In Conversation

ELIZABETH KOKE and AMY SCHOLDER of the Feminist Press with Gabriel Don

In February 2012, three members of the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot were arrested after an unauthorized performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Videos of their cathedral concert spread rapidly around the world. Near Empire State tourist traffic, tucked away in the CUNY Graduate Center, through the portico and façade of an Italian Renaissance palazzo with limestone grandeur and columns, hidden on the fifth floor, is the headquarters of the Feminist Press. A women’s collective committed to printing women writers founded the Feminist Press in 1970. 

I entered the bustling office and asked after Elizabeth Koke and Amy Scholder, who created, compiled, and edited Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom, a collection of letters, songs, poems, courtroom statements, and tributes by Yoko Ono, Johanna Fateman, Karen Finley, Justin Vivian Bond, Eileen Myles, and JD Samson. A portion of the proceeds from this e-book will go towards the Pussy Riot legal defense team. Amy Scholder, who was appointed Editorial Director of the social justice-inclined publishing house in 2008, sought out a room with a door for us to sit down and talk.

Gabriel Don (Rail): How did you come up with the idea to collect all this information?

Elizabeth Koke: As the trial was unfolding, JD Samson put together a reading at the Ace Hotel of the women’s statements from the trial, the defense attorney’s statements, letters from prison, and some tributes from artists that had spoken in solidarity with Pussy Riot. And I was there. Just listening to it was so powerful and they said so much. I wanted to be able to read it in a book and thought it was a perfect thing for us to do. I was texting Amy from the basement of the Ace Hotel during the reading—and so we decided to do it. It’s the first time we did this quick e-book where we responded to a current event and quickly put together a publication.

Rail: Why e-book versus print?

Amy Scholder: It’s a couple of things. One is the time. We wanted to put something out as fast as we could that could capture the statements and the letters from prison and collect some tributes about Pussy Riot. There were already some from this event at the Ace Hotel in August. Elizabeth was texting me from the event: “This is incredible. People are reading texts from these girls and they’re so articulate.” And I said, “Well can you get a copy of the transcript of what was read that night so we can have a look at how it works on the page?” It’s not always the case that something that sounds really amazing in the moment, at the event, works as a written document. But we saw right away when we read these materials that it would make an incredible book, that it was important as a historical moment to document, and that the quickest way to do it would be release as an e-book. It was also the most financially feasible way for us to do it because we’re not printing thousands of copies of something and having to pay for those before they go out into the marketplace. We don’t have to make that initial investment in print copies. What was interesting about producing the e-book was that we could produce it and make it available to e-book vendors within two weeks of editing and translating the work. So we didn’t have to wait for orders, as a book publisher has to do from independent bookstores and from chain stores. We could just release it to those vendors and within two weeks it could become available on sale. When we started this undertaking I had no idea it would end up being 100 pages. It seemed at first that this was possibly going to be a short e-book. Again that’s an advantage of e-books—that you’re not limited in length. In other words, you can publish something that’s 30 pages, you can publish something that’s 3,000 pages. I think now the definition of a book is changing as e-books allow you to produce something, call it a book, but not be limited by a minimum or maximum page count. When we saw that this was over 100 pages of content, we realized it would make a great print edition. We plan to print books at some point in the near future, but it’s been exciting that we started this project after the guilty verdict on August 17 and the e-book has gone on sale on September 25.

Rail: Seems kind of appropriate for Pussy Riot, since the way they interacted with the world was online, using new media and videos.

Scholder: True.

Rail: In terms of this book being appropriate for the Feminist Press: on page 37, in an excerpt from the court transcript, Nadya asked the witness, “Do you find the word feminist insulting?” The witness replied, “I do. For an Orthodox believer it is an insult, an obscenity.” How does this content tie into your press and the type of books you like to publish?

Koke: We like to publish books that have a relationship to social justice and activism. That seems to be what our mission is and what we look to do in the world. We like to stay connected with current discussions—all sorts of feminist issues. Pussy Riot attracted the attention of activists all over the world so it seemed appropriate for us to also get involved in the way that we have—to produce this book.

Scholder: What I loved about Pussy Riot is that their cause, their message, is framed as a feminist message. It is about the necessity for a separation between church and state. It’s about social justice for all people. It’s about speaking out against homophobia and misogyny. We, at the Feminist Press, consider all of those issues feminist issues. It was a really great opportunity for us to amplify their message and our own at the same time.

