Paging All Punks
Welcome to the second installment of Paging All Punks, in which I talk to writers about their connection with punk rock.
I met Emma Alice Johnson in her hometown of Minneapolis a few years ago. Emma’s work is weird—so weird, in fact, that I didn’t have a frame of reference for her writing. After some digging, I discovered her work fits into the bizarre fiction genre. She wears this affiliation to a very specific scene as a badge of honor. Giant lobsters invade cities, zombies populate New York City’s hardcore scene, action figures come to life. It’s by turns grotesque, intense, and hilarious.
In an attempt to figure out what makes Emma tick, I called her on July 17, 2019. We had a great chat about her fiction and its connection to monolith culture, GG Allin and more. I hope you dig it. You can check Emma’s work out at freaktension.wordpress.com.
Mike: Emma, which came first for you: writing or punk rock?
Emma: Writing was first. I fell in love with it as soon as I realized what storytelling was. I knew this was going to be the focus as soon as I could hold a pencil.
Mike: It sounds like that was really early in your youth.
Emma: I started writing when I was literally three or four years old. A lot of it was my grandfather. We would sit around and make up stories and draw pictures to accompany them. I have memories of pages and pages of paper strewn across the basement floor of my grandparents’ house, covered with robots that we drew and storylines to go with them.
Mike: As you were doing creative things with your grandparents, did you have an urge to keep the stuff or bind it? Or was it more disposable?
Emma: It was very disposable. I’ve retained very little of it. My parents are moving today, so I had to take a lot of stuff that I had been storing from their house and go through it. I found some stories I wrote as a kid: grade school, kindergarten, before. There’s always pictures. I was big on art, too.
To circle back to the question, I still feel like it’s very disposable. Ninety percent of what I write is forgotten, left in a hard drive somewhere. To me, the joy of it is in the creation. There’s a lot of fun in producing it and bringing it to publication, but the main impetus is the creation and the joy of telling the story, getting it on paper and making it vivid and fun.
Mike: Dovetailing off my original question, which came first: getting the work out there, or punk rock?
Emma: Punk rock came first.
Mike: How did that happen?
Emma: I got into punk pretty early. I’d say later grade school years. I was obsessed with monsters, and my skater friend’s older brother was listening to the Misfits. I found my way to them—they felt like the perfect band for me (and they still do). So I got into punk rock, DIY, and zines. I saw people putting out their own publications! I was like, “Why don’t I do that?” So I started doing a zine, and there would be a short story in there, goofy true life tales, and random nonsense. Music reviews, of course—what punk rock zine from the ’90s didn’t have them?
Mike: Was that Freak Tension that you’re talking about?
Emma: That was, yeah!
Mike: Can you give me a brief overview of it?
Emma: I started working on the first issue in ’96 or ’97. I read about the Small Press Co-Op in either Maximum Rock’n’roll or Slug And Lettuce. They were printing zines really cheap, and did a lot of assembly work. I would send them very rough mock-ups and they would turn them into something cool-looking. I didn’t believe in selling them back then, so I’d go to punk shows and give them out. People got into it.
I finally wrapped it up six or seven years ago with issue fifteen. By that time the Small Press Co-Op had closed down, so I was doing photocopies, which ultimately I think I liked better. I liked the tactile aspect of holding and stapling. Something about that was really fulfilling to me.
Mike: Were you in Minneapolis when you started publishing?
Emma: I was in Eau Claire, Wis., which is where I was born and raised. Eau Claire had a nice scene with some cool DIY stuff, but shows weren’t frequent enough so we’d drive to Minneapolis, too.
Mike: Were there any bands or zines in Eau Claire that I might recognize?
Emma: Oh gosh… no! [laughs]
I mean, I’m sure there were. It was a cool, small town scene where everyone had a band at some point. I was in a band for like three practices and we were a saxophone noise punk band or something. It didn’t get off the ground.
Eau Claire could have probably done more in terms of a scene. But we were good at bringing bands from the cities. There were cool shows. The Varukers played there really early in my show-going days. That was hugely influential.
