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Zine Spleen
Marc Spiegler's notes from the 1995 Chicago Underground Press Conference

Underground Press Conference welcoming speaker Ted Anton, bathed in the fluorescent half-light of a DePaul lecture hall, speaks with an academic's fervor for the word: "The world needs us. Publishing is not doing its job, and we're fed up. Words can kill, words can give life and we're on a mission."
Dropping gears, Anton transforms back to a logistician. A trim man with a golf pro's upright posture and unwrinkled shirts, he gives directions around campus, and explains that a "way underground" panel will meet that evening, off beyond the margins of DePaul's manicured Vincentian environs: "The guy running the panel will have black hair, a black shirt and a ponytail, and will be sitting in the back of the Gold Star bar on West Division Street."

Flavorpak wins the UPC's team spirit award. White guys from Kansas City, they sport nifty T-shirts with their logo on the front, echoed in Asian-looking characters on the back. Their zine is a goddamn book: thick stock; screeds against corporations framed by Youth Nationalism; comics that ape "Ranxerox" and "Lone Wolf and Cub." Everywhere the Flavorpak posse goes, thousands of dollars in video equipment follow, a boom mike close at hand to capture every conversation. Why? Flavorpak Television, of course! Coming soon.

Panel: "What's a zine and how do I make one?" Thirty-two people show up. A count of hands later reveals that roughly twenty-nine already have their own zines. So why are they here? Maybe it's their other options: an Internet exegesis and a panel titled "Archiving and Documenting the Underground" that begins with moderator Michael Basinski reading other people's bad free verse for what seems an eternity, as Factsheet Five publisher (and media-anointed zine-world demigod) Seth Friedman looks on quizzically, apparently mulling whether speakers can bail on panels once they're on stage. I know I can bail. So I do.

Back at "What's a Zine?," Pagan Kennedy lives up to the insouciance that comes with such names, and stumbles in forty minutes late. Within moments of asking, "What's this panel about?" she starts flacking her book 'Zine, a compilation of the six-year Pagan's Head zine, an epic retelling of her trivial travails. The book cover sports Pagan with a Brady girl hair cut, a Flower-Power-meets-Grandma's-shower-mat typeface and a dumbed-down-for-the-unhip jacket copy that describes "Pagan's Head" as a "magazine" geared "to procrastinate, to trick people into liking me, to get dates, to turn myself into a star... And the scary thing was it worked."
It's still working. With the zine as calling card, Pagan's turned into a bona fide cultural machine. She writes fiction for one publisher, cultural pseudo-histories for another, teaches and takes the swag freelance gigs that come her way from mags like Seventeen. "Maybe some see me as a sellout," she concedes over hummus and falafel. "But why not do this if it's what I want to do and someone will pay me for it.
The mainstream publishers have just started to notice there's this huge talent pool. Zine publishers are very cheap talent: basically they do everything on the project: writer, photographer, layout." Her next project? "Pagan Kennedy's Living: The Magazine for Maturing Hipsters," which fulfills her two-book deal with St. Martin's.

The Panel: "How do I Get People Interested in My Zine?" Dressed in black post-punk, with a blond crest that seems to dissolve like a lapping wave into her pulled-back black hair, Julee Peezlee of McJob lays down the golden rule: Get listed in Factsheet Five! "Unless your zine's complete crap, you'll get a favorable listing, and that's worth its weight in gold." But Peezlee's only just begin, offering three more words to the audience: Direct-mail campaign. "If you send a postcard to every address in Factsheet Five, you'll start getting a ton of letters back."
As an example of corporate tools bent to personal ends, it's stunning. Too bad it's spoiled by an older Southern woman dressed like a thrift-store couch and sporting a pre-printed faux Jackson Pollack bandanna. Apparently intent on launching a zine, she makes the panel itemize every major zine purveyor in the country, asking them to repeat names as she scrupulously notes each one in longhand while everyone else twitches.
I twitch right out of the room, landing at "Sex, Drugs, Politics and Censorship" just in time to catch New York State Education Department official Paul Weinman a k a "White Boy" scream "Fuck!" and strip naked, his genitalia bouncing giddily as he finishes off a rehearsed rant that predicts his audience "gasps; gags; regurgitates" at the sight.
The audience does nothing of the sort. It's later revealed that the whole piece stems from a since-settled feud between Weinman and UPC organizer Batya Goldman, who had defended self-censorship when an Ohio bookstore "politely" requested poets not "use the f--- word." Once Weinman puts his pants back on, the next speaker says, "Well, that's a tough act to follow..." He's right. I'm gone in minutes.

