by Jason Michel
Lynn Alexander is an indomitable force in the Underground Literature Scene. She is described by the Literary Underground Wiki as “an American writer, artist, poet, and independent producer of publications and web content” but she is so much more than this. She is a defiantly independent individual who, amazingly in this day & age of apathy, actually retains a spark of the Radical Press. She produces one of the best fiction & poetry ‘zines out there – the mighty FULL OF CROW , which was an inspiration for the ‘zine that you’re reading now, as well as being a regular contributor to the non-fiction political opinion ‘zine ON THE WING.
Ladies & gents, a bit of respect. Please.
Come & caw with us!
Q1: What does the word “Underground” mean to you.
This is a great question, an important question- not because it needs to be defined for others but because it needs to be defined as a state of mind that is subjective and individual and can be considered as a culture and context where individualism- unified by community but not stifled by it- can be more fully realized. “Underground” is a distinction that people argue about in terms of what is/what isn’t. I think the problem with those arguments is that “underground” is ideally a state of mind where we avoid defining ourselves with rules about who is “in”. When you get into that, you are missing the point about the need to have an alternative realm without barriers that keep people out, or relegate their art to the “unworthy” pile. When you get into deciding who is worthy or valid of a label, you are cultivating the same mindset as the person who tells you that you need to have a particular education or income level or background to be considered “valid” as an artist.
Underground to me is a mindset of empowerment, ownership of our art, taking charge of our playground and pushing back when labels and criteria are shoved in our faces.
In some very real and practical ways, the “underground” is also about fear, and historically the term is also associated with the need to hide, both overt and floating threats, and paranoia. I think we need to acknowledge that this aspect is real, and still significant. Some scoff and say “There is no longer any need for the underground, nobody is afraid anymore” or “We have the web, we don’t need to have alternatives”. That is bullshit, as long as we have societies where people have to watch what they say and worry about what their employers or neighbors think, some of our own will feel vulnerable as artists.
In the face of that, we owe it to one another to provide our community and support, and recognition of this fear without minimizing it.
So to me, the “underground” is a more of a mindset of rejecting barriers and rules, and a sense of community unified by the desire to support each other in the face of mainstream pressure that aims to keep us fearful of non-conformity. Maybe we are stapling zines in our bathrooms, maybe we are high income suburbanites. Maybe our rebellion is intermittent, maybe we are doing the best we can. It isn’t a competition, there isn’t a prize for “most subversive”. It is about the way you either internalize the bullshit of power or struggle to push back.
What I hope we share is the sense that alternatives are necessary, and vital. Anyone can pull up a chair and get into the conversation. You can’t buy your way in or buy entitlement with your loans, you have to put something out there. Underground is about a different kind of currency.
Q2: Now, that last sentence is interesting. I remember reading somewhere that the only real form of rebellion was to create an alternative currency. Some people might say that now is the perfect time for it. I vote for fallen leaves. But then I live next to a wood.
Bonkers baldy & general good egg Grant Morrison once said: “For every McDonald’s you blow up, “they” will build two. Instead of slapping a wad of Semtex between the Happy Meals and the plastic tray, work your way up through the ranks, take over the board of Directors and turn the company into an international laughing stock.”
How far could we take this in terms of literature?
Well if you asked me that years ago I would have had a different answer, and I spent years on higher education and suburban pursuits because of that answer. I used to believe (with misgivings) in becoming a part of systems to affect change, believing that to be more effective. It came up in my decision to join the Green Party way back, because at the time I wondered if it would be better to try to work on influencing the major structures already in place as opposed to working in the margins. One day I came to a place where only alternatives made sense, because it sounded like bullshit, like a way to justify my fear of being tossed out of my comfort zones.
So why alternative? Why join the Greens? Why do anything different? Why not succumb to cynicism?
Because there is another alternative to the one you described above about either attacking McDonalds or spending your life trying to get on their board.
The third option is to deny the domination and invincibility of McDonalds as inevitable and create the kind of place that we wish McDonalds could be, create an alternative and devote our energy not to learning their language and ways but to the cause of championing our own.
We can take this and apply it to many situations, literature like you mentioned. We can accept that ‘Twilight” is the McDonalds of literature and we can accept that independent, innovative, experimental work is dead. We can lament and ask ourselves why we bother…Or- we can work on dragging a table to the marketplace with the work that we want to read.
I am not against people that find success and marketability in their work, but literature is not a “product” to me. It’s worth is not necessarily validated by the market, any more than the “Billions served” slogan at McDonalds means “best food”. There are other factors- convenience- that make things sell. Does that mean it is the best? I don’t want to eat it.
