Carolyn Zaikowski interview by Michael T. Fournier

Paging All Punks #4

Welcome to the fourth installment of Paging All Punks, in which I talk to writers about punk rock.

Carolyn Zaikowski and I both taught at Holyoke Community College in Western Massachusetts for years, but we never met until after I moved to Cape Cod in 2016. We read on the same bill that year, and I was impressed with Carolyn’s novel, In a Dream I Dance with Myself, and I Collapse (Civil Coping Mechanisms). We got to talking and discovered we had both lived in Boston at the same time— again, without knowing each other—and both attended Fugazi’s second-to-last Boston show in 2002. (If you watch the video on YouTube, Carolyn is visible onstage—and I’m audible, correcting the band about the last time they played Boston.)

You can find Carolyn online at and/or @carolynzzz.

Mike: What was it about living in the Merrimack Valley (in Massachusetts) that made you seek out counterculture?

Carolyn: Well, I’ve always been a weird kid. I was always a writer, since I was five, maybe earlier. I had a group of nerdy girl friends who were readers and writers together. My father was a musician and guitar teacher, and my mother is a visual artist, so I think it was natural. I always liked music and felt like I had an outsider identity, like a lot of people do. It makes a lot of sense that I would have gravitated towards the arts and music.

I’m sure there was other stuff going on—trying to find kindred spirits, and feeling like an outsider, loser kind of person. The things that bring people to punk, trying to find a tribe, which went well in some ways and didn’t go well in others. [laughs] You know, depending on the time period you look at in my journey.

Mike: When you were first getting into punk, was it still that dynamic where things weren’t really segregated yet? I mean that in the sense that when I was going to high school, all the weird kids hung out together—the punks, the hippies…

Carolyn: Like freak subcultures hanging out together?

Mike: Yeah!

Carolyn: No. There was a lot of division between the hippies and the punk and hardcore kids. Not division in the sense of animosity and fighting, but they were essentially separate groups of people when I was in high school. It wasn’t like that for you?

Mike: By the time I was getting into punk rock I had moved from the Boston suburbs to New Hampshire. Certainly there were identifiable rafts of punk kids, but if there was a show at the skateboard ramp, all the weirdos would show up: goth kids, the hippies, the crunchy kids, the punks.

Carolyn: I feel like as I got older, it started to overlap, as a lot of the hardcore kids broke their edge and started doing hallucinogens and smoking pot. Now that I think back, it had a direct correlation with people not being straightedge anymore and trying to find people to get weed and shrooms from.

Mike: It makes sense that that would happen, because the material aspect of the punk subculture also had this connection to Grateful Dead culture, where you had a rack of tapes.

Carolyn: Totally. And then there were some raver kids and goth kids. It was all pretty separated out. But my beginnings were a lot more in the hardcore scene. I was in the ’90s. Things had shifted. DC punk really influencing mid- and late-’90s hardcore. That kind of overlap. In particular, screamo before emo became this pop culture word. That was a really big part of me and my identity. That music really spoke to me.

Mike: Before it showed up in crossword puzzles.

Carolyn: And before it was a haircut, or a facial expression and a style. Not that it didn’t have style elements now, but before it was this popular, emo was a specific type of music that doesn’t sound anything like emo does today.

Mike: On Facebook, you were asking about touchstones for personal style. I always think about how starting in like 1995 I wanted to wear—and still want to wear—Dickies work shirts and black pants and pretend I’m in Hoover. 

Carolyn: I still pretty much dress like I did back then. I got a real kick out of it when the ’90s came back into style because I was like, “I’m cool again.” [laughs] I’m never without a pair of canvas Chuck Taylors or Vans. That’s an essential part of my wardrobe. I still try to sneak in army-colored clothing. That was an edgy punk rock statement back in the day that I’ve never let go of.

But I guess there’s a very real way in which I haven’t given up my punk soul. I’m really stubborn about it. I don’t always talk about it as “punk” anymore. It’s interesting, because I was alienated in that hardcore scene because I was a girl. It wasn’t until a little later that I found a tribe of feminists and interesting queer people who were being cool about gender.

Mike: You went to see those early screamo bands in the Merrimack Valley—I remember you mentioned Reversal Of Man.

