Raven Mack makes zines. Back in the mid-1990s, when the only places you could expect to have the internet were colleges and government agencies, zines were the format of choice for do-it-yourself creative expression. Cheap photocopied pamphlets consisting of typed (or even handwritten) thoughts about any and every subject that crossed the creator’s mind–which were sometimes funded by spare cash people scraped together from their hourly labors, and more often funded through the use of “scams” that amounted to outright criminal activity (thankfully none of us ever got caught)–these homemade publications were a form of communication for those without the means or the opportunity to get their words professionally printed. There were a lot of different people making zines in RVA back in the 90s; I was one of them, and Raven Mack was another. I used to find stacks of his zine, The Confederate Mack, for sale in locally-owned bookstores, and bought copies whenever I had the chance. Raven’s writing was unique and sometimes controversial, but it was always entertaining, and his zine was one of the best locally-produced written artifacts of that era.
By the early 2000s, Raven and his family had moved away from RVA and out into the country. Today, he, his wife, and his three daughters live on a rural compound in Fluvanna County–about 15 miles east of Charlottesville–where they raise pigs, chickens, and other livestock. Raven’s still engaged in creative work; he recently released an e-book about the 2012 NFL season called Football Metaphysics For Enlightened Degenerates, and while he retired the Confederate Mack zine several years ago, he’s just started up a new zine project called One Thousand Feathers, of which he literally intends to produce 1000 issues. He’s got a Kickstarter page set up for this project, and those who contribute to its fund get a subscription to the first six issues of the zine. Contributors who put in more than the minimum can also get their hands on some of Raven’s more unique art objects. The most distinctive of these are railroad spikes into which he has carved original haiku. Each haiku is unique to the spike it’s carved into, and for a one-of-a-kind, weighty, and potentially injurious piece of poetic art, the price is really quite reasonable. With these railroad spike haiku–which he calls spyku–appearing in an art show this weekend at the Shala Center in Charlottesville, and the deadline for the One Thousand Feathers kickstarter coming up on Sunday, I figured this would be a perfect time to interview Raven Mack. We talked about growing up in Virginia, print media vs electronic publishing, and the coming technological apocalypse, among other subjects. As always, Raven had a lot of unconventional insight to offer.
How do you think being born and raised in Virginia has influenced your writing and other creative works over the years? Does living out in the country have a particular effect on your work these days?
I guess I am the product of where I grew up, which even more specific than Virginia is Southside Virginia, which is sort of the abandoned orphan section of Virginia, similar to Southwest Virginia except we have no mountains. But it fits because it’s a trash part of the state, and I am born from trash people. I enjoy living in the country because I can have stinky ass pigs and goats and chickens and broke down cars and jukeboxes beside the chest freezer on my front porch and nobody can say anything; though even where I live, which is allegedly rural as fuck, I have had complaints from the law-abiding, God-fearing assholes who live in proximity. It affects my work because I’m connected to that, though even when I lived in cities or couches or whatever, I tend to see the beauty in the grime, and the disgusting nature of the shiny. Not sure why that is.
What draws you to write poetry in haiku form? How did you get into it and how long have you been writing haiku?
When I first found Asian literature, I fell in love with the old school poetry – so simple yet complicated. Eventually, old Chinese poetry, specifically T’ang Dynasty, became my jam, so to speak. But I also dig the regimen of haiku, which would be a certain number of characters in Japanese. I prefer the strict 5-7-5 syllable structure in English, as to me, finding the freedom within the confines is sort of the point. Free form poetry, which mostly is what American poetry is, seems to be masturbatory nonsense to me, and has little practical use to somebody digging a trench or wiring a jobsite. Free form poetry is sort of like extreme fetish porn in the digital age – people who like it go so deeply and far into it to explore how wacky they can get with that one little aspect of it, that it loses meaning for the larger populace, and when most people see it, it freaks them out.
Explain the alternate haiku form that you invented, known as gambleraku. What got you into using this form instead of the standard haiku form?
Forgive my brief sounding like a pretentious asshole, but I’m way into the rhythm of words. And to further the pretentious asshole aspect of this, I have done a good amount of rhyme writing over the years–aka I am sorry to say I am a white rapper, with all apologies to MC Serch as I have never sexed black chicks at the Latin Quarter in 1987, thus I am probably not validated as legitimate. But anyways, I dig the rhythm of words, and I was getting bored with the rhythm of the 5-7-5 syllable structure, so one time while I was wandering around Las Vegas ignoring work obligations for some thing I had been sent out for, I started writing 7-7-7 syllable lines as haiku. Being it was triple 7s, and I was in Vegas, calling them gambleraku made sense. Also (here we go again), haiku’s 5-7-5 is traditionally the first verse of a multi-verse form of renga poetry where the second verse goes 7-7 in syllables on two lines, called tanka. So gambleraku is sort of its own thing to give me a different rhythm to fuck around with, but also sort of based off the larger form of renga poetry that haiku was born from.