Rail: You compiled so many different forms of text, like letters, poems, and courtroom statements. The combination of these types of texts highlights the feminist dilemma of public and private space. Kropotkin-Vodka opens with, “Occupy the city with a kitchen frying pan.” Is that an issue you were trying to highlight?

Koke: It’s interesting. I haven’t really thought of it in those terms before, but it’s kind of like we’re in this moment of an explosion of the public and private. The Internet has exploded those categories. Public issues become private ones and private issues become public. Pussy Riot is also doing that by questioning what is public and what is private. I don’t think that the church necessarily is private or public. Pussy Riot was questioning the role of the church and the government and also that, during the trial, the church is being treated like a sacred space in a way that it’s actually not, in practice, used as a space. There’s actually a shopping place, like a public market place also where this church is. It’s interesting to think about the public and private in relation to this case.     

Rail: Do you both think civil disobedience is necessary for change? How does one protest effectively? Is it necessary to cause disruption to bureaucratic institutions? If you need a license to protest, why would the government make changes if they scheduled you in?

Scholder: I love that the performances that Pussy Riot, the collective, did were done in public spaces and also expanded boundaries. Are they a band? Are they a performance art group? Are what they’re doing songs? Is this art? For me, it doesn’t matter in the end how one chooses to name or characterize what they’re doing. The fact is that they made an intervention into those public spaces and saw as their audience a general public, which is a different mission than say a riot grrrl band who had performed at a club. It has a lot in common with that and certainly Pussy Riot is thinking a lot about the legacy of riot grrrl but I feel like Pussy Riot made choices that really put them in a different arena and clearly also exposed them. That was a huge risk to take because they were in public spaces. One of the things that comes out in the closing statements by the attorneys that we had translated from the Russian and are included in English in this e-book, that I don’t think are available elsewhere, are the arguments for why these girls should not be in prison. One of them is that they didn’t really break the law—this idea that they are guilty of hooliganism or that they did an act against religious values is really contestable. I think they basically did something that is the equivalent of what we call in our courts a misdemeanor; in Russian law they refer to it as an administrative offense. They were in a place they shouldn’t have been and made some noise. But they were treated differently because of their political message. This is what makes their punishment not fit the crime and makes them political prisoners or prisoners of conscience.

Rail: Do you really think that there are more civil liberties for freedom of expression in North America? Toronto police threatened Madonna, in 1985, with arrest if she feigned masturbation while performing “Like a Virgin.”

Scholder: Ask Occupy Wall Street people who’ve been arrested. I think we’re seeing a kind of affinity here with activists everywhere. Now if a couple of Occupy Wall Street activists were thrown in prison for two years, we might see some kind of instant Feminist Press e-book. It could happen. It certainly has happened with the radical ecology movement, where you saw people who were protesting by destroying property and instead of getting a sentence that fit that crime, you’d get people who hadn’t hurt any human beings getting 10 years because they blew up an SUV lot or something. I think that there have been a lot of restrictions on who gets to protest here in the States and everywhere, and in what forms. I think that’s part of why Pussy Riot has taken on this kind of momentum with people. I think a lot of activists everywhere are feeling like: Yeah, this is happening to an extent and here’s this group that’s able to get a message across very well and we want to join them because all of our rights are threatened in different ways all the time. 

Rail: Do you think art and performance and music or a mish-mash of them all has the power to create change for women’s rights, social justice, and civil liberties?

Scholder: Yeah, sure. We were at an event at the N.Y.U. law school last Friday where the defense attorneys from the case were visiting from Moscow. One of them was asked about the particular way in which the message was delivered by Pussy Riot at the cathedral and he said that he thought given the culture and the circumstances in Russian society that punk was the perfect form to take. That punk comes out of a very nihilistic sense of society, the bleakness and brutality that the underserved experience all the time, and when there feels like there is very little chance of social change, the more radical and the more brutal the expressions of dissent become. Unfortunately it usually takes those kinds of extreme movements for change to really occur.

Rail: Well I think by demonstrating with peaceful disruption, it created unrest.

Scholder: It’s true. This was a nonviolent protest.

Rail: Like in the subway they opened up pillows and dumped feathers on commuters. That’s quite a peaceful thing, being touched with a feather.

Scholder: Absolutely. That makes a big difference. We’ve seen all kinds of radical movements in the U.S., both violent and nonviolent. We’ve had a lot of reason for taking the actions that they have.

