Every Rap Is a Poem: A Conversation with Sean Avery Medlin




SEAN AVERY MEDLIN’S debut book, 808s & Otherworlds: Memories, Remixes, & Mythologies (Two Dollar Radio), purrs with variety and energy, with riffs on Black masculinity, anime, gaming, rap, gender identity, and dislocation in Phoenix’s western suburbs. The drum machine in the title (the Roland TR-808) is a perfect tease to the rhythm of Medlin’s words rendered in prose.

“Sometimes I wish that I could forget my ascendants, that they were not taken from me and thrown into the sea, atop branches of sycamore trees, or out of schoolhouse history.” 

Comfort, for Medlin — or the reader — is not the goal. A poem goes:

You cannot borrow our skin.
We are not accessories, slang words
or caged birds. We don’t belong to anyone.
We name ourselves & speak in drums.
We use your cash to wipe our ass
& toss your precious        paper.

We do not own your stocks;
we did not steer your ships;
we did not crack your whips,
                   yet we built all your shit.

We work, live, love & die,
you dare not look us in our eyes,
because you know we’re human too
                    & if you say we’re human too
you’ll have to treat us as human, too.

You cannot borrow my color.
I am not a commodity.
I am not a party song, cuss word
or caged bird. I belong to no one.
I name myself                    wear myself.
You sell me to make your money.
You say I’m free, but you still owe me. 

We talked at Changing Hands Bookstore, a bookstore/coffee shop/bar/performance space that’s carrying 808s & Otherworlds and supports Arizona authors in a state not exactly known for heralding the literary world. Medlin knew Phoenix was the spot to write 808s & Otherworlds since much of the material was inspired (or uninspired) from growing up in the Valley of the Sun.

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MICHELLE BEAVER: You mention in your book that you’re a proponent of poetry that rhymes, despite the status quo of the poetry world often condemning that style. What was your experience with the rhyme shunners? Did you ever try to make your poetry not rhyme? 

SEAN AVERY MEDLIN: Yeah, I did for a long time make my poetry not rhyme, especially in the Phoenix poetry slam scene. The generation I came into was known for not rhyming. As a young person I was like, “I rhyme when I’m rapping, and when I’m doing slam, I follow this slam template.” I got out of slam because there’s only so much you can do, especially if you’re committed to the competition part of it. In small, I was told directly: don’t rhyme.

In university, it was more coded and passive, and there’d be comments on my work about it. I knew in my heart of hearts it was an elitist rule. I always knew that. I took risks. Why, if I got a degree to do this, and I already feel like this is what I like and what I want to do, why am I doing it in a way that makes me unhappy? By the time I got to my thesis project, I rhymed a lot in that, and I felt great. I felt like it was the first time in my undergrad that I did work that I really enjoyed. It’s not easy — it’s demanding, but I like what I’m writing. I’m using my authentic voice.

You’ve shared your work on stage, as a street emcee, and in poetry slams, among other platforms. What’s more vulnerable: releasing your very personal book to the world or performing?

Ultimately, the book is more vulnerable because of the amount of vulnerable pieces in it. On stage, I can do one really vulnerable piece, or none, or two — I have more choices. With the book, whatever I choose to put in the book is permanent, and people can revisit it at any time.

Please share some of your experience conducting writing workshops at Durango Juvenile Center. Is this work in a detention facility changing you as a writer and educator?

It’s definitely changing me as an educator. It causes me to rethink the importance and relevance of what I’m teaching. It causes me to think of the function of poetry too. These are young people in jail. My students range from 12 to 18. What is this poetry workshop going to do for them? What can I write down in one sentence as my intention of what I want to offer them? There are so many things I want to give them that I can’t give them, so what can I give them? If you read my book, it’s very clear how I feel about prison.

It’s a challenge to go in there all day. It’s really hard. Sometimes it leaves me drained, and sometimes it leaves me excited. There’s the ever-present reality that this is a processing center where young people are going to be sentenced or let out, and you may never see them again. There’s no guarantee that the person I saw last time will be there. That’s the nature of the system. It’s emotionally taxing, for sure.

