorable way their two cats curl up under the covers with them at night—and only occasionally growl at each other. Our cat friends are very dear to us cat people, and none of us can resist sharing our stories. Microcosm and I decided that a zine series would be a good way to keep on telling them, both mine and other people’s.
For this issue, I invited writers and artists to tell stories about cats that were lost or found—a cat who came into their life by accident, perhaps, or one that took off unexpectedly. The theme must have struck a chord, because I received many, many submissions. I couldn’t accept them all, but the ones I’ve chosen will make up two issues, this one and a Lost & Found #2, to come out in the spring of 2019.I am very proud to present this issue of Cat Party, with its collection of beautiful and touching stories. Thanks to the contributors for doing this with me, and thanks to you, readers, for joining the party.
Hello, all, and happy new year. I love this time of year, even though I’m usually sick with a cold. I had one last year when I wrote my year-in-review, and I’m coming down with one now. Thanks, holiday get-togethers, public transportation, and germy old civilization in general. Thanks a lot.
I dislike Christmas hugely, for a number of reasons, only one of which is potentially worth discussing in public (capitalism; oh yeah also the forced cheer and heteronormativity of “family” get-togethers), but I’ll spare you. I do love the week between Christmas and New Year’s, though. It’s like the heart of winter: the perfect time to draw in, rest, and reflect. It’s dark outside but it’s warm and bright in here, and I’m calming my shattered Christmas nerves by misting frankincense in my diffuser and wearing my fat cozy socks, both of which I did, admittedly, get as gifts for fucking Christmas, so whatever. All griping and kidding aside, I am grateful for all of this. Every bit of my life, even the parts I don’t like.
I do an accounting of my year every year, and make plans in the form of resolutions for the year to come. I did my accounting publicly on this blog at the end of 2016 and it was a nice way for me to organize my thoughts and express my gratefulness, so I thought I’d do that again. If you’re still reading after that irritable—and some may say childish, but I say those people are sticking their heads in the sand—outburst, why don’t you come along with me?
A lot happened this year, and though I tried to make my writing life a focus when I selected the photos above, I had to represent a few other things too, including the hurt and outrage and righteous anger caused by the miserable Trump administration, and the fact that J & I bought a house and moved into it. (That’s why all those houseplants are sitting in a cardboard box up there.) That was nine months or so ago, and I still love the feeling of settling in here, decorating and making small changes one at a time. Today I painted one “accent wall” in my “home office” a shade of “millennial pink,” so how’s THAT for having your shit together? I love that room and now I really love that wall.
In October, Cats I’ve Known, the book of illustrated memoir stories I spent last year writing, came out. I asked the famous internet cat Lil BUB to write a blurb for the back cover and she did. Joy! I did a number of readings and other events to promote the book this fall, and I’ll continue to do so in 2018. If I can swing it I’ll do a tour of the Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado) in the spring, and I plan to do in-store events in bookshops along the Delaware coast this summer. Look me up if you live in those places, would you?
I find it hard to do, to give readings from something I wrote, or to promote my work in any way, really. I have to push through a lot of self-consciousness, guilt, and anxiety to get to the place where I remember that I am proud of my writing and want to share it with other people. But share it I did. I launched Cats I’ve Known at a day-long show at a basement show space in West Philly called the Waiting Room, where I read a selection of the book’s lighter, funnier stories. (That’s me doing this in the second-to-last photo.) I felt very warmly welcomed, as I have at the other shows and events I’ve participated in there. Thanx, punx! I also forced myself to read the longest, saddest story in the book at a show I organized with J called SadFest. We did SadFest for the first time last year—his idea—and people responded really well to it. I kind of thought it was a weird idea, to be honest, but people loved it, I guess because everyone has sad stories, poems, or songs that they’re too embarrassed to trot out at a group reading for fear of bringing everyone else down or being seen as adolescently emo or whatever. I practiced my sad cat story several times before I performed it to keep from crying in front of everyone, but I did cry a little at the end.
