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Tyee Books

Writing Queer Histories for a Wider World

Veteran Vancouver publisher Nancy Pollak reflects on the state of LGBT media today. Third in a series highlighting great BC indie magazines.

By Tyler Morgenstern 24 Aug 2012 | Sad Mag

Tyler Morgenstern is a Vancouver-based writer, activist, and agitator. His own writing (which can be found on his blog, Man Descending) focuses on the points of intersection between ethics, radical politics, art, and technology. He has contributed to Sad Mag, where this article first appeared, Art Threat, Rabble.ca, The Mark, The Huffington Post, and The Toronto Star. He also sits on the steering committee for Media Democracy Days Vancouver and is a shameless Tweeter (@Man_Descending).

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Nancy Pollak on the 'big difference between journaling and talking to yourself, and publishing and talking to a wider world.' Photo by Brandon Gaukel.

[Editor's note: You're reading the latest installment of The Tyee series Best of BC's Indie Magazines. Today's excerpt comes from the fledgling Sad Mag, which recently published its tenth issue. Check out the sidebar to learn more about where to find this visually stunning art mag.]

"There's a lot more cock than cunt. You know? 'There's a lot more cock than cunt' would be a way of putting it."

That, in a nutshell, is what Nancy Pollak makes of the state of queer media in Vancouver today. I laugh, maybe a bit uncomfortably, probably giving myself away as green. There's a pause. Pollak cracks a smile and laughs along with me. The moment passes and we settle back into easy conversation.

We've spent the morning together, wandering around and through the history of local LGBT publishing, unpacking the question of how we tell, create, and circulate stories that chart the queer experience; how the printed word, hung in constellation with passionate communities and political bravery, might change the voices we hear and how we hear them.

A long-time member of Vancouver's feminist and lesbian publishing community, and now an instructor of Women's Studies at Langara College, Pollak knows all too well that certain narratives, particularly those of women, are often left out of textbook queer histories. That's why she's spent most of her professional life trying to write them back into visibility.

Almost immediately after moving to Vancouver from Ontario in 1978 (she claims she stayed for the salmon), Pollak began working with Press Gang Printers and Publishers, a radical feminist print shop that operated out of a "cavernous, productive, creative, wonderful" warehouse space on Powell Street.

From its founding in the early '70s until its dissolution in 2002, Press Gang was the heartbeat of queer women's publishing in Vancouver. An explicitly anti-sexist, anti-racist, and always eclectic organization, it found stories worth telling in places that most people wouldn't even bother to look.

For everyone, a paper

Press Gang gave voice, through prose, poetry and narrative, to the experiences of women, lesbians and feminists at the leading edge of the liberation years. Counted among the collective's collaborators are artists and writers the likes of Daphne Marlatt, Ivan E. Coyote, and Persimmon Blackbridge, many of who remain active in the community today.

Pollak worked at the Powell Street space full time for five years, taking home a meagre $85 dollars a week in wages (the collective had talked her up from her original offer of $65). For young writers in Vancouver today, such pay is the stuff of rent-due nightmares, but Pollak is quick to reassure me that, at the time, it was plenty livable. "I don't remember thinking, 'Oh god, cat food for dinner again.' It was fine. You could live on nothing -- many of us did, and cultivated ourselves as activists, as artists, as cultural workers."

After leaving her post at Press Gang, Pollak, quite by accident, found work in 1987 with Kinesis, Vancouver's feminist, lesbian, anti-colonialist, anti-sexist newspaper, published by Vancouver Status of Women. She recalls walking into the office to submit an ad to the paper's events section, and being invited to join in on a retreat to Saturna Island. "I was in the market for new friends, so I went on that retreat. And I got the newspaper bug."

Kinesis, like Press Gang, had emerged in the early 1970s, when newspapers were, in Pollak's words, "bursting up like mushrooms among all of those liberation movements, whether it was gay liberation, women's liberation, civil rights, Aboriginal people; it would be a newspaper in no time at all."

This is especially true of Vancouver's queer activism scene. Nineteen sixty-four had seen the founding of Canada's first homophile organization, the Association for Social Knowledge, and its associated paper, the aptly-named ASK Newsletter. Nine years later, the Vancouver chapter of the Saskatoon-based Gay Alliance Toward Equity began publishing Gay Tide, a magazine that soon earned a reputation for its radical queer and anti-capitalist politics. By 1985, the newsletter of the Vancouver Gay Community Center (now Qmunity) had become structurally independent and established itself as Angles. A critical, politically engaged, and often-controversial paper, Angles more-or-less steadily remained in print until 1998, when the editorial collective, faced with a number of commercial pressures and new competitors, disbanded.

All the while, Vancouverites had access to a number of magazines and papers published well beyond city limits, including long-running activist magazine The Body Politic, based in Toronto. Eventually, Vancouver's current gay and lesbian biweekly, Xtra!, joined the mix. Xtra! had spun out of the original Body Politic editorial collective when it was incorporated in 1975 under the non-profit enterprise, Pink Triangle Press. By the mid-1990s, the paper had established itself on the west coast under the Xtra! West banner.

