December 15th, 2010 / 11:29 pm
Craft Notes & Random & Technology

The xerox machine: printing press of the people

Karen Lillis is currently serializing a memoir about working at St. Mark’s Bookshop called Bagging The Beats At Midnight: Confessions of an Indie Bookstore Clerk over at Undie Press. Her recent installment, titled “People Who Led Me to Self-Publishing,” discusses the inspiring and energetic figures she encountered, people who took artistic matters into their own hands by making sloppy, lo-fi xeroxed booklets that were sold on a special consignment rack at St. Mark’s. Karen reminds us that writers such as Anais Nin, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Kathy Acker, Gertrude Stein, and others all self-published at one point. There’s a certain magic about it—the immediacy of it, the openness, the way any wing nut or fanatic or obsessive outsider can be given an equal hearing on the consignment rack. No filtration or editorial process—just print, copy, distribute.

In a recent email I sent to Al Burian, I wrote that I was interested in bridging the gap between the small press/indie publishing world and the self-publishing/zine world. Al is kind of a cult figure in the self-publishing world, but is probably virtually unknown to small press and indie lit readers (although he did get some kind of honorable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading series one year). I’ve been reading his zines since I was 13 and I’m still totally obsessed with them. Since Al Burian was my favorite zine writer, over the years I let everyone I knew borrow his writings—teachers, friends, family. Some instantly became obsessive fans of his work as well. Since last month Al’s out-of-print collection of early zines, titled Burn Collector, is finally back in print after being republished by PM Press. (You should check it out—I’ve probably read it more times than any other book in my life.) Al’s zine Burn Collector and others like his inspired me to start self-publishing when I was 15.

In high school I would use the crappy copy machine at the grocery store I worked at to make little booklets of my writings and art. I would mostly give the shoddy cut-and-paste booklets to friends and trade with other people through the mail. I still do this kind of stuff—although now I use InDesign for my layouts and buy nice paper. Even in college I was running something like a covert small-scale printing operation out of the library of an art museum that I interned at. I helped friends—including HTMLGIANT’s Alec Niedenthal—make their chapbooks, band flyers, and noise music tape inserts using printers and a fancy color copy machine that I had the code for. Alec would also sometimes catch me leaving my ridiculous anonymous pamphlets around. The whole thing was joyful and exciting, even if it was kind of naïve and sloppy.

Dennis Cooper is another writer who started out self-publishing. In the 70s, he started a zine called Little Caesar, which was “a literary journal with an anarchist, punk rock spirit.” Now we worship Dennis Cooper (I do, at least). But we can easily forget Dennis’s DIY origins, like we forget about the way countless other cutting edge writers get their start: by putting it out there themselves. Regarding the zines he made in the 70s, Dennis said: “…the literary magazines, whether they were gay or not, were sort of hostile to Little Caesar when it was around. I gave it out free to most people. Stores wouldn’t carry it because it was too weird so I would stuff it under my shirt and put it in the bookstores.”

In regards to Anais Nin, Karen wrote:

Meanwhile her “Story of My Printing Press” neatly laid out the how’s and the why’s of self-publishing. You self-publish because the commercial world could take decades to catch up to your brand of brilliance, because it’s best to get your work out there while it’s fresh, and because as long as you’re able-bodied and don’t mind wearing different hats (writer, book designer, printer, binder, publisher, promoter, etc.), why the hell not?

When I was a naïve little adolescent self-publisher, I was interested in both the established literary avant-garde and the weird world of underground self-publishing. In high school I didn’t know many people who were interested in the kind of stuff I was into, but I had one friend who was the type of literary teenage boy who likes Bukowski and Henry Miller. We traded books and reading material but he never wanted to read anything I gave him that was self-published. He said he was repulsed by it before reading it because there was no “quality control.” He said, “When I get an issue of McSweeney’s, I know it’s all going to be good. But with zines—anyone can make them. It’s probably mostly garbage.” Fair enough. I knew that some of it was garbage, but I wasn’t asking him to sift through every zine ever made—I was giving him the ones I already thought were good. But since he had a stubborn mentality about zines being illegitimate, he wouldn’t even look at them.

I’ve come across this mentality constantly—the people that fear the tyranny of the “bad” cultural producers coming to dismantle their value-system. This paranoia is accompanied by an apocalyptic vision of a world where standards and systems used to police aesthetic value have collapsed completely, allowing for the terrible opportunity of a free-for-all of artistic creation. But I say that it’s also the absence of a regulatory filter aimed at controlling quality and commercial value that allows for a lot of weird and beautifully bizarre things to emerge—incoherent manifestos, angry diatribes, rambling poetry, copy machine art, feminist revenge fantasies, crazy crayon drawings, Harmony Korine’s whack misspelled stories, stick figure comics about DIY anti-depression techniques, etc.

The funny thing to me is, the actual production process of today’s small presses are not that unlike those of the self-publishing world. They’re even undistinguishable in certain cases. Many chapbooks are made at kinkos, friends start presses together and support their friends’ work, etc. Even offset printed books are often independently funded and distributed and still sometimes have typos, disproportionate margins, and so-so photoshop/design jobs. There is still a certain level of do-it-yourself zeal that keeps the process of making things lively in both camps. Perhaps the main difference comes down to the aesthetics: the clean, design-oriented look of indie lit vs. the high-contrast punk stylings of zines. But certainly, these caricatures do not adequately capture the wide range of small press and self-published works out there, though the subcultures remain largely separate.

