Carissa interviews Katie Haegele

The La-La Theory logoKatie Haegele is the author of nearly a dozen zines, including The La-La Theory, Obsolete, and White Blackbirds. Her writing has appeared in The Utne Reader, Bitch, Adbusters, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among others.

Since we were too far apart to meet for tea, Katie and I got together on our respective computers and discussed linguistics, writing vs. visual art, ad hoc theatre as written by our child selves, and what happens when a universal feeling has no name in your language.

Before we delve into things, here’s a handy guide to the titles we discuss:

The La-La Theory – a zine series about linguistics
Obsolete – an artbook of poems inspired by dead words
White Elephants – an ongoing zine chronicling yard sale adventures
The Mundaneum – a non-fiction subscription series that arrives via post
White Blackbirds – conversations with women who aren’t married and don’t want to be
Man Is the Hero of Geography – a workbook zine, already completed
Word Math – a collection of found poetry

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Carissa Halston: When I tell people about your work, I usually begin by saying, “Katie Haegele, a linguist that I know…” but I realize that might be limiting because you’re more than a linguist. You’re a journalist, a publisher, a zinester, a poet–is there a usual answer that you give when people ask what you do?

Katie Haegele: Oh my gosh. Well, I majored in linguistics as an undergrad and I loved it, but I’m not a linguist. I’m an armchair linguist. I usually tell people that I write creative non-fiction and poems, make zines, and for worky-work writing, I write book reviews and articles for newspapers and magazines. My journalism writing has been about the arts, like profiles of artists and newsy reports on events and projects I think are interesting. I love to write these in the first person when I’m able to and when it’s appropriate–and I often think it’s appropriate, since I think the journalistic convention of entirely removing yourself from a story or interview is awkward and even dishonest.

CH: I think your first person perspective makes your writing that much more engaging, plus it bridges the gap between the heady elements you tackle–like linguistics and deconstructionism (see: the subtitle of the sixth issue of The La-La Theory: Always Already)–and the potentially varied background knowledge of your readers. Is that balance ever difficult to maintain? Do you sometimes want to just write about a topic on a purely academic level?

KH: This is something I think about often. Imagining your audience and figuring out how to talk to them is difficult and very important. When something I’m reading seems to miss the mark, that’s often the reason, I think–the writer either hasn’t trusted their readers’ intelligence and over-explains (stories with multiple endings or conclusions are a real pet peeve of mine, it feels insulting), or s/he wants too much to sound smarty-pants, which can be condescending, boring, or even unclear. When I write zines, I use the first person for a few reasons. I think I’m best at writing that way, mainly because I enjoy it. But in some cases, like when I write about language, it’s also a way for me to signify that I am not an expert and to be friendly to anyone who might end up reading the thing. When I write about a discovery or idea I’m excited about–whether it’s my own idea or someone else’s–it’s because I want others to find it exciting too. If I do it in such a way that I am telling the story of how I learned about a word’s meaning, for instance, or share an insight of my own, I don’t have to consider the reader’s own background knowledge too much. It’s immaterial. If the idea or experience is novel, which I hope it is(!), it will be fresh to any reader, whatever their background. My natural writing voice is a lot like my personality when I talk. I use slang and have a bit of a regional accent that I’m not bothered about erasing, but I love to talk about a range of things, including academic subjects.

CH: It sounds like you’re hitting on all the qualities embodied in a great teacher, or in this case, a great writer (who can also teach). One of those personal-moments-crossed-with-instruction emerged as a pair of essays in issues six and seven [of The La-La Theory], both dealing with words that share a meaning, but have no direct translation in English.  The closest we can get is this definition: “a feeling of longing, homesickness, or sadness over some thing or place that is gone and can’t be recovered.” Are you still exploring these words and looking for people who have cultural attachments to these terms?

