SF Stories: Michelle Tea

Pub date October 16, 2012

46TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL When I was about 21, living with my parents outside Boston, I started making zines. I sent my first one, Bitch Queen, to Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, and it wound up getting reviewed in MRR‘s Queer Zine Explosion issue. I hadn’t even known there was a queer zine explosion happening, but my little P.O. box was soon stuffed with zines from zinesters wanting to trade issues, and with enough dollar bills that I could cross the street to the mall and get lunch. It was the first experience I had of being given something for my writing, and, more importantly, finding community with other writers.

Later that year my relationship fizzled and I found myself unexpectedly moving to San Francisco. It felt like I had stepped right into the zines I’d been devouring — not only because the punk-queer scene really embodied the content and aesthetics I’d become obsessed with — torn, cut ‘n’ paste, glue-sticked and Sharpied, riffing on radical feminism, dirty queer sex, anti-racist, anti-sizest and more — but because the people from the actual zines were slamming up against me at the queer clubs I was dancing at!

There was Lynn Breedlove, whose daredevil fucking-shit-up bike messenger adventure story I’d read in Chainsaw. There was Youme, the sweetly, long-haired girl who inked the pervy, graphic novel-zine Get What You Want. There’s Larry Bob from Holy Titclamps, and Matt Wobensmith from Outpunk! I think that woman with the spiral-shaved head in the front row of the poetry reading at the Bearded Lady is Kathy Acker, from the Angry Woman book. Yeah — it is. And I swear I saw those heavily tattooed, psychotically pierced girls over there in a DIY photo spread in some grainy, Xeroxed number.

An obsessive fan my whole life, it took me an awe-filled moment to understand that I had become obsessed with a scene I could actually participate in. Showing up to dance at Junk at The Stud and getting taken home by the girl on the cover of the latest modern-primitive zine was just something that happened when you were living in the center of everything interesting, San Francisco in the 1990s. No more longing for Warhol’s Factory, the heyday of the Mud Club, front row at CBGBs, a room at the Chelsea, London in the 70s, the East Village in the 80s or whatever cultural moment I was upset at time itself for causing me to miss. I had the tremendous feeling of being part of something larger than myself, righteous with activism and wild with sex and art.

I pierced one nipple at Fakir Musafar (wait, the guy from the ReSearch Book???)’s piercing school, where you only had to pay for the jewelry, the piercing, done by a student, was free. Even so, I could only afford a single ring, so I only pierced one nipple, and the ring fell out anyway, while having sex with someone I don’t remember anymore. The San Francisco queer-punk scene in the 90s was adamant in its invitation that anyone could participate. It didn’t matter what you looked like, you were invited to fuck yourself up a little and whammo, you are getting massively laid. Broke? Write about it, steal copies from Kinko’s –look, you’re a publishing magnate! Got a bad attitude? Awesome, you are now mayor of dyketown, go punch someone. Every bit of antisocial behavior punished elsewhere was here politicized and celebrated in the ongoing experiment of how far could everything be pushed. And at it’s heart, the culture was a literary one, with zines its many bibles, its textbooks, its canon.

Michelle Tea is the author of many books, including the 90s classic Valencia and the forthcoming A Mermaid in Chelsea Creek (McSweeney’s). She is the editor of Sister Spit Books, an imprint of City Lights, and the Executive Director of RADAR Productions, which hosts a Polka Dot Cocktail Party with queer studies scholar and curator Jonathan Katz, at a private home, on October 28th. The link: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/282115