In the mid 90’s Saul Williams helped change the landscape of delivering and reciting poetry. In his own defense he’d prolly cite folks I’m overlooking as equally influencial as himself, but I make the statement because I saw the change take place first hand. The first live performance of his I saw was around the release of 1998’s Slam. He appeared on stage at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, a huge music hall packed to the rafters with young people trying to figure out how to write and express themselves as richly as he could. He was enthralling. And it wasn’t as if he had a huge, diverse body of work. But what was so special about him?
His voice as a writer/poet is wholly unique; he plays language as hip-hop/jazz fusion. Words and images bounce off one another in huge, intergalactic explosions of imagery and ideas. If people miss his abstract/painterly metaphors, they certainly remain hooked for his heartfelt, electric delivery. His writing samples history and philosophy in hip hop lyricism. He validated backpack MC’s and introduced them to performance poets and vice versa, crossfading audiences of both. You may not understand what is being said, but your third eye does. He’s a kind of conjurer who you’d think could manifest something out of thin air just from the way he whips his body and language through time and space.
I could not sit and read his work on the page. But I could listen to him for… ok, it would be hyperbole to say ‘hours’. A half hour after midnight in a packed room is more than enough.
Last week was my second time ever seeing him live. I did not buy a ticket and barely wanted to go. One of his opening acts called and said she put me on the guest list. I couldn’t say no. As happy as I would have been to stay home, I went anyway. A couple of blocks from the venue, she called and sullenly said: The show won’t start before 9:30. I was already more than an hour and half early.
Saul had been performing music for a while, and I thought the night would include his band, but I was wrong. The stage was set with a dj and some mics. This would be a superstar reading– akin to Bukowski or Beat readings from decades ago where it was just One Name reading to a packed room of dedicated followers. I was naturally one of the first to arrive, found a seat above the stage on the balcony. By the time the show got underway, the main floor beneath me was packed as a bag of marbles. The show that occurred was powerful in ways I’m not sure I can articulate.
A group of high school poets opened, performing two poems in unison. All eight members shouted their poems quickly– running through them not for meaning, but speed. The sound was overwhelming and as their elder, I’d say it was nice, but it didn’t leave me with anything. The kids hit the expected tropes on race and history and black pride, but their delivery made the poem sound as if they were repeating one long word with its letters crunched together. But they came, they killed, they got off stage. There ya go.
My friend who invited me is a storyteller and her performance grounded the energy in the room. She did an amazing long story-poem daringly about the Bible, religion and faith. The audience listened like a classroom, not a bunch of drunken revelers, and soberly received her. Her piece felt more like a sermon, and for many performers after her, that sense remained. A sense of confession, of being honest. I was nearly brought to tears by a performer from South Africa, Theobikile. A young brother, Donte Clark had a piece that started so quietly I wondered if he was stoned when he started. By the time he finished, his piece also was very sermon-like and the room caught emotional fire. Same said for the brother Amir who did some very strong pieces and then stopped his set, compelled to tell us a story about one of his older poems, Danger. That story was as good as his poems and I could have sat listening to him all night.
But Saul was the reason we were here. He came out on stage with no real fanfare, just a bag of old fashioned printed poems (on paper, unlike the two performers who I noted read from their cell phones placed on music stands). He said this was all new stuff and combed through his work, with old grandfather glasses and picked stuff out at random. We stayed with him and would have let him do anything for us. He stopped mid set to hug a woman in the front row, then told a cool story about how he met her.
It was a glorious night that I’m grateful I got to see. Didn’t realized the friend who invited me was gonna offer me a ride home after the show. I’d listened to Saul a solid half hour and thought, if I don’t take the next bus leaving in 10 minutes, I’d wait another hour or dig in for a taxi. I felt full and grateful. I told a stranger leaving before me, Make sure you write. I came home and did the same thing.