So far the book has been reviewed warmly by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Broken Pencil, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. I sold it at several fairs throughout the year, including the cheerful and well attended Lehigh Valley Zine Fest in Easton, Pennsylvania and the Philly Zine Fest, which has always been my favorite zine event and this year was packed to the gills: very gratifying. I threw myself a party (!) and got a fancy cake from a bakery that was decorated to look like one of the cats Trista Vercher drew for the book. I gave more readings, almost always with J, who can be seen in the second row of photos getting ready to perform at Coffee House Without Limits in Allentown. I signed and sold copies of the book at other events, too, including ones in Portland, Oregon, where my publisher, Microcosm, is located. One of those was, drumroll, a women-only cannabis party with a DJ and vendors, who were selling things like cannabis tinctures and sex lube infused with cannabis and … books. Since Microcosm has a few weed titles, we went and set up a pop-up shop of zines and books there. I accompanied a very capable and impressive young employee of the publisher, who incidentally could smoke any of you under the table, and we spent a pleasant, if unusual, evening slinging books to friendly, intelligent women who were all kind of high. (I’m a lightweight myself, and just tried a few drops of the tincture. It was nice.)
So—go me. Seriously. None of this was easy for me, all of this performing and traveling and meeting new people, but I did it anyway, and lo and behold it was fun and rewarding. Thanks, world, for your kind reception of my cat book. As for the portion of the world that has not read it yet, what the heck?
The music thing has been interesting for me. I am not a musician, though I studied the flute as a kid and some classical guitar as an adult. I don’t know that I have much of a knack for it. But some friends and I started fiddling around together on a regular basis, using whatever instruments we could put our hands on to make a tremendous amount of noise that somehow becomes musical as we go. This is largely because a couple of the people involved are real musicians, I think, but also because that might be what happens when people communicate in this, or any other, way. Someone makes some sort of sound and someone else answers it, and it goes on like that, becoming a noisy and cathartic conversation. Forget catharsis: It’s an exorcism. It’s so engrossing and relaxing to lose yourself in making music, and it’s a wonderful release to make it that LOUD. I had no idea. We recorded our sessions and J edited them into distinct songs, and we even put out a tape! Does this mean I’m a rock star now? or just a slightly more well-rounded weirdo than I was before?
Let’s see, what else. J and I continued organizing and hosting shows at the East Falls Zine Reading Room (the band Rabbits to Riches is shown playing the space in the top right corner) and we collaborated with a beautiful new performance space called Hauska that’s run by our friend Julia. The show at Hauska, which means funny in Finnish, was a comedy show in answer to SadFest, and both shows were lovely and lively and well attended. I have also undertaken the huge job of properly cataloging the EFZRR’s zine collection so that people can access it more easily. As I have in the past, I am enjoying being a hobbyist librarian. I love playing at things until they become real, or at least as real as I want them to be.
And last, I’m excited to announce that I edited a zine anthology of other people’s cat stories called Cat Party #2, which Microcosm will publish in the first month or two of 2018. It features both essays and comics and includes the artists Dame Darcy and Noelle Geniza, among others. It’s gonna be a beauty and I can’t wait to unveil it.
In the last week or so I’ve asked a few friends whether they make new year’s resolutions. One of them said she does an accounting for the year that includes the good AND bad things that happened, and another told me that she doesn’t do resolutions, exactly, but instead creates a mantra that she’ll try to live by in the coming year. I liked both of these variations and have incorporated them into my own practice. I probably shouldn’t share the bad things on my list (which I have named “bullshit and pointless stuff”) since I don’t want to make anyone feel bad, but for the most part they have to do with jobs. Quelle surprise. And as for a mantra, I don’t know yet. The words simplify and let it go come to mind, but maybe I’ll go with thank you instead. Just a simple thank you, for every good and lucky thing in my life.
Last week, I had the pleasure of showing some fourth grade students—lots of and lots of fourth grade students, actually—how to use a letterpress machine. As part of a daylong event called Science in the National Parks, several area artists and scientists put on demonstrations for the students who visited with their families and on class trips. Since, in Philadelphia, much of the national park is comprised of urban historical sites, the event took place right downtown, in the courtyard behind the building where Benjamin Franklin had his print shop. (They call it Franklin Court, but I can’t help but think of it as Ben Franklin’s backyard.) This is the place where he published The Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack, and it’s a block away from Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. These two things are connected; without the printing presses of Philadelphia, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense wouldn’t have found its readers—and without his ideas, we might not have had a revolution. The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library was invited to teach the students something about printmaking, so we carved a linoleum block with a charming design, packed up our tabletop Signmaker press, and spent a sunshiny day in late April helping hundreds of kids pull prints in bright-colored ink.
