Essays — April 7, 2014 11:04 — 1 Comment

Paper Cuts: Zines with Craven Rock vol. 1

At this point in my life, I’ve done more writing than just about anything else, except maybe putting it off. A whole lot of folks interested in writing have asked me “have you been published?” when they find out I write. This is usually followed by a “how do you get published?” When I tell them I started by self-publishing, that I put in my dues making zines for years, that’s usually where I lose them. When I explain that, for years, I put out my writing in a photocopied paper zine which I distributed all over the world their eyes glaze over. I fail to understand this. It seems to me they’re looking for approval in getting published by someone else, as if that somehow gives their writing credibility. This bums me out. Who knows what kind of writing they have just sitting around in files? What kind of stories and ideas do they keep bottled up out of fear of a rejection letter? It would be one thing if they were concerned with making a quick buck, but it usually has to do with a misguided sense of validation. Whole industries have been built around this, from hacks running how to get published workshops to the bloodless, grant-jockeying literary arts centers that house them. 

To this zine vet, it seems such a backwards approach. Writers and readers of zines put their voices first. They have a burning desire to be heard. They don’t ask permission, they just put it out there. Feedback is their affirmation, feedback through letters and emails of saying your writing was important to them, moved them or made them feel less alone or by getting a zine in the mail from someone after years of corresponding with a note saying your zine inspired them to make one. After years of feeling alienated and misunderstood and making a zine to communicate, I found myself a part of communities both physical and through correspondence. Letters were written back and forth with people I had never met in person discussing topics we’d written about in our zines. Feedback was our fuel, be it a good review in another zine or simply a note saying your writing moved them or got them through the day. A couple years of doing zines and you could have success as a writer, a writing community and a better understanding of yourself and the word all with a bit of effort.

To the overeducated and unexciting, the question might come up as to the quality of zines, the writing and art in them. After all, if anyone can put out their own zine that does not allow for much quality control, does it? I’ll be quick to say that well-written, well-produced zines go further by word-of-mouth, good reviews and better distribution and there are plenty of them, but I’ll stop there. Such talk is offensive to me. It’s the reader who defines quality and fans of zines just might find beauty in the earthy and the crass, the untrained and the discombobulated. Sure, some of it’s edited and tweaked enough to be published anywhere, but if you think I’m going stand up for zines in such an apologetic and servile manner you can roll up a fuck! Far from the red markers of bitter academics is the truest, heaviest, deepest, most heartwrenching and warmest writing you can imagine. It’s the true voices crying in the wilderness. When “real writers” were heaping their writing onto the slush piles, I was immersed in the crude writing of prisoners, the bitter rantings of wage slaves, the wide-wonder of young punks on the open road, survival stories of the mentally-ill, marginalized and abused. I was moved by their writing to make my own and in this is the joy and grace of zine culture.

Not unlike the rest of literature, the ubiquity of blogs, the dying of print and the overall whimpering death of intellectual thought has taken it’s toll on zine culture. It seems ridiculous at this point to lament the golden days of zines when photocopiers were the speediest and most accessible disseminators of information. At that time, Factsheet 5, a slick zine that passed easily as a magazine, was dedicated to reviewing thousands of zines in a single issue. Those times are long gone, many old zine makers and would-be zine makers are content with blogging or even posting on Facebook for an immediate like rather than breaking out the scissors and gluesticks. But to do this is to ignore the fact that there are still countless zines out there, far more than you could get around to reading in zine’s heyday. Zine fair and symposiums are more widely attended and tabled than they’ve ever been, take L.A Zine Fest which was so popular they had a line out the door. Zine distros are making resurgences as learn to adapt to social networking sites Like letters, zines aren’t going away and are perhaps more valid than ever in a time of iPhone-gawking and Instagram-voguing. The voices are still out there crying in the wilderness and I’m glad to be able to talk about some of them here.


I’ll start with Optogram #1: Small Town Story. How many stories are there about leaving a shitty, small town? Plenty, right? How many are there about returning to the shitty small town you came from? Less, but still quite a few? Well, Small Town Story is the latter, a story of a young woman, Danielle, returning to her hometown in rural British Columbia. But what makes it stand out? It’s the tone. It’s told in a reflective way but far deeper than simply a regretful gander into hindsight. This very personal tale gets at something deeper by deconstructing the way humans hold themselves back by blinkered bad habits, self-sabotaging urges, lack of self-love, self-doubt and the boxes we put ourselves in. That’s the larger truth of Small Town Story and it’s an itchy and uncomfortable one. Always wanting desperately to leave her small town of Still Harbor, she finally moves with her husband to Vancouver, promising never to come back. Only, that’s precisely what she does. When her husband gets a job in Still Harbor she follows him back. What follows is reflections on the time she spent back home, as she tries to find contentment in a failing marriage, taking verbal potshots from shitty Fundamentalist Christian in-laws and holding down a soul crushing job selling liquor to cretins. You don’t want to be her in these stories, but deep down you know you’ve already been her, stuck in a trap of your own making, miserable but unable to see that all you have to do is walk out of the situation, to take a risk, so you burn time like you have it to burn. Danielle’s final thoughts about this period of her life are wrapped up in a last paragraph that picks up the reader and smacks him around. “How many people out there acknowledge the choices they’ve made, how many appreciate their lives and try their best?” she says. “How many people share the notion that ‘real life’ will happen another day, someday soon, but in the meantime everything is too small to be real?” She gives us a get more heavy-handed truth, but you’ll have to get the zine to read it.

