Wednesday, February 22, 2006

ULA Mailbox

I. n+1.

I received the first two issues. The journal is important enough that I intend to devote more than one post to it. Two things stand out during quick scanning.

First, that n+1 is many times better as an intellectual journal than The Believer; maybe a hundred times better, because The Believer is about in-crowd posturing while the n+1'ers know how to think and communicate.

Second, it's curious that the two journals have been linked together in articles, though n+1 spends a lot of time in its first issue attacking The Believer and strongly asserting their differences. The editors didn't assert their differences strongly enough! Still, to use an article about n+1 to grovel to the Eggers crowd, to chain-link the two journals together, as the N.Y. Times did, is unfair and goofy.

About n+1 itself:
It's soundly constructed. It presents itself well. What the writers say is often thought-provoking. One can nod at the accomplishment and admit, "Yes, this is the best the present system of literature can give us."

But that's the point. What quickly becomes noticeable, then starkly obvious, hit-you-over-the-head obvious, is the sameness of the writing. Is this a collection of many minds-- or of one? The writers are interchangeable; the lack of individuality fills most of the pages; you check who wrote something, seeing the initials MG, MR, BK, KG, or whomever, and you're still not sure of the writer. The first few articles in each issue list no author, nor is one needed, as they're of one piece, with the same voice, the same premises and perspective, the same education, same reading list; the same masks of learning and touchstone name-dropping. (James Wood is assumed to be an important critic. The Corrections is assumed to be an important work of fiction, "a monumental renewal of the critical social novel." I'm reminded of the Yale prof a couple years back who would debate me only if I read the books he'd designate; clearly uncomfortable with the idea of a writer from a different American culture, a different American society, with a different reading list, within his own country.)

What n+1 is not is anything new. There's no attempt to create a new structure of literature, as the ULA is doing. The castle walls are cracked; water leaks from the ceiling; the floor is cold and the air damp, yet inside the castle the well-trained editors remain, unwilling to give up the tenuous safety of the walls for the unknown dangers of an unruly world of thought outside.

Don't think I'm attacking them! I'm simply discussing what makes the ULA different from them. They're locked within a rigid hand-me-down mindset and are unable to see themselves amid the waves and changes of history. Their wave, their cycle, is ending-- the vehicle carries forward toward a finish line of exhaustion, with fumes in its gas tank. At the same time a new cycle of energy is being born. A wholly new vehicle is being built.

They're polished music critics discussing Mantovani while grubby pioneers beneath their recognition named Presley or Berry or Holly or Dylan in smoky clubs or on tacky stages create the relevant music of the day.

For the n+1 critics literary history is that which is handed to them by the professors of the moldy institutions they've dwelt in. History isn't something they can renew, replace, create, or re-create. Literary history to them isn't a series of waves or clash of forces: it's a straight line. They've gotten in line and assume history is with them. For this instant it is, but the funny thing about history is it's in a state of constant turmoil.

Most obvious of all, despite their good qualities (and they have many), is the narrowness of their perspective. The window in their castle room is small. Their own words state this. Their first Editorial Statement refers to "the best people in our intellectual class." Whatever truths they speak, whatever insights they convey, this is n+1's subject and audience.


Also in my mailbox was #5 of the zine authored by Ammi Emergency. She's not trying to be the best in anyone's intellectual class-- she's taken on the long-time task of the true writer to plunge herself into life and experience; has deliberately chosen the UNtrod path which has led the last several years to tough jobs, rough episodes, and poverty. She encounters the world not through the filter of reading lists, or someone else's ideas, French, postmodern, or otherwise. Her ideas are worked out through living in a community of misfits; she's been a steady dweller in anarchic corners of zinedom.

I'm not objective on the subject. The ULA's roots are in the zine community. Our founders were from this place. As we expand and bring in new people, we should never lose sight of our beginnings. We should retain regard for writers of the authentic zine community; this is where we've found our difference and our authenticity.

"Writing zines is like giving blood for practice. No real reason. Like sleeping on the floor when you have a bed, or riding your bike in a blizzard for money. No good reason at all to risk so much pain and stupidity. Except to see what it feels like. And because writing's like blood in that once it's out you can't put it back in. A puddle of bad spirits and liquid iron on the paper, and you give it away at shows."

I was walking down Philadelphia streets one wintry day and saw a homeless guy on the sidewalk scribbling in a notebook. I was reminded of a scruffy young man at the 2004 Zinefest who handed me his hand-written photocopied zine about vagabonding and squatting through West Philly. I was reminded of Urban Hermitt Aaron Cometbus Bill Blackolive a host of great writers scribbling crude zines in diesel buses rural shacks ratty cars flophouse rooms greasy bright pizza shops on bar stools cold sidewalks: everyplace.

What distinguishes the underground writer from the approved kind is that we're hopeless misfits. How many times have I been called a failure by the ULA's critics? Yet failure may be second nature to us; in this mad technological competitive world, an essential part of our being. I'd argue that it's what gives us our soul. I know for myself that only after I was knocked down by life several dozen times was I dispelled of last illusions about myself and the world, to see things not as they were constructed and presented to be seen but as they were.

Underground writers are the table of delinquents and retards everyone else ignores at the back of the school cafeteria; way back, behind the class officers and letter-sweater jocks and preppies and cool people, behind the computer nerds and a.v. people, so far back you can't see them.

Our fashion-punk zeen babe in the ULA's early days became angry when we invited the misfits of zinedom to join our ranks at our first big reading. In reality she was the biggest misfit of all of us, but couldn't see this.

If any current young writer has soul, it's Ammi Emergency, because she writes with searching honesty.

"In the town without sidewalks, I walked the street. . . ."

"It's hard to make a mess in middle-class suburbs. These places are like self-cleaning ovens, the kind people don't cook in for fear of dirtying them. Us punks, we try to make a mess. We try to make a warning. But the suburbs are a self-replicating regime. They make you, they made you and all you can do is make them again. Everything you do becomes them, goes back into the systems you intended to dismantle. Zines on bleached paper, borne of computers, exchanged for dollars that then sink themselves into corporate copy shops and fast food on the strip. Your skate shoes have gasoline on the soles and there's a new punk cd in the changer because it isn't, it isn't, what everyone else is selling."

"They have eaten our language and we have only our discontent. We have only our best friend's parent's car charging up the hill at 2 am, punk band on the cd player, volume 40. The church is enormous and luminous at the crest, where the night sky also begins again. It is coming at us, fast and silver, this monster older than the cave in which it sleeps. We have only, fuck religion fuck religion fuck religion fuck religion. Only yelling, only singing, the everything we know into the world that refuses it and by extension us. We have only our truth: that we wanted to do something right and good, something whole and beautiful. We just didn't know how."

Questioning is on every page. Ammi questions her world-- this world; this society, the structures and systems which enclose us, which she's rejected with all the complexities and contradictions this entails. If writing has a future it's here, in this zeen's simple pages.


II. Ammi Emergency, $2 cash c/o
831 Elysian Fields
P.O. Box 259
New Orleans LA 70117.

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