Go Grrrl: The Zine and the PostLiterary

Nicky Marsh

The opening and closing terms of my rather gnomic title deserve introduction. ‘Go grrrl’ is a reference to both the ‘riot grrrls’ of the early nineties and the ‘go-go’ girls of the sixties. The wording points to my interest in what these sexually emancipated and ironic moments of counter-culture offer a gendered critique, specifically in terms of shifting figuration of the public and private subject. The ‘post-literary’ is Maria Damon’s term for writing that takes place outside of either the academy or established literary circles. For Damon this writing is inspiringly expansive, ‘comfortable with its own politicisation, not necessarily thematically but in its production, distribution and reception’. It is, she suggests, ‘intuitively obvious’ that it ‘enables a multiplicity of public spheres […] realms of gold, a utopian hetero-democracy made of charged talk-language’. [1]

This paper details the multiplicity of public spheres offered by the self-publishing culture of the zine, and in particular the ways in which women have been are able to operate within them. Its narrative seeks to widen what a cultural analysis of ‘women and poetry’ can include and gesture to the shifting terrain of a ‘second’ and a ‘third’ wave of feminist praxis and critique. Its argument, more specifically, is that the counter-public positioning of these post-literary ‘grrrl’ poets provides insight into the complex relations of subversion and resistance in contemporary poetry, reliant as much on the economic fields of production as the cultural fields of consumption.

The ‘zine revolution’, a much-heralded mass popularisation of the self-publishing practices of the earlier ‘mimeograph revolution’, was both attentive and ambivalent toward the claims attributed to its democratisation of cultural production. The role of poetry within such a mass movement inevitably appeared far from central — a phenomena that neither zine culture nor American poetry hurried to claim. It was two of American avant-garde poetry’s most influential archivists, Buffalo’s Robert Bertholf and Michael Basinksi, who followed the lead of other librarians concerned with charting an amorphous, fragmented public culture who first attempted to categorise it.[2] Their collaborative essay of the early nineties identified it with an increasing experimentation with the visuals of signification, a response to the waning of the referent, and a growing ‘non-literary audience’. They characterise the texts according to a collage aesthetics made from ‘stolen or plagiarised material, mixed with propaganda, featuring a strong enjambment of print and visual media, which on occasion is meant to be to some extent shocking or purposefully sexually violent — obscene in an old sense’. [3]

The ‘obscene’ offers a usefully ambiguous trope for exploring both the zine’s modes of production and consumption and subject matter. In its most literal sense, the obscene refers to the centrality of sexual explicitness in this writing. This writing’s insistent rendering of the marked, sexualised body both public and economically significant breaches the codes of a public that assumes these relations to be private — disrupting what Michael Warner describes as the ‘mirage’ of a‘pre-political humanity’ from which citizens are thought to emerge and to which they are expected to return ‘in the (always imaginary) future after political conflict’.[4] In so doing zine culture offers an interrogation of the constitution of the‘public’ in ways that make starkly evident and collective the experiential intersections of class, of gender, of sexuality.

Yet Baskinski and Bertholt’s description of the zine — as containing plagiarism and propaganda, juxtaposing visual and print media — suggests an additional kind of obscenity. The DIY culture’s palpable disregard for the niceties of completion, copyright, consistency or visual harmony poses a clear affront to the category of the literary itself: how one can read these texts is the most obvious and pressing question that they pose. Consistently foregrounded in such apparently unhoned literary productions is the possession of illegitimate and unsanctioned means of production and the need for similar models of consumption. The possession of such means is, of course, central to current readings of poetry as a counter-public sphere: it is precisely this, most obviously, that Language poetry’s dialectical relationship with the academy (‘provisionally complicit’ in the wise words of Alan Golding) succeeded in achieving.[5] Yet zine culture’s desire for a mass democratic culture made it quite distinct from Language writers whose investment was more properly politically theoretical. As the editor of the poetry journal Photostatic phrased it, he was indebted to LANGUAGE poets for formalizing ‘that its ok for language to just be’ but cautious of their ‘cerebral’ tendencies. [6] I want to use the ambiguity of the zine’s reliance on the obscene — its effrontery of literary as well as sexual mores — as a way of exploring its specific aims for a mass, if necessarily ambivalent, movement within mainstream US culture.

The German theorists Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s model of the ‘proletarian’ public sphere offers one way of further developing this aim. Negt and Kluge’s Marxist re-writing of classic public sphere theory ascribes to the proletariat an ability to draw attention to the contradictions of the bourgeois public sphere’s assumed abstraction of experience. In literary terms this would correspond to a challenging of the ‘institution of poethood’, an attenuation to the ‘imaginative strategies grounded in the experience of alienated production  — protest energies, psychic balancing acts, a penchant for personalization, individual and collective fantasy’, and an awareness that such articulations are inevitably threatened by a reifying re-absorption.[7] I want to read the zine’s ability to encompass such a difficult task: at once attempting to critically negate the abstractions of the bourgeois sphere through articulating the ‘sensual substance’ of lived experience whilst simultaneously deflecting the possibility of recuperation. Yet, as I want to make finally clear, such a movement is consistently checked by the complex configurations of gender and sexuality that it also poses — the careful ambivalence of its critiques becomes unpredictable and chaotic once a critique of gender is brought into play.