Carolyn: I loved them. They were radical, but they didn’t really talk about feminism. Everyone at their shows were men, with girls in the back. Our boyfriends would call us the coat rack.

But those bands—Reversal Of Man, Inkwell, Saetia—there’s something in that movement. I can’t quite find the words for it—men reclaiming emotion in this way that was really interesting. Literally, men screaming to the point where they sounded like they were crying.

Mike: Then there was the thing after the show where you’d be like, “Hey, did you see Jim? He wasn’t doing the sickest moves in the pit.” It’d be like, “He was totally crying during the set.”

Carolyn: And the chest thump, pulling at your face. Yeah! I suspect the misogyny aspect wasn’t just the circles I was running in. It was pretty common. I used to go to shows in Worcester, in New Hampshire. The DC stuff came the closest to being feminist. But besides that, most hardcore was really misogynist, and sometimes explicitly so in the youth crew hardcore scene, which is where the worst stuff happened and where the worst men—or boys—were.  

I didn’t realize it because I was steeped in it. But something that always jumps out at me is that the one self-defined riot grrrl I knew wouldn’t give me or any of my friends names of riot grrrl bands. She was like, “I just don’t want it to get cool.” I was always a riot grrrl at heart, and I didn’t find feminist or riot grrrl punk or hardcore scenes until college.

Mike: You know Los Crudos and Limp Wrist? You know Martin?

Carolyn: Yeah.

Mike: When Limp Wrist played MassArt, they played a classroom. I went to see them and Martin was doing his raps between songs. He was like, “This is Boston, this is the birthplace of modern hardcore, and I want to thank everyone for taking their shirts off in the pit and fueling my masturbatory fantasies throughout my teen years,” and everyone was blown away by that, pointing out the homoeroticism in hardcore.

Carolyn: It’s pretty intense. One could write a book on the gender dynamic specific to that scene. It’s amazing, the extent to which I internalized the misogyny. It wasn’t always blatant misogyny, but when you’re fourteen and you go to a show, and it’s all men in the bands and all the girls are in the back, it’s a pretty intense thing to be immersed in. But I still loved the bands so much! And I didn’t start listening to bands with girls in them until I was probably nineteen. It’s crazy to me. I just didn’t have access to it. It was basically pre-internet.

Mike: Dovetailing off the no internet discussion, I started seeing pictures of San Diego stuff in HeartattaCk, kids dressing like Romulans. Then it was trying to piece together what that whole scene was about. It seemed like there was a dress code, which made it feel more inclusive in a weird way, that it was codified. That made me seek it out more.

Carolyn: So you could do it right, signifying to people, “I’m emo, I really am. I’m scene. I’m a scenester.”

Mike: I still do that. And it seems like you do, too.

Carolyn: Yeah. Honestly, I think that’s a really human urge. We all signify to other people with our style.

I totally do that. I just bought a pair of vegan Doc Martens.

I’m going through a lot of transitions in my life. This interview is really timed in an interesting way. Internally, I’ve been reconnecting to my punk roots. Maybe a more accurate phrase is my anarcho feminist roots. I really feel connected to riot grrrl, post-riot grrrl, and DIY egalitarian movements that were essentially anarchist in the late ’90s and early 2000s. And I’m getting older, so it feels weird to call myself an anarcho feminist, but it also feels really important to be like, “This is really a key part of my ethos and it’s okay.” Punk really isn’t dead—it just goes to bed at nine o’clock.

That was coming out of the misogynist hardcore scene when I was a teenager, and finding a more egalitarian tribe was powerful. It was this permission to be a feminist, to take up space. Even the men that I knew, most of them, in those worlds were amazing human beings who were trying to encourage the women. 

That was early Against Me! I don’t know if you were a fan.

Mike: I worked Boston restaurants in those years. They were omnipresent in kitchens.

Carolyn: They didn’t used to be this famous. We would go see them at little warehouses. My boyfriend at the time and I had a book distro through AK Press.

Mike: Oh, no way!

Carolyn: Yeah, we’d sell our copies of SCUM Manifesto and whatever Noam Chomsky reader had came out. We’d go see them in Cambridge and Providence. Against Me! flipped—or I should say updated—a lot of punk rock to include a gender analysis.

