Speaking Words: An Interview with Walter Thomas Beck III
In the fourth of a series on queer performance poets, Laura Macdougall talks to Walter Beck about how performance poetry is an electric force that is returning the art form “to the bars and the gutters”.
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Walter Thomas Beck is a queer activist, writer, poet and gonzo journalist. He grew up – and still lives – in Indiana, and has been writing regularly since 2005. His poetry has been featured in numerous magazines such as Assaracus, Yes Poetry and Off The Rocks and he is also published by Writing Knights Press. Beck began his writing career as a music journalist, and his love of music continues to influence and infuse his poetry. In 2012 he released an album (No Stone Left Unspoken) under the name Neon Signs, in collaboration with Miearth.
As both activist and poet, Beck is no stranger to controversy, regularly occupying a place at the forefront of picket lines and being banned from open mic nights for his daring performances.
You say you want poetry to be ‘alive and dangerous again’. How do you define spoken word? Do you think of yourself as a spoken word/performance poet, or a poet, or neither of these? Do you think it’s different for every practitioner and every audience member?
Every poet is different in how they define themselves, some take the banner of spoken word, some take the banner of performance poet, and others take the banner of various art movements. That’s the thing with poetry – since it’s an extremely personal art form every poet is different in how they approach it and define it. The same goes with an audience. Even though I’ve been doing live gigs for the last eight years, I still don’t know how I’m gonna go over with a crowd.
For me personally, I consider myself a performance poet as well as a written poet. My live and recorded performances are a separate entity from my written material. You take a piece like ‘Hopes of a Young American Poet’, the written version was very well received when it was published in my first chapbook Life Through Broken Pens and in Issue 08 of Assaracus. But the recorded version, which I did with noise/industrial artist Miearth, transforms it. It becomes almost a new piece entirely. To put it in music-terms, my recorded performances, live or studio, are “alternate mixes” to the original written versions.
You say your youth and anger led you into poetry. This seems to be the case for quite a lot of spoken word poets. Why do you think this is?
You’re never as righteously angry as you are when you’re young. I’m twenty-seven and yes, I can still get up on a stage and kick out the jams. But it’s different than when I was nineteen and just starting to write poetry. My anger now is muddled and colored by growing up. I can’t just say “Fuck the government!” now, I have a long list of reasons why I would say that. When I was a teenager, I had my reasons to say something like that, but they took a backseat to the raw flash bang of young holy madness. When you’re a kid, you just wanna turn your amps up as high as they can go and burn everything down.
You actually studied poetry. What is the relationship for you between the written word on the page and when you perform your poetry out loud?
I have a mixed relationship with academia and poetry. I must give credit to one of my professors, Dr. Matthew Brennan, who really opened the doors for me. When I first took his class, I was writing really raw poetry – it was all free verse, one stanza, not punctuated. He saw that I had talent, so he pulled me aside and said, “Walter, this is good stuff, but let me show what you can really do with it.” He showed me various forms, styles, and really allowed me to take my work further.
At the same time, academia can stifle poetry. If you want to create an audience for poetry, you have to take it beyond the classroom.
When you read my work on the page, it’s colored by your own voice and interpretation. With a live performance, you’re seeing my interpretation, my vision. It’s still colored by your own perception, but you can see a bit more clearly what was going on in my head when I first composed the piece.
What do you feel when you’re performing? What’s the difference between writing and performing, for you?
I feel alive when I’m performing. One of the best shows I ever did was back in 2007, it was my first live gig in Terre Haute, it was at some open mic night at Indiana State University and I worked myself into such a frenzy that I was literally pouring sweat on stage and about two seconds away from passing out cold. It freaked the holy shit out of the crowd, even my buddies were worried that I was gonna be sick. But it was beautiful.
Writing for me is also a physical act, when I’m feeling the muse working through me and typing out the work, I’m jamming along to the music I have on.
Do you think poetry has taken over your life? This was something most of the other performance poets I spoke to definitely felt.
Hell, yes. When I go to work at my day job, I keep a notebook and pen with me in case inspiration hits. On my smoke breaks and lunch break, I read poetry. When I’m home, I’m usually tinkering with new pieces or sketching out ideas for live performances.