Growing up in Philadelphia, you hear a lot about Ben Franklin. He was one of our country’s founding fathers, of course, but he also started a lot of important stuff right here in Philly, like the University of Pennsylvania, where I went to school, and The Library Company of Philadelphia. His name is on everything—like the Ben Franklin Bridge and the beautiful Ben Franklin Parkway—and his image is everywhere, from commissioned statues (including this one, which commemorates his work as a printer) to the sign attached to a disused water tower advertising the Electric Factory, a concert venue where I’ve spent many hours of my life having my hearing damaged by bands I loved. Several years ago, I visited a friend who lives on the West Coast, and we made a road trip down the coast of Oregon. When we stopped in the small, picturesque town of McMinnville for breakfast, I was startled to see a bronze statue of Ben Franklin sitting on a park bench—a lot like the one on Penn’s campus—and I joked that I couldn’t get away from the guy.
Even still, this know-it-all Philadelphian found spending time in the space where he once worked surprisingly stirring. All day long we told the students a very abbreviated version of the story of what went on inside Franklin’s print shop, and showed them how to use a printing press that operates using the same principles as the one he used. We asked them to consider how difficult and time-consuming it would have been to place every letter of a sentence—and paragraph, page, newspaper, or book—one at a time in order to print it … and not only that, but you had to spell them backward! We helped each kid ink up the block and pull the metal bar across the press bed, applying the pressure that would print the image onto the page. They smiled brightly each time we peeled the paper back to reveal the picture they had made. Mechanical reproduction of this kind produces results that are reliably consistent, of course, and yet no two prints are ever exactly the same. Most of the kids kept a close watch on the prints as they dried on the table because they wanted to be sure they took home the one they themselves had printed. In the 15th century, the invention of the printing press took written communication a step away from the intimacy of handwriting, but today, these old-fashioned printing technologies show the artist’s hand in a way that digital communications can’t. (Not yet, at least.)
The Soapbox is proud to participate in a long tradition of printing in the city where Ben Franklin worked, a city with a rich and colorful—and incendiary—publishing history. If you get the chance to use a letterpress printer, take it. There’s a power in printing your work with your own hands—in pulling that heavy metal contraption over the words and images you placed there—that you can really feel.
Happy New Year, everyone! This might be my favorite time of the year to be alive, this week right here. True, being cold (and getting colds) is kind of a drag, but I like taking stock and I like making plans, and I feel that the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the right time to do both. I’ve spent the last few days working on my year-end review, and yesterday, by happenstance, I discovered the writer Ksenia Anske and her beautiful website. I was inspired by her year-in-review blog post—and its accompanying photo grid!—to share my own, so here goes: a list of things I did and learned in 2016.
I wrote and completed edits on my book Cats I’ve Known, to be published in 2017. Completing this work was my biggest accomplishment of the year—that and surviving the appendicitis that tried to strike me down just a few weeks after I finished the first draft. Nice try, body! I’m still winning, for now.
I completed Magical Thinking, the zine my pal Mardou and I made by emailing back and forth with each other on topics including gemstones, herbal healing, and dreams. We then published our dialogue, accompanied by the illustrations Mardou drew. (She is a talented comics artist whose work I really enjoy.) I brought the zine with me to the NYC Feminist Zine Fest at Barnard College, an annual event that I tabled at for the first time. It was a long, hectic day, but I had a few interesting and memorable conversations with visitors to my table, which is the measure I use to judge all zine fests. Frequency and quality of chats.
I also tabled with my zines at the Scranton Zine Fest, the Philly Zine Fest, and a Winter Market at the Germantown Kitchen Garden, and all three events were fun and very rewarding.
I continued to benefit from keeping this blog. Having a place where I can explore my thoughts about the things I’m reading has been good for me. I like writing about books, but I don’t always like books-writing jobs, if ya feel me. In this space, I can write what I want, at whatever length suits me. So thank you for taking an interest in my blog, gang; it means a lot to me.