The zine gained an increased currency in American culture in the eighties as swathes of the small-press industry began re-describing their activity in very particular ways. The movement traced its composite histories not only to the poetic traditions of small press publication but also to the pamphleteering of the eighteenth century, the emergence of the national amateur press association of the nineteenth century, the science fiction fanzines of the fifties, the Punk Movement of the seventies.[8] These rather catholic self-definitions at least partly arose from the fact this writing was concerned to explore the possibilities of cultures of independent publication beyond those that had supported poetry. Most obviously, the zine community was disdainful of the conventions of the mainstream: the zine Bad Poetry Digest, for example, is censorially critical of the emergence of what it calls ‘private writing’.[9] Additionally, this resistance to poetry seemed to result from a desire to radicalise minority forms of cultural production in ways that were perceived as sitting uncomfortably with the high points of American twentieth century poetic production — the modernisms of the teens and twenties and the social movements of the sixties and seventies.

A principal academic defender of the zine, Stephen Duncombe, has attributed the importance of the movement to its ability to produce a strategy of cultural resistance specifically in tune with the cultural changes of the eighties. The DIY culture, according to Duncombe, allowed work to be reconceptualised as a site of protest within the ‘grim new economy of service, temporary and flexible work’.[10] An important early principle, for example, was that the zine would not be sold for profit. Their price was measured in terms of either covering the cost of production and postage or, if this were free (typically zines were xeroxed and sent, illegitimately, from work), then they were circulated in exchange for other zines and cash omitted from the process. Zines also resisted the categorisation that both commodification and collection demanded. The erratic change of titles, the publishing pseduonyms, the irregular numbering, the inconsistent dating, the ad-hoc methods of distribution and determinedly single-issue or esoteric nature of the subject matter, all made this a field virtually impossible to map in any coherent way.

The subject matter of zines was also integral to their critique of the excesses and banality of mainstream culture. A seditious relationship between labour and production, often drawing attention to laws surrounding copyright and intellectual property, was frequently foregrounded and mocked. Johnny R’s zine ‘SHOULDN’T YOU BE WORKING’, for example, takes pride in the fact that is ‘MADE ENTIRELY AT WORK WHILE ON THE CLOCK AT BORDERS BOOKS IN WASHINGTON, D.C. I’M HIDING BEHIND SOME BOOKSHELVES RIGHT NOW AS I WRITE THIS’. [11]

New formations of gender were similarly central to this culture, reaching their height in the emergence of the riot grrl movement embodied in zines such as Bust and Bitch. From its possibly apocryphal beginnings — ‘a list of men who date-raped’ written onto ‘the third stall, second floor of the Library at Evergreen State College’ — then the movement sought to render its acts of unruly public articulation politically meaningful.[12] One of the many versions of the Riot Girl Manifesto for example, urged its members not only to ‘resist psychic death’ but to ‘cry in public’ and, by 1992, a national network of chapters, workshops and rallies, zine writers and readers had been established. [13] According to an early commentator the movement was a reaction to mainstream American feminism which had become, by the early nineties, either ‘increasingly clouded in jargon’ or appropriated by the ‘pop-psychology industry, where every conflict could be resolved from within’.[14]  riot grrrl’s breaking with both theory and therapy allowed an articulation of the oppressions and pleasures they identified with the corporeality of a gendered body. Cultural theorist Neil Nehring’s defence of riot grrrl music, for example, reads its anger as a powerful antidote to both feminist intellectualism and to Marxist accounts of postmodern culture that insist on its passivity. Not only did women musicians refuse to ‘be a victim of gendering that feminists have long sought’, Nehring argues, but they also broke with ‘the elders’ intellectual-literary bent by making self-creation a more exciting and attractive matter than studiously absorbing feminist tracts or spinning out feminine ecriture for literary theorists.’[15] Such gestures were read against the language of a third-wave feminism as it was identified with both postmodern cultural studies and anti-foundationalist gender theory. Ednie Garrison, for example, uses this vocabulary in order to understand the formation of this movement as ‘both “popular” and subcultural’, as providing an autonomous space that ‘can penetrate as an interface between different third wave cohorts.’[16] 

