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.

I’ve Got a Blister From Touching Everything I See

My pal Ed edited a compilation zine called I F#cking Love This Album, and he invited me to contribute to it. The zine came out a few weeks ago, so I thought now would be a good time to share my little essay with you here. The zine has a number of funny, interesting essays by other writers, including the highly entertaining Billy da Bunny. Buy yourself a copy, why donthca?  Meantime, read mine:

Hole, Live Through This

By the time I started college, Kurt Cobain was already dead. My best friend Laura and I hugged each other in the parking lot at school that Monday, the weekend after we found out. Laura and I used music as a way to distinguish ourselves as different from the other girls at school, and to get close to each other. She’d drive us around the suburbs in her little Corolla, tapes blasting, while we laughed like Beavis and Butthead and worked up the nerve to buy cigarettes. Laura loved Hole and Courtney Love as much as we both loved Kurt and Nirvana, and although I thought Courtney was cool and funny, I didn’t care that much about her music. Where Nirvana’s sound was rare and perfect, Hole sounded messy and unformed, always on the verge of flying apart.

After high school Laura and I stayed best friends but went to different colleges, and at first it was really hard. I was lonely and isolated at a hyper-competitive school, and I had a new boyfriend who I had no idea how to deal with because growing up Catholic had left me sick with sex-shame. During those months, I learned that feeling anguished made Hole sound … different. The music wasn’t just angry, it was urgent, like it was desperately trying to save your life. Courtney Love’s rage and pain were so female, too—the true beginning of my feminist education. “They found pieces of Jennifer’s baaaaah-dee”: I must have sung that awful line ten thousand times.

Live Through This isn’t my favorite album; nowadays, I’ll forget about it completely for years at a time. But MAN was it important to me then. I had it on tape, and played it at top volume on my Walkman over and over in the dark. Lying on the stiff mattress of my lofted bed at night, trying not to cry, getting braver. Whenever I think of the album the first words of the first song unfurl in my mind—“And the sky was made of amethyst,” set to the pulse of a too-quick heartbeat, and I can hear the perfection that was always there.

A few years ago I saw Hole play for the first time. Courtney Love was unbelievably powerful in person, with huge long legs like an Amazon. We got close to the stage, which isn’t hard to do at an old-people rock show, and I looked up at her in amazement as she bucked and heaved and belted out my getting-brave music, right there in front of me. It was 15 years after the album helped me save myself, and I no longer needed it the same way I once did. But I still loved it.

I’ll get the CARDS out on TIME, OKAY?

I’ve been banging away on this (rather expensive) MacBook laptop for almost six years now, and even though, crotchety person that I am, I do not think six years is a very long life for a machine I’ve taken good care of, it appears to be about to die. A few weeks ago it started making alarming crunching noises as it thought about things I’d asked it to do, and now the screen is going: Pixelated spots of color keep popping up and moving around in interesting patterns as I type or move the mouse. I’ve had to accept that I’ll need to replace the computer, so I’ve been backing up the only things of value on it–my huge digital music collection and a bunch of lousy photos I’ve taken of the places Joe and I have visited together. Oh, and of the beloved and exalted Trixie, my departed black cat companion whose (blithe) spirit keeps me company to this day. I’d hate to lose those pictures. Better put ’em on the external hard drive right now.

I’ve also come across a few pieces of writing I’d like to save. Here’s one for you to enjoy. I wrote it last year for inclusion in a compilation zine about food. I really just wanted to write about Mommie Dearest, one of my all-time favorite movies (remind me to tell you about the Mommie Dearest book club I did with my mom and sister), so I came up with a food theme from the film and wrote about that. Enjoy! (You can click on the image to make it larger and easier to read.)

Mommie Dearest Haegele

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.

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

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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.

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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.