In Conversation with Dan Shepelavy

Algebra Suicide Dan Shepelavy In Conversation Lydia Tomkiw

Dan Shepelavy and LYDIA TOMKIW POEMS
Above photo(s): Dan Shepelavy and LYDIA TOMKIW POEMS
Purchase LYDIA TOMKIW POEMS, click here

The other day, a friend reminded me that we are all archivists: especially if we are collectors. The data available to us via the Internet is vast and infinite at times, but, without human connection, the data can become lopsided or stagnant. As a collector of music, the human connection is often how I work out what I'll be listening to next. Often times, music can be a feeling wrapped up in nostalgia; a memory of home, friends, or family, or a track that you heard in a record shop and immediately connected with.

Algebra Suicide | Lydia Tomkiw and Don Hedeker
Above photo: Algebra Suicide | Lydia Tomkiw and Don Hedeker

I first heard the band Algebra Suicide on a cassette compilation that a friend made for me in the mid-90s. The voice and accent of Lydia Tomkiw is unmistakable and immediately reminds me of home, and of Michigan. When I hear Tomkiw's brand of speak-singing, I know that her accent isn't far off from Michigan, as Tomkiw's actual hometown, was in Chicago, IL. Tomkiw's voice is like a bright and hot, white light that shines in the dark, while the music of Algebra Suicide is one of passion, art, and minimalism reflected through the glass of new wave and avante-garde works. One of my favorite Algebra Suicide tracks has always been, "Tuesday Tastes Good." Was this a metaphor for biting down on life? Sliding out of boredom? Slide ME out of 'Girl Afternoon.'

Lydia Tomkiw | Chicago Sun Times Article with Jim Derogatis
Above Photo: Lydia Tomkiw, Chicago Sun Times/Jim Derogatis

When Tomkiw originally formed Algebra Suicide with partner and later, husband, Don Hedeker, it was supposed to be a vehicle for her art. She was in school at Chicago's Columbia University for English and Writing and looking for ways in which her work could be published or recognized. Poetry was THE vehicle for her art.

When Algebra Suicide's debut, "Big Skin," came out in Europe, the duo gained a foothold on recognition for their music and distinct performances, and as they toured the UK in the 1990s, the vehicle for their music had eclipsed (or become) the art, but this also ebbed for them, and, only within a short few years. "...fads and tastes shifted faster, and could slip away in an instant." (Dan Shepelavy, Lydia Tomkiw Poems)

Tomkiw put all of her energy into booking the band and trying to get their name out—and to get her name out. She continued to also release books of her poetry over the years. When Tomkiw performed her art as Algebra Suicide in Chicago, in the mid- to late '80s with Hedeker, it was a revelation within the growing music scene there. In the late '90s and early 2000's Tomkiw's persistence over the written word and music that she loved had become a broken thing. It pains me to think of such an enigmatic and true voice being broken and it must have also pained those who loved her most. It must have felt to Tomkiw as though her life's work had been unjustly overlooked (and, haven't we all felt that... at one time, or another).

LYDIA TOMKIW POEMS | by Dan Shepelavy
Above photo(s): Lydia Tomkiw POEMS book by
Dan Shepelavy | Universal Exports of North America

The release, then, of editor, designer and writer Dan Shepelavy's latest book, LYDIA TOMKIW POEMS, sheds a brazen and welcome light onto the work of Tomkiw, and helps to also wonderfully celebrate her voice and personality with these newly restored (and limited) found-artifacts and poetry books that Tomkiw left behind (painstakingly collected by Shepelavy from caretakers and libraries across various locations throughout the US and in the UK).

Dan has created a thoughtful, beautifully designed, and thoroughly meaningful tome that collects Tomkiw's poems and songs. The book also includes a digital download of Algebra Suicide's album, "Big Skin" (with a limited re-released digital copy only available with the book via Dark Entries), as well as entries by Tomkiw's teacher, poet, scholar and friend Paul Hoover, fellow artist, poet, collaborator and friend Sharon Mesmer, and friend, rock writer, and critic Ira Robbins (Trouser Press).

If you are looking for a pool to dive into regarding the work of Lydia Tomkiw, the water is warm in here, and the waves are towering: "Lydia Tomkiw Poems" is hands-down your best place to start and is definitely a volume that you will want to keep revisiting again and again as a reference to Tomkiw's work.

We spoke with Dan Shepelavy, below:

Carly: What originally brought you to writing this book? What was your
first impression: was it on Lydia Tomkiw or Algebra Suicide?

Dan Shepelavy: TL;DR answer: I put together the book because I couldn't
find the poems anywhere. Woolier answer: before I worked in the sequin mines of advertising I co-ran a music label/publisher called the Telegraph Company. So I have a solid sense of the mechanics of releasing books, music etc... and when I started Universal Exports of North America I knew that it would operate as a publisher as well as a creative consultancy. The Tomkiw project came together first, so it became the inaugural release.

