Started in 2006, LA’s Penny-Ante has become one of the largest independent, underground art/poetry “mag/books” around. Made up of mostly musicians working in the field of art or poetry, Penny-Ante brings you into the artistic endeavors of some of the music world’s most interesting figures as well as interviews with select artists. Their newest book “Three” includes everyone from Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Joe Denardo (Growing), Phil Elverum (Mt. Eerie, The Microphones), Brian Turner (WFMU), and Jad Fair (Half Japanese), as well as submissions from members of Pocahaunted, Not Not Fun Records, Naked on the Vague, Silver Apples, The Urinals. MV + EE, Spires That In the Sunset Rise, Chrome, Live Skull, Sacred Bones Records, and about a million more. The new book also, for the first time, includes a bonus CD with music by The Chills, Jad Fair, Arrington de Dionyso, Robert Pollard, Chris Knox, Growing, Robedoor, and TV Ghost. I recently spoke with the woman behind it all, Rebekah Why. Here’s what she had to say:
No, no homage to Bob Barker... I guess to explain, I’d have to give you some back-story…
For me, “Penny-Ante” was a term that spans back to my childhood, never verbalized by my parents, but was always something apparent when speaking in terms of writers and artists, and more directly, their trade. It was a well-known rule growing up in my home: “never become a writer, never become an artist, and never, ever become a musician.” My brother and I had three choices: Lawyer, doctor, or say, a financial consultant or CPA.
So, in 2001, I was on the fast road to a degree in Economics at semi-prestigious private college (“prestigious” meaning ninety percent of the students came from wealthy families), on scholarship, something both my parents were enormously proud of, and one day, I was waiting in my professor’s office and I was flipping through this glossy alumni newsletter. I was reading these stories about people who had graduated from the school… You know, people who had graduated two years prior, were already on their second kid, or maybe, became missionaries, or were making boatloads off their “nonprofit,” or became partner in a law firm… And although I don’t discredit the path these people chose (apart from the “non-profiteers”), after reading this, my mind sort of slipped off its axle. I pictured myself, 23 or 24, applying for a job at an accounting firm with some navy blue pin-striped skirt on from Banana Republic, and you know, wearing some pearls handed down by my grandmother and it got me really freaked out.
My professor called me in, a great man, and we had a long talk. I had initially come in to get some help on something, but I left that office and walked straight into admissions and dropped out. Fast forward two years worth of pulling my best mimic of Keruoac’s “On the Road,” and I finally settled on this idea of a “poetry & arts newspaper” by way of meeting some really interesting characters in my time off… but you can imagine the look of horror on my parent’s faces when I told them I was to blow my life savings to start an arts-based publication, and “by the way, can I do my laundry and maybe grab a few rolls of toilet paper while I’m here?” Somewhere in that somewhat tense conversation, I blurted out, “It may be Penny-Ante, but…” It was one of those terms I knew the meaning of, but never actually used, and it stuck. I would never say the title is directed towards my parents, who are/were great people in so many ways, but it is sort of a “fuck you” to those who think the arts are a fool’s game.
Surprisingly easy… sort of. Contributors came pretty easy, but the hard part has always been gathering enough financial backing to carry it out. Printing books is extremely expensive, especially books the size of Penny-Ante. I mean, you can buy a new car, maybe even two, for the amount we spend on one book… It’s a little crazy to think about it in those terms.
Poetry has never died and I find is hilarious that the first time I’m misquoted is by one of my own editors! (Laughs). I think when I said that I was referring to my own surroundings and friends, who don’t really find contemporary “big name” poetry as something they connect with… But with that said, there will always be poets, and people interested in poetry. Byron Coley’s been doing it with the Ecstatic Yod’s poetry journals, or Brass Tacks Press out of Topanga… There are people carrying the torch from one generation to the next and with that, it’s not completely dead, and thank goodness... but I sometimes sit and think about things like the International Poetry Incarnation in ’65, which brought something like 7,000 people into the audience? I mean the poets like Ginsberg and Corso were the rock stars of their day. And I think in that time, publishing houses were probably more than willing to invest in poets because it was something that was quite marketable… just like how every major label in the 90s picked up every band that sounded like Nirvana, or say, the 80s when anyone who wore spandex and spray in their hair was the next big thing… signed, sealed and delivered. I mean, now the only person that could probably bring out 7,000 people for their “poetry” is like… Jewel or some crap like that. It’s pretty sad… but no. I don’t think poetry is dead.
Well, it can be good and bad. On one hand, it is a blessing to sort of be in the midst of so much creativity, but on the other hand, it can be largely disillusioning and somewhat distracting… Most of the brainstorming behind Penny-Ante tends to happen when I’m outside of Los Angeles to be honest… And away from a computer.
I think "Three" is a wonderful testament to artists alive today. I think so many times, we refer or rely on the past – these visual, musical, or literary “greats” who once were – and give them this almost royal-status to the point where it feels like there can, and will be, no other who can touch their level of influence or impact… but in reality, that’s just not the case. There are people alive today working and creating music, art and literature who will impact generations to come and influence these generations and their endeavors. I think with "Three", we tried to encapsulate those we feel are influential, or have potential to be influential, into one book... and I think we were successful.
