Barbara Buckman-Strasko has been a staple of the Lancaster literary scene for years. She first came to the area to attend Millersville University in the early 1970’s and eventually moved into the city and became involved in social programs dealing with poverty and education. She would go on to spend her career working for the School District of Lancaster as a parent educator, literacy coach, and counselor, but writing and teaching poetry all the while. Her chapbook On the Edge of A Delicate Day was published in 2007 and her first full length book, Graffiti in Braille, was published in 2012. She served as Lancaster County’s first Poet Laureate from 2008-2010, has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, was Teacher of the Year in 2009 for River of Words, and currently serves as Poet in the Schools for Lancaster Poetry Paths. Her poem “Bricks and Mortar” will appear as a permanent installation in downtown Lancaster’s Penn Square later this year.
Barbara lives in a quiet, old-school suburb along the Conestoga River where, thankfully, there is no vinyl siding anywhere to be seen. I arrived late, having driven past her house several times before seeing the number. She welcomed me in through the kitchen, presented me a cup of tea, and led me into a sitting room at the rear of the house where a fireplace was burning. Out through the sliding doors and across the lawn, the river flowed cold and gray, gleaming in some places from the sun. I sat in a marvelous rocking chair that she later informed me had been her grandfather’s.
After a few minutes of small talk, easing our way into conversation, I finally remembered to turn on the tape recorder. She was telling me, “The thing Sting said, that I just love is–” When she saw me turn on the recorder, she said, “Oh god, don’t tape me.” She laughed, shrugged and continued, “So anyway, the thing Sting said was this: ‘All my life I have tried to find the truth and make it beautiful.’ I just love that. Doesn’t that say it? That’s poetry.” And so our interview had officially begun.
When Barbara came across J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey in high school she was struck with Seymour Glass’ fascination with Asian poetry. She found herself reading Asian poems and writing after that style. She also learned Spanish and read the works of Lorca and Neruda as a young poet and reader. In college, she was very influenced by musicians such as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan, and participated in the counterculture, protesting the Vietnam War alongside many of her peers.
It is easy to see that Barbara genuinely cares for language and believes in its power. She told me that she expresses this when she teaches young writers: “That is what I always tell the kids. Just think how powerful this is. You have a pen and a paper, and your words can change you and can change other people.” More specifically, we discussed the power of words to situate and to help us relate to the natural world and to other people.
Furthermore, she told me, “That’s another thing I tell my students: you have to know the names of things. It is just so important. Flowers. Knowing the name of the river that goes past your house. I think my father was so interested in that; he was that kind of person. You’ve got to know the history of things, the names of things. Even though he was a vacuum salesman.” (Later, she told me the story of her father having to drop out of Temple University Medical School during the Great Depression because he couldn’t afford the train fare in to the city. Like so many other hard working Americans during that time, her father’s story seemed infused with the unique American nobility—of choosing to keep going, working, improving. It became obvious to me that Barbara remembers her father as not just a salesman, but a man deeply, uniquely engaged with the world.)
In her work, Barbara often engages with images of nature and subtly works in commentary on socio-historical subject matter from politics, to urban living, to war, or poverty. But she insists that poetry remains an aesthetic endeavor: “I’m not the type of poet to just come out and say something. I think a poem has got to be a piece of art, a thing that is intriguing, that implies things. There just has to be some kind of mystery involved.” This potential for subtle implication through imagery is a precise and apt way to describe her body of work.
Barbara insists that one of the deepest influences on her poetry is her sister, a visual artist with whom she is close. From an early age she remembers her sister pointing out beauty and instructing her to see the world from an unique and artistic point of view: “She saw the world differently than most people and began to paint her vision very early in life. Now as an art teacher she tells me that creating art is not about how skilled you are in drawing or painting, it’s about how you see. I think it is the same for the poet.” Further influences on her work include the poets Carolyn Forché, Yusef Komunyakaa, Robert Hass, and the local painter David Brumbach, who was a close friend. During a portion of our interview, we spent time flipping through a book on Brumbach’s life and work, until we got to a page with a beautiful painting, and Barbara said to me, “Oh, I have this one. It’s right behind you.” There it was on her living room wall. (Check out more on Brumbach’s work here.)
