About a year ago I read Diane Williams’s “Four In Prose” in Harper’s Magazine, and I could not get it out of my head. In her characteristically brief fashion, Williams uses all of fiction’s signposts but sends readers off into another dimension entirely where meaning hovers just beyond the brink of understanding. This is true to life of course, especially at the fringes of knowledge where we realize how little we really understand about why we’re here, and this is why we need belief.
This kind of writing is an acquired taste, I know. Most readers want story and character, something to hold onto and care about and enjoy. So do I most of the time, and what little other “experimental”writing I’ve read has left me cold, perhaps because it literally feels like an experiment. Once I grasp the set-up, the punch is all too obvious.
I immediately bought Williams’s collection Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, which I treat like a treasured book of the strangest poetry. The pieces are all quite brief, few longer than a page or even a full paragraph, and they work best when you read them slowly and mull over the continuous stream of WTF’s that arise the more you try to make sense of them.
At the same time I was reading Williams, I was listening to Run the Jewels. A ton. Like almost exclusively, every day. I got into the group because I had been a long-time fan of Killer Mike (Dungeon Family Crew!) and obsessively listened to his album R.A.P. Music, but I find that El-P’s lyrics are the ones I would have to listen to again just to understand what had just been said. He is phenomenal. His crazily varied diction (“I was born conjoined to howlers of the siren age”) and cadence (“can’t be broke when you own gold rope/pawn shops offering cash for those/cash is fake though gold accrues/I make my own gold golden goose/run down yellow brick roads towards riches/just be sure to not trust no wizards/the golden age is gone now admit it/all that gold is not gold that glitters.”) are unmatched.
Boom and booya! In an interview, El-P credited hip-hop with shaping his attitude, and attitude is about how you move through the world–it’s about how you think of things and approach them, and if we’re talking artistic attitude we’re talking mainly about aesthetic.
I have no desire to write tiny, confusing stories or to become a rapper. I have too much to say to do the former and I can only laugh when I imagine trying to do the latter (not to mention that by this point I’m way too old to get in the rap game). But I can try to be, in the inimitable words of El-P, an “I’m a ‘holy fuck what did he just utter’ marksman.” I already do it my way, in my own fashion as I strive to write taut pieces about a strange existence where Brooklyn rappers are really not that distant from avant-garde storytellers. Out.