My first impression, and what I recall grooving on first, was the character and cut of Lydia's voice in the context of Algebra Suicide, which I came across while digging around for weird, vintage, off-kilter synth tunes. The fact that Lydia, like me, was an arty punk rock loving kid of first generation Ukrainian immigrants ratcheted up my interest in her and her work, considerably.

How long did the book-writing process take and had you been collecting the material in the book, or were you able to view the material from a collector or through a personal connection?

The idea of doing the book occurred to me in 2014. I began by blindly emailing her stalwart friend and tireless booster Bart Plantenga with general inquiries. Bart was generous enough to respond with a full scan of her chapbook "Big Skin," best wishes, and a suggestion that I track down her brother, John Tomkiw.

John, Tomkiw’s earliest creative co-conspirator, has remained a protective steward of his sister’s work and legacy. It took a bit of back and forth until John felt confident and comfortable entrusting me with the project—I began working on it in earnest, in 2016.

As a collector and fan I was never able to track down a single page of her published writing. Vast segments of her body of work had simply fallen off the horizon completely, even online. John and Lydia's ex-husband and Algebra Suicide partner Don Hedeker provided their originals for the project—this accounted for everything except the early chapbook, "Obsessions," which no one could really even remember... I ended up finding the seemingly last copy on earth in the holdings of Bowling Green State University Library. And, none of my collaborators in the project had ANY information at all on her most robust publication, the book "Dreadful Swimmers," or any of her activity in the UK, which was considerable.

Your graphic design and style feels very personal and focused on specific periods of time-related to the material you are working with. The book design for Lydia Tomkiw Poems feels like you were exploring a mash-up between minimalism, Ukrainian design, and Industrial. I love the colors for the cover, and the layout also feels very strong and personal, like a fanzine compilation.

Well, I'm a designer by trade, so I consider aesthetics as a fundamental aspect of anything I work on. In the case of "POEMS," I wanted, first and foremost to respect Tomkiw's creative sensibilities—she began as a visual artist and switched to poetry later, but design remained a huge part of her practice (both as a poet and in Algebra Suicide). Hence, the painstaking rebuilding of her chapbooks as facsimiles. In addition, in designing the book itself, I wanted to use only techniques that would have been available to Tomkiw herself in the primitive days of “desktop publishing.”

The cover font of the book is ITC Pioneer. Its most famous instance is probably the poster for SHAFT, but it was common in record album art and paperback book design in the late 70's as well. It felt both arty and punky, and for me, anyway, it evoked a touch of the block letter forms common in Ukrainian graphic design.

Lydia Tomkiw | Typewriter Portrait by Dan Shepelavy
Above photo: typewriter portrait of Lydia Tomkiw

I had the notion of doing a portrait of Tomkiw in type for nearly as long as the book itself... It was hand-typed on an IBM Selectric II, which was the same typewriter she used until she got a Macintosh.

I knew the colors would be bold, and magentas and yellows dominated early versions [of the book]. Ultimately, the exact colors are a bit of a private "wink" to me and to Tomkiw in the beyondthey are sampled directly from the original British Edition of "Never Mind the Bollocks...."

You have the International debut record "Big Skin" (Dark Entries) digitally available as a companion piece to the "LYDIA TOMKIW POEMS" book. How did that come about? What can you tell us about this record, and what is your favorite track?

Well the thing about "Big Skin" is that this is the only time a book and the record were released simultaneously, with the same poems, in the same order. So I knew it would be ideal to release it in conjunction with the book—I reached out to Dark Entries Records and they were totally down with the idea. They've worked directly with Don Hedeker on two amazing vinyl Algebra Suicide compilations, so building the digital only release of "Big Skin" was rather easy. I'm thrilled that it worked out. I really do love the whole record, but there is a reason "Please Respect Our Decadence" became such a definitive track for the band and almost a slogan for Tomkiw. Back when I was just a fan I used to put "Proverbial Explanation" on mixes, all the time.

I think the saddest part of this book to me was reading about Lydia's final days. Her work (still) seems so unreal and amazing and I'm always glad to find other people who appreciate Algebra Suicide's music and Tomkiw's poetry. I love reading poetry, new or old, and her work is often written like lyrics as well, which makes sense, because of how she was using it in her work. It still feels fresh. I really wish that she had been given more time in her life, and, would that have made a difference?

Yes, the last chapter of her life and career was pretty tough, and unfortunately, that heaviness has come to overshadow Tomkiw, sprinkling a Jim Morrison-esqe funk over her reputation. I’m happy the book and the re-emergence of the actual poetry has helped to clear that away. That was one of my main goals with this project, to rebalance things, and to provide a far-fuller portrait of her life and work. No one’s posthumous reputation should undeservedly smell of Jim Morrison.

Tomkiw was, by any measure of accomplishment and hustle, incredibly successful. She did wild, exciting, uncompromising work and was recognized for it in both her poetry and her music. Thankfully, the music persists, and Algebra Suicide continues to attract new fans. I wanted to do the same for the poetry—especially because they're so linked.

