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."

Sawyer doesn't know exactly how people find out about the zine. He simply makes 350 copies of each issue, dispenses them for free at places like Ruminator, Let It Be Records, Arise! Resource Center and Book Store, Hard Times Café, Eclipse Records, and Mississippi Market Food Co-Op, and comes back in a few weeks to find they've disappeared. ("They all go. We don't know where they go, but people pick them up," Sawyer notes.) In the meantime, the submissions roll in. In addition to his own work, which is published under the name Enemy of the People, there are a few regular writers whom Sawyer depends upon. Asian-American activist Brian Somnouk Thao Worra, legal editor Hydie Fettig, experimental poetry teacher and Unarmed father figure Michael Mann, and critical theory scholar Kimball Lockhart.

But word about the zine also seems to circulate among some invisible community. One imagines the people who pick it up passing the issues around with the secret enthusiasm of college kids with Noam Chomsky pamphlets, or a group of junior high school kids with a dog-eared copy of Playboy.

There's a sense that Unarmed exists in some imaginary metropolis, a psycho-geography suggested by an anonymous selection from the zine's 16th issue:

 

When your feet are on the ground and the sky is above, like coming up for air the water is below and there is nothing but air above. To come to light out of the trench here and expect as much, right then, in 1973, he is reminded of what he was to say to an amazed student who, in 2001, wanted to know where downtown Paris was.--There Is No Downtown. --How Can There Be No Downtown? --Downtown Is All Over The Place. The Whole Thing Is Downtown, There Is Nothing That Is Not Downtown. And it isn't. Down just means South. But the nature of the orb is that there is no superior position: everything on the surface is always and by definition more or less exactly equidistant from the same spot, and this equidistance is a uniform defining aspect that precedes and precludes like a ground anything else. To let "up" and "down" stand means to agree to say that you are standing with your feet on an upside down ground.

 

Anonymity appeals to Sawyer. In fact, he blanches at the possibility that an article written about Unarmed could promulgate any cult of personality. Sawyer wants people to concentrate on the writing itself. He's serious about the project surviving as an independent work of art, as a channel for counter-cultural currents, as a forum for other people's expression. His personality is irrelevant. The words are more important: the cut-and-paste poem submitted by a street kid who will hitch a ride to Seattle next week, or the haiku sent on a postcard from some New Orleans scribe, or the symphony of haphazard letters and numbers submitted by someone Sawyer will never meet.

Some of the work is good. Some of it is not. Which doesn't matter, because the writers go by a certain mantra: Write for yourself. Because you won't be edited. Because chances are you won't get feedback from readers. When your words are printed, they're out of your hands. And once that happens, they might become something you never intended them to be. It doesn't matter if people understand your work. What's important is that they have access to it.

 

Somehow, it doesn't seemstrange that someone would devote so much of his life to handing out writing by people he's never met. But it is surprising that along with all of these stray voices, Sawyer publishes the work of a former professor. Still, one supposes that it makes little difference where the writer comes from, as long as the ideas are there. Where kids like Louis Prokop develop their ideas about counter-cultural writing from Sylvia Plath poems or cult novels, others happen to nurture them in graduate school.

That's where frequent Unarmed contributor Kimball Lockhart first overheard the anecdote he included in a section of "Second Hand." This short prose piece, featuring a salacious cameo by French cultural theorist Michel Foucault, can be found in Five, a collection of various writers' prose that he edited and published.

"At the scholarship house where I was...staying in the mid-Seventies," Lockhart writes, "faculty members could then as now enter the building at will and approach any door, and knock on it unannounced." Lockhart goes on to quote the experience of an unidentified source: "We knocked and said, Monsieur Foucault? The door is open, he said, so we let ourselves in. He was lying on the bed, naked, masturbating, watching Mick Jagger on t.v."

This story is the truth. But as Lockhart notes in Five, it is not the whole truth. And even if it were, that wouldn't much matter. For the local poet/essayist/translator, there are more important questions to ask about such a text.

"The idea is to take material that is patently autobiographical, [which] is essentially fodder," says the former University of Minnesota instructor, sitting at a table in his meticulously clean Minneapolis apartment. "[The stories] are not necessarily autobiographical, but about autobiography as a subject. The fact that they happened to me is of absolutely no consequence or interest to me. They're just materials, like paint."

Five, he explains, is an exercise. Riffing on Stanley Milgram's famous "six degrees of separation" experiment, Lockhart wrote "Second Hand," and passed it on to his cohort John S. Beckman, who then rewrote the story so that it would match the theoretical approach--if not the content--of the first incarnation. "Second Hand" was rewritten five times, and each version is available in Five.

Lockhart's own story might have any number of tellings. After leaving a Ph.D. program at Cornell University with an unfinished dissertation on 19th- and 20th-century French literature, he started realizing that his writing was not the academic norm. "My analyses tend to be very careful textual analyses, down to the last detail. I can write 120 pages on one sonnet," he says. "[In my dissertation] I didn't want to cite books from other people. I write directly from the text. I don't read criticism from anybody. And the academy took issue with me because they think I'm making it all up. And to a certain degree, I am.

"I became one of the top candidates in the country for the top jobs in the country, but ultimately, I was passed over. For every job, I was number two."

These days, Lockhart isn't as worried about satisfying his readers. "I'm not interested in self-expression, in writing something that comes back to me," he says, remarking that Baudelaire's poem "To the Reader" best summarizes his outlook about poetry. "Baudelaire essentially says to the reader, 'Listen, we're not going in the same direction toward some sort of a unity. We're both starting in the center and going off in opposite ways. It's a non-correspondence.'"

Which, of course, is a perfect way to describe the interaction between Unarmed's writers and its readers. Because the people who pick up this zine are completely unknown, writers are free to do whatever they want.

Lockhart takes another book down from the shelf. "I was listening to a tape that a friend had made of an interview that Derrida had done," Lockhart says, adding that he once studied with that theorist in France. "It was an interview for a Japanese magazine. And somebody said to him, 'Who do you write for? And why do you write?' Derrida just went into hysterics. He said, 'I write to forget. I do not write in order to reread, or to remember what I said. To the contrary, I write in order to not remember what I have in my mind.'

The poor Japanese guys were like, 'What the hell are you talking about?' They ended up practically getting into a fistfight with him, until Derrida finally said"--Lockhart leans back from his chair and shakes his head vehemently--"This interview is over!"

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