by Saul Williams (Gallery Books)
Don’t call it an anthology. Poet and hip-hop artist Saul Williams would rather you think of his new book as a literary mixtape.
I love Willams’ mind — his humor, vitality, and surprising ideas, like the time he made an album with Trent Reznor, an unlikely a pairing that yielded The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, one of the sickest albums of 2007. So when he said that this collection of 90-some poems by as many poets wasn’t an anthology in the usual sense, I was more than willing to go there with him. It just took me a moment to understand what he meant.
Williams collected the poems by putting out a call on Twitter and, with the help of co-editors Dufflyn Lammers and Aja Monet, culled his selections from the 7,000 submissions he received in response. Unsurprisingly, most of these poets are young-to-youngish, up-and-coming or recently-got-there. You might know some of their names already: The wonderful spoken word artist Andrea Gibson is in here, along with Staceyann Chin, a well-published poet and performer who co-wrote and performed in the Broadway version of Def Poetry Jam. A number of these poets are performers, in fact, which gives the book a unique character among dead-trees poetry. Williams has harnessed the electricity of a stage performance and put it on the page, and the book fairly crackles with it.
But this isn’t the only thing that makes Chorus unusual. Throughout the book proper each poem is identified with a number rather than its title and author, and in the list of titles and authors that appears at the end, no numbers are given. This means that matching a poem with the person who wrote it takes some doing, which, over time, has the interesting effect of making the identity of the individual poets feel much less important than their participation in the work as a whole. You get the sense that if one were missing, the rest would suffer, a feeling not of jockeying for attention but of already having found a place: a collaboration, a community, a chorus.
Moderato cantabile, the book wittily suggests on its opening page, and some of the work really does evoke the feeling of poetry as song. Queen Godis’ “KinShip,” to give one example, sounds like tongue-twisting music:
“flesh and flood fetuses
fed breath through blood,
board this hemoglobe,
with no boats to boast
Some of the poems are more traditional than others, but for my money the most exciting ones have been influenced by not one but many traditions. In Def Sound’s “Portrait,” poetics and pop culture commingle quite naturally:
“We are all mirrors
We speak outbursts & job interview
Logos on our tongues
One movie quote away from laughter
One text message away from crying
Lips riddled with bilingual subtitles in the language
from a world we are not from” p 15
Yes, these new poets are ready to reinvent the form yet again. In the fierce “White Art,” Kevin Coval says: “we want poems that tie Billy Collins to a chair / and beat him” and “crack Donald’s Hall of mirrors.” p 17 He may be speaking metaphorically, but he’s not joking.
Williams writes in an afterword that the idea of editing an anthology of living poets was intriguing to him, “but not intriguing enough.” Instead he wanted to “weave poems and voices together as a DJ would, noting the tempo, mood, and theme of each piece…” A more traditional anthology might have its poems grouped by subject too, of course, but in practice his idea plays out much differently. Watch as the poems’ subjects and styles slide into and out of each other, a little batch of sexy ones, for example, leading inexorably into one about death. “She gives me her borsht recipe / without measurements, / says: do it to taste / and I do,” goes Gala Mulokolov’s slow-smiling scorcher “Talkin’ With My Mother.” Without missing a beat we’re onto Amir Sulaiman’s “Gorgeous Disaster,” a frenetic eulogy that blends hospital-speak with stories of resistance by people who lived through Jim Crow. William’s poetic turntablism turns out to be another way of making the book come alive, the contributing poets seeming to be as aware of their collaborators as if they were in the same room together.
I found a hokey line here and there — with so much passion and earnest intention, that’s probably inevitable. But as a whole the book is overwhelmingly, unusually good, strong enough to belong on a college reading list and subversive enough to give the professor the side-eye. Probably the most striking thing about it is that it doesn’t seem to bear the personality of any one editor. There are poems about love and sex by people of different genders, and I don’t mean just the usual two. There are poems by people of (every different) color — about race and racism, yes, and about Shug Avery and dancing at the end of the world and joining the Marines. Reading them all together, you don’t imagine a middle-aged white guy (or lady, sometimes it’s a lady) sitting at a desk, believing in his own myth. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any one person at all.