I recently mentioned the joy I get out of seeing poets operate in the cities they call home. I was out east doing some shows this winter, and I happened to have a free night at the same time Aaron Samuels was having his book release party in Providence, where he grew up. I got to really take in his love for community. This idea of home being home, and the love he has for it. I think that may be what I appreciate most of what I know of Aaron. Sure, I also appreciate his approach to his work. How structured and organized he is as an artist is a firm reminder to me as I look at a bedroom with poems in ten different places. Of course, I appreciate his poems. The way his work invites us in to the hard conversations, sits us down, and guides us through, always using himself as a lens. I appreciate the way he thinks, and the conversations I’ve had with him. How he can excitedly bounce from topic to topic so seamlessly, you often wish for more time to pick his brain. But like all of the artists I’m using this platform to talk to/about, I really enjoy Aaron’s sense of community. Not just that he writes about where he’s from, but the way that the people where he’s from talk about him. The way artists in his home area talk about not just him, but his family, and what they’ve meant. The way everyone in the room that night looked at him, proud. Knowing they were watching one of their own, a greatness that still has barely scratched the surface. You can learn so much by watching people watch the people they are proud of. Aaron’s work, personality, and way of thinking greets us with a sense of pride that is contagious. And I couldn’t be happier about that.
When I was out doing some shows in the Northeast earlier this year, I had the pleasure of having the timing work out so that I could make your book release party in your home area of Providence. There is something really magical about watching an artist being received and congratulated in their own environment. It was an incredibly touching experience that I was glad to be able to witness. Also, I feel like I learned a lot about you as a person, just watching you navigate the stories that show up in your poems on familiar turf. I love origins. And you are proud of yours. Tell me about Edgewood?
Edgewood was the neighborhood I grew up in. It is maybe one square mile of an intersecting community, right on the border of Southside Providence and Warwick. It’s in between three cities, so that makes it pretty interesting. The bay rides it along the eastside and brings three very different communities together. Warwick is like a strip mall, Cranston is the biggest city, geographically, and Southside Providence is one of the rougher areas in Rhode Island. So you get this really interesting mix of class, race, and religion, and it’s a community based on a lot of these intersections happening, which I think is representative of the state of Rhode Island, on the whole. I can walk from the exurbs to the suburbs to the hood in 30 minutes, which is a crazy experience.
We’ve spoken before about how race played a role in our respective childhoods, and how where we grew up played into that. You’ve told me about growing up in a mixed race household, and in an area that sometimes wasn’t completely supportive of that. How did that shape you as a writer/person?
Tremendously. At the onset, I grew up in a mixed race household, so having a black protestant father and a white Jewish mom; I was forced to start thinking about race a lot earlier than many of my mono-racial peers. I was always seeing a conversation about race happening within my own family and household. My parents were also very open to talking about it, so even before I was writing these were things that I was processing and thinking about in really deep ways.
Now days? It’s still really deeply ingrained. I focus on identity intersection. I’m most interested in the moments when different identities inside of us come into conversation with each other. When race comes into conversation with gender. When sexuality comes into conversations with class. And the conversations inside of those conversations are the most interesting to me.
What I’m finding, the more I discover my own voice, is that a powerful tool that we have is our own experience, and the revisiting of various things to express a larger message within the work. You have so many poems that strike me as nostalgic. These beautiful snapshots of places, people, events. After reading just two poems, I felt like I knew Kevin. I felt like I could have lived in Edgewood. I felt all of those things. As the author, I hope you appreciate what that does for a reader. What role does nostalgia play in your work?
I think I’m a nostalgic person. As far as the tool as a literary device, for me, it is an enabler. A lot of times when we enter into difficult conversations about race or sexuality or identity, we enter them from our adult lens, which makes it hard. So, a lot of times in my work, I try to take the reader back to a place before these notions were created. Somewhat of an original position where using nostalgia helps to emotionally transfer the writer and reader to an earlier childhood place where they can be more open to processing these types of things. Some of the characters in my book are processing things for the first time.
Dark Noise Collective. I’ve been really excited to talk to one of you about this group, and what the mission of it is. I really love this idea of talented people forming one unit and working/creating together. How did this start, and is the nature of it truly as collaborative it looks to me, as an outsider?
On face value, the collective is a support network, and it’s a family. And the operating thesis was can we take a small group of emerging artists of color in their mid 20’s who are already doing well in their forms, and then by combining our energy and building a support network of deep friendship and deep interest in each other’s personal and professional pursuits, will that amplify each of us? And I think the resounding answer is yes. I think all six of us have seen pretty great growth, both artistically and professionally. And we also do collaborative shows, with the six of us and with different combinations. We’re working on different projects. Video poems, a lot of surprises.
