Saul Williams has the crowd by the throat before they even realise he has arrived, swaggering onto the stage, jerking the microphone off its stand and launching immediately into a hail of dulcet tones and abrasive, violently passionate poetry.
Saul Williams. The name triggers contrasting images; he is viewed from a different angle, in a different light, by nearly every single one of the hundred or so fans assembled at the Magdalen Auditorium, simply because his artistic talent is so diverse. The guy in the front row, sporting the giant baseball cap, leant forward, nodding his head to the rhythm of the poem, he thinks Saul Williams is the king of the spoken word. The mousy-haired girl a few rows back, who giggles emphatically at every joke, she sees the fiercely attractive actor/director who picked up a Sundance award for his movie Slam. The metal head in the wings of the auditorium, he remembers when Saul performed live with Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails. He particularly remembers the garish, furry glam rock boots which put David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s set costumes to shame. Everyone who has heard of Saul holds him a different regard; to some he’s just another hyper-perceptive performer with a voice of black velvet, but to others he’s the role model and culmination of everything they aspire to.
It wasn’t always like this. After Saul finishes, he frowns, pushes the microphone stand out of the way and leaps forward to the front row of seats. He says he wants to get a kind of dialogue going, a sonic cocktail of questions, answers and the occasional poem. Someone asks Saul where he came from, and he explodes with laughter. It’s almost nervous laughter, but no one in the audience seems to notice. Harking back to his upbringing in a dense New York community, Saul admitted that as a teenager, like everybody, he went through a long painful identity crisis.
Saul used to hate being black. He wanted to be white. So he started to buy creams to bleach his skin and paste to straighten out his vibrant tendrils of black hair. But, he said, looking each and every one of us in the eye, the day he stopped being angry about it was the day he realized that it was his responsibility to formulate his own identity, irrespective of skin colour, and to formulate it how he pleased. Searching through the rags of time, seeking out his tenuous roots, was utterly pointless. The words resonate with the audience.
Even though Saul exuberates self confidence and charisma, he hasn’t forgotten those insecurities of his formative years, and this is one of many areas in which he departs from a lot of poets out there. This is the man who refuses to be assimilated or marginalized into a specific corner. For example, his flamboyant alter ego, Niggy Tardust, subverted every racial stereotype in the book and revealed David Bowie’s original character as a ghost of a sickly pallor, a sham.
Before anyone can follow his condensed autobiography with another question, Saul burst into another poem, 1987, and the crowd sits stunned, rapt, transported, not by the black man but by the poet, the ‘per-son’, the sonic being.
The poem ends. There is a roar of applause and then eager hands are shooting up in every direction. What inspires you? What do you think of Hip-Hop? What do you think of Guantanamo Bay? What do you do if you stutter? He kneels on the front row of seats, facing the audience, looks directly into the Poetry Society’s camera and laughs serenely. When Saul laughs, it doesn’t evoke the same kind of nervous laughter you hear too often in seminars, that polite chuckling in response to the inept, Ivory-Tower puns of your hopelessly repressed tutors. It’s a kind of reconciliatory laugh that the crowd willingly echoes, one which often comes hot on the heels of allusions to colonialism or the War of Independence.
Then it’s all over. As the other students flow out of the Auditorium, I slip over to the front of the stage. Clarissa Pabi, the OUPS President, is surrounded by proud friends and admirers. It was the first time she’d organised a speaker event and it was one hell of a way to start, a real high. Talking to fans, signing autographs, posing for photographs, Saul Williams stands in the flesh at her shoulder, tangible, manifest, concrete, but soon he would be gone and I couldn’t help but wonder how long the (S)tardust would linger in everyone’s minds.