I make endless lists of people who I think would make good contributors, and a good portion of those lists got crossed out with this collection. Chris Knox was a big one; I’m a big fan of his… Artist Julian Hoeber, who I think does incredible work… Dawn Kasper – who I actually heard about through Hoeber – When I met with her, I was immediately taken with her and her approach to what she does. Mick Farren was big. I love Malaria!, so Bettina Koster was a joy to have a part. Being present when Jim Smith from The Smell interviewed Billy Bragg on the phone was sort of an amazingly surreal experience. The interviews are always fun: Brian Turner (WFMU), George Parsons (Dream Magazine), Gregory Jacobsen… Really everyone, I look down the list of contributors for "Three" and there’s not one name I come across and think, “Hm, that didn’t need to be.”
Yeah… We weren’t really planning on doing another, but Mick Farren happened to walk into the back of this bar I was hanging out at, and Joe McGraw (the bar owner at the time) introduced us, and by chance Joe had a copy of the first Penny-Ante in the office. He gave it to Mick to flip through and [Mick] didn’t say much. Time passed, it took me a couple months, but I wrote him and when [Mick] said yes, it was sort of this attitude of, “Okay, now I want to do this again.” But what was it like? It was like me sitting in a small room with Mick Farren and feeling a tad star struck for the first time in my life. I forgot how to talk, everything I said sounded stupid, you know, the whole bit… Silly stuff.
I think with "Three" there’s now some sense of identity. As with any idea, it takes a while to develop and mature. Having taken two years between the second collection and this one, there was time for a development period. Time to think, consider and ultimately choose what this collection should entail. Physically speaking, we included a CD with this one, which might constitute as an improvement. We did extend this book by 20 pages, making it even lengthier… We included additional color pages, leaving most of the art-based contributions in color. Having gone through a rough patch financially after Book #2, I think the attitude going into this was set by, “This might be our last chance.” So in response, “Let’s go all out. If we lose, we lose, but at least we went out fancy.”
Not really. I started from a pretty blank slate. I wasn’t even aware there was a “zine culture” until after the first Penny-Ante came out and zine collectors would email in. The only zines I was exposed to growing up were magazines. Things like Newsweek, National Geographic, and like, science journals my dad collected. Just in the last year have I been exposed to things like Comet Bus, which I think is wonderful… I do have memory of picking up a copy of Avant-Garde from a Salvation Army when I was in junior high. It had a series of Lennon’s lithographs in it… but I would say Penny-Ante’s been more influenced by just reading books. History, art-based, music history, fiction, nonfiction, poetry…
Like I said, I make lists that are pretty long, but two people that have been on my mind for a while are Carolee Schneemann and Mike McCormack, an Irish author. I’d also really love to interview Danbert Nobacon from… or previously from, Chumbawamba.
I’m not sure. Where Penny-Ante will be in five years depends solely, and sadly, on a little thing called “supply & demand.” If books sell, we can keep going, if they don’t, we won’t be able to… but that being said, if we do have the means, and I hope we will, I’m sort of entertaining the idea of doing a series of two or three books, maybe a bit shorter in length, similar in concept, but each standing on their own unique foundation… poor way of communicating it, but perhaps having a “central theme.” Each will most likely be enjoyed by a specific audience, but when looked at and/or enjoyed as a series, will reveal a somewhat convoluted link between all camps involved… Or, that won’t happen, we’ll just continue what we’re doing, and maybe just add some Penny-Ante t-shirts into the mix. Who knows (laughs).
Definitely. It’s sort of been on hold for the past six months with "Three" in the works, but in about two weeks we’ll be starting up work on getting some stuff out by the fall. “Luv & Terror” from a band called Int’l Shades, which is Bob Bert from Pussy Galore and Chrome Cranks (also of an earlier incarnation of Sonic Youth), Mark C (previously of Live Skull) and Tim Flojahn who’s worked with the Boredoms, Jad Fair, and a bunch of other great people. Also, a sophomore release from John Webster Johns, who played in Women & Children at one point, who’s creating (hands down) my favorite music out of Los Angeles. A collaboration LP from Simeon Coxe of Silver Apples and Kawabata Makoto of Acid Mother’s and an ace 7” coming from Lily Marlene. Should be a busy, but good, close to the year.
That’s hard… When it comes to new-ish records, for some reason, I don’t really think in terms of “favorites” or, “best” vs. “worst” – I’ve bought a lot of records in the last ten years and they all sound pretty good to me, which I guess I have the Internet to thank for being able to “preview before buying.” I like to go see live music a lot, that’s sort of where I can differentiate between favorites… But in terms of LPs? Off the top of my head, Josephine Foster’s All the Leaves Are Gone LP is one I find my way back to a lot. Circle’s been putting out a string of interesting and challenging material, Matt’s Valentine’s entire catalog, from the Tower Recordings forward, is an interesting one to sit and study. If re-issues count, Vinyl on Demand put out a series of Die Tˆdliche Doris LPs that are not only beautifully packaged, but amazing sounding. Robert Pollard has probably released a quarter of the records I’ve bought in the last ten years… (laughs). I love everything Michael Gira’s done in the last decade.... The Nothing (Chris Knox)’s last record was fantastic…. I like Jennifer Gentle. Sort of an odd choice for me, but Richard Hawley’s Lowedges, is a record that I, for one reason or another, connected with pretty heavily. Best when played: middle of the night.
-- Jon Lorenz (2 September, 2009)