Perhaps the integrity of her work and her teaching can be summed up by Barbara’s willingness to lean into the unknown, what Keats described as “negative capability.” This idea came up many times throughout our conversation, emerging almost as a central purpose for her life and work: “You have to be willing to be uncomfortable. So many people are unwilling to feel that discomfort of not knowing what they’re doing or not knowing what they are thinking. But I think it’s just very important. We’ve just got to face that disequilibrium.”
Last Tuesday, the young poets of The Mix‘s “We Rock The Mic” literary program took the stage at Tellus360 to share their words, stories, rhymes, and attitude. The event was a spoken word slam, open to the public and judged by local writers. Eight contestants read two poems each and were scored on their creativity, and delivery. Although the teens from The Mix (an after-school youth mentoring program held at Arbor Place on North street in Lancaster City) made up a majority of the contestants, community members young and old participated as well.
The theme of the night was bravery. Briana’s poems were centered on overcoming abuse and honoring African heritage, respectively. “I am an African princess,” the Mix student exclaimed in her second poem. Other teen poets from all over the area read about combating fear, finding and following one’s dreams, and the complications of love. In what was the most specific and socially poignant poem of the night, Kiara spoke about society’s fear and unfair derision of the “F” word–Feminism. “Why is it that a woman is paid half as much as a man?” she asked a captivated crowd as her poem opened.
In order to raise money to go to Brave New Voices, an international youth poetry competition in Atlanta Georgia, the Mix has organized these three Spoken Word competitions at Tellus 360, the first of which was Tuesday, February 10th. Admission was a five dollar donation towards the cost of sending their team of poets; the Mix is working to raise 5,000 dollars. The competitions include many poets from the Mix as they practice for the big show in Atlanta, but the public is encouraged to sign up and compete as well.
The Mix is a youth-mentoring program based in the Southeast of Lancaster City. Over eighty local students attend the Mix, and with a constantly growing roster, the mentors and staff there are always working to incorporate new programming and opportunities for students to find agency and identity in their local community. One of these programs is We Rock The Mic, lead by program associate, Ty Gant. Ty works to help students find their voices, develop confidence, and deliver their message.
The poets at the mix have some experience performing for audiences already. They have monthly open mics at Arbor Place, and some even perform in school at talent shows.
A few days before the reading on Tuesday, I met with Ty and a handful of the young poets to talk to them about the Tellus 360 events, the festival in Atlanta, and their inspiration for writing and performing.
What is the purpose for these events at Tellus 360?
Kiara: “It’s a fundraiser to raise money…so we can go to Brave New Voices. That’s the biggest national youth poetry event and we’re going to try to take five people from Lancaster, to form a Lancaster team. We’re trying to get our name out there, trying to represent Lancaster in a good way.”
Is it just poets from The Mix who’ll be going?
Kiara: “Mainly, but we’re trying to get kids from other schools around here, like La Academia, to come to the Mix and join us.”
Have you been to Brave New Voices? What happens there?
Kiara: “There’s performances….slams–poets competing against each other– and there’s judges that rate your poem…on things like being clear, how long your poems is, how you emphasize the poem, how you get your message across. It’s a big competition, and it’s all teams.”
Who won last year? Where was it?
Kiara: “In Philly. Washington D.C. won. South Africa (Cape Town, specifically) got second.”
How else are you working to raise money to go?
Kiara: “We did community service last year to raise money, so we will do that again too.”
Do you guys work on poetry here at the Mix?
Jacqueline: “Yeah we write a lot at home but we practice saying them here.”
Kiara: “Ty says if you write poetry not to just write it when you’re here, it’s right when you have your feeling and you want to get those emotions down…”
Tyshaya: “We come to practice and Mr. Ty and he helps us read fluently and emphasize our words. He’s really our coach.”
Kiara: “He puts that out every day that he’s not gonna sit there and write the poem for us–we need to write it on our own and get our message across. He’s there to help us say it the best way we can.”
Did you start writing poetry here, or did you write poetry before you came here?
