Birdsong 13 and 14, Birdsong Micropress, 2010-11

Birdsong is a collective of artists, writers, printmakers and publishers, but it’s also a zine press, and it’s also a cultural moment. You may have noticed editor-in-chief Tommy Pico’s place on the L Magazine’s “Young New Yorkers Who Are Better Than You” feature. Self-consciously confessional, diaristic and young, the pieces and creators that make up the latest two editions of Birdsong the bimonthly zine (numbers 13 and 14) might have a hipster sheen, but what makes them worth reading is their desire to go past the slick surface, an unwillingness to be superficial. Birdsong boasts a solid heart of dedicated writing, drawing and thinking, and it’s this thoughtful center that makes the short zines worth picking up.

Of course, even if what’s inside doesn’t fulfill your expectations, Birdsong’s quality is visible even from its cover. Designed by street artist Blanco, the latest two covers are handsomely screen printed in multicolor on heavy stock paper and bound on the edge by bright threads. The printed covers both feature living things, #13 has bees (following the issue theme of buzz) and#14 has beautiful birds in black and white on pink (the theme is “anew”). Each issue also has a center section devoted to the visual arts, standout works including Cat Glennon’s slightly morbid watercolor mash-ups of antelopes and skulls, deemed “I Wish I Were Dead” and “I Wish I Were Dead, too”, and a striking forest photograph by Patrick Dyer in #14.

At right, Cat Glennon’s watercolor drawings (all photos by author)

Birdsong’s writers tend towards the autobiographical; whether the pieces are explicitly fact or fiction is rarely discussed. With the better pieces, that doesn’t matter– Tommy Pico’s onomatopoeic “Making Paper” in Birdsong #13 moves freely between narrative and aesthetic riffing, a breath of fresh abstract air. Tatyana Kagamas’s “Leaving New York I” is a personal story that doesn’t get mired in itself. On the other side, Max Steele’s contributions are steamy, sure, but “fIRECRACKER” (#13) dithers into its own loose imagery. The poetry often works better than the prose, with the glaring exception of Marguerite Greenfield’s “Gone in the Vista Cruiser”, whose tight story telling deserves a book deal.

To say that Birdsong zines are what you’d expect your cool friends to put together in their spare time isn’t an indictment; it’s actually what makes the publications so intriguing. Rather than attempting to place themselves in some timeless, voice-from-above role-playing (cough), Birdsong is resolutely of the here and now, and it feels like it would be possible to run into a writer on the sidewalk or discover that they serve you your coffee in the morning. That said, its relevance goes beyond the Brooklyn local. These are quick, shared experiences that often form object life lessons.

At left, Tommy Pico’s poetry, at right, Max Steele’s “fIRECRACKER”

Birdsong‘s most glaring downside is its dedication to a particular emo-leaning confessional style that often scraps clear narrative for verbal and visual ambiance, at times too similar to a high school notebook left in a childhood bedroom. If that’s your jam, go with it, but I can’t help but feel like the zine is too twee than it needs to be, and too often in need of a stronger editorial hand. Birdsong makes no pretenses about being what it’s not, though, and that sincerity is something to watch.

Birdsong is available through the zine’s website, though some issues are already sold out.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...