Saul Williams is poetry’s new school incarnate. A spoken word artist gifted in both performance and the written word, Williams gives equal importance to the cultural medium’s new flesh—hip-hop—as he does to old-school practitioners like Rumi and Hafiz. But that’s probably because he, unlike many contemporary artists, understands that whether you’re breaking it or enforcing it, everything has a tradition, and spoken word, hip-hop and performative poetry are just extensions of oral culture and public storytelling customs older than Europe itself.
Which is why his recently released poem on 9/11, violence, love and their attendant neuroses, , said the shotgun to the head, is so arresting. As Williams explains, the tragedies of September 2001 are spikes on the same violent continuum; Manhattan’s Ground Zero was already populated with the bodies of Native American and African victims before Osama bin Laden increased the body count. And, as , said the shotgun to the head illustrates, most notably through its contemplation of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and creation, a heart-wrenching disaster can illuminate the hidden constructions of a world gone mad.
In other words, whether you picture Saul Williams as a beatific poet making his way through the mean streets of New York or a budding big-ticket starring in Hollywood blockbusters like K-PAX and opening for rock gods like Mars Volta, try not to ignore his clarion call for historical transparency. You’ll be sorry that you did in the end.
PopMatters: Talk about where the idea for the book came from.
Saul Williams: Initially, it wasn’t an idea for a book, or even a poem. A lot of times, I write with my eyes closed, just write something down without knowing what it is. I like the feel of it. So I had written what became the first page of the book about four years ago. And I didn’t know what the hell it meant, but it sounded like a cool introduction. And I just thought it was the beginning of a poem. And I realized that it was somewhat of an ode to Kali, who had been intriguing me at the time. She’s a Hindu goddess that symbolizes both destruction and creation, which was very interesting to me, especially considering the fact that it is a woman that symbolizes both. So I started riffing on the idea of Kali; then 9/11 happened. That helped me understand the idea that things must be destroyed in order to be rebuilt. And that’s when I realized that this poem I was working on was indeed a book. So I wrote it over the course of four years.
PM: How has the poem fleshed out that destruction/creation concept for you? Obviously whenever you’re dealing with 9/11, it’s hard to get people to see both sides of any issue.
SW: Well, the poem is in the voice of a character who is a wandering man of sorts, who is sadly the guy who some might avoid in the streets because they find him muttering to himself. I see the book as a sort of microphone held to his mouth—he makes the connections that many of us might be afraid to make. Or might not be able to make. And so in the context of thinking of the poem through the lens of that character, I put the poem in the mouth of a soothsayer. That whole idea of “Beware the Ides of March,” making sense of all the symbols of God, Christianity, and the West. It starts with a quote from Paul Robeson, who states that “The man who accepts Western values absolutely finds his creative faculties becoming so warped and stunted that he is almost completely dependent on external satisfactions, and the moment he becomes frustrated in his search for these, he begins to develop neurotic symptoms, to feel that life is not worth living.” I took these Western symbols and reconfigured them in the mouth and mind of this wandering man; not that it wasn’t difficult, there are a lot of symbols. We live in an age where all of these symbols have come to life, you know? All the scriptures and everything. I mean, it’s really strange when you can actually turn on the radio and hear that the armies have arrayed themselves on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates!
PM: Hey, that sounds familiar!
SW: Yeah. It was a simple thing to do in one sense, but in the other it was like deciphering an age-old equation, something you’ll find in a lot of poems. They’re like math equations.
PM: Everyone still seems to be trying to find a way to contextualize their horror or confusion over 9/11, and that seems to me to be what’s going on here. Were you nervous at all about these connections and how they would be interpreted?
