Get on Yer Soapbox

Almost a month ago now, my colleague Mary Tasillo and I had a lovely experience at The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library, where we ran a workshop for a class of writing students at a local university. They’ve spent the semester creating collections of their own prose and poetry, and with Mary’s assistance they each arranged them into pages for a book they’ll self-publish. Together, she and I helped them design and print book covers on a letterpress machine, then taught them to bind the books by hand using binder’s thread and a needle. At the binding station I set up, I first showed them how to use a bone folding tool to crease their pages in half, and to my surprise the mere act of folding the pages made their faces light up with pleasure, as the size and shape of the finished product became suddenly apparent. It’s a book! 

Mary Tasillo and Charlene Kwon started The Soapbox in a Philadelphia row house five years ago because they wanted to create a place where people from diverse backgrounds could enjoy their large collection of zines, chapbooks, and artists’ books for free, and have inexpensive access to printing equipment and materials that you ordinarily need to be in art school to use. The founders’ belief in the power of sharing and community is part and parcel of zine publishing. In fact, we like to say that zines are an inherently democratic medium, because they’re so inexpensive and easy to make: Anyone can publish one, whether that person thinks of themselves as a writer or an artist or not. Everyone has a story, after all. Everyone has a right to tell it.

Independent publishing is democratic in another sense, too: It’s a time-honored and ideal method for disseminating information, whether it’s political or personal in nature (or both). It doesn’t matter who you are—how young or inexperienced, how old or ignored, how marginalized or unimportant you’ve been made to feel. Zines are there for you, alongside blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and all the other new digital media. They’re all ways to become your own publisher and create your own audience, which is incredibly gratifying and empowering—really, it’s power-giving—for someone with something to say.

Our workshop took place on election day, in the afternoon. I’d voted that morning, and Mary went to the local polling place to vote after the workshop ended. I don’t know if all the students we worked with that day were old enough to vote, but while we were working together they looked at Facebook and Instagram on their phones and were excited to see pictures of their friends wearing “I voted” badges. There was a buzz in the studio that day, with this huge thing pending and the powerfully positive energy of creation in the air. It happened that all of the students, as well as their professor, and Mary and I too—everyone working together in that room, talking and sharing and wondering how things would turn out—were women. You can make of that fact what you will, but it feels worth mentioning.

In the days since the election results came in, things in this country have felt a lot different than they did that afternoon in our studio. Tensions are high, and many Americans are scared, hurt, and discouraged—though not, seemingly, those who have felt emboldened to act on their bias and hatred with intimidation and abuse. It feels impossible to know what will happen next, and what we’ll be called upon to do about it. But I do know that I’ll be using my first amendment right to express myself and to stand up to hateful words and actions, and I strongly encourage others to do the same. So go ahead and get on your soapbox. The time to speak up is now.

Cycletherapy, that's what they wanna give me!

Blurbing books is kind of a weird practice. I mean, it's actually a very good idea, and I for one always notice who's been quoted on the back (and sometimes front) of a book I'm considering reading. But I can tell you, as someone who's written two books and was asked by her publisher to do so, seeking these blurbs out is a bit scary and awkward (though probably most people are very kind about it, as the writers I asked were). Famous and sought-after writers probably get asked to write blurbs often, which must be something of a nuisance. Lucky for me I'm more infamous than famous, and am sought after by only a highly select few!

Elly Blue, the author of several excellent books on biking, asked me to read and consider writing a blurb for her new one, an anthology she edited called Cycletherapy: Grief and Healing on Two Wheels, put out this month by Microcosm Publishing. Elly is also the co-owner of Microcosm, which published my two books, White Elephants and Slip of the Tongue. Microcosm has been knocking it out of the park lately, if I may say so. My hubby Joe and I tabled for them at the Small Press Expo last weekend, and their books were a huge hit there. (Joe is also a Microcosm author.) SPX is comics-oriented, and Microcosm does indeed have some comics titles on its roster (the Henry & Glenn series being the best known and, frankly, awesomest), but other types of books were flying off our temporary shelves, too: The DIY ones by Raleigh Briggs; the more overtly political and wonderfully-titled The CIA Makes Science Fiction Unexciting; the silly-yet-totally-serious Manspressions, which makes fun of machismo using made-up words and charming illustrations; and yeah, my own pocket-sized memoir, White Elephants.

Cycletherapy was too new to make it to the expo, but it's out now, and I've got my copy here. It's a beautiful book. Highlights include Elly's own essay, in which she writes about carting her partner around on a bamboo bike trailer on days when he's too sick to bike himself; a short piece by Sara Tretter that touches on the awkwardness of burgeoning teenage sexuality; Julie Brooks' chronicle of working through the grief she experienced after being struck by a car while riding her bike (she's okay now); and Gretchen Lair's fine illustration of her beloved bike Ariel, who was stolen days after their last trip to the beach together. She quotes The Tempest: "My quaint Ariel ... Our revels are now ended."

Lookit all their bike books!

I'm not a biker, not since childhood, really. I've always felt a little too chicken to get around the city on a bike, like so many of my friends do. (They've all been doored by parked cars or clipped by moving ones. Plus, I love to plug in and listen to music while I'm out and about, which isn't such a hot idea when you're riding a bike in traffic.) But I am a big walker. I walk everywhere because I don't drive a car, and never have: My mode of transportation is my own two legs, plus whatever SEPTA conveyance I feel like catching. But I walk for pleasure and exercise and for my mental health, too. A lot of what the folks in this anthology (all but one of them women) wrote about biking resonated with me because I use long walks the same way, to keep my mind and body healthy and strong. Some days I push through physical discomfort or miserable heat and humidity to get to that feeling that my physical self isn't creaky and cranky and tired, but like a well-oiled machine, taking me where I need to go. Going out in the evening is different, like gliding through dark water, thoughtful and quiet. I prefer to walk through city neighborhoods because I like to look at buildings and people, and peer down little alleyways and see grass growing up between the cracks in the concrete. But I live just up the street from the Schuylkill River, which has a paved path for walkers and bikers that runs alongside it all the way into downtown Philly from a little town 25 miles from here called Oaks. Sometimes I'll walk down to the trail and stay on it till I reach the part of the river where the rowers practice, past their charming boathouses and the sleek boats themselves, sluicing through the water. I move my body to get my head feeling right and it always helps, at least a little, which is more or less what the stories in this book are about. It's good to be reminded how useful that can be.