The function of poetry within riot grrrl seemed to be, in a way that recalls second wave feminism, to provide a strategy of subjective empowerment. In this, as in much about the movement, it was more indebted to earlier moments in feminism than it often appeared prepared to acknowledge. Most obviously it was populated by young white middle class women who constantly risked replicating the power dynamics of the early stages of the second wave; their attention to pleasure and the body risked occluding their exclusionary implications. Riot Grrrl’s insistence on a separatist politics also echoed the radical feminists of twenty years earlier and was damned by at least one journalist as a ‘dead-end elitism’. [17] Yet this separatism, like the media black-out that riot grrrl imposed upon itself in 1992, was a resistance to consumer culture rather than more generally and simply masculine-identified institutions. It was an attempt to avoid riot grrrl’s transgressive sexual images being appropriated by a consumer culture anxious to provide a lucrative woman’s market with innovation, especially one marketable in terms of a youthful and apparently liberating sexual voracity.[18] Many riot grrrl zines were determinedly personal in nature (as indeed were many zines, giving rise to the ‘per-zine’ category), their subjects frequently including sexual abuse and body image as well as desire, fashion and fantasy, all of which were echoed in its poetry.[19]

The poetry by Laura Joy Lustig suggests something of these complexities. The poem, ‘Death is Good If You Don’t Know How to Properly Be Alive’, is written using a very generation-specific language and visual coding.

Talk 2
& squeeze
tight. /
above ground
w/bones below.
-inside its earth
where everyone above
loves 2 play psychic
& say they are
“@ peace”  [20]

The poem’s discussion of death is clearly encoded with a metaphoric frame of reference that alludes — with its referencing of the ‘bush’ squeezed ‘tight’ and the pelvis ‘inside its earth’ — to sexuality. This connection not only presents sex as terrifyingly macabre but also suggests both a rage and a dependence on the saccharine banalities of a culture that conceals this apparent grim inevitability with clichés. Yet this poem’s interspersing of language with very contemporary visual codes and explicit language of the body are suggestive of the resistant potential of the ‘obscene’ and the visceral to these counter-cultural communities.

Clearly the relationship between zines and mainstream culture was more complicated than Duncombe’s language of covert radicalism allows. Publications that seemed to represent the most vital aspects of this culture, those which most neatly embodied its ironical attacks on consumption or its new configurations of identity politics, became successful beyond its confines. The zine Beer Frame: the Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption, for example, provided a counter-culture consumerist guide. The contradictions of such a status were fully realised as it grew from being 500 copies xeroxed at work and handed to friends into a paperback and finally to a column in New York magazine.[21] Zines such as FactSheet Five, Bitch and Bust similarly gained international publishers and distribution. A few individual writers also enjoyed this kind of exposure. Pagan Kennedy’s novel, Zine:How I found Six Years of my Life and finally..... found myself....I think, turned her involvement in this community into a rather generically predictable teen bildungsroman.[22]

Such equivocations are further and more specifically complicated in literary zines by their debt to a heritage that owes much not only to the counter-cultural movements of the eighties but to earlier literary movements. It is not difficult to trace the aspirations of zine culture to Ray Johnson’s parodic New York School of Correspondance or to the Eternal Network. The trajectories of Mail Art’s ‘demand for ‘No More Masterpieces’, and its concomitant positing of posted objects, flyposters, rubberstamping and cassettes as art, are all recognisable within this culture. The political impetus behind these practices, described as a ‘kind of improvisational jazz’ combining ‘Dadaism, Nouveau Realisme, Futurism, Fluxus, and Situationalism’, clearly influence the claims made on behalf of zine culture by commentators such as Duncombe.[23] Such connections are made explicit in the writing of Stephen Perkins who includes the Neoist group, the ‘Smile’ journal and the Praxis Group as examples of zine culture.[24].

The predominately literary journals associated with the zine movement — such as Lost and Found Times, Vile, Assembling, Nitrous Oxide, Photostatic, Poetry Motel — reconciled the radical aims of these avant-garde movements and the more populist democratic aspirations of the zine in what appeared to be productively tension-filled ways. There are two specific points of this potentially contradictory overlapping that I want to further elucidate before going exploring the particular ambiguities of zine poetry. Usefully, the prolific poet and critic Johanna Drucker provides avenues into both.

Firstly, Drucker’s attention to a tradition of materiality in literature, of the ‘marked’ text as opposed to the self-effacing textual tradition of Gutenberg, illuminates much about the treatment of textuality in zine culture. For Drucker, visual writing supersedes phenomenology’s over-determined choice between the transcendent and the corporeal.[25] This attention to the visual and material aspects of textuality were most obviously present in zine culture’s prioritising of a visual aesthetic. Zines and small-press journals such as Core, Atticus, Co-Lingua, NRG and Photostatic were explicit in regard to presenting this agenda.[26] In Photostatic, for example, the visual poet Harry Polkinhorn elevated the visual above the verbal as language has ‘effectively committed suicide’ because of its vain attempts to repress and excise its ‘connections to the filth, murder, and suffering of experience’ whereas the former is replete with what Polkinhorn calls ‘its concretised charge of human labor’.[27] Frequently these publications were as knowing as Drucker with regard to their modernist implications. The secondary title of Photostatic, for example, was ‘Retrofuturism’, and the work of Walter Benjamin and the 1913 armoury show were included amongst the journal’s themed dedications.[28]