When my students in the detention center participate in my workshops, it’s the highest level of engagement I get, across the board. The stakes are different for them, I think. If I ask them to write a poem about where they’re from or use personification or give me a couple lines of imagery, what they have to express feels more urgent because of their context and conditions. Young people need outlets to express themselves. It feels to me like they have more outlets for expression in the detention center than they do outside.

You mention in your book that Kanye West was a hero to you growing up and then a major disappointment for, among other things, supporting Donald Trump and making shocking claims about slavery. In light of news that Kanye West is likely bipolar, have your feelings on your childhood hero changed?

Yes and no. It does offer some answers, but he’s still disappointing. I have mental wellness challenges, and many people in my life do too, so I empathize, but ultimately — I have to point this out — Kanye West is a billionaire. If anyone can get the right help they need, it’s probably going to be a billionaire. Without speaking too much on someone’s mental health who I don’t know, I feel empathy and concern, and I feel like some of my questions have been answered, but I also feel like, “Okay, where are your support systems?” Not that money can buy everything, but it can definitely buy therapy.

It’s obvious in your book that your hometown of Phoenix wasn’t your dream choice of where to spend your childhood and teen years. Besides your work teaching creative writing at Arizona State University and in workshops, what has you living in Phoenix, and have your feelings for this sweltering paved desert changed?

I have complicated feelings toward Phoenix. I think Phoenix in particular has a kind of anti-Blackness permeating. But my immediate family members are here and are all very important to me. My chosen family members are here too — my best friends for life. The cost of living is still cheaper than some other places, and most of all, I knew I had to write my book here. I am thinking now that maybe it is time to leave, unless my next project needs to happen here. I see myself leaving Phoenix again, and I may return, or I may not. What I see a lot here in Phoenix is an isolation and type of invisibility and erasure of Black folks because there is a very small Black population here in comparison to other demographics. That in and of itself allows a certain culture of anti-Blackness to go unchecked.

I do think it could have been better in a different place. Maybe if I were in Oakland, maybe if I were in Atlanta or Seattle or Portland — these cities that are by no means a haven or paradise of LGBTQ people — but they are places with longstanding histories of representation for those people and some safety. If I had been in certain very specific places, it may have been easier to find people asking the same questions, but in other ways, I would have faced the same problems I had here anywhere. Some of the pushback I received discovering and exploring my own sexual identity came from my own family.

This conversation about Phoenix has been on my mind a lot recently. I used to really feel like Phoenix owed me something. Even up until a year ago. I’ve had that feeling a lot in my life, but I’ve made peace with the fact that I don’t have to prove anything to Phoenix, and Phoenix doesn’t have to prove anything to me. It’s given me a lot, and I’m thankful. 

In a proverbial chicken-and-egg inquiry, what comes first: the rap or the poem? Do you start with a beat and then write to the beat? Or do you write a poem, and then a melody appears, and the poem becomes a rap?

It’s never the same. Now that I’m more intentional with my process, I sometimes will sit down to write a rap — beat or no beat — and I’ll just write to [finger] snaps as percussion. And then sometimes I sit down and write, and I know that I want it to be a poem, and that’s what it is. Then other times I write in between, and I won’t really know what it is until I’m halfway through. It might lean more to the direction where it needs to be music, or I might like how it looks on a page, and I want it to stay there. I’m trying to find a sweet spot between the two [styles] because I think that’s where I’m headed. I’m not interested in having two or three separate careers, like that over here I’m a rapper, over here I’m a poet, and over here I’m a teacher. I want union. I want the right project to unite all these elements.

This is a sweeping generalization, but every rap is a poem, but not every poem is a rap. Even if you hate rap and think it’s elementary, it’s still a poem.

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Michelle Beaver is a writer living in Phoenix.

 

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