Poetry as design

Image Credit: Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)

The last time that Saul Williams and Black Spirituals shared a stage, the global ride-hailing corporation Uber had just announced it would expand its headquarters to Oakland—San Francisco’s relatively down-market, but doggedly resilient and resistant neighbor across the water. Decades of uneven development had made Oakland a site of both economic suffering and social refuge for many people of color, migrants, and other marginalized groups. Now, the announcement seemed to script the city’s next chapter as a leading location for the growth of the region’s high-technology (and high-inequality) economy and workforce. This narrative of rebirth had been penned years ago. But the news about Uber arrived like a cold breeze off the water from the west. The city—like any city, never of one mind—groaned and cheered all at once.

For many, the news sent anxieties about accelerating displacement into overdrive, calling forth the specter of “uber-gentrification.” After all, the developer behind the deal wasted no time snapping up three “underutilized” parcels in the area (read: beauty supply store, burger stand), promising to make them proper with market-rate housing (which would cost the typical household 70 percent of its income). Furthermore, the tech sector had been excoriated of late for under-hiring Blacks and Latinos relative to their rates of education in computer science and participation in the national workforce (let alone their residence in Oakland). This controversy came to signal a skirmish within a broader war, unfolding across the region, over the social and spatial positionality of precisely who is entitled to design, engineer, manufacture, hustle, pray, conjure, code, write urban futurity.

Williams and Black Spirituals reconvened on June 2nd—this time with local poet, actress, and playwright Chinaka Hodge—for the opening night of the Bay Area Book Festival in neighboring Berkeley. Titled “Poetry as Design,” the performance promised to collapse the binaries seemingly hard-wired into the logic and narrative of “uber-gentrification” as the progressive conquest of science over art, technology over soul and innovation over old.

Image Credit: Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)
Image Credit: Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)

Each of these artists, noted Zoé Samudzi—a curator with the Matatu Festival of Stories, which organized the event—was united by a common drive to undermine and manipulate dominant languages in order to unleash meaningful difference. It is this formative quality of language—the fact that, whether textual, musical or corporeal, it underlies and directs everything from ride-hailing apps to poetry to the raced, classed and gendered notions of the “good city” that drive inequitable development in Oakland—that gives art a politics, that makes poetry, potentially, an act of design. If language informs actions, enabling some, disabling others, then we must always ask: Which languages, whose languages, script the sensible?

Over the course of a 40-minute sonic ceremony, Black Spirituals, composed of percussionist Marshall Trammell and electronic multi-instrumentalist Zachary Watkins, gave new meaning to the notion of technological “wizardry.” Methodically gathering fields of noise from Trammell’s precise but evolving drum patterns and Watkins’s space-clearing synthetic drones, the duo conjured what amounted to an awe-inspiring electrical storm (creative destruction, Samudzi called it). Their elements—one hard and punctual, the other open and spacious—met and complemented each other like the earth and the heavens. When after 15 minutes the drums fell silent, dissolving the musical container, the distant reverb of the synthesizers, ceaselessly recirculating, rushed into the void like wind through a cavern; as if by synesthesia, Black Spirituals crafted an ethereal landscape of sound.

Image Credit: Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)
Image Credit: Benjamin Michel (KQED Arts)

Next, Hodge piloted the audience back to earth with poems contoured by the pleasures and pains of places she and her family have made home: West Oakland (before and after gentrification), Brooklyn (after Biggie), Kankakee, Illinois (known for its three K’s…).  Her work is ever attentive to urban geography as both place and narratives about place, each heavily contested, each informing the other. “I’m from West Oakland,” she stated. “We get a bad rap…And as we get a bad rap, we’re being replaced, as if our bodies never mattered, as if our stories never mattered.”

In response, she read two pieces from Dated Emcees (2016), her first published book of poems that narrate the neighborhood through its long-term residents. In “crude portraits of the Lower Bottoms,” she told of a beauty store where women decorate and deaden themselves “like pressed flowers,” rendering them pretty, but “easy to move.”  “what about the live rose with thorns / what about the dangerous beauties / americans never picked?,” she pondered. How might such bodies resist being contained or culled?

Finally, Williams took to the stage accompanied by Black Spirituals. In their second ever collaboration, he surfed through pages of poetry, serving up whole pieces without reading their names, or spitting choice lines, before going off-script in an improvisatory dialogue with Trammell and Watkins—truly a free style. For Williams, who regularly remixes the vocabulary of our digital age, this kind of poetic praxis is a powerful means to “override your history.”

Image Credit: Jessica Jones (KQED Arts)
Image Credit: Jessica Jones (KQED Arts)

“Dismantle definition dogma and duty,” he urged in “Coltan as Cotton.” “Hack into masculinity/femininity sexuality. What is taught? What is felt? What is learned? What is shared? Hack into God. Stories of creation: serpents and eggs.”

Throughout the performance, Williams posed a paradox, one familiar to the poet and the freedom fighter alike: How can one make anything new—make the “past die,” as he put it—while operating within codes inscribed before our time? And with this he issued a warning: The techno-utopianism typical of the Bay Area runs the risk of importing the systemic viruses of the past into the future social order. “It may have already,” he noted. “What does Uber pay its drivers?”

For that reason, Williams re-centered the audience on the importance of poetry as design, on divining ways of coordinating collective action that don’t depend on corporate-owned mobile apps or even things as basic as the Christian calendar (“I think the Church was the first start-up,” he mused). So what might a liberatory technology look like, a futurism of freedom?

“Got me thinking that maybe the past tense of ‘dream’ is ‘drum,’” he flowed during his freestyle. Or maybe “future conditional,” he corrected, after a beat.

Further Reading