On Writing Poems in Cambodia

Greg Bem Shadow Moto Cambodia

Cambodia Sunset

When I first arrived in Cambodia, I told myself, “You’re not going to write any poems. Stop writing and start paying attention.” I actually succeeded in following this plan. I wanted to be the anthropologist. I wanted to be the ethnographer. I had never lived abroad. I had never sunk into another space and culture. Actually, not true. I came to find out that moving from suburban New England to urban North Philadelphia was comparable to moving from Seattle to Phnom Penh. But I didn’t know it would be, and so I wanted to prepare.

I had not given myself a deadline for the poetry abstinence. And frankly, that’s a good thing, because I did not know what I was doing—at least, I did not know thoroughly how keeping from writing would impact my observations and awareness and my attention. Still, I sought out creative migrations and transfers. I kept a grad school blog for the library work I was doing. I kept a personal travel blog that allowed me to put the pictures I was taking and the stories I was living in a public space. I didn’t write poetry, but I did write.

Ultimately, I caved. My mind went in many directions. I have written poetry since age 17. When I lived in Cambodia I was 27 and 28. It, poetry, was not a task that could be switched on and off with ease. I was uncomfortable not writing poetry as it was something that, as with most poets, offers cohesion, pulls us together, and keeps the crazies inside and at bay. Still, I did not understand what writing poetry would be for in this exotic, distant, strange and foreign place. What for, who for, etc.

I was curious about how my poetry might be different. I was curious about how my integration into Cambodian life, in my own expat way, would affect my verse, my ideas of conceptual writing (e.g. experimentation), and what might evolve out of my previous styles and ideas. What resulted was a set of over 85 poems written in approximately 3 months. I’ve gone ahead and uploaded all of them right here. They are unlicensed, as the attachment I have to them is permanent, and yet transient as well, in its own way. Let me talk a little bit about some of them.

I would sit in my apartment, in an area to the south of the most popular expat neighborhood, BKK1, in a darkened apartment, where I was the only tenant. It was on the ground floor and wedged in between massive buildings that had apartments and offices. I did not get much natural light, and I paid twice the amount I should have. Fortunately the rooms—the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom—were naturally cool, I never had ants, and the only other insects I was visited by were little millipedes coming out of the shower drain. Oh, and I had a full-size shower.

I would sit in my apartment, and I would write. I made a lot of friends (mostly acquaintances) quickly, but I found myself with a lot of free time, even if I did go out to eat every day, even if I did extend the range of my budget to the maximum. Poetry filled time where school work, films, and bike rides could not. It was a form of meditation. It was also very, very old fashioned for me. Take the first poem in the book-length collection I wrote:

Behind the Senate
While structured, State a place
greened tan, is home to structure
and more or less than uniformity.
Low go the hanging walls like dust,
open to sight, the air pressuring,
while scattered fruit vendors
displayed along 63 northward.
A runway for bikes and carts,
I ride the ribbons of car shadow
breathing in the car cavalcades,
lean into a sputter above potholes
with darts of the causal moto.
Out of sight this place of quiet
becomes home for silence.
Authority standing firm gawks
beneath the trample of Mao.
During the day I work wayward,
and am away, clutching my pen.
At night I arrive bicycling, steady
the slide along the pitch of ground.
And the bicycle greets the Gate.
Guards of this entrance are old.

For me, as most people who know me can attest, this poem is drastically different than the styles I was writing in in the US. In Philly, as a member of the New Philadelphia Poets and a recent Creative Writing graduate, my poems were cut up, erased, chiseled. They were minimal and filled with a rapture of sound. Sonic qualities were derivative of hip hop lyrics. Images were mimicking other writers in the city and writers my previous professors had called “important.” In Philly I found Frank O’Hara boring. William Carlos Williams was valuable but old. I did not know Rilke or Char.

