A Conversation with Saul Williams

When I was asked by What Weekly to interview Saul Williams through Skype from his home in Paris, I immediately obliged. Not only is Saul one of my biggest inspirations as a spoken-word artist and writer, but he is a favorite of many around the world, collaborating with masterminds like Allen Ginsberg and Trent Reznor. Although Saul is considered a champion of many artful mediums, gaining hype as a poet, actor, rebel, punk, activist, and leader, the many labels prescribed to him are only interpretations– the mere subset of a bigger picture. It is rather his ability to intertwine those moments  that leave his voice remarkably unparalleled, pulling from snippets of experience and imagination that seem new but oddly familiar: like a dream.

If you have seen Saul perform, even on YouTube, it should come as no surprise that he began his career in drama, receiving his MFA from the prestigious Tisch School for the Arts at NYU. Like clockwork, he takes the stage with unapologetic passion, engaging listeners with philosophically seductive lyrics that dip and turn in graceful yet humble soliloquy. Perhaps it is the fact that poetry is, in a way, an alternative to what Saul could not find in theatre, that refines his self awareness and energy, even in his rising fame.

My time with Saul Williams was similar to my experiences as a spectator of his performances–it went by quickly, but will continue to perplex and fascinate me many, many times over. Read on for the account of our Skype conversation and be sure to catch him at Baltimore Soundstage on September 1st for CHORUS- A spoken word tour.

Alexa Grey: You began performing spoken word while you were finishing your degree, and from there you rose into a traveling artist, making a career out of your writing. I’m curious as to how you have done this for yourself? It seems like a very difficult industry to get into. 

Saul Williams: Well, I would say that it has always been for fun and it was a long time before I pursued getting work. The only thing I did pursue at that time were literary and booking agents that said “Hey, I think I could get you shows in other places” and I was like “Cool!” My film Slam came out right when I finished grad school and I think that exposed me widely. From there, it was really just a matter of accepting invitations and accepting that this is where my career was heading. My background is in theatre and so, in many ways, I was expecting to be on stage. I never imagined that I would have a career writing and reciting what I have written. I dreamt of being a musician as a kid, but I also gave it up as a teenager thinking “Ah, that will never work” As a result of poetry, I have had the opportunity to record as well as publish [my work]. I did not dream of traveling as a poet. I dreamt of working as an actor, you know? So what’s been funny is a lot of stuff that I have done, I feel like has been because I have had little work as an actor. (laughs) And so it became clear to me that as much as I love theatre and film there is a lot of stuff that would come my way that I didn’t want to do and didn’t see as worth doing because the only value I saw was money. It was usually something that was predictable, stereotypical, formulaic. It’s rare for any actor to come up with a series of challenging roles. So, I found it easier to invest in this thing that was encouraging me to discover my own character.

Do you see your work as a stream of consciousness? How do you find your flow? Do you find that you can tap into what inspires you at any time or are there certain moments of creativity? I have heard you say that it is not hard for you to try because you already are, that’s just what exists within you. Does that mean you do not encounter “Writer’s Block”?

I think I have avoided the idea of “Writer’s Block” by not thinking of my mission as just writing. I realize that there is a time and place for writing. I believe that good writing comes from good reading. When I feel like my mind is being moved in interesting ways through literature or watching films–I’m inspired by art is what I am saying. I feel just as comfortable blasting a favorite album and dancing to it (not my album but by someone else) as I am writing. It is hard to leave those moments of inebriation and not feel inspired. If it’s not time to write, it’s simply not time to write. I am just as invested into my intimate life: my life as a parent, my reading, as a watcher of films and theatre. I am just as into that. And so, if the writing isn’t coming, that just means I need to do something else. I’ll make music, I’ll focus on something that doesn’t need words. And when the words are ready to come, they will come. So, I guess it is a matter of waiting but I’m not hard on myself.

Alexa: A lot of your subject matter is controversial, with a rebellious element to it that wakes people up. You speak truths that many are afraid to say. In bringing all of these kind of “universal struggles” to the surface, is poetry your way of processing the issues you face and not hold it on your shoulders? 

Saul: Honestly, I’m really only responding to my emotions in those moments. I am aware of sparking controversy or what have you. I love it. (laughs) But, to me, I think if art was super political at the time when I was coming up with then maybe I would have been funny. I think in terms of my creative process. Part of it was just finding that space that  needed to be filled. Not that I was seeking it, but I found my place in a space where there wasn’t a lot of people taking up that space. I had never dreamt of that, however.

I grew up inspired by artists who connected their work to their beliefs. And the artists that I admired growing up, its true, did exactly that. If you’re talking about a Fela Kuti, a Bob Marley, a Sydney Portier, a Paul Robson, a Nina Simone, an Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, John Lennon, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Whoopie Goldberg as a comedian. There’s so many people who, at certain parts of my life , allowed me to feel that “Oh, wow…that’s the power of entertainment”, you know? Because art does more than entertain. You still smile when you see the tremendous feat achieved like we smile when we see a gymnast accomplish something really daring. I do the same thing if I hear a rapper do something, you know, like a gymnast but with tongue. But if it has meaning it? Then it really hits me even more. Then I’m struck. Then not only am I smiling or crying or dancing, but it melds all of these emotions.