Secondly, but perhaps more obviously in this context, Drucker points to the connections between feminism and the poetry and visual art communities clustered around seminal journals such as Meaning or How(ever) in the US from the seventies onwards.[29] Women poets and artists as varied as Bernadette Mayer, Anna Banana and Eve Enslar were influential to publications such as 0-9, Vile and Central Park respectively. The work of each of these writers suggests that the clear overlap between experiments in the visual arts, networking movements and the counter-culture was consistently capable of incorporating a gendered critique. More broadly, the contributions of figures such as Lucy Lippard and Alison Knowles to the communities of mail-art and fluxus, and the moves toward a visual poetics in the work of writers such as Susan Howe, Kathleen Fraser, Norma Cole and Joan Retallack, suggest the parallels between this work and a deconstructive feminist critique.

Yet the influence of both a visual-modernist aesthetic and an interrogation of gender’s signifying economies were rather more ambivalently figured in zine culture than the presence of such influences may imply. Most obviously, as titles such as ‘Retrofuturism’ suggest, zine culture’s mode of address was clearly informed by the flat ironies of a postmodern mode of address. The zine Poetry Motel edited by Patrick MacKinnon is published in Minnesota by ‘Suburban Wilderness Press’, an obvious reference to its ex-centric urban position and to its critique of mainstream America culture. The index refers to page numbers as motel rooms, its review section is titled ‘Room Service’ and its editorial is ‘No Grants, No Pets, No Sonnets’. The zine’s inclusion of visual poetry is supplemented by its bringing adverts into the signifying field of the page. The poem ‘The Passage Into Manhood’ is framed by three adverts and like those around it on the page, proffers a dystopian vision of the end of childhood. [30] In this particular poem the isolation and terror of ‘manhood’ are rendered physically literal, the subject is trapped in a room without windows, doors or light. The poem is somewhat Beckettian; the contradictory stage directions, the emphasis on sight, the moment of final terror all evoke Beckett’s late prose. The adverts around the poem are for The Vassar Navy Blazer, for ‘Infa Family Time’ and for a rather unlikely first edition bible that is selling for $3500. Including these texts in our reading of the poem changes it. From being a rather crude pastiche of late modernist angst, the simultaneous crisis in masculinity and in metaphysics, it becomes a critique of American culture. The concept of giving family time a logo, the selling of the symbols of real privilege suggested by the Vassar Blazer and the high expense of spirituality all suggest a more direct explanation for the scream at the end of the poem that is otherwise missing. Because the other poems on the page share this existential pain — the loss of childhood, the fear of loneliness and madness, the search for meaning — then these crude pasted-in adverts also allowed them to be connected, to provide a narrative of meaning that they individually lack.

The vocabulary for discussing the gender critique offered in these journals needs to be similarly cautious. Although younger ‘grrrl’ poets such as Laura Joy Lustig published in poetry zines such as Plastic Tower and visual poets and feminist activists such as, respectively, Janet Janet and Ruthann Robson were published in zines such as Photostatic and Co-Lingua such an overtly gendered critique was far from a routine feature. The equivocations in zine culture with regard to both a feminist critique and the cultural implications of an experimental or transformative poetic aesthetic can be read as revealing not only an anxiety about the implications of such modes but an awareness of what they risk occluding. It is to these ambivalences, at the heart of a working class oppositional culture, to which I want to finally turn.

Zines such as MalLife, Poetry Motel, Lost and Found Times, Slipstream, Plastic Tower and Lilliput Review are marked by a fabulously diverse range of poetry and contributors. The work of poets such as Harry Polkinhorn, Crag Spencer and even Charles Bernstein is routinely positioned against the frequently highly sexualised narrative voice poems of poets such as Cheryl Townsend, Lyn Lifshin and Paul Weinman. My interest is in what these unlikely juxtapositions suggest for the possibility of what I have been terming an aesthetic of the ‘obscene’ that seeks to reconcile the ambivalent implications of both feminism and modernism with the ‘experience of alienated production’ in order to posit new forms of transformative poetics.

Women poets have been much more clearly active in a working class underground self-publishing culture than even narratives of the feminist poetry movement have been able to acknowledge. The industry surrounding Charles Bukowski, who roughened the conventions of mainstream mimetic verse by including a parodic, violent and sexualised content within it, has given a fairly central role to the work of women poets. The long-running journal Wormwood Review, for example, often also included the work of ‘go-go girl’ women poets such as Joan Jobe Smith, Lyn Lifshin, Ann Menebroker and Linda King. From within the community explicitly referenced by this journal sprang a number of publications, such as the journals Pearl and Purr, edited by women explicitly concerned with accounting for their experience within this moment of counter-culture. The overt sexualisation of the writing in these journals was seen as emancipatory. This entailed a rejection of perceived literary separatism and an attention to the sexual pleasures and erotic energies of heterosexuality. Sex is used in these poems as a source of humour, a source of self-effacement, a source of resistance, a source of anger, a source of income as well as a source of emotional and physical pain and pleasure.