When I arrived to Seattle, my earliest poems (some of which you can see here), were very similar to the Cambodian poems. They were straightforward, filled with narrative, but also lyrical: short, sweet, and fairly concrete. Seattle and its overabundance of sound artists, sound poets, noise musicians, and pretentious intellectuals was an inverse of creativity for me: it challenged me but turned me into a beast of an artist, over the course of a few years, that I had never even dreamed possible in Philly. Take this exchange with my collaborator and (to this day) dear friend Jason Conger. It is just one example of the many things I was writing and calling poetry during my earliest Seattle transformations.


Head to Takhmao
a short distance
and a long place
the province a
distance for me
my mind at 8AM
four hours of sleep
behind me my arms
burnt in Takhmao
exposed to the sun
the hours multiply
before a division
becoming the sienna
the auburn organic
Takhmao whispers
dogs mating in streets
the sun reflecting
off exploded cans
beer a leaking foam
in the dirt gutter
beside cracked
patters of pavement.
Takhmao and Hindu
statues symbols
of power the nation
what is front of them
what is behind them
we eat noodles
with fishballs and chili
then rice and chicken
we drink ravenously
from coconuts
Cambodia is inside us
the stories shared
moment to moment
And Takhmao you
you are quiet but
fragmented Takhmao
like a perfect jewel.

It is curious how the narrative and the activity became an emblem within each of these Cambodian poems. Getting to Cambodia was less about stepping backward in the creative process and more about turning inward. I believe in the reflections that “straightforward writing” brought me while in Cambodia. Bukowski always critiqued poets for not being able to write a simple sentence. Perhaps for me Cambodia was about returning to the basics. In a way, the culture, certainly complex in many ways, was conveniently undergoing its own education processes following the drastic events of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Certainly this experiential process of growth was aligned with my own. That is to say, I subconsciously fell in line.

Even more curious is that culture of expats in Cambodia. Though the veterans are veterans for a reason, the majority of the young teachers and NGO workers I encountered there were going through a training or gauntlet of their own. Many of them did not seem to know what they were doing “for the long haul” in their life. I was finishing up grad school so I could be considered one of them. To reexamine my own personal psyche while in a place and position of immense “otherness” only felt normal, natural, and in vibe with the other expats in my community.

The Collectors

I am not used to so many beautiful hands
entering so many realms of garbage, sorting
through the trash of the trashes of people
in the broadest slashes of monsoon daylight.
Over the past three days the collectors
have been away from town, their carts still.
Our tons of trash unequaled by imagination
has been stacked up in the streets’ hearts.
In Cambodia there are workers who
walk streets from dawn to dusk, and beyond.
The waste of others wherever it lay is life.
From door to door, from business to home,
they go with their handcarts and their shovels
and their own clean hands made putrid.
I watch from the corners of buildings and eyes.
What will you find when the streets
are dry or wet, stable or tried with time?
But they are gone today and have been gone,
and the smells of the rotten rise above,
unquelled by the queries of the gatherers.
The intimacy of waste condones forgiveness,
having not given thanks to the collectors ‘til now.
I stare at the latent sunlight and breathe in.

Despite the youthful qualities of my lifestyle (going to clubs, drinking to excess, visiting strange places with groups of rowdy people, trying to know more about myself), looking back on these poems reminds me of reading old poets. Ancient poets, even. The poem above, “The Collectors,” is about garbage workers in Cambodia, a class to themselves. I was given the “opportunity” to see a strike from these workers and this poem describes my contemplation. I was forced to examine the piles of trash (literally piles—stacked higher than a single story, in the middle of the streets) on my way to work, on my way to dinner, and so on and so forth. Reading this poem reminds me of all those pre-Beatnik poets one is forced to read in Romantic poetry. Was I actually an old man when I was writing these? Perhaps the “old” in older poets is a concept synonymous with a reflective stillness.

