Invisible Cities

An open zine collects the manifestoes of street poets, single dads, and itinerant academicians

Mary Jane sucked face with Spider-Man. Rachel pushed out Ross's baby. Eminem dressed up as Elvis. And everybody watched.

Last week, these events entered our movie theaters and televisions. This week, they're starting to register in our collective consciousness. By next week, their commentary on our times will be cemented in history. The fact that today's audiences are fragmented by age, race, and gender hasn't loosened the media industry's grip on our collective attention. When Steven Spielberg directs his next movie, when Lauryn Hill releases her next album, when Jay Leno interviews Natalie Portman, we'll all be there together.

I, anonymous: 'Unarmed' publisher Michael Sawyer
David Kern
I, anonymous: 'Unarmed' publisher Michael Sawyer

Except, of course, for those of us who won't be. Those individuals--as Greil Marcus noted in his cultural history Lipstick Traces--belong to another story. They follow an invisible current that has wormed its way through pop culture in the form of dada, or punk, or situationism, presenting a flipped image of the culture around them. Some kids, by nature, seem to tap into this other stream of thought. These are the people for whom zines were created.

Take Louis Prokop, an 18-year-old high school student from St. Paul. The raven-haired boy has been writing for the local self-described "adventurous poetry journal" Unarmed for a while now, which has perhaps helped him realize that his aesthetic tastes may not be accepted by everyone. A few weeks ago, Prokop was invited to read some of his poetry at a group piano recital. He selected a piece that his piano teacher had not pre-approved. And standing before a crowd of mostly older adults and very young children--many of whom he did not know very well--Prokop recited that piece, "My Twin":

 

no pain
forever
all gone
a blazing moment
that everyone will remember
bang bang you're dead.

 

The poem might not yet be at the top of the Sylvia Plath scale, but that's not the point. It's a formative effort, and a brave one for Prokop to recite in a rather awkward venue. Imagine you're a parent who has taken the afternoon off from your responsibilities to watch your eight-year-old daughter play a little chunk of Beethoven. Suddenly you're treated to what sounds like a meditation on suicidal impulses. If you're the eight-year-old cranking out a halfway decent etude, you might think, Who is this kid? And why is he saying these things? If you're a typical suburban parent, you might wonder, How can I keep my own kid from listening? And If you're Prokop, you're probably thinking, I've just read something I worked on for weeks, and no one understands a word of it.

To some alarmist listeners, the poem's ending might seem like an entry in a Columbine student's diary. But to anyone who actually remembers what it's like to be a teenager, it probably sounded familiar.

"There were two other kids my age there; I think they got it," explains Prokop, a bright, Hamline-bound senior from his parents' spacious house in St. Paul. As he speaks, the clock over the fireplace ticks so loudly that it almost drowns out his voice. "The others were really upset because they thought, This is really depressing," he continues. "I didn't see it that way. And my writing teacher didn't see it that way. My family did. They were kind of worried about it. But I had to read it. It was my way of saying, 'This is how I feel better. And I want you to think about that.'

"The crowd I was reading to, I don't think they read a lot of poetry. Or if they do, it's the flowery type, the type that makes you want to take a nice walk in a cool summer day or something. That's not my thing. It's a pretty dark poem, but it's one I'm really proud of. I knew it wasn't going to be accepted very well. I was prepared for that."

 

Prokop's writing won't be lost on all audiences. Sure, the soccer moms didn't want to hear such verse. But Michael Sawyer wants to publish it. Prokop's work might deal with themes similar to those of other high school students, but he experienced it, felt it, and wrote it down. And for Sawyer, that's enough.

Though Sawyer is a twentysomething single father of two--he shares custody with the toddlers' mother--he still makes time to collect the voices of kids like Prokop and submit them to the public. His vessel for this mission is Unarmed, a zine that he compiles during the late hours of the night and publishes every three weeks or so. As long as there is room in the four-inch-by-six-inch black-and-white booklet, Sawyer will add your poem to the table of contents. (In recent months, Unarmed has sometimes taken the form of a CD release called Unaudio, featuring a wide range of local, national, and international underground electronic artists like Contra, Mr. Brown, and Sawyer's alter ego Enemy of the People--each hand-decorated and -packaged.)

"A poet will send me a pile of stuff, and even if I don't like it I try to find something to pull out of there," says the puffy-bearded zine curator, leaning back on the couch in the upstairs level of the St. Paul house where he lives. He cranes his head away from the light that's coming in from a nearby window. "It's not about who writes what. It's that this person has no forum for their ideas. Especially when stuff comes in from street poets--and a lot of it does--I think, this person has no other venue for their writing besides the street. At 4:00 a.m., when I'm really exhausted from being up all night working on Unarmed, those are the things that make me keep going."

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