Pen and Paper : Punks in Print is a work of creative non-fiction by Dominic Williams that will be published by Kultivera this winter. The text is a mixture of essay, memoir, journal and poetry. It was produced as an artistic response to an archive of letters exchanged between punks in the 1980s and, in a true DIY punk style, it is a word-based collage. Williams provides responses not only to the content of the archive, which often manifest themselves in found poems, but also with prose and poetry that responds to his own creative process as well as the practices and the artistic outputs of his fellow artists. Williams uses personal anecdote and memory; alongside social commentary and verse; to create a narrative that embodies the full experience of participating in this contemporary arts project. Here is an extract from a late draft of the book that describes the experience of the arts collective exploring the physical collection of correspondence for the first time.
Not long after Martin, Irena, Milica and I met in Tranås for the first time for the initial punk letters residency we decided that one of our first collective actions should be a trip to Jönköping and the archive. We loaded our joint rail card with credit and bought a group ticket for our cultural day out. We left on an early train and chatted on our journey about what we’d uncovered in our scrolling through the digital archive. We would all respond differently to what we had seen or were to see and maybe pushed by our previous artistic disciplinary practices would be examining different elements in the letters. As a practitioner in the language arts the textual content of the letters was important to me, the narratives. However, as Irena pointed out there was so much repetition in the letters, the vocabulary was so similar in most of them. The requests to exchange cassettes or records, the endless catalogued lists of bands and EP titles, the same questions for interviews for zines, the constant apologies for delays and waits … and yet here is so much to read between those lines, the very idea of such commonality between young people from distinct cultures, living in different political and social situations, often thousands of miles from each other. Text also interested Irena but, as a book artist, perhaps from a more aesthetic perspective than mine. Martin and Milica both, had a far more visual curiosity.
We arrived in Jönköping much earlier than our appointment but decided to make our way directly to the museum rather than explore a city with which none of us were familiar for fear of getting lost and becoming late. The library was just opening as we found it so we were able to visit the current temporary exhibition of local artists and also peruse the permanent John Bauer exhibition. My knowledge of the layout of the museum, library and archive building was by no means reliable so I led the group out into the street and back into the adjacent multi-story car-park in an attempt to re-locate the back door that I remembered leaving from on my last visit. As we walked up the vehicular ramp to the second level I recognised, in the corner of the car park, Lars’ distinctive Cadillac and the ‘tradesman’s entrance’ was revealed.
We had great welcome form the team at the archive, joined them for Fika and were given a tour of the archive before we were led to a room where we could spend as long as we wished with some letters from the archive. There are literally thousands of letters in the collection, it was a quite a conservative number that had been scanned and ‘digitally archived” when the archive was shred with us virtually, in fact the scanning of the collection is still incomplete (November 2020) and I don’t think any single person has yet had access to all that has been scanned. So it was, we were asked what letters we would like to see.
The process of archiving the letters is at present pretty rudimentary. The contents of each ‘package’ are scanned as jpegs; The back and front of the envelope and the back and front of any letter, poster, fanzine (page by page). Each image is individually numbered, each image within a package sharing the same number except the final digit. Packages are therefore numbered chronologically and are segregated by country of origin only, there is no cataloguing as such. No reference to the author or date of the package is recorded.
Following scanning, the items are then returned to the box files in which they are stored in the chronological order assigned by the scanning system.
We were offered the chance to view letters that had already been scanned or boxes files of letters that had not yet been scanned just sorted by country of origin for storage. I looked around the room at the excitement and hunger in the eyes of the artists sat around the table with me, any expectation of these people viewing items, one by one and carefully returning tidily restored packages to a box file in order was a nonsensical expectation. We decided to explore boxes of letters not yet scanned.
We had been engaged with this collection of letters, distantly, remotely as a “digital archive” for nearly a year but nothing had prepared us for the beauty, the pleasure, the near-ecstasy of exposing all our senses to the physical and tangible experience of these artefacts. Texture, creases, folds, colours, show-through on thin paper, shiny tape, worn and no-longer sticky, cardboard beaten and bent, evidence of missing coins, and of re-used postage stamps, warnings that postal workers could read while cradling these packages in their hands. This was a good day and we dived in like children on Christmas morning excitedly telling each other about every new discovery we made.
