Interview by Anna Claire Hodge
Sarah Blake lives outside of Philadelphia, PA with her husband and son. Her poems have appeared, or will soon, in The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and the anthology, The BreakBeat Poets. She received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts in 2013. Her first book of poetry, Mr. West, is out now from Wesleyan University Press. It’s an unauthorized lyric biography of hip hop superstar Kanye West. She’s editor at Saturnalia Books and co-founder of Submittrs, an online tool for writers.
Anna Claire Hodge: In the poem “I No Longer Have To Look Up Dates Like Your Birthday, June 8th, 1977” you address Kanye, saying “Who doesn’t know you?” Can you discuss the public vs. private personae celebrities inhabit, and how that informed the writing of the poems?
Sarah Blake: I still think about how I haven’t ever seen Kanye West in person, have never been to a concert. I have only ever seen him on screens—computer, TV, phone. I know it’s not totally unusual. Poets have written about famous people that they only have access to through books at this point in time. But every time I catch a paparazzi photo of Kanye grabbing dinner in NYC, I catch myself thinking, I could’ve been across that street tonight! I could’ve seen him! (Even though I’m rarely in NYC.) Regardless, the book is about these public and private personae, about which we embrace as the whole truth, as the person. The book keeps pointing to how it’s not that simple. Kanye is unknowable. Every person is. My in-laws know a slightly different version of me than my high school friends know, than my husband knows, than my parents know. For a celebrity that list just keeps growing. …a slightly different version of him than how he speaks in a radio interview, than how he performs, than how he interacts with paparazzi, than how he acts on TV, than how he is with his family, etc.
The book’s design is stunning. The hardcover gives it an elegant heft. From the highly-stylized cover art to font choices, it’s visually quite unlike most collections of poetry. Can you discuss the stylistic choices you made? I can’t help but be reminded of Kanye explaining the time he spent doctoring his official wedding photo: I was like, ‘Okay, I still want my wedding photos to look like Annie Leibovitz,’ and we sat there and worked on that photo for, like, four days because the flowers were off-color.
Thank you! I love the design too. I had very little to do with it actually. I got to pick the photo for the cover (a picture of Horus on the Temple of Edfu). Two designs were sent to me and I suggested we combine them. The fonts were based off of the cover design. When I found out that all of Wesleyan’s poetry books have a first print run that’s hard cover, I asked if we could do a case stamp. I was so excited when they said yes. I suggested a graphic Horus and loved the first design they sent to me in response to that. But I didn’t even know what color the book would be! Or if the case stamp would have ink or just the impression. I was thrilled with every choice they made.
As a lifelong rap fan, I’m interested in why someone who didn’t originally consider herself a “hip-hop head” would undertake such an immersive project. Did your musical tastes change during the writing of Mr. West?
Well, by the time I wrote the book I’d been listening to hip-hop exclusively for about four years and I would have considered myself a hip hop head. But that means I didn’t really start listening to hip hop until I was 21. So I was late to the game, but not in terms of the book’s timeline. Mr. West definitely made me a bigger fan of Kanye, but didn’t affect my already full blown love of hip hop. The book started because I was so excited about hip hop (and jealous of it). I loved how it was political, personal, funny—all of these things I felt I’d been avoiding in my poems. I wanted to show myself. Perhaps it’s especially funny then that this impulse led me to a biography!
I made the mistake of reading the comments section of a piece that the Philadelphia Inquirer recently published about your book. Commenters lambasted the book’s concept, assumed your status as a ‘superfan’ and, strangely, expressed concern about your husband and home life. You seemed to take the vitriole in stride. Has this project helped you grow a thicker skin? Are you a believer in “no press is bad press?”
Definitely, I have grown a thicker skin. Reading comment threads about Kanye West and thinking about how upset I’d be if Kanye took them to heart is in the back of my head now as I see these absurd comments flung in my direction. I’m not sure about “no press is bad press.” I doubt any press could negatively influence sales, which is I think what people mean by that, but there could be bad press in other ways, emotional ways.
How would you respond to critics who might view this project as “gimmicky” or an attempt to ride the coattails of an artist with quite a back catalog of both albums and personal escapades?
It is gimmicky, but that has a bunch of negative connotations that it doesn’t need to have. I never forced a poem or rushed a poem. These were the poems I was inspired to write going about my every day life, when I filled that life with music, videos, and news about Kanye. As for an attempt to ride Kanye’s coattails… that’s interesting to think about. My first response is, to where? Fame and fortune? That’s laughable, right? But let’s say, yes, it leads me to fame. I can’t think of the world as a worse place for having a famous poet that wants to talk about compassion.
West is clearly a polarizing figure. Some tout him as a musical genius, some, like President Obama, have called him a “jackass.” Can you speak to this dichotomous public perception? Do you hope/expect Mr. West to change minds, or at the very least, allow detractors to feel more tenderly toward him?
You know, sometimes I forget this about him. So many people in my own life either love him or don’t care about him that I forget about the far extreme. I was recently reminded with those comment threads you mentioned earlier. Part of me hopes Mr. West will change minds, but I also know that detractors won’t be reading this book. What I’ve actually seen happen so far is with the people who don’t care about him—they do by the end of the book. Or they see why I do. I love that word “tenderly” in this question. I think the book is building tenderness.
Do you see any similarities between your career’s trajectory and Kanye’s? What about your personal lives? Was there a specific parallel incident/s that might have sparked the beginnings of this concept?
Yes, there was a very specific incident that sparked the beginning of the book. Kanye’s mother, Donda West, died when my grandfather was dying (he died a few months later). In another interview I said: “When Kanye’s fourth album, 808s & Heartbreak, came out, I had a small collection of poems about loss. When the reviews of 808s & Heartbreak came out, I was very glad no one else was reading my poems. Seeing how grief could be experienced publicly and privately in America struck me.” Two years after my grandfather’s death, the poems began to come out. There aren’t many similarities about our personal lives. We’re both married and we both have a toddler. That might be it! And you’ll have to ask me many years from now about our career trajectories. Maybe my fifth book will be named the number one book by every magazine out there. (Is it weird to do a winky face emoticon? That’s my impulse right here.)
Anna Claire Hodge is the recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, diode, The Collagist, The Journal, Vinyl Poetry, and Copper Nickel, among others. Her poems have been anthologized in It Was Written: Poems Inspired By Hip-Hop, Myrrh, Mothwing, Smoke: Erotic Poems (Tupelo, 2013) and Best New Poets 2013.