Q3: Do you see internet as a tool & a medium that has allowed or will allow new forms & ways of expression to grow. Or, are we still just rehashing the same old, same old as our culture becomes both homogenized & fragmented?
What exotic islands of thought do you think this fragmentation could lead us to?
For all of our complaining, the internet is a tool and should be seen that way- a tool that helps us transcend geography, and in many cases makes it possible for information to be spread with little cost. I think we have new opportunities to collaborate and I am excited about the possibilities of multi-media expression. We can do video, audio, upload all kinds of things and share them in seconds.
One criticism is that it has become too easy, that it creates a glut of content to wade through with a level of mediocrity unmitigated by risk assessment as far as resource investment is concerned. The thinking is that when we don’t have to pay to produce books, we don’t care about quality. Some argue that the internet has therefore created an explosion of “junk lit”.
I disagree with that, because I think we gain far more from ease of entry than we lose. I like that the internet makes art accessible. I would rather have people everywhere sharing their work, as much as possible. I also think “the market” can fail us, it isn’t necessarily a filter of “quality”.
We should ask ourselves why it makes us so uncomfortable, the ease of web publishing. Is it because we think there is more competition? Do we worry about getting lost in it? We are lost anyway. Most of us will live obscure, die obscure, but the internet makes this fact seem more palatable. We feel more connection, and that isn’t so bad.
Q4: Okay, we’ve talked about the future let’s delve into the past …
Which little gems were the ones that inspired you to put virtual pen to virtual paper?
I am inspired by people all the time, usually regular people who work hard and have little but seem to be able to give freely. I was inspired by many people that I met in small press and even before that- the zine world. I am inspired by people who cut and fold zines with babies on their laps and dinner on the stove. I’m inspired by people who work two jobs, and write poems during their lunch breaks. I know that I should be rattling off a list of rebellious giants, but the people I marvel at are the people who stay with this work even when it becomes difficult, as it invariably does. I am inspired by regular people that just plug away at projects and don’t quit. You either feel something for this work, or you don’t. I love the people who do.
Q5: I think that “Full Of Crow” is a great title & should be turned into an everyday expression. If someone said, “That bloody girl’s just full of crow”, what would it mean?
That would be a lucky girl, an amazing girl, with a boldness of spirit, and a sense of defiance… humble and ordinary until you learn about her- and then you can’t get her out of your head, like a favorite song.
The crow of mythology and literature is often an animal of intelligence and perseverance, revealed to be rather remarkable.
Q6: A little bird (or was it a big bad crow) told me that you’re a big fan of comics, graphic novels, manga, bande dessinéé et al. Over here in France they are known as the 9th art.
Being a fan of the funny papers myself, I was wondering why the “Anglo-Saxon” world still has a snobbery in terms arts & literature in general?
Like most people- I have a lot to get to on my shelf, particularly with graphic novels. I don’t claim any expertise and a lot of what I like is pretty obscure. I draw a few comics for fun, most recently Mesda 67, which is set in a post-apocalyptic world where most humans are gone. The survivors decide that the world is in pretty bad shape, that humanity should just die off with this generation. They make the women infertile, the Mesda hide a girl, and so it goes.
Is it cliché? Sure. Am I influenced by “Tank Girl”? Probably. But the funny thing about the comic and manga world is that we love our heroes, we love our pet themes (for me, doom, end of the world) we have a high tolerance for the same tales told over and over. We don’t apologize.
My dad used to read comic books when I was little, and those were my bedtime stories, my favorite was Dazzler. My mother would try to read us literature, which was “good parenting” in her mind. To many people, comics are junk. Many don’t know enough about comics, manga, graphic novels, etc. to know the wide range of styles and artistry.
Americans are funny about their snobbery. We will make all of these distinctions about art and literature and fashion and food, and yet we spend our money on bullshit. It seems more about what we are “supposed” to appreciate as opposed to where we actually spend our cash.
The snobbery seems to be about accessibility, and the associations with juvenilia. I go to my share of conventions and events and in fact, my daughter and I are going to present a panel at one based on her study of violent archetypes in manga. I’m not ashamed of these interests, I encourage them.
Q7: & what about your opinion of the Hollywoodification of some of our blessed stories/icons.
Which has been your favourite adaptation?
As far as the ‘Hollywoodification” is concerned, well, that is what we do as a culture. We make film versions of everything.
Now some say that this-paradoxically- keeps comics alive, with sequels milking the more popular characters, rendering them “franchises”. I don’t even feel moved to talk about those anymore.
I know many disagree, but I liked “V For Vendetta”. I just like those kinds of movies anyway. I dig Matsuyama’s adaptations like “Death Note”, and plan to check out “Gantz”.