Next, I’m proud to present, Wages So Low You’ll Freak/Puddn’head #6 in my first zine column, because it’s a great example of the ambition, the tenacity and independence of zine folk. After five issues laid out in a more standard zine style (probably photocopied and folded), Mike put out Puddn’head #6 as an offset and perfect-bound book topping out at 198 pgs. with it’s own title, Wages So Low You’ll Freak.  It’s a well-written book, yet it’s undoubtedly too unique, risky and raw to find a mainstream publisher. Instead, it finds its audience in the zine community whom Mike is familiar with and, thus, a solid work is saved from the self-publisher oblivion. Gabba! Gabba!

Wages is about Mike and a few co-werkers* starting an IWW branch and try to organize the very first fast food restaurant union at a Jimmy John’s. Jimmy John’s is a particularly shitty job that hires werkers at $6.00 and hour, forcing them to come in sick, and to make sandwich deliveries through ice and snow in way below zero weather. What makes the story interesting is Mike’s way of telling it, he starts each chapter with an entry from his journal at that time, more often than not ruminating over mistakes, which he makes often, like hitting on potential union members, getting in brawls and talking down to people who won’t just sign up at the drop of a hat. Choosing to include these journal entries, still written as if they happened the night before, shows a God-I-wanna-slap-him humanity and a sad, youthful fallibility that often gets in the way of the his and the people’s vision. After heading the chapter that way, he elucidates, giving the reader the full details with the wisdom of hindsight. It’s a smart move, but I bring the entries up as an example of Mike’s honesty and thus his ability to bring the personal into the story. It becomes not a story of grandstanding or displaced Protestant work ethic, but one of the relationships that make for resistance, clues to how it can be achieved or perhaps why it fails over and over again. Anybody who has ever wanted to change the world when they were young will find it impossible to avoid knowing headshakes as they read. The story trucks along as the bosses try to split the werkers along race lines, hire union busters, eventually, the owner of the chain, himself, finds it necessary to get involved and holds a meeting with the employees where he cries crocodile tears over the struggles of trying to run a big corporation and claims werking class roots in an weak attempt to relate. In spite of the monotony of trying to organize a union for four years, Mike’s story is never dull and picks up speed as it moves toward a heartbreaking close.

Finally, there’s Piltdownlad #5: Institutionalized. You can’t get much more real than this. After having another mental breakdown in which the author, Kelly Dessaint, rid himself of all his possessions and left his wife and home in a cross-country fugue to New Orleans, which nearly ended in oblivion, he got help and decided he needed to tell his real story. He began an autobiographical novel where he gets down to the serious trauma that led to his life of struggling with PTSD and mental illness. After writing an 850-page autobiographical novel that he felt was “an utter failure”, he started all over again breaking his story up into different issues of this zine. Though he calls this work fiction, he assures us the story is true and provides evidence with newspaper clippings and court documents. It begins with Louis, a sixteen-year-old and his preteen younger brother, Joey, trashing their soon-to-be former home where they lived with their sexually-abusive father and his scumbag accomplice. The narrative of this destruction calls to mind a John Darnielle revenge fantasy song, except in Piltdownlad there’s proof, a gleeful Polaroid of them: “so there was no mistaking who was behind the wreckage.” They scrawl “FEEL THE WRATH OF THE INNOCENTS!” on the wall before turning their father and his slimeball friend over to social workers. They are institutionalized and the story continues from there. A brave zine should brave reading.




Piltdownlad: Kelly Dessaint, PO Box 86714, LA, CA 90086, Price: donations/trades/stamps

Pudd’nhead: Mike Pudd’nhead, P.O Box 7458, Minneapolis, MN 55407, (Price: $7 ppd.) or order from,,


*all labor done for wages and not passion I spell this way



Craven Rock is the author of the long running zine Eaves of Ass. His writing has appeared in Da Capo Press' Best Music Writing 2008, Zine World, Razorcake and Avow among others. His most recent work is, Nights and Days in a Dark Carnival:Time Spent with Juggalos, a new journalism-styled delve into Juggalo culture. He is currently obsessed with learning improv.

One Comment

  1. Nicole Hardina says:

    This post is a swift kick in the ass to writers like me, who are definitely guilty of not putting work out there in other forms (blogs, zines, what have you), for fear of removing it from the realm of “publishable” work. Too often, this means I simply don’t write. I started a poetry blog, for example, and then pulled back. Once I started writing regularly, I started wanting to submit my work for publication; once I started submitting, I stopped contributing to the blog; once I stopped contributing regularly, it was too easy to stop writing altogether. Your point that writing only for external and somehow “legitimate” validation devalues the writer and writing in general is well taken. I’m glad zine culture is still around to remind us that writers write, whether or not anyone finds space for that writing on a mass-market bookshelf.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney