Read Andrea's full interview with Asia Sampson on his poetry, writing process and spoken word performance.
ASIA: I AM A WRITER FIRST. I will always be a writer, storyteller. I perform my poems. It just adds this other element to it, right? So, that's the goal. I want people to have an experience, and radio will do that to you. Movies will do that to you. That's always been the goal.
FIRST, I READ THE SPACE, see what they need. Recently, I locked in on two people that were listening. And then I gave them the show because I always say I do the people who are there, not the people who aren't. We get caught up in chasing the people who don't care, rather than the people who matter, right? And that applies in life anywhere, right? That we try to chase the opinions of people that don't really matter rather than the people who do. And so, by the end of this show, two of the librarians that actually worked there kind of gravitated to the floor. The barista who was serving coffee in the back stopped what she was doing and was watching and, before I knew it there was about five people that were listening and....crying. And then the other people were still on their laptops not caring, or giving a shit....laughter.
ANDREA: So, element number 1 is the actual story, the words?
ASIA: Words, yeh. It’s the writing and the words and everything the imagery all have to be, you know, sharp. You can perform the hell out of a horrible poem and it still will be a horrible poem. Or you can perform an amazingly written poem horribly, and it will still sound pretty good, right?
All my poems always start with sound and tone for me. Like, ok I'm gonna write about my sister's death... How did I want that to sound like? Right? Or, I'm gonna write about my love, my love for Jess.. And the angle I'm gonna come at it, with how do I want that to sound like first? So a lot of times in my head I already know how it's going to sound like. I may not have the words, but I know how it's going to sound like. Part two is, what's the take-away, for me? What's the message I'm giving out here?
ANDREA: When you say that you know how it's gonna sound, does that mean that you know how it's gonna sound in terms of a song?
ASIA: Sound as in...yeah, see...So, you may not listen to a lot of spoken-word poetry, I mean at least as much as I have, right? You start to notice poets have a certain sound to their poems. Now, a lot of poets pretty much are one-trick. Right, like no matter what poem they talk about, it's going to sound....Whether they talk about sex, whether they're talking about violence, whether they're talking about death, it all sounds the same... It's just different words.
So for me... there's a certain, like if you think songs to ya. I mean you can look at it in the way of songs, some songs have just put you in a mood, right. So, I always know the sound of it, the tone of it, right. I don't know the exact sound. I don't know the, the chords, or the melody, I don't even know the words. I just know I want it to sound reflective, or I want it to sound mundane, or I want it to sound, you know, intimate and vulnerable. Or I want it to sound hilarious and upbeat. That's how I already know, the tone of it, where it's gonna be.
ANDREA: So you go for a mood in a way. You go for a sound, a mood and a sound.
ASIA: Mood and sound yeah. So I go for the mood. I also like to call it "tone." More so than anything, 'cause there's a tone to it. There's a feeling behind it. And then from there, I know, I have to figure out, ok, but what's the message, what's the take-away, what do I want to say in this poem? And sometimes I may not even know that. Sometimes the poem will reveal that. I've had situations where I've written poems that I had no idea what I'm saying here, and then all of a sudden it just reveals itself as I'm writing it.
ANDREA: That's the process of editing... exactly…right, so you're in the same place, but you start with the mood or the sound, you say tone, and then you start writing and then sometimes you figure it out as you go...cool. That's art, man.
ASIA: Yeah, and you know, most times I know the beginning and the end. That, for sure, I usually always know, and then I fill in the middle. Like, I get from point A to point B. I do, I know where I'm gonna begin, I know where I'm gonna end. Usually that happens because I have a line pop in my head. So, the funny thing is you caught it. You were the one that liked it. When we did the last poem. The Desks are not bullet-proof poem, the line about my son was the first thing that popped up to me. That was the first thing that inspired that poem.
ANDREA: The faking sleep moment?
ASIA: Yeah. Like I walked in on my son yeah, faking sleep. Yeah because the night, a couple of nights before that, I went...the funny story about this poem, and I wanna go, I wanna talk about this because we're discussing the writing and the stuff....
So..the poem started when I was putting my son to bed and, uh, he was in the room and I was like, oh let me go into my room, do whatever I have to do and I'll go back and check in on him. And I can still hear him playing, and I'm like, ok I need to go in there and tell him he needs to go to sleep. So I walk in there...He's four. So, he's in the room and you know I can hear him still talking. I can hear him laying down and kind of playing and talking, so I'm like, let me go in there, because I've told him it's time to go to bed. So I go in there and, now he's lying down. And I look and, his eyes were closed but his eyes were closed in a way that you could tell he's forcing them closed? You know what I mean?
He's not a good enough liar to try to....and I was like, about to call him out on it, and I started thinking like, what if, you know...for some reason that just connected me to the schools shooting. It just connected me to all this stuff, like, I wonder if kids are pretending to do the same thing, uh, when there's a gun man coming into the room. So that moment right there, that intimate moment sparked the poem. But now, I didn't write the poem yet, because in my head I'm like, ah....
There's this thing about, this unwritten...like, rule with poets to never write the hot topic poem, right? Because you know in a couple of months everyone will have that same hot topic poem. Right? If someone writes about Black Lives Matter, you can pretty much guarantee in about two months everyone will have a Black Lives Matter poem. If someone's gonna write about school shooting, in a couple of months everybody's gonna have a poem of school shootings. And if you look at all my work I never have any hot-topic poem, I would rather have poems that are timeless. I would rather have poems that are gonna be relevant no matter what. I don't wanna write the one poem that everyone's writing about right now.
ASIA: Um, but then one day I was driving home....
ANDREA: But I'm really glad you did write this one. And even right now when you just described your son in bed with his eyes squeezed shut in this obvious way, I got chills. Because of where it took you....
ASIA: Yeah. And so on my drive, I had a three-hour drive home from Tallahassee, and as I'm driving home words just started spilling out of my mouth for this poem. Right? That never happens to me. Ever. Usually it's me sitting down, it's a process, it's scratching out things, and erasing and adding and editing and kind of molding. For some reason on this one from beginning to end it just started coming out of my mouth, which is something that just doesn't' happen to me.
ANDREA: Did you record it? Because you were driving. Like, how did you capture it?
ASIA: No, so I pulled off onto a rest area, pulled up my laptop and just started driving. And I was there for maybe 45 minutes. And I had the whole poem pretty much written out. And then I just went home and did the editing.
ANDREA: Now all our listeners are gonna hate you, but that's ok.
ASIA: No! But that never happens to me. That doesn't. It's one of those.... I came home and cleaned it up and then it was done.
ANDREA: So that one didn't start with the tone?
ASIA: It did. The tone was that certain. That silent, quiet, feeling of my son sleeping in bed was the tone. Because if you think about it that's probably how it felt in classrooms when you know there's a gunman in the hallway shooting people up, and you know inside the classroom people are....like outside the classroom people are running for their lives and screaming, and guns are being fired off, but then if you think about it inside the classroom people, it was probably, people were being as quiet as they could, because they're trying to pretend that they're dead, or pretend that they're not in there, right?
So that's the tone I wanted to capture, I didn't wanna capture the screaming. I could've made this poem go the other way with, you know, guns being shot off and people are running and screaming for their lives. That could've been the tone for that, but instead I wanted to focus on the tone of the people that were in the classroom and are trying to hide from the gunman or are trying to pretend that they're dead. That was the quiet I wanted for this poem. And that's what I wanted for the whole piece.
ANDREA: So talk to me about how you then work out the delivery. Like when you're gonna tell the poem, do you, consciously pace yourself in a certain way, speed up, slow down, get louder. Or is that, has that become instinct? But then I wanna know how you do it for yourself, and then how do you teach that, and do you teach it?
