Watsky, who was born and raised in San Francisco but is now based in Boston, attends Emerson College, a school devoted exclusively to the study of communication and performing arts. According to Watsky’s website, he aims to “cross-pollinate the stage, screen and stereo with work that speaks to both the humor and frustrations of modern life.” When I asked him about his work he replied “I’ve tried to improve my craft so I can be as good a funny white kid as I can.”Undisputed Backtalk Champion, Watsky’s debut poetry collection and CD, was released in 2006 to critical acclaim. He’s been featured on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry and preformed at the NAACP Image Awards in honor of Russell Simmons’ lifetime achievement award. In 2006 Watsky won the Youth Speaks Grand Slam and the Brave New Voices International Poetry Slam.
Recently I conversed with Watsky about his rapidly expanding career as a performance artist, the ups and downs of spoken-word poetry, and surviving as an artist in the modern world.
CL: How did you first become involved in oral poetry?
Watsky: I had a great English teacher named Steve Morris my Freshman year of high school. I was a handful in the classroom, and he suggested I channel some of my energy by checking out an after school writing program called Youth Speaks. I started attending workshops, eventually competing in the San Francisco youth poetry slam when I was sixteen. I went back year after year, then took time off from school to work with the organization post graduation. Most of the opportunities I’ve gotten since then are a direct or indirect result of my participation and success with Youth Speaks and Brave New Voices, the national teen poetry slam.
CL: There’s a fierce debate out there about the merits of performance-poetry. How would you characterize your own place in the world of poetry and literature?
Watsky: My own place in the world of poetry and literature, as an individual artist, is very small. Although I’ve spent a good deal of energy working on theater and music, my most visible work to this point has been in performance poetry, and I do consider myself a part of the spoken word community. Performance poetry has been catching some of its most widely distributed negative press recently– last month a front page New York Times Books article asked, “Is Slam Poetry Going Soft?” As with any art form that attracts increased exposure, the risk of homogenization and derivative work increases. But at the same time, the number of brilliant minds who stumble across this medium as a possible outlet for their voices rises as well. In its simplest definition, performance poetry is an oral presentation of stylized text. Its possibilities are as broad as all human voice and experience. And when mainstream America sees spoken word that relies on genre convention and personal tragedy in place of creativity and craft, the response is understandably negative. There is bad standup comedy, music, and visual art as well, but the masters of the form can move, delight, and inspire us. All poets are indebted to, but not bound by, the artists who came first. I am not excused from similar criticism, and I am constantly trying to assess how much I am borrowing, and if it is too much. As artists, it is our responsibility to recognize and root our clichés in our own work, so that we can present material that is interesting and exciting.
Osel: There are innumerable spoken-word poets yet your work has garnered some very real attention. You’ve performed at the NAACP Image Awards for Russell Simmons, won several performance-poetry titles, and have been the recipient of much critical praise. So, what sets your work apart from the crowd? Why aren’t you an unknown like nearly everyone else?
Watsky: I’ve had the good fortune of being surrounded by wonderful, creative writers from an early age. Growing up in the middle of San Francisco I’ve had access to free writing workshops (Youth Speaks), inspiring mentors, and supportive audiences. So I’ve been very lucky in my learning environment, and I have tried to take full advantage of all these opportunities. I write every day, I say yes to every gig that makes sense for me, and I try to stay critical of areas in which I can improve my work. I also know that my skin color and privilege have given me a leg up in obvious and indirect ways. Early attempts to write poems about struggles that were not my own fell flat because I had no honest context from which to approach them. I was forced to write poems on quirky subjects because they were what worked for me. The new poems I started writing took off because I was now reflecting myself more honestly. Audiences find variety refreshing, and I think I got some opportunities because I was a funny white kid in shows where that was the minority. And given who I am, I’ve tried to improve my craft so I can be as good a funny white kid as I can.
