The image is a photo of the French printing workshop, Atelier Populaire. Formed by students and faculty who took over their art school's lithography studio, the workshop made posters in service of the May 1968 revolutionary movement.
Mutual Aid Printing & The Pandemic
1. There's nowhere to go, is there?
2. We didn't create spaces where we could read, write, and work together before the pandemic hit. We didn't put journals and small presses through the radical transformation needed to make them cease being partners to white supremacist capital. Where can the jobless writer get paid for some poems, a story, an essay? Hardly anywhere. Not anyplace that doesn't launder corporate or state money or collaborate with organizations that do. I can't think of a single place to send my writing or to recommend to friends. The leftist journals that should be our comrades are their own nightmare.
3. The old world of publishing, with its corporate publishing houses, graduate programs, literary agents middleman distributors, and bookstores, reveals itself to be more putrid and hostile to working people with each passing day of the pandemic. The antagonism between the consumer of books and (a) the retail worker laid off without benefits and pay or forced to risk illness to get a paycheck from the bookshop, (b) the warehouse worker who must risk illness to pack the consumer's books, and (c) the postal worker or delivery driver who must also risk illness to make the book appear at the consumer's door within days of their order. Books have always been a murderous business, and it is only more apparent now with literary bosses having attained the state-sanctioned power to murder their workers and with the consumers of books at a cold distance where this violence is less apparent than ever.
4. But the newer online face of publishing is just as deadly.
5. There's, what? Instagram, twitter, and facebook—that's what passes for distribution networks now, that's how jobs and money and other forms of material support are handed out among literary people who think they're doing something different than traditional publishing. But it's all built on the same old hierarchies of race, gender, class, and dis/ability; they've been lifted from the streets and walls that literally segregate us and simply grafted onto these virtual spaces to bring them to order. The editors who have work assignments (money) to give out can't see the masses of Black and brown writers who need that work any more easily online than in the real world where they fear and avoid us. There's a reason why the leftist poetry scene online is so white, why the only writers of color among them are the ones who have received the proper discipline and credentials from white institutions to hold their hands.
6. I couldn't take it anymore—being on social media and seeing my work be consistently, almost willfully, misappropriated and misunderstood by that online scene made me feel crazy—and I was already severely mentally ill.
7. I left because I couldn't accept the bargain anymore. I made a definite break in May 2020, and only just made a tentative step back in March 2021 to raise the money my friends and I needed to escape being houseless during the pandemic. I'm about to drop out and delete my profile again.
8. There was the time that I was developing the concept of the anti-press, as a form of mutual aid anti-publishing from below; an impossible act of creation by dispossessed people who nevertheless would manage to organize just as, being myself a sex working trans woman of color, I knew others like me had practiced before. I wrote about it over a period of months; and all that time the writers (liberal in their actions, leftist by their aesthetic choices) who read my work and praised it began to use my language. They took up the notion of the anti-press and applied it to their new projects, which mirrored the old presses in their tendency to publish the same poets as always: those that were educated, that were already published, that looked just like them. The first problem was that they themselves were academics; they could imagine nothing outside the academy, no collective challenge to the university. Realizing that they had reproduced the nightmare of publishing, these same leftists declared the anti-press a failure—they'd missed the point completely. Of course, it was a failure. Even in the right hands, the anti-press was always going to falter (and be reborn), like the vision of abolition and collective care that animates it. However, unlike an academic exercise, an attempt at collective care that fails still generates something: every dollar, every resource transferred from those with more to those in need staves off deaths that had been planned for the vulnerable. The failure of abolition also generates new myths of/for resistance—mass escape attempts, even ones with martyrs, point to possible futures we could not have imagined otherwise. Of course, that's not what they were trying to do.
