I first heard about and from Steve Kostecke in the 1990’s when the print-zine scene was at its peak, filled with fabulous writers many corresponding through long letters with one another, missives filled with ideas and energy and the joy of writing.
Steve lived overseas, bouncing around in countries like Korea and Thailand teaching English. He was one of a few of us caught up in the idea that underground writing was a vital segment of American literature. We discussed the idea of the writing of ourselves, a DIY from-the-ground mass generation of cheap publications, as an actual literary movement.
This was the topic of conversation when I finally met Steve, I think in 1997, in Detroit, which was the home base for both of us. Steve’s early writing was about growing up—high school partying mostly—in the Detroit area. Being from that crazed raw angry city was/is a contact point for its refugees, a shared foundation of experience with a kind of disbelief that the nature of the town so fell short of any widely projected American ideal.
I met Steve at a bar on the Wayne State U campus named Z’s Place, then after a few beers we journeyed further south into the lower part of the Cass Corridor where existed the real gritty dives filled with prostitutes druggies dropout bohemians fugitives from reality of all races in a kind of ultimate slice-of-life. I remember Steve as this cocky swaggering guy wearing a brown leather bomber jacket able to drink anyone under the table as we went through pitchers sitting at a creaky table in a saloon surrounded by stray paraphernalia and skinny addict whores at the bar leering our way, open door Cass Corridor life outside as the beers kept on coming. Steve, of course, thrived in such places in Asia.
He was a guy soaking in every aspect of life, with a wide-eyed American wonder at all of it.
Several of us continued to discuss, through the mails, starting a more tangible literary movement. In 1998 I was involved with another writer in a project called Pop Literary Gazette. Steve was one of the writers we included in the journal’s pages. After that folded I gave up everything literary altogether, concentrating on running a small office in the trade business along Detroit’s riverfront, working 70-hour weeks. Still, in the back of my mind I continued to mull over the lit movement idea. I knew there were many talented zine writers whose writing and personalities carried dynamic energy. Writers like Steve Kostecke.
Steve more than anyone—Doug Bassett and Michael Jackman were others—encouraged me to take the lead in putting our ideas into reality. At the end of 1999 I quit my job and moved to Philadelphia.
The founding of the Underground Literary Alliance occurred during a drinkfest weekend in October of 2000 in Hoboken, New Jersey. We’d invited every underground writer we knew to join—six of us made it. Steve came direct, it seemed, from Asia, looking like Jack London just got off a ship, wearing his usual bomber jacket and confident grin, a large duffel bag under his table as he drank freely at an outdoor cafe. He fit, to all of us, the image of a knockabout American writer, in the tradition of Kerouac and Hemingway.
By the end of the weekend, the ULA was reality.
Steve lived in Philadelphia for six months during the group’s early days; participated in two of our first explosive events. Soon enough his restless nature sent him traveling.
While he was in town we did a fair share of barhopping. At one point we went to a branch library in South Philly and Steve showed me how to get on the Internet, believe it or not. I’d been computer illiterate before that time. We also spent many hours debating the nature and substance of what we were trying to create. Within the group, Steve and I were at polar extremes. Steve, I realized, had a laidback Buddhist attitude toward life, while I overflowed with impatience, wanting and expecting to keep pushing and pushing the spark of publicity the ULA had received.
It’s amazing we kept the thing going as long as we did. Steve, Jeff Potter, and myself were the major players in keeping the ULA machine operating. Steve’s work was fundamentally behind the scenes, creating, for one thing, every issue of our house zeen, Slush Pile. For many of the new writers we brought into our ranks Steve was a mysterious figure, which caused in some, frustration. In others, he became the offstage good guy in contrast to the hard-charging reality of me. Steve at the same time cranked out many great zines of his own writing—one about his brief sojourn in Philly. The best of them, in my opinion, was Auslanders Raus!, about time he’d spent in Germany. Some of the best, clear, fun, knowing writing to be found anyplace.
The ULA’s final explosion, as least as far as both Steve and myself were concerned, came in ‘07. We both ended up leaving the team. I don’t know about him, but I was exhausted by the intensity of the project, the huge ambition it embodied and the blowback we’d received from status quo literati. Making change isn’t easy! Especially when attempting the impossible. By the end we were probably sick of each other and of all the various internal disputes we’d endured, about which we had differing viewpoints. There’s no question I was more to blame for the disputes. I’d always had the more volatile personality.
While it lasted, the Underground Literary Alliance was a great dream and a fantastic experience.
Steve was the last of the many underground writers I knew through that experience that I’d expect to leave us so early. He was the most unflappable, the most on an even keel, at the same time filled with healthy energy while having none of the self-destructive behavior of other ULAers—other than a love of drinking, talking, writing, experiencing life.