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.