Monday, December 15, 2008

Greg Gerding "Loser makes Good," an UnReview and Interview

If you read this blog, you are familiar with Greg Gerding. If you're a longtime San Diegan and remember the forerunner to SLAMM Magazine(later CityBeat), The Weekly, you might remember reading a column called Venue Voyeurism wherein the author patronized various dive bars around town and drank and looked and wrote. Most memorable to me was a night he went to The Alibi in Hillcrest and detailed an accounting not unlike a night out of Jean Genet's in The Thief's Journal. The precision title given to this column by it's author proved to be an early index of his accuracy with quick-wit and would later line the heading of his second book, a collection of the articles published within the year that Greg held the post. And, if you're an even longer-time resident of S.D. and you happened to frequented a coffee house in Ocean Beach famed for launching the careers of a few multi-platinum selling S.D. troubadors in the late nineties, any given Monday you would have gotten your first taste of Greg Gerding reading selections from his first book Poetry in Hell, published by Red Dragon Press(1995). And that indeed, was my first introduction. Then 17, an aspiring... something, I was...(for full story and interview, click 'keep on reading')

1997. Java Joe's. First poetry reading I've ever been to. Next to me is a drunk guy named Apollo who will shortly go into what seemed to be a politically-based-slurring-rant of a piece. Then, next, a soft voiced, elderly looking man stands repeating the phrase "ivory... and pearl..." His voice wants to hypnotize me. Finally, a guy wearing jeans, a t-shirt, sneakers and a flannel wrapped around his waist(remember the grunge era?) walks up to the mic. "Hello. My name is Greg," he says, and launches into an alliterative blast of a poem in "L" about his girlfriend..."(I was) languidly licking her loins and..." the crowd is laughing. He's lightened the mood. I feel better about this whole poetry reading thing now. But I still clench to my notebook and never go up.

But I don't mean to alienate the newcomers who've only been here the last few years. If you've even in-passing read over City Beat's Fiction 101 contest before, you have read his award winning short--very short--stories. And if you've gone to the whistle stop over the past three or so years you might have caught one of his many readings for the releases of the aforementioned Venue Voyerism and The Burning Album of Lame. The former and latter works, as many astute independent artists are doing today, were published on Gerding's own imprint: University of Hell Press. And just this past summer, also on University of Hell Press, Greg released Loser Makes Good to a packed and pretty wild Bar Pink(Elephant) crowd. Might have been the punk band but there were also the Greg fans heckling him to read their dirty favorites. Me included.

My original intent was to go into a learned, didactic review of Lose Makes Good at this point but instead, I give you Greg Gerding:

SDDI: Why Poetry? With so many outlets/facets in the fine arts these days, you gravitated to poetry. Can you explain?

GG: Poetry is it for me. I started reading books really young and always admired writers. I think I romanticized the idea of being a writer early on. If I could sing, I would have been a singer. If I could paint, I would have been a painter. I only know writing, so I write. It comes out of me in poetry and prose, but it's always evolving.

SDDI: Have you been compared to Bukowski as far as you know? Do you mind it? How do you feel about the argument that Bukowski begot a lot of bad poetry, or non-poetry?

GG: I have been compared to Bukowski. A lot. I don't mind it. The man did loose the words from within me. After reading his "Love is a Dog from Hell" and "Burning in Water Drowning in Flame," I connected with his voice, his gut, and the density of poetry beneath his words, and I haven't put the pen down since.

I list Bukowski in my literary lineage, along with Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Jim Morrison. That might sound lame, but, as an artist, it's important to connect with the past. I don't want to be them and I don't copy their work. I draw inspiration from them, but the shit I write comes from deep within. It's no-shit, straightforward, and desperate. Who has time for anything else?

As for the argument that Bukowski begot a lot of bad poetry, I would agree with that. There is an ease to his writing that make readers think, "Hey, I can write that too," but people who act on that tend to write crap. They lack precision.

SDDI: Your first book, Poetry In Hell, was published by Red dragon Press out of Virginia. You have since, published under your own publishing moniker University of Hell Press. I know the publishing industry had been suffering even before these hard economic times, and with this ADD Nation sufficed with two minute YouTube vids, where do you see poetry as a published art-form going if less people are buying and reading hard copy books?