This aspect of women’s writing became increasingly successful in the eighties as it identified itself with zine culture. Cheryl Townsend’s journal, Impetus, began in 1984 and although publishing many of the same poets as Pearl was able to command a broader readership which allowed it to run successfully for over a decade. The rendering of femininity, in terms of sexuality, economics, a deeply ambivalent source of power, remained a central characteristic of this writing. Yet the vulnerability of women’s sexual and economic identity is also made clear, and the visual possibilities of the cut and paste DIY aesthetic used to articulate this. The fourth of the ‘Women Only’ editions of the journal poems such as ‘One Out of Every Four Women Gets Raped’, for example, provides a striking visual image of what is presented as a bald fact of abuse. The poem is suggestive of the absurdity of such statistics, the gap between the crudeness of the structure and the baldness of the title indicating how reductive such pieces of information are in terms of the actual experiences of women:

One Out of Every Four Women Gets Raped
Duck                Duck

Deborah Bacharach
Somerville, Massachusetts  [31]

The graphic and sardonic representation of the child’s game is overlaid with a number of different evocations of femininity. They suggest the passivity of the hunted fowl, the domesticity of the cooked bird, they even suggest flirtatious and maternal overtures — to be goosed, to be somebody’s duck.


A consideration of women’s general relative economic and cultural powerlessness is also heavily present in this writing. This analysis of economic power takes a number of poetic forms. In some cases the alienating effect of the routinized labour upon which these women appeared to be dependent is rendered very literally. A poem by andrea mackinnon (a name itself, which in an elision of feminism’s two most radical cultural critics may well be made up) called ‘lounge poem’, also published in 1985, for example, seems to be little else than the pad upon which a waitress in bar might record the orders:

2 vod
vod mar
sm & kur


2 vod

br  ch

lite   [32]

The fragmented list, which only occasionally suggests recognisable words and at time barely even registers as sound, evokes the instrumentalism of the woman’s social interactions. The irony of the last word, where light refers neither to illumination, weightlessness or frivolity but to the brand of a beer, suggests the only critical note in the poem. It is not simply that language has been corrupted through abbreviation but that the speaker has been alienated from language. That the other recognisable words in the poem are wind and lamb, which share the same connotations of freedom as lite, allows this critical irony to stand, quite literally, on its own.

Anxieties about access to mainstream forms of authority can also be read from these publications, which seems at least partly rooted in a concern with maintaining their circulation and financing. Impetus off-sets this misgiving by a literal and intelligent use of adverts. The journal initiated a program called ‘The Flyer Exchange’ which offered advertising either for cash or on a free reciprocal basis. These adverts not only allow the journal to financially survive, but also lend it a credibility not always apparent in its confessional roughened poetry. In an editorial called ‘The Cat’s Meow’ in 1989 Townsend notes with obvious satisfaction that the journal’s reliance on distribution through exchange has been superseded and that it has begun appearing in bookshops and in the trade press.

Elsewhere these tensions become even more insistent. In a ‘Women Only’ issue of the journal, for example, adverts for feminist pressure groups are placed next to poems. In Women Four, for example, an advert for a pro-choice movement is included next to a poem about abortion. On the one hand such advertisements serve a literal function, providing public service information to women and allowing the journal to identify with mainstream organised feminist debate. At the same time the obvious visual and typographic contrasts of placing an entirely subjective first person account next to a public advert for a pressure group foregrounds the different authorities, the different reading modes, of these two discourses. The marked block of the advert and the unmarked italicised narrative of the poem interpolate the reader very differently — the gap between a public and a private articulation is being rendered very clearly.

The same thing occurs in the ‘erotic’ editions of the journal, ‘Impish Impetus’, but adverts for women’s groups are replaced with personal ads — ‘country gal seeking teddy bear for / serious relations. Likes country  / music, travel, slow dancing, warm / moonlite nights’. These presentations are shorn of the details that would allow them to literally function as adverts, the ironical contrast between them and the poems around them is consequently more evident. At play seem two different formal conventions for representing sexual identity and desire. The poem’s baldly erotic if clichéd fantasies — ‘I lie outside your bedroom / window and dream / of your tongue’ — contrast against the factual fantasies of the ads ‘Male 27, 6’3’’, 200lbs, blue eyes, brown hair, looking for a serious relationship, woman who likes dining out’. Here the ironical gap between the two increases the absurdity of both the lyrical staging of the obscene and the aggressive marketing of sexual desire. [33]

Yet not all zine writing was able to so productively negotiate the ambivalent freedoms that its positioning outside of mainstream culture suggests. Zine writing also demonstrates the real limitations of a proletarian counter-sphere, as the opportunity to articulate what Negt and Kluge term a ‘proletarian’ lived experiential — to be ‘obscene’ in order to expand what it means to be public — risked constant recuperation by the reifying mechanism of publicity. In this writing, ironically, the awareness of artifice becomes evidence not of the potential for critique and resignification but of powerlessness, a collapse into complicity with a mainstream agenda.