Mike: I didn’t know about the distro. Can you talk about that vis-à-vis where you were writing-wise?

Carolyn: That’s an interesting connection. Gosh. At the time, I was still writing a lot of poetry, which is something I stopped for a while but have come back to. And I was writing some straightforward fiction that, in hindsight, was horrible.

My partner at the time and I were animal rights activists and we had this distro. We called it the Flower Capers. Did I tell you this story?

Mike: No.

Carolyn: We were really into Harold and Maude, which has one of the most badass fucking punk scenes of all movies ever. It’s this scene where they try to liberate the tree. They’re going up and down the road, and this cop is falling off his motorcycle in a comedic way. Maude is making fun of the cop. She’s this anarchist hero. She wants to replant a tree that was in front of this shitty little bank. Have you seen it?

Mike: I have. It’s my wife’s favorite movie.

Carolyn: My partner and I were so into the movie that we started this “movement” called the Flower Capers. We’d dress up in anarchist masks and all black and we’d go to Burger King and gas stations and steal little pieces of their landscaping, flowers, and we’d leave a note: “You have been visited by the Flower Capers. Your flowers are in a better home now.” We’d replant them in a cemetery or an old folks’ home.

We had a LiveJournal where we invited people from all over the country to do flower capering. You had to wear a mask, like the Earth Liberation Front, but for landscaping. But from there, we had the Flower Capers book distro.

I didn’t start writing the way I do now until a year or two after I graduated college. That was the time period I was telling you about when I found Kathy Acker and Kenneth Patchen.

Mike: We were talking about Kenneth Patchen, and about how the connection between him and Crass and all the anarcho punk stuff is so blatant.

Carolyn: I know! It’s cliché to say about Patchen, but he was so before his time. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves for inspiring the counterculture writing movement of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. I would be so bold as to say that he would have been a punk rocker and an anarchist if he had been born in the ’70s or ’80s. His stuff is so radical and completely anti-war during a time when you weren’t supposed to be anti-war. It wasn’t something people were doing.

I read The Journal of Albion Moonlight and Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School around the same time. Those two books blew my world open, in terms of not realizing you could represent the chaos of the mind and trauma on the page in this way that’s disjointed and dissociated and hypervigilant and obtrusive. My world pretty literally shifted. It made me want to go to Naropa, this really experimental writing program. It was what made me interested in the topic of my master’s thesis, which was representing trauma as text in a form on the page. Going from getting my mind blown to going to Naropa—finding a place where you can be like that as a writer—was a pretty big deal.

Mike: Having had experience in the scene, maybe you understand that you don’t have to wait to be anointed. There are different versions of success and different pathways to it, rather than the established “pitching journals and trying to get an agent” thing.

Carolyn: Those were really formative years for me, being not only allowed, but encouraged. I got into Naropa for being weird! The atmosphere there is, “Who are you?” “What’s your personal freak flag?” “How can you fly it in your writing?” They’re not obsessed with genre; they’re obsessed with each person’s individual freak flag and how they can get you to be who you are as a writer, which is a different paradigm from a lot of other MFA programs, where they carefully cultivate based on aesthetic and genre. Obviously, Naropa has this whole history of Buddhism and counterculture of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. It’s got a dark side. Naropa has its problems, but I was just allowed to be punk there. I had a bit of a reputation, even. Because a lot of people you might peg as “hippies” go to Naropa. But I was the punk kid and people accepted me for it. I no longer had to prove myself as a punk girl. I felt welcome there in a way that was really important mentally.

What’s the most punk thing you’ve ever done?

Mike: I drove around with Mike Watt in his van while he showed me stuff.  I toured Dischord House. Those are scene point things.

Carolyn: Maybe there’s a distinction between scene points and punk points.

Mike: I put out a literary journal which is derived from the punk ethos. I’ve been doing that for years.

Carolyn: You’re holding onto the punk ethos with that journal. I think that counts.

Mike: I stole that from my friend Todd from Nashville, who had been doing it for years before.

Carolyn: And you still have time to do more punk things.

