What do you call a literary DJ?

Simple: Saul Williams.

You may know him as the socially-conscious poet who has starred in films such as the award-winning Slam. Or as that rapper-slash-singer who roped in the likes of Rick Rubin to produce his album, Amethyst Rock Star, but has most recently gone the pop-dance route with thought-provoking lyrics.

You may even know him as that hot guy who was Lynn’s celibate boyfriend in the series, Girlfriends. But now Williams, who will perform at the annual Poetry Africa event in Durban from October 15-20 after he performs at the Cape Town ICC on October 13, is kind of a DJ.

He doesn’t mix music genres on the ones and twos but poetry in Chorus: A Literary Mixtape. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet many really talented poets,” he says from his home in France where the US poetry veteran has been living for three years, “so I sought a way to share their work with others. I don’t read lots of anthologies so I wanted to find a creative way to do that.”

By putting the word out on Facebook and Twitter that he’d be curating an anthology of poetry, “in one month I received over 8 000 poems. So I got two friends to help me select 100 poems and we had them up like wallpaper around my house. So what I had to do was blend them like a DJ does records. Blend them with BPMs and read them as a singular voice. Music has always been a recurring theme throughout my work so that’s why even with this anthology, the poems are all in the front and the author’s names are listed in the back, just like on a mixtape. The idea of this mixtape made perfect sense because these were different voices threading together and they helped create something that I’d read if I saw it in the bookstore, which is what’s important.”

What’s also important to note, says Williams, is that “we have to be clear on the fact that all we’re doing is responding to my personal taste, but there were things I didn’t get in the poems but I knew that someone else would, so mixing them together seemed natural, like being a DJ.”

But what about his contribution to the anthology?

“My poem was the last one in the anthology. I restricted myself to using the sequence of the poems as they appear and to only use the words of the contributors to create my poem. So you’ll see that in the anthology there are highlighted words and I sampled only those words to create a new poem.”

Williams will perform poems in Durban and Cape Town and in the Poetry Africa roadshow that touches down in Botswana, Malawi and Zimbabwe with the likes of Lebo Mashile, Madosini, Pedro-Espi-Sanchis and Ewok. Although he’s made a name as a rapper/vocalist on albums like The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust! (in which he says “nigga” 180 times) and most recently Volcanic Sunlight (which saw him draw all sorts of shapes on his face), he swears he still enjoys writing poetry.

“It’s not something that gets old.”

As for trying his hand at different aspects of the creative arts, “I’d compare it to the analogy of the relationship women have with their hair. How many styles does she go through in 10 years? I’d be more frightened if I were doing the same thing over and over. I started poetry saying ‘why isn’t anyone saying…’ then I realised I had to say it, so that’s why I create the music I want to listen to because I get disappointed when I turn on the radio.” But when it comes to some of the things sycophants may deem abstract (like the shapes on his face), “For the most part, I was just f***ing around.” Williams has no illusions about everyone liking everything he does.

“I do whatever and say whatever I want. I feel a little bit like a DJ tastemaker right now, and that comes from me being a New York brat. I’m a hip hop kid and when I grew up it wasn’t about getting the uniform, it was about inspiring the next uniform and keeping the biters off you.”

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