As we trawled through our treasure trove of missives we naturally started a discussion about handwriting. Most of the letters are from male correspondents and the smaller amount that were from female correspondents we often found quite easy to identify. We played with the idea of trying to guess the gender of the writer from their script. In most cases we guessed correctly. But then we came across a small, tidy, very consistent hand. A script that seemed androgynous. We identified the author as an American, Ken. My fellow artists found this name hilarious. My father’s name is actually Kenneth but I guess it is quite uncommon outside of the UK. The only Ken they’d ever encountered was Barbie’s boyfriend!
We came across a couple more letters from Ken before we discovered another neat hand, another correspondent who wrote quite lengthy communications, Charlie, also from the USA. The detail of Charlie’s letters was significant; there was real sense of wanting to share experience with others. Irena and I became fascinated with Charlie as a poet and a book artist; the textual content held perhaps a greater value than the image and visual aesthetic of the letters as artefacts that immediately appealed to Milica and Martin. We searched through boxes looking for the familiar writing on the front of envelopes. We uncovered several letters from Charlie and every time we did so, there were squeals of delight from Irena and me. The content of many of the letters in the archive are great primary sources of social history, and Charlie’s letters add so much to that element of the canon.
His correspondence contained the usual list of cassettes and vinyl that he would like to distribute in Sweden as well as lists of material that he would like to buy; recommendations of American bands (and bands from other places around the world) that he had been listening to.
There is also a considerable amount of personal information shared in the letters. The letters that we have found so far span over seven years from February 1986 to September 1993.
The first letter I read from Charlie reinforced the effect of time passing on this type of communication, he writes in late February of just receiving a package from Löken that has a postmark of 17 February and yet contains a letter dated 12 December. He mentions in the letter that he and his girlfriend, Kim, are moving and had a special deal where they could live in a big house for $150 per month, but because Kim has just got a dog they will have to live in a smaller place and pay $500 per month. In April 1986 Charlie writes that he is working for the forestry service in Valdez, Alaska and expressed his environmental concerns regarding the US biggest ever oil spill. He is very unsure about living away from his girlfriend for so long, he will miss her and mentions he met a Swede the other day who was involved in the oil-spill clean-up operation.
By 1987 Charlie is working regularly with trail-work for the forestry service and he like many of the correspondents in the collection engages in a discussion with Löken about his choices regarding compulsory military service in Sweden. In several of his letters among the tasks he lists as part of his job, he includes talking to people and this human interaction is obviously very import to him.
The last letters that I have seen as yet from Charlie are 1993, seven years later he now mentions the dog by name Kennai. Kim is intending to return to school after a ten-year break and they are moving to Colorado after spending three months is Thailand. Charlie has just spent three weeks in Idaho fighting forest fires.
There are so many overlaps with stories that Löken has told me from his own perspective and so many personal references to events that resonate in world history it is truly fascinating. Another particularly interesting aspect to Charlie’s letters is that he was very mindful of saving paper, nearly every letter is written on the back of something else, scrap paper that he used and these pieces of recycled documents often act as secondary sources from social history supporting the primary source on the other side of the page. In fact it is one of those partial documents that led me to a physical search for Charlie.
But before I could start that search we had to return to Tranås. After several hours we reluctantly decide that we should leave the archive, allow the archivists to finish their working day and go home and we needed to make the journey back to Tranås before the limited regional public transport stranded us in Jönköping. The journey home was quite a hectic episode with regional trains typically being cancelled and replaced by buses that would deliver us to bus stops a frantic dash away from trains connections that were leaving within seconds of our arrival. We arrived back in Tranås travel weary but very, very satisfied.
It was a beginning
with wide smile and an energy
that shook the carriage and
over sized frames from your chuckling cheeks
imagination wickedly fuelled your mind’s eye
made you dream of such wild places
he hid the tales of wild lands
on the backs of
in a conference room
it took him seven years to open that smile again
the slut’s instant gratification
there was only a sleepy bus at the end
of the line
then station’s revenge
polished and creased and beautiful
slap the spar
chasing fleeing friends
gulping from a water bottle