The La-La Theory: Always Already cover, art by Jim TierneyKH: Yes! I have continued to write and think about those words in other languages that all mean a kind of nostalgia. The basic reason for that is that I find the feeling elusive. It’s hard for me to put into words, so I keep trying. Also, these past few months I’ve been working on my first book, which is based on a zine series I do called White Elephants, in which I chronicle the yard sales I go to with my mom and the things we find there. I’m turning the four issues of the zine into one cohesive narrative and adding an introductory essay. The topic of nostalgia, particularly for something you maybe can’t remember (or never had) felt pertinent, so I’ve been writing about this in my introduction to the book. And it’s interesting, all along as I found these words (for homesickness, longing, nostalgia) in different languages (kaiho in Finnish, saudade in Portuguese, hiraeth in Welsh) I’ve taken for granted the claim that they have no direct translation into English. But one day when I was struggling to put the feeling itself into words the thought struck me: Maybe it only SEEMS like they don’t translate because they’re so hard to articulate to begin with. Eureka! Then I found this great book called The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym, and she agrees that these words are synonyms. She writes that people the world over not only have this feeling, but seem to share a desire to believe that it is utterly unique. I haven’t read her whole book but the first half is wonderful and deals with these ideas I’m so interested in. I recommend it, partly because her treatment of the subject is poetic and without jargon, though it is an academic work and she’s a scholar at Harvard.

CH: Congratulations on your first book! Books are exciting things.

KH: Thank you! I’m excited about the book, but it has been hard and sometimes scary work. I’d never done a writing project of that length and when I was in the thick of it, day to day, it was hard to sense its wholeness or trust that I was turning it INTO something whole. A month or so ago when I was really in the middle of it, I had an interesting conversation about it with a friend who’s in art school. She told me that when you’re making a painting, it doesn’t look like anything until you’re at least halfway through with it. So you have to go on a kind of faith. I don’t think she used the word faith but that was the sentiment.

CH: That brings us back to the words we use. I think it’s funny that we have a word for nostalgia (a concept that’s easy to explain), but not a word for this lacking feeling, which is not so easily explained. In Always Already, you say that sometimes language is simply inadequate. That made me think of all the times I’ve made words up, or given something a pet name, or called something “that thing” in place of its actual name. Do you think that we name things in order to grant them understanding or to exempt ourselves for our lack of understanding?

KH: I do think language is inadequate. All the ways we try to describe or interact with our experience of being human are limited because we are limited. But we can do some incredible stuff! Making art is sort of like shaking hands with the infinite, maybe, and making up words is beautiful. Language is a tool we use to help us understand our world and by its nature, it’s flexible and creative. It makes me feel excited and warm to think of it.

CH: Making Art: Shaking Hands with the Infinite sounds like a biography title. As long as we’re talking about making things though, let’s talk about Etsy, the lovely community that brought us together. What made you join the site? Were other zine writers welcoming? How much do you think Etsy has contributed to reaching people who wouldn’t have otherwise known about your work?

Interior pages from Obsolete

KH: Oh yeah, Etsy! I love it. That’s how I met you! That was serendipitous, wasn’t it, because that next day we were able to meet in person at the Bluestockings reading. You’ve just said exactly the reason I like Etsy for zines–it’s a way to share my zine writing with people who aren’t a part of the zine community and may not even know what a zine is. Within zine culture, it’s common to do trades rather than sell your work, which is something I’ve really enjoyed doing. It’s dear to me. But attaching a monetary amount to a zine allows people who aren’t participants in that culture to own and read your stuff. It really opens it up. I also think it’s nice that the people at Etsy have included zines, conceptually, with other things that are handmade, as a kind of craft or fine art as opposed to being identified primarily as a form of self-publishing, which has been so maligned. In truth, it’s both.

I can’t remember where I first heard about Etsy. I made a little shop there like four years ago, maybe five, when I didn’t have a digital camera, just a scanner on my printer, and I uploaded some crappy images of my zine covers on a whim, just figured I’d see if I could sell any that way. Before that I’d sold them from my website with a Paypal button. For a while, I didn’t sell much of anything on Etsy. Maybe once a month I’d get an email telling me I had an order and I’d be like, Oh yeah, I have that Etsy shop. Then I got a digital camera as a Christmas gift one year and I had a photo shoot with my zines in jaunty poses all around the apartment, and my sales took off! No idea why this happened when it did, really. I think Etsy just got a lot more popular. I have found the people using Etsy as buyers and sellers to be warm and sweet. I gather it would be considered uncool to leave feedback that wasn’t pretty nice, you know? That’s the feeling I get. And as I say I’ve met friends this way, like you. I also met a pen-pal friend in Russia who is very dear to me. She sent me a beautiful book of children’s poems by Mikhail Yasnov in Russian as a trade for my zines, and that was the beginning of a really lovely friendship.