Honestly, I’ve always welcomed the vision of cultural apocalypse espoused by the guardians of standards. I think any teenager, mental patient, mother, fanatic, amateur poet, or whatever should write if they want to. It doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily read it, but I’ll be happy they’re doing it because it creates more space for unfettered creative activity and contributes to the overall artistic energy of an environment.

I wrote a thesis on race, gender and the practice of writing and something I wrote about was how power operates through the internalization of standards (perhaps a form of “micro-surveillance,” in Foucauldian terms), and a kind of self-imposed dehumanization that makes us feel like we are unworthy of having a “voice.” When I was working on my thesis I was also journaling about my thoughts on writing. I was telling my professor about my anti-hierarchical perspective on writing. Since she was a high modernist, she got real pissed and said, “I don’t get it. You’re one of the GOOD ones! Some people are just stupid and shouldn’t write!” When journaling about the self-objectifying process that keeps us silent and afraid of writing, I wrote:

My vision wavers. I escape their grip, shed my sunglasses and am overwhelmed by the clarity—the suspicion and fear turning to love, I open my mouth. I’m usually so afraid, live in this silence but some days I overcome silence. I say it to myself everyday: I don’t want anyone to ever be driven to silence because they’re afraid. This silence is political. Fuck their monopoly on voice; demarcating who is worthy of speech, of words. And fuck internalizing this feeling of unworthiness, of self-dehumanization. So much has been lost and they should feel like shit. So much has been lost, never even given a chance to live or grow, and they should feel like shit.

You truly believe in the liberating potential of writing, of overcoming silence, of sharing our stories. You always thought of that space as a space of freedom. But that space has been poisoned. And there’s so much shit we have to overcome for that space to be free. But now you know the point of it all. It was never to write well. It was always meant to inspire, to be a part of the undoing of silence. And not just your own silence. It’s not even worth it to do it alone.

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  1. worlds Super Dry Cleaning Machine

      […] The xerox machine: printing press of the people | HTMLGIANT […]

  2. Janey Smith

      Jackie? It’s super fun to do, too. You just need paper or whatever, a stapler or maybe tape or thumb tacks, some writing or letters you took from the alphabet, and a bunch of pictures. It’s a really neat way to make friends. And it’s relatively inexpensive. If you don’t have a printer/copy machine, use the one at work. If you don’t have a job, then . . . shit. If you don’t have a job, then give your stuff to a friend who does.

      Jackie? Do unemployment offices have copy machines people can use for free? How about libraries?

  3. M Kitchell

      fuck yes jackie, we have talked about this briefly, but i am for d-i-y publishing 100%.

  4. jackie wang

      haha i had you in mind while i was writing it

  5. Ken Baumann

      Thank you. Really beautiful.

  6. jackie wang

      is this sarcastic? well… some libraries do have free copy machines. some colleges also have printing labs with free black and white printing. you have to look around, though. but when i was traveling around the country by bike i could often find a free printing source in a city i was visiting by poking around or finding someone with a hook-up. also, i know kids who are into DIY publishing who have joked about the “globalization” of DIY printing: X city might have a letter press, X city might have a perfect binding machine, X city might have unlimited copies, so kids making a book might print the covers in one place, the pages in another, and do the binding in another.

  7. P. H. Madore

      I think Jackie Wang is Canadian. They don’t even know when they’re being Bourgeois, so it’s tough for them to consciously develop speech patterns which sound less arrogant.

  8. The xerox machine: printing press of the people | HTMLGIANT | Printing Press Job for anything

      […] original here: The xerox machine: printing press of the people | HTMLGIANT This entry was posted in Printing and tagged art-museum, chapbooks, covert-small-scale, […]

  9. Scott mcclanahan

      Nice post Karen has been killing it with her St. Mark’s book.

  10. Tim Hall

      A great article, Jackie, and thanks so much for mentioning Karen’s fantastic work at Undie Press.

  11. Brennen

      This is wonderful, Jackie. Thanks.

  12. Richard Thomas
  13. goner

      A post about zines without mentioning Aaron Cometbus? I’m not sure you can do that. Zine culture in the 90s was awesome. It’s funny to talk about it like, “In my day…” because back then I associated zines with youth culture and now it’s nostalgia for aging hipsters. St Mark’s still has their consignment rack so they’re holding up their end of the bargain of keeping that culture going.

  14. jackie wang

      what does the binding staple do? does it go through a ton of pages??

      i’ve actually never owned a long arm stapler but i am considering getting one. last time i printed something i had to call a bunch of libraries to see if they had one… the folks at the local anarchist bookstore Red Emmas had one and they let me assemble all my zines using it, and i cut them using a guillotine cutter at the art school in town.

  15. Joseph Young

      very nice. ‘guardians of standards’–writer types are so conservative, to make a grossly broad generalization. bands make diy songs and play them in diy venues, painters paint diy and hang them in diy galleries and all that’s mostly cool w other bands/painters.

  16. Karen Lillis

      What a great piece, Jackie! @goner, yes, Aaron Cometbus is not only the king of zines, he wrote some great pieces on bookstores, too. I love his issues on the Berkeley bookstores and the used bookstores of New York.

  17. letters journal

      One time I went to a hardcore show in North Carolina, and Al Burian was there being weird and writing in the corner instead of talking to anyone.

  18. jackie wang

      yeah, that’s true. i didn’t mention a lot of old school zines or movements affiliated w/ zines… when i made the post i thought it might seem weird that i didn’t mention riot grrrl at all either… i’ve read and enjoyed aaron cometbus. i guess i focused more on the potentials of the medium rather than giving a broad overview… and mentioning cross-over types like dennis cooper. thanks for mentioning aaron and bringing up what’s left out of this post…

  19. jackie wang

      haha i believe it. last time i saw al do a reading he hit himself repeated in the head with the microphone. sometimes he comes off as weird and unapproachable but he was pretty nice when i talked to him

  20. jackie wang

      what does the binding staple do? does it go through a ton of pages??

      i’ve actually never owned a long arm stapler but i am considering getting one. last time i printed something i had to call a bunch of libraries to see if they had one… the folks at the local anarchist bookstore Red Emmas had one and they let me assemble all my zines using it, and i cut them using a guillotine cutter at the art school in town.

  21. Richard Thomas

      The long arm is good for anything you need to reach over a long distance, stapling the middle of any folded paper. The binding stapler is great for regular sized stuff (8.5×11) but you can see that there isn’t THAT much room to go larger. What’s great is that it center whatever you fold so that it staples it right in the middle of the fold every time. Real easy to use, has some heft to it, so it doesn’t slide around, really nice for banging out some chapbooks. Both are great.

  22. Jaclyn

      i am one of those people you introduced to al burian’s work! thanks. also, i love that self-published texts lack quality control. that’s the beauty of it. you don’t need credentials; everyone has something to share. i laughed at professor h’s quote. you’re one of the GOOD ones. oh, h.


  23. MM

      i was thinking kitchell too. why are there not more of you?

      thanks for this jackie, though it’s kinda (alert) “to the choir”. i’m cool with that, we weirdos quell our worries and are comforted when we hear that there are others.

      it’s nice to think that with the net now, there will be less sullenness for suburban/boring/rural adolescent artists, dealing with the lame dismissal-winds which keep extinguishing their flames. i had an experience exactly the same, ridiculed for zines (which, i admit, was snuffed), and more with the “indie” music i liked and looked for (and continue, ever, to adventure out, always in pursuit): my teen compatriots complained “why would you listen to that band, they’ll never be on MTV, they’ll never come to town, won’t hear it on the radio…”

      Yet you are right: it is the cull which is our duty, to point out and recommend what we have already discerned to be superlative and worthy.

      I’ve two St.Frank friends who spent their own scant artist’s-cash to acquire their OWN copier, no code, and now have a neat zine library/distro, re-offering out the best of what they get, all free, or lest we forget the SASE.

      They also publish Baitline, a raunchy fecal-face trashster/feral Mission classified ad rag; like remember all the ads for penpals at the backs of zines? (or the hopeless hunt for alterna-sex with other elusive radicals…) These days no one seems to need such desparate paper “me me here!” self-beaconry, what with the net; but in truth I feel often lost. When I spy out someone’s snail address I think I should ink a surprise letter. (But then I ramble on forever….)

      personally i want to see more non-digital HANDSOME zines. There was a paucity then, but people have the aesthetics now, ever since they went clean with electron-layout.

  24. MM

      do you (plural) think or know if now youth don’t do paper zines? (or maybe less?)

      i have no idea, i don’t see any youth culture, visually/physically. a friend said teens hang out in houses now. it’s strange to not see smokers loitering. At that age there is so much to cause malaise, but what are youth today doing with it? I feel like such a fogey, yes.

      I assume that a lot gets taught to misfit teens through punk culture, and i also assume that zines will always accompany punk culture, and I assume that punk culture won’t ever evaporate (like how deadhead culture is still enormously strong). Does anyone think I’m wrong?

      90s punk was so significant because it broke the patriarchal testosterone of “metal” which had previously placated many mainstreamers, and thus reached a wider audience with alterna/indie/grunge. But “punk” had been going on for decades, way before the 70s even.

  25. MM

      jackie are you really canadian? if so, then this is even more interesting.

      It amazes me that there are often temporal parallels of counterculture between different geographies and even cultures, at least just of the West. For instance, any under-40-fellows here ever say “WTF?!” about the Aquarian age of the 60s? It had the hippies, the yippies, the diggers, the provos, motherfuckers, the black panthers, the faeries, krautrock, back-to-the-land’ers, yoga/zen… often in places where there was even a language barrier!

  26. FreeDenali

      hi, i thought i’d add here. i’m 17, and i’ve been producing zines and have been actively involved in zine culture for about 2 or three years now. so, yes, youth of today are into zine culture, and yes, it lives on. :)