Greg Bem is a poet and librarian currently living in Seattle, Washington, USA. His recent books are Of Spray and Mist (Hand to Mouth, 2021) and Green Axes (Alien Buddha, 2021). He works extensively in audio, video, and GIF formats.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook came out in 2009. ANTE was published by _Catch/Confetti Press in Philadelphia. It seems like ages ago and I'm not sure how much it changes my life back then or now, but I think that all the projects in one's life, big and small, add up. It certainly boosted my confidence to continue connecting with my work and external voices. It also initiated a framing of poetry as longer objects, sequences, and I don't think I've stopped approaching poetry in that way. My recent work, published in Of Spray and Mist and Green Axes, is probably less experimental in tone and content than the former book. My approaches to textual poetry over the last decade have shifted significantly. When I moved to Seattle in 2010, I was determined to explore performance, installation, and multimedia approaches to my work in ways that Philadelphia established . . . after a lot of shifts around 2016 due to changes in myself and the community at large, my work moved inward and a lot of the noise of superficial (often visual) experimentation went with it.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I've always loved reading prose and read far more fiction in my youngest years than poetry or experimental writing. In high school I hated backpacks and wore incredibly long jeans (they were in style in the mid-90s). I loved this small notebook that I could fit in the pockets and take out on a whim. I remember in middle school and high school writing furiously in that small notebook, and often the form that fit best was a sonnet. I wrote dozens and dozens (if not hundreds) of rhyming sonnets, mostly about my adolescent struggles. I think the immediacy and the adaptability of poetry, its flexibility to one's lived contexts, always attracted me.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
In my mid-20s when I was the most productive (that is, I had the most output as a writer), projects seemed to come about every day. I always set aside time in my day to sit down and write poems, and they usually were a handful all related to a specific topic or theme, or some specific form. Now things are a bit slower, even being just ten years older. I suppose that's typical? I think there's a lot of distractions now thanks to professional stability and established communication technology. The writing still can come quick, if I end up finding interest. First drafts, with poetry, are almost entirely the same as the final drafts--I tend to do small chiseling here and there after a poem has been initially written. It's always been that way. I feel like I'm bastardizing a work if I change it significantly from its original iteration--spoiling the soul of it, so to speak. And notes? I'm not much of a note-taker, though I do use an app to capture some lines and links from my travels, which I refer to later.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I'm not sure I have an answer to this one that fits neatly. The poems begin both small and large at the same time. I have done a few projects recently that were intentionally aiming towards book-length collections. I wrote a series of 7 "books" titled CONSTRUCTION, which was based entirely on a building constructed across the street from an apartment building. I imposed a constraint to write those books and didn't stop until I was finished. Most of the time, however, I have several small sequences that match up and fit into something larger. Of Spray and Mist is that way. Green Axes is that way. My latest chapbooks are that way. The curatorial nature behind it all is fascinating to me, too. Ultimately the poems determine their fate for themselves, but it's upon some deeper reflection that I have to make more challenging choices about what stays and what goes, and that's where things become "poems" in that they are turned into these polished, produced objects, be they the individual pieces or the longer works.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Everywhere I've lived (Maine, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Seattle, Phnom Penh), I've not only participated in readings but I have helped create readings, both one-offs and series, and I've found the opportunities of community and collaboration powerful in such organizing. But in the last few years, pre-COVID and during, I've found events to be unfulfilling. I do think I took them for granted when I participated in them formerly, and I do think there is a lot of merit to them, but I am in a new space now when it comes to readings. I believe my shift away from performative aspects of poetry and the public "ego" of poetry has contributed to my lack of interest, lately, in readings.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Things are always shifting and my primary concern is stay on top of what my priorities are! The past several years have been eye-opening for me, especially considering those identity qualities that align with/equate with my privileges. Being white, being male, being able-bodied, being heterosexual--these qualities never were a concern with my poetry because of the unfortunate color-blind upbringing and early adulthood I experienced. Now I'm exploring who I am in this sense and how poetry contributes, serves, or doesn't, when it comes to equity, justice, and community. I think about similar issues the globe is facing: climate justice, protecting indigenous knowledge, spaces of education and knowledge-sharing. Before, everything and anything was poetic and could be poetry, and carried significant weight. Now I measure more carefully, think about the effects of my actions, and do a lot more listening and reading to peers much wiser than me. From the outside emerges those questions, which I try desperately to receive and meditate through. Ideally the writing and creative acts I undergo are impacted and I'm participating in a healthy way.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I've never ascribed to the "writer" as a separate category of person. I believe all folks have the writer inside them. Their world may or may not unlock their writerly self, but it's there for all of us. I believe writing can save us--it is psychedelic, it is the imagination exploded. And in some ways there's more opportunity than ever before, for more people, to write. And in some ways, it seems like those mentioned distractions can keep folks from unlocking their writing.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It's been a process to learn to be respectful and humble when it comes to the editing process. There's much to learn from those who have an expert eye. I believe that writing book reviews has helped me learn to be better with editing and collaborating with others. I don't believe an editor is essential; I don't believe editing is essential, for that matter. But it does do a lot, and it is an opportunity that should not be squandered/wasted should it arise.
