October 2229, 1998
Interview by a.d.amorosi
When did you decide you were a writer rather than a funny guy with a good grasp on words?
I never did have a good grasp on words. My natural talent lies in drawing. But when I was 15, I wanted to win this girl's heart, so I just started writing. For some reason as an idiot-child I wanted to impress her. But I was bad. Really bad. But I still liked it. When the girl thing fell through I realized I could write about the things I had problems with. I wrote about morose things like cutting my throat open with a knife.
The last track on Attack ruminates on Allen Ginsberg. What did he mean to you?
He taught me some things about writing, but what he really taught me about was life. He warned me about the dangers of being exploited. He taught me how to be positive and genuine and connect everything universally. We just sat around and talked and ate a lot.
How did you get involved in making Slam? Is your character Jimmy Huang close to your own stage personae?
Me and Saul [Williams, the star of Slam] were in the performance poetry scene at the same time. We did Grand Slams at the [New York poetry hotspot] Nuyorican. Then he went to Brooklyn, I went to school and we got together to do NYU gigs. We hung at Fez, traveled to Portland for the [national poetry slams]. And he introduced me to Marc [Levin, the writer and director of Slam]. Saul's got a lot of people who hover around him, love what he does. Jimmy is a lot angrier than the Beau Sia stage personae. He's a lot more racist and bourgeois than Beau. But he's got the same loud, vocal level as me.
You seem to crave unison and partnership. You've joined teams for both swimming and slamming. Why is that important to you?
I do crave unison. I naturally want to write solely about my personal feelings and perceptions. I also want to write them so that everyone can understand them. I want people to know what I'm going through. Based on that, I guess I just want people to love me. I guess it comes from having a mentally rough childhood. I grew up with a very demanding family, which now I consider a blessing, but [during my childhood], it was very traumatic. A lot was expected of me -regardless of how I felt or what my needs were. I was overrun with having to be a better swimmer. I remember being really good at spelling bees, but really pressured to do so. That's translated to being more disciplined as a writer.
The record is heavily influenced by old-school hip-hop. How does a Chinese-American kid from Oklahoma get into rap?
I got turned onto rap very late in the eighth grade, to the crappiest stuffHammer, Kid 'n Play and Heavy D. When I was 19, I got into breakdancing. And then I got into old-school rap and breakbeats. The new stuff is just dumb, house party stuff. Then I got into the lyrics and connected with the whole "rap is poetry" thing. What I learned from Frank O'Hara and William Carlos Williams is different from what I learn from Kool Keith. I figured I should brush up on both. And that's why I needed those beats on the record. It just matched up to what I was doing.
What was your immediate reaction to the Jewel book when it came out in July?
My first reaction was to write my book in four hours [laughs]. I wasn't horrified [by her writing]. I knew where she was coming from, but it was like where I was coming from when I was 16that stage of development. I'm not trying to knock her writing, but I've spent many hours a day writing for the last six years. Maybe she's been writing longer, but it doesn't seem so. It's hard for me to say whether someone's awful or not having come from such an awful state myself. She's just needs to forge her craft. She reads like a beginner, not a seasoned pro deserving of a big publishing deal. She should take advantage of it. She could perhaps open up the door for an interest in poetry. She could open the market.
That's very generous of you.
That type of thinking's come from knowing Allen and Saul. I've been a jerk too long. My genuine feeling is if you've sold 300,000 poetry books, that's 300,000 more people into poetry. That's fantastic. My book sold 4,000 in its first run and we're pressing another 10,000. The upshot is that book chains want the book and I'll get a chance to publish my first five books.
And gives you the opportunity to achieve stardom and world domination through poetry.
I don't want world domination. I just want to pay for my sister's college tuition.
Slam opens on Oct. 23. For more information, see Cindy Fuchs' review in Critical Mass.