The poems that could have been written as prose, which I always criticize poets for, was written in verse, much in the way the Ancient Chinese write about experiences and situations. I like the word “situation” and “encounter” and I think these occur much more accessibly in Cambodia (at least for me) than they ever have in the US. Perhaps because we are constantly distracting ourselves here? Imagine going back to 3G and not being able to stream the HD Youtube video embedded in that tweet from your favorite celebrity. Imagine half of the language used in advertising around you be unreadable because you don’t read or write Khmer, the local written language. And so you turn and become distracted—or at least enveloped—by the language of the streets around you. And this is where poetry mode turns on.

Kingdom of Questions

In this kingdom the ghosts come forward
asking all manner of questions in Khmer,
Chinese, Vietnamese, and English.
The occasional spokespeople of Thai and Laos
come forward with briefcases and binders.
The occasional wonder emerges blinding eyes.
I personally love the feeling of the cell phone
picked up for a brief SMS before biking home.
Ghosts, they swarm you with language
hovering above their skin, ethereal tattoos
and the belief that you matter to someone,
or maybe even just to yourself, fleeting.
What are you doing spending time answering
in this field of barricaded questions?
Dear Laos, Dear Thailand, everyone else:
Open the briefcase. The binder. Mark
those we’ve accepted into our lives
in the most beautiful script you can imagine.

Not all of my poems are straightforward and, in fact, many of them are probably far too cryptic to the outsider, as they are far too cryptic to me, today. I’ll blame my mild drug use and other intoxication during my days in Cambodia on the ambiguity and vague underbelly to most of these poems. That being said, I find important reflection on the mysteries found in these poems. What was I thinking about? Why was I writing it? Who was I writing for? Again, it was a process that I was exploring in the moment, and somehow it helped me live more fully in the duration of my time in Cambodia.

During the nearly one year there, I did write several conceptual pieces to be performed at events, and those went quite well. I will not post them here, but if you search for my work online long enough, you might find some or find hints to them. They are scattered in the dusty, humid breeze. But these were written in isolation and with very clear intentions, whereas the Cambodian Poems I’ve been describing simply flowed out of me.

I find poetry is often talked about as a mono-activity, where writing poetry is writing poetry, or in binaries: “you’re a poet or you’re not” or “you write poetry or you don’t.” I like to continue my experience looking at the wide textures of poetry, sure, but more importantly I like to look at the wide textures of myself as a poet. When does writing come into play, and to work, and for what purpose?

When I return to Cambodia this summer, my goal is to continue to write poems. I will not be there long enough to take a break from poetry, and it would be a mistake, I think, to keep myself from writing any poems this summer. So instead I will be open to whatever releases. I might come across a wildly experimental side that has plateaued here in Seattle, or I might find myself returning to the narrative escapades similar to the poems I wrote during my first visit. Or perhaps something incredibly different will emerge. For now, I leave the reader with the following:

Sunset Rock with Two Travelers

Kep National Park

Who are these enigmas and why do I feel like an enigma as the vision of the landscape of the land stretches?
Sometimes the breaths though healthy tend to extend for an extravagant period and time is what lengthens.
The sun moves on the horizon ever so slightly with the rise and fall the in and out of air in these human lungs.
I look at faces and they seem as masked as they always were when I was young and foolish and curious.
You’re from Australia and you’re Belgian and I’m from the United States and they are from Cambodia.
Introductions sometimes to me seem foolish as though they are as unstoppable as an open sea in daylight.
And then the pit of the evening challenging every perceived and erupted understanding of new peoples.
And then too there is the strange macro photography I’m taking to bide my time in this world of coexistence.
It’s a beautiful day and to meet people that are friendly and talkative is a remarkable excursion from the usual.
But in so much beauty I feel the rotten holes in my belly my stomach come alive and beg for something different.
For I would want to be isolated devoid of the discomfort of the tremor and currents of momentary isolation.
The only voice would be the watch-face ticking by the second while silent waves of the ocean could still be seen.
And though everyone mentioned can still live and exist some elsewhere they know and I know not much about,
It’ll be their personal splendor, while my own life will be isolated, called “mine,” and sectioned off completely.

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