9. When I was young, and we had come over the border for the last time. My mom worked, but it wasn't enough. We shared an apartment with my aunt's family. So my mom and my aunt baked traditional Mexican cakes in that small kitchen, with us kids clamoring for their attention. They sold the cakes in the neighborhood, probably not for much since everyone lived on food stamps. It was an on and off thing, but it helped them get by. The border region has an unemployment rate that's twice the state average. It's been that way for generations, a permanent condition of job scarcity that gives power to the bosses and landowners and guts any attempts at organized resistance. But necessity inspires our people to evade the law—they raise money in ways the government never learns about, they remember other ways of relating to one another than the brutal competition the capitalist economy presses us into. ways of cooperating and sharing what little each has so that as few of us as possible are sent to the early death that was planned for us. And yet, even at a young age I knew that sex workers on the street were beyond kinship for women like my mother and aunt who, like many others, already dreamed of finding comfort by running into the arms of the enemy in one way or another.
10. The Booklet Series was an escape attempt at small scale. It approached the concept of the anti-press without, I think, ever having reached that zenith,* but I think we created something together that provided material assistance we each needed while breaking with publishing by operating outside of recognition (having received no press) and literally outside the law (in the informal economy). Most of the writers in the Booklet Series had never been published before; for nearly all of the two dozen writers this was the closest thing they'd had to a first book publication; most have not had a chance to be paid for their writing in the year or two since or even published anything at all despite, of course, continuing their writing practices. Compare that to the roster of Nightboat's recent We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics—a product typical of leftist online publishing whose contributors overlap with the scene that essentially tokenized me. The anthology's contributors had all published before. something like half had books out already, they've been publishing during the year during which Nightboat converted an Amazon Literary Partnership grant + their texts into the hardcover book titled We Want It All, and they will surely continue to publish afterwards. Participating in the Booklet Series didn't bring anyone closer to publishing—rather, it gestured towards a form of printing as mutual aid while helping us pay our rent.
11. (*Though it was based on collaboration, the Booklet Series was never collectively owned. Its new iteration, River Furnace, does have that collectivity and perhaps the potential for mass participation by dispossessed transmisogyny-affected people, but as far as I've seen it isn't organized around the provision of mutual aid to those in need to the extent of its predecessor. I couldn't stay with River Furnace for more than a few months because working with them took up my time without helping me survive—sex work, in contrast, has provided a steady paycheck along with the possibility of organizing with other trans workers. So that's where I've labored since.)
12. The leftist writers that agreed with my critiques before have moved on. With their new presses and journals, they are now closer than ever to the capitalist mode of literary production. Grieveland and Woe Eroa have their roots in that scene which dreamed of a proletarian poetry and didn't heed the warnings that such a poetry, lacking as it did a critique of white supremacy and the university, was doomed to repeat the same scheme as traditional publishing. To borrow their language, it's a grift. The greatest example of which is the so-called Poets Union.
13. "How are poets gonna start a union when you're all scabs?" asked poet Isobel Bess.
14. She's right. To participate in publishing is necessarily to become a scab for one or another corporate monster. In the case of Poets Union, taking a glance at the list of members on their page reveals that many of them, at least a third, have worked for journals, presses, or schools that took money directly from the Amazon Literary Partnership. If we were to also count those who have collaborated with or worked under poets who took money from Amazon, that would probably be the majority of their members. And if we were to ask how many members of the union have taken money from publishers or schools that got funding in exchange for polishing (let's imagine with their very tongues, as with the image of the proverbial bootlicker) the public image of nefarious nonprofits, corporate backers, or the state itself—that would make nearly every last person in the union a scab.
15. That's not to blame the poets themselves. Many I'm sure had no idea they'd been enlisted to work for Amazon, that for years they've been its mascots, made to shout from press releases and newspaper articles that Amazon isn't that bad actually—or in the words of a 2016 Lambda Literary statement quoted in a bit of Seattle Gay Scene stenography, that you "share the Amazon Literary Partnership’s obsession with empowering writers to create, publish, learn, teach, experiment, and thrive." What praise!
16. What is concerning is the recent Poets Union statement of solidarity with Amazon workers attempting to unionize in Alabama—that it was deeply dishonest of them to elide their collective and, in some cases, ongoing complicity. First, they should have admitted the extent of their members' history of publishing in partnership with Amazon and their supporting role in the company's public relations campaigns, analyzed the significance of their role especially in light of Amazon's latest crimes against workers, and then listed the actions they are taking to make repairs and are planning to end not only their own support for Amazon but also that of other poets and writers.
