SPECIAL EDITION: SICK NEWSPAPES!
SICKPAPES INTERVIEWS MOTHERS NEWS!
Mothers News is an indescribably great newspape that comes out of Providence, RI, once a month. (There is no apostrophe in Mothers News because “the apostrophe is for possession or omission, and Mothers News neither possess nor omits,” according to head honcho Jacob Khepler.) Mothers News does indeed write about science - including a regular “Invertebrate of the Month" column, written by the heroic Sophie Tintori, who made the amazing first episodes of CreatureCast - but the science is always mixed into a whirlpool of ancient history, local folklore, etymology, comics, art history, and emotional philosophizing about the progression of the calendar. Reading Mothers News basically feels like having an exciting new idea.
It is hard to describe the way that Mothers News is written, so I’ll just give you an excerpt, picked nearly at random, from the front page of the October 2012 issue, on the topic of Halloween:
"The word threshold is a compound word consisting of the words "thresh" meaning to tear apart or beat up or separate into parts and "hold" meaning to not do those things. It is commonly used to describe the area of a doorway that is not a door, or technically, the space that would be occupied by the door if the door was closed. Fiends, ghouls, demons, monsters, agents of persuasion, goblins, creeps, lurks, boglins, and so forth are all threshold people - they linger around the cusp of an area, at a zone of transition…Rather than wanting you dead (or alive), the threshold people delight in getting you to wobble inbetween, or just wake up and see that that’s where you are all the time…"
Clearly, the writing style and philosophy of Mothers News is a major inspiration to Sick Papes, and we were therefore giddy fanboys when we sat down with Jacob Khepler to discuss his newspape.
Sick Papes: The “O” in “Mothers News” is often depicted as a dung beetle, hard at work rolling an enormous ball of feces. I have a strong personal connection to dung beetles because I used to work in a lab that studies the evolution of beetle horns. In dung beetles, the males use their horns to fight off other males who try to enter their burrows and mate with the females below. But the crazy part is that male horn size is not genetically determined, it’s solely based on how much food (dung) you were given as a larvae, and in fact the smallest males don’t even grow horns whatsoever, they develop a completely separate mating strategy which is to dig side-tunnels into the tunnels of the large-horned males, thereby avoiding fights altogether but still gaining access to the females down in the burrows. What does the dung beetle mean to you?
Mothers News: Whoaaaaaaa thank you for telling me these things about the dung beetle!!!!! I love adding to the database on a key motif. We have adopted the dung beetle (we call ours “gloria”) as our mascot for a few reasons: the least poetic reason is that we’re persnickety and self-destructive, and a dung beetle is, to many people, far from cute. It’s a markedly poor choice of mascot. The medium poetic reason is that the dung beetle, in ancient Egyptian mythology, pushes the sun across the sky, and it’s traditional for newspapers to use solar imagery, I think to imply regularity and authority [editor’s note: Holy Shit]. The most poetic reason, at this point in time, is mine to think about. :)
SP: In general, Mothers News seems committed to championing unusual or bizarre animals with spectacular lifestyles. I’m thinking particularly of the “Invertebrate of the Month” column. Why do you feel it’s important to talk about unusual and bizarre animals? (Isn’t it funny how we think some animals are “bizarre” but actually all animals on earth, even the really familiar ones, are completely insane??).
MN: One thing I try to do with the paper is make something that would be helpful to anyone that may pick it up - I find that when I’m having a struggle it’s helpful to think about how many different strategies there are for being on the planet. examining animals with, as you say, spectacular lifestyles, makes this variety more evident (for people that may think of their cat as a cute little furry child). Also it allows us nearly immediate, but not too jarring (I hope), access to much much larger issues, like “how many things am I?” and “which one of us is me?” and so forth. Also, while i enjoy writing about animals and do so without hesitation when required, the invertebrate of the month club is written by a real scientist, not me. Shoutout to ace reporter Sophie Tintori!
SP: A while back, the Mothers News blog posted this amazing comic about modern art, which I love eternally. What is the story with this comic, and how’d you find it?
MN: This comic is by Ad Reinhardt, who was an abstract painter in the 30s through the 60s. He was a major player in what would become known as abstract expressionism, and in addition to having his own righteous practice he was a crucial thinker - writing and lecturing extensively for these new styles and against critics that were unable or unwilling to process it. As part of his writing practice he made comics that ran regularly in a few magazines. The comics are totally unlike his art practice but both are wonderful because he’s one of the world’s great grouchy goofs - a truly funny guy that won’t tolerate corny bullshit or intellectual laziness, too pigheaded to make something even a little unlike “something he would make”. Anyway this one sums up his main riff pretty succinctly, that an artwork doesn’t have to be (or isn’t, or shouldn’t try to be) descriptive of the world, it is (or can be, or should be) a thing in the world just like every other nice thing that hangs out in the world. A book just came out this year of all these comics, it’s a ripper, and it’s called “How to Look.” I honestly feel like this should be required reading for all students of the arts (especially those interested in modern art), and recommended to all enjoyers thereof. He held a rare(?) position of saying something true and otherwise unspoken in an extremely clear and fun way.