CH: I love that we met through Etsy. And then we got to meet in person the next day! It was like a happy Internet Holiday. You mentioned that zines are really a form of self-publishing, but also art objects and I think that’s an apt description of your work. You employ a range of media, and each volume is a hybrid of a sort--Obsolete resembles a chapbook, The Mundaneum is more like text-based art (à la Jenny Holzer), The La-La Theory is like a linguistics mixtape. With all these different elements, was it always your intention to create a zine or were there other potential vehicles for these specific ideas?

KH: Ahaha, happy internet holiday, linguistics mixtape, what a great couple of phrases there. This is a nerd celebration for me!

Word Math cover, art by Lesley ReppeteauxI’ll tell you how I came to zines initially. About seven or eight years ago, I got really into making found poems. I used text from Craigslist personal ads, the owner’s manuals to household appliances, the titles of Lifetime TV movies, a boyscout handbook from the 40s, all kinds of things. I was seeing poems everywhere. It was a very creative time for me. I was proud of the poems and wanted to share them, but I didn’t know how. I hadn’t ever tried the submitting-to-lit-journals thing, and anyway, I thought work like this might have some copyright issue I didn’t want to deal with. But since I came of age in the 90s, I knew what zines were, and I also knew there was a yearly zine fest in Philly where I could share a zine if I made one. (Beyond that I had no idea what to do with a book I made or published myself.) So I e-mailed an artist who was a stranger to me but whose work I admire (Lesley Reppeteaux) and asked if she would make a drawing, and she drew this gorgeous cover for me. I took apart a zine I had to figure out how to assemble the pages of mine correctly, and then sewed the binding with a sewing machine, since that’s what the stitched binding on books kind of looked like to me. I brought about 50 copies of my finished collection of poems to the fest in West Philly and that was it, I had unwittingly plugged into this vibrant community of artists and kooks who made things, started bands, painted and drew. I felt welcomed into this group, which was huge for me. It was the beginning of a process of coming to recognize myself as an artist, not just the kid who wrote for the school newspaper in high school and wanted to make writing a profession. Through zines I came of age as an artist, you might say–it’s been a kind of ragtag art school for me.

Anyway, since that first fest I’ve made dozens of different zines and books, and it’s interesting that you ask about other potential vehicles because at this point when I think of an idea for a zine I find it really needs to be a zine and not something else. Visualizing the text on a page and physically constructing the books has become a part of my writing process – when I make zines, that is. I still love to write essays that are disembodied and could be plunked down on any page in any magazine, newspaper or website. Some of my zines work with the medium of the handmade book directly, like one I did called Man Is the Hero of Geography. For that one, I filled in facetious and serious answers in a geography workbook I bought at a yard sale, then photocopied the pages and laid them out as a zine, to replicate the experience of looking at the original book. That one had to be a zine. It wouldn’t really work as anything else. And I venture to say I would never have thought of the idea of the first place if I didn’t have the zine paradigm in my mind.

CH: I was really hoping you’d mention found poetry so I could talk about the reading you did for Fall of Autumn. That’s the only time I’ve been able to hear you read. When we met, your friend read poems from Obsolete in the manner of a spelling bee contestant, which was great since it gave each word its own spotlight, but I’d still love to hear you read. In addition to the zine fests, do you get to do any readings?

