Originally from Gorham, Maine — coincidentally, one town over from my native Buxton — poet Greg Bem moved to Seattle and immediately started building a community of artists and writers. He’s thrown a bunch of events all around town (you’ll read more about those in a second) and his passion for intelligent, challenging work has improved the quality of discourse in Seattle’s art scene. Bem’s newest project is a weeklong series of free readings at Seattle Center titled Ghost Tokens: Inumbrating Pinnacle. Starting Sunday and continuing every night for seven days, at 9 pm a poet will read at a different Seattle Center location. (You can find a full listing of readers on the official site, but names include Paul Nelson, Jeremy Springsteed, and Justine Chan, and locations include the Artists at Play Playground and the Monorail Station.) Bem kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the project.
You’ve produced or co-produced a number of great events—lit crawls in Greenwood, the Breadline reading series on Capitol Hill—but it seems like you stopped for a while there. Why are you back on the event horse?
Back in 2013, a graduate student studying to become a librarian, I had the opportunity to leave Seattle and go study and work abroad, in Phnom Penh. It was an opportunity I could not pass up, and so I followed that path. As an artist I discovered exponential growth through countless new cultures and countless new experiences. Cambodian art and contemporary literature (and Southeast Asian art, generally) inspired my personal writing, and I was also connected to a completely fresh community of voices (as well as voices outside the community). Though I wasn't throwing lit crawls on the mean streets of the Pearl of Asia, I did have a few opportunities to curate events, specifically with Java Arts. Our City Festival was perhaps the most enjoyable event I collaborated on, which featured a plethora of poets reading from a balcony of a decaying French colonial mansion.
That was in 2013 and 2014 (the three month internship turned into four jobs and a desire to live out there longer — as most who go with short-term intentions end up choosing to do). I was back in Seattle for 3/4 of a year and that was the closing of the Breadline. Everything was up in the air. Alex Bleecker ended up choosing to move to Cambodia to teach and so we (Jeremy Springsteed, Alex, and myself) needed to find some kind of resolution with a series that was dear to my heart, but that was no longer as sustainable or as inspiring to the three of us. So we capped it out with an anthology that was backed by our features and the literary arts supporters in Seattle, and we released it at the last Breadline. 2015 also saw the beginning of what will hopefully continue a couple times a year — the Rainier Valley Lit Crawl, which I helped organize with Raanan David, Jeanne Morel, and Babara Erwine — two instances, one in the Winter and one in the Fall. There was no summer in Seattle for me as I went back Cambodia to do more library work and run a writing workshop for the Nou Hach Literary Association. I'm bouncing around, but you get the idea — everything has been all over the place.
Now I'm back in Seattle and energized and inspired and I've been meaning to be a bit more mindful and aware of what I'm doing with myself in 2016. I'm looking to collaborate. I have a very invigorating girlfriend, Scherezade Siobhan, who has been supporting me, and we're constantly throwing ideas for conceptual events and activities around. There are a lot of people running around with ideas, too, and some are pulling them off, but some, as has always been the case, need the legwork done for them, need the space, the opportunity. In general, though, I'm doing what I've always found to come naturally here: experimenting. I love the other folks who organize events in Seattle (you know who you are!) and love that almost every night of the week there's something going on, but I often find myself disappointed with the format or venue or intended experience for readings. I tend to look over event listings with a glazed, "that's it?" look. But I'm thankful. Without the average, granola readings, I wouldn't be inspired to do these kind of cultural bellyflops.
Can you talk about some of the people you chose to read in Ghost Tokens, and what made them right for this?
I never invite people who don't interest me — whose work doesn't interest me — for a specific event. With this event in particular, I invited quite a number of people, because of how open and incredibly exciting the theme of this reading is. In the end, who did I choose to read? Most importantly, these are folks who responded to my invitation. I tend to throw out multiple invitations at the same time and wait and see who positively responds. Sometimes artists are not available. Sometimes themes/topics aren't inspiring or interesting. Sometimes other projects are taking over. Scheduling conflicts, and so on. Some people simply don't want to stand outside in the freezing cold January evenings doing some conceptual reading. I get that. It's not for them. But there are people who are willing to take that risk, and are willing to participate in a cultural activity that's engaging ideas in settings/environments/venues. The parameters are fairly unique. If someone's excited to participate with all of that — then they're "right for this." That said, we won't know how it goes until it goes, as is always the case.
And what inspired you to choose Seattle Center? The location started as sort of the central home for Seattle’s hope, back in the World’s Fair. In the 80s and 90s, it fell into disrepair and the city started to take it for granted. Now, with the expansion of rich-person ego projects like Chihuly Museum and the EMP, it’s almost become a symbol for Seattle’s present state of corporatization and gentrification. Are the events going to reflect Seattle Center’s history and comment on it, or are they more about the city, or is the geography of it just a coincidence?
If someone had asked me to help with an event at Seattle Center, centered around the Space Needle, five years ago, I would have laughed and told them the idea is corny. So maybe I'm just a corny aging Seattle writer now. Maybe. I actually think Seattle Center as a symbol is incredibly sophisticated now more than ever — or at least since it was built/installed. For a lot of people — those visiting from other parts of the region, those tourists from Japan or China or back East or whatever — Seattle Center is still a shining cultural identifier. It happens almost daily: someone I know who doesn't live in Seattle tells me, "Your city is funky. It has the Space Needle. And that weird music museum."