Kiara: “We write [outside of the Mix], but more here. We have poetry lessons in school, but that’s just like a poem to get a grade–but here it’s like if we write we can actually have an audience to hear what we say. Like, if we’re angry at someone one day we can write it in a poem and then when the slam comes you can just get those emotions out and not have to really worry about it any more…We made a CD last year and other kids from the Mix made the beats. We record our poems and they make the music for the background.”
What do you write about? What subjects?
Kiara: “Dreams. Being yourself… I have a Lancaster city poem.”
Tyshaya: “Depression. Stopping violence and bullying.”
Jacqueline: “We just free write.”
Does Ty give you subjects or ideas of what to write about?
Kiara: “Ty doesn’t tell us what to write about but he helps us figure it out. Like, I was writing about how guys always get the credit for stuff and seem more in the spotlight, and he was like, ‘You’re talking about Feminism.’ and I was like, ‘what is that?’ and he said its when men and women fight for equal rights. Then I was like, ‘I’m going to write a poem about that.’
So he just directed you in that way.
Jacqueline: “He directs, he coaches, he helps us.”
This Spring, there are two more opportunities to support the teen poets from The Mix at Arbor Place as they compete to raise money to travel to Atlanta to compete in the Brave New Voices 2015 Youth Poetry Slam. Tellus 360 will be hosting the group again on Tuesday, April 7th, and Friday, June 5th. Don’t miss it. (Also, get writing, because anyone can sign up!)
For Visual Interviews we send a writer a disposable camera and a list of ideas to photograph along with a few short questions. Once the camera is mailed back, we develop the photos and arrange them collage style to give you a unique glimpse into the life of the writer we’ve selected. Check out past Visual Interviews and stay tuned because we have Janice Lee, Alissa Nutting, Alexandra Naughton, Allegra Hyde, and Matthew Simmons and Kevin Sampsell of Future Tense Publishing coming up over the next couple of months!
Photographs and text by Dolan Morgan: a) a selfie that isn’t of Dolan Morgan’s face; b) something that Dolan Morgan found interesting; c) something that Dolan Morgan found interesting; d) something that Dolan Morgan found interesting; e) Dolan Morgan’s favorite local bookstore (WORD); f) something gross that Dolan Morgan found interesting; g) something meaty that Dolan Morgan found interesting; h) something important to Dolan Morgan that is irreplaceable; i) something broken that Dolan Morgan found interesting; j) music that helped Dolan Morgan destroy the 12 stories in That’s When the Knives Come Down; k) something that Dolan Morgan found interesting; l) something that Dolan Morgan found interesting; m) Dolan Morgan’s primary mode of transportation; n) something Dolan Morgan regrets buying.
1. Our first fundraiser, a Grown-up Spelling Bee, was a major success; we raised a thousand dollars!
Last Sunday we held an incredible event at Tellus 360. Twenty-four grown-ups from southcentral PA gathered to flex their spelling skills. Roughly seventy-five additional people came just to watch. It was a lot of fun. You can learn more about the event here and here. Thanks to Michelle Johnsen for the amazing photos!
Thank you so much for coming out, everyone. We raised enough money to pay for:
- Submittable for Third Point Press (see #2 for more info)
- 10 visual interviews
- honorariums for performing artists for over 10 events
- Website hosting
- FEAR NO LIT stickers
- paper and ink for fliers and posters
2. We’ve teamed up with writer and fellow Lancastrian Matthew Kabik to help launch Third Point Press, which is now open for submissions.
Southcentral PA has been without an open-submission literary magazine for too long. Third Point Press, which will be an online literary magazine for its first year, has been launched with the goal of publishing the fiction, poetry, and visual art of local and national writers and artists. Although anyone can submit, 1/3 of each issue will be the work of local writers and authors. This means that if you live in the area, you should absolutely send us your stuff. And if you don’t live in the area, you should still send us your stuff.
I say “us” because I’m going to serve as the Fiction Editor, and Erin will be the Poetry Editor. We are very excited to see what this press will do. We can’t wait to read your work.