17. One wonders what a union composed of poets who labored outside of publishing would be capable of without those rotten linkages to capital. But for precisely the reasons that they (Poets backed by corporate funding) are able to gather—the word organize would be too generous—we, at the margins of the margins, forced to beg for money one day and fight off our evictions and food stamp shut offs the next, are unable to. And there will be no hope of cooperation until these Poets cross the picket line to meet us.
18 It's not a coincidence that when I asked R.M. Haines, the apparent founder of Poets Union whose critique of publishing (one that refuses to engage with white supremacy) forms the group's ideological framework, if he could help me as a houseless poet who didn't see a place for herself in the Union because it lacked a mutual aid component—he blocked me without responding. All because I had sent him a mildly critical tweet with a link to my gofundme. That's despite my work (along with Isobel's) having clearly influenced the Union's language and positions: the subheading "Against the prestige economy" echoes my Essays Against Publishing, as does the phrase "anti-capitalist publishing", and the focus on the Poetry Foundation (a target of mine and Isobel's earlier writings and research). Haines's own essay "Poets Should Be Socialists" (a white careerist's gentle view on anti-capitalist literary production), a foundational text for the Poets Union, cites a twitter thread by a poet who quotes from my work within that thread. But through the way these white poets communicate among one another and exclude (rob) others who are cast out, the influence of my work became invisible. No one one involved with Poets Union reached out to me during the nearly year-long stretch between my disappearance and when I raised my voice in that moment need.
19. I'm making it out of the housing emergency I was in just weeks ago when that happened. I pleaded for help and people who had used and misused my work sent me money. Enough to stay alive, but not enough to be comfortable. I'm too far behind on work with everything that happened; the whole thing of worrying about being evicted for half a year and then having to move at short notice and not having a house for a while.
20. But most trans crowdfunding campaigns don't receive nearly the kind of money I was sent. Looking through #transcrowdfund, it seems like the average person gets a couple hundred dollars, even if the amount they need is in the thousands. A person with few followers, who doesn't have status, gets only a fraction of the funds they ask the public for.
21. The rules for raising funds are similar to those of publishing. Trans people are able to access life saving support by leveraging their looks or their confessional, relatable, palatable creative work to make themselves into someone online. The trans people who get the most extensive, lasting support are the ones who least challenge the oppressive institutions that keep all of us down.
22. If they were to risk as much as their poorer, lesser known counterparts they might lose everything. So they don't.
23. Posting to social media, like (or along with) being published, transforms us from faceless nobodies who couldn't get a dollar sent to cover our unpaid rent into notable, recognizable people whose worth is recognized and protected. (Every person has innate worth, but that of few is recognized by people with money to spend). It makes us part of something, but not a community created through mutual acts of care—there's nothing reciprocal about celebrity worship or idolizing and tokenizing people made exceptional by a rigged lottery system.
24. It should be well understood by now that published trans writers, artists, and public speakers who raise funds for their survival receive much more material aid than other trans people.
25. Publishing doubles as a form of verification. An editor vouches for a writer in the act of giving space to their text in a publication. Editors, publications have the trust of the public for no good reason—they have the education, the money, the time, and the skills to give writers some of the prestige they already possess—they have the resources to create works that have the aura of art.
26. In the language of Walter Benjamin, these editors with their graduate degrees and their funding from nonprofits and corporate sponsors and are heirs to a vile tradition that has created art for the ruling classes for centuries. Just as classical paintings in museums were said to have a unique value as the creations of academic-trained artists, while other cultural products (those of colonized and working people) were held in contempt, outlawed, and destroyed. Editors now do the same, they uphold power. We must understand, as Benjamin implores us, that the "cultural treasures" of the institutions—the university, the presses, and publishing houses—are the spoils of class warfare that the victors (the wealthy, the powerful, and their soldiers) carry in a triumphal procession away from the people they've beaten down. So it isn't a contradiction for the violence of publishing to produce such exquisite books with gorgeous covers or for the owner of the iconic Strand Bookstore in New York to engage in union-busting as her workers organize to save their lives during the pandemic.
