“All poetry is written by dead people”: An Interview with Saul Williams

Saul Williams Saul Williams

written by Henry Kronk

Onstage at the Fairmount Theater on Wednesday night, Saul Williams reads his poetry. He performs two pieces with high polish and disinterest. During the third, he pauses mid-verse.

“I’m sorry, I can’t.” Williams looks away from the crowd. He looks back.
“Because … ISIS.”

The crowd falls silent and unease spreads. Henry, the interviewer, who stands in the back, realizes that the human onstage has broken the performer-audience relationship. Williams does not want to produce a spectacle. He wants to mourn. And rest.

An artist of various media, Williams has been hard at work. US(a), a selection of poetry, was published in September. Martyr Loser King, an album, will come out in January. And until a year ago, he called Paris home. In light of the November 13 attacks in Paris, one might speculate that the artist has a lot on his mind.

As Williams waffles, a few leave, but most allow themselves to be won over. He continues:

“The world is a shitty place that’s filled with beautiful people.”
[Laughter]

“I’ve been trying this new thing called stand-up poetry.”
[More laughter]

“The world is fucked. So what are we going to do? Most of us are full of shit. I’m just here to get paid.

“But we’re here. We’re Here. The Unaborted Ones. Just because you’re born into something, doesn’t mean you have to perpetuate it.”

Williams goes on for another 10-15 minutes. He concludes his set with an a capella performance of Burundi, a track off the forthcoming Martyr Loser King. People swarm the bar as Williams takes off his sunglasses and gives thanks to the crowd.

Henry, the interviewer, could have benefitted from hindsight when he sat down backstage with Williams before the show. Expecting energy and engagement, he struggled to adapt his questions, and indeed, even get his mic close enough to catch Williams’ demure responses.

The following interview has been edited for continuity.

Henry Kronk (HK): US(a) was published in September, Martyr Loser King comes out in January. Which are you more excited about?

Saul Williams (SW): Sleep [laughs]. Martyr Loser King is a project I’ve been fixated on for a few years now. I don’t know if I could qualify it as excitement. I am excited, but what’s more exciting is the way that we’re putting it together. Its not a fixed project; there’s a lot more to come and there’s so much content moving at so many points. I don’t want to call them side collaborative projects but projects that are a part of others’ projects. For us it’s been avenues and channels of communication through our expression.

HK: Who is us?

SW: Artists, writers, musicians, directors, composers, programmers, coders, illustrators, designers, did I say that?

HK: Add it to the list.

SW: Yeah, add it to the list.

HK: You work in so many media. It seems that every interviewer asks you a question that sounds like this: “Saul Williams. Poet, Musician, Actor, Activist. What are you?” Why does everybody want to put you in a box?

SW: Well we think in boxes. Boxes make sense of things. [Williams points to Henry’s chest] Like that’s a zip up hoody. Are you a zip up hoody or a coat? We’ll put those in files as well. Think socks or thick socks. Naming and categorizing things help us think and open up to new ideas. So it’s not so much why we put things in boxes, it’s why would anybody put anyone in a box?
Some people come up to me and say, [Williams drops his voice and hunches his shoulders] “Hey man, I’m a white boy from Chicago, I love your work.” [He resumes his relaxed posture] I don’t understand why he isn’t like, “Hey, I like your music.” I don’t understand why the idea of being white or black is there at all, or why we continue to practice these constructs. The idea behind my music is to destroy those constructs. And that applies to everything. I don’t understand people who say they’re old. Just because society tells you you’re old, it doesn’t mean shit.

HK: An anthology of poetry was published this year titled The Breakbeat Poets. Kevin Corval, a co-editor, said the following: “It wasn’t until I read the black arts poets where I had the sense that poetry was something relevant and not something done by dead white dudes who got lost in the forest.” How do dead people write poetry?

SW: All poetry is written by dead people, my own included. I know what he’s trying to say though. He’s trying to say that the canon is compiled of those who have passed. Maybe they’ve been gone one hundred years, maybe one thousand. But whenever we think about what poetry is, we’re confronted by the insane amount of history behind it, and how that history has its own troubled and horrific narratives.

HK: Do you feel responsibility when you create?

SW: Um, yeah. This book [Williams gestures towards his copy of US(a)] will sit next to others on a bookshelf. Books by people I admire. The responsibility I feel is to do my best to stand beside them. I know that your question is probably looking for an answer where I say I feel some responsibility toward the public or something. I just want to do the best work I can.

HK: Hm. I’m totally lost now.

SW: What’s your real question?

HK: That was kind of my real question back there — ‘do you feel responsibility when you create?’

SW: Well no, I don’t create for an audience based on public opinion or social issues. I respond to the world. I don’t consider being who I am a responsibility.

HK: I don’t necessarily mean responsibility in that way. There are any number of kinds of responsibility you can feel. Like, paying respect to someone or providing recognition for something that happened or someone who’s passed. Or you might feel the need to educate or inspire …

SW: Well I aim to inspire, but at the end of the day I’m only expressing myself. With this one, [gesturing again to his copy of US(a)] it was a struggle because I wrote it in a much shorter amount of time than I’m used to working with.

HK: A person named Sharon on goodreads.com gave US(a) a 1 star rating. She wrote:
“I have never seen a work of poetry like this. I had to double, then triple check to see if I was reviewing an ARC but no, it was supposed to be formatted like this. Some pages had words in columns, some right or left justified, some centre and all without rhyme or reason. I suspect this was part of the art – maybe I’m just too much a peasant to appreciate it. It hurt my eyes.”
Saul Williams, is Sharon really a peasant?

SW: We’re all peasants. Remember, it’s the same logic that holds a certain kind of poetry superior that finds a certain kind of person superior. Or inferior. When I was writing US(a), I felt I didn’t want to be bound by the margins. The layout was inspired by John Cage.

At this point, the interview was interrupted. Williams’ manager walks in and ushers Williams towards the stage. He has to go on. Like right now. Henry, the interviewer, has time for one last question, and he completely whiffs.

HK: Ok. If you were riding the elevator with John Cage, what’s the one question you’d ask him?

Saul shakes his head in disappointment. Henry gets the message. The two say the same word at the same time. “Nothing.”

Saul Williams and K-OS were at the Fairmount Theatre on November 18.

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