KH: Oh my gosh, that Fall of Autumn thing was such a good idea. They invited people to call a number and then leave a recording of themselves doing a reading, then turned it into a little podcast. That was clever. I have done some readings. I’m not especially good at it. I find it difficult to stand in front of a group of people so I don’t seek it out, but I have taken the opportunity when it’s come my way and I just force myself to do it. It’s been good for me. I read on a radio show called Live at the Writers House, which is produced by the public radio station WXPN. A handful of writers read and a musician named Birdie Busch played guitar and sang and her music was really charming. After the show, we talked and she told me that she used to write poems but not as many people read poems as she wanted, so she started putting them to music, like giving medicine with sugar. That still makes me smile. A few months ago, I read at a monthly reading series called Word Exchanges an art gallery called VWVOFFKA here in Philadelphia – I actually read from the introduction to my book, the stuff about nostalgia. I’ve done other readings too, once on a low-frequency radio station operated out of an art gallery as a kind of experiment – that was neat. And just a few months ago I did an interview and readings from my zine White Elephants on her radio show, which is called These Things That People Make. The woman who does that show is an incredible, funny, smart person named Sarah Mangle who I met this fall in Halifax, Nova Scotia while I was doing a zine writer’s residency there.

(Here we took a break to ponder our respective dinner choices. Interviews are hard work.)

CH: We hope you’ve enjoyed intermission. And now we return to Interview Theatre.

KH: That reminds me of my best friend Sarah. When she and I were little, we used to torture her parents by making them sit through what we called “ad lib plays.” I can only imagine how annoying it was. One day her dad got up and went upstairs in the middle of one of them, and we went “It’s not intermission yet!” and without turning around he just went, “I’m intermissing myself.” The word intermission has made me think of that EVERY SINGLE TIME I’ve heard it since then, which has pretty much been my whole life up till now.

CH: Funnily enough, Randolph also subjected his parents to ad lib theatre as a child. There’s probably an internal formula in there that proves why we get along. 

So, tell me about the Nova Scotia residency–it was at the Roberts Street Social Centre, wasn’t it?

Katie's shed-home at the Roberts Street Social Centre in Halifax

KH: Yes. I did a two-week residency at the Roberts Street Social Centre in Halifax, which is a pretty, smallish city of around 300,000 people. It’s on the water, and the town across the bridge, Dartmouth, was old and picturesque too. Both cities have a colonial and Quaker history that’s around as old as Philadelphia’s, and I liked thinking of Nova Scotia as the highest point along the coast my city is a part of–I could feel the psychic connection running through Maine to New York and further south, all the way down, even though the border between our two countries keeps getting more severe. The zine residency goes on all through the warm months and residents live in a lovely little ramshackle shed on the property of the Social Centre, which houses a zine library, a screen-printing studio, and other workspaces. I applied by sending a batch of my zines and a proposal to work on my zine-book, and that’s what I did. I also met a number of interesting people, played Scrabble, read a thousand zines and books in the library, went swimming in the ocean, and weathered a hurricane that knocked out the power in the Centre and the entire surrounding neighborhood–actually, in most of the city and province! It was an adventure, a mini-adventure, since I was well looked after by the kind people who ran the program. Also I had access to their materials, which was cool. I found dozens of sheets of Letraset, which are rub-on transfers of alphabets that I think were used by graphic designers before computers were in common use. They may still be manufactured, I don’t know, but the ones I found were old. They’re gorgeous looking and I used them to outline the shape of an elephant, which became the cover image of White Elephants, issue four.

CH: I never knew the name for that. Letraset. I wonder if people still create names via portmanteau. I feel like it was a very 1960s thing to do. Like if you had a power plant called the Well Spring Company, there was a guy you’d hire to “modernize” your company name and he’d turn it into WELLINGCO or something equally bloodless.

While you were in Nova Scotia, you worked on your zine-book. Is the process of adaptation difficult? Did you find that you wanted to go back and edit the essays individually, or were you mainly working on stitching the existing material together?

KH: You’re so right, these letter sheets were totally 60s. On a related note, I have this big poster on my wall that I bought at a flea market–it’s a classroom teaching poster from 1969–and it lists words that were new to the language then. One group is called “clipped words,” including smog (smoke + fog, of course) and motel (motor + hotel). Neat.

