When I was a kid, like most little boys, I loved upending things. My cousins, my brother and I shared a babysitter while our parents worked. In the summer, this meant a lot of time spent exploring my aunt and uncle's expansive backyard off Westfield, north of Broad Ripple. A creek wound through their yard, with plenty of stones, logs and various natural objects primed for upheaval. Beneath those decomposing stumps lie entire civilizations of animals, insects and critters -- each toiling away at whatever task defined its nominal existence.
Though I'm much older now, I still enjoy flipping over the occasional rock and exploring the subcultures that lie beneath. Recently, I wrote an article about several glossy, beautifully designed magazines aiming to elevate the reputation of independent, Midwestern publications along with the stories and people held within their pages. Beneath that echelon of publications exists a subset of writers, artists and creators working within a medium whose origins pre-date our country's founding.
- Courtesy of John Clark
An assortment of pLopLop covers from John Clark’s archive. Clark added splashes of color and other variations to make each cover unique.
"I want people to have access to the tools and the knowledge to make their own publications," says Wendy Spacek. "I think it's empowering. I think it's democratic. I think it's feminist. It's a necessary act. The zine or small-press object or ephemera is an intimate form."
This belief led Spacek and a group of like-minded individuals to start a crowd-funding initiative with the goal of purchasing equipment to launch a nonprofit publishing collective. They raised around $5,000, obtained the equipment they needed and began publishing Snacks, a literary/arts zine. "We had a lot of different exploratory meetings about how it would function, where it would be," Spacek says. "We had a space locked in, and then the roof blew off. So, we never got into that space, and it just kind of fizzled out." For it to take off, Spacek says it's going to require the right people who are interested in it and have the time and capacity to do it.
One group who Spacek believes might prove the "right people" to pick up the pieces where Indy Pub Co-op left off is Fountain Square's General Public Collective. With two professional printers of their own, GPC plans to offer affordable, small-run printing as a service with the aim of making their shop financially sustainable.
"With what we have, we can go up to 12x18 format books," says Jason Pittenger Arnold. "With those we'll be able to do photo journals with full photo scenes or literary works or illustrations -- anything really."
Arnold has overseen the small-press collection at GPC since its inception. The titles GPC has in stock run the gamut from self-published books of poetry, such as Whisper Fights, co-written by Indianapolis' own JC Neuman and Erin Brady, to weightier international publications, such as Marfa Journal. "When we began, it was just my interests," Arnold says of his selections as curator. "Since then, I've just been feeling it out and seeing what people are interested in. It's just sort of webbed out from there. There are still some that I'm experimenting with and have a dozen copies still after seven months. [He laughs.] Obviously, no one liked that." He says he's still learning what to bring in, since they don't have a giant inventory. They're keeping it minimal, but the style of it will constantly change."
Small-press publications have played a historic and vibrant role in the United States. Pamphlets and broadsheets served as the rallying cry of the country's revolt against colonial England. In the 1960s, alt-lit publications functioned as the mouthpiece for the countercultural movement sweeping through what would become today's baby boomer generation. However, the medium is not sole proprietorship of the underground. As recently as 2013, U.S. Army troops with the 303rd Psychological Operations Company were dropping leaflets over southern Afghanistan.
"Grove Press, that did Tropic of Cancer. They really made it, singlehandedly in a way, possible for the gates to be opened," says John Clark, publisher of arts and literary zine, pLopLop. "It sounds impossible, but it really is kind of exciting, because that happened in my lifetime; 1960 was when Tropic of Cancer was in paperback. You can get it everywhere, but a year before they were actually arresting booksellers."
Clark launched pLopLop in 1991 as a vehicle for his writing and artwork. It didn't take long for the zine to outgrow its humble origins. For the third issue, which featured the theme of feces, Clark was able to pull off a coup when he enlisted his hero, Charles Bukowski, as a contributor. "I started corresponding with him, and every exchange I got more info," Clark says. "At first, it was through his publisher. Then he sent something with his post office box as a return. Then, when we started publishing him, then I had his home address."
