Paul Beatty is prepared to take his place as a voice of a generation. Persistently labeled a hip-hop poet, Beatty’s poetry pushes the boundaries of free verse while assessing the landscapes of African American autobiography. His words articulate themselves with persistent flurries of cadence and tempo. His page becomes a map composed of line and phrase, suggesting a blueprint of the poet’s psyche. A veteran of the spoken word scene, Beatty’s second collection, Joker, Joker, Deuce is already receiving the critical acclaim his first collection, Big Bank Take Little Bank, reaped.
Christian Haye How do you feel about being called a “hip-hop poet”?
Paul Beatty I don’t know. I think it’s a very shallow label. My work is influenced by hip-hop, whatever hip-hop is, but I don’t think it’s hip-hop poetry. To me, that’s just an easy way of categorizing a young male blah, blah, blah. I also know that people do see it for what it is, so it doesn’t really bother me. That’s their bug, and I try not to let it block me at all. I can’t always be around when somebody’s saying that I’m a hip-hop poet.
CH It’s an easy way to classify black poets, just as black. We can’t just say they’re great poets. So they say they’re the Byron of blues, or this is the funk master of phrase. (laughter) You can cakewalk through this Paul Laurence Dunbar poem.
CH Something that struck me early on with what you write is that your poetry, especially for a black poet, takes a very apolitical stance. In “About the Author,” for example, you’ll be talking about Angela Davis and her hair, instead of what she was saying.
shut off the tv and went to see angela davis speak
niggas was geeked expecting to see the famed afro of death
a medusa redbone natural the circumference of the sun
filled with grenades and guns
rising burn baby burn
over the horizon of the lectern,
and then she entered stage right
with an alternative hairstyle
thickassed light brown dreadlocks
humboldt county bud looking
twisted clumps of hair
oozing from her skull
she looked so tranquil
everybody looked at each other all quiet
and we thought to ourselves oh fuck the revolutions dead
PB I don’t know if I’m apolitical. I’m political to the point that I present myself as concerned. I get pissed off and shit.
CH It’s on a personal level, not sociological.
PB I feel it’s too easy to attack shit, and rant, and rave. One of the first criticisms I got was from Steve Cannon. He was like, “When are you just going to attack America?” I thought about it a little and said, “Fuck that.”
CH: In “At Ease,” you say, “How does it feel to read in front of all these white people?” You reply with almost a non-answer. You quote Carole King, “I feel the earth move under my feet,” and then refer to (Mad Magazine’s) Al Jaffee.
PB You see that as a non-answer? That’s interesting.
CH Outside of the poem, how would you answer that question?
PB Sometimes you can feel like you’re in a minstrel show. It depends on where you are, who asked you to read, etc. You can feel like you’re tap-dancing up there sometimes. If you’re at a primarily white venue, it might surprise you what they pick up on and what they respond to, and sometimes that feels good. I don’t know too many poets of color, myself included, who would not like it to be a more integrated forum in terms of the audience. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe can be that sometimes, but it’s really not as much as certain people want to believe that it is. But even with an integrated audience, you’re never going to get the feeling of reading in front of a mostly black audience. It’s that whole vibe, where everybody’s tripping on the little subtleties of language and phrasing and imagery. It’s never going to feel like that. But I don’t feel like I’m necessarily selling out because I read in front of white people.
CH How was it touring around the country with the Nuyorican Poets this summer?
PB See, Christian, you can get me in trouble. (laughter)
CH You can take the high road, and just tell me how…
PB Oh, it was great. (laughter) Let me say it’s been OK. It was definitely better than getting up at nine in the morning. What I realized is that I have never been a team person. I’m not a destructive person, but I do not want to put myself under any banner too quickly. When we first started out everybody was like, “We’re the Nuyorican Poets,” and I was like, “Fuck that.” I’m here, this is a great opportunity, it’s kind of fun, I get to travel and make a tidbit of money. At first I didn’t really think I’d fit in, because I don’t do that whole performance thing that almost all of them do. I was like, “Oh, shit, my shit’s not going to work.” But I haven’t found that’s happened, actually, I think the response has been really good. People are struck by the variety of presentations and voices, which is good. But, another part is the labeling. There’s an advantage to bringing all of these people together, because an audience comes out, but at the same time, I don’t think that you always get a chance to really hear a person’s voice. Instead, it turns into a variety show; you know, Donnie, Marie and so on. It’s kind of weird; everybody’s fighting over where the mike is going to be and what lights they should have on. That shit irks me. Then I see that people have different reasons for why they’re there in the first place. We do these little community things—very small, twenty people in the place—then some poets say, “I just want to be on TV and make a record.” And I get pissed because I think that’s so shallow, especially if these are people who are supposed to be political. I don’t think they’ve really thought about what it means to present art in different forms, what it means to totally embrace being on TV.
CH I understand the need to go to tape and video and Internet, but where are the books? That’s supposed to be the foundation, and a lot of these people don’t even read the work that’s out there.
PB And Christian, it’s like everyone throws up the quick, “oral tradition, oral tradition.” Fuck that. We’re allowed to write now. (laughter)
CH What did you think about doing that 60-second poetry spot on MTV?
PB That was rough.
CH I overheard Maggie Estep saying that she had to do it in 30 seconds, and she kept on reading faster and faster and still it wasn’t under the time limit. (laughter)
PB I couldn’t do any of that. I made concessions like doing the Abbott and Costello poem…
Why That Abbott and Costello Vaudeville
Mess Never Worked with Black People
who’s on first?
i don’t know, your mama
…and it doesn’t work because they present the poem without the title. The title is very important to the poem. But they didn’t realize that, so they put it up there as a graphic. Then you get the poem, and it just doesn’t work. Everybody’s just, “Oh, that’s funny, you said ‘yo’ mama.”