Mike: I do. I’m still doing a lot of stuff for Razorcake. I do this, I review records. My band is playing our first show in five years pretty soon.

How about you? I was trying to figure out if I’d broken a bottle over my head, or smashed the state somehow.

Carolyn: I have an answer. The most punk thing I did was hitchhike to the summer writing program at Naropa.

Mike: Oh, that’s pretty good.

Carolyn: I hitchhiked alone from the Mass Pike to Indiana, then met up with a punk friend. I even broke my arm while I was hitchhiking and had to get an ambulance to bring us to the hospital from a field in the middle of a truck stop. This nurse snuck us back to the field so we could go at midnight after I got my cast and my Vicodin. We were at that truck stop for a couple days, and there were tornadoes coming and nobody would pick us up. I was all high on Vicodin.

I will never forget the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company eighteen wheeler. This brown, pink, and green truck, the most beautiful truck I had ever seen. Granted, I had been outside in the sun on Vicodin for two and a half days, but I jumped onto the side of that moving truck and waved my arm around and was like, “You have to give us a ride! There’s tornadoes coming! I have a broken arm!” And he finally let us in and drove us all the way straight through to Denver.

I showed up at Naropa with a tent and a broken arm and a whiskey flask and was like, “Anyone have a place for me to stay?” I camped in my friend’s yard for most of that summer. I cut off all my hair in a bathroom stall.

Mike: That was Revolution Summer for Carolyn.

Carolyn: Yeah, I guess so. That was a weird time but I would do it again.

Mike: Nowadays, do you think now your work is becoming more traditional? Is that fair?

Carolyn: That’s one way to frame it. I think I’m just interested in all genres. That’s part of it, too. I really like words. I’ve always felt like words are my friend who will always be there, and words ask me to do things, and I try to do what words tell me to do. If it’s hybrid, if it’s poetry, if it’s a straightforward narrative, I just try to heed the call of the words.

Mike: I know In a Dream I Dance with Myself, and I Collapse—we did a reading together where you read from it. I have a copy of it, and I read it—that book has a non-traditional form. Then there’s A Child Is Being Killed, which is more traditional.

Carolyn: It has a narrative in it, but it’s still fragmented. A lot of people have a hard time finding a way into that book, which I knew would be the case, and I’m fine with it. That book was my creative thesis. I had become interested in that idea—or trauma on the page and the idea of a traumatized text—the text itself, or the narrative displaying the symptoms of trauma. It’s the thing that destroys narrative, and trauma memories take place out of time. They’re in the part of the brain that’s not linear and don’t get integrated into a story in a normal timeline.

In a Dream I wasn’t thinking about that book consciously as I wrote that. I was just writing in notebooks, lowkey manically, for several months when I was going through some difficult stuff. This was right when I moved to Western Mass. I was writing down whatever words wanted to be written. I saw a form in it. I call it a novel, because “novel” means new. I really like the idea that narratives can be told in ways that are surprising and disjointed.

Mike: I remember that book embracing and pushing away the language of self-help.

Carolyn: Yeah, there’s a lot of epistolary elements in it. So-called non-literary texts and subverted questionnaires and chances for readers to physically interact with the book by writing. There are spaces to write a five paragraph essay on a certain topic.

Mike: Yeah, you’re supposed to rip out the last page and send it to you. Did you ever get any of those?

Carolyn: No, but I have a friend who has taught my book, and who has people fill in the essays and do the surveys, which makes me really happy.

Ultimately, I didn’t think it would be published. I was writing it for myself and in a coping mechanism kind of way. But it’s gotten a great response. I’m surprised at the extent which the people who read it immerse themselves in it and meet it on its own terms. It’s been really heartening.

Mike: So the new project is more traditional because that’s the space you’re in, somehow?

Carolyn: I think it’s a number of factors. I love traditional novels. I used to write a lot in the more straightforward short story/novel form when I was younger. I think it was 2016, I read Elena Ferrante’s The Neapolitan Novels, and had another paradigm shift. You know you read something once every five or ten years that blows your world open?

Mike: Yeah, sure.