The poet Lyn Lifshin’s writing is nearly all written in the autobiographical first person voice. Her interest in the significance of this as a form for women’s writing, and its relationship to questions around the nature of the divisions between the public and private for women has been demonstrated in her editing of women’s private writing. Her two anthologies Ariadne’s Thread and Lips Unsealed: Confidences from Contemporary Women Writers collect a broad range of women’s private writing. The collections were motivated, as Lifshin suggests in her introduction to the former, by the tension between her pleasures in ‘the life, often the inner life, secrets and adventures of a sensitive, perceptive narrator’ and the absence of ‘politics, history or society’.[34] Lifshin’s writing is clearly available to a feminist reading. It has consistently pushed at the conventions of self-representation, frequently questioning and parodying issues of female identity and their relationship to iconography. In one edition of Wormwood Review, for example, she published over thirty poems from her lengthy sequence of ‘Madonna’ poems. Each of these very short, often humorous poems, turns upon its neat encapsulation of a cliché of femininity — from Bikini Madonna, ‘what she / revels of / interesting / what she hides is vital’, to High Interest Rate Madonna, ‘comforts the / greedy afflicts / the needy’. One of the most satirical aspects of these poems is their sheer quantity, the amount suggests both the mutability of female identity, that it can simultaneously be so many things, and yet this very plenitude suggests the plasticity of the endless recycling and reappropriations of hegemonic authority.

This large body of texts has made Lifshin nothing less than one of the most productive poets writing in America. Her profligacy is, indeed, almost unseemly, testament for some to the lack of discrimination in the micro-publishing community. The new formalist R.S Gwyn’s acerbic account of contemporary publishing uses the fact that Lifshin tops Len Fulton’s ‘sweepstake’ of the most published ten poets in 1990 as evidence of the general banality of contemporary writing: the fact that the other poets in the list include Marge Piercy, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley is uncommented upon. [35] I want to contrast the various ways in which Lifshin has been published in an effort to provide someway of reading this excess, and also in order to relate it back to the ambiguities around formal experimentation, gender and class that dominated zine culture.

Lifshin has been published by a broad range of zines, by mainstream magazines, by academic journals and, most recently, by a fairly major publishing house. Many of her earliest publications were in self-authored zines or chapbooks published by the small press. One of these is the collection Offered by Owner published in 1978. The collection shares many of the features of a mainstream publication. It includes a contents page, an introduction and its cover features a professionally coy photograph of the artist. The introduction — comparing publishing poetry and selling of real estate — suggests not only the central theme of the book but also how its author imagines the relationship with the reader. It links us autobiographically to the writer whilst positioning the reader as an active, potentially judgmental, recipient, with the power to buy or reject what is being offered. The poems do nothing to disrupt this. They present a number of feminised anxieties — about body image, about access to education, about maternal relationships — not untypical to second-wave feminist poetry. These are sandwiched between photographs of the maturing author that provide an alternative commentary on what is being read. Hence, a photo of Lifshin looking youthful and slim in a classic nineteen-fifties pose is given a very specific meaning when published between a poem called ‘Fat’ and a poem called ‘His Dangling Pronoun’. The second of these poems is a fantasy of teacher seducing her ‘favorite student dark and just / back from the army with those / hot olive eyes’. The first is a far more internalised account of a woman loathing her excess weight: ‘it hangs around / reminding you of what / wasn’t totally / digested   a layer of heavy / water, something greasy’. The picture clearly operates in the gap between these two poems: we are being offered it as a way of sharing the fantasy, of confirming its authenticity. The woman’s naked elegantly poised legs in the photograph echo the ‘shaved up high’ and ‘soft nougat thighs’ of the erotic poem. Yet it also provides a discordant context for the surfeit of memories in ‘Fat’. The smiling woman of the photographic image is rendered vulnerable as we are told of the narrative voice’s violent self-image: ‘I used to put the scales back 10 pounds / I still do and would have beat myself with the heaviest rubber chains [….] jessica’s mother once said / lyn you’ll never get / cold this winter / fat legs / like that’. [36] The effect of the contrast, of course, is to consider the woman’s body as simultaneously a source of anxiety and pleasure. The deep ambiguities of self-identity are made intrinsic to the production of the zine itself: its tendency to speak directly to the reader, to literalise authorship, to depend upon models of exchange rather than commodification.

When republished by Black Sparrow in the rather superfluously entitled ‘autobiography’ section of the smart and thick Cold Comfort: Selected Poems 1970-1996 then many of these tensions are removed from the poem. It is streamlined: the small i’s so characteristic of zine writing have been capitalised, its detailed specificity is expunged and reference to the present played down. The lines cited above become ‘I put the  / scales back, would have / beat myself with / rubber chains […] Somebody once said / you’ll never get  / cold this winter / fat legs / like that’. [37] The result is, of course, that the poem becomes almost entirely generic: a rather uncompelling account of a widely recognised and familiar condition. The resonances of its location next to both a specific image of femininity and an alternative fantasy of self are lost.