Submissions are open now. If you feel like you have a story you want to submit, but you need feedback on it (trust us, every writer needs editing and revising help from other writers) then you should consider signing up for the Pop-up Writing Workshop, hosted by The Triangle and lead by Third Point Press’s head editor, Matthew Kabik. There are only a few spots left!
3. We have at least 15 events planned or being planned so far for this year. Many events are still in the works, but so far we’ve got:
- The Fear No Lit reading series at Dogstar Books. The first reading will feature Matthew Kabik and is on Thursday, February 5th at 7pm. This series will take place on the 2nd Thursday of every other month. The next reading is on April 9th. Each reading will include an open mic and a feature. Entry will be free, but we’ll accept donations to the performer. Triangle team member and contributor Eliot White will be organizing and hosting this series.
- A Flash Fiction Reading Series. This will be a series of four flash fiction readings. Each date will be in a new city. For June, we’ll be at Zoetropolis Art House and Threatre in Lancaster; in August we’ll (hopefully) be in York at Lotus Moon Yoga; in October it’s Elizabethtown at the Bowers Writer’s House; we’ll end with a reading in December at Little Amps in Harrisburg. Each reading will include an open mic and a feature. Entry will be free, but we’ll accept donations for the performer. We did a flash fiction reading in the fall of last year that was a lot of fun; watch the video of that event here.
- A reading in Harrisburg at the Makespace, featuring Nick Kratsas and Meghan Lamb.
- Sip and Snip: A Collage Social Event featuring the Triangle at Discerning Eye Center for the Arts in Lancaster.
- Stories and Artifacts, A Workshop in Experimental Storytelling at the Lancaster Public Library.
- An Embarrassment Reading sometime soon at Modern Art.
4. We need contributors and team members.
The Triangle aims to keep up its once-weekly publishing schedule throughout 2015. This includes our Visual Interview series, interviews with local and regional writers, reviews of events, books, literary news, and information, our But Is It Lit?! series, and opinion pieces. We want our readers and area writers to feel free to contribute to this site. Send us an email if you’re interested in an assignment, or you can pitch an idea you already have. Maybe you read a book and wrote down your thoughts about it, but you have nowhere to publish it; send it our way and we’ll consider it for publication on The Triangle.
We’re also always in need of information. If you know about any local literary events or news, please keep us informed by reaching out on Facebook, Twitter, or email (thetrianglepa [at] gmail dot com).
Lastly, if you want to join the Triangle as a team member or intern, we have as much or as little work as you can handle. This could be anything from helping us to hang flyers or updating our calendar each month with new events. Get in touch if you’re interested!
5. We’re still not fearing any literature.
But that’s kind of a given at this point.
So, I’m off work for a few weeks. Like any writer, this means I’m damn determined to write more, use this time wisely, and finish projects once and for all.
But of course I’m doing things like taking more walks. Definitely walking more than writing. It’s a little cold for the bike, and I’m feeling chubby these days, what with all the Christmas cookies, so I’m trying to move more. It’s a distraction from writing, a diversion of my valuable time. But hey, they say walks are excellent for creativity anyway. So, I walk. I’m walking.
Although, a lot of my walks tend to end a few blocks down the street at Chestnut Hill Cafe. It’s here, each time I walk in the door and survey the shop, where I always come across this simple, pink, mysterious tri-fold pamphlet, not unlike the one I made for a project in 4th grade (I was, I think, assigned to convince my classmates to travel to Costa Rica). There’s a symbol on the front that, although intricate and geometrical, always brings a religious connotation to my mind. Until this week, I’d never actually picked the thing up.
As the pamphlet states, “It is a safe, healing place for quieting a restless mind.” The Lancaster Labyrinth is a walk you take to heal. It’s also a walk you can only take once a month, as the front page informs that it’s only open on First Sundays, for three hours. Apparently, behind the doors of the Unitarian Universalist Church, right across Pine Street from the Cafe, is a twisting, symmetrical maze that leads the walker to a center shaped like a 6 leaf clover.
