Punk: A Community, A Lifestyle, A Conversation with Willona Sloan

In which we discuss Girl Power, DC punks, and the real story behind Willona’s bad-ass eBook.

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The cover of Sloan’s fantastic eBook. Download it (for free!) here.

J and I first heard of DC-based writer and editor Willona Sloan through a class that she taught on the Harlem Renaissance at DC’s Knowledge Commons. When we found her badass eBook flyer several weeks later (at Red Emma’s in Baltimore, natch), we knew we had to meet her.

On the day of the actual meeting, I was shaking in my AllSaints platform ankle boots. How could J and I possibly measure up to a lady this dynamic, wise, and courageous? What, I wondered, does one discuss when given the opportunity to meet a real, live Wonder Woman?

Yet the moment we sat down, it became clear that Sloan, while indeed a deeply badass renegade, is also the most genuine and kindhearted punk. Of all time. Ever. “I love your blog!” she told us, smiling brightly as she sipped her coffee.

We began with a discussion of Sloan’s fascination with all things punk, which started during her high school years in Reston, Virginia. Though generally an easygoing child, she was frustrated by the lack of diversity in her predominantly white suburban community. “At the time,” Sloan recalled, “I was like, ‘What is this crazy anger that I have?’ It was just this new feeling.’” When her usual outlet (cheerleading) didn’t cut it, Sloan decided to give punk a try. Her first show was Avail’s Jam for Man at the Reston Community Center and, from that moment on, it was love (a note to the fans: she’s looking for flyers from the Avail show if anyone has any).

Through punk, Sloan learned that it was okay to be hostile, confused, and angry. “Punk music,” she clarified, “[told me that] you’re allowed to feel like there [are] injustices; allowed to feel frustrated.” Surrounded by a community of likeminded souls, she realized she’d finally found an environment where she belonged. From there, it was one show after another as she fell head over heels for Fugazi and all things punk.

Making her way through the DC punk circuit, Sloan began to notice more than just the music. At nearly every show, she saw food drives, donation boxes, or other causes that bands encouraged concertgoers to support. Punk, she saw, “Is really positive. It’s not just people banging their heads and getting concussions. They really care about their community [and] there’s some really good social justice work that’s come out of it.” J agreed, recalling the animal shelter donation box that stood at the entrance to her own first Flogging Molly concert.

Sloan’s teenage fascination with punk was bolstered by her brother’s interest in the subject, and his copy of Suburban Voice inspired Sloan to start a ’zine of her own. It was in the mid ’90s, that she first released Scorpion, a fanzine focused on issues of feminism and race. Using contacts found in Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life, she began publishing ground reports of punk scenes around the world. As she reached out to punks in the U.K., Brazil, Malaysia, and beyond, Sloan realized again how powerful punk can be as a means of connecting people, and how it functions as a symbol of a shared value set. Case in point: Sloan met a man last year on a flight to Calgary. “We started talking,” she remembered, “And he happened to mention [his interest in punk], and we were like ‘I bet we have the same value system.’ And we did! We believe in community, in helping people, in bringing people who are on the outside in.”

Oftentimes, the scene reports Sloan received would include a local flyer or two, and before long she’d accumulated  quite the cache. As her collection continued to grow, she became set on compiling them into some sort of publication. Word of Sloan’s mission quickly spread, and soon hers was the go-to mailbox for punk show flyers from around the globe.

It takes only a glance to see that each flyer is an incredible labor of love. Hearing Sloan discuss the stories behind them adds another layer entirely, and speaks directly to her point about punk acting as a vehicle for human connection. One series of flyers, she told us, came from a collector in Italy, while another man sent several flyers with personal letters scribed on the back. He asked only that Sloan kindly refrain from reading the letters and mail the flyers back once they’d been photocopied. And, she reminds us, “This is mail! There was no email. It was expensive to send packets of flyers.”