Carolyn: That happened when I read The Neapolitan Novels. I was really inspired in the sense of, “Why don’t I write this way anymore? I used to be so interested in narrative and character and narrative structure and setting and classic elements of fiction.” I feel like she empowered me to go back to that in this interesting way. That maybe I wanted to try publishing in more mainstream journals and see what happens.

The story of the novel I’m writing is a story I’ve been trying to write for probably fifteen years or more, that I’ve been writing and rewriting. So it’s a little bit of a tic. I knew some day I’d have to write it.

Mike: With my new novel, which is in progress and I think is fairly traditional, as far as my stuff goes, I’m in this space that’s weird, because it’s a romanticized space—you always hear authors talking about characters having a life of their own. I’m doing stuff and then ten moves later I realize why I did it. I’m not conscious of why I did it.

Carolyn: Oh, yeah.

Mike: I really dislike the sorta shamanistic narrative where you don’t have control over your work, but increasingly I’m finding it to be true that I’m not consciously trying to do stuff, but it’s there for a reason.

Carolyn: I’ve become really interested in this idea. I have a critique of productivity culture. I feel like more than in any of the other arts, in writing there’s the thing about, “What’s your writing routine?” and routines of famous writers. If you don’t write every day and you’re not producing, you’re somehow not a writer. It’s connected to the capitalist psychology.

Mike: And privilege, too.

Carolyn: Oh, yeah! I mean, the elephant in the room is that in order to write, to create every day, you basically can’t have kids, can’t be poor. You have to be safe, physically, emotionally, all these ways that have to do with race and gender and ability.

I thought a lot about that. I’ve tried to call it out a couple times, because I think that it’s oppressive. But I’ve also come around—partially through my Buddhist spiritual practices—to realizing that there’s this intuitive moment to creativity that this culture stubs so hard. For example, people being obsessed with writer’s block. Where did we get the idea that we’re supposed to be creating constantly? And that there’s no room for the subconscious element of the seeds being planted? Let it grow! Don’t just dig it up and look at the roots neurotically. Water it. Be patient. It’s a birthing process. I hate to sound like such a hippie. But I’m basically thirty-seven, and I’ve been writing since I was five. I’ll go a year without writing. I’ve come to realize that’s part of my writing process. I’ve seen students and people I know force themselves to write, and their work isn’t meeting their potential because they’re stuffing the birthing process a little bit.

Mike: We’re in this moment—maybe it’s longer than a moment—where you put out a piece of work online. The most successful pieces hang around for like a week, so there’s this compulsion to keep producing content over. I’m not sure what the opposite of content is in this case.

Carolyn: Process, maybe? It’s a content vs. process dichotomy.

You know, I was talking to someone the other day about how I believe that at least fifty percent of the writing process isn’t writing. That’s my experience. And I’m pretty productive in terms of the number of pages I’ve produced in my life, despite the fact that I go really long periods without writing. I feel fiery about letting people know that it’s okay.

Mike: The romanticized notion of sitting at the desk. Like if you read Stephen King’s stuff, On Writing—who has six hours a day to do this stuff?

Carolyn: Well, Stephen King does. Because he’s a fucking millionaire, and a white man.

Mike: That ties into the idea of the privileged narrative of creation that you’re talking about.

Carolyn: I think it could very loosely be talked about in terms of the archetypal masculine and feminine modes. We could have a whole other conversation problematizing that. But, generally speaking, there’s this idea of receptivity and this idea of being an active creator. I’ve gotten really interested in the idea of that, in the idea of, “What if I think of writing as receiving?”

I know I’m getting into some potentially new age-sounding stuff here. [laughs] But it works for me, this idea of coming back to the present moment. I’ll go to an inside place and see what’s there instead of this neurotic clinging to a vision or a goal. When I can loosen a little and be in a receiver mindset, it’s ironically a lot more productive.

Mike: With the last book I wrote, I had these points that I wanted the arc to run through. In trying to make the narrative hit those points, the book was really bad. [laughs]

Carolyn: I mean, the narrative tells you what it wants. It’s up to you whether you listen to it. Are you going to heed the call? That’s the idea I’ve been playing with for the last few years.

Mike: With this new one, I’ve loosened my grip on the reigns, and it kinda drags me around. Again, I don’t want this to sound like I’m some shaman conducting a ceremony, because I hate that. But there’s an aspect of truth to it.

