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Literary Life: Unbearable acts of poetic terrorism

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On September 13 for two years running members of a New York writers' collective have lined up along the Brooklyn Bridge and recited erotic poetry to passersby. "Once you get past the first two poets you get used to it," says Sharon Mesmer, a former Chicagoan and member of the collective. "Most people are pretty open to it. Nobody throws anything."

The collective, the Unbearables, is made up of about 25 writers--plus a few painters and tattoo artists--who've published extensively in the underground press. They meet monthly at a Manhattan bar to drink beer, share their work, and plan what Unbearable Hakim Bey calls "acts of poetic terrorism."

"It's a gentle kind of terrorism," says Mesmer. "The main point is that we're not just a bunch of idiots. We're really good writers, and we're not finding a forum for that." So they've staged protests in front of the offices of the New Yorker and a public seance where they attempted to channel the spirits of famous dead writers.

The events, six or seven a year, are intended to subvert what the group sees as corporate influence in mainstream media and culture. Mesmer says the New Yorker protests were a critique of the conservative quality of the magazine's poetry. "It was a message to them that what they were publishing is not really the greatest stuff that they could be publishing." After the 1994 protest poetry editor Alice Quinn agreed to publish the work of an Unbearable poet, Sparrow.

While she was a student at Columbia College in the 80s Mesmer, along with Deborah Pintonelli and Carl Watson, started a couple of poetry zines, the erratic B City and Letter eX, now in its tenth year. Increasingly dissatisfied with the Chicago literary scene, Mesmer and Watson left for New York in 1988, and Pintonelli followed a year later. "There was no interest in the literary scene outside of the writers," Mesmer says. "We loved Chicago, and we were writing about Chicago. But Chicago wasn't interested. It was a lot less happening than it seems now."

In New York Mesmer met up with an old pen pal, Bart Plantenga, who invited her to become one of the first female Unbearables. Plantenga, a writer and disc jockey at radio station WFMU, had been helping to organize readings since the 70s, and in the mid-80s he and a core group formed the Unbearables after staging several events titled after Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The group has just released an anthology, The Unbearables, with pieces by Mesmer, Pintonelli, Watson, and ex-Chicagoan Lydia Tomkiw, formerly half of the band Algebra Suicide. "We completely did it ourselves," says Mesmer. "Everyone from the publisher to the proofreader is an Unbearable."

Mesmer and four other Unbearables will be in town this week promoting the book. At 5 PM on Wednesday they'll read erotic poetry on the Michigan Avenue bridge to coincide with the event in New York. She also wants to stage an impromptu reading at the Theatre on the Lake. "Whoever comes and reads will automatically become an auxiliary Unbearable. We'd like to have branches all over the world."

The Unbearables will read at 7:30 PM on Thursday, September 14, at Barbara's Bookstore, 3130 N. Broadway, where they'll also announce the details of their lakeside reading. Call 477-0411.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Teru Kuwayama.

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