Wisconsin had the Beer City Records scene going on, so all these hardcore bands from Kenosha like 1096 and Urban Decay defined what I wanted to see: bloody, messy, dirty punk and hardcore.
Mike: That’s very much in line with conversations you and I have had about GG Allin.
Emma: Absolutely! I’m an unapologetic GG Allin fangirl. I understand absolutely everything that’s sketchy about him, but I love him.
Mike: Did you move from Minneapolis to Eau Claire?
Emma: I moved to Green Bay, Wis. first. It’s funny, because growing up in Eau Claire, I had this idea that Green Bay was a big city, so I moved there. Green Bay did have an absolutely amazing punk rock scene in the late ’90s and into the early 2000s with the Concert Café, which was my favorite venue in the world: shows every night, bands coming from all over the country. I moved there on the tail end of that scene, which was more pop punk and garage rock oriented.
I fell in with a group of scummy hardcore kids. We were doing basement shows and smashing bottles and getting into fights, that whole thing. I did that for about six years, and moved over to Minneapolis, and here I am.
Mike: I think of Minneapolis as having this mystique because of Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. Did you have any sense of that mythology when you were involved in the scene there?
Emma: Not really. [laughs]
I mean, there was discussion about those bands, and their shadow, but it felt very this is happening now. And at least among the people I hung out with, it was more about the contemporary bands. It was about Man Afraid and the Saltines and Dillinger Four and Lifter Puller and Selby Tigers.
I didn’t start digging into Hüsker Dü until much later. I’ve since fallen in love with them, especially the Grant Hart side of the discography.
Mike: Did you go to that reading I did with Grant in Minneapolis?
Emma: I didn’t! Why didn’t I go to that? Was I not here?
Mike: It was at the AWP conference in Minneapolis. That was the first time we met.
Emma: It was because I was hosting a different reading that night. I was hosting something at Grumpy’s and you were at Patrick’s Cabaret.
Mike: I read about your reading at Grumpy’s online. Everyone was talking about how awesome and performative it was. Is that your standard method when you do readings?
Emma: It used to be. I fell in with the bizarre fiction family or subgenre. It feels like a community to me. It’s a group of writers who are all doing aggressively weird fiction that doesn’t fall into the borders of horror or sci-fi or other genres that might be considered weird. Historically, it’s about having these performances. There are legends of people like Cameron Pierce having readings where raw meat is thrown around—craziness. The godfather of bizarre fiction was Carlton Mellick. He goes into this character every time he does a reading, and it’s so larger than life. Discovering that blew my mind, because I had spent time in the academic side of things, going to the university where people did readings in a monotone, staring at the podium. Having spent so much time in punk rock, it was hard for me to connect with those sorts of events.
I fell in love with bizarro. It’s very crowd-involved, a lot of movement, a lot of energy. I started bringing a lot of that into my performances: a lot of yelling, a lot of moving around, smashing things. Wild and crazy in the spectrum of literature readings.
Mike: Your love of that splatterpunk genre musically seems like it translated well to the bizarre fiction world.
Emma: It did! There’s been discussion of this recently: what it’s like to shock an audience. Some of my writing is very shock oriented, but that’s never been my goal. It’s just how it turns out because of my influences.
GG Allin thought it was his mission to shock people. But he was putting himself in front of crowds that typically expected it, so how shocking is it to give people what they’re expecting?
People don’t expect it from literature. There are a lot of people who go to readings who don’t expect people to be jumping on top of chairs and stuff. I try to play it very fun. It’s sharing these stories in a vivid and energetic way. I’m not trying to piss people off. I know people get upset because my readings defy their expectations. But that was never my goal.
Mike: In terms of live performances of bizarre punk and some of the stuff you did, it seems in line with you as a little child, finding joy in creating stuff. It seems like there’s a link there.
