Profile of an Anarcho-Leftist, Poet/Librarian, Gentrifier, Greg Bem

Greg Bem

When you think of the kind of person gentrifying the Rainier Valley, a man who could be described as an Anarcho-Leftist, Poet/Librarian might not be tops on your list. Greg Bem is a Rainier Valley person you should know, a compelling performance poet, who has spent hundreds of hours tutoring at risk people, many of them people of color in places like the Rainier Valley and also Philadelphia. We caught up with him to talk about his background, life in the Othello neighborhood, his performance aesthetic and his recent coverage of Paul Allen’s attempt at creating a Northwest version of the South By Southwest music festival, Upstream. READ MORE IN THE SOUTH SEATTLE EMERALD

In the first segment Greg talks about his upbringing, his education in Creative Writing at Roger Williams and working at campus radio station WQRI as well as the music he played there and the antics in which he engaged. Click here to listen to Part 1 – 12:14.

In part two Greg discussed moving to Seattle and the decision to become a librarian. It was an extension of his work tutoring at-risk children in Philadelphia and provides a service he says is critical in this times, one that he needed himself growing up:

I had to have an anchor and if the anchors didn’t exist, if those locals didn’t exist to provide some context … in other words, if I had just been thrown into that space, I would have probably been terrified, afraid, hopeless, etc. And those feelings, of course, came up. But there was a camaraderie that existed there.

To relate it back to your question about libraries and librarianship, though, that kind of fueled what I found in libraries throughout my life, that feeling, that same kind of camaraderie, that stability and structure. I think that when we think of the benefit and value of libraries, even in an age where you have literally words spoken from friends of mine in the tech industry who say, “Why are there still libraries? Why do they exist?” Or “I can’t believe they still exist.” They’re off in their own little bubbles and they have that perspective, that’s the best answer, is that they provide structure and stability.

Click here to listen to Part 2: 13:28.

In the third segment, Greg discussed living in the Othello neighborhood, how he sees himself as a gentrifier, but loves the lack of “Western bars” in the neighborhood. he talked about his literary art, how recent work was inspired by “binge listening” to Albert Ayler

And Sun Ra:

You can see Greg’s performance in Bothell here:

Click here to listen to Part 3 of the interview: 10:55.

In the final segment Greg did an impromptu performance based on a carton of Silk Non-Dairy Creamer and his experience at the Upstream music festival, chronicled in his review which you can READ HERE. Click here to listen to part 4: 12:54.

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Poetry Wars Revived

Bucky Fuller at BMC Building a Geodesic Dome

Most of the LANGPO vs. Black Mountain poetry war was fought before I was invested in poetry, so I have done my best to catch up, but a recrudescence has emerged thanks to Dispatches, a website dedicated to poetry and connected to people who made the Resist Much/Obey Little anthology happen. (Disclaimer: They published one of my poems in that book.)

And here is the beginning of the post which warmed up the feud again:

It was interesting to watch the dialog on a recent Facebook post, with one of the primary combatants from that 1978 event making fun of the other’s penchant for myth and crystals and then deleting his comments! An M.O. quite like the one that would prevent release of such an audio clip, even 39 years after the fact. Just past the segment copied and pasted in above, the Dispatches post refers to LANGPO as: “i.e. materialist, neo-Marxist inflected formalism…” which I think sums it up well. This take is similar to Ammiel Alcalay’s comments in his excellent book on Charles Olson A Little History:

While “deconstruction” has been the reigning theoretical rage in academia, driven by fantasies of rendering Western culture powerless through critical discourse, projects characterized by construction, reconstruction, and historical recuperation provide people with real political footing.

In that book Alcalay has a wealth of insight into Charles Olson and projectivism in general and it’s been my feeling for a couple of decades now that there is so much with this stance toward poem making that can be done. We’ve only scratched the surface. Now is a good time for more experiments with projectivism given we’re witnessing the last gasps of LANGPO and its step-child Conceptual poetry, which killed itself rather well at Brown University over two years ago. Of course, there are probably a lot of poets quietly working on “multi-decade research projects” or “saturation jobs” as Olson called them. Perhaps we’ll see their emergence.

I went with an open mind a couple of years ago to see another LANGUAGE poet read at a local university. Charles Bernstein was reading in support of his book “All the Whiskey in Heaven” a 30 year retrospective of his work. And he read that afternoon chronologically, with great wit and humor. I especially enjoyed his sound poetry, which sounded slightly German as I recall. I also noticed his eye contact. In the first half of the reading, he was looking up over the heads of the gathered as he paused between stanzas. It was only in the second half, in which the material shifted to poignant poems about his daughter, who died from a suicide, that his eye contact was with actual eyes of the gathered students and other attendees. This was very touching material and I thought it unusual for such emotional content to be coming from a LANGUAGE poet. But the form that was used to convey this material was very conventional, formal verse. I imagine now that “Official Verse Culture” (a Bernstein term regarding the poetry powers-that-be, grant-givers, publishers &c.) is fully in the free verse mode (and not open form, but usually prose chopped up into line breaks), writing formal poetry can be seen as renegade? (Avant? Post-Avant? Post-Post-Avant? PostToasties?) It seemed to me a pity though that writing from powerful emotional states, for which Projective Verse is well-suited, and the more human approach with eye contact, was relegated to formal verse as if that was the only way the poet knew how to render such material, having decided against developing a projective praxis over the years.

Yes, it is a risk to relate actual feelings, deep emotional vulnerabilities, in one’s poetry. How can we do it with intelligence, originality and innovation? Questions like these were abandoned by LANGPO and Conceptual Poetry, but it is clear with the breakdown of capitalism, the climate and the U.S. democracy that poetry should endeavor to be a little more than a disembodied academic parlor game. Perhaps the release of the 1978 Duncan vs. Watten audio will shed some light on how the wrong turn was made in North American poetry.

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