ASIA: Ok, so, um....Funny story but when I was in junior high I tried to be a break dancer.
ANDREA: you wanted to be a break dancer?
ASIA: No, I was a break dancer in my junior high school.
ASIA: Pop blocking. There was a guy who was teaching me how to dance that way and he goes, "Give yourselves a VCR where you can speed up, slow down, rewind, ff, go regular pace" because it makes the dance interesting. For some reason I took that with me when I started performing spoken words poetry.
ANDREA: That's awesome!
ASIA: Yeah, you know, weird? So I always thought of myself as a VCR. Again, I told you, now I have the tone, now I have the words, but I really don't even know how it's gonna be performed. I know that I want certain breaks here and there so that this line gets accentuated when I'm performing it, but usually that gets worked out in practice. So, the process is I have the poem. I go to an open mic or I go somewhere for a show and I test out the poem by reading it. Right? Just so I can get a feel of it on stage. But I know I wanna read it and test it out and see people's vibe to specific lines that I liked, but it will be very choppy. And then when I decide, ok, I wanna put this in my arsenal, then I learn it. I put the paper away, and then I perform it for the first time without paper. Every time I perform it for the first time without paper, I can guarantee you I will mess it up. It's become tradition. Like, if I don't mess up a poem that first time, then it's not considered in my arsenal.
ANDREA: If you don't mess it up you don't use it?
ASIA: No...I do. I always mess it up. I have never had a time when it didn't get messed up. Because you could practice it all day, but as soon as people are staring at you it becomes a whole different environment.
ANDREA: If you stumble, do you then edit? Do you then sort of rework the lines maybe?
ASIA: No....because that'll confuse me even more. That just means that I just don't know that part as well. I've already committed to the words. It's already there. I'm not like one of these poets who edit. Like, some of them are good at that, they edit on the fly, ok that's not gonna work there...
ANDREA: I would imagine, many poets and I do this when I'm performing. If I'm performing a line and I bungle it, then I'm realizing that there's a moment, like I need to rework those lines maybe. But, ok that's not what you do.
ASIA: No....well, I will if when I read it to them the first few times...when I've been reading the poem I can get a feel of oh well that line did not hit as much as it should. That, before I put it to memory I will do the re-write. But what I'm saying is, once I commit it to memory, that means I've already done all the re-writes I could. Right?
You know there's a thing that someone was telling me, that poems are never finished. They're just abandoned. Right? And so, I learned at that point after the editing and reading it to people ok, I can leave this. This is where I'm gonna leave it now. This is where It's going to stay.
So then I'll put it to memory. I'll mess it up a couple of times. Then the first time I say it without any hiccups, it's still not where I want all the pitches, the crescendos or anything like that. It doesn't do that to me yet. It's just, I know the poem. Matter of fact, that Bullet Proof poem, I've been performing it at colleges for about two weeks now, and I'm still not at that place, right? It's still...I can say it without messing up, but it's still not at the crescendos where I'd like it. I'm still not in that pocket where I'd like it.
ANDREA: And once you get it to that place, it, you perform it the same every time?
ASIA: No...so that's what I'm about to get to. Here's the magical thing, after you perform something a couple of times, I want it to get to a place where my mouth can literally spit the poem without me even thinking of it anymore, and now my mind instead is thinking this part's coming up, bring this word up,this part's coming up, drop a pause here,this part's coming up, extend this word. My mind starts messing with the poem now, like freestyling it in my head basically. Drop a word here, add an inflection there. My mind is thinking that now because the words are coming up automatically out of my mouth. I'm not consciously thinking about the words anymore. It becomes a magical place where the poem becomes such a part of you, because you've performed it so many times, it's become such a part of you that you can literally lose yourself in the poem. Like, you can lose yourself in the performance, because you're not even thinking about the words anymore. You're not conscious of what's coming up next. Your mind is just playing it like a symphony....
