Jessie Lynn McMains interview by Michael T. Fournier

Jessie Lynn McMains portrait

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

Jessie Lynn McMains is a force: equally at home writing poetry, essays, or criticism, her voice evokes the Beats even as she adds modern insight. A onetime Poet Laureate of Racine, Wis., Jessie runs Bone and Ink Press, puts out the zine Reckless Chants, and contributes to great zines like Fluke.

By the time you read this, her new book The Loneliest Show on Earth will be out on Bottlecap Press. Jessie can be found at You can download her book What We Talk About When We Talk About Punk at, and find her on social media @rustbeltjessie.

Mike: Did you know that I taught a Jack Kerouac class in Lowell?

Jessie: I did not know that!

Mike: I taught at Middlesex Community College for a year and a half. The guy who hired me dropped out of music around Frank Zappa, when he had kids. He understood enough about punk rock to understand I might want to teach a Kerouac class. You’re a big Kerouac person.

Jessie: I am. Kind of embarrassingly. I feel like being into the Beats after a certain age is like being into punk after a certain age, where people think you failed to properly grow up and you don’t understand real literature, real music, you know? It’s like the Peter Pan complex of literature and music, respectively. But yeah. I’m a big Kerouac person.

Mike: How much of that Peter Pan complex you just mentioned do you think is perpetuated by academia?

Jessie: Probably a lot of it. If we’re talking Kerouac here, specifically, a lot of the views of his work—not just academic ones—look at the most reductive aspects of it. They look at On The Road and only focus on the drugs and kicks and girls and all that, and don’t realize that it’s a spiritual journey and about friendship. They do the obvious reading of the text instead of reading between the lines.

Mike: My friend Katie Lattari just switched from writing thorny fiction into writing more mystery stuff. She just put up a post on her page yesterday about how she put pressure on herself to deliver this grad school version of the text, which was postmodern and willfully obtuse.

She gave herself permission to like what she liked. Did you ever have to do that, with Kerouac or anything else?

Jessie: Oh, absolutely. I feel like I still do that all the time, sometimes with pop culture-y things. I can even say popular music. For a long time, I was so into the punk mindset of “anything popular is bad.” Maybe four or five years ago I started giving myself permission to appreciate music and art that was in the mainstream.

Some of the stuff I like would be considered really academic or weird, not mainstream-friendly. Other things I like can be looked at as very simple.

At this point in my life, I like what I like and I’m inspired by what I’m inspired by. It doesn’t matter. I just mean that I don’t care if it’s a pulp novel or something in the canon—if I find something in there that I connect with or enjoy, I’m going to appreciate it.

Mike: What was the impetus for letting yourself off the hook like that?

Jessie: It was gradual, but the moment was more so hearing people whose opinions I respect talking about music, specifically. For literature and other art forms, I’ve always appreciated a wide range of things. It wasn’t that I only listened to punk rock before that, but I still mostly tried to listen to stuff that was outside the mainstream—or if it was popular, it was popular in the past. I thought I wouldn’t like anything that was currently popular. But I heard a lot of people talking about enjoying popular music. I asked for recommendations from friends of mine: “What current pop stars are good that you think that I should check out?” It went from there.

Mike: It feels now like everybody has tastes that are so specific. It’s easy to find communities of people online to talk about’90s rustbelt emo with, but when you’re in a room with people, it’s cool to be able to talk about Lizzo.

Jessie: Right!

Mike: That shift is something I continue to negotiate. I have to keep a toe in the poptimism pool, but there’s nichier stuff, too.

Jessie: In the last couple weeks, I realized I missed any punk or punk-adjacent music that came out over 2019. I heard bands who I was already a fan of that had stuff out last year, but as far as new-to-me music, I got into other kinds and got out of the punk loop. Suddenly, I was going, “Oh my god, I have to hear the new punk and indie stuff.” I found some great albums I missed when they came out.

Mike: It moves super fast, right? I did a Razorcake podcast for a couple of years where I was playing all new music every six weeks, then I got really busy last semester and stopped. Even though I only missed three months of real time, things have moved so quickly!

Jessie: From 2012 to early 2016, I was actively writing about music for various magazines and websites, and I was doing podcasts of my own. During that time, I was much more current, especially with punk and punk-adjacent music. Since then, I’ve been more focused on poetry and running a press and other kinds of stuff.

Mike: I don’t know if you feel this way, but I feel resistant to Spotify. That jams up the process. It would be so easy to let an algorithm tell me what I like.

Jessie: No, I actually really like Spotify. I use it. And sometimes there are good new recommendations. For the most part, what it recommends to me is stuff I would seek out on my own. I’m finding that even though I use that, I still have to find other sources.