In the same way with my writing process, I’m not trying to be political, I guess my perspective just is. But I don’t think of myself as a politician. I studied…and it’s weird to say this as someone who is thought of as a poet, but I studied entertainment. I was planning on going into entertainment. The fact that I have a conscience and that a door was open that said “I really like when you perform what you write” was unexpected. The stuff that I choose to write reflects how I think and so it just revolves around those ideas. Like anybody else I’m looking at the world. I’m fighting my own battles of frustration and anger and excitement and visionary prophetic epiphanies that pop up in anybody’s mind at any moment and doing that same dance that everybody does and when it comes time to find words for music or words from the page, I’m pulling from all of those things. I’m also pulling from my travels, which the more I do that,  the more I get asked to go places the more I seek, the more that makes me think in new ways. This Summer, for example, I did a concert in a country I have never been to before, a few actually. One I went to was Swaziland, which is next to South Africa. Before I went there, I had to learn the statistics of the country. And it blew my mind. And so, of course, [something like] that could come up in my writing. All of these encounters effect who I am, how I think, what I think- at any given moment. And so it’s just a reflection of me. I like things with an edge. It’s not edgy enough to write about something imaginary like a rapper [does], like “I’m sitting here with my gun and piles of coke” I’m not trying to re-live a movie. I’m actually trying to find something that hasn’t been written.

Alexa: You are billed alongside musicians for concerts but also have a capella style performances in coffee houses and theaters. Do you select what work you share based on the environment it will be read in? Is it hard to get people to pay attention unless they are prepared and ready to listen?

Saul: I have never really given a fuck if people are ready or not. That’s not punk rock (laughs). I’m really aware of the fact that whether I’m opening for Rage [Against the Machine] or Nine Inch Nails or The Mars Volta or any of those types of bands, that people may be scared by me– some guy coming out on stage and speaking, courageously in front of whatever number of thousands, is a startling experience, and maybe most people are afraid of that– if they’re not politicians and they’re not speakers in those regards. And me, I don’t really have a fear of that so I really have no interest in trying to fit in. I’ve never been like “Hey, can you guys be quiet so you can listen to my poem?” I don’t give a fuck, but I also haven’t had any issues with people not being quiet. Maybe every now and then someone is drunk or something, but for the most part no, I don’t tailor to…well, I do a great deal of tailoring to what I feel that night and in that space, but I have never done a show where I haven’t recited a poem. I haven’t done a music show where there weren’t a capella moments of poetry. I do what excites me on stage and I trust that if I share my most intimate excitement in that way- it will be contagious.

And so it’s not as much me trying to entertain the crowd. I’m trying to give people a peek of me in shower, so to speak– when you sing freely and when you have no inhibitions. My goal is on stage is to lose all inhibitions. In life, I don’t want to scream across an open space just because I can.  Having the ability to project doesn’t make you necessarily want to do it. You don’t go on stage with those inhibitions. You can have them the 30 seconds before, but not on stage. That’s also because I don’t come from a background of someone who crawled in a corner to write poetry, although I have been that person- that’s not my background. I’ve never really had any fear there. None.

Alexa: Your upcoming tour shares the same title as your book Chorus, which is coming out in a few weeks. What can we expect from your show at Baltimore Soundstage on September 1st? How will you include your new work into your performance?

Saul: I’m touring primarily because it’s time to tour. I’m touring with poetry rather than music. With music, there’s barricades and backstage and it’s really impersonal. I like to set aside time for a spoken word tour because I’m allowed the time to interact with people more. I meet more people. It’s a more intimate form of sharing and I receive more. Chorus was really exciting for me. I put out a call for artists to send me their work. I was sent around 8,000 poems in a month and from that I chose 100. I put the titles and authors aside and wove them together, separating them only by number so that it read like one voice. 100 voices reading like 1 voice. Then, on top of that, I highlighted words going through the entire sequence of the poem and wrote a new poem but only used the words that were there. And so, what I gathered was kind of a testament of this generation so to speak. I didn’t make any specifications as to what people should write about so I ended up watching the current themes and weaving them together.

I don’t care if I’m reading from the book or not, but I might. I guess that’s one of the ways some people find me difficult because I could be on tour promoting one album, but if that day I feel like hearing that other album, that’s what I’m going to perform that day because the stage is my free place. I will read from this book, maybe I will read a poem. I wrote a poem called “The Red Poem” that goes throughout the length of the book. Maybe I’ll read excepts, or I’ll read other poems that I have written. Maybe I’ll read pieces I am working on. Maybe I’ll talk. Maybe I’ll play music. I’ll have guest poets. I’ll invite the poets that live nearby [that are published in the anthology] to come to the show and get on stage. These are mostly people that I have never met. Really, what I am trying to do is have a gathering of poets and of people feeling free enough to share, as well as create a space where I feel free enough to share the stuff that I’ve been thinking about in recent times.

Saul Williams will be appearing at the Baltimore Soundstage on Saturday night. Click here to purchase tickets.