Critical Cheerleader

Author Emily-Pohl Weary discusses demystifying the magazine-making process, her family’s sci-fi past, and why mainstream culture isn’t always a bad thing.

Summer, 2004 / No. 12
Photograph by Phillip Smith
Phillip Smith

When Emily Pohl-Weary first became aware of zines, she thought, “I have to do this.” It’s been close to a decade since Pohl-Weary, now a writer and an editor, was introduced to the world of homemade magazines by her friend, the author and do-it-yourself maven Jim Munroe, while in her sophomore year studying translation at York University’s Glendon College, in Toronto. Today, her popular zine, Kiss Machine, enjoys a print run of one thousand, will soon make the jump from twice-yearly to quarterly, and was recently named one of “four indie magazines worth looking out for” by the Toronto Star.

Pohl-Weary’s first foray into self-publishing was a small, hand-stapled zine, titled We Have Lives, published in 1996. In it, she and her five female housemates attempted to show they weren’t slackers, despite what the outside world may have thought of their unconventional approach to work and life (one was a dominatrix, another a poet-dancer). Two years later, upon being diagnosed with a chronic illness, she responded, in part, by publishing zines on the topic. The front cover of Throat Flower features a picture of Pohl-Weary with a flower growing out of her mouth. “I was throwing up, and the flower coming out of my throat was about figuring out some way to think positively about life,” she says. Her next zine, Pill Bottle Prose, took the unconventional form of a small, plastic medicine bottle. “Over the course of the year when I was very ill, I collected probably one hundred little bottles of pills, and turned them into pill-bottle-like stories, and put macaroni in them so if you shook them they sounded like pills.”

The theme of taking control of both medium and message remains a constant in Pohl-Weary’s work, be it in her former position as the managing editor of Broken Pencil magazine, her editorship of a new anthology of female empowerment fiction and essays, her work as a writer of fiction and poetry, or as the co-editor of Kiss Machine.

Pohl-Weary and her friend, the artist and writer Paola Poletto, began publishing Kiss Machine in 2000. The not-quite digest-size zine, which had an initial print run of four hundred, evolved out of the friendship the duo struck up while attending a writing group. Among other things, it publishes an eclectic mix of fiction, poetry, photographs, art, essays, and advice.

Pohl-Weary, thirty, and Poletto, thirty-five, have created a format that allows contributors to work within a framework of two themes per issue. One example was the “parallel” worlds of bugs and small business—an idea that grew out of noticing it was often restaurants owned by minorities that were targeted during Toronto health authorities’ dirty-dining crackdown. “I could have never done [Kiss Machine] without Emily taking the front-row sort of role that she’s taken in shaping the magazine editorially,” says Poletto. “I’m much more interested in seeing how a publication can be an artwork. The thing that I think she’s most brilliant at is having developed a fairly defined editorial eye. I’m much more interested in conceptual narratives that aren’t linear, for instance, and Emily has a more traditional, linear focus, and so, when we come together, there’s a real negotiation there.”

The format and theme of Kiss Machine are ever-evolving. Two upcoming mini-issues will each focus on pairing an artist with a writer, one of which will be a fictionalized account based on the story of two real-life female pirates, Anne Bonney and Mary Read, by Pohl-Weary and the artist Willow Dawson. “Kiss Machine does sort of teeter on the edge of being kind of a more established, respectable magazine and a zine. I think that’s part of what makes it interesting,” says Hal Niedzviecki, a writer and the co-founding editor of Broken Pencil. “It’s kind of running better, more lively, more interesting material than most of the well-funded literary magazines in Canada. And it does so because it’s on that edge and isn’t so stodgy, and doesn’t feel it has all of these mandates it has to fulfill. It just goes out and does what it wants to do.”

Part of Kiss Machine’s goal, Pohl-Weary says, is to fight the notion of elitism that surrounds the creation of magazines. “I think there’s a mystique about writing like there is about other professions. A lot of that has to do with the hoarding of information or the creation of an elite,” she says. “In a way, making Kiss Machine was our reaction to the whole notion that it is a mystifying process to create a whole institution. It isn’t, actually. You can create Kiss Machine out of your one-room office.”