That's the part that I teach. To get to the point where the poem becomes so automatic that you can play it like a symphony without ever thinking about the words anymore. People don't get to that point because they're too worried about, I need to perform a new poem next week, I'm going to an open mic, I've performed this poem too many times. And, I can't do that same poem, I'm gonna write a new poem. You never let the poem get to that place. You never let the poem get to that place where it becomes such a part of you that it just comes out automatically.
ANDREA: You're trusting yourself. That's when you're feeling the audience, that's when you're feeling the space like we talked at the beginning. That's where you're reacting to, you're reacting to your own emotions in that moment probably....
ASIA: That's right. So, especially when I'm doing, like...a hilarious poem. Like, the 90s poem. I had such a great time doing that poem. Because people are laughing and then I can mess with them in that space. I can drop a line here and I can stop there. Like, you know, the second Lip Service I did when I did the poem about sex and about losing my virginity. I was having a great time, because I knew where people were gonna laugh, and I could add a pause. I knew the poem well enough that I could let it do it's thing.
ANDREA: Do you ever step out of the poem and ad-lip off the cuff words?
ASIA: All the time with comedy poems. I don't do that with my more serious poems because it kind of ruins the tone and the moment that I'm putting them in. But with comedy poems, sometimes I'll stop and then people will be laughing and I'll be like "yeah, you know what I'm talking about" and I'll call out the audience or whatever. And then go right back into the poem and continue on. That's if I know the poem very well.
ANDREA: Beautiful.... uh, and I've seen you do it. And I'm like, daaang you are so in the moment. Ught.
ASIA: Yeah, that's it. That's the word. Being in the moment. Because a poem...The words should be the last thing I need to be worried about. I already wrote it. The poem's already written. You'll already hear the words. I don't need to worry about them.
ANDREA: It's already in you.
ASIA: I don't need to worry about the actual words in a performance. I just need to worry about how I'm delivering it at that point.
ANDREA: So how long does it take, like on average, from start to finish, until....and how many times you tell it out loud? What's the whole process until it's in you? Until you can play it like a symphony?
ASIA: Depends on how many shows I have.... So, when I was living in South Florida, there was an open mic every night of the week. I would perform at all these open mic's for two weeks straight and in about two weeks I've already got it.
ANDREA: So is it really 14 nights in a row?
ASIA: Well, yeah, I guess it all depends on the poem too and how excited I am to really learn the poem
ANDREA: Yeah....but like ok, so you would perform it 14 times out loud in front of people before it was in you.
ASIA: Pretty much, yeah. Constantly, because 14 times could be...there could be a gap between the 3rd and the 5th time, of like, a week that I didn't get to perform it, so I didn't get a chance to really learn it in that week.
ANDREA: It's stage time...that's what you're saying. People need stage time.
ASIA: It is. It's stage time. And then that. That comes with experience.
You know what? You know what I do in my workshop? I make somebody get up in the class and perform a poem that they already know by heart, that they don't have to think about. They start performing it, and I conduct them. I'll lift my hands up to make them raise their voice, and then I'll put my hands up to make them stop right there, then I'll bring my hands down to make them bring it down...and they'll play with it with me and at the end they'll be like "oh, wow....that does sound better." I first have them perform it the way they would. And then I come in and I conduct it. You can ask any of the people I've taught, "Yeah, Asia does that, he'll sit there and move you through your poem to make the inflections sound the way it does." And then they're like "oh, I never even thought about doing it that way." So it's all hands-on. The writing stuff that I teach, what I'm talking about writing and talking about storytelling in writing, writing words. I do, you know the basic formulas, and things like that, but the performance stuff, there is no lecture, there is no just do this. No, it's hands-on. You just come on, and through that practice, they can see what it is I'm doing and how I'm moving them through it a certain way.
ANDREA: Absolutely......yay! Ok, two more questions... I wanna know is there anything that bugs you when you're listening to spoken word?
