Si Transken, PhD.
Assistant Professor,
Social Work Program,
University of Northern British Columbia,
3333 University Way, Prince George,
British Columbia, V2N 4Z9
Phone: 250-960-6643


With words, therefore, we influence and to an enormous extent control future events. It is for this reason that writers write; preachers preach; employers, parents, and teachers scold; propagandists send out news releases; politicians give speeches. All of them, for various reasons, are trying to influence our conduct - sometimes for our own good, sometimes for their own. These attempts to control, direct, or influence the future actions of fellow human beings with words may be termed directive uses of language.

S. I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa.
Language in Thought and Action, p. 65

I believe it is time to take on the most despised, even reviled, features of proletarian poetry, its commonality and shared cultural mission. I am therefore trying to reformulate a perceived weakness as a genuine strength. The unifying historical and rhetorical elements of progressive poetry give it special power and meaning.
Cary Nelson,
Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry
of the American Left, p. 6

Technology such as email, fax machines, desk top publishing programs, affordable phone packages and priority post have made it possible for small marginalized voices to design and distribute books; and ‘design’ and accomplish ‘community’ in different ways. Cyberspace is changing the ‘neighborhood’ of writers’ communities (Spender, 1995) and, as she also suggests, this has empowering potentials. While accomplishing the ‘product’ of the book we are also accomplishing the ‘process’ of healing ourselves and each other. These circles are a form of personal and political activism and healing.

Much has been written about how hard it is for women and other oppressed groups to publish their writing (Clark and Ivanic, 1997; Nelson, 2001; Ortiz, 1998; Spender, 1983). Social activists (or ‘subalterns’ ) designing books - and hanging on to the whole process from beginning to end? In this paper, using ideas from contributors to Cultural Studies (Denzin, Hall, Grossberg, Goffman, hooks, Nelson, Soja, Minh-ha, etc. ) and others from what might be called the “Creativity for Healing ” movement (Julia Cameron, Kathleen Adams, etc.), and social workers/activists (Moran , Goldman, etc.) I summarize my observations from being a facilitator/ being a writer/organizer in the center of five self-publishing circles; and two more now-emerging self-publishing circles. The titles of the books that have been accomplished are: Battle Chants, Escaping Beauty, Stress (Full) Sister (Hood), Groping Beyond Grief, and Outlaw Social Work (the unsecret poems and stories). The two projects in process at the moment are: This Aint Your Patriarchs’ Poetry Book! and Candles; Comrades; Connections. These projects were partially negotiated in cyberspace ; they involve/d investments of between $200. and $950. from each participant; and they produce/d 7,000 books (1000 print-runs of each title with approximately 200 copies for each author). I startled myself when I realized that all of this ‘experimental’ or ‘hobbiest’ activity could be generating $70,000 or more of sales from our investments of about $24,500! (Note that the bookstores who distribute our books are usually accepting about 30% or 40% mark up and then there is ). None of us are involved with the primary goal of making money though. Fairness exists (and most of us need to have our break even moment in regards to our cash investments because we are living on constricted budgets). Our experience so far is that we eventually receive the cash investment we gave to the project - but it is our passion and drive for satisfaction that is bringing us to the projects.

