Beat Poetry Chapbooks
Aside from fanzines, the mimeographed poetry chapbooks
of the 1940s and '50s produced by the Beat writers and poets
of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance are generally cited as
the most immediate source of today's zines. Because of the small
audience for these publications initially, the Beats and the
San Francisco poets "perfected the small-run, beautifully
crafted publications called chapbooks." According to zine
publisher Michael Stutz:
"They mimeographed tons of stuff, little
chapbooks and poetry ragsand all of this directly comes
from the Greatest Living Poet, Allen Ginsberg. His background
was trying to get the work of [he] and his friends (like Burroughs
and Kerouac) out there in the public . . . when he hooked up
with the SF [San Francisco] people, he did the same thing . .
. they made little booklets for self-promotion, and it worked."
Zines, particularly of the artistic and literary
variety, have continued the Beat tradition of fine quality and
innovative design. Many zine publishers also carry on the immediacy
and Do-It-Yourself spirit of the Beat chapbooks, both in writing
style and publishing methods, in their own work.
Revolutionary War Broadsides
However, the Beats and San Francisco poets could
be seen as just one step in a long tradition of American individualism,
especially where printing and publishing are concerned. Seth
Friedman, one-time publisher of Factsheet Five, is quoted in
Time as saying, "Benjamin Franklin made zines. He published
his own thoughts using his own printing presses. It wasn't the
magazine business. He did it all on his own." Franklin,
like almost all of colonial America's printers, in addition to
taking on outside orders, published his own work on the side
in the form of pamphlets and broadsides.
This practice increased
in frequency as colonial America broke from Britain, with printers
taking both sides, as Carl Berger describes in "Broadsides
and Bayonets: The Propaganda War of the American Revolution":
"From the beginning it was a war of words as well as gunpowder,
with each major protagonist seeking to subvert and weaken the
enemy camp with carefully prepared arguments." The strong
parallel between the printers of the Revolutionary War era disseminating
their political views via the broadside and pamphlet and zine
publishers spreading their opinions and viewpoints via the zine
formulates easily, especially because independence and autonomy
operate so strongly in the activities of both.
It could also be
argued that the parallel, especially in light of Friedman's statement,
demonstrates how zine publishers attempt to bring the now corporate
and complex publishing world back to its roots, the lone printer
of Franklin's day.
Another primarily politically oriented publishing
activity that serves as a parallel to the zines of today is the
Russian activity of Samizdat, most prevalent during the lifetime
of the Soviet Union. "Samizdat" literally means "self-publishers,"
and George Saunders, in the foreword to Samizdat: Voices
of the Soviet Opposition, describes its origins:
"Samizdat is a Soviet term coined by
post-Stalin dissidents f or the old Russian revolutionary practice
, from the days of the czarist censorship of circulating uncensored
material privately, usually in manuscript formnonconformist
poetry and fiction, memoirs, historical documents, protest statements,
trial records, etc. The name "Samizdat"Self-Publishersis
an ironic parody of such official acronyms as "Gosizdat,"
meaning State Publishers (short for Gosudarstvennoe Izdatelstvo).
More colloquially, one might translate Samizdat as the Do-It-Yourself
Press. The message is clear: "If the bureaucrats won't print
it, we'll get it around ourselves."
American zine publishers don't have to worry about
bureaucrats not printing their material; their adversary is the
marketplace. Many zines fill niches mainstream publishers won't,
for reasons ranging from subject matter (e.g., The Black Flame,
which deals with Satanism) to commercial viability (e.g., 8-Track Mind, a forum for eight-track
cassette collectors). Zines, like Samizdat, also define themselves
boldly against the official, or mainstream culture, and provide
an alternative form of communication.
publishers sometimes refer to their activity as a form of Samizdat.
This is most easily evidenced by Merritt Clifton's book "The
Samizdat Method," which instructs prospective zine and other
underground publishers in how to set up their own printing facilities.
Like the participants in Samizdat, the artistic
rebels of Dada, particularly in the movement's beginnings in
Zurich during World War I, had to resort to underground publishing
in order to make such bold statements in their publications as
"we demand the right to piss in different colors."
