Author Kevin Sampsell on how the Riot Grrrl movement inspired him. Read More
In 1991, I was living in Spokane, Washington and had started publishing my own chapbooks and setting up spoken word shows for the first time. I was heavily influenced by the DIY culture of record labels like K Records and magazines like Factsheet 5. I ordered poetry zines and chapbooks through the mail and wrote a few fan letters to people I admired.
After reading a review of a book called “The Most Beautiful Girl Is a Dead Girl” by Maggie Fingers, I sent the author $3 and a copy of one of my chapbooks (called “Beautiful Teenagers Unite”). About two months later, I got a response from Maggie. I had forgotten about this letter until recently, when I found it buried in a box of other personal letters from my early poetry days in the 90s. Here it is…
I went out to find that Kathleen Hanna/Slim Moon spoken word single soon after reading this letter. Along with the work of Seattle writer Steven Jesse Bernstein, performance artist Karen Finley, and the band Bongwater, this record became a source of inspiration for my own spoken word performances. There were several other singles released as part of the Wordcore series on Kill Rock Stars, including work by Stacey Levine and Exene Cervenka. Of course, Kill Rock Stars has become one of the world’s best independent labels since then (though not really “specializing in spoken words”).
My favorite part of the letter is the oh-by-the-way tone of her PS in the upper corner. “My band is called Bikini Kill.” I looked for their records as well but it would be a couple of months before I’d find anything. In the meantime, I had moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where I was pretty far removed from any kind of indie or punk scene. I ordered the first Bikini Kill cassette from the K Records catalog. The Riot Grrrl movement was already in full swing, just months before grunge became a household word.
In the early summer of 1992, my then girlfriend and I did a road trip to the east coast, thinking we might move there. While in Washington D.C., we went to a show sponsored by Sassy Magazine with Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile, and Lunachicks. We saw Joan Jett hanging out. She was talking to a bunch of young girls and was surprisingly tiny, smaller than any of the girls. Heavens to Betsy weren’t very good. They seemed nervous and more out of tune than usual. Bratmobile was more fun and self-assured. I bought one of their singles and talked with their singer Allison Wolfe for a little bit after their set. My girlfriend got jealous and said, “She doesn’t know how to sing.”
There was a big music explosion on the east coast at that time, especially around DC and Maryland. I went to a record store and bought a bunch of stuff put out by Simple Machines and Slumberland, labels run primarily by indie-inspired women.
My girlfriend and I decided that the east coast was too expensive and crowded and we ended up moving to Portland, Oregon in the summer of 1992. There was an energetic music scene with numerous clubs, both all-ages and over 21. The X-Ray Café was one of the most vibrant venues, right on Burnside Street, not far from the river and the bridge where most of the homeless people slept. It was an odd place for an all-ages club, considering that sex shops, strip clubs, and drug dealers were never far away. Bikini Kill was scheduled to play there one night and we went to see them.
It was a balmy night and godheadsilo was opening up for them along with Portland band, The Frances Farmer Gals. It had been almost two years since I exchanged letters with Kathleen. I had sent a response to her letter after I moved to Arkansas but never did get a copy of the book (and to this day I have never actually seen a copy). I thought it would be cool to say hi to her before their set and introduce myself. About twenty or so people were hanging out on the sidewalk and a couple of beat-up vans were being unloaded. I knew that sometimes Kathleen wore wigs or disguised herself in different ways but I spotted someone I thought was her. I walked up with my girlfriend and said, “Hey, are you Kathleen?” She looked at me quickly and said, “No.” I was caught off guard but said sorry and walked away. I looked around some more, hoping I’d get to meet her but didn’t see anyone else that looked like her.
Later that night, Bikini Kill stepped up on the X-Ray Café stage, surrounded by the velvet paintings and mannequin parts. The crowd was about half male and half female, with the majority of the girls near the front, by the stage. I bopped my head and watched as the person I originally thought was Kathleen grabbed the mic and sang the first song. At first I thought maybe it was one of her bandmates, Tobi Vail or Kathi Wilcox, doing vocals for one song, but as they started their second song I figured out I’d been duped. It was Kathleen Hanna after all. All night I felt embarrassed and bummed out about the whole situation. I thought maybe I’d try to talk to her afterward again, but I realized that wouldn’t do any good. She probably thought I was some dude that was trying to scam on her or something—I’m sure I did come across as a smitten fanboy. It wasn’t uncommon for Riot Grrrl bands to ignore or alienate male fans. In a way, it was their way of payback for years of men belittling women in music.
My girlfriend offered to talk to her after the show for me—she could tell I was a little crestfallen—but I feared she would have been rejected too. We went home feeling more and more jaded. We didn’t listen to their music much after that. It was hard to feel excited about it after being shunned. I felt pushed away from the Riot Grrrl (Riot Boyyy?) experience.
Still, I admired what Kathleen H/Maggie Fingers was able to accomplish with her art and her ideas. This one letter from her proves that she was once a normal young idealist striving for a voice and the power to influence people for the better. But she still owes me a book.
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography (Harper Perennial) and the publisher of the micropress, Future Tense Books (www.futuretensebooks.com). His writing has recently appeared in Housefire, Prism Index, Best Sex Writing 2012, and Hobart.