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