And, I think it has helped to lance the "myth" of her dissolution. Although ultimately devastating, it's not particularly puzzling or romantic. She craved connection and an audience and as that began to slip away, she struggled. The solace of booze comes with a heavy price and it undid her, like it undoes countless millions. And New York City can be a total asshole. It all sucks, but it all makes sense, and I hope I’ve helped to make it plain that it’s not actually 'the key' to understanding the essence of her life and work.

This book is also a huge journey, I think, because of the reflections from Lydia's friends and her professor (whom you have included in the book) about the impact that she had in their lives. However complex it became between them over the years: it had originated with this "spark" of genius and bravery. Is there anyone that you are reading right now that you think has a similar spark, that could use more direct recognition?

I’m a tourist in Poetry-land. A besotted and seasoned one at this point, I’d like to think; with a grasp of the landscape and customs, careful not to wear shorts in a church, etc... but I came upon Tomkiw’s work via music, a world in which I have far deeper roots. So, I can’t quite reel off a list of poets who I can say with confidence are under-appreciated. However, I am ever and always alert to work that has disappeared and gone out-of-print. So as I wander, discover, and rabbit-hole various writers who catch my intense interest, if there is a scent of lost work, I tend to suss out if there’s any potential in a re-issue (or even/just for) further-focused research.

However, from my tourists’ vantage I see in Tomkiw’s work prefigurations of the fierce, spiky and defiantly female verse of poets like Chelsey Minnis and others loosely clustered around the “Gurlesque” anthology edited by Arielle Greenberg (also a Columbia College cat, like Tomkiw)... or, some of the punkier, passionate, mythic, impertinent work of Abigail Perry, Hera Lindsay Bird, Jennifer Knox, Jenn McCreary, Amanda Smeltz, Melissa Crowe, Heather Christle, and, and....

Tell us about your imprint, "Universal Exports Of North America," what has been your greatest triumph and your largest obstacle and how did you celebrate and/or overcome (each)?

Well, the last question is actually a great segue into the whole notion of the imprint. Basically, it exists as a way to bring, “cultural objects of merit,” into the world that I’d like to be in it, but aren’t. Format, genre, etc., matter far less than the intensity of my own enthusiasm.

In terms of triumph/obstacles—honestly, the imprint is an easy-going endeavor, sequestered from the hustle of the creative consultancy, which is what pays for steaks. One of the few unequivocally great things nowadays is that high-end, short-run production and fabrication are more accessible and affordable than ever. So the triumph, really, is the lowering of the barriers and risks to undertaking small, quirky, mercantile passion projects and connecting with similarly-inclined folk.

When we're discussing the time and moments that we're collectively living in right now: which of Lydia's poems or songs do you think most reflect our time?

Ah! Loaded question amidst our seemingly self-willed collective dumpster fire... and in any case, I’m drawn more to art as antidote than a reflection... In that spirit I’ll offer “Thawing Out Slowly,” which I thinks captures the psychedelic potential of ordinary life—swooning at the vivid clarity of individual moments, while retaining a playful, amused ease with the chaos and confusion of the big picture. Wise that.

Thawing Out Slowly
by Lydia Tomkiw

Sometimes we cook our medicine
Just to see what it smells like:
Camphor, witch hazel, valerian root,
It reminds us that things change when they are heated.
Sometimes we try to defy gravity and dance without feet:
We roll on our backs and dirty our faces.
It’s practice in case we get crippled.

We have this dream of eating Chinese food
Eating out of cartons you carry goldfish home in,
Eating and watching TV and
Thinking of getting rid of the curtains.
We’re saving that for when there’s nothing else to do.
Tonight, in this sleepy head city,
Evil drives through, honking its horn;
No one notices except us.
Perhaps they’re all busy.
We’ll lick our fingers and hold them out to the wind
If our spit freezes, we’ll go back to sleep.
If it doesn’t, we’d better start cracking.

Playlist accompaniment to this interview compiled by Dan:

Here’s a thematically gist-y playlist, then. Some quick notesthe first five songs are a quick overview of Algebra Suicide’s considerable giftswith a bit of extra attention to the last, absolutely terrific yet often overlooked, record Tongue Wrestling. Then a trio from Tomkiw’s “trinity”she adored Reed, wanted to be Smith, and was both besotted with Bowie and a close student of his cut up lyric technique. Sharon Mesmer told me they used to pour over the lyrics of Young Americans in particular. A total Bowie fanatic myself, I never rated the song that highly, but the lyrics really are an astonishing patchwork quilt. LastlyI’m particularly susceptible to the charms of wordy chanteuses, and so I offer three that are less known nowadays, I fear, then they should be. Dig.

Algebra Suicide:
What is not in Texas
Luster Goddess
True Romance At the Worlds Fair
Recalling the Last Encounter
Proverbial Explanation For Why No Action Is Taken

Patti Smith: Piss Factory
David Bowie: Young Americans
Lou Reed: Satellite of Love

Et al:
Romeo Void: Myself to Myself
Bongwater: Obscene and Pornographic Art
Meanwhile, Back in Communist Russia: Delay Decay Attack

Click below to listen to Dan's compilation available via Mixcloud:

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