CL: I asked Slam Champion Anis Mojgani why there are so many “poets” and he basically told me that pretending to be a poet is easy, saying “most anyone can say they are a poet and don’t have to back anything up with actual poetry.” What’s your take?
Watsky: Well, I don’t know the context of Anis’s quote, but he’s pretty much the man. I interpreted your question a bit differently, but I can’t say I disagree with him.
I think there are a lot of people who call themselves poets, because, well, once you write a poem, you are by definition a poet. I don’t think anyone can set a subjective bar at which point we cross into some elite fraternity of writers. Writing a poem is empowering. By writing, we give credence to our own experience. We value our own thoughts. And why not? I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s a crowded world. All of us are trying to be heard, but I don’t think my resume makes my thoughts purer poetry than a fifteen year old Nebraskan picking up the pen for the first time, just like I don’t think the weight of English history makes William Blake any more a poet than me. He may well have mastered his form more completely. By all reasonable accounts he may be better than I am, but I’ve felt just as much a poet since my freshman year of high school. Refusing the designation of “poet” to some strikes me as elitist, and this work is so subjective, I’m inclined to say that once someone attempts the work, they’ve earned the title.
CL: What does a successful career in spoken-word/slam poetry look like? Do you have to branch out in order to survive?
Watsky: I think the answer to this is different for everyone. I have another year of college, and my definition of “survival” is much different than an artist living check to check off gigs. My privilege gives me options, and I am grateful to have supportive parents who are excited about my interest in the arts. I want to branch out because my passions extend beyond three minute poems with no props. There are poets who perfect this craft and are not interested in other forms– I respect that commitment to spoken-word, and it is enough to inspire some forever. Most poets I’ve met have an interest in other forms (even visual arts) because they’re creative, curious folks who like making cool shit.
On a practical level, very few poets can cobble together an income off of poetry touring alone, although there are some. I think it would be safe to say that even for those lucky few, this income is never steady, and they ride the tides of showcase selections and economic climate, just like folks with nine to fives. We have to hustle our wares to survive, but the poets I’ve met who are most grounded, successful and beloved, branch out because they have big, interesting ideas that cannot always be housed in a slam poetry shell.
CL: What other art forms are you interested in?
Watsky: The arts I’m really interested in exploring right now are poetry, music, theater and screenwriting. So maybe I’m unfocused, but I’ll never be bored. I study dramatic writing and acting at college. I will always continue to write poetry, but my dream is to be fluent in several crafts.
Osel: One of the reasons your poetry caught my eye was because it was stylistically unlike most of the other work I’d heard. Is it just my imagination or do the bulk of performance poets approach the delivery of their work in more or less the same manner and isn’t that a problem for the art form?
Watsky: It is a problem when everyone sounds like everyone else. I can’t say that the bulk of poets suffer from homogenized style, but it becomes more of a problem when everyone has the same influences on the internet and national television. I am guilty of absorbing others’ techniques as well, but I hope my voice has emerged as more my own over the time I’ve been writing. Practically speaking, it’s boring to go to a show when you know what to expect and there is no variety. I think I’m like most people in craving surprises and different ways of thinking.
CL: What can we expect to see from you in the next few years? Anything coming down the pipe at the moment?
Watsky: I have a solo theater show that Speakeasy Stage in Boston is presenting in December. It incorporates some of my poetry and other new work. I also just completed a music album and am releasing it in a couple months. It features collaborations with Rafael Casal and Dahlak from Def Poetry, Gift of Gab from Blackalicious , and some other really talented artists. I always have new poems and plays in the works, but those are the next projects on the horizon.
CL: We’ve all got them; what’s your problem?
Watsky: I don’t think I have one problem that trumps all others. I am certainly not perfect. I have a tendency to lose myself in projects and fail to fully appreciate the present moment. When I remember to check in, I am at my happiest and most grounded. I can be overly self-critical, and can beat myself up over work with which I was unhappy. I am the artist I want to be when I create, let go, and enjoy the process for its own sake.