27. Editors decide that one writer has something that another doesn't. One is a genius, the other is disposable. They have internalized the neoliberal message of artificial scarcity that puts a separation between writer and reader—a published writer is special. A published writer is a person that knows something the reader does not precisely because the reader will likely never get a chance to publish or even do their own writing.
"Anyone can write a poem. To be a poet, though—to have your work read in an age not exactly teeming with famous verse stylists, Amanda Gorman aside—you have to submit. Every year, poets around the country submit their work for dozens of prizes and contests, hoping for a shot at prestige, visibility, maybe eventually an academic job offer." (Dorany Pineda, Los Angeles Times)
28. "[T]his state of being envied is what constitutes glamour," says John Berger. Envy is the natural result of racist, capitalist production, with its massive inequality and deprivation, and the editor is wholly complicit as a curator for the oppressor.
29. "Art is a sign of affluence; it belongs to the good life; it is part of the furnishing which the world gives to the rich and the beautiful. But a work of art also suggests a cultural authority, a form of dignity, even of wisdom , which is superior to any vulgar material interest; an oil painting belongs to the cultural heritage; it is a reminder of what it means to be a cultivated European." (Berger)
30. Power cloaks itself in art. It uses beauty to cover up atrocities. Amazon donates millions to presses and journals, at the same time it uses every dirty trick imaginable to try to break the unionizing efforts of the workers it forces to piss in bottles, shit in bags, and wreck their bodies.
Berger tells us oil painting was a celebration of private property for the early capitalists. The capture of queer poets and poets of color within institutions both is both a celebration of capital (that it can do anything, even turn the trauma of its victims and their cultures of resistance into commodities) and a form of accumulation itself. The poems may be worthless, but the presence of the poets has real marketing value.
31. George Jackson: "Prestige stands between the masses and a revolt against their class enemy. The aura of magic, glamour, luster, and splendid permanence covers the fascists like a protective layer of fat." Corporations can't generate prestige on their own. Prestige is the legitimacy that institutions gain when they give their crumbs to oppressed people and call it a full meal.
I WILL CULTIVATE A FIELD OF THE MOST SPLENDID FLOWERS
The capitalist production of literature:
(universities, presses, nonprofits)
consume writers, the marginalized variety especially—
this encounter generates prestige, the aura
of cultural treasures plundered
by capital—the corporations,
hedge funds, and state agencies which
pay in exchange
for a good public image—a field
to cover up the bodies of their victims.
33. A common topic of discussion in West Philly this past year: why hasn't Penn burned to the ground yet? It's because the University of Pennsylvania is the largest employer in the city. It doesn't pay taxes but it throws enough crumbs on the floor to stop the riots from reaching its doors. For now.
34. So it's glamour that editors hand down to the chosen few writers who get published.
35. Unknown trans people without publications, without a social media presence, without the right kind of history online end up on the wrong side of glamour; and beauty, glamour, the right aura of worthiness is a prerequisite for accessing resources when anti-racist, non-hierarchical forms of mutual aid don't exist. This system benefits white trans people and punishes Black trans women, in particular.
36. It's more of the same white supremacist capitalist system: we might talking about underground economies, which sometimes aspire to mutual aid (mutual support that goes beyond charity and builds genuine partnerships), that form and reform every few years in online spaces, but all the flow of money and status still follows the same old hierarchies of race, class, gender, ability.
37. I made my way through a few of those communities before on just that: palatable looks and writings that weren't unsparing enough to not be shared around. I was busy enough with surviving, with taking what I could from those online spaces, in spite of the increasing personal toll of their violence, that I couldn't try to build another way of sharing my work with others like me—a way of doing writing, really any form of paid literary production that didn't involve being or becoming a public figure on social media. We're still not there yet.
38. There has to be another way of finding one another; alternative spaces for making the encounters we all need. Books aren't the answer. Those formal things, they require so many resources to assemble (many of which, like the stable housing, graduate degrees, and access to specialized information editors at any small press or publishing house possess, aren't apparent; those resources aren't visible to the reader apart from the aura of respectable design aesthetic publishers arm themselves with).
