SAUL WILLIAMS
interview and illustration by vinnie baggadonuts

FOR ALMOST THE ENTIRE HALF-HOUR I CHATTED WITH SAUL WILLIAMS, I FORGOT I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A JOURNALIST OF SOME SORT. I WAS MORE INTERESTED IN PICKING HIS BRAIN, ASKING ABOUT SPIRITUALITY, COMMUNICATION, AND EXPRESSION. HE'S A MAN WHOM I RESPECT MORE THAN ALMOST ANYONE I'VE EVER INTERVIEWED. TOO BAD I KINDA KILLED THE MOOD BY ASKING THE TYPICAL "DOG LIPS" QUESTION. SORRY ABOUT THAT, SAUL. YOU DESERVED A MUCH BETTER ENDING. READ ON, MY CHILDREN, BECAUSE THIS IS A GOOD ONE.

Vinnie: Before asking any questions, I gotta tell you-- this is totally unprofessional-- but Iím a little bit nervous talking to you.

Saul: Why?

V: Iím very intimidated by intelligence.

S: Well, you got nothing to worry about here.

Both: (laugh)

V: Well, I really appreciate and respect what you do. I remember this thing you wrote for Urb magazine, about your love for the written word. You donít hear people talking about the written word in our culture much anymore.

S: Well, hereís what we should do: We need to formulate the whole-- well, maybe not the interview itself, but the way it's documented, from the perspective of you hate me, and I won you over.

V: (laughing) Alright. Let me start it that way then.

S: (laughing) Okay.

V: Iíll start over. Should I call you ďMr. WilliamsĒ then, to make it seem more hateful?

S: (laughing) No. Please call me Saul.

V: Alright. Well, this is starting off kind of odd anyway, because your work is very confident and very serious. But here we are, having laughed this entire time. Do people make a misconception about you, that youíre serious all the time?

S: Oh, Iím sure they do. I think right now Iím on somewhat of a humor mission. Iíve just been laughing a lot, enjoying it. But Iíve always laughed a lot. So, yeah. I donít think it has anything to do with other people, though. It has to do with me. Itís all in how you carry yourself. You carry yourself as serious to be taken seriously. And thatís cool. But I can sometimes be taken as a comedian. Perhaps more readily.

V: Well, your new book is out (, said the shotgun to the head.), and, man, itís amazing. I think it took me two or three reads to figure out what it was doing to my brain. (laughs) Thereís just so much going on, it felt like it was painting inside my head.

S: Wow!

V: Every now and again I would have to stop, because certain parts just made me want to paint!

S: Wow. Thatís beautiful!

V: And I think that, for me, the book was different from your album (Amethyst Rock Star) or your previous book, She, because it was talking about a lot of things Iíve been thinking about lately-- questions of spirituality-- who is ďGodĒ, and things like that. Iíve never been a very religious or spiritual man. But, lately, Iíve been trying to understand more things and answer more of my own questions about such things, and your book opened up little doors.

S: Actually, the book is, in many ways, a collection of questions. And it doesnít really aim to pose any serious answers. Answers are usually there for you to accept or refuse, which, either way, it doesnít really matter. What really matters is that the individual reader begins to raise questions for themselves. You know? And in that respect, it serves somewhat as a bit of a Trojan horse. (laughs)

V: Yeah?

S: Itís really there to encourage you to write your own book.

V: Well, what triggered you to start writing this book?

S: Um,.. I donít know. I started it three years ago, right around the time I was ending She. And I was just working on a new poem. I wasnít thinking of it as a book. I was just writing a new poem that began with the first page of the book-- ďCitizens, children of the night,..Ē-- and having no idea what it was. But I knew that I meant to incorporate a lot of the ideas that I had touched on in all my earlier pieces. I was looking to write some sort of piece that was inclusive of many of my beliefs. And I aimed for it just to be a poem that was going to document where I was at that time.

V: Yeah?

S: That was four years ago, and I was writing and writing, and it turned into,.. (pauses) somehow I ended up talking about Kali. I knew that I was writing about a female messiah. Somehow, that messiah turned into Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and creation. Then 9/11 happened, and she (Kali) was perfectly in place.

V: The page where the man and woman meet in the towers, I think that was a transition for me in the book, where it was literally like 9/11-- this dramatic turn, where the questions seem to shift gears a bit. In the beginning thereís this discovery, where the man is proclaiming heís seen God, heís experienced God.

S: Right.

V: And then, in the buildings, itís the same thing: heís experiencing God, only thereís destruction all around him.

S: Exactly!

Both: It was--

V: Go ahead.

S: No, go ahead.

V: Well, it had a bit of a physical effect on me. The same way a movie is supposed to have some sort of effect on you with all their massive special effects. But it never really works because youíre so desensitized to it.

S: Yeah. I wrote that piece a couple of months after 9/11. Maybe four or five months after it sunk in a bit. And it was a writing exercise I gave to myself based on,.. (pauses) you know, I saw those people jumping and holding hands as they fell, and I just wanted to write a little something in honor and in connection to them, because thereís something so beautiful about that.

V: Yeah.