“You can’t get lost in the Lancaster Labyrinth. It is a pathway leading to a sacred center and back out again,” the pamphlet assures. I took this to be some mystical mumbo-jumbo. You can’t get lost when you have yourself and know your mind and the stars and blah blah blah. I was excited; My mind started racing through the schema I have for Labyrinths, all of them from movies and literature…
I pictured Pan’s Labyrinth, hoped that this clover-center held none other than a saggy-skinned monster who holds his eyes in the palms of his hands. Next, I was reminded of the terror of House Of Leaves, the chapter I felt lost in as I was reading it, the Minotaur, the darkness somehow hiding in that geometrically impossible house. Last of course, The Shining, and Jack frozen to dumb death in the snow. If this place was anything like these literary horrors, I was in. Sign me up. Coffee can wait. Of course, so can my writing. I picked up my bookbag and was ready to head across the street to get lost.
Alas, it wasn’t Sunday, so I decided to satisfy—but instead I extinguished—my curiosity by googling the Lancaster Labyrinth. Was it deep in the basement? Was it lit by fires? Was it made of ancient sandstone and bone?
If I’d have read the pamphlet a bit closer (specifically the part where it says the Labyrinth is “inlaid in [the] floor” of the church) the pictures I found on google images wouldn’t have been so disappointing. There are no walls, just a pattern on the floor. The free entrance to the maze should have also sent a sign: this is not like the thing you have in mind.
Like most things, too good to be true. Like my fantasy of getting stories finished. Like all fantasies, really.
You cannot get lost in the Lancaster Labyrinth. Ah, so literal now. Of course you can’t. What is even the point? No disorienting directions, no dead-ends, nothing chasing you? Not even walls? Just a pattern on the floor, like those rugs made to look like towns, on which I’d drive my race cars up and down, pretending I was the omniscient god of some great Grand Prix.
After I sat in the cafe, ate a blueberry scone, tried to write a mere 200 words to feel justified, I walked home. During this walk, I had some ideas. A story about a kid playing swords with the broken pieces of a curbside big-screen. A poem made by using only the text found on my block’s road signs. Words jumped out at me. I left my head. I walked past my house.
Later, as I was jotting down notes on these ideas, I took another look at the plain, poorly designed pamphlet. Maybe this was more than a pamphlet? (Probably going to write a story told in the form of a pamphlet now…) I could see it being so much more. If I walked myself down to the UUC to tread this allegedly powerful course, maybe I could use my imagination. Maybe there I could put my head in the right place, free of expectations, open to a muse. Maybe I could kick myself in the creative ass. After all, what were these Labyrinths of my memories, the ones I read about? I have to imagine them to make them real. I imagine them anew every time I remember. If a walk can make you better in any way (healthier, more creative), I think it takes some effort on the part of the recipient.
Is this pamphlet lit? I don’t know, probably not, but it could be. If I try.
The epilogue to this story is that I added a note to my Google calendar: “Sunday, Feb. 1st, 2015: 1-4pm: LABYRINTH”.
“Seek not from without, but from WITHIN” says the pamphlet, caps not mine.
I’ll let you know what I see when I look.
In the last few months, I’ve been astounded by the number of people who have an embarrassing or memorable story of a childhood spelling bee. I’ll mention The Triangle’s upcoming fundraiser, a Grown-up Spelling Bee at Tellus 360, and an excited story usually ensues.
“I spelled beautiful wrong. Beautiful!”
“Margaret Thompson beat me and she rubbed it in my face for years.”
“You won’t believe this, but I misspelled “misspelled”—Apparently there’s a second S?”
