In this lively and highly literate explication of various American indie scenes and art forms, Oakes argues for the value and importance of a lively, community-based do-it-yourself tradition. In discrete chapters on zines, small presses, comics, independent music labels and numerous other subjects, Oakes focuses on a few exemplary artists or companies that embody the integrity that she lionizes. Her focus on independent publishing and writing-she is a cofounder of the eclectic Kitchen Sink magazine-provides a worthy parallel narrative to Michael Azzerad's essential indie music history, This Band Could Be Your Life, with which her book shares some heroes, most notably the affable Mike Watt of the Minutemen. Oakes begins the book with a much appreciated primer on some of the intellectual forebears of her book's central characters, including the poets Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg and the revolutionary street theater group the Diggers. She ends it with a mournful chapter on the co-opting of indie culture by companies like Urban Outfitters and the TV show The O.C.The complex effect of the Internet on traditional indie culture is given relatively little space, which weakens the book's effectiveness as a guide to current trends and artistic networks, but as an explanation and excavation of the already fading recent past, it is essential reading. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Cultureby Kaya Oakes
A lively examination of the spirit and practices that have made the indie movement into a powerful cultural phenomenon
You know the look: skinny jeans, Chuck Taylors, perfectly mussed bed-head hair; You know the music: Modest Mouse, the Shins, Pavement. You know the ethos: DIY with a big helping of irony. But what does it really mean to be "indie"?/p>/b>
A lively examination of the spirit and practices that have made the indie movement into a powerful cultural phenomenon
You know the look: skinny jeans, Chuck Taylors, perfectly mussed bed-head hair; You know the music: Modest Mouse, the Shins, Pavement. You know the ethos: DIY with a big helping of irony. But what does it really mean to be "indie"?
As popular television shows adopt indie soundtracks and the signature style bleeds into mainstream fashion, the quirky individuality of the movement seems to be losing ground. In Slanted and Enchanted, Kaya Oakes demonstrates how this phase is part of the natural cycle of a culture that reinvents itself continuously to preserve its core ideals of experimentation, freedom, and collaboration.
Through interviews and profiles of the artists who have spearheaded the cause over the years—including Mike Watt, David Berman, Kathleen Hanna, and Dan Clowes—Oakes examines the collective creativity and cross-genre experimentation that are the hallmarks of this popular lifestyle trend. Her visits to music festivals, craft fairs, and smaller collectives around the country round out the story, providing a compelling portayal of indie life on the ground. Culminating in the current indie milieu of music, crafting, style, art, comics, and zines, Oakes reveals from whence indie came and where it will go next.
Indie culture exists outside of and often rails against mainstream culture-independent record stores in opposition to Best Buy, crafts festivals instead of Ikea, zines as opposed to Rolling Stone. As a corollary, poet Oakes (writing, Univ. of California, Berkeley; Telegraph) reminds us, indie culture has a strong history of reciprocity between producer and consumer; it is a creative community that should produce an equal amount of inspiration and consumption. Oakes locates the evolution of this idealism in the cultural explosion that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. Covering musicians, zines, comics, independent presses, and homemade crafts and events, Oakes uses the concept of a creative community as a mediating theme to illustrate how indie culture has oscillated between the music and literary scene throughout the last few decades. Ultimately, she questions the future of indie culture in its currently oversaturated and corporate form. Recommended for all public libraries; this will particularly appeal to artists, musicians, writers, and kids with thick-rimmed glasses.
“Relays indie's development … with uncommon insight … [and] makes an impassioned, optimistic case for indie's vitality that doesn't assume readers are coming to [the] book already well versed in the subject…. A comprehensive approach to a subject that is too often reduced to discrete parts…. Fresh and perceptive.” San Francisco Chronicle
“[An] absorbing nonfiction study of indie culture.... Oakes is no dry outsider. She believes in what she describes, she contributes to it and she speaks its language.” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“[A] lively and highly literate explication of various American indie scenes and art forms . . . [Oakes'] focus on independent publishing and writing--provides a worthy parallel narrative to Michael Azzerad's essential indie music history, This Band Could Be Your Life . . . Oakes begins the book with a much appreciated primer on some of the intellectual forebears of her book's central characters, including the poets Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg and the revolutionary street theater group the Diggers. As an explanation and excavation of the already fading recent past, it is essential reading.” Publishers Weekly
“As Oakes reminds us, indie culture has a strong history of reciprocity between producer and consumer; it is a creative community that should produce an equal amount of inspiration and consumption. . . . Covering musicians, zines, comics, independent presses, and homemade crafts and events, Oakes uses the concept of a creative community as a mediating theme to illustrate how indie culture has oscillated between the music and literary scene throughout the last few decades. . . . this will particularly appeal to artists, musicians, writers, and kids with thick-rimmed glasses.” Library Journal
“Oakes' entry on underground comics gives a focused history for the uninitiated, while her firsthand experiences in self-reliant publishing provide a unique insider's view of the struggles to keep such operations afloat. Luminaries such as itinerant bassist Mike Watt, Silver Jews leader David Berman and Ghost World author Dan Clowes give further insight into their respective fields.” Kirkus Reviews
“An intelligent, … passionate … manifesto for Indie culture and its ideals” Synthesis Weekly
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Slanted and Enchanted
The Evolution of Indie Culture
By Kaya Oakes
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2009 Kaya Oakes
All rights reserved.
