The New York Public Library is an institution: massive, sprawling and glorious in its dedication to collecting and making literature available. There is a dizzying array of every kind and stipe of written work in the library’s collection as well as a host of other cultural artifacts and art objects. Deep in the main branch library, within the periodicals room, is a zine collection that rivals even dedicated private collections devoted exclusively to the form.
It’s a little weird going into a giant marble palace to read small-scale, hand produced booklets of poetry and essays written in the 90’s. I requisitioned a bundle of zines from the periodicals desk and sat in a giant, high ceilinged wood paneled room to read them at a long table that looks at least a hundred years old. Quite the setting to read a stack of low budget self-produced publications, but in a weird way it makes sense. The room is called the DeWitt Wallace room, after the creator of Reader’s Digest. Nearly a hundred years before I sat down, a man named DeWitt Wallace also sat down and spent hours and hours reading articles from the collection to create his magazine and my effort felt a little like a pale, wan echo of his.
I read several issues each of a few different zines but only two of them really had a connection with punk rock. They are Q Zine and Shattered Wig Review which are very different examples of the form but share an ethic and style that help to root them in the shared culture of self-publishing.
Q Zine is a late 90’s zine which is ostensibly focused on reviewing other zines, but in practice has a very broad remit with essays on subjects as wide ranging as the encroaching threat of PC on free speech to the writing systems of early South American civilizations. The zine is heavily rooted in the San Francisco queer scene and in punk rock – in fact it’s the brainchild of Queronimus Bosh, former director of Punk magazine. It seems to be printed on a standard paper size folded over and stapled with high quality covers and excellent printing.
Shattered Wig Review on the other hand is printed on a boxy kind of shaped paper, nearly square but a little longer than it is tall and bound sheet by sheet with no fold. It’s an anarchic collection of poetry, cartoons and alt-art. First published in 1990 and issued on a semi-annual basis, the issues I saw started with #17 from 1999. It’s squarely in the punk vein in terms of what they choose to print and how they present material, but doesn’t have much connection to music. It’s primarily a literature zine but tends to print highly experimental poetry and illustration. There’s lots of free verse and a fair amount of poetry that relies as much on formatting as on language to function.
A standout was a poem by Glans T Sherman about the president having goat testicles transplanted onto his body. Both the author’s name and the poem itself were amusing in a cheeky, mildly subversive way. I also liked this entry, “Our Mr. Brooks,” by one George Freek reproduced here without permission.
Both of these zines remain in active publication although they have moved online by this point. It’s likely very hard to find any of the older issues as it seems like they printed runs in the low hundreds, but its possible they’re out there if you’d like to have a look yourself.
I also read several issues each of Lower East Side Librarian Winter Shoutout, We’ll Never Have Paris, and Croq. These are all fairly long running zines with a history starching back into the mid to late 90’s, with the exception of Croq which was first published in the early naughties.
Croq is a zine all about crafting – its inaugural issue was made for a craft fair and is very much directed at the craft community. It contains various essays on the craft scene, often with a rebellious or contrarian bent, reprints of articles from older craft zines and new material on crafting. It’s fully loaded with DIY instructions on things like selling crafts online, making god’s eyes, and less strictly crafty things like singing or cooking a vegan Thanksgiving. I think it’s still running and is probably fairly easy to get ahold of considering it’s relatively recent and has been picked up by some circulation companies. This would be a cool thing to have for any DIY aficionado.
Lower East Side Librarian Winter Shoutout in contrast is probably almost impossible to find anywhere. It’s also still in production but generally only around 130 copies go out in a year. It’s every inch the classic image of the zine, pasted together prints which are then Xeroxed and stapled. It contains deeply personal writing that borders on a journal style publication and – most interesting to me – a yearly reading list. There are some submissions, but the vast majority of the material in this zine is by one person, a librarian located in NY. It is about her life. It’s printed fairly cheaply and most issues look like your basic folded and stapled A4, straight from the copier.
Given that the zine estimates its tiny readership is mostly family, friends, and friends of friends, it almost feels voyeuristic reading it – although obviously it’s intended to be read. The note from the author to the NYPL, inscribed on the back of one issue has to carry some implication that this is – on some level at least – an enterprise meant to reach strangers. The issues I read span a huge period of time, starting from the author’s days as a library science student in the 90’s straight through each year to 2014. All together it almost makes a memoir or something. If you have the time and resources to track down some copies it makes for interesting reading.
Finally, We’ll Never Have Paris. Also a zine with fairly tiny readership, but totally different in tone and style. It’s a pure literary magazine and each issue is printed differently. Some look fairly standard but are printed on interesting or unusual paper and my favorite was a tiny little issue, maybe three inches by three inches, printed on rough, heavy stock. This zine takes itself and the form pretty seriously as an artistic medium, and though it accepts submissions, is mostly the work of just one person and feels auteured in a way only Lower East Side Librarian could rival.
Even then, We’ll Never Have Paris comes across as something totally different from everything else I looked at. I was never stuck or captivated by the writing, but the attention to detail and craft involved in the production of the publication charmed me immensely. If I was to go back and read any of these zines again in more depth it would be this one – it almost doesn’t matter what’s being printed in these pages because the pages and binding and printing are handled so carefully and thoughtfully. I liked it a lot for the simple focus it puts on making a worthwhile object and would potentially considering getting my hands on some of the issues if I wasn’t certain I’d ruin them in short order.