We’ve gathered a line-up of spellers from across the region to try their adult minds on words ranging from “league” to “acquiesce”, including local novelties like “Yuengling”. Our spellers are competing to be the last one standing, and given that this is hosted at local pub, that could be harder than you think. Each contestant is in it to win a prize package courtesy of Lemon Street Market and a trophy designed by Modern Art. Here’s a line up of the local dignitaries we’ve coerced into playing:
- Adam Blessing
- Carla Christopher (of Culture & Main)
- Jonathan Darby (of Horn Farm Center)
- Joanna Davis Seedorf (of Modern Art)
- Caitlin Downs (of PCAD)
- Cindy Goldsworthy
- Melanie Hess
- Alicia Holland
- Jenny Hill (of Acts of Jennius – Hoop Performance & Instruction)
- Christine Lincoln (Poet Laureate of York, PA)
- Mike Madrigale (of Mr. Suit Records)
- Mike McMonagle (of Fly Magazine)
- Jason Mundok (of Wood Stove House)
- Claire Porter
- Diane Richards (of Lancaster Transplant & Aussie and The Fox)
- Kerry Sherin Wright (of The Philadelphia Alumni Writer’s House)
- Mitchell Sommers (of Philadelphia Stories)
- Donna Talarico-Beerman (of Hippocampus Magazine)
- Jesse Waters (of the Elizabethtown College Bowers Writing House)
- Benjamin Weiss (of Susquehanna Permaculture)
In April, The Triangle turns two. For nearly two years we’ve been working to connect the literary communities (and writers within them) of south central PA by providing a free, online calendar of events; interviewing writers; conducting visual interviews; documenting ephemera through our But Is It Lit series; and giving community members a space to publish literary opinion pieces and reviews. We also organize and host unique literary events. For our readings and workshops, we’ve done our best to keep admission free or by donation—this standard is rooted in two beliefs: 1) that literature should be available to anyone who wants to experience it and 2) that artists deserve compensation for the important, creative work that they do.
In the spirit of providing unique literary experiences, we are hosting Lancaster’s first grown-up Spelling Bee at Tellus 360. We’re asking for a $10 donation for the event. This is our first fundraiser, but we feel it’s going to be well worth the ten dollar price of admission.
You might be wondering what we plan to do with the donations we receive. This is valid. In 2015 we plan to continue publishing weekly interviews, reviews, and news. We will keep up our online calendar, meaning that if you are ever hosting an event (or you even hear about one) that involves the literary arts in any way, you can email us and we’ll help you promote it there and through our social media. We already have 6 events in the works for 2015, including a free workshop on Experimental Storytelling, and a series of Flash Fiction readings around the South Central PA region. Also, this February marks the birth of Lancaster’s own literary magazine, Third Point Press, headed up by our partner-in-lit Matthew Kabik (who will also be a judge for the spelling bee). Some of our collected donations from this event will go to supporting Third Point Press in getting off the ground. This literary magazine will have open submissions and 1/3 of each issue will consist of writers based in south central PA.
Basically, we’re asking you to help us do what we do even better. The Triangle has never been a moneymaking endeavor. Our donations go into paying for our website, printing flyers, and compensating the talented writers we collaborate with. We do all of this in our free time, outside of our day jobs, because we think the literary arts deserve recognition. So, if you’re free this Sunday afternoon, stop by Tellus 360 for a drink and some entertainment. Come say hello.
Possibly the most exciting thing about reading the work of living writers is that you can talk to them. Twitter is great for that. A lot of authors have websites with contact forms. Some offer their email addresses. I’m friends with a bunch of my favorite working writers on Facebook. I just searched their names. Weird, right?
Possibly the most exciting thing about reading writers who live in your county is that you can have coffee with them.
Back in November, I picked up a zine off the shelf in DECA, The Discerning Eye Center for the Arts. I instantly connected with the design; it looks like a composition book. It looked like a book of poems. It was, like, two dollars.
It was Henry Gepfer’s Loser Life: Stolen Poems ’87-’01, which I discovered was a chapbook of haikus composed strictly of song titles released by “slacker” punk and alternative bands during the 90’s.
The way Gepfer described the idea’s conception should sound familiar to creatives: a random, quirky, late-night thought that he couldn’t let go of, although his came during a 3rd shift at a candy factory. What if there was a book of poems assembled entirely of the song titles I grew up listening to? “Usually those ideas, after I get back to a normal sleep schedule, turn out to be terrible…but that one stuck to me, so I did it,” he said. Gepfer, a visual artist and printmaker, admits to feeling lazy about ideas sometimes. “I’m sort of a slack individual myself. I’d said I was gonna make a zine for ever. I can’t remember how many projects I started and never finished it. I just did it to prove I could.” Just about every artist can relate to that.