At different moments these projects have invited us to become spectacles (Brooker, 1999, p. 204); to toy with the carnivalesque (Brooker, 1999, p. 23-24), and to consider the performance of ‘marketing’. What these books have in common is that they are multigenre (poetry, prose, diary, letter, testimony, qualitative interview...) multidisciplinary (contributors had backgrounds in journalism, social work, education, sociology, computer repair, women’s studies, etc.) and multi-themed (grief, romance/broken hearts, disobedience, female relationships, social services, family issues, etc.). The five books range in pages from sixty to one-hundred and sixty-seven. They are being distributed in eclectic ways (sold through friendship networks, bookstores like Chapters, non-profit social justice organizations, etc.). My belief is that each author eventually will/ or has had their cash investment returned to them . We have been inventing some portions of our selves as we went forward inventing the ‘product’ of the books. We design the books and they redesign us. We have also had a lot of fun. Burnout and grief are a commonly experienced phenomenon among activists/professional helpers; especially if they are also from vulnerable populations (Transken, 1997). Play is a necessary activity for health (Abrams, 1997) and fun, is a necessary activity and source of soul-replenishment for activists (Transken, 2002b)!
Our protocols during the production of these books have been that each author has control over her own section’s shape, stance, words, etc. Each author makes a commitment to try and coach/ encourage the other authors - in cyberspace, through phone calls, and often in personal contacts/friendships we’ve networked and raised each other’s consciousness and self-confidence. Hundreds and hundreds of hours have been shared in the process of accomplishing each project. Collectively, twenty authors/editors directly contributed and another ten designed quotes for the back of our texts (about 30 people will be directly or indirectly involved in the two newest projects). Other people are involved in the creative shaping of the projects (local book stores and women’s organizations and groups encouraging our public readings, etc.).

These grassroots projects are especially important when they are considered against the context of ever-larger publishing companies and distribution companies taking over the industry. These processes not only steam roller over subaltern populations; they minimize or erase a Canadian voice. James Laxer says, “For the last seven years, Canadian book publishers have been subjected to trail by fire. Facing an acute short-term crisis, as well as longer-term challenges, the industry is now in an alarmingly weak position.” (Globe and Mail, May 22, 2002, p. A17). Laxer advocates that the government give more funding to this sector and I share that hope. Here is a recent email (from, May 8, 2002) comment about how a relatively small publishing company is feeling threatened by the biggest players on the field. The author also emphasizes the absolute necessity of keeping diversity growing in the publishing ‘ecosystem’.

Why does it matter if a few small poetry and literary fiction publishers go under? Because the small presses are the heart, the soul and the guts of Canadian literary culture. Presses like Coach House, Talonbooks, Oberon, Mercury, Broken Jaw, Turnstone, TSAR, Brick and Aresenal Pulp invest the most time and energy in author development. We’re the farm teams: we find promising authors; edit their work and otherwise help them develop their writing styles. And we get that work to market for the first time - usually in better quality editions than mass-market paperbacks, to boot. In other words, the editors of the small press are responsible for the stunning variety and high caliber of Canadian writing today.

Well said. If Wershler-Henry’s level of publishers are the ‘farm teams’ then we are the back yard garden teams and the composting teams! And I’m sure all the authors involved in these tiny collective self-help projects I’m describing would agree with Darren Wershler-Henry. These self-publishing/ self-help projects are ad hoc; they form and then dissolve. But the skills, insights, and confidence can later feed in to the level of publishing that Wershler-Henry is advocating more government protection and support for. It is probable that the government will not substantively alter the terrain in the near future; so it becomes that much more vital for ‘free range’ voices to assert themselves and re-invigorate the spaces available to us; in whichever small ways are possible for us. Artists in a variety of mediums have taught us these lessons (Cabico and Swift, 1998; Chicago and Lucie-Smith, 1999; Felshin, 1996; Lacy, 1995; Marino, 1997; Ryan, 1999).
How do these innovative methods of grounded cultural artifact design and production invigorate the individual writers (many of whom have never ‘published’ before and all of whom had never published before in these kinds of contexts/forums)? How do these playful, experimental, and mindful texts serve as rallying points for vulnerable populations to feel seen and heard - not just to outsiders but to each other? How does ‘pleasure’ have meaning in these experiences? How much fun can we have producing ‘propaganda’ and promoting our own unique versions of reality? This paper will discuss how the writing circles began; where there have been uncomfortable moments; how these experiences have changed some people’s sense of their own entitlement to voice; and how I am continuing to initiate and participate in these satisfying ‘hobbiest’ creative adventures in the future. My own paths with these projects might be useful for others to consider so they might avoid some of the glitches we’ve encountered; and so they might reproduce some of the successes we’ve accomplished.


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