Emma: It’s all very of the moment. It’s easy to talk about writing as this laborious thing where you’re sitting in front of the computer, pounding keys. That’s what’s happening in the physical realm. What’s happening in the mental and emotional realm is this wild adventure that keeps moving forward. It’s only when you get into the more mechanical aspect of editing and refining when it becomes this process. The initial process is of the moment: let’s write down these stories, and if I ever come back to make them something publishable, so be it. If not, it served its purpose for me.
Performances, too. Get up onstage. Share this moment. Have these wild laughs together and let it pass. There were always people who wanted to record performances. I feel this way about punk rock shows, too. They’re both of the moment. You’re there. It’s not the same to watch it on YouTube. I understand that there are ableist connotations to that accessibility and whatnot, but I feel like it’s something to be present for.
Mike: How do you decide to transition any of the work you present in a live setting to the books you publish?
Emma: It’s entirely random. I’m occasionally more cutthroat about deciding what I’m going to write if there’s an anthology call looking for stories in a certain theme. I take that as the kernel and have my fun with it. If I feel like that’s something I can eventually sell, that’s going to get my attention and I’m going to refine that, versus the stories that I love so much that come to me when I’m waking up in the morning or going to sleep and I run to a notepad and start scribbling it down.
After the creation is over, if I look back and if I think it’s something that would be fun to share, that someone else is going to enjoy, it represents what I’m doing and I can find a place for it, then I’ll take it to that next step. I’ll go through of the real work of writing: refining it so that joy I had writing it translates to the reader.
Mike: There was a lot of wild stuff in Berzerkoids, but there was other stuff which was, for a lack of a better term, very MFA program in tone. The amount of control you have over genre and the way you distribute it throughout the book was fantastic. There’s a wide range of influences there.
Emma: Thank you! That’s my goal. There are certain hallmarks that I go for in my stories. They could spread from something gross and gory, with slime spewing everywhere, to something that’s more quiet and thoughtful and confined. That’s something which is pushing me and helping me have fun—exploring these different corners of what I can do, and pushing myself to new places, new genres, tones, and emotions expressed.
Mike: What projects are you working on right now?
Emma: I have so many things on a burner! I’m working on a new chapbook, which will be my comeback. It’s called Melt Girl, and that’s going to collect new and older, harder-to-find short stories. I’m going to do that DIY style—stapled and photocopied, and distribute that.
I’m really focusing my attention on short stories. I came to an understanding that at the end of the day, they’re what I love. I know that novels tend to be more popular in a lot of ways, but short stories are where I have the most fun. I have a lot of them coming out in a lot of fun, themed anthologies: I have a short story coming out in a book called Tales from the Crust, which is all pizza-themed horror. I’m excited about that. A book called The New Flesh is coming out and has one of my short stories. It’s all short stories inspired by David Cronenberg, who was one of my first loves when I fell in love with weird movies. And there’s a book called Rosalind’s Siblings, which is all feminist science stories about female, nonbinary, and queer scientists in various settings. My story is about a scientist who’s hired to understand the tendencies of giant lobsters invading a city to help determine scientifically how to deal with them. It’s the story I’m most proud of because of the beautiful turn it takes. It was very fulfilling for me to write.
Mike: You said your chapbook will be your comeback. What do you mean by that?
Emma: It’s my first chapbook under my real name, Emma Alice Johnson. I had previously written under a pseudonym that I no longer use or want to reference. I’m leaving that behind and starting fresh. This chapbook will be the first release under my new name.
Mike: Doing this comeback chapbook under your real name—how much of the audience’s expectations are you anticipating? Do you think there’s going to be pushback? Do you think it’s going to be hard to re-establish yourself with your new, proper name? What do you think it’s going to be like?
Emma: I’m just not worried about it. [laughs]
I do all of this for me. I feel like I’ve become very close with a lot of my readers and I feel like they will stick with me and read this. I feel like my new stuff is thematically similar. It’s the same heart in these stories. The biggest difference is that there’s more of it. There’s more heart in these stories.
Mike: I was doing writing I didn’t want to do for a while to help get my name out there. I’ve come to the point where I don’t think I want to do that kind of work any more. And that was hard.