39. Books are formal encounters arranged by people that have nothing to do with us strictly for their benefit. It will help to regard them as our enemies: the editors, their writers, the books.
40. For example. Carmen Maria Machado takes a writer-in-residence job at Penn; she publishes yet another award-winning book through Graywolf Press (Amazon Literary Grant recipient); and buys a house in West Philly with all that tainted money—at the same time, the federal Justice Department spends months building a case against BLM activist Anthony Smith; he is arrested blocks from Machado's house in late October on false charges; those charges are unrelated to the police killing of Walter Wallace (an event that also takes place blocks from Machado's house) which Anthony rallies against just days before the feds come for him; the timing of his arrest shows that it is intended to suppress Black organizing in Philadelphia; as they attack the protesters who gather to demand justice for Walter Wallace, blocks from Penn and Machado's house and Anthony's eventual arrest, the Philadelphia police deploy weapons and equipment purchased with money donated by the University of Pennsylvania. Anthony is free, for the moment, but he will face trial soon as punishment for organizing for Black lives. Machado continues building her wealth: in a neighborhood where only non-Black people get to do so, a place haunted by acts of police violence that arrive every minute, with a palpable atmosphere of surveillance created by Penn and Drexel's roving private cops, endless rows of cameras and the watchful eyes of white gentrifiers with the local universities.
41. Publishing works by exclusion. A book isn't an exchange; it's the physical manifestation of hierarchies.
42. Now that there are no physical spaces where we can meet, the question: was there ever anywhere for us to be together? At the gay bar, on the dance floor, in the overcrowded apartments of friends, between the porch and the street corner, in those out of the way places detested and policed by people who call the cops.
43. It's maddening having nowhere to go. Maddening having less than a room to yourself. Not even a porch or a fenced yard. Not being able to walk down the street without fear of harassment or being followed.
44. I give myself one thing to do during the course of a day, and that's when the day ends.
45. Yesterday I took a ten minute walk. I did nothing. Avoided work and every other thought I had was about the risk of not being able to pay rent a month from now. The work I'd have to make up. So here I am, trying to prove my worth.
46. What it comes back to is there's no safety net. All I've gotten is a proliferation of gigs in the hope that I can get a new one to come online in time for another to reach its end or be cut off. I have six different sites where I make money and I just lost two and I'm currently trying to get another two or three going.
47. None of those are places where collaboration can take place; not an equal exchange, especially not for sex workers who must assume they'll be kicked off at some point; and must be prepared to lose contact with the sex worker friends and clients they've been talking to on those sites. That reminds me, I need to open up a paper journal and write down a list of my friends' usernames, just in case.
48. Did you know it's against the terms of service for a sex worker to start another twitter page after her profile has been reported and deleted? Even if it was the result of targeted harassment; even if there was no reason for the page to be deleted. Repeat violations of the terms of service can result in a permanent ban from the site.
49. (For many sex workers, social media sites are the workspace. Especially in the time of COVID-19.) But we were talking about writing.
50. It's not as if there was anywhere to go before. It was just less obvious when the readings and workshops were there, and even writers like me who didn't go to those things, who already couldn't go to them or leave the house for much of anything before the pandemic, could pretend that we had options. We could still think that someday we'd be asked to read or teach for a paycheck, if we worked hard enough.
1. It was always a mistake to outsource the printing and distribution of our writing to third parties. It was a shitty thing to do to other workers before the pandemic -- giving our money to bosses we knew would fuck over their workers just to get our books printed and delivered conveniently to readers' doors or sold in their bookstores -- but it's an especially reckless way to move now that those factory floor, warehouse, and retail jobs are where so many workers are at risk of getting sick.
2. A lot of us are still playing that game: trying to get whatever benefit we can out of publishing, no matter who gets hurt along the way. That every press is satisfied with this state of affairs should tell you everything you need to know about whether publishing could ever be reformed -- this is despite in-house printing being a long-standing (if dying) tradition for presses and that experiments in alternative/underground modes of distribution have taken place for centuries (some of which are described in Ludovico's Post-Digital Print).
