STARLIGHT, PHILADELPHIA seeks to cast a glow of starlight around the Philadelphia Poetry Community & its people.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Greg Bem is adventurous.  :)

Pneumaticklish, 21st Office of zee Foulest Happy Regiment
by Greg Bem

And it wasn’t that we were hurrying: sky blazing through shields of glass in day of song.
 Cloud kiosk. Systems. A-scurrying, a rat-tail flickering in the wind-up trail of windy portages.
      Door hinges. We were beaming. Eyes glittered over trashy pick-me-ups, breaks of ice.
  Silence is the best mother to be left in the closet you never like to go to it holding nothing special.
Ice breaker but what? What’s in a hurry? Dear son, hold me back; keep me from bursting. Says she.
       That’s all the damned’s whisper could say AC’d. There was an icy breath amidst April cruelisms.
        Then I, focus now, to pick up circular saws, to throw them. To cut wood, flesh of the saw, dust.
I remember Maine. Launch and launch and it’s lunch time. Are you scared? I sense rumble in my belly.
      I sense ant parades, brackets. Mobiles dangling in childhood. Above. And Austin sweat lodge heat.
It’s been a year. A stone pot overturned. A feeling swelling from my toes to the jam on my fingers.
         Back in Rip City the camo’d fella in rainbow toupee delivered a wave today. A bus stop. Black.
On newsprint a pause rooted in quake and the matter still shies away and we are stone.
There be rebels we’ve staggered in Africa and the tooth of a giant snail lodged into each orifice.
                  And everyone is wont to wear crimson on their eyelids, paint their nails, plush up.
    I wait for visions of giant creatures who only come to the surface when it rains then dry up, dead.
       Cause for Cause for Concern: Discerned. Up the stairwell. Use the Emergency. It is cold.
   It is bright in the analysis. The benchmark of the mark. The new technologically tepid. Testy.
           A tap of water for the computer, fronds in second corner picking up another occasional glance.
 The best way to give is to take. Depraved. The best way to leave is to run away. This message for speed.
 To give it all, to give it all back, Emergency Entryway. Damsel to have given it, I gave it all: give-able.
      I think about how many floors it would take before I had the courage to jump beyond and out, away.
     Aren’t you away? A rabbit. You are. Route to arson? You are in vogue? En-robeing the grove?
   An egg smashed on the carpet. Rubbed in embryo. Emblematic patent office. Stamps: Stamps.
     To leave the hand shaking; burning; spurning; turning; churning: my neck choking yours
We make out like feasts before kings, like strands of hair beyond a lighter, look’d to burn point.
                It is a case of the cold. The toilet’s edge. The backwoods brawler. Stale beer below shoes.
 Are you: Title Case: Able to Hurry. The Standard Flagged. Case Opening. Account Closed.
           Down spout. Spigot rusted. And yet what have we to do to lose position? Miss a smidgeon?
              What have we to read up. Cannot leave it in a figure. “Do I Ask So Much?” “Do I want?”
                     Where have you gone today? What is real? Where is my family? Am I hiding?
        Again beckoned in fortress. Mode of permanence. Future bird for paradise. Paradise for birds.
           If you save, you are able. I watch stains develop on my desk and save them. Rag, keep away.
     Blotched ink stains rubbed into the palm. I am able, and I willing, to blast past: cyclists come out.
    The blues in your eyes, I stare at them with belief. Endomorphic corneas: words are crispy.
                The story is a nod, a pamphlet, of the wet bucket: chronic concrete syndrome fatigue.
      Not that we haven’t thought of that. Yet. Not that we have grown tired by, collapsed into.
      Traditions come in all colors. Radiation is forgivable. My decay is greater than yours. Clip nails.
      Also all shades of grey, super standard, mentionables: bringing back life through attack of heart.
     Mandibles of the mannequin, creatures of lagoons a darkness. Risk, risk, risk. Back to the forms.
Oil and vice. Stupor and flower petal: peddler. Cannot oust it. Out of it. These times filled and managed.

