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Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd : The Hypermeter of collaboration

By Latasha N. Nevada Diggs
Holding It Down Ensemble, Harlem Stage, 2012

Holding It Down Ensemble, Harlem Stage, 2012. Photo credit: Vijay Iyer

It was shortly after the poet Sabah As-Sabah passed.  I did not know the man personally but for those who knew him and his work, his departure touched everyone.  He was a Black man. A Gay man.  He grew up in the Nation of Islam.  His words often spoke of this triple identity, praising and what the anthology In The Tradition wrote as tempering “the anger inherent in his culture with the spiritual discipline inherent in his faith.”  When he passed, there were questions revolving around his manuscript.  Where is it? Who has it? Will it ever be published?

Time passes and the collectives and faces of that time are elsewhere.   And as time passes, I realize that somewhere close to Sabah’s passing, on a street or at an open mic, I met Mike Ladd. Mike tells me the first time he saw me was rollerblading down Broadway on 8th street.  I vaguely remember us meeting anywhere.  Or was it that loft space in Greenpoint?  Over the years I often tease him about his pedigree.  He is the first person to introduce me to the term “tenure.”  The Boston native would sing that word.  Ah the joys of getting tenure.  How easy life would be.  I swore he was saying “tenor.” For the man who was at one point my English tutor at a community college, Ladd has had much to say and contribute to the conversation of poetics and politics, but rarely (never) do I get to sit in his head.  After 20 years of friendship, I honestly do not know much about this man.  It becomes more difficult with each year as location separates bodies and career choices move us further apart despite occasionally working together.

With Vijay Iyer, the narrative is slightly different.  Less and less folks were trekking to Loisaida and desired venues where they could create their own productions.  Folks shifted their attention away from The Fez and occupied CBGB’s Gallery.  Simultaneously, they went to Brooklyn Moon on Fulton, The Tea Party, Thoughtforms in Tribeca, The Lion’s Den near Bleecker, and a loft space on Broadway.  At the spot on Broadway, the gathering of poets, visual artists, dancers and musicians had become largely African American and South Asian, with the exception of one Filipina on electric bass and a Chicano on African and Asian percussion.  The evenings appeared to be put together by the poet Sharif Simmons and visual artist/curator Jaishri Abichandani.  I first heard Suphala play here. Earth gods and goddesses.  The beautiful people were in the house and all the Black boys were dating or hoping to get with a South Asian girl.  I’ve got issues.  Basement Bhangra at SOB’s began its monthly swing and at that point, things get a bit blurry in terms of what poetry-wise was going down. A lot of bands. Some good. Some miserable.  In 1999, the improvisational ensemble Burnt Sugar Arkestra was formed by Greg Tate and Jared Nickerson.

In its early days Butch Morris—whose theory of conduction The Burnt Sugar Arkestra is based on—would drill us with the vocabulary system he created.  On one of those occasions, I met Vijay backstage at the Knitting Factory.  I do not remember much about our set aside from it being very loud.  What I can remember clearly is that my eyeliner was smudged.  About a year or so I found myself at his home jamming with another musician.  We blurted something about forming a trio.  We never recorded it.   Most often our affiliation with Burnt Sugar is where we would be in a room together.  And Mike was somewhere in the Bronx making beats, creating the Infesticon and Majesticon saga and reading books on war.


The strange beauty of this city is that the three of us would eventually end up in the same room at the same time.  The moment comes when the two invite me to audition for their first collaboration In What Language?  My non-actor self attempting to “act.”  Whatever I did was convincing enough.   Since that time, there’s something inspiring and challenging to witness in Ladd and Iyer’s relationship as artists and collaborators.   I watch them and wonder how…but then I catch myself and think about the small items in their biographies.  Literature and Science. Music. Social justice. Politics. Family. Multiple identities and debates that are American.  As I listen to Mike and think Tom Waits meets Melle Mel’s 48 bars on “Beat Street Breakdown,” I listen to Vijay and hear Duke Ellington and Asian Underground.  There is overlap and each year in their company I add to that database.