GG: Everything, to me, feels ripe for an awakening. It just needs to be good and it needs to be interesting. Poetry is like any other art form in that regard too. If it's good and interesting, people will want it. Publishing houses as we know them today might fall by the wayside altogether, that's possible, supplanted by newer forms of media. But despite the constantly evolving and improving technologies, I think more specialized markets will emerge. There will always be niche interests. People who only want vinyl. Likewise, I think there will always be interest in paper and ink, and the experiential aesthetic of cracking that new book's spine, sniffing in the pages, and ruining it in our own intimate way. Or not, maybe freeze-packing it for display in mint condition. Consumers and collectors will never change. There will always be that, consuming and collecting.

Any poet though who wallows about how they are suffering because nobody can see what a great writer they are and how they should get paid a bunch of money etc., etc. is a lazy pussy. I know this because I suffered through that phase terribly and was a huge lazy pussy. But guess what? Poetry is just like anything else, it's hard work. As artists, we can choose to complain about how shitty the world is and whine, or we can choose to do what we can on our own, collect resources, rally friends and family, and try hard to achieve little victories while embracing our failures even harder. I love to fail. Seriously, I don't know anyone else who loves failure more than me. That's where the real learning is. Instead, people fear failure and do nothing.

I'm a huge proponent of the DIY ethic. Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins are huge inspirations. And not only them, but any artist who takes their art, crafts it, and puts it out there? That's awesome. It might not be good, but the sheer effort is admirable. That's how I turned a corner. The art was piling up and piling up and then just sitting there. I got tired of staring at nothing getting done and decided to tackle the pile in projects. It's arduous, but who else is going to do it? It is only through this that you hope, just like every band with their demo tape hopes, that some big opportunity comes along and presents itself as a result of your hard work. Meanwhile, just do the work and don't be a huge lazy pussy.

SDDI: --amendment to last question... and how can/will you adapt as an artist?

GG: More than writers, I draw a lot of creative inspiration from musicians and visual artists, so I tend to align myself with them more. I've gone into the studio with bands and contributed spoken word to their songs, and I've been in the studio by myself and done spoken word alone. I love going into the recording studio. I haven't packaged anything yet, but I've had a lot of work recorded and I can't wait to go back in again. I'd like to put my books to CD in my own voice. I know a lot of people would rather pop in a CD during their commute or listen to me on their iPod than have to suffer through actually reading it.

I've partnered with painters and photographers and participated in shows where our works are displayed side-by-side. I had one such collaboration with painter Andy Crane that culminated into a show at Balboa Park. I'm always looking for different ways to flex the writing muscles beyond just paper. In addition to music and painting, I'm in love with film too. I'm not sure where that passion will take me yet, maybe screenwriting. That would be a really great challenge.

SDDI: I know that you recently stopped drinking. And, since a lot of material for Loser Makes Good is documentation of some seriously debaucherous days, do you sometimes look back and say "god, what an idiot" or "what the hell was I thinking,?" Or rather, do you yearn for those... "inspired" times when you'd get shit-faced and write? This is the perennial "weren't The Stones better when they were high?" Or Metallica when they were drunks... (Interviewer comment, I know this is not my interview I recently went to the library to check out Bukowski's three posthumous releases. I could not read them. Painful. I read his full works years ago. I'm a fan. Couldn't do it though. Not even in spurts or in the bathroom. I know he stopped drinking and even started doing mediatation, yoga, and exercising(not a dig on said activities, just un-Bukowski). Your thoughts?

GG: There are so many moments I have documented that I look back on and think, "What the hell was I thinking?" But it helps that I have no filter. I mean, you've read Loser, who in their right mind would choose to capture so many embarrassing, incriminating moments on paper and then publish them? The thing is, I don't know any other way. That, to me, is art and progress. I have a respect for the history beyond myself that requires me to show it all, to tell it all, and to bear it all in all its glorious nakedness.

I used to fear that the only worthwhile things I would ever write had to be written during some level of inebriation or during recovery from the same, but I came to realize this was false. I do, however, think that the edge to my writing was born and crafted from many drunken evenings. That decade of drinking was my graduate program, my furthered education. To answer your question though, no, I don't yearn for those times when I got shit-faced and wrote. But I don't dismiss them either. They were crucial to the writer I am. And I hope I am as edgy now as I was then. I demand from myself nothing less.

