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Keeping the Lead Sharp

A look at Broken Pencil magazine, from the inside out.
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Keeping the Lead Sharp

By Lindsay Gibb

My first encounter with Broken Pencil was on a zine rack at the now defunct Record Peddler on Queen Street West. It was 1996 and I’d just started making my own zine. I was running around getting it in any store that would accept 15 photocopied pages detailing events from my life and the health of the Brampton music scene.

At the time, I was enthralled by the fact that anyone would actually pay one dollar to read anything that I chose to put on those 15 pages. When I discovered Broken Pencil amongst the rows of black and white, oddly shaped publications, I was even more enthralled that someone would write about me writing about myself.

Though I hadn’t thought of it before, when I laid my eyes on Broken Pencil for the first time I felt the need for something like it in Canada was clear. Sure, there were token zine review sections in some music mags while major newspapers were asking the question “what is a ‘zine?” and news stations were pronouncing it like “vine,” but I was drawn to a magazine that devoted itself exclusively to the identity of zines, the independent press and self-published fiction. It identified with a generation of people who were publishing their own words themselves in response to, and sometimes with contempt for, mainstream media and publishing companies. As Jeremy Milks, a zinemaker profiled in the first issue of Broken Pencil, explained: “It’s about providing another source of information than the narrow scope that the big dicks of the media provide.” While magazines and weeklies lost their zine sections, and “zine racks” became an endangered species, Broken Pencil hung onto its mandate.

Since joining the Broken Pencil team in 2005 (and becoming editor in 2006), part of my job has been to uphold that mandate, which I’m going to explain using what I’ve just now dubbed the “three ‘C’s of Broken Pencil’s philosophy:” Cataloguing, Connecting and Cognizance.

Cataloguing

When the magazine about underground culture and independent publishing was launched by Hal Niedzviecki, the year before I found it on that rack, the purpose was to create a record of independent and underground writing that was coming out of Canada. Broken Pencil packed its pages with reviews of zines and books from across the country and also reprinted personal stories, comics and original fiction from independent publications (often focusing on the weirder side of writing) in order to make a lasting record of what was once out there.

In addition to publishing a record of what happened in self-publishing history, Broken Pencil collects zines that are submitted for review and, once reviewed or excerpted for publication, puts them in its zine library, which is housed at the Toronto Reference Library. The objective of this library is to allow anyone the opportunity to access publications that may never be searchable online.

Connecting

Every year since its inception, Broken Pencil’s staff has organized a yearly zine and book fair in order to bring underground literary communities together in one space and allow creators an opportunity to sell their wares. When Canzine started in 1995, online sales were much more difficult and therefore much less common, so having a forum to sell one's work was necessary. Today, nearly 15 years after it first started in Toronto, Canzine brings out hundreds of independent writers, artists and publishers who may not otherwise get an opportunity to meet face to face or to see each other's work. Aside from connecting creators, the purpose from the beginning has been to make the work accessible to the larger community of people who are seeking out independent text. In addition to the Toronto event, Broken Pencil has produced both Vancouver and Halifax editions of Canzine on a smaller scale.

But the intention of Canzine is not only to give people tables to sit behind for six hours while shoppers wander slowly past in a stream of bodies. We also try to offer useful, and equally useless-yet-entertaining, content for attendees such as workshops that teach creators a variety of skills from how to start their own distribution outlets to how to market their product (without becoming a marketer). Last year, our comedy-themed Canzine –- which featured comical readings from authors such as Stacey May Fowles, Derek McCormack, Sarah Steinberg and Jon Paul Fiorentino and performances from local comedy acts –- also gave brave writers a chance to pitch their book ideas in front of a panel of judges who work in publishing (and an audience) in the hopes of getting interest or help with their publishing dreams.

Another creation of Broken Pencil’s, this one much, much younger than Canzine, is both an attempt to create community and a way to get people talking about fiction. The Indie Writers’ Deathmatch is unlike Canzine in more than just age (Deathmatch is only two-years-old); it’s a venue in which we encourage participants to taunt and bad-mouth each other, whereas we’d never really asked anyone to do that at Canzine.

Broken Pencil’s Deathmatch is like other short-story contests in that you submit your work and the organizers select the finalists, but that’s where it takes a contentious turn. Stories are then pitted against each other in week-long rounds that see readers voting for their favourites while the authors, along with the spectators, take shots at each other’s work. It’s what professional wrestling would be if there were no matches and just call-out spots.

Some writers are too timid and fragile to handle the criticism, but others jump at the chance to challenge their opponent's use of punctuation, but it’s not all mean-spirited fun. Many commenters bolster their favourites while voting, and sometimes the criticism is constructive.

Cognizance

The title for this section might be a stretch (I really wanted a third “C”, because I love cataloguing), but the purpose of Broken Pencil is to create awareness (or “cognizance”… right?) of the underground press by writing about and collecting text from within. When I officially joined the Broken Pencil team in 2005, there were three other sections that had been added to the magazine over time: the music, film and ezine sections. Though I started as the film editor, when I became general editor, I started to question the effectiveness of the music, film and even ezine sections. Eventually, we decided to revamp the magazine and remove these sections as we felt that many dedicated weeklies and pop culture magazines cover indie music and film quite well, and that we could cover ezines more effectively online, so these weren’t the areas where our focus needed to be.

Since the revamp in the fall of 2008, the magazine has gone back to focusing on the written word, although it still examines other elements of underground culture. Our book section regularly features profiles of up-and-coming small presses such as BookThug and Loose Teeth Press, and our zine section always features the words of a zine creator who explains why they do what they do.

And if the purpose of Broken Pencil is to make sure people know about independent writing, part of that job involves creating awareness of Broken Pencil itself. Our latest attempt to lure subscribers, and to enjoy ourselves in the process, is what we call the Broken Pencil Fantasy Party. Playing off of those beer commercials that promise parties on a private island just for you, your friends and the Tea Party, we decided to offer new readers something similar, only ours is much better.

The gist of the plan is as follows: as an incentive to subscribe to a magazine you may never have heard of, your $10 one-year subscription also offers you the potential to enter into a world some may only have dreamed of – a party that promises free beer, food, bands, readings, comedy and ‘general weirdness’. Simple as that.

The winners get to bring a friend to our world and, along with enjoying the bands Whale Tooth and Dinosaur Bones and the sounds of DJ Hemingway, they get to watch the Broken Pencil staff stuff their faces with free food and listen to readings about sexual angst by people so tormented you can barely stand to look at them, let alone hit on them after the show (but somehow you manage to do both). This is the dirty promise of the Fantasy Party and our latest way of luring in new readers. Fingers crossed.

Lindsay Gibb

Lindsay Gibb is the current editor of Broken Pencil. As a journalist, she specializes in film, arts and culture writing and has been published in a number of publications including This, Shameless, Geist, Utne.com, Take One and Exclaim! . She is also a co-founder and associate editor of Spacing.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Openbook: Past Issues
Go To Issue 14 - Summer 2011

Go To Issue 13 - Winter 2011
Go To Issue 12 - Fall 2010
Go To Issue 11 - Summer 2010
Go To Issue 10 - Spring 2010
Go To Issue 09 - Winter 2009
Go To Issue 08 - Fall 2009
Go To Issue 07 - Summer 2009, including the Special Scream Edition!
Go To Issue 06 - Spring 2009
Go To Issue 05 - Winter 2008
Go To Issue 04 - Fall 2008
Go To Issue 03 - Summer 2008
Go To Issue 02 - Spring 2008
Go To Issue 01 - Fall 2007