The reason why I chose to dedicate a post to them is the reason why I am always curious.  The space they do it best is between music and poetry, musical genres (jazz? hip hop? contemporary?), musical theatre vs. contemporary theatre vs. concert.   We could talk about Mike teaching Black American Literature and music at the University of Sciences Politique in France or Vijay being the 2014 Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard University.  Why talk to these two cats on a poetry blog?  You go figure.


LD:  Vijay, can you talk about your creative process as a result of working with poets and hip-hop artists?  How has that informed your understanding of poetics?

VI:  I don’t know if I have any understanding of poetics whatsoever, though that hasn’t stopped me from elbowing up next to you guys and trying to play with creative people like you.  I’ve never really known where everyday speech ends and poetry begins, for example.  It seemed to me that the designation of poetry had to do first with the writer or speaker claiming an imaginative stance, but that doesn’t really narrow it down.  I guess for me (and maybe most people), my first experiences with poetry were through song lyrics.  No one calls Hendrix, Q-Tip or Prince poets, but it’s fair to say that they do things with words that don’t really fall into any other category.

I’ve learned something new from each experience—whether it was being in a band with Will Power and Mohammed Bilal in San Francisco, sitting in at community centers and underground spots in the Bay Area, playing with Amiri Baraka, working with amazing emcees from DC (Kokayi, Sub-Zero, Black Indian) in Steve Coleman’s bands, playing with Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic, Tracie Morris, co-producing tracks with M1 from Dead Prez, and of course teaming up with Mike for more than a decade, and because of him working with you, Maurice Decaul, Lynn Hill, and even that wild brother Ajay Naidu.  Mainly what I’ve learned is how to listen to the voice; how to hear music and speech in counterpoint; how poets and lyricists can be in the moment with words just as musicians are in the moment with sound.

LD:  Mike, the one thing that keeps coming up for me is your creative and professional timeline.  A poet who was in a punk band back in Boston.  A spoken word artist—if we can use this very loosely—on the New York scene with a MA before 1999.  A poet who is also a rapper. A poet who is also a music producer.  A go-to voice on the avant jazz and hip-hop scene in Paris.  Now you have actor as a credit. What do you think you’ve sacrificed over the years as a result of this progression?

ML:  First off I feel compelled to clarify the introductions. My senior thesis was on Black Expatriates in the 19th Century and their writings. I received a Masters in poetry from Boston University.  I had applied to B.U. with the intention of studying with Derek Walcott who unfortunately was on sabbatical that year.  Instead I had the privilege of studying with Robert Pinsky, Aaron Fogel and David Ferry.  David Ferry had a significant impact on me. An astute scholar of classical poetry and formalism he introduced poems to our class with an understated drama and an irrepressible joy for every word read. In Ferry’s class I began to experiment with form and metered verse. I began to understand hip-hop as a specific form and explore the use of form and lyric in the music I was making. I finished my first solo record the same year I received my Masters, the record included at least one sestina, “Back Stroke.” In all three collaborations with Vijay there has been a very deliberate use of different forms and experimenting with written meter and music. All these efforts, through engaging lyric, were strictly poetic. If hip-hop and spoken word were included, it is only in my effort to explore different disciplines within poetry. I have yet to meet someone generous enough to let me know if these experiments were successful but the effort should not be in question.

Mike Ladd

Mike Ladd

According to Wikipedia, I have sacrificed recognition as a poet, but that has more to do with sharing the name “Mike Ladd” with the fine Australian poet, as it has to do with having multiple yet closely related vocations.  With some focus and discipline all these disciplines, bad-drummer, performer producer and poet all go hand in hand. I am by no means the only artist who traverses the same disciplines thus I do not see it as exceptional.  I would like to widen my profile in the realm of published poets.  I started off long ago loosely associated with members of the Darkroom Collective and continue to admire their work.  My main Mentor however, was Tony Medina who, at the time was coming from the opposite end of the spectrum. Publishing, to me, has always been a precious idea, maybe too precious. I have yet to find the courage to submit my work to magazines because I am concerned by how if it will be scrutinized in such a concrete and unforgiving form.

