What can one say of Saul Williams that the juggernaut has not already masterfully said of himself? Although such a question yields no singular answer, perhaps more has already been unveiled about Williams in the last few days. This past Saturday, the 43-year-old pioneer of spoken word delivered arguably one of the most powerful poetry performances at the University in the last few years, which prompted a standing ovation from the house.
For those unfamiliar with Williams’ work, he is a poet, actor, rapper, and singer-songwriter who was instrumental in the emergence of spoken word poetry in the mid-’90s as a respectable art form, equal to the gravitas of traditional “page” poetry. His artistic roots are in theater; he discovered spoken word during his pursuit of an M.F.A. in Acting from NYU, a fact which is reflected in his performances, as well as the host of other work he has been involved with throughout the years. As an actor, he is best known for the film “Slam,” the 1998 Sundance Film Festival winner he also co-wrote, and “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” a 2014 hip-hop musical based on the work of rap legend Tupac Shakur.
In addition to the mass of University students, the performance attracted a large number of Williams’ fans from throughout Connecticut, many of whom are also poets or multimedia artists. Two poets, Tarishi Midnight-Shuler, a professional Connecticut based spoken word artist, and the University’s own Destiny Polk ’19, opened for Williams. After they delivered two poignant poems each, Williams appeared onstage to thunderous applause. The complete ease with which he commanded the stage from the very moment he set foot on it was almost unnerving. His delivery is not that of a performer who perceives himself as somehow separated from his audience, but rather of one who speaks as though he is addressing old friends.
The work he performed ranged from beloved classics such as “Coded Language” and “Children of the Night” to an epic a cappella rap that lasted nearly seven minutes. Williams spent much of the time conversing with the audience about his oeuvre and philosophy. Addressing topics ranging from his encounters with racism in Hollywood to the cues he has taken from Andrei Tarkovsky, Williams openly discussed his artistic journey and took questions from almost a dozen audience members.
Before the show, Williams was kind enough to sit down with The Argus for a fascinating conversation about his perception of the media in which he works.
The Argus: So Chris Gilpin–
Saul Williams: Oh, the article?
A: Yeah, “Slam Poetry Does Not Exist.” [An article that was just published on the online Canadian review journal, litive.ca] Thoughts?
SW: I didn’t read it, give it to me in a nutshell.
A: Basically, his argument is you can’t be a slam poet. It’s not a genre, it’s a movement. It’s not a boot camp for you to hone your skills and then move on to spoken word.
SW: Well, I understand the argument very well. It’s something that I’ve tried to talk about internationally for some time. For example, if you go to francophone areas, like France or Morocco or Haiti, you will have a group of people, poets, young poets, calling themselves “slammeurs.” And they don’t compete. They don’t recite competitively. In fact, they ran with the idea of slam being the new name for poetry. In France, for example, Grand Corps Malade and Abd Al Malik are slammeurs that have won the equivalent of Best New Artist Grammys as slammeurs, and they refer to themselves as slammeurs.
For years, it would get on my nerves when I was in Europe and they would say, “You’re a slammer.” I’d be like, “There’s no such thing as a slammer.” Slam is the name of the competition. A slam is a competitive poetry reading. Me, I would never qualify because I’ve only done three slams in my life. I’m actually the wrong person to talk to. It’s just I’ve helped popularize the concept, but in fact, I never participated too much. I was way more, and remain more, an open-mic poet. The difference being I was not as interested in being subjected to the eyes of competition. Finding poetry was so precious to me in the way that I encountered it. It was a place for me to explore fewer rules. So I didn’t want the rules of three minutes or what have you and I also…never felt like it was a good idea for me to start writing for the sake of a competition when in fact I am writing for the healing of my own spirit.
The only term I use is “poet,” not “spoken word poet,” not “slam poet”….And I think we come up with these new terms essentially to stop people from falling asleep when we bring it up. We’re not bringing anything new to the table. We’re doing something ancient. In fact, that’s what excites me about our participation in this art form, how ancient it is. For example, if we go through the European canon, like Homer, 97 percent of Greece was illiterate when Homer was alive. People didn’t read Homer. They gathered to hear him speak. They gathered to hear him recite poems. In fact, in the first Olympics, poetry was one of the sports.
