From a questionnaire “Get to Know Your Zinester” for the 2014 LA Zine Fest that was never posted.
What was your first zine about and when was it made?
The first zine I made, in late 1998, was called Vagabond. It was a comp zine about living on the skids, traveling and urban life. I cut and pasted the first issue together on a camping table in my friend’s living room after taking apart somebody else’s zine to use as a guide. I went to Kinko’s and printed 100 copies, taking advantage of their long-armed stapler. As far as I know only one ragged, heavily annotated copy exists. I did three more issues of Vagabond before moving on to other publishing endeavors.
Describe your most recent zine.
Piltdownlad is a typewritten, mostly hand-scrawled personal narrative zine. I write autobiographical stories about my past using literary techniques like plot and dialogue. I call it “creative engineering.” Each issue is subtitled and centers around a featured story, with some issues including letters and zine reviews. Because I write about abuse, the most common statement folks make about Piltdownlad is that it’s “not for everyone.” A recent reviewer said I should include a label warning potential readers that my zine can be “triggering.” Yes, I deal with very heavy topics, but in light-hearted ways. For me, it’s easier to deal with a painful memory by ripping it apart and recreating it from another angle. I like to think that honest writing is accessible to one and all, but I guess if somebody is sensitive to topics such as male sexual abuse, a sordid family history, growing up in the inner city, being a foster kid in small town Alabama, teenage rebellion, drugs, punk rock, blasphemy, alienation, bullies, vandalism and the pursuit of love or just some sense of belonging in the world, then Piltdownlad is probably not for them.
Of all the things you’ve ever made, zine-related or otherwise, what’s your one favorite?
Around 2000, I started a series of zines and chapbooks called the Pick Pocket Books. They were short, quarter-sized and hand-made with a unique binding. I combined edgy poetry and twisted stories with even weirder comics and illustrations from a variety of underground writers and artists. I sold them for a buck. My tag line was “Read Cheap.” Another one was “…made on a budget so tight, it’s criminal.” To get them printed, I charmed, cheated and stole thousands of free copies from the various corporate copy shacks around LA. I used all sorts of trickery and fast-talking. My specialty was complaining about any possible flaw in the print quality so they wouldn’t charge me for those copies, then pointing out how wasteful it would be to just throw them in the trash. Sometimes I enlisted my spike-haired younger sister as a “distraction.” (Her silhouette was my logo.) I finagled paper from Kelly Paper Supply by demanding a discount for using my name! It never worked, but it made them laugh and they let me slide on the sample sheets of the premium stuff. Once, when I was printing my first paperback, I left 100 bucks under the trash can in the bathroom, as directed by two shady employees, while they loaded 500 dollars worth of paper into the trunk of my car. In all, there were 23 Pick Pockets in the series. I printed hundreds of each title and disseminated them far and wide, selling them anywhere I could and giving them away when I couldn’t. I must have printed and assembled over 10,000 copies during the two year run.
Name three of your influences and how they affected your work.
As far as writing, Hubert Selby is my biggest influence. It was through him I learned that if it doesn’t make you cringe, it probably isn’t worth writing about. And to always love the people you write about, no matter how despicable they may be. When it comes to publishing, my first influence was Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights. Once I discovered the world of zines, I was blown away by the immense diversity and quality, which motivated me to make my stuff look as cool as possible. To keep up and hold my own. Of course, this was back in the alt.zines days, where people were less afraid to tell you what they thought of your stuff. Still, there is so much inspiration in the zine world and small press community. I really respect folks like Fred Argoff and Aaron Cometbus who continue to put out zines year after year. V. Vale is a legend who’s still at it. Maximum Rocknroll too. Fred Woodworth is up to, what, issue 120 of The Match? The proponents of atavistic printing technology, the kooky mail artists, even some of the indie book publishers who shell out the big bucks are all so inspiring. To me, the papernet is most interesting when the lines between traditional publishing and DIY culture intersect.
What do you do when you’re not creating and how does it help or harm what you do artistically?
Like Ramo the graffiti artist said to Kenny the DJ in the movie Beat Street, “These things we do, they’re EVERYTHING!” when I’m not creating, that is, when I’m forced to do things to pay the bills that prevent me from creating, life sucks. It’s not just harmful, it’s soul-crushing! But unavoidable, right? Especially since zine making is such a lousy way to make a buck.
For five years, before I went broke and half-insane, I was a small press publisher. I started out doing zines and then moved on to trade paperbacks. In true DIY spirit, I handled every aspect of the operation myself: the editing, the designing, the printing, the distribution and the marketing… It was all about becoming the media and my steadfast determination to take a crackpot idea as far as I possibly could, despite the lack of money or the fact that I had no business running a publishing company.
For most of my career as a publisher, I did odd jobs to survive. For a while, I was homeless and distributed zines out of the trunk of my car. I scammed print jobs from copy shacks. I stole paper and rarely paid for office supplies. To promote my titles, I became an internet flamer and through my reckless harassment, drove one fellow publisher into the loony bin. I finagled. I lied. I browbeat. I was arrested while soliciting ads. I turned my friends against me. I pissed off writers for not publishing their work. I pissed off the writers I published for not presenting their work in a way they preferred. I was threatened with multiple lawsuits, investigated by the State Attorney General and taken to small claims court by a former partner.
And that’s just what I can remember. Most of the time I was in a thick haze of self-importance, fueled by cheap drugs and the effects of untold hours in a small, poorly ventilated room in a burned out garage staring at a computer monitor until my eyes bled.
From the beginning I cultivated notoriety over prestige. I entered the world of publishing guns a-blazing. I embraced infamy, ready to do anything to crawl out of the muck of obscurity. I never intended to create an innocuous rag that might impress somebody’s literary-inclined relatives. I wanted to make something that would get me in trouble.
All the while, I held onto the delusion that what I was doing was noble: I was promoting literature. Real literature. Not the crap that was getting published in the New Yorker or the elitist academic lit journals. The way I looked at it, real literature came out of the trenches of the workaday existence. Real literature was created by true outsiders, not just those who could afford MFA degrees. It came from those born to misfortune and raised in families torn asunder. It rose up from the lost, the mentally imbalanced, the rude motherfuckers everybody loved to hate, the victims, the sluts, the whores, the wallflowers, the creeps, the losers, the purveyors of vice, the drunks, the druggies, the acid casualties, the thieves, the conmen, the liars who make it up as they go along and the liars who have their reasons for lying. Real literature was messy. And if you wanted the grit, you took the grime.
Once I embraced the role of a publisher, it became my life. Publishing was all I thought about, all I talked about, and all I wanted to hear about. In my zeal to publish more and more titles, I assumed more responsibilities than I was capable of accomplishing. I took on projects that were impractical. I turned away those that would generate profit. I was a horrible businessman. Not that it mattered. The small increments of money that showed up in the post office box were never enough to keep me flush, much less print more titles. What I earned as a painter, a handyman, a line cook, a bookseller or any one of my jack trades barely kept me alive. Eventually, I became unemployable. I had my sights set for loftier goals than maximizing the minimum wage. I just kept pushing forward, against the will of the universe, filling a catalogue with titles and announcing future publications, cajoling and lying and making empty promises, always hoping for the best.
Phony Lid lasted five years, all by the skin of my teeth. But in the end, I admitted defeat. Not because I never made any money, achieved any real acclaim or got the recognition I felt like I deserved—sure, there were some accolades, but who cares about that? No, I failed because other people’s writing overshadowed the one story I needed to tell.
And that was the story of Phony Lid.