The Panel: "The Pot Calling the Kettle Black," aka "Who are you calling a sellout, sellout?"
Stated purpose: "This panel will discuss the nature and definition of the underground press. What does it mean to sell out and when does one cross that line?"
The reality: Slamfest, with tactics running the gamut from blitzkrieg to blatant shock tactics.
Seth Friedman leads with a classic offensive, drawn straight from Wyndham Lewis' seminal mag Blast. In mere moments, he blasts "The New York Times, for lame articles on zines"; "Harper's for not paying zine editors when they print articles, and for not printing their addresses"; "All the media who call me for information on zines and don't even mention Factsheet Five"; "Anyone who prints a story titled 'Zines of the times' "; and the Utne Reader, "which only started covering zines to boost their falling circulation." (Utne Reader's Joshua Glenn, seated at the other end of the table, looks intensely uncomfortable. He'll later invoke the "Hey, I just work here" defense.)
The lit-world's Molly McQuade ratchets things down a notch, but leftist As We Are's Jason Pramas stands up to deliver a speech laced with unimaginative obscenities, table-pounding and a preemptive strike against accusations hinged on his magazine's admittedly unlikely future success: "If I build a magazine that manages to pay people minimum wage, is that selling out?"
After months under e-mail fire for organizing an "underground" conference at a university, Batya Goldman goes the confessional route, copping to an escort-service past and Middle American present. She brings the house down with her line, "People say I'm not 'blue collar' enough. Well, sucking cock is as blue-collar as it gets."
Not one to be one-upped, Friedman soon says, "I'm a sell-out. Factsheet Five is a sell-out." Record reviews in the zine, he admits, commonly hinge on his relationship with a label's advertising departments. And, he adds, he's drawn toward the limelight: "I'm in an adversarial relationship with the New York Times. But I always do interviews with them."
By the 5 p.m. finish, the peanut gallery starts attacking the panel for all being "ambitious," and deriding the conference for not putting really marginal zines like Holy Titclamps and Maximumrocknroll on the speakers list. On that note, Day One ends.

Day Two's more subdued, at least until Angelz & Rebelz editor Jack Csiki pisses off the anti-copyright seminar by spewing, "If someone sends me a letter, I'll print it. It doesn't matter if it's personal; they know I do a zine. I don't give a fuck about the ethics; I just want to know if I can get sued." Later, in the selling area, the burly man blusteringly explains his logic: "This is my life. If you tell me a secret, I might print it. Tough shit. Cause it's part of my psyche once you tell me. And it makes for much more interesting reading."

Forget the panels, seminars, speakers and lecture halls: The heart of the UPC lies in the lit sale zone. Here, zines function as a barter currency. Here, zine editors meet their far-flung audiences, the people who've made their mailbox the center of existence. Here, the Bubba's Live Bait crew from Down South stages a morality puppet play: a naive young zinester progresses down the primrose path to selling out, in little increments, by way of distributors, four-color covers and the much-hated "No Trades" policy practiced by elitist zine editors. In the denouement, disaster transpires: The once-punk protagonist renames the zine "Details," and descends into Conde Nast's moneyed inferno.

Finale scene: Room 154, massive lecture hall Dramatis personae: A panel ranging from Seth Friedman (him again!) to Third World Press's Haki Madhubuti, and from punk-poetry historian Holly Lalena Day to underground-press historian Ken Wachsberger. Objective: "The panel will talk about the history of the Underground Press Conference from the Beatnik movement and Vietnam era to the present."
For about an hour-and-a-half, things go as planned: six speakers expound with varying degrees of coherence and brevity on the zine's evolution and antecedents. Then all hell breaks loose, as an old rift between the Lumpen Times cohort and the conference organizers opens up like a puseous scab. Batya Goldman's husband, poet David Hernandez, calls a searing spoof UPC schedule "vicious and racist." Alluding to the claim by Steve Svymbersky of Qvimby's Qveer Store that he "found it on his doorstep," the poet charges that it emanated from a frat-boy "literary junta." Verbally buttonholing Friedman in front of a crowded room, Hernandez asks the zine-world poster boy, "Are you going to do something about this?"
Still hungover from last night's carousing, tired of speaking for the zinesters and completely unwilling to pose himself as the leader of an anarchic community, Friedman loses it. "They can print whatever they want!" he says. "I can't control what people write!" Hernandez persists, saying there are too many "white boys" in the zine world. To Friedman that's obvious, but Factsheet Five's power notwithstanding, he's not about to try changing it: "I am really angry about that. But I'm not in a position to understand it. If you have a network of Latino people, tell them to start zines."
When the panel ends, Friedman bolts from the room, head down and shoulders back, loping like a startled billy goat. Hernandez sticks around, though, long enough to mutter about shades of Hoover's Cointelpro" and to declare "We're going to start calling our own shots. If Factsheet Five doesn't want to play along, we'll do our own Factsheet Five."

This article first appeared in Chicago's NewCity, August 24, 1995. Copyright 1995 NewCity. Posted with permission.

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