Marc Spiegler's notes from the
1995 Chicago Underground Press Conference
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."
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."
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.
"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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Panel: "The Pot Calling the Kettle Black," aka "Who
are you calling a sellout, sellout?"
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?"
reality: Slamfest, with tactics running the gamut from blitzkrieg
to blatant shock tactics.
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.)
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?"
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
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."
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?"
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."
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.