I finally visited Haegele’s Bakery in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. As far as I know these folks are not my relations, but they have operated a German bakery in the same city that I’m from for nearly 90 years—and I never got around to visiting it until last month. Whatta jerk! Joe and I went there with friends on the damp, chilly Saturday after Thanksgiving, and it made me so happy to see how pretty and old-fashioned the shop is, sitting right there on the corner of a residential street just a few blocks away from the one where my mother lived when she was a teenager. I ate a Stollen AND a Bienenstich, and they were both gorgeous. Planning on getting myself a Grosse Neujahrsbrezel on New Year’s Eve, too.
I got two new jobs this year, contract gigs doing editing work, which is just a mundane thing that I needed to do to make more money and wouldn’t ordinarily mention. But my job slog has had an unexpected and happy result (besides the more—but still not enough!—money): I discovered that I love editing other people’s writing. What’s more, I’m not bad at it. There is something deeply satisfying about taking a piece of writing and making it tighter, cleaner, smoother, and better all around, while preserving its original spirit and without imposing my own voice or attitude onto it. It’s like being a tailor, an invisible mender: I leave things looking better than I found them, and if I do my work really well, you won’t be able to tell I was ever there.
I raised a black swallowtail butterfly, which was an incredibly beautiful experience that happened half by accident. In September I attended a meeting of the garden club I used to belong to, and a friend there gave me a bunch of cuttings from her herb garden. I put them in a vase on the kitchen table and enjoyed them for a week or two before Joe noticed two minuscule caterpillars on their leaves. We watched them both get bigger fairly rapidly, then put them inside a small aquarium to keep them safe. Over the next week one of the caterpillars kept escaping, so we released it into the wilds of our backyard and wished it well. The other we kept, feeding it carrot greens from our garden because we read that’s what they like to eat. This guy went to TOWN eating them and got bigger and fatter by the day, until he made his chrysalis. Then that gnarly looking thing lived in our kitchen for 2 more weeks before it burst open, behind us on the kitchen counter while we sat at the table one morning, talking and drinking coffee. We were lucky to see the creature’s black wings when they were still all wet and soft and crumpled; the whole event happened so fast, if we’d been in another room for even an hour we would have missed it. We brought the new butterfly outside, and Joe went into work late that day so that we could sit in our yard and watch it spread and flap and dry out its wings in the sun and fresh air, carefully but quickly, before it flew away.
My good friend Nadine Schneider and I made a zine together, and I’ve been selling it at the Wooden Shoe. She wrote about making and using herbal body care products, and I wrote about how you can clean your house without nasty neurotoxins. We called it Kytchyn Witche and spelled it that way because that’s the way it’s spelled in an account we read about the good luck “poppet” that English people kept in their homes during the Tudor period. And because it looks cool.
I street-protested the Trump presidency and the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist, and I plan to keep on doing so because these people are really bad news, and protesting is democracy in action.
I saw a fuckton of bands play. I celebrated a significant birthday this year and while I don’t really want to tell you my age, I will tell you that in honor of it, I set a goal to see 40 live shows this year. I achieved the goal and had a lot of fun doing it. Highlights include: discovering the industrial/punk band Uniform when they opened for somebody else, then seeing them again later in the year (are you familiar with the phrase WALL OF SOUND); seeing another act on the Sacred Bones label, Blanck Mass, who turned the tiny space at Johnny Brenda’s into a cathedral with his majestic noise; enjoying the heck out of ourselves at RuPaul’s Drag Race Battle of the Seasons, which had about 100 clever acts packed into one show (plus Sharon Needles and Jinkx Monsoon LIVE AND IN PERSON!); watching Philly band Remote Control (pictured above) channel Peter Murphy; being transfixed by the sight of weirdo genius Jenny Hval bopping around the room; and Shopping. We got right up in front of the stage and danced at them, and they danced back. Such a good-natured, high-energy band, and those post-punk melodies do something really nice to my brain chemistry. If they don’t get big I’ll be a little surprised.
Joe and I hosted three shows at the East Falls Zine Reading Room this year, which wasn’t as many as last year. They were good shows though, featuring the chiptune musician Sloopygoop, folk singers Potential Gospel, video artist Cory Kram, postpunk band Rabbits to Riches, loony tunesters Yoga Dad, and memoirist Ashton Yount.