S: To see those people holding hands, thereís something really beautiful about that. So, there was that image, and the realization of what the word ďkamikazeĒ meant-- ďdivine windĒ. The whole idea of these two people meeting each other, falling in love, and never saying a word. And then, the first time they physically touch, they brush shoulders, the first boom happens, and they have associated it with themselves.

Both: (laugh)

S: Good old chemistry.

V: Which is absolutely human, too. When youíre in love, you tend to feel like the whole world happens for you.

S: Yeah. Itís pretty crazy.

V: So, you mentioned Kali. Did you study different religions?

S: Yeah, on my own. Iíve just always been interested by it. I guess my latest interest has been in just spirituality, and spiritual practice. And in searching for the spiritual practice that suits me best, Iíve often pulled from different religious practices. I find that a lot of what suits me comes from Hinduism and Buddhism, as many of us do. I think we pull from the East a great deal. Itís almost like we had a team of experts in the field of spirituality, and we sent them to the East and said, ďOkay, you guys, work on that.Ē They did a great job. We can benefit ourselves by looking to the East for greater understanding and depth of our spiritual connection to reality.

V: Yeah.

S: And itís funny, because the word ďdisorientedĒ-- which is what the West has become--

Both: (laugh)

S: --actually means ďturned away from the East.Ē

V: Really?

S: ďOrientĒ means ďEastĒ, and ďdisorientedĒ means ďturned away from the East.Ē

Both: (laugh)

S: And thatís what the book is all about: disorientation. I love the quote at the beginning of the book by Paul Robeson: ďThe man who accepts Western values so absolutely finds his creative faculties so warped,.. he takes his own life.Ē

Both: (laugh)

V: See, I loved the quote below it, from Eduardo Galeano. (ďI canít sleep. There is a woman stuck between my eyelids. I would tell her to get out if I could. But there is a woman stuck in my throat.Ē)

S: Oh, yeah!

V: Iíd never heard of him before, and--

S: Whoo!

V: Man!

S: Get that book! The Book of Embraces.

V: Really?

S: Oh my God!

V: Is there an English translation of it? When I looked him up, all I could find were Spanish versions of his books.

S: Oh, itís in English, for sure. You will be so thankful.

V: (laughs)

S: You will be so very thankful.

V: Was he someone you just discovered? Or did someone say, ďHey, Saul! You should really check this out.Ē

S: Someone said, ďSaul, you should really check this out.Ē

V: (laughs)

S: Twice! It happened to me twice! The first time, it was over a year ago. A stranger walked up to me at a poetry reading and said, ďYou know, youíve moved me a lot, and this is something else thatís moved me. And I want to connect the two of you." So he handed me a book of his (Galeano). I think it was called Upside Down. Iím not sure. But, I read that book, and couldnít believe it! And then I ended up giving it away to a friend. And then, right when I finished , said the shotgun to the head., and was looking for another quote, a friend of mine who I was doing a play with told me the quote thatís in the book. And I was like, ďWhere is that from?!?Ē I couldnít believe it. And it was a really crazy time because I mentioned something that she had been looking for at the same time. So we drove to a bookstore right then and there, and I found The Book of Embraces. Found that poem on page 92.

V: So, you were already in the midst of writing , said the shotgun,.. when you found this quote?

S: Oh, I was done.

V: You were done with it completely?

S: Yeah. Can you hold on one second?

V: Yeah.

[SAUL TALKS TO SOMEONE IN THE ROOM]

S: Hello.

V: Hello?

S: My girlfriend wants to know if I want to battle Wyclef tonight.

Both: (laugh)

S: Oh, God,...

V: Are you?

S: I have to call when Iím done with this. Talk to him and see. Iíve never met him.

V: Oh, really? Do you get a lot of calls like that? (laughing) Where artists are like--

S: (laughing) --ďDo you wanna battle somebody?Ē Thatís hilarious.

V: I forget what I was even asking you.

S: Quotes?

V: Quotes. Well, the reason I ask you that is, earlier this month, I had a similar situation where I interviewed a musician who placed a quote in his album. He had written a song with a title similar to lines from the quote, and both the song and the quote expressed the same sentiment. But he had discovered the quote after he had written the song.

S: Well, thatís something I do experience a great deal of-- pure synchronicity. Which, in all of its purity and simplicity, would appear to be very complex to those outside of my world. I experience a great deal of synchronicity on a level that some people might call miracles.

V: Really?

S: I guess maybe because I aim to experience it, but also because I know itís there. And so I just tune in. But thereís always a great deal of synchronicity.

V: Such as?

S: Oh, gosh,.. I donít know. (laughing) I could never,.. in this forum, I canít think of any stories I could tell you that Iíd want to put out there.

Both: (laugh)

V: I donít have to print it. Iím just personally curious.

S: No, no. Itís just in synchronicity of, like, people Iíve met and when and how we met and what we were both thinking of beforehand when we bumped into each other-- those sorts of things happen all the time. Books falling off of shelves in bookstores, that wind up being these books that change my life. I came across Terra Nostra like that. Carlos Fuentes. Every time a Radiohead album comes out, the songs speak directly to where I am in my life.

