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An Interview with Neal Hall: Performance Poetry

Feb 2017

An Interview with Neal Hall: Performance Poetry

Dr Neal Hall is a warrior-poet. His poetry refers to the immediate context of racial oppression, but spans beyond it to reach the heart of the human condition. With Subodh Sarkar and Debojyoti Mishra, he put up a performance of poetry and music that moved the audience to tears. This blogger met him after his session. Here’s what we spoke about:

  • Were you drawn to performance poetry as a form of protest?

I don’t call it performance poetry. I am a poet and I read and I relive the moments that caused me to write that poetry. This usually happens due to some deep sadness or deep sensitivity to issues that are going on. Hopefully, that comes through. A lot of times, people mistake that for spoken word, but it is not spoken word. It’s just me reading the poetry the way I wrote the poetry. Sometimes, this happens because of my skin colour: black, so people immediately assume I must be doing spoken word poetry. I live for the page, not the stage.

  • Do you think artists necessarily need to be political?

That word is thrown around a lot, politics and political. I don’t know what that means. I know what universal right means. The only thing that comes to mind is politicians, and I don’t have much to say about that, and there’s not a whole lot that’s going to get done within that framework. It’s too entrenched.

  • Is it fair to say that you write about life as you experience it?

Yes, that’s right: a lot of my personal experiences and observations that I can put into words and hope that it connects with other people’s lives, irrespective of where they are in the world. There’s a commonality all around the world in terms of what we need, and that’s basic rights.

  • What has this life taught you: the best thing and the worst?

The best is probably this: that I have to find the truth for myself. If you start believing other people’s truths, they’re no more than a lie. So you have to begin to find the truth for yourself, or if you cannot find it, you have to create your own truth, as long as it lives in harmony with the borders of others’ truths. As for the worst, I think it taught me that there is no democracy. There are only various degrees of tyranny. Democracy does not exist anywhere in the world.

  • Would you say that the United States has just descended to a lower level of democracy?

No, I think it’s always been there: it’s just been exposed.

  • You have a book called ‘Where Should I Sit.’ In the perspective of the beginning of Black History Month, was it somewhat inspired by Rosa Parks?

Not really. I was asking, where do I belong? Where do I fit in? Where should I sit? With respect to Black History Month, I think black history should be celebrated every day. I don’t get the categorization of it.

  • Have you found your writing changing over the years?

In terms of what I say, no, because the narratives that I speak of remain the same. I put my hand deep into the field in order to write. I write, I suppose, ‘poems of the heart’, although I haven’t really read them so I don’t know! It has only changed in the sense that over the years, as you improve as a writer, you start learning more words and you live with a thesaurus. Words are my friends and so I’m constantly mining words to get as close to the feeling that I have. Poetry is a translation of your feelings, but it is never an exact translation, as most translations tend to be. You’re constantly looking for the right word. And it’s okay to change, you want to grow as a writer.

  • Your works have been translated to so many languages. How can you, then, trust someone else to get your words right?

By understanding the process. Translation is, by nature, about getting as close as you possibly can. It also helps to work with professional translators who are also poets. I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing translators in Hyderabad, Volga among them.

  • Volga is a very well-known author in India. What was it like to work with her? She’s an activist for Dalits as well; did you resonate with her on that?

Oh, she’s such an angel. She’s so soft. Like all the translators I worked with, she’s very dedicated to this process of translation. We became really good friends. And I resonate with all people, period. But I especially resonate with those who are the marginalized, because those are the narratives that I come from and I speak about. When we free these people, we free everybody.

  • Who are the people you return to in your writing?

I typically refer to Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi and Malcolm X, and the Declaration of Independence because it’s so rich, even though replete with irony!

  • So do you refer to it ironically, then?

Both that and sincerely. I’m saying, ‘These are the words you used to fight your oppressors. So let me use your words to fight you and the oppression that you’re creating for me.’ For it’s hard for someone to argue against your own words.

  • How does the literary landscape in India differ from that in the US?

It is much more serious, much more intense, much more engaged in the issues. It’s a literary-craved society. I love the question-answer periods here, because they are very engaged.

  • What would you say to the young poet who has been disillusioned by the world lately?

‘Here’s your Muse.’ Feel that pain, feel that frustration, and write from that. Write about how to change it, and if you can’t do that, write about what it is, so people can see and feel what it is. That’s the key.  Don’t run away from it.

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