Zine makers don’t need anyone to tell them they are artists. They’ve proven it. They recognize no barrier to entry, they need no acceptance letters, they won’t wait to hear back from any art schools or writing programs, they don’t give a shit about a cocktail party.
Being handed a book made by those very hands is a powerful moment. This is the vitality of “local art,” whatever the locality: direct contact with the creative people around us, who can be some of the most inspiring artists in the world if you take them seriously and if they encourage one another.
We’re in a time when in-person contact is not possible. A persistent feeling of disconnectedness has become an historical reality. The thought of standing three feet away from a local musician as she pours her heart out feels like a vague recollection of a paradise. The memory of having a conversation with a poet about his zine minutes after he’d published it sounds too good to be true, like, “Oh, grandfather, you couldn’t just drink maple syrup from a tree when you were a kid.” But no, really, this has happened, it will happen again, and it’s the only thing standing between us and a world of strictly commercial art.
Here are some Ames poetry zines and songbooks I’ve cherished. Reading and playing through them now makes me freshly appreciative of what local art has meant to my life and the inspiration I’ve taken from creative friends with the courage and motivation to do it themselves, together.
Teeth Trees and Jesus by Molly McDonald
I feast on Molly’s poetry. When I start reading her books I just keep going and going, chuckling and nodding and smiling all the way through. She redirects my thought patterns to fit her own: I think in Molly poetry for at least 48 hours after each session.
At times she writes with the intrasyllabic rhyme layering of a rapper: “My dumb numb fingers bumble buttons through holes and grip zippers like they were crucifixes.” More often she sounds like a free-associating standup comedian, finding the germ of the next joke in the joke she’s making now. But it is always toward a larger purpose — she puts wordplay in the service of character development, as when a speaker tries to say to herself, “Shut up, brain,” but instead, “Because I’m dyslexic, I say ‘Shut up, Brian’ and I say it out loud and my brother, Brian, hears me and he punches me in the neck.”
I became a fan of Molly’s work through a writer’s group around 2008. She always made everyone laugh and I looked forward to her work every week. Revisiting this collection now was very nostalgic. The style of humor reminded me a lot of Flavor Basket’s songwriting (they were close friends); there’s something deeply Ames about it. For one thing, they both regularly make use of “pockets” as an image; a stapled-in index of terms early in Teeth Trees and Jesus refers the reader to six usages in the volume. One of my favorite songs to play from The Flavor Basket Songbook is “A Time Before Pockets.”
And like Flavor Basket’s lyrics, Molly’s poetry is filled with good one-liners but is also surprising, unpredictable, occasionally biting, and can be unexpectedly sad, too. Her poems can seem to chart the spiraling patterns of a troubled consciousness, constantly self-editing, circling back on itself. But humor bursts through every time, breaking the mental loop with the physical force of laughter. “Sometimes you get stuck to a thought that you can’t escape from,” she writes. “Sometimes the thought grows arms and legs and eyes and ideas and a smile with a beard under it.”
Travel and Glitter by J. Parry
The title page advises: “It is meant to be read out loud as one poem. Or do whatever you want.” The first time I read it the author was sitting next to me in a van and I opted for “whatever you want.” But this time I went ahead and read it aloud in one sitting, which takes about 20 minutes, and that’s definitely the right way to do it.
The poem is a manifesto for DIY culture. There is a passionate refrain, designed to be chanted in unison, that proclaims dedication to the Iowa underground scene. And there are numerous quotes and hyper-local references that will bring a smile to any Ames music regulars of the early 2010s. J. shows his immersion in the art being made around him. In fact, the wild forays into verbal humor that Molly shares with Flavor Basket are legible in J.’s witty image-making too. It’s a proof of concept: Being influenced by your friends and peers is at the heart of DIY community.
There are diversions into a scientific love affair — revealing the hidden eroticism of “Gibbs free energy curves” and the “Fermi level” — as well as an extended appreciation of the poet’s grandfather, which are both weaved back into the central theme of staying rooted in the arts community.