So what’s new? You go into, let’s say, Islam, people like the Sufi poets, like Hafez, he’s one of my favorites, or Rumi. These were people who were known for the recitation of their verse. So the only thing that we invented is the three-minute time constraint. We’re calling ourselves shit really just to distinguish ourselves from those who did it before us, but for me, the distinction is not necessary. I’d rather be aligned with the Homers and the Hafezs and the Audrey Lordes and the Sylvia Plaths and the Anne Sextons and the Ted Hughes. I’d rather be aligned with the Mahmoud Darwishes of the world, and all of the other people who have identified as poets. I think that there’s no real reason for us to give poetry an identity crisis.
A: I like that.
SW: Yeah, we play with these terms simply because of the preconceived notions that come with saying “poetry,” when it’s been represented for years as this practically dead white male canon. So to remind people of the potentiality of excitement and being on the edge of your seat, [we say] slam poetry! But at the end of the day, it’s poetry, and it’s [a] resurgence of the cycle of the popularity of poetry. It’s always gone in cycles. You can look back through history when poetry was popular. Like, when the phonograph was recorded, the first person Alexander Graham Bell reached out to was Lord Alfred Tennyson. Why? Because before then, before they had recording devices, in the States, for example, pioneers would gather around tables after dinner, and if they weren’t reciting scripture, they would recite poems that they knew by heart. And so, when the phonograph was recorded, the first thing he thought of was, “Let’s record these poets reading their own poems.” That’s the first thing ever recorded on vinyl.
A: The first Button Poetry [a popular YouTube channel dedicated to spoken word].
SW: Yep, exactly. It was poetry. So [if] you look at cycles of popularity of poetry, you have the Harlem Renaissance….If you look at the African-American movement in the States, for example, it’s always this thing that precedes a social movement. So you have the Harlem Renaissance preceding the Civil Rights movement. You have the Black Arts movement preceding the Black Power movement. You have the slam poetry movement preceding…what? I don’t know.
I was reminded of the slam poetry movement when the Barack [Obama] campaign was going on because that was the first time I saw so many young people attentive to speeches and all that shit. Before then, for quite some time, it’s just been boring as fuck. But there was this new level of attentiveness, new attention that we were playing with word play and idiom, and all this stuff that fed into that campaign. So yeah, I think there are cycles of popularity, but overall I would agree that there is no such thing, or I don’t think there needs to be such a thing, as a “slam poet,” per se. There is such a thing as a poet and after that: “I prefer slams” or “I prefer free verse readings” or “all-night, twelve-hour readings.”
A: It’s interesting because no one says: “I’m a blank verse poet” or “I’m an iambic poet.”
SW: I have a friend in Spain who does what she calls “micro-poesía.” It’s not haikus, but she does her own form of micro-poems. It’s very small, and she’ll read 20 of them for you.
A: So in that same vein, I’m assuming you definitely don’t believe in “page poetry” versus “spoken word.”
SW: For me, the thing that makes a poem resonate for me is the thing that makes a poem resonate for me. I see the page as a stage. I mean, it’s blank. You could do so much with it. I have found that the best poems that I have encountered work in both mediums. When something works only on the stage and feels weaker on the page, I can usually feel that. When I’m listening to it, I’m already thinking, “Uh-huh, that could be better.” Mind you, my introduction to spoken word [was] stand-up comedy. That’s what I grew up loving. Comics like Steven Wright, Richard Pryor, all the way up to [Dave] Chappelle. I think that in terms of spoken word, we go for the same thing, which is the leanest, most economic use of language possible. And it’s the same thing I’m looking to see on the page. It’s not that I don’t make distinction between a “page” poet and a“stage” poet, but the stage poets are the ones that find a certain depth and root on the page.
A: Do you think about hip-hop in the same way?
SW: No. Well, hip-hop has different rules, in that if I’m rhyming, my verse is a slave to an external rhythm. The rhythm is the exoskeleton. If I’m reciting a poem, the rhythm that I determine is on the inside of the verse. The idea is leading, not the beat. As I emcee, the beat is leading. It’s how you ride the beat. With a poem, the beat is the heart. It’s internal. That’s the other reason why I distinguish between a slam poet, because a slam is a competition, as we all know, and hip-hop, as we know, is also competitive. It’s one of the most brilliant sides of the hip-hop game. It’s aligned itself with almost, like wrestling or something. The idea that you gotta be the best in the world or you gotta be on a level to even earn the position, to earn the ear space…and so in order to achieve that, what you’re playing with is a sense of confidence. That’s what you see people playing with when they rap. It’s this whole “I got this” attitude. I don’t always wanna see that with a poet. I prefer honesty. I prefer recognition of the strength of vulnerability. The question of “I don’t know if I have this.” Poetry is a much more open space, especially when it’s devoid of competitive aspects. And that’s where the essence lies.