Clark's strategy was simple: He sent a self-addressed envelope along with a request for some work. Much to his surprise, it worked. "It was so cool, because I opened up this thing, and it was like, 'An editor asked me to write this poem about sh-t. I can't write a poem about sh-t,'" he says, paraphrasing Bukowski. "Then he gets on a roll, man. 'You know when you're in the supermarket, and you see somebody buying toilet paper, and you think 'Ah, I've caught them.' It was just hilarious."
The fourth issue included an excerpt from a previously unreleased Jack Kerouac book entitled Old Angel Midnight, additional original poetry from Bukowski, and a self-portrait by none other than Kurt Vonnegut. "It was just a matter of, let's do it," he says. "The first couple of issues, I mean, I'm not proud of them, but that's how you got started. So, if anybody asks for advice, it's just do it. If you wait for something perfect until it's complete, it may not happen. So, just get it out there."
The pLopLop editor tells the hilarious story about how he convinced Kurt Vonnegut to contribute a self-portrait to his tiny, Indy publication at Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.
A fresh crop of Indianapolis writers and artists are putting Clark's DIY advice into action. Dimitri Morris is one such individual. Morris oversees Headdress Records, a label that operates out of Westgate, an all-ages venue and community center on Indy's Westside. In addition, he plays in the band White Moms while spearheading his own musical project, Chieftan. In its first year, Headdress released eight albums -- all of them on cassette and digital. The label has released a couple of zines as accompaniment to their musical endeavors.
"The whole idea we've got going on, as far as coupling the zines with the cassettes or whatever release that we're doing, is that whenever you're in your car, you have the cassette to listen to," Morris says. "When you're in your house you have the zine to look at, which reminds you of the cassette. So, it gives it almost the feeling of synergy. It makes it a little more full-circle."
After three years at the helm of Soft River Reading Series, which showcases local and traveling writers on a monthly basis at various locations across Indianapolis, Spacek acknowledges the correlation between music and small-press literature. Through Soft River, she has taken on an unofficial role for upstart Midwestern publisher, Monster House Press as a distribution agent. Monster House's leadership is divided between Bloomington, Indiana and Columbus, Ohio, with contributions from much farther away.
- Whitney Walker
Local writer, J.C. Neuman, performs at General Public Collective during a Soft River Reading Series event. In 2014, Neuman self-published a book of poetry entitled Whisper Fights.
"The way that Monster House Press is organized has really come out of music culture and punk culture. The way that you tour when you're in a band, and the way that your record label might be in a different city than where you live, and the way you might record in a different city than where you live -- regionally mostly. They're all musicians -- every single one of them," Spacek says of the Monster House crew. "So, I think they were heavily influenced by that life. When they went to create something for their writing and for the writing of their friends, they took that framework and used it."
After taking note of the small-press publications pouring out of Central Indiana these days, the formats and styles prove as varied as the day is long: chapbooks, broadsheets, comic books, tour diaries, photo journals, concert listings and on and on. The sheer volume of it all can prove staggering. Some are printed in basic, black and white. Others are immaculate, in full-color. "The reason that I'm attracted to these little publications and to zines and that culture, is that they can be so incredibly beautiful and so diverse," Spacek says. "There are so many different kinds of zines. It can be fascinating."
Though pLopLop has been defunct since 2010, Clark has recently toyed with the idea of reviving it. He says he's inspired by the uptick in literary activity across Indy these days, and is humbled by interest from folks like Benjamin Blevins at PRINTtEXT. In the past, pLopLop featured writing and artwork from all over the country. For the next installment, Clark is thinking about a more localized approach. "That's my idea for the next one, maybe doing all Indianapolis," he says. "I think it's just a matter of carving out the time."
- Whitney Walker
Wendy Spacek manages the counter at General Public Collective during a recent Soft River Reading Series event. “Before, the only poetry readings in a month or a couple of months would be mine,” Spacek says. “Now, I’m going to other people’s poetry readings ... People are hungry for it.”