ASIA: It doesn't bug me when somebody has one note. I mean, their voice is their voice, they'll learn eventually. I think what bugs me most is that right now there's a lot of people who are... Poets are very known for censoring one another and you would think that in an art form where you're not supposed to censor sometimes, there's become poetry gatekeepers of what you can and can't say.
ANDREA: Because of political correctness...
ASIA: Yeah, and that didn't happen ten years ago when I first started. It's been recent. I think a lot of us are a lot more sensitive these days to the things that offend us, and the things that we should or shouldn't say. And I can agree with those things. Um, but there's also become poetry gatekeepers with a sense of, "now you're appropriating." Like if I did my poem about my sister becoming transgender, I could get flagged in the poetry community saying that that's not my story to tell. And I’m like, why not? It's my sister. It's not like I'm trying to gain points here. You know what I mean? It's a story that my sister can't even tell maybe, you know.
And there's a lot of misogyny and patriarchy and stuff like that in poetry nowadays, too, which is why a lot of people are bouncing back. But I also try to say, "yeah, but don't lose sight of who your allies are." Don't alienate your allies. Right? And a lot of times a lot of people do do that. So, there's...the word appropriations been floating around the poetry community lately. The word...I don't know, theres' a lot of words floating around now about what is right and what's wrong. But...
And I think spoken word is finally coming into it's own, to a sense, where this things haven't been figured out before, so I think people are learning as they go so, again, different conversation, different time. So that's one thing that bothers me. Well, the other thing that bothers me, when the poet that's performing isn't, is more, they care more about what they sound like and their own ego, than providing what the space needs. Right? Like, "Oh I'm too good to perform for three people. Like I'm not doing this show, because there's three people, you guys should've done your job and packed this place." Like, there’s three people. Those three people came to see you. Go, let them, give them what you know they came out for. So what?
ASIA: I'm about to do a comedy show for the guy who was on the Daily Show. These are people that are gonna heckle me. These guys are here for comedy, not poetry. And, man I had them in the palm of my hand. It was the best feelin ever, right?
ASIA's definition of VOICE:I think voice is the inner person, inside you, trying to speak to the world. I think it's everything that you are, it's allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to open the gates of your heart and let out whatever it is in there trying to speak.
For me that's voice, right? The thoughts that are in your head that are swirling in there that are talking to you constantly. And you're allowing it to come out into the world in the way that it was talking to you inside. So I think sometimes there's that...You just, inside of you, inside of your mind, inside of your heart there's this message, this voice, this person trying to talk. You, your actual physical body, your physical mouth, that's just the conduit that that voice talks through. You're the mouthpiece really. You're really just the mouthpiece. So a lot of times the disconnect happens when the voice inside you is not being translated properly by the mouthpiece. And so you don't hear, like I will hear poets sometime. I don't think that was how you heard it in your head, was it? No, I just can't seem to get it out that way. I'm like yeah, because you haven't allowed the poem, you haven't allowed yourself to get to know the poem.
It's almost like your heart gave you a speech to read and you are reading it out loud but you haven’t rehearsed it you haven’t let it be a part of you so you can't speak it out as vibrantly as the voice was. That's why. So you need to learn how to know that poem. You need to learn that poem. It needs to become a part of you to the point where you know it so well that now you can actually....deliver it with the same kind of voice that was talking to you inside...I think that's voice. And, for me voice is the most important thing, it says what you stand for, it says what you are, what you believe...And it's the story that's inside you that wants to come out. I've had voice since I was a kid. That was the only thing I had.
I didn't really play sports, I didn't really, you know I wasn't like the popular kid when it came to athletics or anything like that. I was decently smart, but i wasn't the smartest kid in the class either. But what I did have was this ability to tell stories. I would learn jokes and I would tell them at school and it made people laugh and I was like oh this is great. Or I would tell another kind of story to make people think and I'm like, oh there's power here. So for me voice became my number one asset. That's the important thing for me....
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