Brian Polk, who grew up in Parker, has seen the Denver area change drastically since he moved to the city as a teenager. Unlike most locals, though, Polk has a physical record of his experiences here, since he founded the underground magazine Yellow Rake fifteen years ago and has continued editing it and contributing writing of many kinds to every issue.
At one point, Polk took a two-year break from the magazine to help found Suspect Press, but he’s always come back to Yellow Rake, which he calls “a means to express myself creatively and work toward a goal." He’s about to release issues 33 and 34.
This weekend, Yellow Rake — which takes inspiration from punk in that there are seemingly no boundaries to what kind of prose, poetry, criticism and art Polk will publish — celebrates the release of those two issues and its fifteen-year anniversary at Mutiny Information Cafe on Friday, August 9, and the hi-dive on Saturday, August 10. There will be readings by local writers and performances by local bands, including the Simulators, who are releasing a three-song seven-inch showcasing the experimental trumpet playing of Denver punk-scene veteran Tim Franklin.
In addition to running the zine, Polk is a clerk at the Denver Public Library, plays drums in local punk bands the Simulators and Joy Subtraction, and has published two novels. Westword recently caught up with Polk to discuss Yellow Rake and his life in Denver.
Westword: What are your memories of reading underground magazines growing up?
Brian Polk: That was the cool thing about punk rock, because there were so many. There was a zine called Rats in the Hallway, which was a mid-’90s punk-rock zine, and there was one called The Hooligan, which came out in the early to mid-’90s. I would drive to Wax Trax and pick these up, and the whole point they made was that anybody can do it. So I knew that’s what I had to do, and that’s what I did. Those two in particular — the fact that they were out there doing things [and] nobody gave them permission — they just did it, and that’s such a liberating notion.
What’s the circulation of Yellow Rake?
Issue 33 is gonna be an old-school zine — hand-copied, hand-folded, stapled. It’ll have a very low circulation, maybe 200. The next night we’re releasing a regular print zine, so that has a circulation of 2,000.
How do music and writing and publishing all overlap for you?
Well, they’re very different activities. With music, since I’m not a singer-songwriter and I play drums, I kind of have to wait for everyone else to show up and write songs with me and then play those songs. And then you try to match up schedules as an adult, and that’s never easy. With writing, I just do it when I have any kind of downtime — if I get a break at work, or if I’m on the bus, or anything. I just pull out my phone and start tapping away; I don’t have to wait for anyone else. They’re both creative resources, and they’re both something to do with my thoughts. I don’t know if I have any kind of grand ambitions to turn this into my day job, since I’ve been doing this for so long and I already have a day job. I’m just gonna keep doing it, because it helps with my existential angst.
Which punk-rock heroes of yours might have inspired you to get into writing and not just making music?
This guy Al Burian. He did a zine called Burn Collector and was in a band called Mile Marker. People like him who just did it, they inspired me to take that punk-rock energy and put it into something that’s not music. Also The Minutemen. They were very literate. A lot of their songs read like a zine article, you know?
Yellow Rake delves into a lot of controversial subjects, often with humor. Is there any subject in the world that should never be joked about?
For me, there’s quite a few that I won’t touch, just because my voice doesn’t really need to go there. I won’t say anything about race unless it’s making fun of my own. I won’t say anything about gender unless it’s making fun of my own. And I’m not saying you can’t; there’s gotta be some nuanced way you can do it, but I’m not going there. I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be a walking stereotype like that.
How has Denver changed since you started Yellow Rake?
Quite a bit. It looks cleaner and nicer. I still like going to Wax Trax, because it reminds me of when I first moved here. There were a lot of stores like that and a lot of thrift stores like that, that weren’t really that clean and felt more comfortable. A lot of coffee shops used to be like that, too, and now everything has a Starbucks aesthetic to it. Even in coffee shops, everything’s really, really clean. It looks like a hospital to me. There used to be a lot of bars where $10 was what you’d spend in a night, and you’d never pay more than $250 a month in rent. All of that’s way gone. Even with inflation, I don’t know what $350 from the late ’90s would get you these days, but it’s not $1,200 a month. So there’s not as much opportunity to live here and have dumb jobs and do dumb things, or have time to explore things like the underground music scene or the underground literature scene. Those things thrive more when you can live cheaply.
Hopefully it’s not like San Francisco, where young creative people just can’t afford to be around anymore.
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Yeah, and I wonder where they’re going. My fear is that they’re dispersing throughout the metro area, not just landing in Lakewood or Englewood or whatever. It’s harder to have a scene that way. But it’s definitely not as expensive as living in a coastal city, by any stretch of the imagination, so there’s still some opportunity.
How do you feel about the fifteen years and what you’ve created and accomplished? You must have also made a lot of friends through this project.
Yeah, that’s true. And I didn’t even realize that it was fifteen years. I wasn’t keeping track or anything, and I don’t really celebrate milestones. I didn’t celebrate ten years. I think there’s something to be said that I’m still doing it, and I’ve developed a lot of really deep, meaningful relationships because of it that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s not that fifteen years is to rest on my laurels or anything, but just to acknowledge that, “Oh, yeah, I guess I have been doing this for a while.” I’m just excited that there are people out there that are excited about it. I’m definitely humbled by that and very appreciative, and glad that I’m still doing it.
Yellow Rake celebrates its fifteenth anniversary with a free reading and concert at 8 p.m. Friday, August 9, at Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway, with music from the Simulators and Moon Pussy. That event will be followed by another on Saturday, August 10, at the hi dive, 7 South Broadway, with music by SPELLS, Black Dots, Muscle Beach and Joy Subtraction. For more information, call 303-733-0230 or go to hi-dive.com.