The first installment of Starlight, Philadelphia, is a feature on poet Greg Bem, who no longer lives in Philadelphia.  This might seem odd for a project focusing on Philadelphia-based poets, but I have my reasons for starting with Greg.  Namely, I believe him to be a frontiersman who stands on the precipice looking out on the new world of what is possible for poetry of this new epoch.  Greg continually explores ways to create poetic convergence not only with new media & technology, but with community-building.  This impressed me so much when I first met Greg for coffee at a place in Philadelphia called Café Ole.  Our meeting that day was portentous, as it signaled for me that I would know this young man forever, & that as long as I knew him, I would feel continually inspired to stretch beyond my artistic comfort zones & to engage with the world in new ways. 
While in Philadelphia, Greg worked really hard in the poetry community here – so much output on his part, so many poems written, so many videos made, so many chapbooks published, so many audio recordings.  It is hard to list all that he accomplished while here.  But one thing remains true – if you mention his name to many of the poets here, they will smile & tell you lots of good Greg stories.  Greg is a man like a legend.
I have many fond memories of Greg, but I wanted to note the important endeavor that we took upon ourselves in terms of ACTION.  One day, Greg & I noted the importance for poetry to enter in the realms of the terroristic -- & we devised plans of citywide poetic terrorism in the streets of Philadelphia.  We tried this a time or two – it didn’t work as maybe we wanted it to, but you never know – some day we may improve it.  The possibilities are endless.  I hope you enjoy this interview with Greg Bem.

Debrah:  Gregory Bem, as one of my favorite all-time collaborators, I am honored to start this project, Starlight, Philadelphia, with you.   
There are so many things I love about this poem of your's, "Pneumaticklish...."  it is difficult to begin.  Perhaps let us first speak of the form of the poem.  What lended itself to you, about this poem, a necessity to create such elongated lineations of text & words?

Greg:  Thanks for this opportunity. Here’s the deal with form and me as poet, as writer: I can’t sit still. I can’t stay true to one form. I’m not the kind of poet who’s going to go seek a foot or measured sequence, pattern, breath. The human body has its limitations and has its natural ways about it, and it’s great to try and emulate that textually, but it’s also extremely challenging (not only intellectually) because we’re constantly changing shapes, changing spaces, changing muses and moods. But also we crave excitement, change, diversification!
When I sit down to write a poem, it’s reflected by the external and internal factors derived from above. Like rubber balls hitting blank brick. With Pneum, as I’ll refer to it short-handedly, here’s the setup: I’m working a 9-5 job now, doing the Lew Welch thing, working for an advertisement company, writing ad copy all day in front of two big computers, like two giant portals into nothing and everything all day long, and they keep most of the lights in this office off all the time so really the light of the screen, of the work, is really what’s keeping you in, up, excited, lively, energized. And yet everything here is restrictive in its openness. I’m in a giant office building in downtown Seattle, feeling the height of the world, feeling like I’m “important” and aggrandized by elevation, and sitting amidst gods, strangely enough, and yet I have to be discrete in the creativity of the job. SO the form of the poem was easy to come to. I’m not going to hold back in the love poem for my job. The form is going to counteract what is pinning me down, or up, or against a wall like a bulletin board.
So think of the poem’s lines as a kind of ejaculatory spurt of cultural cannon fire. Bullets seeking to escape out of these walls. Not necessarily physically violent, but culturally violent. The terms, the long lines. They are like John Olson, or Joanne Kyger, or Whitman, or Ginsberg, or even your own work, which has been known to carry breadth of content within each line.
As a final note on form, I think it’s easier for me to write in length and size and, as Baudelaire called it, in the “VAST”, when I’m disassociated. When I’m a drone I really am a drone. I get transformed by the job, by the role, by the duty. This isn’t just when I’m working for a corporation. It’s when I’m actively playing community leader, or volunteer, or citizen. If I’m going to wear my mask I’m going to wear it all the way. And thus I can take on an objective view for a bit, for a shift, for the duration of my duties. But as soon as I have the opportunity, like on a lunch break with a goal or mission, like writing a love poem for my job, I take that chance and explode with it. What’s curious is Frank O’Hara. We all know his story and his job—I guess this can be applied to WCW too, by the way—but anyway with O’Hara, he worked and then went out for a walk on his lunch break and wrote fabulous poems, but they were strong symbiotically personal-external reels. Maybe it’s because Pneuma wasn’t some kind of sensory overload but rather a meta-sensory overload. An overload and expunging process from sitting in front of digital content all day, where screens move but nothing’s really moving, where the NOISE is in nothing more than the silence, which we fill with the orderliness of the typing, of the clicking, of the breaths (a huge cultural essay could be written on cubicle breathing, by the way, if you’re interested). What matters is that when I’m sitting at home in my fortress, my den, my nest, I am ready to explore matters far riskier and far more personal, more traumatic, than those I am ready to explore at work, and I think the super-personal thematic content really tighten up my lines. I tread lightly, so to speak, like tip-toeing through a minefield, making sure I know what I’m getting into. There wasn’t the need for that sort of protection of personal defense here. After four hours writing 70 character advertisements, a poet needs to be boisterous.

