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Wednesday, July 24

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Events Tue Mar 25 2014

Of Gertrude Stein & Chicago Zine Fest

drugwar.jpg"I am afraid that I can never write the Great American Novel," she wrote. Her characters were "very simple and very vulgar and I don't think they will interest the American public."

She is Gertrude Stein, author of the Great American Novel Three Lives,and many others, many greater. She wrote "Three Lives" in Paris, inspired and nested amongst contemporaries and peers Pablo Picasso, Gustave Flaubert and Paul Cezanne. She was hostess to the Parisian salons of our bourgeois dreams; she was Ernest Hemingway's dear friend and first editor. She was of the cultural class that added the "ing" to vacation; promoting a new flavor of leisure that seemed to go on and on, continuously. Her life was large, but intimate.

Unable to find a dedicated publisher, Stein published 1,000 copies out-of-pocket, only 500 of them bound, in July 1909. By February 1910 only 75 had been sold, less than the number she had distributed on her own to reviewers, friends and idols. I would posit that, including postage, she made perhaps enough profit to buy Cezanne a new paintbrush.

Stein was entering into a genre, but only in its physical form — the loose-fitting genre of "books," rough pages bound together by clothette, stiches and glue. In all other ways, though, she was in a classification of her own — a niche-less niche, really, since she was the only one who occupied it. There was Gertrude Stein, and there were those who read Gertrude Stein. She did not confer with a movement; her most influential contemporary was Cezanne, a painter who's brush strokes she imitated in her clipped and repetitive prose and her desire to "use everything."

I was reminded of Ms. Stein last weekend at Chicago's own independently run Zine Fest.

Gallowhale.jpgDrug War Volume: 1 was limp in my hand and one of about a hundred Gertrude Steins, named John Bailey, sat with his fingers pressed together in front of me. "The series is never-ending," John told me. "It's a drug war in the future, and everyone wants the drugs. But no one survives. So it can go on forever." The zine's only exposition explains as much: "In the distant future all that is left of Planet two opposing gangs...and the world's last pile of narcotics that lays between them." It's a glorious sight to behold, this pile.

John Bailey has an appeal that many of the artists and makers at Zine Fest have. They are enthusiastically themselves. Perhaps this personality trait is overrated; there are decades when one may feel compelled to be someone else, or to hope for the day when someone else looks back at you in the mirror. However, the overwhelming feeling I had at Zine Fest (and it was overwhelming -- surrounded by so many smiling faces, their egos wrapped tightly and printed from risographs, or bound by hand, or stitched into cardboard, or stapled with the sloppy abandon of the younger brothers and sisters I'm sure some of them had lived with not long before), the overwhelming feeling I had was that of contentedness in craft. People doing what they love to do and feel they must do without engaging in the sort of backwards-bending that can come from too-many expectations, tropes, conventions and distortions of genre.

"Punk Zine from Omaha!" was the first thing I heard clearly above the low din.

"What?" I said, smiling broadly.

"Punk Zine from Omaha!" Keith said. "Keith McGrath. I write it myself, print it myself. Take photos. Interviews." He nodded. I bought a cassette tape called "I GOT MAD AT PEOPLE" and his zine, Crucial Changes Winter Scene Report. It featured 2013 year-end record lists I would have never heard of, or cared about, and a headline "Is Earth DOOMED?" that seemed oddly tame and naïve compared to the hysterical specificity of HuffPo.

Screen shot 2014-03-24 at 10.06.42 PM.pngThere were more zine authors, and not all of them punk-tinged or aggressively alternative; because not everyone is punk-tinged or aggressively alternative, and everyone was at Zine Fest. So I met them all. I looked into their eyes and engaged with them all. I spent a lot of money doing so. Camp Comics by M. Davis; Low Blow #20-26 by Aaron Poliwoda; a number of CAKE anthologies of alternative comics; the Lost Tribes of Renni by Charlie Megna; Hourly Comic Day 2014 by Pranas T. Noujokatis (Lithuanian, I asked); even a copy of Critical Moment: Detroit by Detroiters.

The People's Library of Richmond, Virginia had a booth at the Fest. They recycle old books that would be destroyed or discarded and they repurpose them and check them out to members of the community. The books are blank at the start of a month, and by the end, upon return, the idea is they become filled with a story. Their story. Whether that's a personal narrative or a prequel to the drug wars, set during a time when the pile of narcotics was far less concentrated, maybe harder to handle, when all the drugs weren't gone from Planet Puke — no matter what its pages contain, at the end of the month the book is filed with all the other books, "real" books.

I realized this library exists for everyone in festivals such as this; and on the internet, of course. The simple conceit — to be oneself; to make it look nice, or to make it look messy. Purpose, accidents, stories, stories, stories. Drawn with abandon, paranoia, meticulousness, passion, despair, ennui — but drawn, drawn and printed and bound, perhaps rough pages, bound together by clothette, stiches and glue.

Whatever the story, whoever is making it, the rallying cry, the low din I heard, it might be "we exist and we have stories to tell!" A large amount, an impossible amount, really, but intimate, too; and they'll use everything.

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