How I Stumbled Into The World of Independent Publishing: in memory of Irving Stettner by Kris Mininger
It was the summer of 1997. I was in New York City for a few days visiting friends before catching a flight to Greece. On the morning of the day of my flight I walked to the great Strand Book Store at 12th and Broadway to look for something to read during the “jump over the puddle”. I was 22 years old and was at the height of my Henry Miller & Charles Bukowski obsession. After browsing around in the Strand for a while I spotted the word “Miller” on the spine of a book. But just as soon as I had spotted the book I lost sight of it. A visit to the Strand is an overwhelming experience. All those wonderful, musty, old books crammed into that place. So many treasures just waiting to be discovered. After a frustrating moment I relocated the book and pulled it off the shelf. The title read “Miller, Bukowski & Their Enemies: Essays on Contemporary Culture” by William Joyce. Exactly what I was looking for.
I paid up & took the train to the airport. Besides the essays on Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski there was also a piece on B. Traven, one on the pitiful state of contemporary poetry due to the influence of university writing programs, and an essay on a writer I had never heard of before by the name of Irving Stettner. It wasn´t until about 2 hours into the flight that I reached the essay entitled “kiss me, i´m still alive: on irving stettner”. I could never have imagined the path this essay would lead me down over the next few years. At the end of the book there was a list of some of Irving´s books and an address in Shaverstown, Pennsylvania to write to if you were interested in obtaining any of them.
Well, the essay about the life and times of Irving Stettner, a struggling writer and painter living out of two suitcases, traveling the world with never more than enough cash to cover a day or two of expenses, drawing sketches of tourists outside Parisian cafes in the 1950s and 60s, hocking his poetry chapbooks and copies of his literary magazine Stroker on the streets of NYC´s East Village in the 1970s, left me fascinated.
Six months later when I returned to the US (& a more permanent address) I wrote a letter to the address in the back of William Joyce´s book inquiring about the availability of those Stettner books. I ended that letter with, “PS- is Irving Stettner still alive?”.
A few weeks later I was in South Philadelphia waiting for my father outside of an Italian restaurant. He arrived, we exchanged greetings, and then he handed over a package that had arrived for me. (OK, I still didn´t have a permanent address, but my folks did!). The package was from Japan and I opened it to find a copy of Stroker as well as a letter which started something along the lines of, “Well, I had to pinch myself to make certain… and yes, I´m still alive!”. Apparently Irving was, at that time, living in Tokyo. I immediately subscribed to Stroker and thus began 6 years of correspondence with Irv that ended with his death in early 2004.
A couple of years after I received that first letter Irving would return to the US and take up residence in the Poconos not too far from where I grew up. The only regret I have about the friendship I struck up with Irv is that I never had the pleasure of meeting him in the flesh, partly due to my intense shyness and partly due to the fact that I didn´t want to bother the man or distract him from his work.
Every time a new issue of Stroker would land on the doorstep it was like a breath of fresh air. To arrive home after a day out in the world, a day filled with the frustrations and hassles of work, and find a new installment of Irv´s art and writing would serve as a powerful reminder that there was another way of looking at things, another way of existing in the world. Irv had a “sieze the day” world view, a “stop and smell the roses before it´s too late” philosophy, that would make you question whether or not you were really where you wanted to be in life. And if the answer turned out to be “no” then it wasn´t too late to turn things around. These are the kind of thoughts that Irv´s writing would put into my head. His stories weren´t just stories. They were more like, to borrow a phrase from William Joyce´s book, “little philosophies of action”.
A few years after making Irv´s acquaintance, I received a package one day which contained the 1st issue of a publication entitled Mineshaft. Included was a letter from the publisher saying he was a friend of Irv´s and that Irv thought I might get a kick out of his publication. I promptly subscribed. Slowly, very slowly, I was becoming aware of this strange, exciting, addictive world of underground publishing. Occasionally I would see a publication mentioned, a poetry chapbook or a comic of some sort, in Stroker or Mineshaft and I would stuff some cash into an envelope and (attempt to) patiently await its arrival.
Well, a couple more years passed and the issues of Stroker and Mineshaft were beginning to pile up. Then one day a new issue of Mineshaft arrived and it was there that I read a review of Violet Jones´ publication The Free Press Death Ship. The flood gates were about to burst. I sent off for a copy of Violet´s publication and when it arrived, well, I can´t begin to describe what I felt. It was all there, an entire world of underground, independent publications covering just about every topic under the sun – science fiction, humor, politics, music, poetry, comics, queer zines, perzines, and so much more. I gathered up all the single dollar bills I could get my hands on and spent all of my evenings for a couple of weeks pouring over the pages of The Free Press Death Ship, reading the reviews over and over again, in case I had missed anything of interest, and then stuffing into envelopes dollar bills wrapped in excitedly jotted and scribbled notes asking people to send me their little magazines.
That was about 6 years ago. I used to describe all of this zine activity - this “zining”, or reading and writing of zines - as a hobby. Now I see it as more of a way of life. Maybe that sounds a bit pretentious, but I can´t imagine going back to a life without zines. The unfiltered creativity and information, as well as all of the engaging and thought provoking correspondence, that lands on my doorstep every week goes a long way towards helping me keep my sanity in this world. And it all started with Irving Stettner.
Irving Stettner´s poetry, prose & art mag, “Stroker”, published the work of Henry Miller, Paul Bowles, Blaise Cendrars, Charles Bukowski, Lawrence Durrell, Thomas Merton and Mohammed Mrabet among others. He started publishing “Stroker” in 1974 and put out a new issue every 3-5 months until his death on January 16, 2004. The last issue, number 77, was the 30th anniversary issue. The magazine´s motto was “From the Ghetto to the four corners of the Earth!”. Throughout his life Irv had more than 25 one-man shows of his watercolors in the USA, France and Japan.
“If you want to wake up happy in the morning, read Irving Stettner. If your nerve endings are frayed, your mouth dry, and you´re alone because your mate just flew the coop with your best friend´s mother, read Stettner. Stettner will flush your liver, tap on your nasal passages, and make your hormones burgeon like overripe plums. You will wake in the morning feeling a lightness, openness, and generosity you haven´t known in years. (…) He has no car, no insurance policies, no Walkman, and only the faintest notion of how he will earn his rent due the following week. A helluva way to live, you say? No, the joke is on us, for Stettner´s life testifies to the power and joy we could achieve if we lost our fear of poverty.”
-from William Joyce´s essay “kiss me, i´m still alive: on irving stettner”