One of the foremost progressive lyricists of hip-hop, Saul Williams began reciting entries from his journal in 1995 at the Nuyorcian Poets Café, the Lower East Side venue known for its celebration of poetry made aloud and alive where, as its founder Miguel Algarín remarked, “The poem began to leap off the page and become the thing itself – words were becoming action.” Distinguished among the nation’s top performance poets for his sprawling lyrics rich with esoteric imagery, Williams considers the relationship between sound, silence, consciousness and the incantatory power of the spoken word. Since 2001, when he began transposing his poetics from open mics to soundscapes, he has worked the leading architects of contemporary pop music, including Rick Rubin, Janelle Monáe and Trent Reznor. Williams recently toured North America in support of his latest album, Volcanic Sunlight (2011). We spoke backstage in Montréal.
THE BELIEVER: You’ve said that your experience in theater taught you to be an empty vessel.
SAUL WILLIAMS: The thing we appreciate in an actor is their presence. When you think of a James Earl Jones – or even a Jack Nicholson, there’s tons of them – who, when they come out and speak at an awards ceremony or something you go, Wow, they really have a strong presence.
Presence. Being. To be present. I am. It’s being. And what I learned from theater is that we act in order to become. It’s the highest compliment we pay someone in a performance. Like, Jamie Foxx is – is, the operative word: has become – is - present-tense - is Ray Charles. And when you change that as to is then you’ve done the thing as an actor that you aim to do: you’ve become.
BLVR: In the introduction to your book of poetry, Said the Shotgun to the Head (2003), you write that it was inspired by a kiss – “not just lustful petting but transcendental metamorphosis.” In the acknowledgements, you write that Allen Ginsberg kissed you and taught you the power of chanting Om three weeks before he died.
SW: Talk about presence.
I met him one night. I met him one night, at a poetry reading at NYU and I spent the evening backstage with him. That’s always a cool way to meet people actually.
BLVR: Said the pot to the kettle.
SW: [laughs] Yeah, I’ve been able to have some really nice conversations with some wonderful people in this sort of environment. And this is how I met Ginsberg.
That night with Ginsberg was beautiful really because it was so early for me. I entered this poetry thing very naively. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was just going where I was asked to go and sharing these things in my journal. I had been reciting and getting offered these business deals and I was earning my living out of the blue by journal entries that I considered as fun and simple as a Sunday crossword puzzle. It was just for having fun. I was always baffled. Even when I got paid to a do a play, I was baffled by the fact that they would pay me. Don’t you know I would do this anyway? I love this. By ‘96 it became clear that, Okay, there’s a world here in this poetry thing. I think I discovered who Ginsberg was in ‘95, like beyond a name that I thought I had heard somewhere before.
He was sitting there and I was on stage reciting poetry. It was a young crowd and the poems I did that night were very related to hiphop. I did Untimely Meditations, I did Ohm and I may have done this poem that I’ve never published called Beyond. He was kind of looking like [head cocked in intrigue; one eye squinting] just kind of observing people respond. And when I got off stage I went directly to him. He kissed me and said,
“I didn’t understand all of your references. However, do you chant Om?” And I said,
“Yeah, I do.” And he said,
“Good, because chanting Om is going to connect your heart and your crown chakras and that’s what you need.”
BLVR: Sound advice.
SW: [laughs] Yeah, sound advice!
We enlist every… per-son as beings of sound
To acknowledge their responsibility
To uplift the consciousness
Of the entire fucking world.
Any utterance unaimed will be disclaimed, will be maimed;
Two rappers slain.
SW: I had read somewhere that the word person comes from Latin: per meaning being; son, s-o-n of sound, sonic.
By the time I wrote Coded Language it had become a year and a half maybe that my life had been ssscccchhwwooo transforming like crazy. I became a dad in 1996 and I had started reciting poetry in 1995. In my chronology, I was seeing the relation between stuff I was writing and stuff that was happening. So I would write a poem about like this pregnant moon and then I had a child. It was manifesting to the point of frightening me.
And while all this poetry stuff was transforming my life I was also watching what was happening in hiphop. So when I heard Tupac say that he never had a criminal record until he said that he did on record and when I saw Biggie go from Ready to Die to death with an album that he called beforehand Life After Death I was thinking, be careful what you say.