3. Until we're organized among ourselves and able to back up the workers who print and ship our physical copies, there are other things we can do. We can refuse to continue working as usual. If no longer publishing isn't an option, then we can take printing and distribution into our own hands -- simultaneously building the capacity to effectively publish one another (thereby accessing work, cash, other resources) and to aid the social movements we're involved in, which are also in need of underground methods of printing and distribution.
4. The ideal form of mutual aid print distribution in this moment might be a network with independent cells.
5. For each cell to consist of a group of writers / editors / artists working together in a particular city or area. For each cell to be able to produce print copies and get them into the hands of local readers without needing outside printing or shipping.
6. In practical terms: zines and chapbooks could be printed on ordinary home or office printers, as described in Practical Notes on DIY Publishing, and bound by the members of the cell with a stapler. This form of printing is cheap and doesn't require much labor to produce large numbers of copies -- the zines could be distributed on a free / pay-what-you-can basis.
7. Copies could be left at different locations in the city (given out at protests, left in free boxes, left with libraries and bookshops and coffee shops, dropped off at the houses of friends who would then give copies to other friends, or made available for pick-up at certain porches or local spots listed online. The back covers of the copies could inform readers that the copies are free but that readers able to support further printing can donate at the venmo/cashapp links listed.
8. Perhaps a cell could survive in isolation, but it's more likely to thrive as part of a network: a collective of cells with which it could coordinate, learn from, mutually support, and, crucially, share printing and distribution duties with. So that a cell in Philly would print and drop off at various locations not only zines written by it own local writers, but also, by entering into agreement with a Los Angeles-based cell, could print and distribute works written by the comrades living in LA who would in turn do the same for the Philly writers.
9. The difficulty of coordinating among cells in a network would be a natural frictional force preventing a network from growing too large -- it's hard to imagine any network comprising of more than a handful of cells or over a dozen writers. It's all the more reason for a diversity of overlapping networks to emerge; regional networks, networks of marginalized writers, networks of low-income writers; that could each develop network-wide forms of printing and distributions specifically suited to their needs. A network could raise funds and disburse them through a central committee to support its cells and their writers. A network could function as a writers union and collect dues to fund projects decided on collectively.
10. The fundamental thing is mutual aid: if this doesn't allow people in need to work together in ways that help them survive then it fails, no matter what work it produces. If there is to be such a thing as mutual aid zine distro it has to result in money being paid to writers without demanding burdensome amounts of labor from them. This means low income / unemployed writers should be prioritized; not only that they should be the ones whose work is being printed and distributed, but that they should be the ones leading these efforts. It means printing old or previously published works, writing that's just sitting around and doesn't need anything except a book cover before it can be printed.
11. The covers in the image above are for two zines I'd like to release if I (with the help of other local writers) can get this kind of zine distro going in Philly. ebt poems is an expanded version of a collection I originally published earlier this summer; it's ready to be printed, but it's one of those chapbooks that will never get published and couldn't sell even if I was on social media every day talking about it; like the work of a lot of marginalized writers the only way it can reach readers is through alternative distribution. The other, Archive of an Uprising, is a collection of statements by local groups in the movement for racial justice that I'm trying to put together as a way of keeping these texts alive by contextualizing them and putting them in dialogue with one another; copies of this zine would be free (no payment or donations asked ) and printed as a way of supporting the movement.
12. This kind of effort might not work; but for poor writers with no other options the risks are low. There are hardly any ways to publish our writing; few have access to paid work under this capitalist system that manufactures scarcity even of jobs. At the same time, most of us know someone who has a printer. We can buy 500 sheets of paper (enough to print 50 zines) for less than $10, and enough printer toner to print 300 zines for $30. We know there is a vast unmet need for affordable printed writing in our neighborhoods, especially now that bookstores and libraries are shuttered or facing reduced hours. We can do for ourselves everything that we're supposed to rely on publishers to do, and we can do it in ways that cause less harm to our communities.
Sept 2020 / March 2021