Somehow I do not feel the same pressure with a recording. Recorded text is not static.  It gives the impression it is still alive, thus still malleable. It is ephemeral, it passes through a sound system and through a listener’s ears to be reviewed. The recording must be stopped and pushed back. If a listener wants to keep moving forward they must let the word go until they hear the piece in its entirety again. Text on a page does not budge, they stare back and challenge the reader in a very specific way.  At their best they are defiant, I remain in awe. When words are set to music, even when they are recorded alone they are still attached to me/my body, to my voice to be precise. Thus they are not completely released and still editable.  When these words are printed, accompanied by nothing but white paper it is then my words are the most vulnerable. In the white realm, they are there for the taking. The saving grace is that they will live again as soon as someone reads them out loud. This is the most exciting. I have been lucky enough to hear my text delivered by others, liberated from my intentions and surpass my expectations.

If anything has been sacrificed, as you say, it may be allowing myself to be branded or not sticking to one particular discipline or genre. This is a short-term problem as long as one keeps producing.  Creatively it is not a problem, however recreating a market for oneself it can have negative repercussions. And of course economic need can dictate inspiration.

Moving to Europe has been a challenge creatively. There is little I found inspiring in Europe in general and it took me sometime to find a voice that reflected my new environment and to truly discover the environment that corresponded with my voice. I always felt that if I were following in the tradition of Baldwin, Wright and Hughes, I would not be living in Paris in the 21st century.   I would be living in Sao Paulo or Johannesburg, etc. I moved here for familial reasons and it took me a while to reconcile my domestic and creative desires.

LD: Since 2003, you’ve both collaborated on three theater productions. The first In What Language? was a song cycle about airports, fear and surveillance before and after 9/11. Your second, Still Life with Commentator (2006) was a satirical oratorio about 24-hour news culture in a time of war. And more recently, Holding it Down (2012) focuses on the dreams of young American veterans from the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With all three, poetry and music works seamlessly together.  I personally think a lot about when the poem and music must be reshaped from what it might have initially looked or sounded like in separate spheres.  To the poet with no musical background, this could be devastating or a revelation.  In a nutshell, negotiation and compromise…can you talk about this?

ML: The collaboration actually started in the beginning of 2001. To speak on our collaborations in general, I think the fashioning, reshaping and fitting of text with music was and remains quite fluid. First, Vijay has the uncanny ability to make music that is very easy to work with text and yet remains surprising. I find it is often based around one specific textural or rhythmic choice. I was interested in exploring how established poetic meters work within different musical structures and time signatures. For example the title track on In What Language is in strict iambic pentameter, 10 ‘feet’ or five beats but delivered in 4/4 in what I think is a 5/7 cycle… Vijay do you remember what time the song is in? There have been several experiments like that over the years. “Taking Back the Airplane” is a ghazal of sorts. Still Life With Commentator toys with sonnets in “Shep’s Brook” and “Mount Rather,” which are also an attempt to turn a persona into a landscape which, in turn, is a critique of the early “scientific” writing that passively chronicled the conquest of America. In Holding it Down both, “My Fire” and “Phenix’s Aura” both play with the iambic line as well. Thus creating a “hypermeter.”  Thanks Vijay.

I have always embraced the flexibility and tenuousness of texts. Words are not only misinterpreted but over time completely misread and misspelled. And despite literally epic efforts, versions of ancient texts we read are almost as mercurial as oral traditions.  In summary, I am not attached to fixed versions of a text, hence my aversion to the page. Which of course conflicts with my desire to be published.  However, I relish hearing my text morph into something beyond the page and especially beyond my body. Hearing you, Diggs, Guillermo Brown, Ajay and Pamela, vocalize my text is one of my favorite artistic practices.

VI:  These projects have taught me musical humility.  There was an imperative to beat back our grandstanding jazz-bro tendencies in order to support the storytelling.  Improvised solos couldn’t just appear just for the sake of sheer awesomeness, but instead had to respect and complement the voice of the character.  The compositions couldn’t grab you by the lapels and force you to listen to themselves; they had to be subtle, environmental, nurturing, creating a space for the characters to live in.

In terms of the interactions or collisions between forms, I have just been listening to these realities unfolding across each other—the skittering and irregular rhythms of human speech against the periodic musical pulsations stemming from dance rhythms. Said speech becomes more regular through occasional use of poetic meters, while said musical pulsations are made less regular by the audible traces of musicians’ hands and bodies bringing them to life.  Maybe that’s the sound of what you call “negotiation.”