Coded Language came from an incident when I was going to the New York airport in a taxi. Right before I got in the cab I bumped into DJ Spooky and he gave me a book on the history of Mexico that his friend had translated but I opened the book to check it out and it was written in like Old English, with whereas and henceforth and all that. And the cabdriver was playing Hot 97, the hiphop station in New York. I was listening to the people’s names and what they were talking about and they were all calling themselves Killer-somebody. And then they stop the song to announce that Master P’s brother, whose name is C-Murder, had just been arrested for murder. It was very elementary to me at that point, like
Run, Murder, Run!
And then I got onto a plane and wrote Coded Language.
BLVR: You’ve written that the spirit of Tupac visited you during the recording of your first album, Amethyst Rockstar.
SW: I was in the vocal booth. The lights, the environment, the dancing – performance is very much like ritual, it’s an invocation, you know?
At that time I was reading The Book of the Dead and The Book of Coming Forth By Day. I was trying to understand antiquity and its relationship to language. And one of the things I had discovered in the Egyptian or Kemetic language was how they thought of writing as capturing sound, capturing meaning. For them, the consonant sounds spoke to the temporal, finite reality, like the walls of this room and the vowel sounds, like the space in between, represented the infinite. Thus in their writing they would only write the consonants down, leaving out the vowel sounds because they didn’t want to try to put frames around the infinite or try to put the infinite in any sort of context. So Kemet would be spelt K-M-T in our Roman alphabet in the same way that in Judaism they would find it sacrilege to write the name of God, which would be Yaweh but they write YHW. So I would think about what like Oprah would mean. Because all of the vowel sounds in their language correlated to what it meant, so ah was wonder, oh was surprise.
And when that started happening with poetry it was this same sort of weird experience for me that had me thinking about the power of what I was doing and why that was happening while I was watching other things happening that seemed related to things people said and how they said it. When I first got taken up by poetry, within me I mean, I felt kind of like Joan of Arc.
BLVR: You cite the poet Bob Kaufman - who took a ten-year vow of silence between the assassination of JFK and the end of the Vietnam War - as a major influence. You’ve also said of acting in Alain Gomis’s latest film Aujourd’hui that, “This film gave me the level of challenge I really desired… which was about ways of communicating without words.”
SW: The most interesting criticism that I’ve ever received of Coded Language has come from the deaf community.
BLVR: Yeah?? I’m with you – what did they say?
SW: That we are more than that, way more than that. With the implication that we are somehow blinded by sound, by our so-called abilities that we don’t realize that there is something stronger, soundless, you know?
I’ve done a few poetry readings in the dark. The first one I did was in London in ‘99. It was theater in the dark and the whole idea was an hour and a half poetry reading. Everybody came into the theater and they pulled the curtains around and shut off all the lights – pitch black. I started reading the poems, and I had seen where the chairs were and I knew I could walk around them so I made my way slowly around reciting the poems.
It was a beautiful experience for me because I had seen how much I had referenced darkness and silence in my writing and I really heard it when I was in the dark. The things I was saying, a lot of it became clear. And then someone afterwards told me that the strangest experience for them while I was doing it was that they decided at one point to stand up. Standing up in the pure darkness to listen instead of sitting down, it took courage.
BLVR: The image of turning away from the sun and towards the moon, dark over light, is commonplace in writing associated with the Black Arts movement, though your usage of the motif seems detached from their identity politics. How does the imagery of darkness work for you?
SW: Because all of the Black Arts movement stuff was such a presence in my household and upbringing, a lot of my epiphanies came from traveling outside of that. So it came from reading Rumi and Hafiz, or from traveling to Africa or Brazil, or coming across something was outside of my realm of experience.
BLVR: You’ve said that your first album, Amethyst Rockstar, was poetry over beats and that Saul Williams, your second album, was more about the music. Whereas the lyrics to your earlier albums, like your poetry, seemed opaque to some – Ginsberg couldn’t keep up with all of your references - what distinguishes your latest album, Volcanic Sunlight, is the clarity of its content.
SW: I think clarity had just become more interesting to me. The Tao says something like Can you wait for the mud to settle before you take a step? The master waits for the mud to settle in the water before she takes a step. I was fascinated with the shapes of the mud as it was settling.