At a music festival a few years ago, I covered a talk that Nas was doing where he talked about how much of his life went into making Illmatic, and how once it was complete, he was a little lost, from a creative standpoint. Kind of how putting that much into one single thing can drain you, regardless of the gifts you have to give. We have all of our lives to create our first thing, be it an album, book, painting, whatever. And when it’s done, we’re still alive. We’re still living, and still artists, and still documenting that experience. So I wonder, after putting so much of yourself into a brilliant project like the book Yarmulkes And Fitted Caps, what do you do next?
I put three years of my life explicitly into that project, but it is also a story of my life, to this point. So I’ve been working on it for like 25 years, so that’s an important question. The short answer is that the project is not over. The creation of the book is just the first step. There are writing workshops and identity discussion workshops in the back of the book. I really hope to push it as a teaching instrument to push difficult conversations about social identity. After the book, I went on tour for six months not only performing, but teaching workshops from the book, and showing that it can be used as a teaching device. I’m still working on projects around it, developing video poems and potentially a one man show. Of course, as an artist, I need to move on to other projects. I have some other manuscripts in the works, but those are maybe a few years out. But in many ways, I have enjoyed writing poems that don’t have to fit into this project and exploring where my creative juices are taking me.
A thing that we have in common is that in addition to our creative pursuits, we both work full time jobs. Now, of course, being an artist is ALSO a full time job, and then some. But I really enjoy having these conversations with artists who work in office settings, and you in particular, because you work in what many would describe as Corporate America. I remember, during your book release, you mentioned being excited to find out that a co-worker was also an artist. How do you balance these worlds?
It’s not easy. I think that there’s a paradox here. The paradox is that working a job where I’m working 60-80 hours a week, it doesn’t leave time for anything else, especially creative pursuits. The flipside is that when I was on the road, doing art all day, when I got to whatever bed I was crashing on, the last thing I wanted to do was write a poem after living in art all day. When you spend all day doing financial analysis, when I get home at night, I am wired for creative ability. I often fantasize about a life where I can create poems every day, but sometimes I wonder if I create better art after building the quantitative side of my brain because they balance each other. It’s not sustainable to put 60 hours into a job and 20 into poetry, but then again, who has an existence in their 20s that is sustainable into later life? I think part of me will always be a mix between quantitative and creative. Part of me will always be a business man and a poet. It’s another intersection. I don’t think they have to be in conflict, I think it’s about finding balance.
And what of your relationship with slam? That is how so many of us have discovered your work, and something that I know you have great roots in. Even if you see yourself taking time off, do you still feel connected?
I’ve been a competitor in slam every year since 2005. Up until now. So that’s nine group competitions, two individual competitions, and several coaching positions on top of that. So I’m very rooted in the community on every level. So, in some ways, if I took a year off, I don’t think that means I’m not interested. This is my family; this is where I came from. I can take five years off, and it will still be my home. This past year, the slam community went through a lot of challenges, and that was hard for me, because it was always my home. It was my reprieve from the corporate world where I think I don’t feel emotionally recharged, and slam helps me through that. So to watch that community, in some ways, go up in flames and then start to rebuild was difficult. It became just another source of anxiety. That being said, the community is constantly exploding and recharging and there’s a history of that too. And I believe that there are lots of good people and this community has been an incredible springboard. I’m thankful for what the community has given me and I’m not done receiving or giving back. Coaching youth poetry has always fulfilled me and I know I have some of that left before I throw in the towel. The community and the art form are inseparable. It has always been a part of the community for me. The art is secondary, because it happens in the context of the community.
I like how the pride in your various identities can’t help but to bleed into your work, as well. Like many of the poets I’m interviewing this month, I have used your book as a teaching tool, and it works wonders in classrooms with teenagers. There’s a very real permission in your work that echoes this message of identity acceptance, even up against some overwhelming odds. Where does that pride come from?
Short answer is that I can’t be anybody but myself, and I have a lot of pride in my family and parents and the heritages that I come from. The more I got older, the more I learned that being black means so many things. There’s more genetic diversity among black people than any other diaspora in the world. Being black doesn’t mean one thing. And the more I learn about Judaism, I find the exact same thing. There are so many different Jews in the world. In representing those things, it means so much, due to the fact that there isn’t just one version of black and one version of Jewish, so I’m operating at the intersection of millions of things, as we all are. That said, there are things about being black and Jewish that have shaped the way I view my world and art. The one tough thing about being black and Jewish is knowing that, for years, people have been trying to kill you or enslave you and profit off of your body. And while I don’t like to wake up in a bad mood every day, part of waking up knowing that you’re black and Jewish is waking up knowing that you’re a target. Maybe not now, maybe not in this particular room, but in many places in the world. There are people trying to destroy you, and have been, as a project, for thousands of years. I think that there’s something there that you carry with you. I think most black people carry it with them. I think most Jews carry it with them. This idea of never believing in safety. And I think that shows up in my work, as well. Even if you’re comfortable, the need to always look over your shoulder and cover your bases. That’s not all that blackness is, or Jewishness is. There’s also magic. There’s also survival. There’s also making humor in the face of overwhelming odds, and I try to put that in my work as well.