Mike, to answer your question, iambic pentameter (five beats) set against an eight-beat rhythm creates its own unfolding progression. You get something like “polymeter” or you get a “hypermeter” forming out of the multiplication of the two.

By the way—La, you referred to these projects as theater productions, and you would know, since you were in two of them. But it should be stated for the record that we didn’t start out with that in mind.  That is to say, these projects were conceived as cycles of poems with music first.  In each case we referred to the performance as a concert.  And the albums were at least as important as the concerts.  But in the course of pulling the material and the performers together, it became evident to us that we needed someone to help us be intelligible to an outsider. So each time we brought in a director to sit, look and listen, and to help us deliver the storytelling.  And that’s how these things became theater.


LD:  Holding it Down expanded the collaborative process to invite veterans into the mix.  Maurice Decaul, a poet attending NYU MFA program, served in the Marines from 1997 to 2003 in Iraq.  Lynn Hill, an actress and fiction writer, served in the Air Force as a drone operator.  Can you talk about the decision to go beyond interviewing veterans and including co-writers and performers? Also Vijay, I’d like for you to talk about a phrase you mentioned at Q&A a year ago at Harlem Stage. Musical Documentary?

VI:  I think it was “Documentary concert.”  It was actually a phrase offered by the director of Holding it Down, the brilliant and generous Patricia McGregor.  And she clearly adapted it from Anna Deveare Smith’s term “documentary performance.”  Both of those terms are inherent oppositions; you can’t be both documentary and performance; the act of performing creates some level of artifice that documentary purports to remove.  Ms. Smith’s works revealed and embraced the artifice in the documentary form, and they also reactivated the theatrical experience by grounding it in human truths.  Your experience of her work was deeply impacted by your knowledge of the fact that someone actually said the exact words that she was saying.

When Patricia raised the ante with the frankly impossible term “documentary concert,” I found it to be a useful contradiction that cut to the heart of what we were doing.  The artifice was heightened in the way that some of the speakers’ words were transformed into poetry and song lyric.  But on the other hand, the presence of Maurice and Lynn as co-performers and co-authors meant that they are participating in the artifice, which makes the notion of artifice irrelevant.  When an audience member looks at these two in the eye and listens to their words, as with documentary, he or she becomes implicated.  All of us paid the taxes that funded their combat experiences, so we’re all involved.  It’s no longer a passive viewing or listening experience.

ML: I had the privilege of working briefly with Ana Deveare Smith in the 1990’s.  Her work certainly shaped how I approached our three productions. In ‘97 Ms. Smith created the Institute for Arts and Civic Dialogue. The mission of the institute was to find ways to fully engage the community a given artist was trying to address. If I remember correctly, the work of Bill T Jones among others was featured. Both he, Ms. Smith and others presented works that involved their target audience participating integrally on stage. The results of such a performance were profound and of course the works of both Jones and Smith are landmarks.


It was clear to both of us from the very first discussion on Holding it Down that the show must be created and/or performed with veterans and that any proceeds from the project would go to where it was needed. Finding artists who were veterans was never a worry.  Every conflict has entangled artists in its tragedy and every conflict has accentuated certain artist’s abilities. Kurt Vonnegut, Yusef Koumanyaaka, Brian Turner and Thulani Davis supplied an impressive list of musicians recently, Papa Jo Jones, Clark Terry, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, Olu Dara, Baikida Carroll, Julius Hemphill, Joseph Jarman and Lester Bowie. We knew that, like Mr. Turner, there were others from this conflict with a voice. Veterans of color that needed to be heard. We are doubly indebted to Maurice and Lynn for what they put themselves through by entering the service and by facing those demons with us in the public sphere.  “Above and beyond” is an understatement.

LD:  Aside from interviewing veterans, anything you were reading that was helping in the writing process?

ML:  Man, there was a lot I read and I was just trying to dig up a bibliography I made but I can’t find it. There are two boxes of books from this project, but with much of our house its is currently in storage.

