by Paul Nelson
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 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.
Greg Bem moved here from Philadelphia after living in Rhode Island and Maine, where he grew up. He attended Roger Williams University and got a BFA in creative writing with minors in sociology and English literature. His closest mentor at the school was Michael Gizzi, who was:
“…telling all of his students to wake up. He was very frustrated with youth, wondering why we weren’t throwing sugar into the gas tanks of the Hummers and breaking the windshields of all of the six figure vehicles on campus, ’cause it was a really rich school… [with] students from Connecticut and Massachusetts.. who… had come from incredibly affluent and economically privileged backgrounds and had no idea… I don’t think anyone actually did do his anarcho-activities or his forms of rebellion, but we certainly found rebellion there…”
That rebellion first surfaced as music director of the college radio station, WQRI, where he took the 10:00 to midnight Saturday night time slot, to go in to the station with friends: “rattled out of our minds on substances and would just make music and recite poetry” and play music from artists like “Sage Francis” Montreal’s “Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra” and “The Mountain Goats.”
Move To Seattle
In 2011 he moved to Seattle to work at Borders Books when Seattle was, in his words: “slightly affordable”. It was after working at a corporate job when he decided to channel his anarcho-leftist leanings into being a librarian. In Philly he’d been an educator, working in the schools within an AmeriCorps program called “City Year: Greater Philadelphia” in some of the toughest neighborhoods where a common denominator in those places was an “anchor.” A place that provided belonging, context and camaraderie. He realized this is what he found in libraries all his life:
“…that feeling, that same kind of camaraderie, that stability and structure… 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?”…
He says libraries are important:
“…Especially in an age and a region that is so concentrated in immediacy and… rapid developments… and releases of products and platforms and new technologies. The library becomes even more powerful and more reliable as a space that anyone can go to…”
But there is a new kind of librarianship now, he says:
“Fortunately…a lot of different types of people can become librarians and a lot of people, different types of people, not only the wealthiest and not only the whitest people can make the decisions of the libraries and the associations and the organizations that allow them to exist and support them and promote them. All sorts of people are in positions of power in libraries… [representing] values [like] Net Neutrality… privacy… intellectual freedom. The ability to go onto a computer and search for whatever you want, how to make a bomb… watch porn… impeach a president… grow a pea patch.. look up silly poems by Charles Bernstein…
That’s all supported. Library as part of the commons with a sort of inherent egalitarianism that, by and large, does not exist in capitalist culture. But he says that vibrancy of the commons in Seattle is ending, or at least threatened. The rising price of housing pushed him out of Columbia City and into the more affordable (for now) Othello neighborhood and the building called “The Station.” He says:
“I continue, on occasion, to struggle with living there and being part of the system, the gentrification. I think that the Othello building is actually a fairly good space. It seems like a lot of the residents there are coming from a huge diversity of economic backgrounds…
The Station gave Greg his first apartment where he could live alone, engage in his mindfulness practices, such as yoga and meditation, but notes there are no “western bars” in the neighborhood. For a man who lived for half a year in Cambodia, he’s likely more comfortable in such places than the average white, gentrifying librarian, but loves the African restaurants, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants, and the lack of trendiness in the neighborhood and neighbors who are Lao, Thai and Japanese, among other ethnicities.
Greg has given compelling literary performances in Seattle and elsewhere almost as soon as he landed and says he will continue to “explore and experiment.” He wrote a piece after “binge-listening to Sun Ra and Albert Ayler on I-5” and says from those Jazz artists he gets: “this greater cosmos level of… reality…” He likens the work to Dada performance art, to the time experiments of John Cage and the work of San Francisco poet Jack Spicer.
To get some sense of the music that informed Greg, see:
and Sun Ra:
And Greg Bem performing in Bothell:
He was kind of stunned when he received a press pass to write a review of Paul Allen’s Upstream Festival for the online publication Queen Mob’s Teahouse. It was part industry-summit (a conference for industry leaders) and a music festival. The event’s racial makeup was, in Greg’s words: “Mostly white.” Except for a few performers, who were the bulk of the people of color there. He enjoyed the festival and wrote extensively of the technology, including wrist bands that gained bearers entrance, connected to scanners, which he likened to an “airport checkpoint.” He loved the high quality of the production, specifically cited the performance of the Royal Room’s Wayne Horvitz and his band “The Electric Circus.” But when considering the overall success of the festival, his egalitarian self wonders about the people who live in Pioneer Square:
“…When you have events like that… happening in places that have so much history… Pioneer Square being a refuge or sanctuary like space for a lot of the homeless and destitute… when you… throw in hundreds of police officers, barricades and barriers…” [it creates] “a very oppressive experience… You either have the [wrist] band or you don’t. You can get into these 30 venues or you can’t… what does that mean for the people that are normally there? If they haven’t already been told to go away by the cops, “You can’t drink your Rainier in that paper bag here any more because you’re frightening the Amazon employees…? How does that oppress and remove people that are otherwise considered invisible? And I think that is a big question that needs to be asked… [It] never really felt like those issues of inequality and oppression [were] raised. So, I thought that was an eerie feeling as I walked from venue to venue.”
Paul Nelson is a poet, interviewer, father and literary activist engaged in a 20-year bioregional cultural investigation of Cascadia. He currently lives in Columbia City and writes a monthly column about the neighborhood for the South Seattle Emerald.
Featured image courtesy of Queen Mobs Teahouse: Greg Bem Haute Portraiture KH 282