You started publishing the zine in 1996? Why did you start Ker-bloom!? Do you remember the first zines you ever read or bought that served as inspiration? What are some of the reasons you have continued to be so active in small press publishing?
In 1994 I was an art school student living in Oakland, California. Two key things happened that year: I started letterpress printing, and I bought a zine for fifty cents from a punk in a BART station on Halloween. I had heard of zines, but I think this was the first one I had ever touched. It was called Small Victory. I still have my copy somewhere. It was a vegan straight edge hardcore zine, and although I wasn’t straight edge at the time, I wrote an essay for it. The BART punk kid and I dated for about a year, during which time I was exposed to: straight edge hardcore, animal liberation philosophies, the concept of cash crops, and the San Francisco political hardcore/punk scene. By 1996 I had been reading zines and letterpress printing for a couple of years and decided to write my own zine. I printed it on a letterpress because for me it was the most accessible publishing technology at the time. Also, I was struck by stories of classical era anarchists who had their own little letterpress setups to print pamphlets. I saw myself in the lineage of anarchist self-publishers as well as punk fanzine producers.
Most zines don’t last more than a half-dozen issues, never mind more than a hundred. You’ve published Ker-bloom! bi-monthly for almost two decades without a single late or missing issue. That’s incredible. Simply stated: how do you do it? How have you overcome possible burn-out? Has there ever been a close call where you almost missed your deadline?
I printed issue 1 in the summer of 1996 with the plan to publish it every other month but then to up it to monthly once I got the hang of it. Very quickly I realized that every other month was a formidable schedule, and that monthly would be a ridiculous attempt even for an overachiever like myself. I have not yet missed an issue or been late. As hard as that is to imagine, I’d say it’s even harder to do it. I have suffered burn-out several times, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve considered quitting. In addition to being a part-time job that I don’t get paid for, my zine also cements my time into two-month cycles. I worked around major planned events like printshop moves and the birth of my son by printing extra issues ahead of time and mailing them on their usual schedule. An unplanned emergency, however, would be another thing altogether. And chances are, someday that will happen.
There seems to be a resurgence in letter press printing, particularly with stationary, invitations, postcards? Is this true from your perspective? According to Wikipedia, Martha Stewart is a primary reason for renewed interest in the art of letterpress…
I have definitely noticed an increase in the popularity of letterpress since I started printing. It seemed like it was the late 90s when Martha Stewart mentioned letterpress wedding invitations, and suddenly letterpress was back on the map. It worked for me at the time because I was able to quit my day job in the early 2000s and print letterpress wedding invitations full-time. Another thing that is different now is of course the internet. More or less gone are the days of zine review magazines like Zine World or Factsheet Five, where you would find out about zines by reading hundreds (thousands?) of zine reviews and sending cash or stamps through the mail to get them. I sell zines (as well as stationery and custom orders) on the internet now, and not only are there way more letterpress printers than when I started printing, they are searchable on the internet.
Can you tell us a bit about your letterpress and the process you employ to make each issue of Ker-bloom? What type of letterpress machine do you use? I’m assuming you set the plates, letter by letter, line by line? Do you have to feed the paper one page at a time?
For the first five or so years of Ker-bloom!, I used a Vandercook SP-15 letterpress in a carriage house behind my former professor’s home. Since then I’ve been printing on a slightly larger Vandercook Model 4, with the exception of the seven years I spent living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There I had a 1909 Chandler & Price Old Style letterpress that I moved four times (without professional help) before giving up the ship and moving back to Berkeley, California. For the most part I hand-set the type, letter by letter, for the first seventeen years, until single parenting a toddler became so time-intensive and energy-draining that I had to switch to polymer plates for the interior text in order to keep my sanity intact. I’m starting to transition back into setting some of the interior by hand now that my son is in school during the day. Polymer plates are a tough habit to break, but they are also an expensive habit to break. I do have to feed the paper in one sheet at a time. I know some people have larger presses with automatic feeds, and, well, good for them.
