Julien Poirier and the Art of the Poetry Album


By Garrett Caples

I’ve been thinking lately about the poetry album as a form of art, prompted in part by the wonderful biographical account Kyla Marshell wrote of the late Sarah Webster Fabio, “The Mother of Black Studies,” for the Poetry Foundation website. Though her work was included in the recent Black Arts Movement reader SOS—Calling All Black People (UMass, 2014), edited by Sonia Sanchez, John H. Bracey, Jr., and James Smethurst, Fabio is in the peculiar position of having no books in print, but having “four spoken-word albums, recorded in the 1970s for Folkways Records  . . .  readily available on iTunes and Spotify.” As Marshell tells it:

These four albums—Boss Soul (1972), Soul Ain’t, Soul Is (1973), Jujus/Alchemy of the Blues (1976), and Together to the Tune of Coltrane’s “Equinox” (1977)—feature Fabio reading her poems over a rollicking ’70s funk band reminiscent of Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield, the bass, congas, and guitar licks just begging to be the soundtrack of a black action flick. The band was called Don’t Fight the Feeling, and featured her three sons: Ronald on bass, Thomas on special effects and as “narrator,” and Cyril Jr. on congas. A former student, Leon Williams, played piano, saxophone and flute; her son-in-law Wayne Wallace played lead guitar.

These recordings are every bit as good as Marshell makes them sound. Though recorded for Folkways, they have all the awesome black power ambiance of those old Strata-East records by the likes of Pharoah Sanders and Gil Scott-Heron, though as Marshell indicates, the grooves are less jazz and more blacksploitation funk. It’s almost unreal to hear a poet fronting such a tight musical ensemble as Don’t Fight the Feeling, and the fact that this group came together specifically to back Fabio speaks volumes about her talent and force of personality.

Fabio made these records when making records was not so easy, requiring studio time and two-inch tape. It took cash and labels to make such things happen. These days the means of production are more attainable. As a rapper friend of mine, Stevie Joe, once pointed out, “I can record, release, sell, and even promote an album these days without leaving my couch,” all courtesy of a laptop and a doubtlessly cracked recording program. It’s a slight exaggeration, insofar as any serious rapper is still going to bring his work into a studio at least to master the recordings, but this is often now the last step of a process that otherwise takes place in people’s apartments. It’s a major technological shift whose possibilities I feel poets haven’t taken complete advantage of. Sure, there are recordings and videos of poets all over the Internet. But the idea of making a full-blown poetry album doesn’t seem to have gained much traction these days.

Jujus/Alchemy of the Blues (Folkways,
Jujus/Alchemy of the Blues (Folkways, 1976)

In 2006, I was lucky enough to have Justin Sirois and Narrow House Records ask me to record a poetry album, which they released under the title Surrealism’s Bad Rap. Let me assure you this album is nowhere near Sarah Webster Fabio’s level of awesomeness. Nonetheless, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to try out some ideas about the poetry album in the course of making this disc. There are some “straight” recordings here, just me reading a poem, but the better part of the album features weird little beats and samples I made to record over. Having several musician friends, I was able to get some actual playing on there, and I even got Oakland rapper J.Stalin to make a couple of cameos. But my main interest in making the album was to experiment with stacking vocal tracks in a manner I’d learned from hip-hop: doubling or tripling certain lines or words, adding different effects to different voices, or interjecting subliminal commentary on a given line after it was delivered. In short, I wanted to use the recording process to make the art rather than simply capturing already-made pieces of art. Unmastered, ineptly mixed, the album is a big, dumb, sprawling affair that virtually no one purchased or listened to, yet I’ve seldom had more satisfaction in making something. Certainly it was something I needed to get out of my system and my one regret is that I imagine Justin still has 900 copies of the disc taking up space somewhere in his life. (Sorry, Justin!)

Yet even my experience of 2006 gives off a slight whiff of a bygone era. Actually printing up units of albums in an era where kids have grown up on iPods and iTunes is perhaps a fool’s errand, though there has been some push back on this front among lovers of objects. The artist Frank Haines, for example, recently released Thrones, a 20-copy edition of a cassette of Cedar Sigo reading with individual covers by Matt Connors, a project Frank cooked up for the New York Artists Book Fair in 2015. According to Haines’ website, there’s only one unsold copy, now retailing for $222, so clearly it’s an approach some people favor. But on the other end of the extreme there are audio sharing sites like Soundcloud, where everyone from Kanye West on down can feature their work for people to listen to and/or purchase. And it’s here we find Higher in Canada, the new poetry album by Ugly Duckling Presse co-founder and upcoming City Lights Spotlight author Julien Poirier. Poirier is no stranger to multimedia presentation of poetry. If you’ve seen his previous books like Way Too West (Bootstrap, 2015) or El Golpe Chileño (Ugly Duckling, 2010), you’ll be familiar with his penchant for dropping a drawing or even a whole series of cartoons into the middle of a poem. His poetry is a constant asking of the question, why not? as it continually pushes at the boundaries of the genre in his quest for the new.

Higher in Canada is the latest installment of Poirier’s years-long practice of improvising poems during road trips, recorded line by line into a small digital recorder as he takes in the demoralized landscape of American capitalism embodied in the reststop and the stripmall. Eschewing the frills of, say, Surrealism’s Bad Rap, Higher in Canada is composed using the simplest means, yet the recording process itself is completely integral to the resulting poems. To take the most explicable example, “Get booze at Bum Barn” is a fairly hilarious litany of things one might do or acquire at “Bum Barn,” which I take to be something akin to a big box store. Other tracks like “My daughter’s got monkey from callistuh” or “Ontological bockwurst” perfectly encapsulate the giddiness of the long drive, evoking the old time radio program and the Harry Smith folksong respectively. The casual ease with which he peels off surrealistic observations from behind the wheel is truly a delight and the collection definitely functions as a whole, a short, pithy poetry album for our digital present. This is a new take on the poetry album genre, and it’s available to listen to below. Consider this an appetizer to tide you over until the imminent release of Julien’s Spotlight volume, Out of Print. Enjoy!

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Julien is at City Lights on April 19 reading from Out of Print with a special appearance by fellow Spotlight poet, Elaine Kahn. For more of his tour dates in the Bay Area and beyond, go to his author tours page.

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