The Karl "King" Wenclas Interview

March 7, 2003

Today is the day to do the worm.

Oh, there are events for you to attend. Many, many events.

Today's interview was conceived in the most honest form an interview could be conceived: I honestly was curious about today's subject and his organization. For the last year or so I was vaguely familiar with the Underground Literary Alliance, but received spotty information at best. The interesting thing, though, was the passion of those familiar with it, whether it was of admiration or with vitriol. Whether you love him, hate him, or like me, are curious, here he is, to explain all, perhaps the first interviewee ever to type in his answers via fancy cell phone, due to a lack of a computer.

The Karl "King" Wenclas Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

Well, let's start at the beginning. What is the ULA, when was it founded and what made you decide to begin it?
The ULA is the Underground Literary Alliance, which was founded in October, 2000, in Hoboken, New Jersey, by six zeensters, including current ULA directors Michael Jackman, Steve Kostecke, and myself. We already thought of our zeen art as part of a literary movement. We already corresponded with one another. We thought it was time for lit-zeens to move out of their safe niche. We decided to meet together to see what we could stir up.

What have been the ULA's biggest successes thus far?
The ULA is a promotional campaign, but also a writers advocacy group. Our biggest successes have been, first, the attention we've drawn to the corruption of the establishment literary world, most notably in how grant money is handed out in this country; who it goes to, and who sit on the panels. Our protests against grants to rich guys Rick Moody and Jonathan Franzen have gained the ULA a lot of press. Our other successes include the shows we've staged, which have been few in number, but very exciting, bringing together in one spot many of the best writers in the print underground; a lot of dynamic performers. (In New York City we did a press conference in which we debated George Plimpton and his Paris Review staff, and also did an "Underground Invasion" show headlined by underground legends Jack Saunders and Wild Bill Blackolive.) Also, our publications are just starting to get wider distribution and attention, particularly our house zeen, Slush Pile, which is edited by Steve Kostecke, and is as readable and exciting a lit journal as you'll find anyplace; a showcase for the kick-ass energy which exists in the zeen world.

What would you say are the most common misconceptions of the ULA?
A.) That we're a gang of thugs.
B.) That we don't know exactly what we're doing. We get advice from folks who mean well, but can't see what we've accomplished with virtually no resources, the way we've established ourselves in the literary world, against tremendous odds; who don't understand our strategy and basically don't have a clue.

What is Utopia, through the eyes of the ULA?
Utopia for us will be when we have our own zeen stores selling nothing but unregulated zeens, those printed by the ULA on our own press, as well as those produced by non-ULA independent publishers. By independent, we mean free of any corporation, government, university, or foundation. Utopia for us will be when we represent a vibrant alternative to the corporate publishing world. Utopia for us will be when we've created our own literary stars with talent and charisma. Utopia for us will be when literature is once again a potent and relevant force in this culture and in this society, and will thereby help this gross, powerful, awful, staggering giant of a country reclaim itself.

Who is the ULA's ideal audience?
The ULA's ideal audience ideally is everyone. We've gone further than any literary group in the country in targeting groups that have been turned off by "Literature," specifically poorer folks and the young. That's where zeensters have found their markets, and we follow in that tradition. Interesting enough, it's the same market rock music first appealed to when it burst on the scene. One doesn't have to have an MFA to read our zeens! We're not written by well-educated literati for other literati. Our zeens are read not just by east coast hipsters, but by people across the country, including folks who work at Burger King. There's no pretense or snobbery, no trendy insincerity, to our writings. Our publications are for everybody.