Lifshin’s work was also published in the mainstream popular press, including Rolling Stone and in Ms. Her appearance in the latter, a seminal text of mainstream feminism, is interesting for its apparent inversion of many of the critical demands and assumptions of both zine and academic culture. Lifshin published her elegiac poem ‘Alberta Hunter’, in the year of the singer’s death, in Ms. The poem uses Hunter’s iconographic status — as an aged woman performing in public, as a jazz singer, as a liberated woman — to strike a note of defiant optimism. It uses the specific history and name of the woman who began life in Memphis, went North to Chicago on a dime and carried on singing until her death at 85, ‘her hair pulled / straight back    not / to miss anything’ to suggest a progressive narrative for women’s liberation.[38] The other facts that make Hunter’s success so remarkable — her race, her sexuality — are either ignored or assumed simply by her name. Yet the poem appears toward the end of the magazine, slotted in to the lengthy ‘small ads’ sections that such publications routinely contain. The critical relationship posed by the juxtaposition of poetry and adverts suggested by Impetus or Poetry Motel seems almost entirely inverted. The barest space is given to the poem. It appears on a corner of page eighty and is crowded and dulled by the profusion of colour, boldness of type, and excessive detail of the adverts that surround it. The poem’s universalising expectancy — provided by the contrast between the boldness of its hope and the lightness of its biographical touch — are lost as they jostle against the jaunty tone and large print of an advert for ‘Apricot flavored Brandy’ and the details that the selling of an ‘Odor-Free Litter Box’ and ‘Authentic RAF Sweater’ apparently require. That the political freight of the poem, in terms Lifshin’s intersection as both a feminist and zine writer, should be so casually lost is in keeping with the fate of Ms in the mid-eighties as its reliance on advertising revenue came into increasing conflict with its feminist aims. [39]

However, the dynamics around the various publications of Lifshin’s many works are more complex than this perhaps predictable account of the homogenising and depoliticising implications of mainstream publications suggests. Lifshin’s work was also collected and published by other zine publishers. The zine ‘he wants his meat in the woman who’s dead’, for example, is about Lifshin but written by a fan and is suggestive of the alternative stakes in the circulation of writing within the zine communities. The editorial begins fairly neutrally, noting that the author in question has ‘probably written and published more poems than anybody in the history of the world.’ Its end, thanking ‘LYN’ for being ‘the only poet who’s satisfied my need’ resonates with more visceral tones. The effect of Lifshin’s more violently sexual writing shifts, the piling up of narratives of violent abuse against women becomes disconcerting when formed by an editor who calls himself the rather militaristic, even fascistic-sounding, ‘Generalimisso’. The poems are cut and pasted onto a chaotic black and white backdrop. The narrowing of the white space around the words, the sudden endings of the poems all adding not only to their frantic tones but also to the sense in which they are active in a fantasy in which they are not necessarily complicit. This sense is at its strongest when one of the sources for violent fantasies that the poems contain is presented. The cutting from a newspaper of the story of a violent murder of a woman, once placed next to Lifshin’s poem about the subject is very uneasy in this context. The story refers to an investigation into the possibility that a cult was responsible for the sacrificial murder and cannibalism of a woman. The name of the cult, the last words in the story, is ‘The Church of the Realized Fantasy’. In this context then the production of a source for Lifshin’s poem seems to be neither manipulating questions around the poem’s authenticity nor demonstrating how Lifshin’s astonishing creativity is maintained so much as suggesting above all the fantasy that her fantasies can be realised.

The counter-cultural poetry scene offers a place in which new formations of community and identity are clearly able to be rehearsed and the very possibility of the public is expanded and enriched through this. Yet our ability to read this only as a site of opportunity or subversion needs, I think, to be more carefully considered. Such oppositional writing is also necessarily cut through with the realities of class, and the complex identifications of gender, that consistently render them more ambivalent. The real obscenities in this writing remain, consequently, often beyond representation.



[1] Maria Damon, ‘Post-Literary Poetry’ Class Issues: Pedagogy, Cultural Studies and the Public Sphere ed. Amitava Kumar (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

[2] Kucsma, Jason, “Preserving Zines in the Library: Countering Marginalisation and Extinction”, Zine Guide 3.Winter/Spring (2000): 11-19.

[3] Michael  Basinski, and Robert J Bertholt, ‘From Concrete Poem to Zine Display’ Robert Lax and Concrete Poetry ed. Anthony Bannan (Buffalo: Burchfield Art  Centre, 1991), pp.23-25.

[4] Michael Warner, Publics and CounterPublics  (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 192.

[5] Golding, Alan, From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

[6] Co-Lingua 34. 