Constantly Risking Absurdity: Early Independent Networks
Independence is defined by the people who live it. When poet Frank O'Hara exited his job as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in 1960, traveling downtown to the Cedar Tavern, he would spend the evening throwing back drinks and smoking endless cigarettes in the company of other poets and painters whose work was still considered too odd, too quirky, too abstract for the art and literary establishment. O'Hara's poetry and the poems and visual art being created in his circle stood in stark contrast to the traditional lyric poetry and predictably dull painting of the time. Legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, reading his poem Howl at a San Francisco art gallery in 1955, and dancing and chanting at "happenings" in the 1960s, redefined the role of poetry and of poets in popular culture, making himself famous for his brilliance and eccentricity. Unlike the safe subject matter his peers were writing about, Ginsberg's erotic, politically charged, and openly gay poetry shattered conventions and helped usher in the revolutionary thinking of the sixties. The Diggers, the anarchist guerrilla theater and activist group started by Peter Berg and his friends, took the idea of creative independence beyond art into a liberal application as a way of life, and when Hal Reynolds bought a ramshackle house in West Berkeley, named it McGee's Farm, and converted it into a men's consciousness-raising commune, he and his communard friends literally embodied the idea of independence. Openly rejecting the idea of the nuclear family, suburban lifestyles, and consumer culture in favor of group living in urban and very rural areas, the communes started in the sixties took a stand for independence and rebuked long-standing notions of what creativity and family really mean.
Whether it was the shadow of the atomic cloud, or the post–World War II blues that followed, the actual availability of affordable housing in Manhattan and San Francisco, or simply the collective shrugged shoulders of a generation bored out of its skull by the strictures and expectations of an era that telegraphed a relentlessly cheerful message, art, and how art is made, changed in the fifties. This generation ushered in a sea change never before seen in American artistic culture. The line between the creative independent cultures of that decade and the ones that exist today, despite a few twists and turns, is not hard to follow. The distance between the paintings of Grace Hartigan, often featuring words from the poems of her friend Frank O'Hara along with abstract imagery, and the flyer art of punk artist Raymond Pettibon, which similarly pulls together abstracted chunks of texts and vibrant, disturbing images, is not all that great either. Even the spirit of the first clandestine gatherings of folk music fans unearthing and discovering the sounds of the Carter Family, slave ballads, and the silvery voice of folksinger John Jacob Niles can be rediscovered in the freak-folk artists like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom who currently proliferate in the indie rock scene. In both the fifties and sixties, being an artist no longer meant that you needed training, education, or patronage. As Frank O'Hara described his own impulse to write, "going on your nerve" meant making art because you wanted to, and making it in your own way. By creating and following that dictum, the independent artists of that time created the blueprint for indie culture today.
But the new creative culture in the fifties didn't arrive flying its freak flag — it arrived wearing a suit, in the form of the writers and artists of the New York School. Working a day job at the Museum of Modern Art, where he curated exhibitions and wrote poems on his lunch hour, O'Hara's lifestyle was not overtly nonconformist. His friend the visual artist Joe Brainard clued in on the subtle indications of what did set O'Hara apart on their first meeting. "He was walking down Second Avenue. It was a cool early spring evening but he was wearing only a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. And blue jeans. And moccasins. I remember that he seemed very sissy to me. Very theatrical. Decadent. I remember that I liked him instantly." With the words "sissy" and "theatrical," Brainard, using the parlance of his time, keyed into one of the elements that bound the poet's creative network together: homosexuality. O'Hara's close friends and fellow poets John Ashbery and James Schuyler, as well as Brainard, O'Hara's roommate Joe LeSueur, and many of the other artists in their circle were either gay or, for an era when homosexuality was viewed as a disease and a criminal act, unusually gay friendly. Frank O'Hara was born into an Irish Catholic family in Baltimore in 1926, and he grew up in the suburban town of Grafton, Massachusetts. After serving as a sonar man in the navy during World War II, he entered Harvard University on the GI Bill, where he became engrossed in the study of literature, falling in love with the poetry of radical French writers Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé, and beginning to write poems of his own, which led him to a lifelong friendship with another poet who would become part of his circle in New York: John Ashbery. After graduate school at the University of Michigan, O'Hara relocated to New York in 1951, where he found a desk job working at the Museum of Modern Art, eventually working his way up to becoming the assistant curator of paintings and sculpture. Throughout his years at the MoMA, O'Hara wrote at a frenetic pace, sometimes writing a poem a day for weeks at a stretch. Reflecting the circumstances under which they were written, his poems had a tossed-together quality that casually disguised their insights into life in the city. With his balding head and large, crooked nose, he didn't look imposing, but his larger-than-life personality and voracious appetite for friendship and love drew artists of both genders into his circle. Though the writing and art they made was diverse, the one thing the New York School artists had in common was a desire to break taboos and try new things in their creative work. Aside from his former classmate John Ashbery, O'Hara's coterie included the African American poet LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) and many female artists and writers, including his close friends Grace Hartigan and Jane Freilicher. In its diversity and openness to creative experimentation, the New York School, as the group would later be dubbed by scholars, also set a precedent for open-mindedness about gender, race, and sexuality.