Besides, I'd like to depart from the cliché. So many of my heroes have crumbled beneath their addictions. I know how lucky I am that alcohol is not a crushing addiction for me. My decision to stop drinking didn't come out of some tragedy or crime or intervention. I just decided I was done. I want to be the artist who continues to produce the craziest shit AND is somehow sober. There are not a lot of sober artists to look up to. I challenge you to think of some. Alcohol is so intermeshed with our society's fabric. The relentless advertising and the associations made between alcohol and sex and being cool. I am not preaching though, we all have our own personal journeys. This current part of my journey has me not drinking.

As for Bukowski, well, he did always have the capacity to disappoint, even at the height of his ability. But especially posthumously, it seems that everything he ever penned is being shown the light of day and I think that is a mistake. I fault the publishers for that more than Bukowski. Plus, I thought the later stuff of his that I've read was weaker due to him just getting old, not the result of some departure from the bottle. That was my impression anyway.

SDDI: Couldn't agree with you more on Bukowski's current publishers. While here for twelve years(Greg recently relocated to Portland though he commutes back here often for work), how did you like San Diego? What did you think of the various art/literature/music scenes? I remember seeing you at a couple shows over the years...
GG: I love San Diego. There are some really great artists in San Diego doing some really great things. And some really talented people who support them: Tim Mays at The Casbah, Mike Kamoo at Earthling Studios, Sam Chammas at the Whistle Stop, Eric Howarth at M-Theory Records, Rosey at San Diego Dialed In, David Rolland and Kinsee Morlan at CityBeat, and others. As a writer though, I won't lie, it's not easy. There are few venues to read out at, and little support.

But the biggest problem across all the arts, and I hope this changes, is there are too many individuals and not enough "community." It's like a sick cycle. I think it's because there is such little support for the arts that the artists are forced to do everything themselves, and once they accomplish something, they become embittered and don't support others because the road for them was so hard and they think, "Why should I have to bother helping anybody else? Nobody helped me."

San Diego lacks a collective. A serious collective. Instead there are pockets of cliques feeding on each other's crap, stroking each other's egos. There's nothing larger going on to challenge artists towards betterment.

SDDI: I again, agree completely. What is next for you? When is your next book/project due or what are you working on?

GG: Right now I'm working on my next collection of poetry and prose. It's tentatively titled Piss Artist and follows the ten years after Loser Makes Good and represents material written between 1995 and 2005. It's a lot of material, so I'm hoping it ends up being two books that I can release as my pompous and bloated "double album." My "White Album." My "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness." My "Speakerboxxx and the Love Below." But instead it'll be "Wreckage in the Landscape and the Idiot Parade." Something excellent like that. It will release sometime next year.

After that, I'm not sure. I have a collection of short stories I am working on and a novel. And I've been entertaining the idea of publishing others too, if the right projects come along. I'd like to expand the University of Hell Press brand and bring in others to work, to write, to sell, etc. That's a little too big for me to think about now. One project at a time. Right now, Piss Artist.

SDDI: Perfect. Thank you Greg.

You can buy Greg's books at or Amazon. I recommend buying them off the powells site here because they support indie authors like Greg (and Amazon only wanted Greg's books AFTER they found out powells was carrying them.) Powells also has used copies they resell cheaper. Fortunately though, you can purchase all three of Greg's latest releases on University of Hell Press for $20! Three books. Twenty bucks. Not a bad present for a buddy of yours that is or you think might be into Bukowski, Baudelaire, Fante, Kerouac, or I dare say, the tough and terse prose of Hemingway. For the budgeting folk like myself the below books are $5 each. I can presonally recommend all three and, if you dig, you may be able to muscle an original print of Poetry In Hell from Greg. His myspace page is here subscribe to his blog while you're at it.

Thanks for reading. -a


Lazy John said...

I met Greg just before he moved to Portland. He's a great guy.

abraham said...

Indeed John. Thanks for reading. He'll be back soon and we're gonna schedule a reading for him... keep an eye out.

Unknown said...

Greg, I love how you are so honest - honest about other artists, yourself, and San Diego. Thanks for inspiring me to find time to do the things I love to do and to encourage Mason to keep reading. Miss you.

lizzie said...

Taylor Selby first hosted that poetry reading at Java Joe's in '97, Tuesday nights, then I took it over for a while. Glad to see and hear that Greg is doing well.

Lizzie Wann

abraham said...

Thanks Lizzie. Serves as a sort of fact-check for my article, ha ha! Glad to know someone was there and enjoyed Greg as well...