Off the top there were: Afghanistan by Stephen Tanner, Packing Inferno by Tyler Boudreau; Voices from Iraq by Mark Kukis, Oxford Book of War Poetry, and anything by Nathaniel Mackey. Three poets were my guides for this project: Brian Turner, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote Here bullet and Phantom Noise; Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau; and Elizabeth Bishop, she can tell a story in verse that will transport you to an utterly alien place and leave you there…alone. Terrifying.

Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and the chapter on colonial war and mental disorders was also very revealing. He chronicled the mental disorders of combatants and civilians during and after the war with the French in Algeria. The similarities in accounts are tragically uncanny.

LD:  A NPR staff writer wrote that this 10-year plus collaboration has been an on-going effort “to capture the poetry of war.”  Reading this, my memory is immediately drawn to something the poet Jayne Cortez wrote in her introduction to Poetic Magnetic.

She writes:

“One of the highest compliments given in the arts is when an artistic work is said to be not only excellent but also has beautiful poetic qualities. This compliment usually suggests that the work is more sensitive, has more insight, and is at a higher level of expression.  I am trying to move this combination of poetry, music and technology to a higher poetic level.”

Can you expand upon what the poetry and music of war looks like and sounds like?  Is there something relative in Jayne’s words in context to these three projects?

ML: The poetry and music of war is a vast genre that includes some of the world’s most iconic works. The Epic of Sundiata from the Mali Empire, Ajax and the Iliad, endless folk songs that fall under work songs and sea shanties, the Heart of Darkness all the way to Edwin Starr.  It is so vast it is almost difficult to call it a genre. If it is, then Ms. Cortez’s goal is most certainly the penultimate, to find grace in the most graceless of things and place that grit in a light that allows us to see the poetic side of something that harsh, a poetry that will quiet us and allow us to actually listen.

LD: Vijay, off the head, the earliest of music and poetry collaborations in theatre I can think of is A Black Mass written by Amiri Baraka with music by Sun Ra. Their collaboration premiered at the RKO Proctors Theatre in Newark, New Jersey in 1965. In 2009, 4 Electric Ghosts written by Mendi + Keith Obadike premiered at the Kitchen in New York and Kevin Simmonds, a poet and pianist who has composed music for the poetry of Kwame Dawes, is set to premiere Emmett Till, a river, a Japanese Noh theatre piece that retells the story from the point of view of his mother and his accuser.  All (with a slight exception to Baraka and Ra’s work) contain a degree of cross-cultural discourse. Obadikes mashes up a story written by Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola with that of video game Pac Man developed by Iwatani Tōru, a Japanese programmer.  Simmonds is working with a style of Japanese classical drama to retell a troubling event in both Black-American and American history.  How do you feel this work is furthering first, the tradition of music and poetry collaboration, and second, cross-cultural conversations?

VI: I have always viewed these projects as American, and maybe even Americanist.  That is not to deny the transnational elements that enter the picture, but to remind ourselves that we enjoy a certain vantage as Americans and as city-folk that enables us in such a way to be “cross-cultural” in the first place.  It’s also strategic.  In my early years as a cultural worker I found that everything I did was labeled cross-cultural, because my parents came from India and because I’m brown and foreign-looking.  So I find it important sometimes to push back and assert my Americanness.  As an artist I’m involved in revealing, advancing, articulating and documenting a new American reality, one that comes from a specific community of color and is in sustained dialogue with other communities of color and is grounded in Black cultural politics, all while dwelling on the frontier of what is considered American.  In practice this often means playing against “type” or making what George Lipsitz calls strategic anti-essentialist moves, and it also means cultivating alliances that might seem surprising to some, forming versions of community that are not tied to ethnicity.  I suppose that these projects with Mike, in kicking around the deliberately vague term “people of color,” have helped us imagine these alliances into being.

Vijay Iyer. Photo by Jimmy Katz.

Vijay Iyer. Photo by Jimmy Katz.

For me it’s been extremely validating to be heard as part of a legacy like the one you have sketched out.  It places me in the stream of Americanness, in the heritage of Black radical art, and in a position of actually contributing to the format. We always counted Ishmael Reed and Kip Hanrahan’s recording of Conjure as an important precedent too.  In this past decade I got to imagine a lineage that included Tupac, Gil Scott Heron, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Benjamin Britten, J.S. Bach, ancient Tamil poets, J.G. Ballard, and Joseph Conrad.  I made Mike rhyme over Carnatic rhythms, orchestral samples, and refurbished tropes of American minimalism too.  I suppose it’s all cross-cultural if we regard cultures as static, but they aren’t.  Cultures are cross-cultural.  (ML)—shit we made Ajay Naidu rap in iambic pentameter over Carnatic rhythms, if I remember correctly.