As for the content, the message, the stuff I chewed on while reading this work, Gepfer is fairly modest. For him, the process was fun, something to keep him busy during a lull in his visual art production. I wanted to know how much audience and purpose played into his creative process with Loser Life. He said, “I don’t really approach art with a viewer or reader in mind. It’s great to consider that when you’re making it, but… I think when you’re doing something like this you don’t really owe anybody anything. I mean, they don’t owe it to you to appreciate or value it. That’s perfectly okay. Like if you wanted to, you could recycle it. That’d be okay.”
Recycling seems to be exactly what he’s doing. “Besides the intro, I didn’t write it,” Gepfer reminded me, “I assembled it.” Recently, poets, artists, and musicians have been creating new landscapes by taking existing content and putting it to new use. They find interesting text and put limitations on its reuse. Gepfer not only limited himself to songs that fell between his most formative musical years, but set out to not repeat any bands; each line in the book comes from a different recording artist.
The last decade has seen an explosion of sourced-text writing. These poetic concepts are surfacing in a variety of places; there’s the pop-flarf of Steve Roggenbuck, the haunting redacted poems of The O Mission Repo by Travis Mcdonald, Stephanie Barber’s hilarious Night Moves (a book entirely sourced from YouTube comments on a Bob Seger music video), Jen Bervin’s remix of Shakespeare (Nets), and her sewn-out The Desert. I mean, Kenneth Goldsmith was on The Colbert Report last year talking about a course he teaches called Uncreative Writing. He read found poems to the president.
Although he isn’t an avid reader of conceptual poetry, Gepfer was aware of and interested by artist Cory Arcangel’s recent publishing project, a book of tweets found by searching the words “working on my novel”. “That dude is really smart. I thought this [project] shared the same type of sensibility,” said Gepfer. Tending more toward visual art, he’s unfamiliar with a lot of found poetry, but he does recognize the tradition that precedes Loser Life. “I am aware I’m not the first person to do it, in fact I’m probably like 900,000 on the list”.
And I’m probably the 900,000th person to say this but it seems we’re all inundated with text, and many are enchanted by the freedom to remix it into something new. Aren’t all words existing text? Isn’t every word we utter stolen? (I’ll shut up if someone promises to make a found poem using the text from this article…)
The chapbook stands as more than just an experiment in poetic boundaries; it is a testament to slacker culture, a 90’s ethos characterized by grunge, alt-rock, post-hardcore and an attitude of Screw You: I am what I am. “The goal was less to mythologize than demystify it,” Gepfer said of the slacker era. “We have a way of thinking everything was better in the past, but I feel like a lot of that was because we were younger and had less responsibility—I kind of feel like everything has always sucked,” he added.
The Slackers, as Gepfer describes them in the forward to Loser Life, were “good looking men and women, who masked their appeal in torn clothes, bad hair, and shitty attitudes. Fucking slackers.” I wondered if he felt slacker culture was unique to the 90s, but he told me it’s cyclical, that every generation has its slackers. Of course they go by different names: Punks, hippies, hipsters, loners, Holden Caulfields. “The definition is elastic,” he admitted.
What surprised Gepfer with this project, which he described as “a funny thing to do at first”, is how personal some of the poems became. “They spoke a lot about the things I’ve been through, or the things I feel…it isn’t exactly what I want to do, but that’s how it ended up,” said Gepfer. He stopped thinking about the words as song titles. As a reader, this is how I started to feel after a few pages as well; I forgot the collage and connected to the message.
Gepfer is primarily a visual artist, an MFA candidate in Printmaking at Edinboro University. This project, for him, was creatively inspiring for his visual art. He told me, “It ended up being a jumping off point for a lot of the stuff I’m working on at school now.” With five semesters left, Gepfer said his creative focus will be on printmaking and visual art; we might not see another self-published book of conceptual poetry any time soon. But, you never know when a stray idea will strike, hold on, and become something tangible.
If you want to grab a copy of Loser Life, you can check out Gepfer’s site, peruse the zine shelf at DECA in Lancaster, or just email him at lgepfer [at] gmail dot com.