As far as a shared ethic goes in a distinct group of artists, the members of the New York School were interested in poetry as part of the everyday experience rather than something reserved for cloistered academics. If there's one hallmark of O'Hara's poetry that helps it to resonate with so many people, it's a sense of joy and pleasure in cataloging seemingly banal things and experiences: walks, food, chance meetings with friends, films, the urban landscape. The radical aesthetics of O'Hara and his circle were so new and different that the rigidly structured professorial class of the time often had no idea of how to react to them. At Harvard, O'Hara and Ashbery faced a difficult conundrum in their efforts to create serious yet avant-garde work. Their poems had always been considered to be too light and strange in construction and subject matter for the preferred taste for meter and rhyme espoused in college classrooms. Poking fun at the academic style of poetry in 1969, when he was more established, Ashbery wrote that "American poetry still suffers from the mania for over-interpretation. The technical term for this ailment is objective correlativitis. It attacks poets in their late 30s, and is especially prevalent in New England; elms are thought to be carriers."
That same concern with life outside of academia, where art can often become something dry and dissectible, created a bond between poets and painters. In "Larry Rivers: A Memoir," O'Hara writes that many of these relationships between painters and poets stemmed from a mutual sense of being outsiders in their own genres, and some of that sense of outsider-ness grew from their mutual perception of being frivolous in their art: "for most of us non-Academic and indeed non-literary poets in the sense of the American scene at that time, the painters were the only generous audience for our poetry, and most of us read publicly at art galleries or at The Club." Although the same division between academic and avant-garde writers and artists continues to exist today, the differentiation was greater in O'Hara's time.
While poets and painters and musicians and dancers and actors had historically collaborated before the New York School, the difference now was that because these collaborations were taking place outside of the watchful eyes of patrons, professors, or even moms and dads, so the question of "what is a poem" or "what is a painting" mattered hardly as much as the resulting product and the relationships that led to those products. Although almost all of these men and women came from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds, their sexuality and the fearless nature of the art they made were defiant gestures to the communities that had reared them. And in making those gestures, they increasingly found things in common with artists from genres outside of their own.
One of O'Hara's most famous poems, "Why I Am Not a Painter," stemmed from a conversation about painting with his friend the abstract expressionist painter Grace Hartigan. Hartigan told O'Hara that she wanted to paint "a lot of something," and O'Hara, who was in the midst of a series of poems called "Orange," suggested she work with them. O'Hara comments further on this process and shared desire for "a lot of something" in his poem "Why I Am Not a Painter" when he writes that "There should be / So much more," a message to Hartigan about their collaboration and friendship. Hartigan's and O'Hara's efforts became so symbiotic that "when O'Hara saw not only his portrait but also his poems reinterpreted through Hartigan's treatment in the Oranges, it seems likely that he had a similar experience of a number of his selves expanding. In this sense the Oranges represent a true collaboration, with each artist responding productively to the contribution of the other," writes critic Terence Diggory. This sense of a fluid interchange between artists resonated strongly in the sixties, when psychedelics made self-expansion a lot easier and faster than it was in the fifties, when creative types stuck to alcohol, though often in vast quantities, and only occasionally dabbled in pot. The idea that a poet like O'Hara could see and understand himself and his own writing better through the lens of a painter was indicative of a cultural shift. It was easier for slightly older poets like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath to write for writing's sake than to collaborate with others, and their tortured confessional poems made O'Hara's subject matter look like a cakewalk in comparison. O'Hara and his friends needed to work with other artists like they needed the inspiration of the city where they lived. O'Hara once wrote that he could never be happy unless there was "a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life," a huge contrast to the dour, desperate, and lonely lyrics of Plath and Lowell.
