#AWP17- In Zines I Trust: Queer Zines as the Foundation of my Literary Work



Wow – so I’m on an Amtrak train right now heading home to NYC from DC and the 50th annual AWP. This was my first time attending AWP and I had a lot of concerns going into the conference about how well I would (or wouldn’t ) fit in but I was on a fantastic panel “Bringing LGBTQ Folk Forms Into Our Literature” with Tom Cho and Michelle Tea, Derrick Austin, and Adam Atkinson— so really how could I say no?! Our panel was fantastic – people were standing along all the walls, sitting on the floor wherever they could fit, I wish I had taken a picture to send to AWP since they put us in such a TINY room (evidently there is a history of this happening to queer panels).

I’ve never been to this big of a writing conference before. It was pretty awesome and overwhelming sO ultimately – I’m REALLY REALLY GLAD that I went. I feel like I learned a lot from the experience, had the chance to connect with queer authors I adore and almost never get the chance to see including my fantastic publisher Arsenal Pulp Press, met new writers who I found commonalities with – many of whom I’m now connected to on twitter/facebook/instagram/tumbr, and got to connect with some wonderful wonderful readers!  I also took a field trip to the national zoo to meet baby pandas (something I talked to basically everyone about all weekend).Will I go back? Maybe? I’m not sure – it’s EXPENSIVE and I didn’t fall in love the same way I did when I attended Saints  & Sinners the first time but this was a very fun experience  all (self doubt about how “literary” I am aside) it very much felt like getting the chance to play with the big kids. I’m sure that I will have LOTS of thoughts as I digest the experiences of the past few days but for now I did want to share the text of the paper I read

<3 <3 <3

In Zines I Trust: Queer Zines as the Foundation of my Literary Work

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I want to start by thanking QZAP the Queer Zine Archive Project for their amazing work cataloging and preserving queer zines, and providing me with most of the images in this power point which gives texture to zines as an art form.

I discovered zines- self produced publications, often photocopied utilizing mixed media pairing written word with cut/paste imagery  about two days before I wrote my first zine- which to me is one of the most beautiful parts zine writing -you simply are able to join in.  The first zine that I was part of writing was created by the Rural Oregon Queer Youth support group I was active in my senior year in high school. The story that I wrote was about kraft macaroni and cheese (my favorite food) and about coming out, being beaten by my mother and running away from home. Zines were the first place that I saw stories like mine reflected back at me- stories  of the kind of queerness: chosen family, kink, and gender fluidity that was flourishing in the youth centers I found and built family in. Zine culture, as I found it was filled with weirdos who were not waiting for an invitation to the literary party -they were telling their stories in all their messy, sometimes misspelled glory, and I wanted in.


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Zines were my literary foundation -I like to say that I have an MFA in zines. I don’t actually have an MFA though for a while, every couple of years I would panic, think I needed one, apply to grad school, get accepted and then turn them down . I am not traditionally trained as a writer, and have resisted all pressures to seek out that formal training. When I started out, my writing circle was made up of other homeless youth, survivors, and runaways. We wrote our stories for one another creating work by and for our little broken queer community – we showed each other our scars on photocopied pages, hosted zine releases in punk house basements and feminist bookstores – naming our truths, our secrets, our passions, our fears, and our dreams. I am the kind of author I am today because my writing was incubated in zine culture.

when I started writing Zines gave me control over the the way that stories were told, queer 2002lives/bodies/relationships could be presented without being sanitized. Zines are an ethic, and an aesthetic of truth telling without censorship- naming that the red editorial pen so often becomes a gatekeeper for marginalized voices. In zine community I found other gender freak weirdo writers who were doing gender our own ways. zines by their very nature gave space for fluidity, exploration and ownership over the process

Screen Shot 2017-02-11 at 3.02.13 PMA few years ago I was on tour at a college with my first novel I was talking with some students who told me how they were looking forward to finishing their graduate program so that they would be qualified to begin submitting poems and stories to anthologies. I was shocked. I had at time been published in dozens of anthologies- thanks to coming of age in zine community and it had never occurred to me that I needed a piece paper to tell me I was qualified to put writing out into the world. in zine publishing – you’re a writer if you say you are and the ethics of everyone has a story worth telling is empowering for young writers, especially marginalized voices.

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Zines and other independently published materials are  also deeply rooted in otherness and resistance. Through their photocopied pages, queer activist zinesters have mobilized, organized and empowered generations of queers around issues ranging from HIV/AIDS, to homonormativity, and feminism.This felt particularly salient for me in the early 2000’s Bush era, in a state that faced anti LGBTQ balot initatives, and it feels increasingly relevant today, as we all grapple with what it means to be queer authors in our current political climate. In so many ways zines continue to remind me that this is work that we know how to do.