Q8: It seems that turbulent times tend to breathe new life into “art” in all its forms. & the times certainly seem to be becoming turbulent. The global financial crisis, mass protests over here in Europe, drooling extreme right wingers across the globe increasing in power & popularity, anxiety over unemployment & climate change, Miley Cyrus …
In which forms of expression do you see (if any) this happening, or is it yet to come?
Perhaps we cope with stressors through creative expression, looking for places of refuge? We also look for places to lay blame and often seek confrontation through art.
I don’t know that art needs to be political, I wouldn’t argue for that burden or responsibility, but I think the artist has an opportunity to communicate in meaningful ways that inform dialogue, increase understanding. An example comes to mind of the way that photographs of impoverished children had an impact that descriptions didn’t seem to elicit. Sometimes our empathy is cultivated by a novel or poem, and it inspires us to take action. Art has this power and it can be used for change.
I think the success of entertainment that combines politics with humor is indicative of one direction, humor and satire can capture our attention and make information more accessible. So humor- in fiction, for example- might be a way that we can both vent and decompress and also lampoon.
Q9: Zizek once famously said in response to the Media’s millenarian obsession (that)”it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”
How true do you feel this is?
First, I think that we could argue about the notion of “modest radical change”. Modest? I don’t think we are enamored with the thought of our children inheriting a world of shit, we are not consciously choosing our demise by avoiding simple solutions. We are choosing this path by default. We are contributing to it as an aggregate of behaviors, entitlement manifest. The behaviors are small, but the mentality is pervasive. We are self absorbed jackasses.
The ‘doom” scenarios are at least partly based on the rapid acceleration of environmental degradation in relation to the implementation of needed changes.
If you look at a textbook from thirty years ago, you might see the human population at four billion. That number is going to double in my lifetime. This is not a small thing, and this is about more than economic models. Where will food be grown? We can see changes in the planet, in temperature, ecosystems, crises across the board. And we are in denial about so much of it, from Peak Oil to the decline in bumblebees.
I won’t go off on everything wrong with the world, but I think it is pretty easy to wrap our heads around the notion that humans will not survive humans. Many of us are cynical because we look around and we don’t see change, we don’t see the massive intergovernmental cooperation needed, and we see corruption. We accept corruption as the norm, we aren’t surprised by it. We see self interest, corporate interest, we envision a world where the shit will hit the fan and we will not be prepared.
We can’t even get people to recycle plastic bottles, much less ask for their discomfort. But I believe that discomfort will be forced as we reckon with energy, to take just one example.
I know people who want this, who want this day to come, when lifestyles are tipped over and chaos ensues. But it won’t happen like that, in a blaze. It will be a slow boil. That is why we will not take the steps needed.
I think it is worth pointing out that change can exist alongside capitalism, we can pressure the market. We can influence things as consumers. Wal Mart, thought to be pure evil to many, announced changes in their products to reduce packaging, small step, sure. But people can change their habits and the market can respond. Another area we overlook and don’t bother to entertain is the idea of capturing more costs from profit.
Disposal, environmental costs, making corporations account for more of their abuse.
Q9: Your blueberry preserves are the stuff of legends. Talk has reached France. Will you send me a jar?
Absolutely, Jason. Absolutely.
Q10: So, what does the future hold for Full Of Crow & Lynn Alexander? Where to next?
Thank you for asking about Full Of Crow, which has evolved from a website with a few poems and stories into Full Of Crow Press And Distribution, with both web content and printed works. We have grown into an organization, a team, and I am so thankful for the way that it has brought amazing people into my life as friends, collaborators, tribe. We now have a team of editors working on different sections, doing great work, and we will be looking to add a few people this year as we grow with our print and zine efforts. We will be at a number of small press and independent book fairs in 2011, and will be working on some readings. We are preparing for good things, working on the foundation, laying the groundwork right now.
As for me personally, well, I am in transition. I am struggling to get back to myself, doing the things that are important to me. I don’t regret many of the choices that I made because they were right for me at the time, but somewhere in the mix of things I lost my way in trying to meet the expectations of others. Life is so short and we have to find the courage to do our thing. We have to reconcile responsibility with passion, passion with vocation.
I lost a lot this year, walked away from a lot, but on the other hand that can make us take pause and push us to find some answers. I have some things that I need to settle, and I am doing that. I am moving in April to the west coast and I am stoked about the prospect. I will be among friends who love me as I am and I need that. I need to reconnect.
What’s next is work, projects and writing and ideas and art and events and learning to find and trust the whispers.
Thank you, Lynn & looking forward to the blueberry jam!