Carolyn: I think it’s true that creativity—it’s creativity! It goes beyond logic. It’s one of the first things cavemen ever did, draw on their cave walls and tell oral stories. And it’s safe to say, without getting new age-y or shamanistic, that there are a lot of aspects of creativity that we don’t honor, in terms of the intuitive element, the ancient element. For me, I’d even say the spiritual element. For me, Buddhism has really helped me rediscover that. And Naropa.

Mike: Do you know that Ian MacKaye’s got another new band?

Carolyn: It’s happening now?

Mike: He and Amy (Farina) and Joe (Lally) are in a band.

Carolyn: What are they called?

Mike: They’re called Coricky.

Carolyn: Are they good?

Mike: They’ve played three shows, I think, and they’re asking the audience to respectfully not record any audio. So I expect some album to drop at some point. That ties into the idea that you pitched of content vs. process. Rather than catching the band when they’re still trying to get their songs nailed down, they’re making you wait to get the object. I respect that. And I wish that more bands would do that.

Carolyn: I can respect that. They really put their money where their mouth is with punk ethics and not selling out. I think we should pay our respects and not buy their bootlegs that they don’t want people to be hearing. Show some respect to Ian if he asks for it in that way.

Carolyn: Didn’t we talk about how we were both at that Fugazi show at MassArt?

Mike: We did talk about that. That was my tenth and last Fugazi show.

Carolyn: Wow. I had never seen them before. I think I told you the story of my friend’s band opening. They asked me to videotape it on an old school video camera with a tape. My other friend recorded his cat over it.

Mike: Eulcid, right?

Carolyn: Yeah, Eulcid. They were cool. They were feminist. The bassist in that band is one of my favorite human beings in the world, one of the most genuinely feminist men I’ve ever met.

Mike: I saw them at Brandies. My old roommate was in Hassan I Sabbah.

Carolyn: I might have been at that show. I went through a phase of going to shows at Brandeis.

Who’s your favorite band? I feel like I’ve never asked you that.

Mike: Oh, man. Well, the Minutemen, because I wrote that book about them. Fugazi.

Carolyn: Is that definitive? Those are you two faves?

Mike: Yeah. Fugazi, their whole ethical stance and the way they maintained it is really similar to Crass, except they’re way more listenable than Crass is. [laughs]

Carolyn: Yeah, I’d have to agree. Speaking of favorite bands and Crass, I should mention Björk, who has been another creator who has been most influential to me. I like to tell everybody I can that Björk was a seminal figure in the Icelandic punk movement, which extended to European punk. She was really immersed in that scene. She was an anarcho punk and on Crass Records. Her outlook is pretty fucking punk.

Mike: Being on-Cape, I’m dressing the punk part even more now. There are fewer people here who are with me, so I want to make sure the flag is totally visible.

Carolyn: Do you ever wear patches?

Mike: I have a Razorcake backpatch now, which I never had before.

Carolyn: Badass.

Mike: It looks so cool. It’s got the big biker-style letters on the back, the Germs circle.

Carolyn: Can you get away with wearing that when you teach? Backpatches are not a boundary I’ve pushed with business casual yet, and I’ve really pushed business casual boundaries.

Mike: Carolyn, I mostly use my white male privilege to wear punk clothes to school.

Carolyn: There’s a teacher in another department in my school who’s straight up ratty blue jeans and band T-shirts and long hair. I’m like, “All right, let’s see how far I can push this.” But I’ve never worn a band T-shirt to teach, ever.

Mike: I did that at Holyoke (Community College) all the time.

Carolyn: Maybe I just need to own that.

Mike: If you portray yourself as the girl with all the emo T-shirts, that becomes part of your calling.

Carolyn: I’m getting old enough and I have chronic pain and stuff, but I dream of trainhopping.

Mike: I’ve never gone trainhopping.

Carolyn: There’s still time. Wanna go trainhopping?

Mike: I’ll meet you down at the station.

Carolyn: I want to go trainhopping. And dumpster diving. Am I having a midlife crisis?

Mike: You’re asking the guy who just started wearing a backpatch.