Mike: So in regards to poetry and your press, there was this old “Weekend Update” skit on Saturday Night Live where they’re interviewing Stephen King. He had writer’s block, and literally stops typing for two seconds: “I have writer’s block… oh, okay, it’s fine.” You had a tweet recently where you were worried your process was gummed up. Then I was doing research for this interview—you’re one of the most productive people. Are you okay?

Jessie: [laughs] Yeah. You can finish your question if you want. I’m laughing because I was thinking about that today.

Mike: That was my question. I’m checking in with you.

Jessie: I don’t call it writer’s block, because it feels cliché, but I do feel sometimes like I’m not producing. I hate that capitalist idea of being productive, but I can’t get that out of my head. And then I realize, first of all, that sometimes even when I’m not actively writing or writing a finished piece, I’m thinking, I’m getting inspired by other things, I’m living, doing other stuff. It all goes into writing. But also, I usually think that I haven’t written anything in ages, but I look back and it was two weeks ago. [laughs] I know this about myself, but I still feel like I’m stuck even when it’s not too much of a stuck place.

Mike: It connects back to that set of conversations we had where I miss three months of podcasting and I feel like the world has gone on without me. I just finished a book. My last book came out in 2014, so there’s always this little voice that’s like, “Everybody forgot you exist,” you know?

Jessie: Yeah, I totally get that. I have a book coming out next month, and I have some other works in progress. I thought I had to finish them faster. Having one book coming out is making me feel like I can take my time a little bit. But it does feel like with the way social media works, self-promoting, that if you haven’t had something in a while—whether it’s years or even a month or so—people are going to forget you exist and that you’ve done anything.

Mike: Your new book is The Loneliest Show on Earth, right? That comes out on Bottlecap Press next month?

Jessie: Yep.

Mike: Can you tell me about that?

Jessie: I can’t decide if it’s a book-length poem, or broken into related sections. It’s kinda both. You can look at some of the stuff as separate things, but it all follows a flow. It’s kinda fractured, as well. I want to say it’s about the circus, because the circus and sideshow is the main theme, where it plays out. It’s about that, but it’s about a lot of other stuff, using the circus and sideshow as a metaphor.

Mike: In terms of the book-length work, that points me back to the Beats and Ginsberg. Is that fair?

Jessie: Yeah! Ginsberg is a huge influence on me. A couple of the people who are writing blurbs, testimonies for the book—I’ve gotten a couple of them back. One that just came in the other day compared it to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, another longform poem. It’s not that I dislike the Modernists—they did a lot of interesting stuff—but I’m more of a Beat person, so it was interesting to have this comparison that I wouldn’t say I’m consciously inspired by.

Mike: If your book is anything like The Waste Land, people are going to puzzle over it for two hundred years, you know? [laughs]

Jessie: Well, there are worse things, I guess. At least if they’re puzzling over it, they’re thinking about it, or talking about it.

Mike: My wife sometimes teaches The Waste Land. She’s taught it a bunch of times, and it’s still a struggle for her to wrap her brain around it. What a big compliment for it to be compared to that in people’s minds.

Jessie: Ginsberg is definitely a bigger influence on my poetry than Kerouac is. I adore Kerouac. He wrote poetic prose. I love his novels. His poems? There are a handful that are really good, but overall his poetry is kind of not great. [laughs]

Mike: You mentioned the Modernists. Do you do Objectivists at all?

Jessie: I don’t know if I know who the Objectivists are! [laughs]

Mike: When I got married, my wife and I decided we were going to pick some random place to go on our honeymoon that we would never go to otherwise. So we decided to go to Milwaukee.

Jessie: Hey, I live right near there.

Mike: We had a great time. Appleton is right up there someplace, and that’s where Lorine Niedecker lived. So I sat in her chair at the Niedecker Museum.

Jessie: Awesome.

Mike: I guess Objectivists were really into compressions. There was Niedecker and Zukofsky and Olson. Does that ring any bells?

Jessie: Now that you’re naming names. Niedecker’s great. I mostly know her because being a poet in Wisconsin, how do you not? [laughs]

Mike: You’ve lived in a lot of places. You’ve lived in Michigan and Chicago and Philly and Oakland. What made you settle in Wisconsin?

Jessie: A lot of factors. I lived in Michigan and the Philadelphia area as a kid, and when I was still a kid, verging on teenager, we moved to Racine, the town we live in now. As anyone does when they reach a certain age, they want to leave their town.

I first moved in Chicago, then Milwaukee. I stayed in this general area. Then I moved to Oakland mostly because the man who’s now my husband lived there. We met each other when I was visiting another friend in the area. We lived out there for a few years. Then I got pregnant with our first child and it seemed to make sense to move back where family lived. That’s why we came back this way.