While some of the contributions to Kiss Machine are less overtly political than others, the political nature of each issue’s theme is always explored in some way—inevitable perhaps, considering Pohl-Weary’s family history. With an activist mother, a stepfather who came to Canada as a political refugee from Argentina, and the major science fiction writers Judith Merril and Frederik Pohl as maternal grandparents, Pohl-Weary’s memories of life with her family include Sandinista house guests, and watching her grandmother smoke pot. Days were spent making trips with Merril to the comic-book store, and with her mother, Ann Pohl, to the public library in her Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale, from where she often returned with plastic shopping bags full of books. “The only thing I really enjoyed, when I think back to my childhood, was reading,” Pohl-Weary says. “I don’t think I was the happiest kid ever. I grew up in a pretty tough neighbourhood, where you were kinda scared sometimes when you were outside.”

Partly in response to this lack of safe play areas for children, Ann started a summer activity program, which eventually became the neighbourhood’s first community centre. “One of the main things my mother taught me was always question authority,” Pohl-Weary says. “Never just accept what somebody says just because they’re older than you or more socially powerful.”

Part of Pohl-Weary’s confidence and knowledge today comes from growing up with writers in the family. “It helps to dispel the myth that you can’t do it,” she says. “You see that they’re just normal people. You also see the respect that they get, and the fact that you can actually make a living off it. A lot of it is simply having enough confidence to take the risk of not having the security that a full-time job gives you. And I think sometimes that’s harder for women, because I think we’re taught to value security even more than men—the importance of a nice home and being safe.”

Pohl-Weary gave more than four years of her life back to the family that encouraged and inspired her by completing her grandmother’s unfinished autobiography following her death, in 1997. Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril won the 2003 Hugo Award—the sci-fi community’s biggest prize—for best non-fiction book. Pohl-Weary helped Merril with the book for several years before she died, visiting with her on a weekly basis and recording their conversations for about an hour at a time. After her grandmother’s death, Pohl-Weary was left with tapes of their interviews, three completed chapters, and a list of memories and events Merril wanted included in the book. “At the time, we were so close. She was reading my zines, and we were talking,” Pohl-Weary says. “Part of the process of mourning, or I guess getting over the fact that I’d lost one of my best friends, was to go back and listen to those tapes and transcribe them.”

With money Merril left her in her will to finish the book, Pohl-Weary spent the next four years piecing together her grandmother’s life story. “Through that process, I learned a lot more about myself and my mother and my family, and, I guess, a lot of the reasons why I am the way I am,” she says. Better to Have Loved delves into life in the science-fiction ghetto of nineteen-forties and fifties New York, but also explores Pohl-Weary’s family history, and examines the many different sides of her grandmother’s life. “What I wanted to do was show Judy, warts and all,” Pohl-Weary says. “I wanted to show what it was like to be a woman, to be a mother, to be divorced in the fifties, to be a single mom, to be a Jew in a small Catholic town. I wanted to show all of that and what repercussions it had for her personally.”

Beyond her personal interest in the subject matter, Pohl-Weary also had a larger goal in mind: “I think young people often forget that old people can be just as interesting. And that was also why I sunk four years of my life into creating this book, because I think, not only is this the way we make history, but it’s the way we tell the world that not only youth are exciting.” As an example, Pohl-Weary included images of her grandmother’s zine work from the late nineteen-forties. “I wanted to make a point through the book that we’re simply reinventing something, it’s not a unique cultural product,” she says. “People have been producing their own manifestos and writing about things that are personally important to them forever.”

Pohl-Weary’s interest in social commentary, particularly feminism, is reflective of both Merril’s and her immediate family’s influence. Strong female role models gave her a heightened political consciousness from an early age. “I have this legacy of feminists going back three generations,” she says. “[Merril’s] mother was a suffragette and ran a halfway house in the Bronx for young offenders. I couldn’t have been anything but a feminist or an activist. I feel like I’ve cheated in a way, because I have these feminists as my relatives. I didn’t have to do any reading.”

Juan Miranda

Pohl-Weary, aged twelve, gets an early start on her writing career.