You've been accused of some of promoting the ULA by tearing down other authors and publications. Is there any truth to this, and, if so, why do it, instead of merely promoting the ULA on its own merits?
We've attacked elite writers like Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody, wealthy guys who've been sucking up grant money that should be helping struggling talents. Our task is pointing out corruption in the literary world, and part of that is revealing how rich people use taxpayer or tax-sheltered funds to aid other rich people. It's one of the more reprehensible aspects of the scene. We also point out the contrast between ourselves and establishment stooges who write stories about eating a candy bar or being a tree. Many of the writers hyped by New York media are blatant mediocrities who have little to write about and fall back on being cute: self-indulgence in place of substance. But yes, we've used our attacks on writers to attract attention to ourselves; to show the contrast between what the lit-establishment offers and ourselves. ULA writers like Bill Blackolive, Urban Hermitt, Steve Kostecke, Michael Jackman, Chris Zappone, Chris Estey, Jack Saunders, Lisa Falour, and others have lived or are living interesting lives and have stories to tell, things to say about life and about this society. It's ridiculous to think we could've competed evenly with the status quo without our tactics. Anyone who suggests such must be completely naive about how this country operates. We began our movement with no connections and few funds. All we had was our ability to make noise. To say that we should let our writings alone speak for ourselves is idiotic. We tried that, some of us for decades! Our tactics, justified in themselves, have distinguished us from the faceless, game-playing mass, from the buy-into-the-status-quo herd of cattle calling themselves "writers" because a piece of paper says they are while lacking the integrity and backbone, the ability to challenge the inequities and crimes of society, that American writers once had. We see on the stage of American culture poseurs and fakes and we seek, yes, absolutely, to sweep them out of the way, so our more authentic brand of writer can take their place. When a tree falls in a forest and no one's around it doesn't make a sound but we've moved out of the zeen forest, to the heart of the beast, have entered the halls of the elect and their fawning following coterie of wannabes in New York City in order to spread our message. We make no apologies for that.

What publications or zines or sites do you enjoy?
I receive a lot of fantastic reading through the mail in the form of zeens, from A Reader's Guide to the Underground Press to Wild Bill's inconsistent but sometimes amazing newsletter Last Laugh. I can name Joe Smith's The Die, Fred Woodworth's The Match!, Violet Jones's Free Press Death Ship, Ammi Keller's Emergency, Anthony Rayson's many publications, Urban Hermitt's great zeen, Dr. Wred Fright's comical The Pornograhic Flabbergasted Emus, and zeens by Cullen Carter, Yul Tolbert, Tom Hendricks, Asha Anderson, Owen Thomas, Frank Marcopolos, Jeff Potter of course, Will Ratblood, and so many others. When you get into the print underground you enter a new world of diverse voices and ideas not being presented by the mainstream. It gives a fuller, more accurate picture of America than the narrow, homogenized glance at this country most people are given by our overwhelmingly loud and omnipresent mass media.

You currently reside in Philadelphia. Can you explain to me why Philly sports fans love to boo people so much?
Ticket prices being what they are for sporting events, I guess they have a right to boo if they want.

Speaking of booing, tell us about your protests. What do you decide to protest, and what are your methods?
We protest what's available to protest. Our methods depend on the situation. Sometimes it takes a great deal of work, as with the protest against Rick Moody's Guggenheim grant, which involved circulating a letter with postcards to be signed first to 200 zeensters, which netted us about forty names or so, then to 300 New York establishment literary and publishing figures, which gained not one. That says all that needs to be said about the integrity and independence of the literati, and their ability to police themselves.

In terms of location, you're from Detroit originally, and my Dad claims that the city is in a mode of revival, I think, solely based on the new baseball stadium. Anyway, are there any authors that you think paint a good portrayal of the city?
Though Detroit has a valiant new mayor, it has no tax base and is not in any stage of revival. It's a wasteland. The much-touted Renaissance Center at night is like a gigantic mausoleum. Empty stretches of land are everywhere. Some sections have been taken over by packs of dogs. Five years ago in riding a bike to a job five miles from where I lived, I'd have to ride through the territory of such a pack. It was a unique experience. In the middle of the desolation now sit two gleaming sports palaces built by billionaires. I can't think of a better metaphor for what America as a whole is turning into; a glaring divide between rich and poor. Detroit is merely ahead of the curve. Who can afford tickets for such modern coliseums? At fifty-five dollars a seat, or more, plus ten bucks parking, plus beers and food? And, the true focal point of these are the luxury boxes for the business elite. Certainly very few residents of the city of Detroit proper can afford to attend the games. They're reserved for those who live in far out gated communities. The stadiums are white elephants anyway. Every time the very rich try to save the city they fail, because they take a top down approach of building some gleaming showcase, when real economic salvation is an organic thing, from the ground up, from small-scale economic activity; from the creation of jobs and pride throughout the entire city, not on a few plots of land downtown.