When I did it, I literally read it off the page. I walked around the room waving my arms, cameras rolling and shit. I’m like, “Well, you all have to work with it or else. I don’t need the money that bad.” So, we did it, and taped the poem to the camera. It’s funny to watch them think around this piece of paper. The one thing they can’t do is film you reading. “Oh no, you can’t do that. That’s too static.” It was interesting to watch them say, “What do we do about this fucking piece of paper?”
CH What, paper? It’s the ’90s.
PB It’s so funny, man. I did it so I could live with myself. I don’t feel totally great about it, but I didn’t feel like I compromised myself too much.
CH I saw Max Blagg reading at the Public. He got up before he read and said, “Sorry about the Gap ad, but it paid my rent.”
PB You never know. Somebody’s going to offer you some money to do something, and you don’t know what you’re going to do.
CH I remember sitting down to dinner once with Allen Ginsberg and a few other people. Allen turns to me, the only black guy sitting at the table, and asked, “Who are the new black poets? Who are they? Who are they?” He takes a little pad and a pen…
PB And writes down names and stuff?
CH Yeah, and I said, “Willie Perdomo, Patricia Smith, Paul Beatty…” and he goes, “Paul, Paul Beatty? He was a student of mine. Did you know that? He was a student of mine.” (laughter) Yes, yes, I knew that. Allen calm down, you’re famous, you know. You’re known all over the world…
PB Brooklyn College was really funny. My first year there was really horrible. I had this one woman who did not like me, nor my work. I remember one time going up to her, the year was pretty much over, and she says. “Paul, if your writing doesn’t improve, you should probably think about quitting and doing something else.” (laughter) But Lou Asekoff, another professor, saw something in my work. He gave me this Ray Bremser book that helped me shape my layout and fuck with the words. That book definitely helped me start thinking about form. It helped me tame the shit a little. He gave me the encouragement I really needed. The next year, I was in Allen’s class. He has so much sway, so if he says he likes something, then everybody else likes it. You don’t ever know if he’s responding to you as a person, or your poem. Me being there was interesting in terms of not getting any feedback from people. Or feedback that I could relate to. There really were no other black folks there until Allen started doing this rainbow thing where he started bringing in people.
CH In the faculty?
PB Oh, no. There was no black faculty at all. The literature classes were ten times worse than the program, but Allen brought in David Henderson, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks and all these people. His initial thing was, “Oh, we’re all the same,” but then from reading my work and hearing my attitude, he was like, “Maybe there is some difference.” I think it actually helped open up his ear a little bit to shit that he had heard before, but in a different way. Christian, what do you think is going to happen with all the spoken word stuff? (laughter) Do you know? Do you care?
CH In a way, I don’t care. The entire way it’s being produced—emphasizing the poet over the poetry, personality over product—reduces it to a fad, unfortunately.
PB It reminds me of the whole “Nuyo-records” thing. That the Poets Cafe started a record company before they did a publishing thing says something right there. When I was invited to read in Germany, they were just waiting on this whole spoken word thing. Me and one of the other poets didn’t get along very well. He was kind of power mad. As soon as they say “multicultural,” they act like everybody involved is the best of friends.
CH That kind of pairing seems more like a minstrel show than anything else. At that point, it’s not about the work. It’s about, we have this voice, we have that voice.
PB And then people get surprised when you critique the pairings. A lot of people organize these tours. I feel a sense of ownership there, almost as if the poets should be indebted to them. A lot of these poets were in obscurity for a long time. These poetry curators really saw something and it’s important that they did. They saw that poetry could be presented in a mass-marketing kind of way. They saw that poetry had something to add to the world, but they also feel that they’re owed.
CH Even if you got more people to read poetry, people still don’t criticize poetry—published or not.
PB You can rarely read a bad review of a poetry book. There just hasn’t been any critical writing about the whole spoken word stuff, about all the things we’re discussing. It’s still new in that regard.
CH Have you run into a situation where people who have read your book dismiss it for being spoken word?
PB I don’t think so. Actually, I’ve come across some pretty good things. I remember when Big Bank Take Little Bank first came out. I ran into a couple of people who liked it, but had problems dealing with the language, because the language is so unfamiliar to them.
CH When Eileen Myles reviewed Patricia Smith’s book in the Voice Literary Supplement, she talked about her as a slam poet. I thought that was strange. What does that mean to the person who is reading the review and has never seen her? How does that explain how her poetry is different?
PB I flipped through her book and thought, “Man, all these things are the same goddamn length.” From what I can tell, she writes with this three minute time limit. She’s a good writer, but she definitely lets the format shape her poetry.
CH Exactly. She’s turned slam into a poetic form.
PB It’s weird when people start writing to the audience. That’s such a bad thing to me. It’s easy to tell somebody what they want to hear. I heard somebody say the other day, after three years of being in the scene, “I’m finally going to start writing what I want to write.” I just wanted to ring the bell. (laughter)
CH Now, why is this bio at the back of Joker, Joker, Deuce so skimpy? “Paul Beatty was born in L.A. and currently lives in New York City.”
PB I never know what I’m supposed to say. What do most of them say? Anyway, I don’t think they’re going to go. “Oh, he only said this. I better reread these poems and see who this guy really is.” (laughter)