When Madonna sang "Express Yourself" some years ago, in The Time Before Baby Lourdes, she probably didn't have any literary endeavors in mind. But the brassy intention of the song could make, nonetheless, an apt anthem for the writers of 'zines. Brash, idiosyncratic and irrepressible, 'zines could be thought of as diaries without the lock and key, the creative outpourings of a single — usually underaged — mind, or a group of like-minded individuals. And unlike diaries or journals, whose privacy is normally sacrosanct, 'zines are studiously photocopied and distributed — a singularly confident expression of me-ism.
Add only a little more forethought — and more labor hours at Kinko's — and you've got guerrilla publishing, with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of little pamphlets filled with prose, poetry, musings, often embellished by grainy snapshots and clip art. Fellow 'zine-scenesters may snatch these up like cookies, hungry voyeurs into the inner machinations of a writer who may be a lot like them.
In the case of Burlington-based Secrets Between Girls, going public has a distinct meaning for its subgroup of writers: "young queer women." Most of them are significantly under the cut-off age of 30, but in fact, says founder Cathy Resmer, "we don't card people or anything." The 24-year-old poet runs all things literary at the Rhombus Gallery and launched SBG two years ago with fellow poet, Trinity College student Kerry Slora. The first booklet, in fact, contained only the poetry of those two women, an outgrowth of a reading they'd done together at Rhombus.
Since then the number of contributors has grown, and the submissions include poetry, prose, short fiction and artwork from women whose expressions, while individual, have been sifted through the sometimes dark personal-as-political filter unique to lesbians. There are poignant coming-out stories, lessons in self-discovery, angst, anger, love and lust — no small percentage of the writing is erotica.
Witness "Meow Mix," by Morgan Sheets, in the September 1998 issue:
Curiosity killed the cat,
but I'm more than a dumb pussy.
What would you do if I reached
out to you,
and licked your kitty fur;
stroked you with my paws,
and nuzzled your neck with my cold, wet nose?
Would you purr,
moan your meow out through clenched teeth,
shudder and shake your tail?
Would you give me a saucer of milk,
and invite me into your lap?
Or would you scoot me through the door
like a stray?
Award me a diamond-studded collar on a leash,
or at least a Saturday invitation for tuna.
We could meet in the alley,
and let our cat calls ring through the city streets.
Or, I could curl up to you each night
And rest my head
At your feet.
Most of the writing in Secrets Between Girls is impassioned, deeply personal, raw, vital — and what your ninth-grade English teacher might say is not exactly proper. After all, there is often little attention to the conventions of standard English.
But the writing style is, says Resmer, consistent with a generation accustomed to the informal, rule-free and often abbreviated prose of electronic communication. "A lot of the contributors are familiar with 'zine culture and internet email culture," she says. "There's a kind of shorthand that occurs — 'cuz' for because, 'n' for and — and the disappearance of capital letters and apostrophes." Semantically, too, the work is different. "A lot of these women haven't had a lot of training — they're young, rough writers.”
Consider this excerpt from Jess Field's "reoccurring paradise," in the February 2000 issue:
i hold your head in my
you to trust
me more n' more til
til i can hold your
the water smoothes
through your hair
n’ hits the white
porcelain clawfoot tub
laden with black
n' i continue
leading the water
along your pale
til it runs grey
but her hair remains
black like my hands
black like tonight
black like those pupils of yours
that I can trust my reflection in
Roll over, e.e. cummings; heads up, bell hooks: Add to a freestyle writing aesthetic the topical inclinations of "young queer women" and you've got a mini-genre that stands proud — and couldn't care less about literary criticism.
With four issues under its belt, Secrets Between Girls is practically an institution, as 'zines go. After the first issue, it has been "published" under the aegis of Burlington's Minimal Press, a loose collective founded by Marc Awodey. True to its name, Minimal Press is an example of guerrilla publishing at its most gloriously anarchic — pretty much anyone can hobble together a collection of writings and put the Minimal Press name on it. The advantage of this informal imprimatur is acceptance within the growing "underground" network of readers, venues and Poetry Vending Machines, which has stretched as far as New York City.
“By putting Minimal Press on it, it has some recognition elsewhere," says Resmer. "If you think you have something worth publishing, you can link it to this larger movement ... other poets distribute my work and I distribute theirs. We're all in it together.”
The first two issues of SBG were tiny chapbooks, which of course are not exactly new; at least since the Beats, the dogeared, self-released booklets have been common currency for poets, most of whom find it near impossible to get "legitimate" publishing deals in this country.
The third and fourth issues of SBG grew in dimension and visual embellishment — playbill-sized, stapled books with colored-paper covers. The combination of photos and found or clip art is mostly the handiwork of Hannah Hafter, a South Burlington High School senior who interned for SBG and puts out her own occasional 'zine, titled Wallflower Rebellion.
Hafter anticipates continuing her writing after she goes to Mount Holyoke next year — the Massachusetts college has its own queer 'zine, called Flip of the Tongue. "I really value independent publishing, it's the best and most appropriate way to get what you want to say out," she says. "Everyone has access to it with Xerox at Kinko's. And there aren't any real attachments to it in terms of money or trying to please people. I think it's important to take charge of your own work.”
She agrees with Resmer's description of the unique young, queer 'zine style. "Part of what makes it unique is, all the older people have had all this training. Secrets Between Girls is a lot more raw and I like that. We have typos and that's not the biggest deal to us," Hafter says. "We'd like to have more time to edit, but it's the way it came out of whoever wrote it. That has as much to do with independent publishing as with age.”
Hafter's own "No More Secrets" is one of the most wrenchingly personal contributions to SBG, one that echoes in ways large and small throughout the 'zine's four issues. Her essay describes coming out, on the occasion of her 16th birthday, to her mother. The first paragraph alone palpitates with a young girl's fear — and determination — as she braces for the reaction. Censorship? Disappointment? Denial? Understanding? Compassion? Call it confessional lit, but it's compelling, direct, honest and as gripping as any psychological thriller. Anyone who has ever tasted the bitter anticipation of parental disapproval will be as anxious as Hafter was to hear her mother's response.
Knowing that every writer in Secrets Between Girls has probably had similar experiences, similar inner turmoil, gives this 'zine an edge; it is simultaneously crushingly vulnerable and amazingly tough. As if coming out as a writer wasn't scary enough.