I live two lives. Or at least that’s how it feels. My literary and music worlds are usually very separate. I go to punk shows my writer friends would never go to, and I attend readings my bandmates wouldn’t be caught dead at. I have always been a writer first, and a musician second, so more often than not my published work- in literary journals and on websites - goes unread by friends involved with music and punk. There are a few select darlings that do read, but, comparatively, my art is a ghost. In this subculture I’ve immersed myself in since the 90s, music has always come first while other forms of art are often swept aside. To experience a band is immediate and accessible, fun and easy. To experience writing, however, isn’t always so and it is particularly frustrating to feel as if my main art form isn’t as important or contributive to the scene.
And so, a confession: my most recent zine series is a trick. It is filled with my creative nonfiction essays. Some have been published, some haven’t, but with all of them I’ve spent countless hours pacing around my home office freaking out over, revising and rewriting and thinking, “What is this stupid life I have chosen for myself?” That is the kind of writing I include in my personal zines, pieces that I am obsessive and desperate for, because that is the only way I know how to write.
The reason my zine is a trick is because zines are the canon of punk literature and I have brought into this world my writing that may otherwise have continued to go unnoticed. I have forced upon this scene my own literature, hence the title of my zine, Secret Bully, taken from the Joan Didion essay “Why I Write”:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.
I wanted to be a writer before I wanted anything else in this life, before I barely even knew what it was like to be alive. These days I write some for money, and some for free. To be honest, I am most proud of the work that is unpaid and I am currently working on turning those pieces into a memoir.
It’s an interesting task for someone with roots in zine-making. What will make it into the memoir? What makes my words that belong in zines any different from my words that will eventually belong in my book? Is there a difference? If it’s written words, isn’t it all literary?
Certainly there are people in the literary world who would look down on me publishing my professional work in zines. Maybe because they don’t see it as legit, or because I am not being paid, or because it devalues my work. I don’t believe in any of that because I grew up with DIY ethics. Conversely, people have more often than not told me that my zine isn’t as, well, ziney, as one might expect and thus sets it apart from a lot of per-zines. It’s been labeled “literary” by distros and libraries, but what makes it more literary than the next zine? Other per-zines can be filled with a raw kind of stream-of consciousness writing that has been through maybe less of a tedious editing process...but are no less important. The appeal of zines is their tangibility; you hold onto their pages and presence as much as a copy of Moby Dick or To The Lighthouse. They throw us back to a time before blogs and the internet. We live in an age of self-indulgence and over-sharing, but it’s not necessarily always a bad thing. Sometimes we need those stories even more than we need the novel or the memoir, because it’s much more within our reach.
I have no conclusion for you besides my own musings. I am a zine writer, a creative writer, and a freelancer. The literature I put out into the world takes on different forms. It’s led me to wonder: what do other writers and zinesters and readers believe the definition of “literature” to be? And where do zines fall into this strange, broad term? I asked a few writers that I respect to share their thoughts with me, and to also to list their favorite writers.
I looked it up and according to dictionary.com "literature" is writing whose chief features are "expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest." To me, while not totally eschewing the permanent/universal, zines have been more about the ephemeral/personal--not really concerned with legacy so much as expression. In that way perhaps zines and literature are opposite sides of the same coin? I don't expect zines to be "good" or "entertaining," or much of anything really. Zines teach me how to suspend my expectations and just experience something. It helps me turn off my internal critic and simply listen to what I'm being told.
I always try out my "professional" writing in zine form first, because in turning off my internal critic, I get a lot more imaginative and take a lot more risks in my writing. I don't expect it to be a book, or even a poem. The writing gets to be become whatever it wants to be. About a month ago I released a new zine, "Hey Teebs #3: Nature Poem" which I've continued working on and am turning into a book-length poem. There were whole pages wherein I'd just write something like, "I'm going to be so sad when Aretha Franklin dies." Or "gay men are the worst bc if they don't want to fuck you, you are nothing to them. Yet they love dogs." Or, simply, "who dis?"