In addition to their desire to shock bourgeois sensibilities
(which would become a common characteristic of many of today's
zines), the Dada magazines, Cabaret Voltaire, Dada, 291, 391,
and New York Dada, also demonstrate techniques that would become
future staples of zines: rants, detournement, and collages.
Many of these techniques
would later be adopted by the surrealists in their publications,
and later still the situationists would pick up on the same techniques
in their publications. The influence of the situationalist publications,
filtered through the punk movement of the late nineteen seventies,
would cause Bob Black to later reflect in his 1994 book "Beneath
the Underground" that "No small number of the thousands
of zines which have come out in the last fifteen years look like
messy versions of Situationist International publications."
of these various social and artistic avant-garde groups continue
in the zines of today primarily because they are so accessible
person. Collages are easy to make, and certainly everyone has
ranted at one time or another. Detournement (demonstrated most
simply by the changing of comic strip captions) can also be easily
achievedall it takes is a few strokes of the pen. All have
long been hallmarks of artistic rebels everywhere and are integral
characteristics of zine culture.
Collage and detournement often involve mainstream
cultural icons and are part of an overall aesthetic in zines
that involves the appropriation of mainstream culture for the
purposes of the zine publisher. This appropriation of mainstream
cultural icons by zines can be seen most easily in the defacement
and distortion of names from mainstream culture. The names of
most zines range from the outrageous (e.g., Asshole Weekly, Fucktooth,
Murder Can Be Fun, etc.) to the merely silly (e.g., Eat Poop,
Fat Nipples, Tangy Bunnies, etc.), but some are specially designed
to disturb mainstream sensibilities by twisting the names of
mainstream magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens and SPIN
into Better Homos and Gardens and SPUN.
The tweaking of
the mainstream's nose can also be seen in the appropriation of
mainstream images by zines. In the first issue of Asbestos, an
Absolut Vodka advertisement (which frequently appears in mainstream
magazines) appears with the head of a penis attached to the top
of the bottle. The caption reads "Absolut Dick," and
thus absolutely changes the message behind the advertisement.
The Bil Keane cartoons ("The Family Circus") that appear
with new captions in the Angry Thoreauan are also prime examples
of appropriation and defacement. The replaced captions give the
cartoons a sinister undertone. For example, Mommy scolds Jeffy
and P.J. for sticking stamps on the refrigerator by telling them,
"Why don't you try decorating the refrigerator from the
inside?" In another cartoon, Dolly and Jeffy's conversation
on a phone constructed of paper cups consists of "Fuck you
fuck you fuck you fuck you" and "Fuck you, too."
If these were original
cartoons featuring unfamiliar cartoon characters, chances are
the jokes wouldn't be nearly as funny, or funny at all. It's
precisely the fact that the cartoons have been taken out of their
original context and fitted for the purposes of the zine that
gives the new captions their shocking and humorous power.
and distortion of mainstream cultural forms and images has long
been an established part of zine production. It hearkens back
to literary experiments like James Joyce's appropriation of advertising
slogans in Finnegans Wake and William Burroughs "cut-up"
experiments involving manuscripts and newspapers. In his book
on the English punk movement of the late '70s, England's Dreaming,
Jon Savage describes the process of appropriation, using one
of his diary entries from the period:
30.11.76: In the lunch hour, I sit on the
bog attacking bits of paper with Pritt glue in a very real fevergotto
do it now, now. 'It' is a fanzine. I need to give the NME [New
Musical Express, an English music magazine], '60s pop annuals,
Wilhelm Reich and 'Prostitution' handbills, are slashed together
around a long improvised piece about violence, fascism, Thatcher,
and the impending apocalypse."
The language Savage uses to describe the appropriation
("attacking" and "slashed") is fitting, because
this appropriation is an attack on the mainstream culture. The
editor of Netshaker, Crackerjack Kid, explains that this is an
attempt to define an individual voice through subversion of the
media that barrages one constantly with its images night and
day: "Networkers use zines to jam the communication age
with media noise, appropriating the established media's fictive
truths, detourning its images, [subverting its] mediated political,
social, economic, and cultural dogma."