Likewise, the symbiosis between a gay man and a straight female presented a new social opportunity, and this and his other friendships with artists and writers gave O'Hara a sense of purpose. Like many independent artists who followed, O'Hara fostered the idea of community being crucial to creative work. His book Meditations in an Emergency was dedicated to Freilicher, and many of his best poems were inspired by her and by Hartigan. O'Hara also formed close and lasting friendships, sometimes sexual, sometimes not, with his fellow gay poets Ashbery and James Schuyler. Though their poems were stylistically different — O'Hara's were more observational, Ashbery's were more intellectual, and Schuyler's were more lyrical — they still had common ground in being outsiders, and they formed a close-knit circle that also included their straight friend Kenneth Koch, whose funny, odd poems further challenged the confessional aesthetic of the previous generation. All of these writers shared an avant-garde style, which sometimes pushed them to find publication in new venues.
O'Hara's books entered the world in unconventional ways, often through his network of friends rather than through a mainstream publisher. O'Hara published several chapbooks — limited edition short collections of poems — through the Tibor De Nagy gallery, often with illustrations and paintings by his friends. Chapbooks are sometimes dismissed as less significant than full-length books, since they are mostly published by small presses, have small print runs, and feature a shorter selection of poems, but they also play an important role in the history of small-press publishing. For thousands of writers like O'Hara, chapbooks provided a way for his work to be circulated in print. Chapbooks often led to longer collections of work, but because they're bite-sized and often funkily designed, they also paved the way for zines, broadsides, and other micropress releases in the sixties, eighties, and today. City Lights, one of the first significant independent presses, at the time already infamous for the government censorship trial it endured over the publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl in 1956, published O'Hara's Lunch Poems in 1964 in its Pocket Poets Series, shortly before his death, and his work was often found in little magazines, broadsides, and mimeographed journals, the new organs of the avant-garde, all published by other writers interested in pushing the boundaries of writing and art. At readings, O'Hara, a lifelong cheerleader for his friends' work, would read not only his own poems but also Ashbery's, Schuyler's, and Koch's. He nurtured relationships with younger poets as well, like Bill Berkson, LeRoi Jones, and Barbara Guest.
Passing on both an artistic and social tradition integral to those who were, like him, dedicated to creating art that challenged the status quo, O'Hara may have looked on the surface like any other Irish Catholic from New England, but he was a creative radical, and his colleagues followed in his footsteps. The fevered pace of much of O'Hara's writing also reflected the distinct tension between creative pursuits and the need to earn a living that would come to define the indie lifestyle for generations of artists to come. Time was precious for someone who did not write for a living, who wrote simply because he had to and wanted to. And in the end, it was O'Hara who would help give rise to the figure who would build a bridge between the fifties experimental art scene and the sixties counterculture: Allen Ginsberg.
Although they crossed paths occasionally at readings and bars in New York, wrote their best-known works in the same era, and were sometimes published in the same magazines, the Beats and the New York School poets had little in common on the surface. Both Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac published their seminal works, Howl and Other Poems (1956) and On the Road (1957), when they were in their thirties, but their writing and their concerns as writers were less refined, less cultured than that of the New York School. The Beats were grubby, dirty-minded, and noisy; the New York School poets were mannered, sophisticated, and somewhat hushed. O'Hara was thirty, the same age as Ginsberg when they met in 1956, but whereas O'Hara held down a day job and preferred mixing at cocktail parties and galleries, Ginsberg and his compatriots lived a more bohemian lifestyle. Ginsberg flitted in and out of a career in advertising, but he also experimented with drugs very early on, wrote poems based on his hallucinations, had openly gay relationships, and was always attracted to writers who lived both blue-collar and criminal lives. Kerouac was a merchant marine and a hard-drinking macho lumberjack type; Gregory Corso had recently been released from prison and was being supported by the patrons of a lesbian bar when he met Ginsberg; William S. Burroughs was a lifelong heroin addict who accidentally shot his wife in the head. The erudite poets of the New York School may have been adventuresome in their work, but their lives were nothing like this.
Excerpted from Slanted and Enchanted by Kaya Oakes. Copyright © 2009 Kaya Oakes. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Meet the Author
Kaya Oakes is the co-founder of Kitchen Sink magazine, which received the Utne Independent Press Award for Best New Magazine in 2002. Currently a writing instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, she has lived the indie life for more than twenty years.
Kaya Oakes is the cofounder of Kitchen Sink Magazine, which received the Utne Independent Press Award for Best New Magazine in 2003. Currently a writing instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, she has written music journalism, film and book reviews, and wrote a column on comics for Viz Comics’ Manga Vizion. Her collection of poetry, Telegraph, received the Transcontinental Poetry Prize from Pavement Saw Press, and her poems have appeared in more than thirty journals and magazines. She has received writing awards from the Academy of American Poets and teaching fellowships from the Bay Area Writing Project and the Mellon Faculty Institute.
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