In 2010 I made a jump into traditional publishing. I felt a little like a sellout but I had realized I wanted something different, not better, just different for my writing. My main reason for shifting my identity from a zinester to an author was about the reach and ready accessibility of my stories.  I wanted lonely queer kids in rural towns of be able to order my books on amazon (even though it’s evil) and for queer folks to be able to find my books on the shelves of their local library. Although I was committed to increasing access to my writing, i wasn’t interested in sacrificing the queerness of  the content in order to do that.


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My first book was an anthology titled Kicked Out. As an editor  I was committed to including the voices of currently homeless youth who might not be in positions to participate in an editorial process so I searched until I found a publisher ready to make that commitment with me. honestly I don’t think i knew how big my ask was. One of my favorite stories that we ultimately published really exemplifies why this was important to me and how it could contribute to queening language. The story was written in text speak and street slang. The author Etern!ty (with an exclamation point) was a young, black, homeless trans woman. she  submitted her story in 39 separate text messages that she wrote on her flip phone- when you had to hit the number five three times to get the letter L – remember those?


The aesthetics of zines have always attracted me, there  is something about the minimal or in some cases lack of editing that brings a sense of rawness to the text of zines that I’m really inspired by. I’ve certainly learned to appreciate a good edit when writing but I try to keep a raggedness to my text, and try to not overwork my writing.  the biggest compliment that i can get from a reader is to hear that for the first time they feel like someone has created queer characters that look and sound like them, there loved ones, play partners, friends, community etc. For me this is an ethic that comes  directly from queer zines- it’s about taking our stories and putting them onto the page unsanitized and untranslated. I’m not going to define for you want it means to be in a 24/7 Daddy/boy dynamic, or what the hanky code is, or what harry benjamin standard of care are and why they were oppressive to genderqueer folks. My readers knows this kind of insider terminology, and everyone else, has google.

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A foundation in zines gave me the confidence to build a literary career centering queerness and not feeling like I had any obligation  to submit to the wills of an editor if I didn’t agree with them. For example when my (now out of print) bdsm fairy tale anthology Leather Ever After was in production, I almost walked away from the book deal because the publisher decided they didn’t want to print gender neutral pronouns in stories (as authors had written them) because it might confuse or alienate straight readers…. I was reminded of this when a webmaster at this conference changed my pronoun from “ ze “ to “he” in my published bio for this panel without my knowledge. Thankfully  in response to some Twitter based pressure and support from the LGBT caucus,  AWP apologized and rectified the situation. In both these scenarios I “won,” but in part that was because I was both willing to to do some education about why they were wrong, but also I was totally prepared to pick up my book and go home. I have found as a queer author that when I  decide to play in mainstream literary worlds i need to be prepared  for this. the foundation i gained from years of writing zines, and having queer identities and pronouns normalized in those spaces  gave me the framework  to unapologetically expect this kind of representation everywhere.

Because I was a zinester,  my writing philosophy is very much  if they won’t publish it I will – and I’ll win awards.  My writing queers genres particularly in that as a leather person my fiction  often centers queer BDSM relationships and dynamics while not being erotica. I made the decision to self publish my first novel Roving Pack in part because publishers were concerned the content was too edgy. I then had no problem finding a home for my second novel in a traditional small press. My background as a zinester meant I knew that there was an audience for my work and so I wasn’t willing to accept “no” from publishers who thought I needed to “tone down” the leather- instead I was able to show the existence of that readership and  find the right literary home for my writing. My most recent novel Lost Boi – a queer/punk/leather retelling of Peter Pan  released from Arsenal Pulp Press in 2015 very much sits at  the intersection of my literary experience – keeping all of the queer kinky content, while  being able to have all the benefits of traditional publishing which meant wide distribution across North America and beyond.

Screen Shot 2017-02-11 at 3.02.34 PMComing  from zine community and with books spanning both the traditional publishing and self publishing worlds-three books out from small presses, and two self published,  I hope that my work is able to break down some of the divisiveness between the self publishing and traditional publishing worlds. So often I’ve found zines and other forms of self publishing  are seen as being for writers not “good enough” to get a book deal- which  is not at all my experience. Ultimately there are benefits and challenges of both styles of publishing.  There are amazing benefits of traditional publishing but there are also tremendous drawbacks. In a world where Simon and Schuster is offering a  $250k advance to a transphobic gay white supremacist, as a queer author I have to ask myself if that’s even the kind of publishing world that I would even want to play in.

For me, writing queer books for queer readers is about building our worlds on the page – it’s about connecting to readers by writing our queer lives/families/relationships the way we have lived them. In this changing and terrifying political climate for queer writers – zine writing as a folk art form, and self publishing continues to be a relevant and important medium that can give us the opportunity to break down the barrier between the writer and the reader, to connect, mobilize and inspire.