Emma: It’s the hardest thing.
Mike: It’s awesome that you’re in a space, now, where you can do what you want. It’s hard to be in that space.
Emma: It is. And it ties back to me treating writing as of the moment. I’m okay with letting things go. I may bring some of my old books back into print under my new name at some point, but I may not. I might let them live out their lives—whatever happens to them happens and I move on. I think that’s okay. There’s pressure on writers to build this body of work. When you’re writing—I don’t see it that way. When I’m in a story, it’s my world. Once I’m done with that story, I have the discipline to do the mechanical work and get it published, but I’m onto the next thing. If these things connect, and have thematic similarities, so be it. But I’m happy with each story living on its own and trying to make its own way in the world. It doesn’t have to be this monolith. I’m not trying to build a monolith! I’m just writing these stories.
Mike: There’s the dueling notions of monoliths in punk. There’s record collectors—being a Misfits fan, you know how it is trying to find the first press of Horror Business or something. But then there are bands like the Screamers who never officially recorded. The monolith is the discussion of what happened after it happened. There’s that duality.
Emma: There really is. It’s especially interesting in punk rock. There’s such a collector’s aspect to it. I don’t ever want to talk it down, because I understand the fun in collecting. I have an obsessive collective streak in me. But it’s interesting that collecting is connected to something that’s so vivid and in the moment. You go to shows—I’ve seen bands in a basement where they smash some beer bottles and play some chords, and there’s screaming and movement and sweating, and then it’s over! You’ve got that feeling that’s going to be part of your creative or memory DNA forever. You don’t need to buy the record to have that. It’s part of you, and it was beautiful. You don’t need to collect all of the band’s singles to say that you’re a part of that.
Mike: But it’s so easy to talk myself into buying a shirt, because it’s half a tank of gas—there’s that supportive instinct.
Emma: I think that’s huge. People need to do that. Especially now, with so much history online. If you go to shows, you need to buy something solid. To me, it’s part of the ticket price. If you like a band and want to see them again, you buy their stuff. If I buy a shirt and wear it once and the band got ten or fifteen dollars, and it helped them buy some chicken nuggets or whatever? That’s cool! That’s part of that momentary thing. You’ve got this lingering object that you can wear, and you can think about them it that moment. Or you can throw it into a pile in your closet that you sort through twenty years later.
It’s all of those things woven together. I hate when fandom is when you have to have items: You’re not a Star Wars fan unless you have all the action figures, or you’re not a Misfits fan unless you have these records.
Like one of my earliest memories of wearing a punk rock T-shirt. I was into punk, but I wore my same dorky clothes until middle school, high school. I got a Dead Kennedys shirt at Truckers’ Union in Eau Claire and I wore it to school. I was a weird girl, and I was so proud of my Dead Kennedys shirt. And this kid who I thought was so cool—he was in charge of the high school radio station, and would play all these punk bands—assaulted me in the hall! He grabbed me by the shirt and slammed me up against the locker and started asking me trivia questions about the Dead Kennedys. He asked me what the guitar player’s name was, and what Jello Biafra’s name was. I couldn’t answer these questions. You know what? The only thing I was listening to at that time was Bedtime for Democracy, over and over. He was like “You don’t have Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables? You’re not a fan! You’re not allowed to wear that shirt any more, and if I see you wearing it I’m going to kick your ass.”
Ever since then, I’ve thought that’s not what fandom is. Fandom is falling in love with a piece of art—a song, a story—and having it mean something to you and developing your own meaning from it. There’s this back and forth of meaning, from artist to the person observing the art. That’s where the value is, not if you have Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables on the original vinyl. The Misfits are engrained in my heart, but I don’t have any stuff. How am I less of a fan than people who post on the Misfits message board shilling all their original pressings? I just don’t have as much money as them! [laughs]
Mike: Streaming culture is mind-blowing because tons of music is available easily. Kids can get into, like, Gainesville emo for a week, and they’re conversant in it. It’s great!