Debrah:  I am especially interested in your notion that the lines of this poem serve as "a kind of ejaculatory cultural cannon fire."  That there is a sense of cultural violence permeating this piece.  In creating a poem that consists of culturally violent ejaculatory cannon fire, do you attempt to engage any attempts to arrive at a point of political deliverance?  Does this poem engage a dystopian framework?  For instance, your line "There be rebels we've staggered in Africa and the tooth of a giant snail lodged into each orifice."  Or again, when you pose the questions in the poem, "Route to arson?  You are in vogue?"  There seems to be a lot of contemporaneous present indicative in posing such important questions & ideas in poetry these days.  Many people challenge the notion that poetry can still be important as a political weapon.  You speak of this poem containing "bullets seeking to escape from these walls."  Is that literal?

Greg:  I don't think of the same violence associated with poetry that I may have associated four or five years ago, when I was in the middle of my undergraduate education, when I thought about poetry in ways equitable to superheroes (or villains). I think there are definite limitations to poetry as a form of communication. But! I think that poetry as a political weapon is doable, and should be encouraged. It is a very portable medium to work with, which means it can be adapted to any environment.
Some of the largest walls we have to bulldoze are those within ourselves. So when I talk about any explosive material, it should first and foremost be checked that it can leave the cannon! If you have a plugged up armament, and you try to fire, boom! You're done. Humans build up personal defenses all the time, and that's good to an extent, but at times we realize we're ready to burst. We take in just-less-than-infinite quantities of information and store it. But it's not meant to be stored! We are not fortresses! It's inevitable that everyone feels this. Some turn to poetry. They'll write lines with everything they want to clear their systems of. They need to get the negatory (and often that which is positive, or even ideal, as it too shouldn't be kept for oneself, shouldn't be weighing one own alone) out, and so what do they do? Turn their voices on! The poet who has experience will create motives and be able to tune in, direct their information to the source they desire: but this "crafting" if you will is not the most important element. The most important element is first raising awareness that individual voice is possible for everyone. Anyone can spurt out a line or two but most just don't know it. Larger political structures can form (as weapons--or other tools!) out of this increase in consciousness. But the poems themselves--writing them is an initiation, and an agreement a person is making with themselves and subconsciously with the environment they are about to share with.
The dystopian framework is utterly present and fascinating, simultaneously, and we must consider the environment I spoke of above, must really think about it, but not only about it, but what it will become. I grew up reading Kafka and Dostoyevsky and Emily Dickenson and Poe--you know, great literature, and despite how great it was, it was so depressing. So, so depressing. Look at Kafka's castle. Look at the morality and nihilism in the Russians. Look at the isolation and sardonic inhibitions of Emily. And Poe . . . he's one of the first real Lit guys they teach in middle school. It's