LD: If we must go there for a spell, I’d like for the both of you to talk a bit about categorization and the challenges you might have experienced with these three projects.  There is music here.  There is poetry here.  All three have an existence outside of the theatre.  All three are available on CD.   Has this recorded music and poetry found its space in a landscape that still relies on market terminology?  It is a huge oversight to read these albums as “spoken word,” “musicals” or “jazz”?  How should poets understand these productions?  If the text becomes available in book form, is it a collection of poetry or a songbook? What’s at stake?  What’s not?

ML: All three pieces were designed to be dismantled and stand-alone in their separate parts. The poetry should be strong enough to be read alone on the page or aloud to even be placed in the context of other music. I always wanted to supply instrumental versions of the recordings as well. They do exist and I would love to hear them in the public sphere. A collection of these poems should be received as a book of poems and nothing else. That said I reserve the right to keep editing until they go to press. Our intentions for all these works were to be judged on the highest standards, against the Robert Wilsons, Barakas and Pinskys of the world. The work is nothing less than song cycle…poetic and musical performance, oratorio and at some instances, by some interpretations opera.

VI: Whether or not this material has “found its space in a landscape that still relies on market terminology” has yet to be seen.  When we’re talking about a market, we’re talking capitalism and therefore about desire and desirability—bout using desire to impel people to act as consumers.  But we’ve always known that this material is dealing with the undesirable; undesirability is one of its axioms, really.  That’s why we coined the joking-not-joking term “irritainment.”

But also, creating desirability specific to certain genres means performing genre, and embodying it.  And certain aspects of that enterprise are doomed, in our case.  I remember that about four weeks before Still Life with Commentator went up at BAM, we heard from their marketing staff that they were going to drop the term “oratorio” from all text about our project.  My first reaction was, OH SO THE WHITE GATEKEEPER SAYS A COUPLE OF BROWN DUDES CAN’T HAVE AN ORATORIO?  But I learned that they were responding to the market; actually it was their (overwhelmingly white) subscribers who, in failing to buy tickets for our show, were expressing their lack of desire for a brown oratorio.  Maybe our next one should be called an oreo-torio? (That joke is courtesy of Tamara K. Nopper.)

LD:  Mike, a popular buzzword fluttering around in conversations surrounding poetries that are based on the stories of others: appropriation. In the process of creating Holding It Down, Vijay and yourself interviewed several veterans.  The project becomes essentially less about you and more about them.   Of course, your narrative is interwoven throughout.  However, I’m curious to know the difficulty and/or challenge you came across collecting stories and retelling these stories through persona, narration, etc.  Was there ever a moment of doubt?  Just how difficult was it to remove you, the political you, the radical you out of the story line?

ML: I followed one basic tenant of ethnography; never omit the significance of one’s gaze. Make it clear that this work is an interpretation, a distortion of an actual event or conversation. I have always been very careful to avoid mimicry in any form. The biggest challenge in all three projects, but accentuated in Holding it Down, was how does transferring these interviews into poems enhance and not jeopardize the information? It is part of what you hint at below. Why not just direct a documentary? First off, these subjects deserve our strongest and most practiced talents, poetry and music, not film. Second, regarding this information in the context of its usual delivery systems, televised or web documentary, our approach allows more points of entry for the passive listener.  One may approach these works ambivalent to the subject matter but are interested in the artists or our respective genres and find a better understanding of the subject matter is inescapable.

LD:  As both of you are dads, can you briefly discuss the importance of the work you’ve set out to do with In What Language? with Still Life With a Commentator, and Holding It Down in the context of raising children in a time of war and what you may be dreaming of yourselves for them?