This is what I do, I am a poet. It is my living. The day job puts gas in my car, gets me cigarettes and whiskey, but poetry is the reason I get up in the morning.
Spoken word is very political – and it certainly is for you, as you talk about gender, sexuality, identity, the economy, sex etc. – why do you think this is?
I think all art is political. The purpose of an artist is to make a statement about society and isn’t social commentary politics in its purest form? My poetry and performances are often strongly tied in with my work as an activist. I can burn on a stage, on the page, and on the picket line with equal fury. I’m living in this world, I don’t live in isolation, and therefore what happens politically affects me. I have a deep personal stake in the struggle for queer equality. As a working class writer, I have a deep personal stake in the state of the economy and how the working folks are getting screwed daily. I wake up every day affected by these things, so why not write about them? It connects on a broader level than if I just lounge around and stare at my navel.
You’ve mentioned how much of your inspiration comes from music. How do you conceive of music when you’re performing? How do the music and lyrics work together, and do you think it is still then spoken word poetry, or is it something else for you?
I’m heavily influenced by music. I said in an interview I did a little while back that I didn’t think of myself as a poet, but rather a frustrated musician who found the computer keyboard to be my instrument of choice. A large part of that for me is my background. Before I was a poet, I was a musician. I played drums in a garage rock’n’roll band. I never played in a big band, you know, we played a few gigs, cut a couple of demo tapes, and that was pretty much it as far as my music career went.
But I still carried my music background into my poetry. As a drummer, for me there’s a real rhythm in writing poetry. It’s one of the main reasons I prefer typing my work rather than writing it with a pen. Sitting at my desk and working on new pieces really isn’t all that different for me than when I sat behind a drum kit. It’s just a bit of a different set-up, the rhythm and riffs are still there.
And it goes beyond just the poetry itself, my live performances are heavily influenced by music. I saw what somebody like Alice Cooper did on stage, with the blood and the make-up and said, “Why can’t I do something like that with my poetry?” I’ll be honest, I find a lot of live poets to be boring as hell; they get up there, read their work, get a little polite applause, and then leave. I don’t dig that, I want my audience to see something they won’t forget, even if they hate my performance. So I brought a lot of rock’n’roll aesthetics into my live show, started breaking out a bit of stage blood, some outrageous clothing and learned how to work myself into a frenzy at the mic. It’s rock’n’roll. I’m still waiting to do a gig where the audience goes apeshit and starts a mosh pit during my set; that would be one of the ultimate compliments from a crowd.
As far as whether or not it’s still poetry, if you’re speaking it, it’s poetry. If you’re singing it, it’s music. What I do sort of straddles the line between the two.
You’re based in a small city in America. How is your poetry received there? Are you aware of the UK spoken word scene? What do you think (if any) are the main differences between the UK and the US in terms of spoken word?
The reaction locally to my work has been a bit mixed; I haven’t gone over well in the few local venues I’ve performed in. The coffeehouses around here seem to be populated with hipsters, you know, guys who wear Ramones t-shirts ironically and consider bitching about something on Facebook to be social activism. So my work and style is too heavy for them.
On the other hand, I’ve performed several times as the opening act for our local showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Rocky crowd always digs me. I’m in the shadow cast where I’m lovingly called “The Fudge Packing Bard” and I always look forward to a Midnight gig with a crowd of my fellow freaks.
When I was living in Terre Haute and going to Indiana State University, the local poetry scene was great and still is. Terre Haute is where I cut my teeth as a live poet; it’s where I did some of my biggest and most shocking performances. If you want to see my home stage, go to Coffee Grounds on Wabash Avenue on the Third Thursday of every month. Those people there are my poetry family.
You know, honestly, I’m not familiar with the UK poetry scene, although I do have a few records by John Cooper Clarke. If they’re full of raw passion, let their souls bleed a bit on stage, and can work a crowd into a right frenzy, they’re my kind of people.
Do you think spoken word as an art form is quite inclusive of minorities compared to other art forms?
Poetry is the most democratic art form out there, if you have something to say and a means to say it, be it on stage or on the page, you already have your foot in the door. Race, religion, sexuality, whatever, it doesn’t matter; the door is open, if you have the heart for it, run through it and open your mind.