Joe and I also toured twice, up north during the summer and down south in the fall. In New England we did readings at the Papercut Zine Library in Boston, a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, and one in Woodstock, New York. On our Southern tour, I was pleased and frankly really proud to perform with our friends Kishibashi, his wife Mocha, and their daughter Sola (all three of them on violin) at a wonderful bookstore called Avid in Athens, Georgia. The artist and adorable human Missy Kulik read from her comics at that show, too. We also performed with the one-man band who is Tall Tall Trees, at a fine bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina called Downtown Books & News. Then we went to Savannah and did a show at Starlandia, a charming creative reuse shop, with the inimitable Dame Darcy, a comics artist whose work I have admired for a long time. (She read from her books and, accompanied by her friend Skippy on guitar, she played sea shanties on the banjo. It was a special night.)
I participated in Fun-a-Day last January, and even though I was lazy about it I managed to write a little something almost every day that month, which was an undertaking I took to treating like a diary. At the end of the project I made a handmade book collecting the month’s meditations and exhibited it in the group show. I plan to participate again this year—just one more day till it starts!—and I’ve got my idea ready and my pencils sharpened. They are metaphorical pencils.
I hosted a Pop-Up Zine Reading Room at Amalgam Comics in the Kensington neighborhood Philadelphia, which means that I took a bunch of zines and books from the collection at The Soapbox and sat at the bookstore with a sign inviting people to join me and read them. It was sweet. I also ran a zine workshop for the high school students in the after-school program at the Lutheran Settlement House, also in Kenzo, and in November I cohosted a letterpress printing and book-binding workshop for some undergraduate writing students. Those events were sweet, too.
I started a zine about Christmas, which I have historically hated, with my friend, the talented artist Nicholas Beckett. His witty, warm, and sweetly grouchy drawings helped me hate Christmas just a little bit less.
I started a new writing collaboration with Eliza, a lovely new friend I met at the Philly Zine Fest. I look forward to seeing where this project takes us in the new year.
Two weeks ago, my colleague Mary Tasillo and I had a lovely experience at The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library, where we ran a workshop for a class of writing students at a local university. They’ve spent the semester creating collections of their own prose and poetry, and with Mary’s assistance they each arranged them into pages for a book they’ll self-publish. Together, she and I helped them design and print book covers on a letterpress machine, then taught them to bind the books by hand using binder’s thread and a needle. At the binding station I set up, I first showed them how to use a bone folding tool to crease their pages in half, and to my surprise the mere act of folding the pages made their faces light up with pleasure, as the size and shape of the finished product became suddenly apparent. It’s a book!
Mary Tasillo and Charlene Kwon started The Soapbox in a Philadelphia row house five years ago because they wanted to create a place where people from diverse backgrounds could enjoy their large collection of zines, chapbooks, and artists’ books for free, and have inexpensive access to printing equipment and materials that you ordinarily need to be in art school to use. The founders’ belief in the power of sharing and community is part and parcel of zine publishing. In fact, we like to say that zines are an inherently democratic medium, because they’re so inexpensive and easy to make: Anyone can publish one, whether that person thinks of themselves as a writer or an artist or not. Everyone has a story, after all. Everyone has a right to tell it.
Independent publishing is democratic in another sense, too: It’s a time-honored and ideal method for disseminating information, whether it’s political or personal in nature (or both). It doesn’t matter who you are—how young or inexperienced, how old or ignored, how marginalized or unimportant you’ve been made to feel. Zines are there for you, alongside blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and all the other new digital media. They’re all ways to become your own publisher and create your own audience, which is incredibly gratifying and empowering—really, it’s power-giving—for someone with something to say.
Our workshop took place on election day, in the afternoon. I’d voted that morning, and Mary went to the local polling place to vote after the workshop ended. I don’t know if all the students we worked with that day were old enough to vote, but while we were working together they looked at Facebook and Instagram on their phones and were excited to see pictures of their friends wearing “I voted” badges. There was a buzz in the studio that day, with this huge thing pending and the powerfully positive energy of creation in the air. It happened that all of the students, as well as their professor, and Mary and I too—everyone working together in that room, talking and sharing and wondering how things would turn out—were women. You can make of that fact what you will, but it feels worth mentioning.