Ker-bloom!’s content seems to vary deliciously from issue to issue. Looking through a few back issue we have for instance, Issue #22 touches on the Seattle WTO protests, Issue #28 is a “zine love story” between Kelley & Chip, and Issue #102 recounts the travails of buying and fixing a derelict house. How far in advance do you plan out what you’re going to write about?
Some years I have had a surplus of zine ideas and have had the topics planned out a year ahead of time. Other years I struggle with finding anything I feel is worthy to write about, and I don’t even know until I sit down to type. There have been several zines that I didn’t know how I would finish when I started. I would leave the ending out of my draft and then literally compose it on the composing stick, while setting the type.
Ker-bloom! is a fascinating model for a perzine. It’s a very intimate read in that you really feel pulled into the world of the author, yet there is little biographical info contained. There is an interesting balance between disclosure and privacy. What is your perspective on discussing personal aspects of your life with complete strangers?
I had been printing my zine for about three years before I wrote about anything I would say qualifies as intimately personal. When I realized that I didn’t die of shame from the endeavor, I continued to delve into difficult personal territories; readers during those years witnessed my processing and healing from past traumas right there on the pages. I’ve also written my way through heartbreak more times than I would care to admit. I became so used to revealing my personal life that it was hard for me to understand other people’s sense of privacy. Handling other people’s stories when they intersect with mine is a topic I’ve struggled with for many years. I’ve even written zines about writing zines about people! I can’t say I’ve come to many conclusions about the matter. Who owns a story that multiple people experience together? Am I ever allowed to write about an experience with someone? What if I change the names? Are disgruntled past subjects righteous in their indignation, or is it more about their insecurity behind not being able to control how a story is recorded? Does writing something critical or negative set me up for retaliation? Does it render me undatable? As you can see, I still struggle with this question.
In many ways the act of zine-making is manifestly political. How have your own personal politics and sense of community evolved through making Ker-bloom!
I guess what hasn’t changed is that I’m still an anarchist. I’ve had a lot of personal experiences that have tempered my idealistic views on community of many years ago. Community looks a certain way when you’re thick as thieves with other social misfits your own age; it feels pretty different after twenty years of heartbreaks, sell-outs, unbridgeable conflicts, age-outs, and death. I think that’s one of the weaknesses of monogenerational youth subculture. During my zine’s 100th issue party in Oakland, California (the birthplace of Ker-bloom!) I invited people to request any issue for me to read aloud. The crowd overwhelmingly picked issue #1, and I was compelled to rant the manifesto I wrote when I was in my early 20s. (Imagine if you had to read aloud a manifesto you wrote in your early 20s!) I felt myself go pink with embarrassment when I realized how majorly I was into The Struggle! I ended up increasing my dramatic rendition just so I could cope. It was funny, though. We all got a pretty good laugh. Yeah, wow, I was all about The Struggle back then. STRUGGLE!!!
Now that its teen years are almost behind it, where do you see Ker-bloom! going from here?
I’m still always of two minds about continuing my zine. Sometimes I think I’ll just do it until death, illness, injury, incarceration, or printshop eviction prevents it. Other times I wonder if I’m saying anything of value. My zine has a pretty strong and loyal following, but sometimes I’m not sure if my time would be better spent doing something else, or writing something else. One time I announced the impending finale of my zine, and then when the time came I just couldn’t end it. There’s something I’m still getting out of this process, even if right now it’s hiding its meaning from me. Yet another heartbreak to get through, maybe some more traveling if I can scrape the money together, years of parenting yet to document, and pretty soon the middle-age saga of my body slowly falling apart, the way that bodies fall apart eventually. I would love to have more subscribers, sustaining the work that I’m already doing. I would also like for my decades of experience with this life history project to bear fruit in the form of grants to fund other adventures for my dream vacation zines. And maybe another falling-in-love zine. It would be nice to write about that again someday.
Ker-bloom! is a life history letterpress printed in installments. artnoose started printing Ker-bloom! letterpress zine in 1996 in a carriage house behind a former professor’s Bay Area Victorian home. They have since then used two other presses in several different locations to keep the zine going every other month. You can learn more about Ker-bloom! here, and order copies here.