VI: These projects were partly about a stubborn refusal to be silenced; a resistance to behaving in the way one is expected.  Conveying that ethos to a child can feel counterproductive as a beleaguered parent, but obviously it’s necessary.  I wish I knew how to raise a child.  I find myself being wrong about most things.  I had been overprotective of my daughter about the simple fact of war.  But when I first told my daughter about Holding It Down, she said, “Can people who had to kill people have dreams?”  That’s an interesting insight already—reminds me of the line about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz.  She has heard a lot of this album—she especially likes Lynn.  She heard some of Lynn’s outtakes that were more like stand-up comedy.

Veteran Lynn Hill in Holding It Down, 2012. Photo by Marc Millman

Veteran Lynn Hill in Holding It Down, 2012. Photo by Marc Millman

ML: We have been at war longer than our children have been alive. We have attempted to explain these wars to our children in countless ways I imagine. When we are all old enough to see these wars in retrospect and my children ask me what I was doing during the war, I will have something to tell them. I was engaged. If I could not stop it, I could at least, in some way, help explain it. I am glad to know I have participated in this terrible part of our history in a manner of which I am not completely ashamed. Not an easy feat in war.

LD: Do you consider this a trilogy?  Is this it? Will Sleep Song (call it the B-side to Holding It Down that continues the journey working alongside Iraqi musician Ahmed Mukhtar and Iraqi writer Ahmad Abdulhusein) ever make it to the US?

VI: I don’t think it dawned on us that we had created a post-9/11 trilogy until we wrote the program notes for the premiere performance of Holding it Down.  We had to tell the larger story of how and why it was made, and that was a way to make sense of this ten-year trajectory.  As for me, I would like to see the collaboration continue, because I think we stumbled into a unique and productive way of working together.  Sleep Song has some shows in France in 2014.  The US engagements have to be handled carefully because of what’s involved to secure visas for visiting Iraqi artists.  I remain hopeful.

ML: Like Vijay said, none of this was planned but during our efforts to explain our reasons for creating Holding it Down we explained our process and thus gave more structure to the project overall, hence a trilogy with a b-side. As for collaborating, the people we have worked with over the years, you included, make creating what we do an ideal experience. I feel privileged to work with Vijay over the years as an artist and as a friend so I hope it will continue. As for the Sleep Song, we hope it will come over in the future.

LD: What is it about all three of these projects that is relevant to the conversation of political poetry? Given platforms like 100 Thousand Poets for Change and Split This Rock where poetry is supported as “a mechanism to promote serious social, environmental, and political change and debate,” it seems to me that the work you two are doing to foster transformation fits right into this mission.

VI: “Political change” and “debate” are wonderful terms that don’t make much sense anymore, since we’ve been compartmentalized into political stasis and social media has us surrounding ourselves with people who agree with us on everything.  But sometimes the arts can offer a way through and out of that, if you can get people in a room to re-experience the humanity of a person unlike themselves, or if you can make people witness a temporary resolution of differing perspectives.

We also have to ask ourselves what constitutes change.  There is the question of what this project means for the audience, but our first responsibility with Holding It Down is to the veterans’ community.  We started this project because we wanted and needed to listen.  But we didn’t foresee that veterans might also want and need to tell.  When Lynn told us that doing this project helped her stop having nightmares, which enabled her to leave therapy, get married and start a family—that she underwent her own transformation through the telling—that changed my perspective on what the hell we’re doing.  That’s, as they say, change you can believe in.

ML: It is hard to add to what Vijay just said. Since the dawn of the new millennium there is one event that I can say was genuinely new. Although they failed in their ultimate goal, the anti-war protests of 2003 (against the U.S. invasion of Iraq) were unprecedented. Never in the history of the world had that many people gathered in a public space at one time to stop a war from being prosecuted, (prior to combat no less!) 1 million in D.C., 1 million in London.  Hundreds of thousands in Paris and Rome etc… The Bush administration went on with the war anyway but the significance of those protests should not be lost. If our work can help lead to mass acts of peace, then we are in the right tradition. If our work can be as poetic, millions on the street for peace, around the world, on the same day, in spite of the odds, then we are in the right tradition.



Tarot for the Day: Strength (reversed), The Emperor (reversed), The Sun

Song for the Day: Flying Lotus “Dance of the Pseudo Nymph”

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, December 9th, 2013 by Latasha N. Nevada Diggs.