The detournement described by Crackerjack Kid
was defined by the Lettrist International, a group of young Parisians
in the 1950s, as "the theft of aesthetic artifacts from
their context and their diversion into contexts of one's own
devise." As Greil Marcus describes in his book Lipstick Traces,
detournement was a means of reclaiming meaning in a world "where
words were meaningless and [yet] they ruled the world."
Like the replacement
captions of the "Family Circus" cartoons in the Angry
Thoreauan and the defaced vodka ad in Asbestos, the Lettrist
International use of detournement was, in Marcus's words, "a
politics of subversive quotation, of cutting the vocal cords
of every empowered speaker, social symbols yanked through the
looking glass." The subversion of the established culture
by methods such as detournement is appealing to the subculture,
because it carves out a space for the subculture to live and
grow from within the mainstream culture (or in Lacanian terms,
the Symbolic orderthose systems such as culture, language,
government, and religion that define human subjects within their
laws and boundaries) which constantly threatens to drown out
(or water down) subcultural forms.
In his book, Subculture: The Meaning
of Style, Dick Hebdige interprets subculture "as a form
of resistance in which experienced contradictions and objections
to [the] ruling ideology are obliquely represented in style.
Specifically I have used the term 'noise' to describe the challenge
to symbolic order that such styles are seen to constitute."
The noise that Hebdige describes can be seen operating in the
zine subculture. The very appearance of most zinesscruffy,
untutored, printed on cheap paper, "seemingly on a whim,
sometimes with no clear idea of 'good' layout or design"can
be viewed as a reaction to the slickness of mainstream magazines.
This attitude emerges
directly from the punk fanzines of the late seventies, which
provided "an alternative critical space within the subculture
itself to counteract the hostile or at least ideologically inflected
coverage which punk was receiving in the media." According
to Hebdige, the unsophisticated appearance of these fanzines
contributed to a feeling of authenticity:
"The language in which the various manifestoes
were framed was determinedly 'working class' (i.e. it was liberally
peppered with swear words) and typing errors and grammatical
mistakes, misspellings and jumbled pagination were left uncorrected
in the final proof. Those corrections and crossings out that
were made before publication were left to be deciphered by the
reader. The overwhelming impression was one of urgency and immediacy,
of a paper produced in indecent haste, of memos from the front
The effect of the "immediacy" Hebdige
describes leads the reader to believe that the punk fanzines
are authentic, and get to the heart of the matter. They exist
outside of commodification; they are real. The punk fanzines
have no time to be corrupted by the petty demands of the marketplace.
They come straight from the source.
If slickness is
used as a method of deceiving people into buying useless consumer
items so that the seller can turn a profit, then the rough appearances
of the punk fanzines demonstrated that the punk fanzineseven
if sold in a small record shopexisted outside of the network
of buying and selling. A similar belief persists in many of today's
zines. In a world where everything is a commodity, sloppiness
denotes authenticitysomething that exists beyond commerce"a
gift with no price tag," as Roger D., publisher of Cold,
describes his conception of the zine.
Independence and Autonomy
The rough-hewn appearance of many zines is only
part of an overall declaration of independence and autonomy by
zine publishers, which essentially amounts to a thumbing of the
nose at the Symbolic order that attempts to designate and define
the boundaries of human subjects. The zine emphasis on independence
and autonomy also explains why most publishers prefer to trade
their work for the work of others, rather than sell it. By avoiding
money except when absolutely necessary, zine publishers further
defy and subvert the Symbolic order. They avoid the official
system of commercial dealings and return to an ancient system
of barter, trading goods directly for other goods. The use of
the barter system allows the transactions to take on a more personal
nature, a key concern with zines on all levels.
Fred Wright is a doctoral
student in English at Kent State University. This history of
zines was his master's thesis, which he distributes as a zine
called "This Document Will Self-Destruct in 30 Seconds."
He also plays guitar in a punk rock band called the Go-Go-Bots,
reviews zines for Zine World and publishes a zine called drinkdrankdrunk.
1997 Fred Wright. Posted with permission. To order Fred's zine,
which includes more about the history and influence of zines
and a lengthy bibliography, send three dollars to Fred Wright,
1413 Neshannock Blvd., New Castle, PA 16105
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