no surprise that the generations who recently grew up with this morose shit, this beautiful no doubt but still morose shit, consider the incredibly violent video games they are creating justified. I'm going all over the place. Let me recircle out of that tangent and try to redeem myself: I think a lot of contemporary American poets grew up recently through some dark literature as foundations. I think that the dark literature they grew up with, and were influenced by, had a lot to do with Industrial America, an environment of the past. I think a lot grew up attempting to infiltrate and tear down bureaucracy and the nihilistic automatism connected at the hip. In the 80s it wasn't the poets but the sci-fi writers who were doing the same thing for literature with cyberpunk. Look at William Gibson.  Look at Neil Stevenson. The relationship to the computer bureaucracy and the Infinite Knowledge is being tackled still. We don't have a grasp on it. I think that we poets look for reversions against it. We want the primacy of pre-digital technology. We want to go back to a language that felt less robotic, less zeros and ones. Aside from some folks experimenting with computer poetry (an image to me that's similar playing around in Rhode Island puddles after a rain storm, with the ocean just over the ridge), most poets stick to the page. They are quite literally behind the times. And for good reason. The Internet is the new Castle. The Internet is the new nihilism. Every time you check Facebook, Schopenhauer's cycle spins once again. It's a large death clock (to reference the tool that came out on the Internet when the Internet was still coming out on the Internet, when it was still being birthed through the celestially cybernetic womb).
Going back to my poem. When I write something that's big, it's because there is so much output I can't readily or comfortably sift through everything to pull out a nice spine, a nice dainty spine, where all the INFO of the poetry is located. Doing this requires a very specific place (as I mentioned earlier in the interview). So I throw out as much as possible. When I make mentions of Africa, it's not to be ornamental but to entwine myself with every instance of knowledge that I have collected, magnetized, along the way. Humans catch on to political unrest like it's butter and sugar. There is an identity we like to share, a knowledge that is privileged, an elitism about knowing everything that is going on at all times. My poem is the antithetical brother. It's statement is in the structure of the words. The political deliverance is there even if the message is not full formed. But doesn't that fit perfectly, represent wholly, with how most of humanity really communicates with one another, on a regular basis?

Debrah:  You say that you believe poetry has limitations as to what it can accomplish.  What would you say those limitations are?  I am intrigued by the notion that the dark literature of America has its roots in our Industrial Past.  Do you think it is important to maintain a dark quality in literature, or to try to break through that darkness to offer some light?  Do you consider "Pneumaticklish..." to be a dark poem, or do you think it offers some light?  Are darkness & light so distinct anyhow?  In the poem, you state:  "I am able, and I willing, to blast past..."  Does this indicate that there is something at the end of the darkness that permeates other moments of this poem?  What do you see to be the limitations of this poem in particular?