Your nickname is "King", your name is often referred to as "Karl" and yet your email address comes up as "Karol." Explain these discrepancies!
Karl Wenclas is my name. A zeenster once used to insult me by calling me King Wenclas, a take-off on Good King Wenceslas. I adopted the designation. Karol was the name of the Bohemian king from whom the name comes. Now go ask Rick Moody why he uses that name instead of his real name of Hiram F. Moody III.

Are there any young authors that you're fans of?
Yes, absolutely, but they're all zeen writers.

You said once, "May we have future books full of fascinating characters, adventure, excitement, of a kind which were once produced, gulp, in the past!" Do you have any examples?
Ivanhoe by Walter Scott, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, She by Rider Haggard, and With Fire and Sword by Henry Sienkiewicz are some examples. But I was talking about bringing aspects of classic novels like these to modern works--as Scott Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby, for instance, with that novel's sense of romance and intrigue wrapped around a mysterious character of dubious identity.

If you were to cast the film version of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," who would play whom?
I have no idea.

In an interview with Bookmunch, you compare the literary revolution to the rock n' roll revolution. So what music do you listen to?
My tastes in music are fairly retro. They're not directly relevant to the ULA, because music and literature are at different stages in their individual cycles. Everything happens in waves, in peaks and valleys. Popular music's big reawakening began in the Fifties, reached a peak in the late 60's when you had Janis, Hendrix, Doors; the Beatles, Who, Stones right behind them; Dylan of course, Neil Young, and perhaps best of all were the garage bands, and even guys like Tommy James put out some great stuff. A second rock awakening began with the punks and maybe culminated in the alt-rock scene of the early 90's. I see literature today as distinctly analogous to the early Fifties, when "pop" music sucked but there were great roots/underground sounds that would be popularized by Elvis. Eggers is analogous to Pat Boone. He uses a few underground motifs, but is strictly establishment. The ULA has the Fats Dominoes and Bill Haleys and B.B. Kings of the lit scene. The Zeen Elvis has yet to appear, but will, to put anything visible now in the shade. Lit critics and establishment editors who dismiss ULA writing are as clueless as Mitch Miller was when rock n' roll first appeared. But--I was raised on rock. I like the fast, clear kind, as long as it has passion and energy or authenticity, from Buddy Holly to Johnny Cash (I love "Ring of Fire" and his version of "It Ain't Me Babe," both on the jukebox at the International in New York City) to the Seeds to Iggy to the Smiths to the Smithereens. I should be listening to more of today's underground rock. Please send vinyl or cd's! (I also sometimes listen to Beethoven, for his strength.)

Tell us about the case of Lisa Falour. Now, I am owed a kill fee by a publication I had written for and they're not paying up, even though I need the money, big-time. Will you take up my cause?
The Lisa Falour matter is very complicated. Basically, she's been maltreated by two publishing companies, one in England, one in California, who published a book of hers based on an invalid contract, without her permission, in a much altered form. More information about the matter can be found on the News page on the ULA's fan site. Though Lisa finally received some money from one of the companies, the protest is ongoing. The mutilated version of her book is still being sold. I plan to bring renewed attention to the problem in the coming weeks.

As for the question of whether we'll take up your cause: Absolutely! Mail information about this to me care of the ULA P.O Box and we'll put someone on this. Include copies of any relevant documents. If writers are being taken advantage of and mistreated, we want to know about it.

Can you tell us about some of your publications, like the Slush Pile and the New Philistine?
New Philistine is one of many zeens I've produced or written. Others include Zeen Beat (I hope to do an issue this year), Pop Literary Gazette, and a slew of one-shots including the recent "Christmas Party" and "War Hysteria!" zeen novels that received rave reviews from readers. Anyone can e-mail or write me at the addresses listed on the ULA fan site for ordering information.

Slush Pile is the ULA group zeen. The second issue, now out, is very entertaining, a new kind of literary journal of a kind you won't find anyplace else. A warning: none of the contributors is trying to be John Updike. Our goal is to be fun, contentious, and thought-provoking, and we achieve that. The more finely-written pretentious "literary" crap can be found down the street at the museum. Slush Pile is five bucks cash (or check to K. Wenclas) to P.O. Box 42077, Philadelphia PA 19101. It's half the price of other literary journals and twice the fun. Order now and we'll include a ULA bumper sticker!

In your photo on the ULA web site, you look a bit intense and angry. Is there a kinder, gentler side to Karl Wenclas that we don't know of?

How does it feel to be the 46th person interviewed for
It's a high honor.