Saul Williams has been on tour lately, promoting a new collection of poetry called Chorus: A Literary Mixtape. Though he often performs with a band, this time he's doing spoken word. But he's brought a couple keyboards, some guitar pedals and a laptop along with him on tour, just in case he's in the mood to play.
"I usually bring the tools for me to go with what I'm feeling," he says, speaking by phone on a recent stop in Toronto. He likes to keep his options open.
A man of many disciplines, Williams has hopped effortlessly between acting, poetry and music since the late '90s, and the art forms often overlap. He's played a slam-poet in a movie—the sharp-yet-hapless Ray Joshua in the celebrated 1998 independent film, Slam. He's incorporated poetry into music—free-flowing verse pops up in his 2011 album, Volcanic Sunlight. And he's infused the idea of music (if not actual sounds) into Chorus, which he edited with the help of Dufflyn Lammers and Aja Monet.
To Williams, all that interdisciplinary back-and-forth is just part of who he is.
"We all do it," he says. "It's like the difference between the days you want coffee and the days you want tea. You know—wine and beer. Ah, I'm feeling wine. Whatever."
No matter the art form, he maintains a tone of playful confrontation, packing acidic humor, vivid imagery, pregnant metaphor and visceral sound into his performances. Often, he'll end up uncovering some festering, ugly truth about race, politics or relationships (or all of the above). But he might also just get a funny idea in his head and try it out to see what happens.
That's why the first words you'll read in Chorus, in a brief preface, are: "Shut up and sit down."
He likes to take advantage of his status as a well-known artist, he says, and he'd been wanting to start a book with that line.
"Those are the little challenges I give myself. Like, Wouldn't that be funny? I should do it," he says. "Everything that I've had the opportunity to share with the public creatively, in any of the formats that I've worked in, has really always been me kind of having fun with the fact that I can say something really loud or do something really big."
For Chorus, he compiled 100 poems by writers from around the world, many of them young and unknown, after putting out an open call for work via Facebook and Twitter. As the subtitle suggests, the book follows the structure of a DJ's mixtape: Author names and titles are relegated to a section in the back, making for a seamless read with each piece divided only by numbers.
Williams had another musical tradition in mind, too.
"I took it from the idea of the Greek chorus. The chorus is the part we all sing along to. It's the voice of dissent, the voice of democracy, the voice of God, the voice of insight, the voice of clarity, the voice of questioning," he says.
Though the book doesn't follow a strict theme, many of the poems show a gnashing, insurgent frustration with old ideas about the world—whether related to race, God, sexuality, class or poetry itself. In "Strugglers Quarry," Beau Sia offers up a parody of trite verse: "blah blah hard-hitting / first line," it begins. In "White Art," Kevin Coval takes aim at a former poet laureate of the United States: "we want poems that tie Billy Collins to a chair / and beat him. we'll see how pretty, witty and meaningless / it all is...."
Williams wholeheartedly approves of all the provocation.
"We want to cause trouble," he says about writing poetry. "That's what we're here for—we're here to cause as much trouble as possible."
Williams takes a slightly different approach to his music. For his 2007 album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, he teamed up with Trent Reznor to unleash abstract social commentary over industrial-tinged hip-hop beats. But he flexed his pop chops on last year's Volcanic Sunlight, singing catchy lines over aggressively funky beats. With sinister synths, cryptic lyrics and a bouncy, three-note hook lifted from a Bollywood song, the single "Dance" is perfectly suited for the dance floor.
"Usually, if I'm writing a song, it's because I have a desire to hear a particular sound. I'm usually not writing a song because I want to say something," he says, noting that he may write lyrics only after conjuring the music. "When I'm writing a poem, on the other hand, I'm writing a poem because I feel something and I feel the need to try to put it into words, or to try to make sense of it."
One day, Williams says, he'll release a project that brings all of his art forms together. But he doesn't want to unveil any details about this intriguing endeavor just yet; he's got a new book to promote, after all. Even this maverick performer takes some things one at a time.
Saul Williams performs at San Diego Woman's Club on Friday, Sept. 21.