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Without The "Maga"

Zine wonder Jackson Smith

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I had never met Jackson Smith, yet there I sat in a dusty rocker in a friend's backyard trying to conjure him from details. Built to Spill concerts, everyday epiphanies, fiction about dying and living--an identity bound in construction paper and plain silver staples. But these were not books, they were "zines," a progressive literary form that marries introspection, politics, poetry, storytelling and anything else deemed worthy by, well, anyone.

"What is a zine? (like magazine without the maga)," Portland zine guru and one of Smith's heroes Alex Wrekk asks with rhetorical pluck. "A zine is an independently created publication containing anything you want it to--personal experiences and stories, political ideologies, music related writing, gardening tips, fiction, travel stories, comics, photography or anything you like." Smith's zines fit the description, and from political treatises to journaling to evocative poetry, his pages tell a much deeper story than you'd expect from a 17-year-old high school senior.

So I decided to meet with him, this Jackson Smith. And though I've been writing practically my whole life and have eight years on the kid, I was worried about what he would think. Would he see me as some kind of sell-out? A J.Crew catalog subscriber lacking originality and guts almost as much as an indie rock haircut? But there he was, wearing a tie-dye guitar T-shirt and an expression of sleepy-eyed benignity. Maybe all teenagers wear that expression, but something about Smith was immediately and palpably good. He looked like the kind of guy who would pick up litter and give away his seat on a crowded bus. But these rosy projections came less from his appearance than the promise of his craft.

From the first five minutes of conversation it was clear that Jackson Smith is one of the few idealists putting his money where his mouth is, whatever the root of his passion.

"I used to be in this crappy punk band called the Suburban outsiders," he told me, expounding on the connection between punk music and zine writing. It made sense, as both are sort of acceptably subversive, the kind of rebellious art that lets young minds believe they are revolutionary--and sometimes they are.

Sitting with Smith at the Flying M's coloring table, I thought back to my own high school days and all the times my friends and I drank too much coffee and talked about changing the world. Most of us have interesting jobs and some crazy stories, but what ever happened to those wild, beautiful dreams of progress? Such dreams are alive and well in Smith and his friends, ingénues who have spent the last few years learning how to "communicate."

"Everyone has the potential to communicate something about who they are and how they feel about the world. That's what a zine is, communication, like writing in a journal--you forget the rules of what good writing is to allow emotions and feelings to come out," Smith said.

Before he had ever printed and distributed his innermost musings, Smith wrote a poem about hating poetry. It was his first attempt at "writing," and it left him uninspired. He dabbled a little here and there but wasn't that interested until a friend put Kerouac's On the Road in his hand.

"That book is crazy," he said. "I don't know if it influenced me as far as wanting to write, but it changed the way I read. When I read before it was detached, and with Kerouac, I felt like I was there. And I wanted to write like that--not just whatever came to mind, but what other people could relate to and use to understand themselves."

In addition to their artistic value and somewhat egoistic underpinnings, zines can also be tools for self-awareness and acceptance, according to Smith. He talked a lot about "the process," a way of exploring his own mind and emotions through free writing, sharing and reflecting.

"You do it yourself. You put it together and make 100 copies and sell them for a couple dollars or give them away. You never make a profit and hardly ever break even, but it's more about networking with the community of people who write--a form of communication, feedback and discussion," Smith said. He explained that given the inherent nature of zines, they don't often reach a large audience, but the rewards come in the few people who do respond. "It's cool when you get somebody else really excited about it whether they just like the work or want to participate or even start their own zine," he said. "I see a lot of teenagers not really doing much, and zines are something that can open them up to different possibilities."

For Smith, one of the most valuable possibilities has been political activism. He admitted that most of his earlier writings were either poetry or first person observation, and though his new style contains both elements, the narrative is much more focused. In the third of Smith's Negative Space series, he and other young authors like Matt Denney, Amy Garrett, Brandon Bilbao and Emma Onslaught whisper and shout their takes on world issues like slaughter in the Sudan, the war on Iraq, urban pirates, domestic oppression and kissing your best friend in the sixth grade.

The pieces vary a lot in length, tone and even skill with language, but the common thread is raw honesty. In addition to the loveliness of the words and the heart-warming concept of adolescents with a cause (beyond tallying the number of times Steve-O entices stinging insects to ravage his backside) is the fact that they offer the yin and the yang, the positive and the negative. Next to poems about love are suicide notes, and anti-Bush sentiments are followed by narratives with titles like "Anybody but Kerry." To witness this kind of informed thoughtfulness in a generation I had all but lost hope for was inspiring. It made me realize how much I miss writing just to write and wonder how I might accomplish something great in "the process."

"The teen years are a rough time in life. It's hard to figure out how to be. Doing this helps me understand myself, my world and my place in it," Smith said. "But better zines give you something back, and I keep doing this in the hope that someone will read and realize they can do it too."

To further immerse yourself in the world of zines, check out the event Jackson Smith helped bring to Boise on Wednesday, October 13 at 7 p.m. at the Log Cabin Literary Center, 801 S. Capitol Blvd. The event is a zine/book/video tour out of Portland called Cocoon Road Trip and the cost is $4 for Log Cabin members and $6 for non-members. For more information, visit www.microcosmpublishing.com.

To get in touch with Jackson or submit work, send mail to Loophole Distribution, PO Box 8266, Boise, ID 83707-3266 or e-mail : negativespacezine@yahoo.com. To check out Jackson's latest zines on the web, visit : www.geocites.com/loopholedistro.