12 October 1998
It's with great risk that we highlight Hell's Kitchen as the member publication of the month. You see, for years the IPA has been trying to show independent publishers the wisdom of running their magazines by the book. Whether this has meant learning budget balancing or soliciting subscribers for donations, the bottom line has always been that indy publishers need to take the business practices of the mainstream publishing world more seriously. Otherwise, the chance of survival past the first couple of years shrinks faster than the microchip.
And then along comes Hell's Kitchen, straight out of Rochester, NY, and with an attitude to boot. This week we spent some time with the folks at Hell's and came away shaking our heads in disbelief. It's not that the folks at Hell's have been turning all of our basic principles upside down; it's that they've been doing it for years and have no intention to stop!
Take "Susan," for example. When we wrote to Hell's that we wanted them to talk to us, Susan wrote me back to reassure me that they'd be interested. But when I called to ask for Susan, a young MAN answered the phone. "No," we said, "we'd like to talk with Susan." "I am Susan," he said. "Or more precisely, Susan is me."
Turns out Hell's isn't staffed by folks with gender-identity issues. Instead Susan, the rest of the Hell's staff, and the entire group itself is part of an on-going experiment in organic organization - an experiment rooted in post-modern theory, informed by biological models, and influenced by the fantastic writings of Terry Pratchett and Harlan Ellison.
"Susan," like all other Hell's creations, is merely part of the unique world of Hell's Kitchen.
Hell's was founded by a group of writing students at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1995, as part of an umbrella outfit funded by RIT to initiate creative platforms for the exchange of ideas (another such plan brought a trailer to campus to serve as an art gallery). With RIT funding Hell's as a sort of literary production house, any group that wanted in could take part, using the Hell's platform to offset costs. At first, the only participating group was splinter off of the campus paper that wanted to publish racier stuff than the campus paper would allow. But soon, there were four more groups working under the Hell's banner.
Hell's works off the idea that creativity shouldn't be confined to the narrow architecture of business. In fact, says Susan/Sean, Hell's isn't looking to create any barriers except for one: Hell's publishes what its members are interested in. "If you can defend a piece logically, " he/she says, "it will be published."
Throwing Robert's Rules of Order out the window, Hell's has no real structure, no hierarchy, and no individual leaders. In the staff box inside the cover of their weekly black-and-white mailer, the publisher is listed as "C. Diablo." Unlike Susan/Sean, C. Diablo is really three people, each of whom have no ultimate authority over the group. The philosophy seems to be this: If an organization wants to do something, it should just do it.
A recent issue included such diverse topics as Slack Week Definitions ("brutalism: the architectural style under which the RIT campus was designed, usually designed to grab the eye and hurt it bad"), a review of a chess match from 1989 ("White to play and wup some ass"), and a recipe for chocolate-covered pepperoni muffins (" a great practical joke to play on your vegetarian friends"). Neatly wrapped for a weekly rendezvous with a reading public that can only be, well, concerned, Hell's Kitchen and its (dis)contents manages to avoid all easy attempts to classify or categorize it. In this regard, the experiment has been a success.
As might be expected, Hell's has had some difficulty taking their project to the outside world. "We've been approached by organizations looking to join," says Susan/Sean, "but they're convinced it won't work."
That hasn't done much to deter the Hell's folks. In fact, toying with the fantasy that Hell's was given $50,000 out of the blue, Susan/Sean figure wouldn't change that much. "We might buy a folding machine," he/she says. "But that would be about it. After all, it would be up to each member how to spend the money and who knows how that would work."
Copies of Hell's Kitchen can be found free-of-charge around college campuses, bookstores, and cafes in the Rochester, NY-area.
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