Carew: So, what was it like, walking into a jail yard, having to influence a group of inmates through only the power of words, so to speak?
Williams: It felt just like it feels when you watch it. Because the fact of the matter is that the warden only allotted us 16 prisoners to work with, but we knew we couldn't film a convincing courtyard scene with only 16 prisoners. So, after much hesitation, she released Cell Block C, which was 150 prisoners, for one hour. She said, "I'm not going to tell them we're shooting a movie, because if I do, they're gonna go crazy. I'm just gonna tell them there are cameras out there, and if they don't want to be on screen to just stay against the walls." And so when they told them there were cameras out there, the prisoners just assumed that it was some news team, some cop show or something. They never suspected it was an actual movie being shot.
So, in that scene, when they saw those 16 prisoners looking at me as if I had done something, they then looked at me, and realized they had never seen me before thus, it was my first day in prison, and I had brought these cameras with me, because they saw the cameras following me. And they were actually ready to attack me. So that when the time came for the 16 prisoners we were working with to gather around me as if they were going to attack, more than 16 gathered. And when I went into the poetry, they all stopped. So, was I nervous? Yes. But was I afraid? No. Because, deep down, I really felt we were on a mission to prove the power of words, and I knew that [the prisoners] would stop, as they did.
Carew: How much has your performance style been influenced by slam poetry, by speaking to an audience and trying to kinda get a reaction?
Williams: Not much. Not much. I realized pretty early that if I was to gauge my writing on audience reaction that my writing would become weak.
I read a lot, and at the time when I first started writing in this vein I just started reading a lot of very powerful literature that just lived on the page in an amazing way. And I also realized that poetry has always been recited, it's nothing new to the art form for young people to be reciting poetry. There are ancient Sufi poets from Persia in the Middle East in the 12th and 13th century that were known for that; Hafiz was named Hafiz [the title given to one who has learned the Koran by heart] because of his memory at reciting the Koran and reciting his poetry along with it. Any good Shakespeare teacher will tell you that you can't come to a good understanding of Shakespeare without reading it aloud. So, I realized that it wasn't something new, and if I focused on getting a crowd reaction that in the long run I'd probably be writing something closer to a sermon or stand-up comedy or something.
Instead, I focused on getting through the parts of my life that were challenging, and challenging myself to see things in interesting ways. I found that it wasn't necessarily that I needed to say something in an interesting way, it was like if I could reach a point where I saw things in interesting ways, then inevitably my approach at expressing it would come out in an interesting way.
And, so, through much meditation and focusing on living beyond the norm in a sense living life as a poem I came across certain styles that fucking enthused the fuck out of me, as I read it to myself in my room a million times. I mean, I must've looked like a fucking fool when I first started writing, because I know that I would just walk down the streets reciting these poems like mantras to myself. And I loved the way they sounded to me. Fuck the way they sounded to anybody else; I fell in love with the way they sounded to me, and the way they read to me, y'know. And so by the time I decided to share them, it was some type of communion.
Carew: Given that, what you've said, how much do you think that art is about communication expressing something to someone else and how much do you think art is about the individual's act of creation regardless of whether anyone else sees or hears or experiences it?
Williams: I think the greatest part of it is the individual sense. But I think the deepest aspect of individuality is community. The deeper you go inside of yourself, the more you feel connected to other people. I'm not talking about the deeper you go inside your head because if you go in some type of intellectual place in your head, then you're gonna feel isolated from other people but when you go deep inside your spirit, you feel connected to everyone.
Carew: Do you think your music, or your poetry, communicates ideas and ideals about you as a human being, or is it more about reflecting and magnifying aspects of society?
Williams: Both. But I think, for the most part, my focus is not society, my focus is me. You'll hear me talk about Saturn well, I have a daughter named Saturn. And when I'll say "children of the night, blah blah blah," I'm sending messages to myself, I'm talking about myself, I'm sending little messages and reminders to myself about ways to remember greater aspects of myself.
I try not to speak to society or something like that, because I think that's a pretty crazy thing to try and set out to do. There's a Taoist saying in which a man is walking barefoot and he realizes that the streets of the world are covered with thorns and thistles that keep puncturing his feet. So he sets out to cover the world with leather. But it'd be wiser to just cover the soles of his feet with leather. And, so, I think, much of my journey is about, like, challenging myself to reach greater points of myself. And through that, through the projection of that being done into microphones, and literature, and film, like, yeah, it does affect other people, and it may come off as a statement that's aimed at a great deal of people, but it's really aimed at myself.
Carew: Do you think people can glean much of who you are, or the essence of who you are, through those words that you choose to project?
Williams: No. I think that people can gain an understanding of who I aim to be [laughs], and what I pattern myself after, through the words that I choose. I mean, I find that people approach me with much more reverence than I might be deserving of. Y'know? I'm a regular guy who goes through the same struggles as everyone else, but I do feel as if I create in order to remind myself of my greatest possibilities.