Q&A With Dessa
The writer, rapper, and singer talks hip-hop vs. poetry—and the usefulness of the word “Yo.”
Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Doomtree’s Dessa is known primarily as a rapper. But in October, Rain Taxi is publishing A Pound of Steam, a new chapbook of her poetry. The publication will be kicked off with an all-star party at the Walker Art Center, where Dessa and several of her musical friends will gather for an evening of poetry and performance. Arts and entertainment editor Tad Simons recently sat down with Dessa to discuss her poetry and how it relates to her multitude of other talents.
Your new poetry chapbook is being published by Rain Taxi. How—and why—did you hook up with them?
The people at Rain Taxi approached me because they had a grant to support an up-and-coming artist, and I was really eager to build my experience and my name in the literary world. It’s been a really interesting trip trying to do that—coming from a pop music background—because there is more of a vetting process. The gatekeepers are more apparent in the literary world than they are in the rap world.
You mean the process of having to submit your work and have an editor like it before you can get it “legitimately” published?
Yeah. I think the way you establish credibility in hip-hop or as a pop musician is very much a product of your direct communication with the people who like your work and people who are coming to shows and like your stuff. At shows, they buy your albums. Whereas in the literary world it’s a little tougher to make that kind of independent, DIY approach work. Previously, I published a small book on Doomtree Press, but trying to get that book reviewed took some different tactics. It was a little harder than it is to have a CD—even from a relative nobody— and at least be considered for a little bit of ink. So when Rain Taxi approached me, I was really excited because The Rain Taxi folks are obviously associated with all this literary output for a long time, regionally and nationally. For me, it felt like a really exciting opportunity to work within the existing literary institutions instead of trying to shimmy up the gutter pipes.
Why publish a little chapbook like this and not a larger book?
I’ve been working on my second collection of essays, tentatively titled The Perfect Burn, for a long time. When it’s time to publish that one, I’ll want to do so in as big a way as I can. In the meantime, I was excited to work with Rain Taxi and they were interested in working with me as a poet, which isn’t an arena I’ve developed as deliberately as I have the essay format. Ever since college, I’ve done literary essays and creative nonfiction, but I think there’s a presumption that because I’m a rapper, poetry would be where I feel most comfortable. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s where I probably benefitted the most—from strong editorial presence that I got from [Rain Taxi editor] Eric Lorberer.
Is there any kind of organizing theme or logic to the poems you selected?
For most of my work, whether it’s in song or in poetry or interface, I tend to gravitate toward the big, life happenings like love and death and loss and communion. Those four show up in most of the work that I do. They’re definitely present in the collection with Rain Taxi.
How do you think about poetry? Is it a way to access ideas and emotions that are out of reach in songs?
The musician has control of the temporal quality of his or her own work; the poet does not. If I write a three-and-a-half minute song, that song is three-and-a-half minutes. Whereas the reader has control of the temporal aspect of a poem. They’re reading at their own speed. So as important as language is in lyrics, I think it’s even more important in poetry because there’s nothing else—that’s the only gasoline you’ve got.
How does your poetry fits into the larger world of contemporary poetry?
Well, this is the furthest I’ve gone into abstraction—and my favorite lines in my favorite poems are right on the verge of not making any sense. There’s this line by Mary Oliver that’s about little owls. She talks about the allure and blather of the scream of the little owlets, and that makes sense to me! It’s right on the edge of reverence. Every unnecessary thing has been cropped away or burned off, and you’re left with this distillation of an idea—if you tugged away any more, it would be nonsense. All the extraneous elements have been removed. That’s not really how rappers work. We get to go say, “uhh” and “hey,” and “yo,” ya know?
Did you write these poems specifically for this book? Or were these pieces just hanging around in your notebooks?
Some yes, some no. I’d been working on some before and a couple of them I had almost done. “The Cause of New Life,” which is one of the longer poems, I had been working on already. But you kind of get a fire under your ass when there’s a definite project and definite deadline. So I completed the poems I’d been working on for a long time and then I started some new ones.
Do you sit down to deliberately write a poem or a song?
Usually what’ll happen is that when I see on the horizon an idea is hurdling my way, one of the first questions I’ll ask myself is, “How big is this idea?” In finding that answer, I can figure out if it would best be addressed in an essay, song, or poem. If this is an idea that’s complicated and has a lot of sub-ideas and littler themes and a lot of exposition is necessary to express it, then I should probably do an essay—or else I’m going to have to write an 18-minute song. A lot of times, the scope tells me where it should land.
Your poems have a narrative drive. There’s plenty of lyricism there, but you don’t play a lot of intellectual word games. A lot of current poetry isn’t like that—it almost tries to be as obscure as possible to get to that weird border between meaning and meaninglessness.
I think that’s tricky. When I was in high school, I thought that to make a poem, you took your idea and tried to make it as hard as possible to understand. You coded it, you know? I don’t really know if that’s true. Being confusing for confusing’s sake can sometimes be a teenage impulse, where you hand someone a poem and go, “Do you get it? Do you get it?” That would be a shame. Abstraction for abstraction’s sake, or confusion for confusion’s sake, is to misunderstand the task. It’s like you’re taking a descriptive feature of the form and you’re making it a definitive feature. As in, I happened to read a poem that was couched in symbolism and difficult to understand, therefore the definitive characteristic of poetry is that it’s couched in symbolism and difficult to understand.
There’s that feeling of, “Oh, I don’t understand it, so I must be an idiot.”
Yeah, maybe. Maybe it’s also me as a burgeoning poet coming from the aesthetic or tradition of songwriting. I’d like to push a little harder on that wall and trust some images to resonate, even if I’m not sure exactly why—which is tough because I’m kind of a right-angled kid. I want to be able to explain it and take it apart. I don’t know if that’s how poetry works.
Do you have a favorite poem in this collection?
Of the narrative pieces, I’m really happy with the way the language turned out in “The Cloud’s New Life.” I’m proud of pushing into the realm of poetry and getting a little braver about it. I’m proud of the first poem, “Dear Sir or Madam.” It pushed away from a concrete narrative.
You folks have arranged an interesting event at the Walker to launch the chapbook. What’s your role going to be?
Primarily, I’m going to keep my role in the event literary. I’m going to be doing a reading. I asked three friends to write a commissioned piece based on one of the poems included in the compilation, and to debut that piece at the party. Aby Wolf Andrew Sims, and Ben Burwell from Taj Raj are all working on an original piece of music to perform that night.
Are you going to hear those things before they perform them?
I hadn’t considered that question ‘til this very moment. Given the fact that we’re on the road until then, that’s probably a no. I will be nail biting and nervous and nursing my cocktail.
Dessa: An Evening of Poetry with Special Guests: Oct. 3. Walker Art Center, 612-375-7600, walkerart.org