Interior front cover of White Elephants, issue threeDuring my residency, I wrote and finished the fourth issue of White Elephants and I knew at that point that the series would be turned into a book, so I wrote the issue with that in mind. Since that time, I’ve worked to combine all four zines, written over five years, by fleshing out some of the sparser parts and creating a narrative through-line, a framework to hang the original writing onto. As I say, I found it hard to sense the scope of this for a while, but I’ve now gotten through the bulk of the first pass and now I can understand it as a manuscript, as one story. I turned a corner with it a couple of weeks ago and last week, I hit on what I think is a fine last sentence, so I feel good about it now. Still plenty of work to do on it though, I imagine. Also, I should explain that the format of the zines has been sort of essayish, but broken into diary entries. Each time I visit a yard or rummage sale I log it, and sometimes I’ve written at length but other times it’s brief. So I’ve been working to smooth those into one cohesive narrative, broken into larger sections by year and month.

CH: Will the dates still be handwritten like they are in the zine? I ask because the visuals and handmade accents you choose to accompany your essays complement them so well, like the antique book cover rubbing in Always Already and the drawings of yard sale finds in White Elephants. When you’re making a new zine, do you have a visual style planned out or is it more spontaneous?

KH: I’m actually not sure about all the visual details of this book yet. I may ask an artist friend to make some simple line drawings, but I may not. I think those decisions will be made with input from the publisher. Thank you for saying you like those details in my zines. I enjoy trying to make a zine look nice, and since I come at it from an entirely clueless perspective when it comes to visual art, I just kind of make it up and take cues from other zinesters whose stuff I’ve admired.

I think when I make a zine the idea for the writing comes first and remains the most important aspect as I work, but then I’ll get an idea for a funny piece of art to include, or sometimes I’ll have an artist friend who I’ve wanted to work with and will ask that person for drawings. Often there’s a new book size or binding that I’ve been keen to try so that will take shape in my mind as I work. Sometimes I produce the text on a typewriter, and that interacts with the layout in a big way, since you can’t change the size or appearance of the font as you can on a computer. I’m currently finishing up a zine about the community garden club I belong to (hee), which I typed on one of my manual typewriters (which was a two-dollar yard sale find, incidentally). That plus the drawings made by my friend, the comics artist Sacha Mardou, influenced the size of the pages, the amount of white space I wanted and was able to have around the text, that kind of thing.

CH: I had a drawing professor who once told our class that she studied at the school of Doing What Works. I think that’s often what happens when artists work out of their field of expertise. But there’s also sometimes a disconnection that people experience when parsing visual art from writing and the artistic value inherent in both. Handmade books, poetry made from found words, and curated systems like The Mundaneum make it a little less clear as to where writing stops and “art” begins. Do you think that zines focusing on subjects outside of visual art (like linguistics or science or, in the case of White Blackbirds, gender studies) have a hand in bringing visual art and literature together? Can they occupy both spheres?

KH: I certainly do think that writing/literature can and does cross over into different forms, though whether or not mine does is up for debate and sort of immaterial to me. I do think genre or medium distinctions can be meaningful and useful, just not all the time. I call myself a writer and I do not call myself an artist, but there’s a discomfort there, a little uncertainty when I try to define it.Katie's typewriters and zines

I belong to a national organization called the Women’s Caucus for Art and through it, I’ve gotten to know women working in different media. When we’re at meetings and planning or executing collaborations of different kinds, I often hasten to point out that I’m “not an artist” or at least “not a visual artist,” because there is a distinction between making a zine (a “multiple”) and making a painting, say. But then my WCA friends tell me to stop saying that because they accept my poetry as art, and some of them may consider my zines art.

I’ve also started experimenting recently with making altered books, other kinds of artist’s books, and even collage, all which might be more readily accepted as art than a hard-to-categorize piece of writing in a zine. They are also all things I’ve come to via zines and are related to the process of cutting and pasting up a zine layout. I took a letterpress class one summer and designed and printed an edition of thirty broadsides of a poem I wrote. That was art, I guess, in a way that photocopying the poem into infinity might not be.

I recently took a collage workshop and my dear friend Mandy Laughtland, a poet who often works with found text and who enjoys making collage, told me that she thinks collage is “a natural extension of zinester and poet tendencies; it gives you one more excuse to hang onto odd bits of paper.” You could definitely make a case for zines having a hand in bringing visual art and lit together, as you suggested. It’s a slippery subject, hard to define. They’re interesting conversations to have but I find it doesn’t matter to me what category the things I make are said to belong in. It matters in a practical way when you’re considering submitting work for a show or publication that has guidelines and restrictions. It doesn’t matter at all when you curate or publish the oddball things yourself.