It seems kind of audacious and maybe even wasteful, but in the context of a zine I was just like, “YEAH! WHY NOT? DO IT, TEEBS!” I don't know if I would have given myself the permission otherwise. I don't know if they are different planets, but maybe they are the same planet at different points in its orbit. Like when Mercury gets closer to the Sun, it's more molten and fluid, that's like a zine. And at its apogee, Mercury is more cool and stable. That's probably profesh.
Favorite writers: A.R. Ammons, Ariana Reines, Jackie Wang, Natalie Diaz, Anne Carson, James Schuyler, Dodie Bellamy, Morgan Parker, Kayla Morse, Max Steele... there are so many stars.
There's something so much more intimate, I think, about a zine. Especially perzines. Most zines don't go through the heavily mediated editorial process of a publication. They're much more raw and honest because they come straight from the source.
I want to say [zine writing and professional writing] are different, but to be honest they're not that different for me. They're the same in that I find myself very carefully curating each type of writing for specific audiences. With zines, I'm much more trusting and reaching for connections to like-minded people. In my professional writing, I try to be more informative and light-hearted-- much more charming, like I'm trying to win my readers over. Basically I wish I had more time for zine writing, haha.
Favorite writers: Britt Julious, Hannah Black, Jes Skolnik, Diana Mai (Musings of a Jook-Sing zine), Rich Gutierrez (Boy Seeking Pain zine), Tomas Moniz (Rad Dad zine) and Janea Kelly (She Dwells With Beauty zine).
Literature, as a term, describes something stagnant and boring to me. I picture like, a bunch of male dudes who drink too much sitting around bars talking about their craft and it's like, definitely not super inclusive and they find ways to undercut the efforts of their female peers for being too casual or not "artistic" enough, or something? "Literature" as a moniker for anything contemporary just seems like a stodgy white boys club, but maybe that's just me.
At this point in my life, I definitely appreciate that most novels or memoirs have been thoroughly edited. I love zines and that's my preferred medium but I think sometimes people don't put in the work that's necessary. Or they have some teen crimethINC notion that editing is a tool of the oppressor or something. I'm definitely guilty of this too in my zines, though I try to be a little more rigorous these days. Other than that, I don't think there's really much of a difference beyond like, the tactile experience of holding a zine is notably different than holding a book.
I never ever ever would've considered myself a writer before I got my book contract, but that's mostly about self-deprecation, I think, because I definitely considered Mimi Nguyen a writer all through high school and I don't think she had anything "published" back then besides zines and Punk Planet columns (though I could be mistaken). And like, Cometbus is FOR SURE a writer. Especially if you ever talk to him about his process. That dude WORKS for it. So yes, they can be included under the general umbrella but also they are their own ilk.
Favorite writers: Sam Delany, Jeannette Winterson, Sarah McCarry, Victor LaValle, Imogen Binnie.
When I'm reading and I feel as though I've learned something not only about the subject of the piece but also about the writer, that is literature to me. It's as broad as asking "what is music." I gravitate towards art zines, but zines can also be literature.
I associate the term "zine" with the idea of self-publishing, and little else. The "zine" form seems pretty limitless to me in that way. Novelistic writing or memoir writing could appear in a zine; a memoir could carry the intimate tone of a zine. (For example, I just read Viv Albertine's memoir and it was so plainspoken that at times I felt like i was just reading her diary—which reminded me of zine writing.)
When I think "zine" I just think of writing that applies a DIY ideology in how it's released, in the same way a "punk record" would. In 2014, punk music is hardly contained to a single style. I think new zine writing is—or should be–the same. There are infinite ways to interpret "zine"—it is just an impulse, to do something regardless of an assignment, an editor, a publisher, or any other kind of gatekeeper that would stand in the way of your self-expression.
Favorite writers: Fiona Apple & Bob Dylan. Frank O'hara & William Blake. Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Patti Smith. Joan Didion, Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus. Rob Sheffield, Lindsay Zoladz, Jon Caramanica. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Meredith Graves & Mish Way. Liz Pelly! The list goes on and on and on and on.