There's something special about the way Saul Williams weaves his words together to create prolific poetry. The artist was recently commissioned to write a book of poems about America, which he titled US (a.), and much like his other contributions to literature, US (a.) does not disappoint.
BuzzFeed had the chance to speak with Williams about the art of writing and ask questions about his process. Here's what he had to say:
In US (a.), you wrote about how you moved to Brazil when you were a teenager and even though people gave you advice to keep a journal, you didn’t want to. Why not?
Saul Williams: I just wasn't interested in that shit. People would be like, you're going where? For a year? Get a journal, man, write down whatever. And at the time I was just like, I don't have time for that shit. I got a camera, I got a Walkman, and I'm trying to meet girls. That's it. I used notebooks to write rhymes in at the time, but when someone told me to keep a journal at that point, I thought they were referring to some Dear Diary type shit. It wasn't my steeze.
Would you tell young writers to keep journals of their own?
SW: I would say to anyone, do it. Take a journal with you. If you have five days at the beach, collect some thoughts, internalize everything, and write it down. Because when you go back to that you may surprise yourself. I know I did, and now I've got 50 journals.
Do you still journal a lot?
SW: I don't journal a lot now; I've never really journaled in a formal way. I never have been like, “Today was a great day, here’s what I did…” I only capture epiphanies, ideas, and excerpt thoughts. Back in the ’90s when I was buying $5 journals at Urban Outfitters because I was required to keep a journal when I was at NYU, I just started writing lists. I’d write things like the top hip-hop albums of 1993, and then I’d also list the craziest shit I could think of, like a paraplegic dolphin, just to try and psych myself up in some weird way. Then journaling got fun because I realized I didn't have to do some Dear Diary type shit. And I didn't have a teacher looking over my shoulder. There was no assignment; if I didn't want to put punctuation, I didn't have to. I could create new punctuation marks, I could perfect my handwriting, I could chronicle my dreams, I could do whatever. When I started writing in that Urban Outfitters journal I used to keep, the first place I used to write was on the subway or in nightclubs. I wanted to keep a journal, but by the time I got home at 4 or 5 in the morning, it was time to crash and I had to be at school at like 8 a.m. But in nightclubs I'd be like, holy shit I love this song, the music was great and the inebriates were cool. I loved writing and dancing.
Why did you start performing your writing out loud?
SW: Someone invited me to a poetry reading, and when I say someone, I mean a girl that I thought was cute. I had just moved to New York for NYU so I needed to meet new people. I go to that thing and it's like, Mos Def, and all these great fucking poets. Some were more established at the time, but Mos was still Dante [Smith] — he was not Mos Def yet — and these guys all knew each other because they were from New York. This was an open mic — I'm talking mid-’90s, the birth of underground hip-hop and the slam scene — and I saw these guys go up there with their journals, and they were like, “This is something I was just thinking about the other day.” It took me maybe six months to find the perfect poem to read. The first time I did a poetry reading, I didn't actually read from my journal. I had written my first poem that was called “Amethyst Rocks” and it felt great. I was used to acting and reading other people's material, but here I was reading this material I had written and getting to see the room's reaction.
How did that experience change your writing?
SW: After that first performance, I had a lot of different opportunities. A lot of people came up to me and gave me great offers. One person asked me to open for Allen Ginsberg at a reading he was doing at NYU two months from then. Someone else asked me to open for Gil Scott-Heron. I also got asked to open for the Fugees, KRS1, Mos Def, and I did ’em all. So I was like, this journal is great. I don't know if I would've stuck with journaling the same way if I hadn't had so many experiences that made it feel so worthwhile.
What advice would you give to a new writer who has a story to tell but doesn’t really know how to get started?
SW: For people who feel like they have a story to tell, I think of Stephenie Meyer who wrote the Twilight series. Yes, I read them. I have kids; I want to know what they're reading. She's a good example because she's someone who just decided to fucking lock themselves in a room with her kids running around and write down the story that she dreamt about. One of the hardest things about writing is actually sitting down and writing. I definitely have a hard time with that. When it comes to writing, do it. Just force yourself to do it; give yourself a day or a weekend. I think the harder question is not for the person who feels like they have a story to tell but for the person who wants to write and they don't know what to write or they feel blocked. You may feel you have this story to tell, but when you start to write it, you think that's not that interesting or I could write this better. Also, acknowledge your diet. Your diet is not just what you eat, it's what you read, what you watch, what you listen to, and who you follow on your timeline. Shift your diet up in any way. Trip your shit up. Think about, how do we break away from the normal shit that we click on? We all try it and think, “Oh, that’s interesting,” but we should go deeper and deeper. The deep web wasn't fucking created on the internet; the deep web has always existed, and that's what has always fed me.
How would you suggest to become a better writer?
SW: I think that great writing is reflective of great reading. Reading is crucial — it is so crucial to anyone who wants to qualify as a writer. For me, I really think it's crucial to throw yourself off your usual, comfortable way of looking at things, and literature is a great way to do that. I used to go to this independent bookstore on Bleecker Street and Houston when I was at NYU, and in the back of the bookstore it was really crowded with a lot of books. I'd stomp my foot down to see what fell, and whatever book fell is what I would buy. The best book I got that way, and the first one I got, was Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes, and that book actually influenced my writing tremendously. I was literally like, whatever falls from these fucking shelves is what I'm reading this weekend. And it's shit like that that's important, it's the challenges you give yourself. Those windows or vortexes that open allow huge streams of consciousness and awareness when you break away from your norm. The great thing about writing is it's never too late. Maya Angelou's first book didn't come out until she was 42. Charles Bukowski was working in a post office until he was 35. If you really feel it, then fucking go for it, but please do us a favor and just read up.