But now Seattle Center is becoming aged in its own right, and that's the pivotal point. That's why it's now interesting to me. All that gentrification and ultra-fast development we didn't want to affect South Lake Union and Capitol Hill five years ago--it already happened. Yeah, the cranes are still there (I love cranes, by the way), and there will be more growth, but the next phase is already long begun. Things have already changed. That's really what I personally want out of this reading series--to actually hear people address the current Seattle like it's current — not like it's about to happen. And what better place to see Seattle than from its now-timeless core?
As for the readings themselves, I have no idea what to expect. Part of the Ghost Tokens series has always been about the unexpected and the excitement of the unknown. The first "set" of Ghost Tokens experiences brought out a few artists to a random park in South Seattle and there were only five or so people in the audience. It was great seeing how the artists engaged the event under the parameters of place that were provided. Inumbrating Pinnacle will do the same, but takes the series to the next level by opening the door to comment on directly on one aspect of our city.
What do you think makes a great literary event?
Jesus — I think any response I provide to this question is going to come back and bite me in the ass in a week or something. I'll answer anyway. First and foremost it's the spirit of it. I think those who are performing and those who are in the audience need to believe in the event itself. They need to participate for the sake of the event over the sake of the performers or the audience. It's one big experience, and if everyone's on board, then the most beautiful things can happen. There were Breadline moments when Jason Conger had every single person in Vermillion spouting sound poetry. That's beautiful. That's a great literary event.
There was this one Ghost Tokens at the Hat and Boots Park in Georgetown where Lydia Swartz required every audience member to hold flashlights on different areas in the playground as she read some of the most personal writing I've ever heard read in public. That was a great literary event. Someone (maybe Tara Atkinson?) asked me during APRIL's first lit crawl to ride in a little red wagon down Pike Street on Capitol Hill. That was a great literary event.
Cheap Wine and Poetry hosted by Brian McGuigan and me as an after-party for Paul Nelson's organized Cascadia Poetry Festival, which had twenty or so readers reading poetry in a Columbia City gymnasium, and then everybody drank all the beer from all the kegs, and Brian nearly got in a fight with another poet. Great literary event. These are moments. These are experiences. These are, most importantly, memories. They aren't just another stop on the book tour of so and so. They aren't stale or dead or devoid of culture. They exhibit time and place with specific participating actors, and everyone who shows up can join in. Participate. Fall in love with the ideas that are born there.
Others to fall in love with: Lo Fi's Not to Scale Festivals, the Duwamish Revealed events from last year.
The event has two very interesting names: Ghost Tokens and then Inumbrating Pinnacle. It evokes, to me, the late, lamented Fun Forest, which was home to a collection of games that required tokens, and also the Space Needle, which certainly could be interpreted as a pinnacle whose shadow spreads quite a distance. Is my reading right? Or am I just blowing smoke?
It's cool that you've evoked Fun Forest out of Ghost Tokens. Ghost Tokens is a term that came to me in 2012 or 2013, kind of randomly, or channeled through the radio maybe (I was reading Jack Spicer at the time, so perhaps!), and I used it as a gate to exploring outdoor spaces and history in South Seattle. It was always the International District and South. Mainly because I've always lived in South Seattle and, despite the gentrification in Columbia City, feel like this region doesn't get a lot of attention, and thus is a great canvas for exploration and creativity. Anyway, since the generation of the title the series has become more aware of itself, of the ghosts, of spaces previously created by really amazing people (have you been to the trail on Hitt's Hill? — it's incredible), and the series channels that energy. I guess there was too much in common with my idea for this sequence of events at Seattle Center to not use the Ghost Tokens title. I still have five more locations for Ghost Tokens in South Seattle though — and hope to accomplish those events before the end of 2016.
As for Inumbrating Pinnacle, it is how you've described it. And perhaps calling the event that name loads the event up with meaning and diffuses the openness to the readers. I don't know. We'll have to wait and see, but one thing is for certain: development is a shadow over the city. It might not be terrible, but it does cover, cloud, mask, reduce that which is clear and meaningful to many people — at least in the short run. We'll see how everyone else interprets the name and theme when the event goes down.
Breadline has cast a long shadow in Seattle literature; I hear a lot of event organizers say that they hope to achieve some of Breadline’s energy and curiosity. What do you think people will take from Ghost Tokens: Inumbrating Pinnacle?
Breadline had regularity and diversity. Sure, it was three white guys running it, but we were constantly trying to expand it and make it new, make it new, make it new. And Jeremy, Alex, and I had such varied interests and our own little communities that it worked. I think that's why APRIL works too — especially now that it can be described as a "regular event." Lit Crawl (the official one) also has these qualities, though in my opinion it's too big for itself to achieve the same level of intimacy as APRIL and Breadline — and Red Sky back before I moved here, which apparently had a very amazing "vibe" to it. Anyway, I would love to see other people throw together something similarly arousing and explosive and unique on a regular basis like the Breadline. It'll happen soon enough!
As with all my events, as I said above, I hope people simply enjoy the experience of the event. The readers are all strong and experienced and the spaces are all unique (come on--we could all stand in Sonic Bloom all day and enjoy ourselves!) so it's just a matter of attending and feeling the moment. That sounds like new age nonsense, but that's how these things work, I've noticed: zero in, focus, enjoy, and remember. Also, hopefully people will have their paradigms of what makes an event an "event" shift. I doubt anyone other than myself will attend every single night next week, but the short duration of each event (no more than 30 minutes) for seven nights in a row is guaranteed to raise a bunch of questions of what defines a literary event. I think it goes along with how we engage in "living" in the city, but also will be nicely connected with how we engage life in and out of our smart phones.