Thursday, March 22, 2007

Hip-Hop Incantation

"When you commit your life to being a vessel as an artist, you witness magic." – Saul Williams

This week, I observed something that surprised me. If you had told me a couple of months ago that a poet would visit the performing arts center at Cullowhee and the hall would be filled with knowing fans making requests and cheering him on with standing ovations, I would have said you had the wrong country. I mean the last poet to reach a mass audience in America, was what…Rod McKuen? Shheeesh…

Poetry has been important to me to different degrees and in different ways at different times. There’s a joy of discovery. I can still feel the sunshine from a summer that I was immersed in the British Romantic poets. And then, whether it’s from writing poetry, reading poetry, hearing poetry or reciting poetry…one result is a kind of sharing with other people. Despite all that, I haven’t kept up with the contemporary poetry scene. I didn’t know much about Saul Williams.

I had heard enough to expect a charismatic presence when Williams took the stage. I didn’t expect that there’d be such a devoted following. More than the poetry itself, the whole evening was a curious scene. I walked in to find a seat, and a jazz trio was seated to the right side of the stage, jamming along. The trumpeter sat and played a muted horn, sounding a little like Miles Davis, while the bass player and the drummer kept the groove going. Then, some high school poets from all around the mountains got up and read their stuff. It was an encouraging thing to see. I thought anything to do with poetry would be "un-cool". The boys spoke in obligatory mumbles, so it was hard to hear much they said. Then a young woman from Asheville took the stage and riveted everyone’s attention with a powerful performance of her poem about cinnamon men. After that, several WCU poets recited their works and added to the creative buzz. Then a half dozen folks took the stage to perform a "Prelude for Saul." They’d been looking forward to this night for a long time.

Saul stepped into the spotlight and performed a poem or two and then started taking questions from the audience. And with each question, he would launch into an extended rumination on growing up in the seventies and eighties, or gender, or the Tao, or the goddess, or consciousness. He had plenty of interesting things to say. He did mention that the current resurgence of poetry reflects a hunger for the ancient. For at its roots, poetry is a spoken art. Pre-literate. In some ways that's how Saul Williams approaches it, steeped in the contemporary movements of the poetry slam and rap music.

Various articles about him say things like, "he’s not a gangster and he doesn’t bling. Meet Saul Williams, the World’s Hottest Lyricist." And "he has been hailed by British music bible 'New Musical Express' as no less than the hottest lyricist in the world. By any measure, it's a big rap. The only question is whether to believe the hype. Saul Williams first success came in 1998 with the release of critically acclaimed film 'Slam'. A story of a smart young guy who gets caught in a cycle of crime." He’s created books and recordings and it would not surprise me if he’s sold more of the latter than the former.

Myself, I’m more accustomed to the literary tradition of the poem on the page. The poetry at the heart of the present-day revival is a different matter, though. Williams himself said that he has no great love of words or language, at least not in the way you might imagine the literary poets would. He was, after all, trained as stage actor, learning Shakespeare from an early age. According to Williams, "If you've studied acting you realize the essence of acting is not acting. When James Earl Jones or Jack Nicholson walks on the stage they're not applauded because of how well they portray their character; they're applauded because of their presence. A very strong actor has a very strong presence before they say anything. That resonates through the recitation of a poem."

His poetry relies heavily on incantation, rhythm, pitch, and a dynamic, rapid-fire delivery that brings to mind gospel preachers and auctioneers as much as rappers. He talked of learning how to become yourself, and of finding and following your calling.

Looking back on the evening, it was a hopeful scene. Here was the hip-hop generation desiring something just as primal as gathering around the ancient campfire to listen to tales and to tell tales, to chant, to sing, to dance. To express themselves. To share. A space in time where the hunger for that is manifest, is a space in time I celebrate.

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