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’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.)
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.
How has it taken me this long to write a zine about Philadelphia? My ancestral homeland, the grimy, spirited, no-bullshit, beautiful place where my heart lives (along with the rest of my body): In this zine I tell you why I couldn’t live anywhere but Philly. Have a look.
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.
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.
I’ve been casting about for weeks now, looking for something good to read. Sometimes it’s harder than others to find just the right book. I mean, I’ve been enjoying the new issue of BookForum, and this weekend I’m going on a little getaway to a town in the Pocono Mountains that has a great used bookstore, according to the reviews I found online. So there’s hope on the horizon. Another thing: A sweet pen-pal friend of mine asked me if I knew that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was written, in part, in Frenchtown, NJ, a small rural town on the Delaware River where Joe and I lived last year. I did not know that—Liz Gilbert is that place’s current literary claim to fame—and in fact I have never read Agee’s famous book. So I pulled out my stack of library cards and found I still have one for the next county over from when I lived there a couple years ago, and borrowed a copy from a nearby branch. It is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I’ve been reading a few pages every night until my eyes start to droop, which is a worthwhile experience in itself—the nighttime reading I mean—because, as Walker Evans writes in his introduction, much of the book was written in the middle of the night in the southern states where they traveled together to make the book, and then again late at night in New Jersey, and you can feel that, he suggests. (I agree.) The sentiment is night-infused: meditative, dark, slow, and sad, but alive to every tiny detail. It’s wordy, seemingly needlessly so (as when he describes in excruciating detail the oil lamp on the table where he’s writing) until you let yourself go with the rhythm of it, and then, like magic, you’re there beside him. Plus he’s angry and passionate in the most stirring way: It’s remarkable (and tragic) how relevant some of his observations are—particularly the ones about race relations in this country—though we’re seemingly a long way from those Dust Bowl days. I plan to keep reading this book, slowly, in tune with the rhythms of the end of summer. I’ll share pieces of it with you as I go.
Also: Here is a very small piece of writing of mine, a new zine I made two weeks ago, in time to bring with me to the zine fest in Brooklyn. Plants! The gift that keeps on giving.
Not to be confused with the Brooklyn Zine Fest, which is a larger and much more hectic event, Pete’s Mini Zine Fest will be taking place tomorrow at Pete’s Candy Store, a really charming little bar in Williamsburg with a garden out back, which is where I always set up my table. We plan to get there early so we can claim a space out there and get a beer, then get ready to shoot the breeze with zine folk all day. I’ll have both of my books for sale, as well as a poetry book I made with Joe last year, a series of postcards I’ve been making out of found photographs, and a few cute $1 zines. If you’re in the area, come say hello and buy some zines!
I made this pretty little poetry book last year, and I would like to share it with you. It’s a collection of poems I’d written over the last several years that, for the most part, hadn’t really seen the light of day; my hubby J laid the book out and together we designed the rad cover, and by designed it together I mean I sat and looked over his shoulder and pointed at the computer screen while he made it, but truly, some of the better design details are ALL ME.
I woke up this morning thinking about poetry, and how important it can be at certain times. There are things in life that are too hard to talk about using a normal string of words. You need the weird grammar of poetry instead, the way it bends and buckles and opens into sinkholes, so you can find another way in. Yesterday I felt incredibly lousy, as I had for the last several days, but I forced myself to get out of the house anyway, to take the bus to the library and look at poetry books. I’m planning a reading that will take place one day soon, and sometimes when I do those I also like to share a poem that someone else wrote. Poems are made to be shared and I think reading them aloud is probably the best way to do that. So I went to the library and poked around and see if I could find a good poem to share.
I went to the huge main branch of Philly’s public library downtown, which is housed in an old Beaux Arts building that’s so preposterously gorgeous it occasionally makes me feel weird, like: I just took the bus through North Philly. Why am I in the Paris Opera House all of a sudden? I went to the literature room and marched to the back, where the sign said POETRY AND POETS or whatever, but i was odd, the only things they had were old, like Shakespeare and Spenser and Yeats. The poets were old and the books themselves were old, too. They weren’t what I wanted, but I looked anyway, in case I found something that would be useful to me. I gave up after a while and was on my way out of the room when I spotted the other poetry shelves, which were crammed with contemporary poetry. Yippee! Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, Eileen Myles. I took a few of those books home with me and read through them, and woke up this morning thinking about a poem called “Writing” from Skies, a book Myles published with Black Sparrow about 15 years ago. I read it and something stirred in my chest and I smiled to myself, which was what I needed—the stirring and the smiling—and what I couldn’t get any other way. Do yourself a favor and find and read the fucking thing. She is incredible.
I am much, much less of a poet than Eileen Myles is, but I’m not terrible, either. Would you like a copy of my little zine-book? Leave a comment below within the next week, and on June 3rd a robot will choose a winner at random, and then I’ll contact that person privately to get their mailing address. Sound good? Good.
So my husband and I have decided to organize our large personal zine collection a bit better, display it nicely, and open up our home about once a month as a zine reading room. We are dorks, and we are very excited about this.
Figuring out the best way to arrange the zines was a challenge though. Between us we’ve collected around 500 zines over the last several years, and even though they’re usually much smaller than books, they do take up some space. I thought maybe the zines should be placed in magazine holders of some kind, but Joe wanted them to be out in the open, footloose and fancy-free. Fine, except that the zines can’t be lined up on a bookshelf the way books are, since they don’t really have spines. We decided to display them facing out, so that people could easily see and flip through them, like records in a record store. (This is the method used and written about by Julie Bartel in her book, From A to Zine: Building a Winning Zine Collection in Your Library, according to an uncredited article I found online. Download it here. I have heard about Bartel’s book for years but have never read it. Maybe it’s time!)
But zines are also much more varied in size than books tend to be, so it quickly became apparent that, if they were stacked facing outward, the small ones would be lost behind the taller ones. Our solution was to arrange them by size, and alphabetically by title within those size categories. On the top shelf are the quarter-sized zines, on the second shelf are the half-sized ones, and on the bottom shelf are half-legal sized (which are both large and square-shaped). The magazine-sized zines we put in a cool old magazine rack that used to belong to Joe’s grandparents. (It’s metal and has some kind of battle scene in relief on the front of it; the thing looks like it was forged during the Civil War.) The matchbook-sized and otherwise teensy zines went on the top of the bookcase, in cigar boxes.
We also had to find a way to containerize the zines once they were facing outward, so we went to the hardware store and bought plywood, which we painted with that cool chalkboard paint and nailed to the front of the bookcase, one across each shelf. We used colorful chalk to write the alphabet under each row so that folks can easily locate zines by their title.
Have a look!
And for fun (as if all this weren’t the most fun ever), I’ll be posting capsule reviews of zines from our collection over the next few days. Here’s the first:
Captcha is a gorgeous and imaginative sci-fi comic zine series by Jo-Jo Sherrow, and here we have book #7. Jo-Jo’s drawings are intensely charming, depicting humanoid girls whose clothes and haircuts you will definitely covet, but the comic covers deep, mind-bending subjects. This one focuses on psychic self-defense methods of different kinds.
Microcosm, the independent press that published my first two books, interviewed me recently for their blog, and they included this Polaroid of me holding a giant library card, in which I look happier than I have looked in any picture since the “first day of school with braided pigtails on the front porch” one was taken. Here’s the interview, have a look!