9 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I'm deep in The Uninhabitable Earth by climate writer David Wallace-Wells, who writes of the many changes we'll face with warming that has already happened and that cannot be prevented. It's a brutal, grim book that, even at 2 years old, brings out the most harrowing imagery of humanity's effects on the planet and where our survival is being and will continue to be threatened. For films, I found Concrete Cowboy a nice examination of the Black-owned stables in North Philadelphia. I'm not sure if I'd label it "great," but it has painted a picture most people, including those in Philadelphia, haven't seen.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to performance works to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Throw a few more on there--creating weird audio music, digital videos, short GIF animations. I move around acrobatically, or maniacally, or both. The appeal is rooted in the pseudo "Renaissance Man" world of the Dadaists, who I loved in college, who have never seemed to me to be concerned about exclusivity in form or genre. The world is available to serve as a canvas, and why not be all about everything? On a more practical note, I tend to get bored with specific activities frequently, and find myself moving between genres, mediums, forms to keep myself engaged.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I used to write automatically almost every day, without any formalities (it just happened). As I get older and have more stress from work, more projects, more volunteering, etc etc, I tend to need more routine. One night a week I devote to creativity, to make sure I don't slip. I also try to book a retreat or two each year for some major project work.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I'm simultaneously reading a few books at a time, and tend to be engaged in at least two large PC games at any given time. I watch a lot. I listen to a lot. I'm tapped in to a ton of sources and I think that fuels my motivation. The problem is interest and specificity! As a librarian, I've come to find myself accessing all manner of things I wouldn't have just five years ago--themes and topics that were uninteresting are now captivating. And so here we are, the world blossoming and unfolding. Writing will still get stalled, of course, but it tends to be because I'm not very interested in what I'm actually writing. When that happens, I open some poetry books and read what people are writing these days, and that usually gets me inspired. While I don't try to copy other poets directly, we all borrow, don't we? And that action fuels the flames.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Strangely, creosote. The smell of desert rain is very similar to the smell of rain in the Maine woods. I don't know why, but I remember those smells fondly. In Seattle there's plenty of rain, but the aromas are typically absent.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I'm definitely into all of the above. I really like artists who work in/with nature. The photography of Edward Burtynsky, the rooms of James Turrell, the sound poetry of Bob Cobbing--just a few of the artists over the years I've loved. But it really is endless, understanding these types of influences. I've really enjoyed the recent prose poetry of Joy Harjo and Natalie Diaz--particularly their writings on water and rivers. And noise has been an explicit influence on much of my work (Merzbow, Sonic Youth, blah blah blah).
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Paul Nelson has influenced me more than any other writer in my adult life. The other writers involved with the Cascadia Poetry Festival. My best friend, Jason Conger, contributed to much of my aesthetic and I don't know if we'll ever stop sharing ideas with one another. I've found a lot of good stuff via Thomas Walton, Doug Nufer, Nadine Maestas, and Elizabeth Cooperman (the PageboyMagazine crew). Justine Chan too--particularly where deserts are concerned. And Sarah Heady for her interest in history and roots. And Libby Hsu for her interest in the tech industry. Charles Potts in Walla Walla and John Taylor in France and Khiang Hei in China and Maung Day in Yangon. There are 1,000 books on the shelves behind me and I tend to take something from every book I read, but I'll never gain as much as what I gain from the artist friends in my life.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I had a great experience co-writing a chapbook, bilingual, with Burmese writer Maung Day. I'd love to do a full length book with another writer or artist some day.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I suppose I'm already fulfilling it as a librarian :) But that aside, I have significant interests in graphic design, instructional design, chemistry, and mycology.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think it goes back to that notebook. I also think, honestly, that a lot of the late-90s and early-00s had some great writing in video games, a lot of it being poetic, and I never could get over how important the presence of language was in my gaming and other activities.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Earlier today I finished The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs--an absolute joy for anyone who is interested in the Southwest. Weirdly I had never seen The Birdcage before, and I recently watched it after it was recommended on an art deco walking tour in Miami Beach, and I loved it.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I've been gathering footage for my next visual project. I'm very interested in motion and I've only touched on the motion of water with previous works. By taking some approaches used by minimalist painters, the goal is to reach black and white videos/gifs of water in very dark and very bright spaces. I also just completed a 100-ish page manuscript on travels during the pandemic--fairly straightforward lyrical poetry, which I hope to find a home for, in due time. Meanwhile, literary works seem to be on pause.