V: Yeah, I can understand that. I can relate. As I get older, I notice it more. So, with writing the book, have you had a chance to write anymore music at all?

S: Oh, tons! Hold on one second. I want to make sure this isnít the next interview. Hold on one moment.

V: Okay.

[SAUL TAKES A CALL ON THE OTHER LINE]

S: Hello.

V: Hello?

S: Sorry about that.

V: Itís okay.

S: What were you saying?

V: Music. New music.

S: Oh! A great deal. I mean, I wrote the book over the course of four years. I wrote my album during that time, and a bunch of stuff. The book was not the only thing I was working on. It was after 9/11 that I realized that the poem I was working on was indeed a book. Thatís when the focus really came in. Before that, it was just a poem I was working on. I had no idea what the length would be, or what it would turn into. As is the case with many poems. So, yeah, over the course of time I worked on lots of music. I actually just wrote a song called ďShotgunĒ, which is strange, because I donít think it really has any connection to the book.

V: So, are you going to release another album?

S: Oh, yes. For sure.

V: Over the last few years, have you changed significantly as a person, so much so that it will be evident on the new record?

S: Well, of course I changed. Significantly? I think that itís not necessarily the changes that show. But you grow to, as I was saying earlier, express more of yourself. Be yourself in greater depth. So, perhaps my sense of humor might become apparent. As it was not in the earlier stuff. You know? And, someone might wrongly characterize that as a change in me.

V: Yeah.

S: And in a sense it is, though, a change in me, because Iím growing more comfortable, perhaps, in the public eye-- revealing more of myself. But on the other hand, itís really more of just sharing myself in greater depth. And thatís not always the most serious. Although there is much to be said about humor.

V: Yeah. See, thatís interesting that you bring that up, because thatís something that Iím struggling with myself. When did you become more comfortable revealing bits and pieces of yourself to the public? Was there ever a point in your life where you were absolutely terrified of sharing things with people?

S: No, there was never a point. I never planned on it initially, because my plan had always been to grow up to be an actor. And I never really planned on writing vehicles for myself when I was having those plans. So, it was always just a matter of being an actor. Not until the shift happened and I started writing poetry and all that, did I realize that with that came myself being an open book, and the importance of that for me, with the work that I aimed to do.

V: Yeah.

S: That is for me to remain as open as possible.

V: Yeah. Is there ever a point where you write a line, or an entire poem, and you think to yourself, ďOh, I donít know if I should share this.Ē

S: Yeah. Thatís usually when it involves someone else. Because I have to acknowledge that not everyone is on the same path as me. And thatís especially important with intimate relations and what have you.

V: Yeah, I know. I wondered about that, because thereís an overall tone of confidence in everything youíve done. You just sound very confident.

S: Well, thatís interesting. I sound confident because I donít think itís mine. I feel like Iíve been used as a vessel by the greater aspects of the universe. I feel spoken through. And so my confidence is that. Having experienced writing something down and looking at it and saying, ďWhere the hell did that come from? I donít know anything about that! That is so much greater than me.Ē Having had that experience, the confidence itself is really in the power of the universe, and in the fact that these sorts of mysteries do occur.

V: Yeah.

S: These phenomenons do occur. And so thatís my confidence. So itís not a confidence in myself, more so itís a confidence that these things are greater than myself. And thus they will always remain.

V: When I first heard your stuff and saw Slam, I thought, ďWow. He has no self-doubt!Ē

S: In that level, I guess there is none. Although, at the same time, She was full of self-doubt. But thatís what that book was about.

V: Yeah. But, see, I think you expressing that, though, is a sign that youíve dealt with that. You're saying, "This is a part of my life that has happened."

S: Hmmm,.. well, I guess it all manifests itself in the part of my life that has nothing to do with books and movies, (laughs) and everything to do with personal relationships and all that. Thatís where all the self-doubt is.

Both: (laugh)

V: Okay. I gotta let you go, because they said you have a bunch of interviews lined up. But first, what else do you have coming out that youíd like to tell everyone about?

S: Oh, what would I like to plug?

V: Yeah.

S: The book. Itís all about the book right now. When the music comes out, it comes out, and weíll do a new interview. But itís all about the book. Iím very excited about it, and I really hope people pick it up and take the time to read it. You know, weíve gone through all the trouble of making it look interesting and everything. And, for some reason, someone might pick it up.

V: I think itís one of the better things Iíve read in the last couple years.

S: Thank you.

V: And youíre going to tour?

S: As of this weekend, Iíll be gone, on the road.

V: With Mars Volta?

S: Part of the time with Mars Volta, part of the time alone. Lots of touring. Iím actually promoting the book like itís an album. Iím doing rock venues and touring with rock bands. Next week Iím doing Harvard with Dead Prez!

V: Oh wow!

S: Yeah. It should be crazy.

V: Okay. I have one absolute final question for you. We ask everyone this question. Itís totally random, but weíve been arguing about it for four years. Do dogs have lips?

S: Do dogs have lips?

V: Yeah.

S: (pauses) Yes, they do.

V: Excellent.

READ OUR SECOND INTERVIEW WITH SAUL HERE.

VISIT SAUL HERE.

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