Following years of shunning corporate media and popular entertainment, Pohl-Weary’s latest work trumpets her recent embrace of mainstream cultural consumption. Girls Who Bite Back, an anthology of comics, art, essays, and fiction compiled by Pohl-Weary, explores the theme of women as superheroes, witches, and mutants in pop culture. The book’s contributors—which include Sonja Ahlers, Nalo Hopkinson, Zoe Whittall, and the honourary girl Sherwin Tjia—analyze both the good and the bad sides of these themes, and encourage readers to actively participate in the culture they consume. “As you just start accepting something without thinking about what you would change or what you would make better if you were in the position to create a magazine…then you become just like a fan, a non-active participant, and that’s not good,” Pohl-Weary says. “Fans see only one thing. They see this idol, and that’s, I think, a lot of what’s wrong with the cultural industry, the mass-market industry.”

Pohl-Weary credits her younger sister, Julia, as the reason she can once again watch television without cringing. “She brings this whole new world to me. As she gets older, she gets interested in things that are really cool, but that I wouldn’t have ever known about because I’m thirty.” Despite being told as a child that pop culture was not an altogether good thing, Pohl-Weary admits she has grown into an acceptance of pop culture. “My parents wanted me to read educational things or watch TV with no kind of product placement or action figures that you could go buy,” she says. “I guess [it’s] just me becoming more comfortable with myself, and feeling like it’s O.K. to revel in pop culture a little bit.”

In Girls Who Bite Back, Pohl-Weary attempts to share with readers the tools to look at pop culture critically—a theme she is considering exploring further in another book on creating art in a consumer culture. “I come at it from the perspective of seeing this in myself—devouring books or comics, or whatever, watching TV—and sometimes I’ll sit down to watch one show that is actually good, and end up sitting there for four hours watching shit,” she says. “And with books: How many books are in Chapters? Millions. How many get thrown out in the distribution process? Is creating a book simply adding to landfill, or is there greater meaning to it in this age of fast food? ”

Along with her Kiss Machine duties, Pohl-Weary has two novels on the go. The tentatively titled Sugar in the Ghost, the story of a slacker whose boy-friend commits suicide, is expected to be published this fall by McGilligan. The second, a mystery novel—a genre Pohl-Weary loves—is based on an outline created by Edward Stratemeyer for the Nancy Drew series, launched in 1930, which Pohl-Weary was addicted to as a child. “It’s such a pulp thing, mystery novels,” she says. “There’s no pressure to be literary, so when you do, it’s almost like an accident. You can make your character do the most ridiculous thing at any one moment.”

Writing isn’t Pohl-Weary’s only outlet for her cultural-consumption tendencies. Since 2001, she and Poletto have curated the Inflatable Museum, an on-line gallery of blow-up toys, paintings, and performance items. “The whole paradox of the Inflatable Museum is that it’s in cyberspace and it’s actually two-dimensional, whereas inflatable art is inherently not,” Pohl-Weary says. “So, we thought it would be funny to celebrate our inflatable culture and how anything can be inflated.” Pohl-Weary is also creating a choose-your-own-adventure-style video game, titled Paula’s Mystery Adventure, with Sally McKay, the co-founding editor of the now-defunct art magazine Lola.

It’s easy to call Pohl-Weary a critical cheerleader. On one hand, she shows a great enthusiasm for the work of her friends: she describes the most recent book by the author Tamara Faith Berger—a modern retelling of the story of Mary of Egypt—which Pohl-Weary edited, as “incredible”; Poletto’s artwork, she says with admiration, is “sensual and textual.” This enthusiasm fuels Pohl-Weary’s own projects, but it’s not enthusiasm alone that makes them work, says Niedzviecki. “I think she’s definitely someone who gets excited about things and does them, which is great,” he says. “At the same time, you can’t just get excited about everything and just do it. You have to have some reservation, some skepticism, and a critical eye. To have people out there that have both, I think, is a great example for younger, up-and-coming creators.”

As Kiss Machine’s popularity continues to grow—along with its production values—Pohl-Weary says she has no desire to see it become a soulless industry. “Kiss Machine can only be about enjoyment for me, or I won’t want to keep doing it. When it starts to be an obligation, I’ll have to stop,” she says. “I keep coming up with ideas for things. They’re all time-intensive, so hopefully I can earn enough money so I don’t have to worry about not being able to do them.” As long as she keeps coming up with ideas, thinking, “I have to do this,” there is little reason to think she won’t.