SW: No, I wasn’t nervous at all. There are connections to be made between what happened to us and the things we have done on foreign soil, the type of energy we have put out there. I think it’s dangerous to look at 9/11 as an event disconnected from everything else. I remember this past 9/11 there was a big debate about what people were going to do with Ground Zero, whether they were going to build some new businesses there or whether they were going to keep it as a memorial. And the prevailing sentiment of the day was that it should remain a memorial ground, but many of the people who actually lived near there didn’t want that. They didn’t want that kind of a feel; they wanted to keep it alive, build a Starbucks or a mall. They wanted to keep it alive. Well, the character in the book makes a connection between what happened on that ground and what happened there hundreds of years ago. In the early ‘90s, they found a burial ground of enslaved Africans and Native Americans in that very part of lower Manhattan. But they couldn’t get to them all, because there were so many businesses on top of them. And so they put a plaque there to commemorate the space, but the fact remains that there were thousands of bodies there before there were thousands of bodies there, you know? And so the character makes the connections and sort of says, “Of course those buildings fell. Look where you built them.” We erected buildings on top of bodies that were already buried. So the character looks at before the before, where people aren’t brave enough to make connections. And those people might say, “What does that have to do with anything?” And that’s what you say when you’re hurt: “What does that have to do with anything?” But we have to get beyond our pain to get to the reality that we have caused pain, and that pain begets pain, as violence begets violence and terrorism begets terrorism. We have had a dealing hand in all those negative forces, whether it is in the name of freedom or in the name of imperialism and colonialism. And so we can’t expect our hands not to get burned.
PM: True. I don’t think most Americans realize that we killed more people—on accident—in Afghanistan and Iraq as we lost on 9/11. We’re talking civilians here.
SW: Just the fact that they were comparing 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. I’ve heard accounts that we lost around 1600 to 2000 people in Pearl Harbor, yet in our eventual retaliation to Japan we killed around half a million people—at first. The toll has since gone over a million because of radiation’s effect on ensuing generations. Even that alone is shocking. Think of what America has been responsible for, in regards to death, in regards to Native American genocide. And people will say, “What does that have to do with anything?” It has everything to do with everything, especially if you believe in cause and effect, in the way things move in this universe. It has a lot to do with everything.
PM: I think that mentality is part of the reason many other countries dislike us. We don’t seem to see the havoc we wreak, but we nevertheless magnify, sometimes to excess, the amount of damage inflicted upon ourselves.
SW: We give as long as there is something to take. We’ll give you some healthcare, but we want your gold and your diamonds. And not just some of it; we want to monopolize it.
PM: How has hip-hop influenced, if at all, the way you compose?
SW: You know, I definitely write in the mode of sampling. One of the greatest compliments I ever received came from a girl at a high school where I was doing a reading; she came up to me and said, “I really like your poetry. It sounds like a mixtape.” It was really sweet, and I got what she was saying, in that I’m blending ideas, rhythms, all types of things. It affects the nature of my writing, because hip-hop is still an attitude and point-blankness, you know?
PM: What poets, contemporary or historical, have had a major influence on your work?
SW: The biggest influences on my work, in that context, would have to be Hafiz and Rumi. Hafiz was a 12th century Persian poet whose name in Arabic means “One who remembers.” He knew the Koran by heart, he knew his poetry by heart; he was a spoken word artist, if you will. Poetry has always been recited aloud, but besides that, the lightheartedness and spiritual nature of Hafiz’s poetry has always been something that I’ve aspired to. And then there’s Rumi; I’ve been deeply influenced by him. His work is very inspiring. There are tons of poets, moving chronologically from the past to the present, that have inspired me.
PM: It seems like poetry used to be the most accessible art form. All you needed was a pen, some paper and about five minutes to get your thoughts out. But now there seems to be so much stimulus where people aren’t encouraged to be expressive in that way. Do you think something needs to be done to bring that kind of aesthetic back to the world?
SW: Nothing has to be done. It’s a matter of being, not a matter of doing. And it’s happening right now. Nothing needs to be done. Everything that’s being done—whether it’s killing some people, raping some land, putting on some MTV, numbing the consciousness—is exactly what’s going to make people wake the fuck up and start doing it. Kids across the world right now are writing poetry. Nothing has to be done, because it’s happening on its own, you know what I’m saying? People are waking up and realizing that they have to do it for reasons that they can’t even articulate. They are evolving on their own, as humanity is evolving on its own. All the bullshit that we see comes from the non-evolved part of humanity that wants to keep doing rather than being.
PM: Ah, so the issue is one of receiving, as we were saying before, being open to the world in order to understand it.
SW: Being mindful of your impact. Taking responsibility. Realizing the power that comes from being alive.