What gave you the idea to carve haiku into railroad spikes? And how’d you come up with a pile of otherwise-unoccupied railroad spikes to carve onto, anyway?
I hate writers and people who talk about writing, and I would prefer any day of my life to be surrounded by 8 scummy ass laborers than 8 pretentious ass writers. So making writing more like hard work, where I’m putting haiku into steel and might catch my beard on fire, I dig that. It seems more real to me, and really that’s all any of us are trying to do on this fucking Earth is finding something real. I’ve always loved walking railroad tracks–as a high ass teenager, as a drunken college kid, as an adult, always. I always will. A million songs have tried to explain what that’s all about but it’s still nothing that’s ever been scratched at right. There’s something about the trains and railroad lines and the path they physically cut through our modern society as well as they psychically cut through our American culture. The spikes are wild-harvested by me during my walks. They are not government certified as such, but they are organic as fuck. The haiku I put on them I write in a little notebook I keep in my truck. Once a haiku is put into a railroad spike, I mark it out the book, and that haiku is done. It only exists on that spike.
There’s also a history of railroad spikes being used in Southern hoodoo magic as protection devices for land or people, being they are so strongly charged with work energy. That can’t be explained either, but you can feel that aspect to the haiku spikes. Only thing I do to clean them is wipe them down with vinegar, to keep them organic and wild and raw as fuck. They will get your hands dirty, and I am very proud to have thrown into the whole “the pen is mightier than the sword” argument a form of writing that you can literally stab people with.
Tell us about One Thousand Feathers. What’s the overall plan for this project? What do contributors to your Kickstarter get in return for their dollars?
My father died at 47 from massive stroke, probably related to hard living his life. His father died at 46 in similar fashion. I’m about to turn 40 in the next couple months, and it’s really only been in the past two or three years that I literally thought I would live beyond the age of 47. As a thirty-something “writer” of some sort, people will tell you that you are young and have plenty of time as a writer; but when you are certain you will die in your mid-40s, at 35, you’ve used up a majority of your life. It’s taken me a lot of work, a lot of recalibrating my laser beam Viking energy and natural-born freebird Southernism, to envision living longer than 45. But I also don’t give a fuck about traditional publishing at this point, as traditional everything is a pain in the ass. Fuck the internet, fuck sending stories off to publishers or agents to have them poke around and want me to be more like Daniel Woodrell or whoever the latest rural noir flavor of the year is. So One Thousand Feathers will be one thousand zines I do from this point forward. I’ve already done the first two, and plan on doing 998 before I die. Once I’ve done that thousandth one, then the full One Thousand Feathers of the Southside Virginia Raven will have been displayed, and I’ll blast off into space or disappear into a cave or something.
I initially was asking for $500 to cover the first five issues, because I honestly didn’t think anybody would give me a dollar, and it takes about $100 to do each issue in the way I’m going to do them. Again, it’s raw as fuck so anybody who expects glossy images or something beautiful in the traditional sense of beauty will be disappointed. But it’s real. I’ve already gotten support through the robot machines for the first thirteen issues, and if I get more, that’s amazing. Honestly, I’m shocked at what I’ve gotten already.
You recently published your first e-book, Football Metaphysics For Enlightened Degenerates. How did this project turn out? Any plans to return to e-book publishing anytime soon?
That was a fun book and pretty amazing actually. Like most of what I do, on the surface it’s about the NFL, but really it’s about everything but the NFL. There are passages of that book that I know if people read it outside the context of some NFL book, it’d be their favorite shit ever. It did cool. I made enough money off doing it to pay my electric bill two months in a row. And I’m talking big summertime electric bills where we were running the air conditioner. The internet has moved away from real content to endless photo streams to artificially trump up page views, and I’m about content. I could give a fuck if I put 20,000 words on one page, whereas most places will shorten that down and split it up amongst a bunch. This first e-book was a way to do what I wanted to do and would’ve done anyways, most likely on a website somewhere, in a digital form that might help me pay my electric bill two months in a row. Ultimately, I hope these One Thousand Feathers physical zines will be cobbled back together under different themes into a bizarre catalog of e-books as well, but who knows if I’ll actually do that.
In this modern era where a lot of publishing is moving in the digital direction, why’d you decide to follow up your e-book with a return to print-only publications?
Because there’s only so much battery life once the power goes out. And the power will go out, eventually, both in a smaller sense of a storm knocking trees across the power line, but also in the larger sense that the way we are living can not be maintained. An actual piece of paper can sit on the floorboard of your car or on the peach crate in the bathroom or in a drawer. And the batteries never run out on it, no matter how long the power is out.
You’ve been making print zines since long before the internet was available on a widespread basis. What do you feel like the role of zines in the internet era is? Are zines still as relevant as they were before the internet?