Rail: How did the people who wrote tributes, like Yoko Ono and Justin Bond, get involved?

Scholder: Many of those people participated in this reading that Elizabeth spoke of at the Ace Hotel. JD had invited Justin and Karen and Johanna and Eileen Myles. They had read from Pussy Riot texts and then we asked them to write something specifically for our e-book. Yoko Ono’s open letter that she had written to Katya, after Katya’s closing statements, was published in English online and we were able to use that in addition.

Rail: I thought Karen Finley was a very interesting choice for this book, in terms of when, in the ’90s, the National Endowment for the Arts took away her funding for, it seems, similar reasons worded differently—“indecency.”

Scholder: I mean, that was a very different situation of course, because her human rights weren’t threatened; it was financial and institutional grant support that was taken away. But certainly a lot of the same issues informed those decisions about who gets funding and who doesn’t and who can make a public statement and who can’t. Karen’s always been an outspoken activist for human rights and especially feminist rights, so she was a perfect person to include. When we told her that we were publishing this book she wrote this amazing poem, for our occasion, to Pussy Riot that we’re so proud of having in this book.

Rail: What about Pussy Riot do you think has captured the world’s attention?

Koke: The kind of spirit in which they performed—people really could get behind it. They’re colorful, outspoken, young, exciting, and they had an online following for this incident. So many people could relate to the sentiment of what they were saying. It’s pretty bold that they call themselves Pussy Riot. I feel like something happened all over the world where women and feminists really felt like they could get behind that, just the title of that, the kind of global sentiment of outrage about human rights violations around the world against women. I think that, it being such a bold title, people were excited by it.

Scholder: Once the stories were covered that they were performing in the subway or performing on a rooftop, and that they were going around with the balaclavas, and that this was not about their own celebrity and it was really about conveying a message, it also became a kind of dare. I felt that when I was following stories about them in February. I was aware: Oh wow, the Washington Post keeps on having “Pussy Riot” in their headlines, at least online. It was so great that it was a dare that has kind of taken off to eventually have all of these newscasters all over the world say the words and to think, Pussy Riot. It was really appealing. There were so many levels of brazenness. Then feminists, who’ve been feminists for a while, felt the legacy of riot grrrl. The use of “riot” being passed down to a new generation is appealing for those of us who felt really inspired by riot grrrl. There’s something about Pussy Riot covering their faces and calling themselves a collective and being this sense of dissent without trying to create a cult of personality or individuality around this campaign—that it’s important to get your message across visually and ecstatically, but it maybe doesn’t have to do with finding one person who’s going to be the face of the cause. Of course all of that changed when they were arrested. Now they’re named. We shorten their names because in America we can’t pronounce foreign names and we just call them “Nadya, Katya, and Masha” and feel like we know them on some level, but the initial plan of covering their faces really worked to appeal to masses of people who feel maybe some kind of affinity with that spirit of dissent.

Koke: Yeah, the kind of feminist collective and girly girls—it’s part of this history, but it’s also this really amazing amalgamation of feminist organizing, the embodiment of Pussy Riot. Also, their use of social media and YouTube that a lot of feminists—young feminists—use. There’s the blogosphere, Facebook, Twitter, and that’s a form of activism. In the States I don’t see a lot of aggressive direct action so it’s really inspiring to see aggressive direct action and social media used in this really brilliant way, speaking from a U.S. feminist of the same generation as Pussy Riot.

Rail: How did you gain access to previously unpublished materials, like the letters from prison and closing courtroom statements by the defense attorneys?

Scholder: We were in touch with Robert Lehber, who as a one man band decided to create the freepussyriot.org site so that people could get information about what was happening in the case, what was happening to the girls, and start publishing the documents that were becoming available. Translators all over were working on translating the Russian documents and putting them on the website. So Elizabeth got in touch with him and produced him to me. We were also able to get in touch with Alissa Obratzova who is the legal aide to the three defense attorneys. Each girl has a defense attorney and they have a legal aide and one of Obratzova’s responsibilities, her area, is copyright and intellectual property, and she speaks English. So once I was in touch with her and told her of our interest in publishing the materials, we came to an agreement. We have a contract and she was able to get the closing statements by the defense attorneys and some other letters from prison that weren’t widely available. We were also able to get some poems that had not been available. One of the reasons that it took us a month to prepare was that the translations had been done quickly so that people could read for themselves in English what statements were being made. They were made hastily. So we retranslated some things and we edited all the translations and we commissioned some new translations.