CH: Self-publishing, as you mentioned earlier, has been maligned, but there’s also been work you’ve produced that could easily fall under the category of collaboration, like White Blackbirds. How did you find working with other people’s writing versus editing/formatting your own work?

KH: I’ve done a couple of collaborations with other writers, “comp zines” as they are sometimes called. I like the finished product–there are the White Blackbirds zines and one called The House You Grew Up In, for which I solicited people’s stories about that very thing. But I found the process of organizing them and waiting to get work from people to be stressful and sometimes irksome. I didn’t enjoy making those nearly as much as I enjoy doing a zine all on my own, or with just the input of an artist making drawings.

CH: I know exactly how you feel. It’s sometimes easier to just have people show up and do a single thing. Maybe we should arrange that. Spontaneous art occurrences. You show up, make a thing, the thing you make is archived, you keep the original, everyone goes home happy.

I feel like people would be onboard for that. Except for control freaks like me.

Pseudo-last question: I don’t use tumblr, but I find yours fascinating. What’s your take on tumblr? Delightful way to reach out to the public or distracting timewaster that triggers ADD? In true tumblr fashion, your answer should be at least five words long and include a random photo found online.

KH: I love my tumblr. I have tried keeping blogs a bunch of times over the years and I kept building and abandoning them because I found I couldn’t write to them. I couldn’t sense who the audience was, if that makes sense, and I never felt committed to one well enough to even remember to write stuff on it. But a year ago, I saw a zine friend’s blog that had a format I really liked–it was clean and uncluttered without all that ugly RSS feed and blogroll information. It was a tumblr, of course. I made my own at the beginning of 2010 and have kept it faithfully. All I wanted was something to link from my website where I could put “news,” like readings or workshops or publications, and it’s perfect for that but I’ve been tempted into putting some pictures I’ve taken up there too–sometimes I’ve given into the temptation but mostly I’ve resisted. My writing is often very personal but I do not want my PERSON to be exposed in that way. Tumblr is like a cross between a blog and Twitter, which is another thing I don’t have a feel for and haven’t tried. But these kinds of short bursts in the form of a few words, a link, or a photo I really enjoy. Now, as you point out, tumblr has a social networking function, which lets me view everything the bloggers I’m following post in one “dashboard.” I quickly learned that this has the potential to become a crazy annoying mess of ridiculous nonsense. It’s also fun, though. I like to scroll through and see people’s pretty pictures and whatnot. I’ve also learned about some new artists, movies, and so forth this way, so I guess it’s not a total waste of time, but to the extent that I do let it waste my time, I mostly enjoy it. I check the thing obsessively.

CH: And finally, Obsolete opens with this quote from Emerson, “Language is the archives of history… Language is fossil poetry.” Describe what a fossil poem would look like.

KH: Ooh yeah, that’s a good line, isn’t it? It feels true to me. Describe a fossil poem, eh? I’ll tell you the image that comes into my mind. Have you ever seen one of those trees that shows the relationship of Indo-European languages to each other? Their point of origin is called Proto-Indo-European, which is basically a conceptual thing. The field of historical linguistics looks at the way living languages are related and how they have changed over time and traces them back to a reconstructed original language, thought to be spoken by a common ancestor. That’s a fossil in a way. Also! The la-la theory, the name of my zine, comes from a 19th-century theory about the origin of language. This was a popular subject for philosophers of this time. La-La put forth that human language was borne of a need to express poetry and love. It sounds fanciful but Darwin liked it and so did the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, who gave it that name. Supporters of theories like this believe that there is a natural connection between language and instinctive speech sounds. So there’s a fossil poem for you, I guess–gut sound responses to life, utterances like Oh! and Ooh! that express fear, agony, wonder, longing.


Katie Haegele can be found tumbling on tumblr, selling books and other information on Etsy, and kicking around thoughts about everything else on The La-La Theory website. Check out her bio. It’s worth clicking (more than once).

Join us next month when we’ll be interviewing Meg Taintor, artistic director at Boston’s Whistler in the Dark theatre company.



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