To me, zines are analog blogs, and two entirely different things. I guess zines still have relevancy – my 13-year-old daughter just did her first one, but honestly when I go to places that have zines or look at other people’s zines, most of them suck. So if I was to say, “Yes, they are very relevant,” somebody might read that and then see some shitty anarcho-freight train zine that stretches about one good idea of content into 12 sparse pages of masturbatory crap, and think I’m a fool for saying zines are relevant. They are a tool, and tools are only as good as those who use them. Anybody can smash a hammer against a nailhead, but how many are gonna be able to keep up with a framing crew on a jobsite?
Oddly enough, blogs are becoming as irrelevant as zines to many, as the idea of having fleshed out ideas in word form is quickly being replaced by memes. I think that’s natural, as the easier it is to acquire a tool, the easier it is to use it in abrupt and not-very-well-planned ways.
In light of your experience with websites, blogs, and other internet-based publishing over the past decade and a half, how do you feel about publishing on the internet these days?
I think it’s kind of crappy. Mostly it seems like a million people self-promoting amongst themselves, and none of them really have anything new to say. I guess that’s the basic thinking behind post-modernism, is that everything’s already been done, so you can’t do anything new. So I guess the next step is to undo all the things that have been done wrong, to “unfuck the world” as one meme goes. And even though the internet is a giant crap factory when it comes to content, when you get into the things Anonymous is doing or how you can circumvent government restrictions through the deep web, I feel it’s still an incredibly great place.
A big conflict is ownership, so in regular internet, people are always building their name or “personal brand” or whatever the fuck. And I sort of do that through the Rojonekku Word Fighting Arts school. But that’s a real thing I operate with kids, so it’s not like just saying shit online to own. And also I don’t care about ownership so much. I have ideas and put them into word rhythms, and I’m good at it. If someone wants to share that without paying me, shit man, that’s pretty cool. I want my ideas to spread beyond my coins. And at the same time, with that whole “everything’s already been done” thinking, they’re not really “my” ideas, even if they popped up in my head. Can I own my own thoughts? Does that even make sense to assign ownership to thoughts? And usually when legal ownership of a creative endeavor comes into being, the person who actually created the endeavor has signed partial ownership of that thing over to a larger entity who controls the distribution of the original idea. To me, that’s kinda fucked up too. This is why self-publishing in the digital age, as well as sharing ideas freely through shady internet undergrounds, is all really exciting to me. So even though on the surface, it looks like bullshit, we have the tools in the toolbox to tear apart bullshit in all sorts of wild, new ways.
Aside from the continuation of the One Thousand Feathers zine, what other projects do you expect to be working on in the near future? And what’s going on with your zine archive?
This guy at VCU has been talking to me about putting all my zine output from the past twenty years in VCU’s Special Collections–which will happen, along with whatever else I do. There’s going to be a process of digitizing all that stuff to go through first, which might mean old stuff I did shows up as e-books, or maybe not. I hate looking back at something I did before as my prime, or a great time for whatever it is I do. My best year is always going to this year. I am going to write better, write more, fuck better, fuck more, live better, live more – this year. Not twenty years ago, not three years ago, and not fifteen years from now. This year is my best year. I’m doing the railroad spikes, and actually matting up some of my junkyard photography for people, and digging out these old crazy beerbox haiku wall-hangings I did a few years back for a potential show, and all that is happening now. The great thing about that is when next year gets here, it’ll still be this year when I wake up. If tomorrow is going to be your excuse to be better, every day you wake up, it’s still tomorrow. If yesterday was your best day in your mind, any day you wake up, you’re further away from yesterday than ever. I am doing my thing this year. Right now it involves writing, it involves doing what I guess would be called art. It’s all personal exploration though. There’s worlds inside I don’t know enough about, and honestly the external world gets too much in the way a lot of days. I feel like the key to our collective future is somewhere inside those explorations, for all of us, and not just continually seeking more and more outside stuffs to attach meaning to. The human brain is, as far as I have seen, as endless and fucked up as space itself. I ain’t got no spaceship to go out that way, so I might as well explore the endless fucked up beauty I possess in the ways I can.
See Raven Mack’s railroad spike haiku and photography, along with art by his wife Suzanna Stone, his daughters Gypsy and Phoenix McMillian, and work by several other Virginia artists, on Friday December 7 from 5:30-8:30 PM and Saturday December 8 from 9 AM-4 PM, at the Shala Center, located at 313 Second St SE in Charlottesville. For more info, click here.
The One Thousand Feathers Kickstarter deadline is Sunday, December 9 at 9 PM. To learn more about this project, click here.
Visit Raven Mack online at his personal site, rojonekku.com, or his football-related group blog, armchairlinebacker.com. [Full disclosure: I also write for Armchair Linebacker, at least when I can find the time–which hasn’t been happening lately.]