The first time I ever saw Greg Gerding was on the Small Press shelf at Powell’s Bookstore. Being a frugal shopper, I was quite amazed by the immensity of his book, Loser Makes Good, 284 pages to be exact, for $10.00, whereas most books of poetry these days might cross the hundred page threshold and start normally around $15.00. As I flipped through it, testing to see if I wanted to buy his book or a used copy of Rimbaud’s Une Saison En Enfer (A Season in Hell), I was extremely impressed by the transparency of the writer. If he had a soul, which some of his prose poems put that in question, this poet had definitely exposed some of the most charred pieces of it, for each reader individually. Being the avid fan of vulnerability that I am, I decided to have ramen for dinner, and purchase both books, which was a wise choice.
When my friend Eirean Bradley, Portland Poetry Slam’s Slam Master, told me that he was opening a poetry showcase, which was also the book release party for Gerding’s latest endeavor, The Idiot Parade, it not only cemented the awesomeness of Eirean, but made me all the more interested in what Gerding was doing. Apparently, University of Hell Press, Gerding’s publishing company, made primarily to publish his own works, was going to publish a long overdue book by Bradley, the I in team.
Earlier that same month, Gerding co-featured at the Portland Poetry Slam with Denver poet protégé Ken Arkind. Gerding’s performance, however not run-of-the-mill slam material, was definitely moving. Slam poetry has a tendency to bare all and Gerding did just that. He pulled no punches, leaving himself as open as his writing already does, to the reader.
At his book release party, I had a short opportunity to chat with him, thanking him for his courageous writing, and he shared that he enjoyed the interviewer’s poetry as well. In the exchange of compliments, I mentioned that I had all but one book of his whole collection, and he generously offered me a copy of the missing title. A month later, I decided that I wanted to interview Gerding, and he graciously accepted. We met at Backspace, a Portland Chinatown coffee shop that hosts the Portland Poetry Slam. Here is that interview:
———————————————————————[I was sitting at Backspace, my local hangout, playing World of Warcraft when Gerding tapped me on the shoulder. He is amazingly not-unnervingly willing to greet people with a smile, which let my worries of being caught playing such an infamously debaucherous video game away. After some small talk, in which he asked many questions of me, and we discussed his newborn son Jack, we got the interview underway.]
So who are you? What do you do for a living? How do Greg’s bills get paid?
“I’m just a guy who writes. But, I have been working in the meetings and events industry for the past 14 years to pay the bills. 14 years is both cool and depressing at the same time. I want every year to be the last so I can focus on writing full-time, but my amassed experience in the industry can’t be ignored and people keep calling me with work. After the company I worked for went under two years ago, I struck out on my own as an independent contractor, continuing to service the meetings industry.”
What have you written?
“My first book, Poetry In Hell, was published by Red Dragon Press, an independent press based out of Virginia. The publisher approached me after a reading I did, in D.C., during my first year of writing and asked me if I was interested in being published. I figured it was always going to be that easy. That first experience spoiled me. When I realized that things don’t always happen that way, in 2005, I decided to start University of Hell Press, so I could publish my work. Since then, I published five titles: The Burning Album of Lame, Loser Makes Good, Piss Artist, The Idiot Parade, and a collection of short stories, Venue Voyeurisms. Another independent press in San Diego did put out a couple of chapbooks of mine called Triptych and 2.”
What’s the deal with University of Hell?
“University of Hell has its roots back when I ran a weekly poetry/music/performance art series in D.C., called Poetry In Hell. The series just happened to be held in a bar called Hell. Later, I named a column University of Hell which I wrote for a San Diego periodical. I’ve always had a fascination with “Hell.” To me, “University of Hell” is just another way of saying “school of life,” since we’re always students no matter where we are in our life, and life can be hell.”
How did you discover poetry and how did that evolve into writing it?
“I’ve always been an avid reader, but I was never specifically drawn to poetry, at least not during my earlier experiences. While reading all the “classics” in college, I was turned off by academia and all the inflated language I was force-fed. I’ve always admired “writers” and “writing,” but I never felt I had the aptitude to write in such an inflated way. I just couldn’t relate. I will say though, I have college to thank for leading me to Jeanette Winterson. She has been an ongoing point of inspiration for me.
“Being raised in D.C. in the late 80s and early 90s, I was heavily influenced by the punk scene. [Interviewer’s Notes: D.C. was one of a few epicenters for the genesis of hardcore punk. It was not surprising to the interviewer that Gerding’s love affair with poetry comes initially from his roots in the rebellious music culture of America.] I was working at a crappy mall kiosk in Virginia and was reading a random interview with Henry Rollins [Black Flag vocalist]. The interviewer asked Rollins who his biggest influences were and he replied that while he was dating an older woman, she turned him on to Charles Bukowski, who has been an influence on the punk icon ever since. After reading that, and not knowing who Bukowski was, during my break, I went to the mall bookstore and scanned Bukowski’s books in the poetry section. Love Is A Dog From Hell immediately grabbed my attention. [Funny how that coincides with his obsession with “Hell”.] I absorbed that book in one sitting. And then I absorbed two more of his titles very quickly after that. I finally found a language that I could understand; a language that communicated a depth of poetry beneath its simplicity, where all the classics had failed.”