Mike: When you lived in Oakland, if you’re anything like me, you must have walked around the Bay, tripping out all the time, thinking about all the stuff that happened at Gilman Street.

Jessie: Absolutely.

Mike: 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is steeped in that whole mystique.

Jessie: It is, absolutely. I would listen to “Condition Oakland” all the time. It has that clip of Kerouac, too. It was the perfect marriage of my interests.

Mike: Right, that Steve Allen Show, where Kerouac is sitting on the piano.

Jessie: Yeah.

Mike: I’m guessing that by the time you moved to Oakland, you were already involved in the punk scene. Going to California is such a big deal. That must have been wild.

Jessie: I had been into Bay Area punk. My husband was in a Bay Area punk band that I had been really into back in the day. [laughs] That’s not how or why I met him, but it was kinda weird.

Mike: What band was he in?

Jessie: SubIncision.

Mike: Huh. I don’t know them.

Jessie: They had a song called “Kerouac.” The front man, John Mendiola, was really into Kerouac.

It was a bit of a letdown. When I was a teenager applying to colleges, I considered going to Cal and moving to Berkeley then. That didn’t happen. I went other places. When I finally got there, I expected them to be the way I mythologized them from listening to all these bands, reading all these authors, whether it be Kerouac or Cometbus. I had this idea in my head that things were going to be a certain way and they weren’t, because it was so many years later. I think I set myself up for disappointment.

Mike: I went to Gilman Street one time in 1995—and I’m from New Hampshire. The one time I went there I met Cometbus and saw Spitboy play. It was exactly the romanticized notion that I had.

Jessie: I only went to Gilman once. It was to see his band Pinhead Gunpowder play.

Mike: Oh man! That’s great.

Jessie: For my Gilman experience, I couldn’t have asked for a better night.

Mike: Congratulations. That’s crazy.

Jessie: And I almost got kicked out for drinking in the bathroom. That was pretty punk rock.

Mike: If you get kicked out of Gilman for drinking the one time you go, you get like five scene points.

Jessie: Right? There were too many people there that night. They couldn’t monitor it. They were like, “Don’t drink any more or we’re kicking you out.” It was a ridiculous night. But it was really fun.

Mike: In some of the interviews I’ve read with you, you’ve talked about the idea of trying to communicate with yourself at a previous age. I think we’re coming from the same place when we talk about Gilman Street and early Lookout! stuff being romanticized. Do you notice that luster wearing off when you’re trying to communicate with your younger self nowadays?

Jessie: That’s a hard question. I guess I’d say it depends on the day or my mood. There are some days where I’m thinking all this stuff I used to mythologize—whether it’s from my own life or from scenes and people before me—wasn’t perfect. There was a lot of bad stuff. The art that came out of these times happened despite stuff that was really going on.

But then there are other days, when I’m feeling more nostalgic, when I think that things were hard back then, but they were more fun than they are now. I think some of this is an affect of aging. To quote one of my favorite bands, the World/Inferno Friendship Society, “Sometimes I miss those days/that’s right, you heard me/Other times I could not give a damn.” That’s how I feel.

Mike: We’ve talked a little bit about these larger conversations that are happening. There are niche-y conversations, like this, and broader pop culture conversations, when you have to go to your spouse work’s party or something. And now there’s this other conversation where you take someone like Burroughs or David Foster Wallace or Ben Weasel and you have parse out how much bullshit you’re willing to accept. I don’t have an answer for this or even a thesis statement. The goalposts are always moving for me when I think about the art versus the person who makes it. Are you in the same boat as me where the goalposts move?

Jessie: Yeah, absolutely. Everyone has a line, but like you said, the goalpost or the line are always moving. There are some people where I can’t separate the art from the artist—in cases like Woody Allen or Bill Cosby—you know? It’s done.

Ben Weasel is a prime example. I don’t want to defend him, because he got really weird. I don’t follow what he says any more. But I still know that Screeching Weasel were an important band for me. He did some great music. So I can kinda separate that. It’s a different level.

A lot of my line comes from people who are dead versus alive. Burroughs? Yeah. A lot of issues. But if I’m reading his work, or talking about him, I’m not actively supporting someone who has done things, because he’s dead. But when people are still alive and making stuff, it becomes a lot harder, and the goalposts do move a lot.

Mike: There have been all these revelations about how shitty David Foster Wallace was, and they cast a pallor over his work. But when I moved to Boston in 1997, Infinite Jest had just came out and I walked around town with that book, trying to figure out where all the places were. So it’s hard to detach from the memories sometime.

Jessie: To bring it back to earlier, not just with Burroughs but all the Beats, people are always pulling receipts on them.

And speaking of T.S. Eliot, there’s his anti-Semitism, which is well known, and awful. Those letters came out recently. Did you see that?

