Music » Music Stories

Plain Spoken

Saul Williams makes music out of language


For the average person, "spoken word" is not a good thing. It evokes images of people with mics, flannel shirts, strident voices and issues with their parents (or parent-substitute, the government). No thanks. Spoken word was pitched as a trend, hyped as poetry-meets-rock-&-roll. Suddenly, every coffeehouse had an open mic night, Lollapalooza had onstage poetry slams and the world got exposed to a lot of really, really bad poetry. The hype was a lie -- almost. Because out of the rubble, Saul Williams emerged.

"It is important to realize that poetry has always been recited," says poet/performer Williams. "That whole spoken-word thing being a 'craze' was absurd."

That's easy for Williams to say: He's left behind the other once-rising stars of the movement (seen Maggie Estep around recently?) to carve out his own niche somewhere between poetry and hip-hop and acting. In the eight years since he was discovered at an open mic night, he has co-written and starred in the film Slam, recorded a band-based album with legendary producer Rick Rubin, rapped with MC/god KRS-One and published two books of poetry (the most recent, Said the Shotgun to the Head, was published by MTV). Williams is the closest thing poetry has to a rock star, unless you count Jewel (and I don't). So Williams is promoting himself as one.

"It's important to reach people, and there are more people in record stores than bookstores," says Williams. "We're performing in rock venues, we're selling T-shirts at the show. Publishing with MTV. Everything a band would do, I'm doing."

This includes touring with the psychedelic hardcore band Mars Volta, whose debut album De-Loused in the Comatorium is forcing critics to find an adjective somewhere between "pretentious" and "bad-ass."

"I [toured with Mars Volta] this summer, with no band, and the first couple of shows were scary. Because I didn't know what to expect. It wasn't a question of whether I could hold my own doing poetry. But this is a completely new audience."

Now he knows that fans of a frankly strange band like Mars Volta might be interested in something different -- even poetry.

"Any group of people coming out to see Mars Volta are open," he says. "They're open to that next level of sound, of experience."

And an experience is what Williams brings to the stage. While Williams may dismiss the "spoken-word movement," his poetry is deeply attached to his delivery. Just as reading the lyrics to "Satisfaction" might fail to rock you thoroughly, reading Williams's poetry doesn't come close to capturing the barrage of syllables, images and phrases that gush from Williams when he performs: "And I be riding on the wings of eternity like/Hyah! Hyah! Hyah!/Sha-Clack-Clack!/But my flight doesn't go undisturbed/Because time makes dreams deferred/...Time is beating my ass." ["Sha-Clack-Clack, from Slam].

Rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, dissonance -- Williams employs all the little kinks of language that makes just listening to speech so captivating.

He doesn't want to downplay the importance of his written texts: "Poetry always, in my heart, always lives best on the page and on the stage," he says. "There's different powers. There's something that comes from someone reading it and making that eye/page/memory connection. Things tend to sink in in an interesting way."

But he admits that his poetry works best when he's reciting it. "It's like the difference between breathing in from your nose or your mouth," he says. "Either way there's a distinctive power. I think that perhaps the strongest power might be through hearing it. The same way that people listen to music and seeds are planted through hearing. Our process of hearing has a profound effect on us."

The process of performance also has a profound effect on Williams as well. On stage he seems transfixed, hypnotized. He spits staccato syllables, or twists and turns through fragments of thoughts so that a poem can seem like one long sentence.

"It's a pretty amazing experience," the poet agrees. "It's like [I'm] a vessel. The poetry comes through me."

It all comes down to the subconscious. While the immortal poets (the "old dead poets," as Williams refers, not dismissively, to John Keats) wrote verse that touches both the scansion-enthralled intellect and the soul; Williams's poetry goes straight for the inner mind, the lizard brain. Like many great rock songs, his poems may seem meaningless under close scrutiny, but strike you heavily in the moment.

"You can feel the passion. One thing I've learned about passion is that when you speak from the gut, there is no language barrier. That's something I learned about when I was touring with the film Slam in places like the Czech Republic and Japan, doing poetry readings to people who did not speak English as a first language, or did not speak English at all. But they were sitting at the edge of their seats. They can sense the passion of something that comes from the gut."

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