The poem crests with the motivational “Rock out” section, a call to artistic action, which I saw J. perform numerous times and has always been one of my favorites of his works. Reading the poem aloud, I found myself embodying his declamatory style, matching his rhythms and timing, and I was moved all over again. The choices are either “Rock out” or “Let us never live / Let us never see or smell each other again.” We’re all separated by a safe distance now but I can still clearly smell some of my favorite artists, and I’ll bet some of them can smell me too (and I apologize). We can’t afford to lose the scent. We’ve been warned.
Songs for Iowa by Lyndsay Audra Nissen
Lyndsay certainly shares J.’s passion for the local community and she has done extraordinary work in Ames to foster, study, promote, and most of all create DIY culture through Reliable Street and its many endeavors.
Songs for Iowa is part of her ongoing exploration of our state’s unique regional traditions. The lyrics and chords are presented in a collage style, pasted around found imagery and original drawings and with handwritten notes offering background on the historical roots of certain phrases and imagery.
Iowa, the “Prairie Queen,” is depicted as a ravaged and devastated landscape, but one still teeming with wildness and mysterious hidden beauties. A number of the songs are about the Ames area — and individuals in it — specifically. “Have you ever gravel traveled round midnight / to a place they call the shrine?” she writes. “And what he made / was so beautiful / I’m afraid it took all his soul / and what he built / was something unbelievable / now he stands out guard in the cold.” That’s a litmus test of Ames residency.
In her 2015 graduate thesis, Lyndsay coined the term “MetaRegionalism” to refer to her work and that of others she researched in Iowa. The movement is characterized by a pointed and “socially engaged” approach to local places, histories, and concerns, yet is globalized through its engagement of the internet, which she calls “our new train, with fiber optic cable tracks that can take us to virtual reality or send our ideas across the world.” In keeping with that concept, Lyndsay has posted local songs by herself (including “Artist Statement” which appears in Songs for Iowa) and other Ames artists on the Art Vacancy YouTube channel, including the Flavor Basket treasure “Family Jewels.”
As an artist, theorist, and preservationist, she may be the most significant force for DIY that Ames has seen this century.
The Flavor Basket Songbook by Charlie Vestal
I’ve learned 23 songs of the 95 songs in this collection so far and it’s one of my life goals to learn them all. The Flavor Basket Songbook is an essential document that all Ames music collectors (that’s a real thing) need to have. The songbook collects all the lyrics and chords, and some tabs, from the five albums Charlie released in his lifetime plus five uncollected songs (which are among the best in the book). The songbook was created by Charlie’s brother, Mark Farnsworth — in collaboration with friends who helped with the transcription — and he wrote the heartfelt introduction. Flavor Basket fans and friends are so very grateful for his vision and effort in putting this together.
I absolutely believe that Flavor Basket was a songwriting genius and I’m not alone in feeling this way. The more of his songs I learn, the more amazed I am at his technique, which seemed to come naturally to him.
I can’t play guitar as well as Flavor Basket. When I’m learning his songs I use the synth-string setting on my keyboard and just hold down the chords while singing the lyrics, which makes his words extremely vivid. I’ve found a chilling intimacy in his work, I’m frequently moved to tears even by funny songs, and I force myself to keep singing as my voice becomes thick, garbled, and clipped.
I know these songs are great because my kids insist on me playing them over and over. Their favorites include “The Plea Bargain,” “Vacation Blues,” and “Supersonic Superman.” They always laugh and sing along at these lyrics from “Softer Than Sheep”: “Now she’s selling all her mustard. / She’s taking a ride on a big balloon. / I love being able to smell your scent in the sky.” And I’m especially fond of the lyrics that come next: “She’s disguised as a pack of Uno. / She’s involving herself with who knows who.” One of these Halloweens I’m going to make an Uno costume in tribute.
Reading the lyrics is just as fun as playing or listening to the songs and can be very revealing. In “Rocket Bottle” (which Lyndsay filmed Charlie playing in 2015), he writes: “Scream if you want to. Nobody will hear you. / You try to run from your problems when you’re losing control.” And he promises that “I won’t desert you. I never meant to hurt you. / The sign said Stop so let’s go and do it again.”
We play these songs over and over to try to do it again, to try to hear him screaming. His place in Ames music history is secure, his influence on his contemporaries is apparent, and, thanks to this songbook, his music is alive and well. Charlie, we won’t desert you. Let’s d-d-d-do it again.