Greg:  Poetry has as many limitations as an art form as any other art form. One of the major limitations of poetry (and this can applied to other forms as well) is the idea of poetry. It obviously is a form that has been mastered in many ways by many different people, but it has an identity, it has rules and expectations. These restrictions can be morphed and manipulated, but not necessarily in the most radical of ways. At the end of it all you're still going to work with what is Poetry. And we and those who are going to hear/read what we have to create--they are going to think, I know where this is going. Even if they have no idea. Even if we have no idea. We're still dictated by historical identity. If you want to relate this back to the industrial, that post-Renaissance belief in mass-production, you can look at literature that follows forms that A) will sell; B) will be appreciated by many; and C) will be a representation of beauty. Beauty to who? To me? To you? I think if you want to be radical, you could write a poem that says: this is not a poem. But how long will that "gimmick" work? Not long after the first poem. At the same time it can be argued that what "radicals" (or realistically "revolutionaries") in the Middle East, in Africa, in the Midwest of this country are creating poetry every day with their Twitter accounts. Twitter's form may be the contemporary poetry, the real poetry, the poetry of the people that will be documented as such in one hundred years, or at least Twittered about. And of course classic, page-based poets are going to get a little offended by a statement like that, but we've all (consciously or subconsciously) attempted to make our status message or away message or cell phone text message or Twitter post poetic. At least once. I think this could be exploited, for sure. I made a couple text message chapbooks that kind of delve into it, but they are very rudimentary. I wasn't focused. I still am not focused enough to take the avenue seriously.
Rather than get bogged down by it, I like to look at limitations of form in kind of hindsight, which is why my general sadness didn't slowly infect my work and force me to stop writing. I think that in the end it comes down to what you can achieve without going the whole nine yards. How can we be practical as poets? It might involve being poetic and applying what we know about poetry to other media and presentation: the performer behind the mega speaker in St. Paul. The self-published poet creating politically-agitating poetry broadsides and handing them around to various audiences, both public and private. How can we be realistic without romanticizing (and failing) with the old American Hero ideology. Remember when Budweiser did that Real American Hero campaign on the radio? It might have been on TV too. Anyway, it focused on the regular, average joes that do all the service and industrial work in this country. They were completely sarcastic, completely well-written, and something I remember cheered me up every day when I went to school in high school (and beyond). That's all gone now. A shockingly ridiculous 93% of the American people (who are accounted for) have cell phones. Something utterly unfathomable right now. Hero ideology has changed. We still worship that our heroes have super abilities, but there's more technology, a more realistic grab. Look at who the protagonists of all those blow-em-up action movies are. They are kind of the same but they are really playing on themselves. They are memories, not reality. We can all specialize in whatever we want now, with access to these banks of mega-knowledge. I just learned where all 200 rap artists whose music I have on my hard drive are from. Last night. In like 20 minutes. Wow.
So does all of these drastic changes make this a dark world? What is darkness? What is light? These are questions I haven't struggled with in a while, so I'm glad you ask them. I think you confront the undersides of culture in your own right so you know what I mean by exploratory. I think poets, in order to be considered interesting, whatever that means, by way of appealing to people, they need to be sarcastic and critical and tap into both what is A) strange and B) what is familiar. A good mix of the two is required. I think that shock value is important too, coming from a performance-based background, but I think we can be subtler, more challenging, and yet still be invitational. Pneuma is a poem that deals with that. There is all this slush I have to slush through, images of things, of stuff, hanging out around my LIFE, and eventually the grace is through that line you mentioned, when I see the thought of the cyclists outside. That there is still freedom and air and current and exploration and speed out there, in the world that I am not experiencing. I just have to escape the solitude of the inner and external fortress, of work, of the working life. Being a part of industry now means sitting in front of those giant screens, communicating with people three feet away by email. It's the pit and the pendulum. It's me strapped down watching the blade move back and forth. It's me wanting to go to my Massachusetts home and hide upstairs and write poetry all day. Cthulhu is coming, my poetry says, but the terror is going to be in the feed, the streamed content, not a physical, non-digital presence. In the end of Pneuma I say; "Cannot oust it. Out of it. These times filled and managed." Well obviously they aren't managed, only in the poem, which is the tool I use to manage them! The politics of the self! The ideological war of personal sanity! It's sarcastic and a little tragic but it's all we can do to hang on and survive.

Debrah:  Greg, this has been super informative, & has given me much to think about.  Thank you very much for all your luminous thoughts.  For the last question, since this interview is for Starlight, Philadelphia, can you speak a bit about what you thought of poetry in Philadelphia -- & is there anything about Philadelphia Poetics that you brought with you to Seattle?  Are the poetries/poetry communities that exist in the two cities more alike or different?  How so?