One of the best poets I know out there today is a guy by the name of Raymond Luczak. He’s a deaf gay poet and that cat speaks louder with his hands than just about any poet could with a mic. Watch some of his videos, his hands are singing pure, unfettered blues.
Everybody has something to say and a story to tell, we all have passions, dreams, heartbreaks. Poetry is the tool that allows everybody to speak.
What do you think about the role of social media in relation to spoken word? There are videos that go ‘viral’ but, to me, those ones can often seem quite tame. Though perhaps that’s to be expected… Do you think that any sort of exposure to spoken word is good, even if it is not as hard-hitting as it could be?
Social media is a blessing to poets. Our work spreads faster and quicker than it ever could before.
It enables people who might not be exposed to poetry to see it for the first time. One of the most common things a poet will hear is that “poetry is boring”. It’s only boring if you’re reading stuff that doesn’t speak to you. With social media, you can find a poet who will shake you to your very soul.
Technology has allowed us to break completely from ivory tower of academic poetry and bring back down on the streets, back to the people, back to the bars and gutters. It’s the new frontier and it will bring a poetry revolution.
You’ve been banned from open mic nights (and other places) because you don’t hold back, either in terms of the content of your poetry or, as I’ve only been able to read about, your actions. What’s your reaction to this? Do you feel very much part of a more ‘underground’ movement rather than more ‘mainstream’ (if we can use those words).
My work has been controversial. I’ve been banned from venues. Once I was threatened with a defamation lawsuit when a former boss of mine got pissed because I called him an asshole in print. As a journalist, I’ve had my work censored when I worked for the Indiana Statesman.
I think it’s great, I have no regrets or second-thoughts about the controversy I’ve caused as a poet and performer. First off, it’s great publicity. You know, you get banned from a venue, word spreads, and soon everybody wants to see what this wild freak did on stage. The “banned” performance I did at Indiana State which happened back in October 2008 was one of my breakthrough shows. The people organizing it were stunned at what I did. I got up there shirtless with “WE DIE YOUNG” scrawled on my chest in stage blood, my hair and beard were braided and dyed, my beard was blue, and my hair was half red and half green. I’m up there in ripped jeans and engineer boots, just barking fire into the mic, doing pieces about revolution and booze, total punk rock hedonism.
After the show, the organizers came up to me and real quietly said, “Um, listen, we don’t want to censor you, free speech we totally support it. But, um, if you could never do that again, we would appreciate it.” It was hilarious, they were speaking so nervously, like I was gonna rip out their hearts or something.
I leaked that I had been banned and next thing I know, I was one of the fastest rising poets in the Terre Haute poetry scene.
Where do you think spoken word is going? Are you excited by the art form, or do you feel that what you’re doing is quite different?
There is a revolution of poetry brewing; people are finding poetry exciting again. Angry kids with notebooks are finding poets that speak to them and they’re itching to try their hands at it. They’ll bring their words to the stage and start shredding audiences. This is the original punk movement revamped, raw artistic passion for the 21st Century.
You’ve recently said you’re taking a break, yet you’re still writing and publishing poetry on your Facebook page. What’s next for you?
It’s funny, just about every time I say I’m going on hiatus or I have writer’s block, a couple of good pieces always slip out. It’s funny, the two poems I’ve composed on my hiatus, ‘June’ and ‘Uisce Beatha’, have been called some of the best work I’ve done all year.
I think I meant I was going more on an inspirational hiatus, my last two manuscripts were based on my day jobs at the time and the second one, Red Ink Sludge is probably the rawest, angriest thing I’ve ever written. And writing stuff that heavy and dark takes a toll on a person. So I’m looking for a new muse, trying to re-invent myself a bit.
As far as what’s next, well soon I’ll be entering the studio with Miearth to record some more material for Neon Signs. We’ll be working on a full-length follow up to our debut album No Stone Left Unspoken and we’ll be recording a rendition of my short historical romance fiction piece “Under the Pale Gray Moon”.
I’m still waiting to hear back from the publisher on Red Ink Sludge, hopefully I’ll be signing the deal on it soon. It’s really a great manuscript and I’d hate to see it end up in the trunk.
I’d like to hit the stage again soon, I haven’t done a live gig since April and I got the stage itch pretty bad. I’m ready to get up there and burn again.
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