[7] Negt, Oskar, and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeious and Proletarian Public Sphere. Translated by Peter Labanyi, Janie Owen Daniel, Assenka Oksiloff (University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

[8] Seth Friedman, The Factsheet Five Zine Reader: The Best Writing from the Underground World of Zines, ed. Seth Friedman (Three Rivers Press, New York, 1997), 10, 11.

[9] Daniel A. Russel, ‘Editorial comment’ in Bad Poetry Digest, 6.1.

[10] Stephen Duncombe, Notes from underground: Zine and the politics of alternative culture  (New York: Verso, 1997), p.2

[11] JOHNNY R,  Shouldn’t you be working 5, 3624 CONN. AVE. NW., WASH. D.C 20008

[12] Emily White ‘Revolution, Girl Style, Now’, Rock She Wrote, ed. Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers (New York: Delta, 1995; first published LA WEEKLY JULY 10-16 1992), 396.

[13] Emily White, ‘Revolution, Girl Style, Now’, 397.

[14] Emily White, ‘Revolution, Girl Style, Now’, 402.

[15] Neil Nehring, Popular Music, Gender and Postmodernism: Anger is an Energy  (1997), 156.

[16] Ednie Kaeh Garrison, ‘US Feminism-Grrrl Style! Youth (Sub) Cultures and the Technologies of the Third Wave’, Feminist Studies 26.1 (2000). The co-founder of Bust uses precisely the same terms to describe the coalitional politics of this ‘third wave’ movement, as it ‘entered an era of DIY feminism - sistah, do-it-yourself - and we have all kinds of names for ourselves, lipstick lesbians, do-me-feminists, even post-feminists […] “playful where feminism is merely sober, flaunting an ironic sense of identity”’, The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order, ed. Marcelle Karp and Debbie Stalker (New York: Penguin, 1999).

[17] Lorraine Ali, ‘The Grrrls Fight Back’, The Los Angeles Times, July 27, F1.

[18] Mary Celeste Kearney, ‘Don’t Need You: Rethinking Identity Politics and Separatism from a Grrrl Perspective’ Youth Culture: Identity in a Postmodern World ed. Jonathen Epstein (Oxford: Blackwells, 1998).

[19] Academic work by educationalists has made apparent the importance of the zine for encouraging youth literacy and independent notions of self. See, for example, Elizabeth Dutro, Jennifer Sinor and Sara Rabinow, “Who’s At Risk?: Entering the World of Adolescent Zines”.

[20] From The Literature Collection:  poems from the some of the world’s greatest unknown authors, ed. Leah Angstman (Mason: Propaganda Press, 1999), 3.

[21] Factsheet5, 61, April 1997, p.7.

[22] Pagan Kennedy, Zine: How I found Six Years of my Life and finally..... found myself....I think  (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1995).

[23] ‘Introducing Mail Art: A Karen Elliot Interview with Crackerjack Kid and Honoria’, Postmodern Culture 3.2, 1993.

[24] Perkins, Stephen. 1992. Approaching the 80’s Zine Scene.

Perkins, Stephen. 1992. Subspace; International Zine Show. Iowa.

[25] Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 43.

[26] Core: A Symposium on Contemporary Visual Poetry ed John Byrum and Crag Hill (Mentor, OH: Generator Press, Mill Valley CA, Score, 1993)

[27] Harry Polkinhorn, Photostatic, December 1989, No. 40, p.1502

[28] Photostatic No.19 July 1986 ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.

[29] Johanna Drucker, ‘Feminism, Theory, Art Practice’ M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory and Criticism, ed. Mira Schor and Susan Bee (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000).

[30] Poetry Motel, 2, 1984.

[31] Impetus: Women Only Four, 1984.

[32] Impetus, 3 May, 1985.

[33] Impish Impetus 2, November 1991, 32, 33.

[34] Lifshin, Lyn, ed., Ariadne’s Thread: A Collection of Contemporary Women’s Journals. (New York: Harper and Row, 1982).

[35] RS GWYN, ‘‘NO BIZ LIKE PO’ BIZ’’ SEWANEE REVIEW 100.2 (1992):  311-23.

[36] Lyn Lifshin, Offered by the Owner  (1978).

[37] Lyn Lifshin, Cold Comfort  (New York: Black Sparrow, 1996).

[38] Lyn Lifshin, ‘Alberta Hunter’, Ms, February 1984, p. 80.

[39] McKinnon, L. M. (1995). Ms.ing the Free Press: The Advertising and Editorial Content of Ms. Magazine, 1972-1992. The American Magazine: Research Perspectives and Prospects. D. Abrahamson. Ames, Iowa State University Press: 98-108.

BIO: Nicky Marsh works on contemporary poetics and gender at the University of Southampton. She has articles published in New Formations, Samuel Beckett Today and College Literature and articles appearing this year in Feminist Review and Sagetrieb. She is currently completing a monograph on poetry, gender and democracy, and is editing a book on ‘Reading Poetry’ for Palgrave. See this issue’s Alerts section for Marsh’s review of Caroline Bergvall’s Goan Atom.

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