Who are your three most major poetic influences?
“Bukowski, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Winterson.” [Yes, I know that is four.]
What other literary influences do you prescribe to?
“Music has always been a major influence. It has also guided a lot of my decisions as a writer more than anything else. Punk rock’s DIY [Do-It-Yourself] credo, as well as the model of Ian MacKaye’s [American punk icon, vocalist and songwriter for many bands, namely Minor Threat and Fugazi] record label, Dischord Records, were influences on me to create University of Hell Press. Their work ethic, politics, business model, and mission motivate me.”
What do you find is the hardest aspect of writing?[After thinking for a minute or two, Greg bursts out laughing and says,] “Getting paid for it! There is nothing hard about putting pen to paper, you just have to do it. To paraphrase an anecdote Winterson shared in her book Art Objects, she asked the person whom she was living with, who had a really great wine cellar, how she could learn about wine. He told her, “Drink it.” That’s how I feel about writing. Just start. And then continue doing.”
What is your favorite aspect of writing?
“Leaving my mark. Leaving a mark. When it comes to poetry, there is more poetry happening around us that goes undocumented, as well it should. We should be living life experiencing poetry, instead of wasting time writing it. I hate down time so much; that is when I find myself writing. I’m not writing at the height of my life. The writing, for me, happens between.”
Do you have any creative outlets outside of the literary realm?
“Um… I used to play baseball. I don’t actually work under any other medium, but I really enjoy collaborating with other artists, tying multiple art forms together. I envy artists who are able to operate on a more visual or aural spectrum, because of my own inability to practice these art forms. Although, I do find a whole spectrum of creativity dealing with the inner workings of University of Hell Press; book art, editing, promoting, etc.”
What are you currently reading?
“The Power Book by Jeanette Winterson and On Love by Alain de Botton.”
As a publisher, what do you look for in submissions? What do you look for, that would make something “publish worthy?” What projects are you currently working on, either writing, or publishing, that you are most excited about? What can we expect from the future of University of Hell Press?
“Seeing that all University of Hell Press projects, to date, have been personally funded by me, I look for writing that I can personally connect with. Profits from each book go into publishing the next book. I have never spent a dime made from any University of Hell Press books on personal ventures. As for submissions, I encourage writers to have their product as finished as possible before sending it in. The next book to be released, as well as the first book not written by me, is the I in team by Eirean Bradley. Dee Madden is currently finishing a book I am interested in publishing too. I’m also finishing up a new book, an oral history on the subject of intimacy tentatively titled I’ll Show You Mine, that if I can’t get someone else to publish will likely be released through University of Hell Press.”
And, finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writer and/or publishers, out there reading this?
“Keep writing and keep submitting. Or get motivated and publish your work yourself. I always recommend to writers, particularly poets, that if they’re going to endeavor publishing their own work to start small. You will make mistakes, and you will get better. If submitting though, I cannot stress enough to only submit finished work and always follow submission guidelines. It can be frustrating to get pitched on an “idea” and expect that all the work be done by the publisher. Write your book, finish it, edit it, put it in order, maybe even have some artwork for it, then submit it. There isn’t much demand for poetry, and I had to learn that the hard way after trying to get other publishers to take an interest. But, after watching my friends who were musicians toil over their demo tapes and build a fan base, I got inspired. Even writers need a “demo tape.” That’s what lit a fire under me in 2005 and caused me to launch the press.”
As I search for closing statements, I am sitting on a bus in Albany, NY, heading home to Portland from the National Poetry Slam in Boston, MA. While I was volunteering at NPS2011, I had the opportunity to hear some amazing poetry, to meet some amazing people, and to witness some outlandish activities. Whereas Boston has always felt more like a home for me, even more so than Portland (the town of my origination), I found myself being drawn more and more to the Pacific Northwest. For the first time in my life, I feel more drawn to my roots and less the broad open future; drawn to the comfort of Home.
Gerding’s poetry is the family reunion we can never really admit to wanting to go to. Although maybe we have lost connection with our family, our roots, we still love them, warts and all. We sometimes find ourselves missing the sanctity of dinner table political debates, or forcing ourselves to visit our mother, hangover and all. I found solace in Gerding’s sometimes belligerent vulnerability, and continue to get excited by what is yet to come from University of Hell Press. So stop by the bodega, pick up a couple of 40’s, make sure Rites of Spring is in the tape deck, and come over for dinner. It may not be high class, but you will feel, above all else, welcome.