Realizing that printing her book through traditional methods would be costly and labor intensive, Sloan began considering an eBook. In addition to making the publishing process easier on her end, a free eBook would make the flyers she’d received accessible to the masses. A few months (and several hundred scans later), Sloan’s book came to be. Come to Our Show: Punk Show Flyers from D.C. to Down Under was officially published in 2012, and is available online for download here.

The books contains flyers from a global cross-section of punk’s finest: Minor Threat, Fugazi, Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits, and Youth Brigade all play a part, in addition to the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, A.R.Z. (Peru), Fun People (Argentina), Leek and the Bouncing Souls (South Africa), Scream, Bikini Kill, Los Crudos, and The Nation of Ulysses. The regions represented include Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand, France, the U.K., Peru, and Colombia, along with a heavy dose of Washington, DC. To those who doth dare protest the lineup, the book’s introduction contains a simple response: “You may not like the bands represented here; you may think the bands represented are too narrow in focus. You may have no idea what the hell is up with all the D.C. flyers…. I accept your doubts; but, please understand this: my nostalgia and gratitude cloud my curatorial vision.” Fans should also note that she’s open to the possibility of a second book, and any interested parties with potential flyers are invited to email her.

Given her obvious engagement with communities across the world, we asked Sloan why she chooses to hang her hat in Washington, DC. Her answer was a refreshing one: “I get frustrated with people who say there’s no music scene in DC.” The DC scene, she explained, is not traditional venues, but rather “church basements or free spaces…it’s not the traditional come, get drunk, go home, pay a little money. You come to a show, fill the house, you meet people. It’s a community, it’s a lifestyle.” DC, she reminds us, is not New York, nor San Francisco, nor Seattle, and the city does itself no favors by pretending to be. Instead, we agreed with Sloan that the district is at its finest when embracing itself for what it is: a small-world melting pot that prides itself on its spirit of activism, global engagement, and political savvy. When viewed in this way, it’s no surprise the city has become a stomping ground for punks and politicians alike.

It’s worth noting that the flyers in her book represent just a small sample of the flyers Sloan has in her collection. How did she manage to whittle it down? In curating the flyers, Sloan explained, she had several central goals: she wanted to include flyers that were visually stimulating, (the more “weird or quirky,” she told us, the better), but also flyers with powerful thematic content. As we thumbed through the book more carefully, we came to see what Sloan meant. Mixed in with the cartoons and hand-drawn maps are powerful messages about female power, civil rights, and community engagement. Punk, we were reminded again, is much more than an outlet for frustration.

As we listened to Sloan’s stories, we couldn’t help but wonder why she hasn’t been contacted by Simon, Schuster and friends. Surely, publishers have courted her with the same affection we have? As it turns out, Sloan was, in fact, approached by publishers looking to turn her eBook into a hardcover.  Upon reflection, however, Sloan turned the offer down.

Why would she turn down such an incredible opportunity? Sloan explained that she wanted to respect the integrity of the artists who had produced the flyers and wanted the book to remain free online so all could access it.  That is, after all, the punk way.Her download numbers speak directly to her her success—Sloan had initially hoped that a hundred people would download the book, and pleased to report it’s been downloaded over 11,000 times (!!!) to date. Yet she remained nonplussed as she assured us that turning down the book deal was just the right thing to do. “I don’t feel like I should make money off of it,” she said simply.

As the interview drew to a close, we asked Sloan about her other pursuits. As mentioned above, she’s an accomplished writer and editor who offers classes and seminars throughout the city, and is currently working to create a series of happy hours for DC-based writers. “We’re all drinking alone,” she explained, “so we might as well be drinking together” (we agreed). And as she began to explain the research she’s now doing on female revolutionaries, it occurred to me that my previous conception of Ms. Sloan had been somewhat off the mark: Willona Sloan, it turns out, is not Wonder Woman.

She’s Superman.

xox E

ps: Check out her fantastic answers to our Tonic survey questions:

Willona Sloan

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