Greg:  Debrah, thanks for putting this whole project together. I think that it's time more people, more poets, more artists, leave the truly horrid mediums for dialogue (magazines, television, literary journals) and start talking with each other, and sharing it! No more social politics! No more private discourse! But I lose myself. In the end, I hope that the kind of thing you are doing, like the kind of thing Carlos Soto Roman did with Elective Affinities, becomes the model for poets everywhere. But anyway...
I'll briefly talk about my relationship with Philadelphia, which I think exists to this day (beyond our friendship, of course!)--first of all, I moved to Seattle from Philly only last September. I'm still new to Seattle, so making grandiose statements on it versus Philadelphia is kind of hard. I lived in Philly for a couple years and was pretty involved. I started with the Poetic Arts Performance Project and kind of became "assimilated" into the New Philadelphia Poets after meeting you. I helped curate and perform at various events and tried to support a couple other groups, too, including CAConrad/Frank Sherlock, the Philly Sound crew, et cetera. The best part about Philly was the incredible overlap; you saw the same faces everywhere. People really cared. Sarah Heady, Jacob Russell, Ish Klein, Jena Osman. Hell, even Ron Silliman shouts out the underdogs and folks who aren't tied to the hip with academia. And yet I think that Philly's university background makes it easy for intellectuals, even those who are used to being kind-of undercover, to be employed and pursue just what they love. They can stick to the smokes in the alleys and teach a few courses and it kind of binds so many circles together. In this way, I really appreciated Philly. I didn't feel the same gap that I felt in Rhode Island. I didn't feel the gap that's here. Philadelphia had so many heads popping up from below and everyone was (and presumably still is) able to reach out and connect with others. One night I got wasted and made a Philadelphia Poetry Map (that the girls with Apiary actually want to revive) and yet really thinking about it, it wasn't even necessary. It was a kind of symbol, a kind of flag, personally of course, and hopefully externally, that could be waved merely in appreciation of the diverse and active members of the poetics community.
The skills that people learn in communities as tight as that carry with them to wherever they go. Yesterday poet and media experimenter Joe Milutis (who teaches as U. Washington Bothel) called me a diplomat uniting many different poetic styles together. Well I really dipped my hand in that directly for the first time with Adam Meora and St. Skribbly LaCroix and the PAPP crew, blending it in (pun intended) with everyone else I knew. Why not share different groups and people with one another? It's a fun and exciting activity! When I got to Seattle I realized that a community was existing but not in a healthy, thriving sort of way. No "golden age" like Philly saw. And yet there are so many trailblazers out here, keeping things alive in some cases, pushing things forward in other cases. Nico Vassilakis and Robert Mittenthal and Will Owen and Graham Isaac and Summer Robinson and Paul Nelson, and of course my confidantes Alex Bleecker and Jeremy Springsteed . . . we're all doing things. But I'm still trying to raise a genuine interest, create that conversation, amongst everyone. And that's the hard part--hitting the ignition, and hoping it will catch. Because, like I learned in Philly, organizing and being active in the community can certainly be draining. To the point where you need to learn that eventually there's got to be a split between creator of community and creator of poetry. But where the boundaries are--that's personal, and thus the fun part. I think I was able to survive in Philadelphia amidst the debris of poverty for so long, amidst the violence for so long, and not really get sad, because I was enjoying being part of the machine that was countering all that, emotionally. And everyone involved with that machine--we were all smiling.
Debrah:  Thanks, Greg -- & we’re still smiling -- & surely your words here will help us all continue to smile.  Have a wonderful day.

 Greg Bem is a writer and marketer living in Columbia City, Seattle. He grew up in Southern Maine and got an undergraduate degree from Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. From 2008-2010 he lived in Philadelphia, where he was a member of the Poetic Arts Performance Project, and New Philadelphia Poets, and a full-time volunteer of the AmeriCorps program City Year. In late 2010, he drove across the country with two close friends in a moving truck and settled in Southeast Seattle.  He volunteers for the Columbia City Library, the Rainier Valley Food Bank, and the Northwest Spoken Word Lab. He tutors youth regularly, is employed by the SEM company Marchex, and works weekends at the Borders Books in the Sea-Tac airport (tic-toc). His poetry, creative prose, and book reviews have been published in numerous online and offline journals. He co-curates an acclaimed performance series called the Breadline with Alex Bleecker and Jeremy Springsteed, and he runs a transparent press called Lone Byte that can be found, along with information on just about everything else mentioned above,