In the days since the election results came in, things in this country have felt a lot different than they did that afternoon in our studio. Tensions are high, and many Americans are scared, hurt, and discouraged—though not, seemingly, those who have felt emboldened to act on their bias and hatred with intimidation and abuse. It feels impossible to know what will happen next, and what we’ll be called upon to do about it. But I do know that I’ll be using my first amendment right to express myself and to stand up to hateful words and actions, and I strongly encourage others to do the same. So go ahead and get on your soapbox. The time to speak up is now.
There’s reading, and then there’s readings. I do both, but I find the former much easier to do than the latter.
That being said, I’m proud to say that I do actually find it POSSIBLE to give readings these days. For a lot of my life—beginning, for some reason, in college, and lasting until around five years ago—I found the anxiety of anticipating speaking in public almost too excruciating to bear. I would always accept invitations to read—I’m too much of a huckster to feel good about saying no to an opportunity like that, and I’m always so touched to be included—but I knew that in saying yes, I was resigning myself to weeks or months of miserable worry. I just accepted this fact about them (and about myself), said Yes, thanks, I’d love to read, and coped privately with the unhappiness of it.
“It gets easier the more you do it,” everyone said, and I always smiled and nodded and thought, “But not for me!” I really believed I was the one exception to this very human rule. But as it happens, I’m not. I made myself do more and more readings even though I found it hard, because I felt it was worth it. I wanted to be a writer who gave readings, not a person who didn’t do things because they scared her. I’d get up to read and my voice shook, my legs shook, my hands shook. I’d speak quickly and apologetically, then blaze through an awkward reading from a marked-up copy of one of my zines (though I tended to sort of go blind with anxiety, so couldn’t really see my notes). I once threw up in the bathroom of an art gallery, then splashed a little water on my face and came out and read, hoping no one could smell my breath. I don’t think the readings I gave back then were very entertaining to sit through. They may not even have been audible. But I did them, dammit, and the relief I felt after sharing my work in this way I found difficult was so good, it was physical. I almost miss that feeling. ALMOST.
I’ve had a few break-throughs here and there, and the more successful events gave me a confidence I could carry with me to the next time I got up to read. At Ladyfest Philly in 2013, I was miked and professionally lit, which was a new experience for me, since I’ve most often read in bookshops, classrooms, record stores, and little show spaces in people’s houses. There was a chair and I sat in it, made myself comfortable. As I started to speak I looked out to the audience—a much bigger one than I usually read to—and found that with the bright lights in my eyes, I couldn’t really see anyone. The joy! I read so easily and comfortably on that occasion that I actually enjoyed myself, and I could feel the power in what I read. I KNEW there was a reason I kept doing this!
Over the years I have read the piece I shared that day—the essay that served as the introduction to my first book, White Elephants—as well as some others, again and again. I’ve found that with practice I can nail the rhythm and flow of a piece, make it sound as good as I know it is.
The more I do it, the easier it gets.
Now I give readings often. My partner Joe and I both write and publish zines, and over the past few years we’ve enjoyed organizing and hosting readings as well as going on tours to other cities and towns. We’re on one now, sorta, having returned from a road trip to New England last week and with one reading remaining: The Philly Zine Fest Preview Gala, tonight. First we read with friends and strangers alike at the East Falls Zine Reading Room, the small DIY space we started last year. We called the event Sad Fest and everyone read sad-sack writing and played sad-sack songs. It was great. Then we hit the road and shared some of our poems with an engaged and interested group of poets at the Golden Note Book in Woodstock, New York. The next day we drove to Boston and read our zines to a lively bunch of zinester pals at the Papercut Zine Library. And before coming back home to Philly, we did a reading at a lovely, cool bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island called Ada Books.
We never remember to take good photos of ourselves actually doing the readings, but here are some pictures from the “Dog Days, Cat Zines” tour. That’s J. fiddling with the kaleidoloop he uses to make noise-music to accompany some of his poems.
Once we’ve read at the Zine Fest Preview tonight and tabled with our zines and books at the main event tomorrow, our tour will be over, and so will the summer. That’s how I’m thinking of it, anyway. I’m ready for the fall to come so that I can indulge in some of my quieter, more private pleasures for a while: needlework, long walks, and lots of reading—rather than lots of READINGS, ya dig? But I have loved doing this tour, pushing myself and growing, meeting new people and some cats, too. It’s been a long summer but a good one, exhausting but worthwhile.
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.
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!
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.
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.