Spoken word pioneer Saul Williams on why poetry's surge in popularity is no surprise: 'We are gathering to something ancient'

Ahead of the American poet, rapper, musician, activist and actor performing at The Last Word Festival, he discusses genre-bending and why he's always got an eye on the next new venture 

Sarah Bradbury
Tuesday 26 June 2018 14:03 BST
Spoken word poet Saul Williams
Spoken word poet Saul Williams

“A lot of the excitement surrounding poetry in modern times is not so much that we’re inventing something new,” Saul Williams suggests to me over the phone from Los Angeles. “It’s more that we are actually gathering to something ancient.”

Getting into full swing is The Last Word Festival, an annual event at the Roundhouse in London devoted to the hottest artistic form around: spoken word. Now in its fifth year, the event is a bold marker of the increasing power of the medium to draw a mainstream crowd.

Headlining is Saul Williams, the acclaimed American poet, rapper, musician, activist and actor, alongside an eclectic and diverse lineup of established and emerging voices.

According to Williams, however, the recent attention given to spoken word as a distinct genre within the arts is more a return to something that has deep and rich roots in our society: “The resurgence of poetry is cyclical and perpetual. It’s always engaged a new generation of youth who have brought it back to the forefront of culture and put new terms on it, whether it’s beat poetry, bebop poetry, slam poetry – there’s always been these resurgences. But it’s ancient.”

A poetry slam at the Roundhouse as part of the Last Word festival

Williams’ prolific career has spanned the past two decades and includes leading roles in 1998 feature film Slam, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance festival and the Cannes Camera D’or, and 2013 Broadway musical Holler If Ya Hear Me featuring Tupac Shakur’s music, alongside six studio albums including 2007’s The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! He’s performed in more than 30 countries with musicians from Nas to The Fugees, De La Soul to Nine Inch Nails.

While the incarnations and labels of poetry have metamorphosed over time, and his own output bounced between creative spheres, Williams still prefers to define himself first and foremost as a poet.

For him, poetry as a tradition is actually synonymous with spoken word: “During the days of Homer, 90 per cent of Greece was illiterate. They didn’t read Homer, they listened to him speak.”

He points out that this was also the case with influential 14th century Persian poets such as Williams’ favourite, Hafiz: “His name means one who remembers, one who records. During his time there were people that would memorise the entire Quran.”

He does also acknowledge that for him, music and words have always been intrinsically linked, a fact reflected in the genre-blending of his work and the blurred lines of modern-day poetry: “I’m not certain that my love of the musicality of language would exist without a love and appreciation of music.”

Whichever form it may emerge in, in Williams’ experience, poetry has also always been at the forefront of social change, igniting social movements, and breaking boundaries and taboos: “I always think of how the Harlem Renaissance in America played such a huge role in calling into existence the civil rights movement, and how the beat poetry era did so much to call into existence the hippy and black power movement. Then there was the slam poetry movement. The Last Poets sold two million albums in 1970, which preceded the birth of hip hop.”

Williams suggests that poets play a key role in “coding and decoding culture” by “presenting shortcuts and new ways of juxtaposing ideas”. For example, he recalls first encountering the terms for intersectional connections between identity, race, class we use today when working on Slam in the late Nineties: “The terminology used to express the deconstruction of modern society, I found those terms and those people in poetry readings first.”

He relates this to the intense debates over semantics and labels on social media now: “All of this has to do with language, owning language.”

For his upcoming gig, Williams tells me he will draw from a “treasure trove” of material as well as his latest multimedia project, MartyrLoserKing, telling the story of how a hacker in Burundi became the most notorious in history when he hacked into Nasa.

Williams released his sixth album under the title in 2016, but he will also release two further albums and a graphic novel, and crowdfund a musical and film, Neptune Frost, as part of the initiative: “I’ve written music but never written a musical; I’ve written books of poetry but I’ve never written a graphic novel; I’ve been in films but I’ve never directed one. Everything I’m doing is a new venture.”

Williams is also on the judging panel of this year’s Poetry Slam competition at the festival, now in its 10th year – a role he expresses some anxiety about: “It’s really a difficult job simply because the process of expressing yourself in that manner is already courageous.

“But poetry was listed as a sport in the first Olympics – so there’s a tradition of that as well.”

While the defining lines of what constitutes spoken word may forever be challenged, there’s no doubting that we’re in the middle of a particularly potent moment for poetry as a form of expression.

“There’s definitely been a rekindling of an interest,” says Williams. “It’s being used more and more as a tool for all sorts of people to express themselves. More and more people have learned that it’s not just the ancient dead poets that are interesting but the living ones as well.”

Saul Williams is at the Roundhouse, London, 30 June; The Last Word festival continues till 4 July (roundhouse.org.uk)

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