So, the idea that fandom isn’t so aggressively materialist is cool, too. That used to be the badge your bully had, and it’s good that we’ve separated ourselves from that. But it’s weird, too, right? Growing up with Star Wars toys, like you said, or with record collections—getting away from that feels really strange. Especially as a writer.
Emma: It feels strange, but that’s part of the story for us, right? It’s not the story for this generation.
Our story was having to stumble onto a copy of Maximum Rock’n’roll and look through all the adsand stuff five dollars in cash into an envelope and send it to Havoc Records to get three seven inches. That was part of the adventure. The people who are coming into it now, it’s okay that it’s not part of their story. It’s different for them, but it’s no less fun. It’s judgmental and ageist to say that there’s one way it’s supposed to be. As tempting as it is to have that filter of nostalgia and think they’re missing out, are they? If some kid is on a blog and downloads some Die Kreuzen stuff and starts listening to it and thinks it’s amazing. Or if someone shares X-Ray Spex on Facebook and some kid finds it and goes down a wormhole because the music hits them at the right moment? How is that less?
Mike: As writers, we’re conditioned to have the monolith bookshelf. You get to flex and be like “Check out all the books that I haven’t read yet but I bought,” or whatever it is.
Emma: I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of either. I still love having my collection because it’s where we came from. We didn’t come from an age where we could go on the computer and read books. I keep it under control, but there’s something reassuring about my bookshelf filled with books.
Mike: Marie Kondo was talking about purging stuff, so it’s been a good time for thrift store shopping recently. But being around physical media brings me joy. I’m not a huge collector nerd, but it’s nice to have that stuff around.
Emma: I haven’t watched the show or read her book, so I don’t entirely understand the message. But I understand getting to a point where you’ve accumulated all this stuff and it feels overwhelming. It’s eating your space and time. I’ve been to that point going through all this stuff from my parents’ house. Bringing it over to my apartment—there’s no place for it in my life. But I see how it had a place. It doesn’t bring me joy, but having a bookshelf filled with books does, many of which are unread. What’s the point in having a bookshelf of books that you’ve read?
Mike: I mentioned that I’m doing less writing that I feel obligated to do. A lot of that was book reviews. Now I can read whatever I want. It’s great!
Emma: For a while I got into this rut of reading what I thought I was supposed to read instead of what I wanted to read. You know what I mean?
Mike: I do. You were trying to read Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow or something like that?
Emma: Some rut or another, where I try to read the classics of horror or whatever genre. I’ve gone back to how I chose when I was a kid. It’s more whimsical and of the moment. For a while, it felt planned: I’m reading this thing I’m supposed to read. Enjoying it, to an extent. Right now, I love wandering into a bookstore and flipping around and randomly choosing something I have no history with or understanding of and seeing what it is. Having it speak to me.
The cool part of being part of a writing scene is that I have so many friends who write cool books. I can jump around and read their books and see what’s going on. I don’t want to get into a rut of what I’m supposed to read or listen to or watch. I’m not proving anything. I don’t have to prove to anyone in high school that I’m the ultimate punk rock girl by listening to all the right punk rock. I can listen to whatever random band, or Shakira, because fuck it, you know?
Mike: Finding whatever bad thing happened to you in the past, and telling the bully who did it to go fuck themselves is such an important thing. A lot of what you’re saying reminds me of a lot of mindfulness stuff that I’ve been reading. There’s a lot of truth to it.
Can I throw in a plug for something? I have a story out now in a book called Zombie Punks Fuck Off, all punk rock zombie stories. I love the concept—they come at the zombie genre and punk rock in such diverse ways. It’s such a beautiful book. I have a short story in it called “Rolled Up” which takes place in the mid-eighties New York hardcore scene, and is based on a random story that John Joseph told me when I was on his talking tour. I latched on to one bit of one story that he told and put it in a zombie setting. It’s weird as heck.
Mike: Sounds rad!Emma, thanks for talking to me!
Emma: Thanks for talking to me!