Rail: How are the new translations different? What do they offer that the old ones did not?

Scholder: Russian is a very difficult language. I don’t know it, but it clearly is. It’s not an easy jump from Russian to English. I feel like it took some time and expertise to become more faithful to how people actually speak and not just translate more literally word-for-word, which is what you’ll find online. There are many versions, for instance, of the “Punk Prayer,” which we start our e-book with. You can find many different versions online, even of the very simple chorus. “Put Putin Away” was what we thought was the best translation after looking at many, many versions of the refrain in that poem.

Rail: It has alliteration!

Scholder: So, we wanted to make some time to make those decisions. But that was a challenge for us as publishers: to want to act as a kind of filter and to professionalize the writing and make it different than what you might grab online, and at the same time with big time constraints.

Rail: What made you guys decide that this was a worthwhile cause?

Scholder: Well, there was just no other way to do it. They’re in prison. There’s an appeal on October 1. It’s possible they could get out; if they don’t get out there’s going to be a lot of work to keep them safe, keep them out of the penal colony, protect them and their legal status. So there was no question that we would share in whatever profits there could be made from a product that costs a consumer $2.99.

Koke: We wanted to keep the costs as low as possible. The goal was just to get this information out there. Part of the book’s aim is to proliferate understanding the trial and their message and why what they’re doing is important and to get that out there we need to cover our costs.

Scholder: And hopefully to raise money for them and to support them and their freedom.

Rail: As a feminist press, what is your opinion on it being a feminist act to take your clothes off, to be naked?

Koke: I think it’s just context. It depends on what the scenario is. I don’t think it’s always a feminist act to take your clothes off. I think sometimes it is. I think it depends on what else is going on and what message you need to convey.

Rail: How did you pick these particular texts? A lawyer’s statement is next to an intensely personal letter from prison by Masha describing the conditions: cold beds and a pregnant woman being raped. Next to the legal jargon of the attorneys, this juxtaposition made it all the more moving.

Scholder: I felt like we wanted as much material as we could get. To capture the historical moment was to get those letters from prison, which were personal and intimate chronicles that each of the girls wrote regarding what was happening to them and what they were thinking about. Then within months their defense attorneys prepared those closing arguments, trying to get them out in their own closing statements. I think the letters are incredibly powerful—which they wrote without tools. They clearly had pen and paper but they’d quote. They only had Bibles available to them. They didn’t have libraries, so all of their references were all in their heads. They didn’t have the Internet or a library to check or inspire, “Oh I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky right now. I wonder what I could quote and flip through his book and find something to use.” All of this was what was accessible to them in their minds. That was so impressive to me, that they are in such difficult circumstances and they were each able to write very different, eloquent statements about their freedom.

Rail: Were there any other books that inspired the making of Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom and its manifestation as a collaboration? The style—to have a pastiche of materials from Amy’s introduction to poetry to court transcripts to tributes—are there any books that served as a model?

Koke: Well Justin and Karen both have published books with us, so working with them was natural.

Scholder: You know, nothing served as a model, which is interesting. I’m sure there are similar books, but I was thinking when we were putting the book together, what’s like this? Nothing came to mind exactly. Of course I thought about Valerie Solanas’s SCUM because it’s a manifesto and because she was so embattled, and just because I think about Valerie Solanas and SCUM a lot. I had other writers come to mind like Virginie Despentes, whose book King Kong Theory is very much a call to arms for feminists to object to a certain kind of restriction. It calls for a certain kind of social and cultural liberation and I was thinking about that book a lot. There is a book that documents the trial of the Chicago Seven, but that was like a court document. That wasn’t what we wanted to do at all because we weren’t interested so much in the judicial system. We know that had failed and we know it doesn’t reflect any kind of justice. We gave a little excerpt of the trial just to get the sense of what Pussy Riot are up against.

Rail: In a sense Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom is reinventing the book because it’s found text, similar to Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March. I like how when we were talking about translation you said you had to legitimize it as literature and you want to make sure you have the most appropriate translation because as writers, editors, publishers, we care a lot about words and using the right ones.
Scholder: Yeah, exactly. That’s what we were doing—really creating a historical document. Something that, regardless of what happens in this particular trial and how we talk about Pussy Riot in six months from now or three years from now, will still exist. I’d like to believe that this moment in time is important and it’s worth having a record of it so that we can continue to think of it and learn from it later on.

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Gabriel Don