A: So let’s say you have this idea, and you want to write it down with the intention of eventually performing it. What determines whether it comes out as a song or as a straight-up poem?
SW: I’ve always written all of my music, so that ideas that come aren’t necessarily all word-based. When I write music, I let the music lead, and so 90, 95 percent of the songs I write, I wrote the music first and the music determined the words. Like I said, in music the music leads. It’s like when you’re dancing. I like to be led by music. When it’s an idea that’s word-based, then I’m writing words. Even then there’re several questions. It may be an essay. It may be a poem. It may be a verse that I’ll later apply to music. It may be a monologue. It depends.
I know performance is there. It’s always just outside the door so I don’t have to think about it. If the thing that I’m working on will find its way to the stage from the page, [that] will be determined at some point without me thinking of the stage while I’m writing. While I’m writing, my stage is the page. If I get it right there, it’s like working on a mathematical proof. If I can find a way of expressing an idea, or a series of ideas, eventually there, some sort of rhythm is gonna develop. Eventually, I’m gonna start reading it aloud to develop it. Unless it’s a specifically commissioned poem, it’s seldom like, “Okay, I’m gonna write this for the stage because I’m going out tonight.”
A: You’ve done a lot of collaborations across the different fields that you’ve been working in, like theater and film and whatnot. Who is a performer, or a writer, or an artist that you’d love to collaborate with?
SW: People like Savion Glover. He’s a tap dancer. One time I saw him perform, and he had all the stage lined up like a drum machine. He had the Michael Jackson “Billy Jean” shit lined up. [He demonstrates with a tap dance.] That’s amazing. I would love to collaborate with a modern, or contemporary, dance troupe. My son is a ballerina, and I love dance.
What other capacity?….I’m working on a graphic novel right now, so I’m working with illustrators. Right now, I’m working with Ronald Wimberly. I think it would be cool to collaborate with someone like Molly Crabapple. I started collaborating with painters at the very beginning.
Of course, beat makers. I think Mono/Poly is part of the fly-low crew…You know, crazy modern beat makers. I love those cats a lot. I would love to collaborate with a composer, which is something that I’ve done and [that] I’m doing now in terms of texts, like providing text for a composer.
I’m working with a string quartet. All of that comes from collaborating with a composer. I’m working with one named Thomas Kessler, he’s an 85-year-old Swiss composer who’s taken two long poems of mine and [turned] them into symphonies. In both cases…I have to go in and collaborate with the orchestra or the string quartet, and that is a beautiful experience. But I have not collaborated with a composer musically.
Right now, I’m also prepping to direct a film, and so that puts me in the mindset of collaborating with a lot of artists which is, I think, one of the freshest parts of a film that isn’t as talked about as much as the actors.
A: I just shot a short film this morning.
SW: There you go.
I’m glad you brought up the graphic novel. I feel like, to a certain degree, comic books, hip-hop, and spoken word have all had to fight to prove themselves worthy of being in the “canon” or worthy of being on the same pedestal as more traditional forms of art. How was that experience for you? Do you feel that’s still a thing today?
SW: Of course. It’s always going to be a thing. When you identify as a slam poet, or are identified as a slam poet, even if you do not identify as that, the academic world of poetry, [which] has different doors and entryways and different ways of assessing a poem…my work has always been about trying to fuse those lines and build bridges. It’s part of why the page is so important to me because I’ll be damned if a page poet, or an academic poet, is going to be like, “Well, that’s great, but…” No, no, it’s thorough.
That was based on anticipation. When people first heard of me, I already had a Masters, but I knew that first article was going to say “street poet” or “hip-hop poet,” which it did. Another reason I shy away from those terms is that it gives others tools against you. That’s why I’m like, “No, poet. Poet’s fine. That will do.”
So, yes, of course, there has been that fight. Now, it’s not so much about the fight for validity. It’s more so the question of how we use it, whether that’s for hip-hop, or for poetry…which are separate discussions in a sense. We have tons of people proving that there’s definitely a place for [them] in the commercial market. You have tons of professors showing the validity of the types of poetry we’re doing in the academic world. It’s woken up a generation of English teachers, or better yet, their students. We have served as a bridge for a new generation of students who would otherwise be falling asleep in poetry classes, then discover, “Holy shit! You don’t have to be dead?!” Rimbaud went through that. When Rimbaud was writing poems, it was middle fingers everywhere. For his time period, what he was saying about the Church, it was no joke. It caused a fucking stir. Poets have always done that. It’s part of what [poetry] is there for.