Mike: No.

Jessie: Oh! Letters between him and a woman he had an emotional affair with over years of his marriage. They had a thing where, “These letters can’t be published until both of us have been dead for at least fifty years.” So they were finally published. It sucks, but on the other hand, it’s not worse than his anti-Semitism. He was a crappy dude, but what do you expect?

Mike: And Ezra Pound is another guy like that.

Jessie: In my opinion, Pound is worse than  Eliot.

Mike: But depending on what grad school you go to, you’re diving into Pounds’ Cantos, trying to make sense of those.

Were you into Elizabeth Wurtzel at all?

Jessie: I haven’t been able to process her death. I didn’t keep up with what she was doing after the ’90s, but when I read Prozac Nation and then Bitch at a really young age, I was first experiencing what I classified as depression. Also, she was the literary dream girl of the ’90s.

Mike: I read both books you mentioned, and I really dug them. Part of her allure, I guess, was that she was a woman who was drinking a lot and doing a lot of drugs and hooking up with dudes. That was the first time I read anything like that. It was a big deal to be a twentysomething dude and notice the double standard.

Jessie: Right. At the time when I first read her, I wasn’t there yet in my life.

It’s weird, because there’s still such a double standard. I had a friend maybe four or five years ago, I had written a piece that had something to do with sex and drugs—as a lot of my pieces do, I’m not gonna lie. She said, “If you were a dude, you’d be famous, based on the quality of your writing, and what you’re writing about.” It made me really happy, but it also made me sad. I’m not a dude! [laughs]

Although now I’m not sure even that if I was a dude writing what I write that I’d be famous. It’d probably be people going, “What a creep!” Maybe I’m saved in that regard.

Mike: She was unadorned, in a way. She wasn’t packaging herself. It never seemed calculated to me. Like Sid’s button: “I’m a mess.” I respected that about her. It’s been a weird time processing her death, and Neil Peart from Rush.

Jessie: Yeah, I’ve never been super into Rush, but my husband is. You understand where your friends or your partner is even if you’re not there yourself.

Mike: I think previously, certain aspects of pop culture—music or sitcoms or whatever—were nailed down to specific eras. And now I have students who are conversant in Gainesville emo. I’m like, “How the hell do you know this?”

Jessie: [laughs] That seems odd to me. Because of the internet, probably, it’s easier to go into rabbit holes, follow links. But I remember I was nineteen and in a college class and the sociology professor said something about typewriters. He wasn’t even that old. He was probably in his early to mid-thirties. It wasn’t like he was some really old guy. He said, “Probably no one in this class knows what a typewriter is.” I was there going, “I own five of them! Stop it!”

I think there have always been people who delved into the past, but it’s probably easier now.

Mike: When I teach, I ham up that typewriter thing you just talked about: “I don’t know if you guys know this or not, but there were these bound paper artifacts called books. It’s like when your Kindle is broken.” The kids understand I’m kidding, but there will be a point when they don’t know.

Jessie: Right.

Mike: Speaking of bound paper artifacts, can you tell me about your Bone and Ink Press? And Reckless Chants?

Jessie: Bone and Ink Press—it was supposed to be more of a chapbook or zine publisher. At first I did everything in-house or at the local copy center. It was all very limited edition. Then I started taking submissions and grew to a more “real” press, albeit small. Now I have things printed professionally, and I have my authors sign contracts. That was never in the business plan. It just happened.

Reckless Chants is my main zine. It’s on issue 25 now.

Mike: Wow!

Jessie: It was called something different. I changed the name to Reckless Chants in 2012. Before that, it was called Sad and Beautiful World, which started in 2004. I had done other zines before that. It sounds like I had done a thousand issues of Reckless Chants, but I didn’t want to start over on number one like I had in the past.

Mike: When you hit a point where you had to push beyond the boundaries of standard punk small press, was there a younger version of yourself on your shoulder talking about what a sellout you were for having to do contracts?

Jessie: [laughs] Not so much. It’s actually more of a thing now where I got in too deep and I don’t think I can do all this. It’s still all just me. Now I have to keep going, at least for a while, or I’ll be letting down a bunch of authors. I’m not going to do that.

It’s still really indie. I don’t have ISBNs on books. I got scolded about it—not by one of the main authors I’m publishing, but by someone else. They were saying I’m limiting what my authors can do. That’s purely for financial reasons. But also, I think most of the people who submit stuff to the press know what they’re getting into if they’re at all familiar to it.

Mike: And the no barcodes thing certainly harkens back to the great Maximum Rock’n’roll review wars of the ’90s, too.

Jessie: I like to tell people I’m too punk for that shit, but it’s really because I can’t afford it.