I appreciate, also, the discussions that you generate on gender. Your work really challenges me, as a reader, to rethink some long-held ideas on gender, and how I operate in that world of thought. What drives you to challenge gender in your work the way you do?
It’s important for me to not look at gender, or any identity in isolation. So, again, it’s all about intersection. So I look at how being black and Jewish IS gendered, and the legacy of masculinity within those two cultures. I think it’s interesting, if you look at the history of black and Jewish people in the world, there has been a project to dismantle notions of masculinity. I think Jews from the beginning of history as I know it, Jews have been circumcising their males, and there was propaganda about how that made Jews less manly, and the portrayals of the Jewish male as slimy, emasculated characters. And that’s one of the stereotypes of the Jew throughout history. I think in many ways, the figure of the black man has been emasculated through hyper masculinity. These over sexual brutes that rape and pillage white women and start fights, and have sex with anything that moves, and I think that stereotype is in service of emasculating men. And these are the two cultures that I grew up in, and I think about how the world wants to take away my masculinity, and I think of how the culture has fought back against that, sometimes in great ways or in problematic ways. Some men trying to overcompensate in ways that are problematic to women, and men who don’t fall in line. And so that forces my work to look at the legacies of misogyny and the legacies of sexism in blackness and Judaism. And there’s a complication there. So my work is not just looking at these legacies, but also asking what comes next. How do you be a good black man, or a good Jewish man, and what are my responsibilities. Understanding the burdens and privileges that masculinity provides me.
Finally, when you were last here, we hit on something in a conversation at Thurman’s, but we couldn’t linger on it. But, man, I really, really wanted to go back to it and have an hour long discussion on it, because it is something I have written on extensively, it is something I have taught extensively, and it is something that I fight internally with, also extensively. We were talking about “Blurred Lines”, and how, while we were not fans of the song, that there are ways to have problematic music (or film, or etc) be some shit that you vibe to. I was wondering if we could expand on that now. Can something problematic be your jam? How do you manage it?
This is tough, and everyone has to draw their own lines. It’s hard, because what music isn’t problematic? It’s a reflection of the culture that we live in. I try to minimize the amount of problematic messages that I put in my ears, but I also recognize that chronicling history sometimes means recognizing the problematic stuff around us. Now, do I think Blurred Lines is problematic? ABSOLUTELY, and I can’t get down with it. If you can, that’s on you.
But I can also understand my own hypocrisy. Because I have definitely gotten down to songs that are messed up, or artists who have done messed up things, so I’m not sure that’s where I draw the line. I think there is something bigger here, which is that hip hop often gets a bad rap for being misogynistic. People are quick to say “I don’t listen to hip hop”. I think statements like that boil down to racism. There’s a legacy of misogyny in every musical tradition. I find it in country, I find in Jewish cultural music. In the blues, in rock, in folk. There’s problematic stuff everywhere. Songs about rape or violence against women, in every tradition. Does that make it OK? Nah, not at all. I just don’t want it to be written off as a problem that black people have. It’s a problem that men have, and I don’t think black men are immune to that problem. I’m not into the Blurred lines video, but I don’t think that means I’m anti hip-hop or anti- R&B. It means that’s where my line is, and that’s a decision people have to make.
Aaron, thank you so much for doing this. You know I believe so strongly in your work, and I look forward to talking again soon.
AARON LEVY SAMUELS is a Pushcart-nominated poet, a TEDx speaker, and an acclaimed facilitator of critical identity discussions. Raised in Providence, Rhode Island, by a Jewish-American mother and an African-American father, Aaron discovered spoken word poetry at age 14 when his English teacher told him he was not allowed to break meter. After declining this advice, Aaron went on to become one of the premiere performance poets in the country, featuring on TV One’s Verses & Flow, HBO’s Brave New Voices, and TEDx Washington University. His work has appeared in multiple journals including the Tidal Basin Review, Apogee Journal, and Muzzle Magazine. His debut collection of poetry, Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps, was released by Write Bloody Publishing in fall 2013.