[editor’s note: Here is another great modern art-related article from Mothers News, December 2012: "Picasso, France, WWII. Picasso, very famous, meets an American Soldier, who tells him in no uncertain terms that he (Picasso) is a bum, and why doesn’t he paint a beautiful picture, in a realistic style, and certain things cannot be improved upon, etc.. Serviceman takes out of his wallet a picture of his fiancee back home and says "That’s how a picture should look." Picasso, in horror, yells out "Good Lord! You mean to tell me you’re really going to marry a creature that tiny?"]
SP: When and how did Mothers News get started? Has your writing style changed since the beginning in a way you can identify?
MN: First issue was in May 2010, although i had a sort of proof-of-concept newspaper a few years before that, as part of a larger project, but that only had 1 issue. That’s the when, and the how is pretty standard - I wanted to do it, then I started to do it, then I continued doing it. Well, there’s a little more than that, because I made the first issue and as it was at the press I was filled with self-loathing and I was going to destroy it when it was done, but then the people who worked at the pressing place, who were friends of mine, really liked it, and then I felt like I had to put it out. I still think the first issue is totally stupid and goofy. Second issue is bad. Third issue it starts to get cool. Being filled with self-loathing in the time between sending it to the press and getting it back, this continues to this day. but now I feel better as soon as I can hold it in my hand. I like to pick it up from the press, sit at supreme donuts in Seekonk, MA, and sit with someone as they read it, and when they laugh I say, “What is it, what are you laughing at?” That makes me feel better.
As far as style drifts, I’d say it got less stupid over time, for a short period, and only to a point. content-wise, you can see a drift over time with the front page, moving from talking about the holidays that month and the mythology of the name of the month, to talking about the number of the month, to talking about shapes, to where I am now, which is… I don’t know where I am. Open format for the time being.
SP: My sources tell me that Mothers News has sponsored a few exceptional local athletes. Could you tell me about this?
MN: Ahhh, unfortunately, I cannot…. This is a still-in-the-works thing, yet to be fully realized and deployed. Sorry! I don’t like to talk about my plans because I found that in some circumstances, the more I talk about something, the less likely I am to do it. It’s like if I yak too much about something that’s still on the to-do, my brain processes the feedback on the concept as reward for a job well done, and then I don’t have the fire to do it… “Riffer’s Bane” you could call it. I’m sure you and your readers understand. No wine before its time!
SP: Do you know any particularly good local folklore, and/or have any advice on how to get people to share their good lore?
MN: Hmmmm… I feel like there’s always good lore, you just gotta lurk for it. Anything approaching “a saloon” is a good place to lorelurk, just post up for a couple days, find the person who’s there most of the time (a wart), get into a dull conversation about a landmark or something, and then let it drift towards lore. The direct approach is not recommended. Saying “do you know any lore?” will most likely not result in anything of quality, partly because lore can’t be accessed that way- it isn’t stored in the brain in a drawer marked “lore”, it’s all over the place, in the lore section of other drawers. The other part is that tellers of the tale have their own agendas, and they will need to reel you in and mess around with you a little bit before they can really divulge.
SP: This is maybe a silly question, but do you write the newspaper because you have so many ideas, or do you find yourself using the newspaper as inspiration to go looking for exciting ideas?
MN: That’s not a silly question at all, that’s a great question. I love to read and I love to have lots of books around and I love reading Wikipedia and doing research into a topic and going to the library. And it’s wonderful to have a project that gives me a reason to do this, and to do it in such a free-form way. I definitely use the excuse of the paper to buy more books than I should, just to have more reference material on hand. I also tend to pick up old magazines in order to look at other methods of making a publication, but also (mainly?) because I just want them. I’ve always enjoyed reading from a varied selection of texts, that habit predated the paper for sure. I love reading, and a big part of why I write is so I can make all the various things I read hang out together and party.
SP: Do you LOVE coffee?
MN: I like coffee, but I’m not a demon. I don’t really drink a ton of it, in fact I just cut down from 2 cups a day to 1. Also I don’t care for fancy coffee or specialty drinks, just hot coffee with cream, that’s what I like. I think I mention it a lot in Mothers News because that’sthe mood of the paper, it’s like a coffee mood. A lot of people find the paper in coffee shops, and on top of that the newspaper format has an inherent breakfast connection. Also coffee is the communal beverage of North America, and a communal beverage is always an opportunity for light chat, news, and gossip. That’s a tradition that I’m goes back to the dawn of humanity. Before that, even! I bet that’s a pan-species tradition. Lately I’ve been drinking a lot of iced green tea with lemon and ginger. I make it at home, it costs 2 cents. Whenever I’m writing I like to have a nice beverage, a nice little cup of something. I think that’s important, as a symbol. A cup.
Mothers News is FREE if you pick it up in person around Providence, or you can subscribe for $25 if you want it delivered to your house! You can read some back issues here, but the paper is really best enjoyed in hard copy newsprint. Also, FYI Mothers News is perhaps most famous for their amazing Comics section, which we didn’t even talk about here. Mothers News also has a blog.
nice MN interview from Sick Papes, my favorite website that (mostly) explains truly sick scientific papers.