Inflaming by informing

As a women’s paper, though, Kinesis was different. It opened up questions of queer sexuality and identity from a feminist perspective at a time when female and lesbian voices were often marginalized in the city's gay community. Beyond this, it had what Pollak calls "a particular history, a real journalistic sensibility" that other liberation papers tended to lack.

"People had things to say! A lot of [what other papers printed] was opinion, and there's no problem with that. It wasn't really news focused, and didn't really get what journalism was about." As she puts it, Kinesis printed stories that would "inflame because they were informing, not inflaming because you were inflamed." It was a paper for news and features, rather than opinion and commentary. It embodied, in every sense, its ambition to track down news about women that’s not in the dailies.

Pollak pulls out an old, yellowed, slightly curled-at-the-edges copy of Kinesis and takes me through it, story by story: "An issue about violence against women, an issue about midwifery, news stories, an obituary about an amazing woman, news about a health centre, pay equity in the Hospital Employees' Union, another story about violence against women, a story about prisons -- the penitentiary for women in Kingston, which was constantly scandalous, awful, awful. A coalition about AIDS and disabilities, then a whole feature section on unlearning racism."

It's extensive coverage, to be sure; the kind of coverage we can mostly only wish for from most of today's papers. There's international news, arts and culture, debates about the constitution and the Meech Lake Accord. This isn't just what was happening around town. This is news -- hard-hitting news -- for women, lesbians, and queers, by women, lesbians, and queers; reports from the front lines.

When I ask if Kinesis ever took flak for this dense and sometimes-controversial content, Pollak reaffirms the spirit of the paper. "Why would we get in trouble for doing that? It was totally in the air. Indeed, people cancelled their subscriptions, but we never talked about at Kinesis whether we would do it or not. It was a no-brainer that we would publish it."

Even AIDS, painted in broad strokes by the mainstream press as an exclusively gay male story, was taken up early by Kinesis and explored as an issue that weighed heavily on the community, writ large.

Kinesis, like Press Gang, operated on collective grounds, and was supported almost entirely by enthusiastic volunteer workers. Philosophically, it was a structure underpinned by a real belief in participatory democracy, committed to opening new lateral and horizontal spaces of hearing, learning, and voice.

Of course, Pollak is well aware that even in the best meaning of collectives, privilege will always rear its head, a reality to which Kinesis was never immune. "The collective was predominantly white," she says. "People who are used to speaking, speak. People who are used to being heard get heard."

Even so, the practice of collective publishing, for Pollak, allows us to think larger and imagine beyond ourselves. "Embodying things, by that I mean, being with other people in rooms or in streets" carries with it "that difficult magic that happens when you're in a room with people and you don't know what's happening." Love for the written and printed word notwithstanding, "We shouldn't ask our disembodied media to do the work of our bodies." The intimate negotiation between author and text, while invigorating, is no substitute for those shaky spaces of tension and opportunity that emerge when we experience one another as more than the sum of our words.

The long and short of it? "Make sure you don't spend all your time up your own asshole. There is a big difference between journaling and talking to yourself, and publishing and talking to a wider world."

The queer story

Even though I still bristle at the thought of braving Vancouver on $85 per week, I flirt with a strange nostalgia as we talk. I'm wading happily through fond memories of a history that I never experienced.

In an amazing feat of chronological acrobatics, I find myself looking from an adopted past into my native future, and I'm a bit dismayed at what I see; perhaps more importantly, at what I don't. But this isn't meant to be another woeful declaration on the death of "real" journalism.

Instead, maybe it's a plea for a type of storytelling my generation lacks, for the embodied, fragile work that happens between people before it happens between the writer and the page; that uncertain process of always making, unmaking, and remaking in the hopes of finding a fuller sense of meaning. For those out to tell queer stories, in particular, this seems to me of paramount importance.

Pollak mentions that in publishing, there's a lot of "delayed gratification. It's very intangible for a long time, and then suddenly there’s a product, right? And then it's obsolete. And then you start working in the virtual realm of creating once again." This is a relatively nuts-and-bolts statement, an accurate reflection of the delightful frustration that is part and parcel of working with text. But there's a bigger message to be mined here.

In early June 2011, The Grid TO published an essay by Paul Aguierre-Livingston entitled "Dawn of a New Gay." The argument is rife with troubling denials of privilege, but the take away message is as follows: "My parents have never actually heard me say the words 'I am gay' because I don't need to and it really doesn't matter because they love me all the same... I'm not fighting the good fight. It was never mine to fight." In essence: the queer story is over because my queer story is over.

The fight to find and share queer voices has always been one of delayed gratification, marked as much by moral shaming and silence as by tremendous victory and celebration. It parallels the kinetics of the liberation movement: decades of intangible organizing, discussing, and collaborating, punctuated by fleeting moments of elation that seem obsolete as quickly as they flare up. In Aguierre-Livingston's world, the point at which we see that flare is the point at which the story ends.

Pollak, though, knows that this simply isn't how storytelling -- good storytelling -- goes. Once that moment fades, you "start working in the virtual realm of creating once again."

The moment the story comes off the press, new searches begin, new narratives emerge, new questions demand answers, and new struggles begin fighting for visibility. In that instant, just when the case seems closed, you start all over.

"You talk to people who scare you, and talk to people you don't like. You stretch."  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality

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