Raymond Soulard, Jr Speaks Out! Part 2
About Spoken Word
J: Ray, what are your experiences in Spoken Word? Do you enjoy being on stage? Do you record yourself for online shows?
R: Currently there’s an open mic that I go to in the Boston area – run by two of The Cenacle contributors, which is why I go. It’s called Out Loud Open Mic and it’s in Melrose, Massachusetts. It’s a very friendly event, it’s held at a mansion, so it’s a nice venue. People who attend are, for the most part, friendly and talented and I always sign up to read because I feel in a participatory event you should participate. It encourages everybody else to.
J: Would you like to elaborate about your experience?
R: I don’t know if I really enjoy being on stage per se.
J: Why’s that?
R: I don’t know. What I enjoy is if the context is one of congeniality and learning then I like it better– if it’s one where people are sharing their works and their works are pretty good. If the person up there on stage has some wisdom to share and you’re there to learn it, that’s fine. If it’s turns into a judgement, a talent contest, or trying to tell people how to do what they do but do it how you like it more, then no, not really. When I’m at a spoken word event, and someone goes up on stage, I’m assuming they have something valuable to offer – something they value that they want to share. Not simply share, period, but something valuable, something that is worked on, something that they care about and something that adds to your understanding of who they are and how they see the world. If that’s the general condition of an event, then I’m all about it. If it’s a contest, then I’m not interested.
I’m not giving you a very good answer to this, Jude.
J: No, you are giving a good answer. Because you’re sharing your experience which is very valuable. It’s your experience. You’ve seen both sides of the coin: whether it’s a contest or something more legitimate that you’ve enjoyed. That’s why I’m asking. I want to know your personal experience. So this is excellent.
R: Well let me tell you a story that will tell you the far opposite of what I like. There’s an event that’s been running in the Boston area for many years now, it’s called a poetry slam. Have you heard of poetry slams, Jude?
J: I certainly have and I hate them.
R: I went once with a friend of mine and essentially people get up on stage and they get rated like a talent contest. Some of them really get out of hand. If someone gets up and reads something that people don’t like, they start booing and honestly all I can say in defense of that kind of thing is if that’s what you enjoy- then do it, but you won’t find me there. There’s nothing wrong with it, I just don’t enjoy it.
J: Do you record yourself for sharing online?
R: Yes, in two primary ways. One – when I do my radio show every week, I read from my fiction and poetry during it and those shows are archived online and two- I record the Jellicle Literary Guild meetings – those are essentially my two venues for reading my work. And I go to the open mic because my friend runs it – it’s an excuse to see him
J: Is the Open Mic recorded?
R: You know, they don’t record it and they don’t take pictures. They’re not techno-wizzes. So I don’t think it occurs to them that everything has to be recorded and filmed and put on youtube. They just don’t do it. And you know the funny thing about that, Jude, is on the one hand it means that only the people there are experiencing it, but on the other hand there’s no machinery present. There’s no camera, no recorder. It’s live and when it’s over it’s done. All you have is your memory of it.
J: Yes, that’s beautiful
R: So there’s a good and bad to that. I think that this event is so good at times that I wish that it was on youtube on a regular basis so that other people could enjoy it, but on the other hand it’s kinda old-fashioned. So there’s good and bad to everything, I suppose.
J: How has the internet affected your own growth as a poet, publisher, radio host?
R: Well the internet means that whoever you are and wherever you are if you have access to a computer and a connection, the whole world is potentially at your feet. The internet allows for anyone in any locale to reach out to people they might never meet in person and connect meaningfully, bust the boundaries of physical geography and makes it so we’re not beholden to major centers of media.
I think it’s a great thing. Personally, I’ve been able to promote my projects much farther and wider than I ever would’ve been able to. And because of that, I’ve developed my skills with desktop publishing and audio tools to a far greater extent than I would have. Because if your projects are going to be seen all over the world, you’re going to want them to be the best you could possibly make them. That’s why the Cenacle is like it is because I can look at the statistics for people viewing it and I see they’re from all over the world download it and I want to make sure that these people that I’m never going to meet in person are getting something that’s worth their time.
J: For many years, you’ve published your open letters to various members of the government, like Obama, for instance. Have you in fact felt that your letters have been read?
R: Well they’ve been read by the people who read The Cenacle. I don’t think they were ever read by the people they were written toward. I don’t know, but I don’t think so.
Obama gets hundreds of letters every day. And I wouldn’t expect to him to sit there reading them, I wouldn’t want him to. The purpose of those letters is for me to express my opinions coherently to myself and others and to inspire others to do the same. And frankly my letters to Obama have sparked more conversations than I would’ve had otherwise about his policies and about him as President.
What’s happened over the course of the past several years, in brief, is that he went from being kind of a phenomenon who came out of nowhere to being the guy that people love to hate. So the fact that I write to him and give respect to his office and him occupying it is something that’s caused me a lot of criticism, but I kind of like it. Because, you know, it’s not so much that I want people to agree with me as it is that I want people to think their own thoughts and not just mouth what they’re hearing on the TV and the radio and a lot of people do that a lot of the time. So if someone sees me writing a letter to Obama and putting down all these specific points that are important to me, they know that if they want to talk to me about it, they’re going to have to have their own specific points, they can’t just say: Oh, he’s a Kenyan Muslim from Hawaii, or something. They’re going to have to talk to me on the level I’m talking and that causes them to think their thoughts a little more clearly.
J: So you’re in a good head about writing these letters and I imagine you will not be stopping in the near future.
R: No, I’ve decided that I’m going to write to Obama at least once a year through the rest of his time in office – a kind of yearly assessment from a concerned citizen as it were. It’s fun. I think of him as the powerful friend I’ll never meet – to whom I’m giving a yearly feedback.
J: Which subjects in your life stir you – which social issues do you feel are most urgent to deal with?
R: Well I think of human society as being built upon two valid points – the fact that humans are mortal and that we don’t understand and agree upon our purpose. Somehow over the course of time, this has led to the many inequities that we see around us. We see people with too much, we see people with too little. We see people brainwashed into holding prejudices against others based upon skin colours, sexual identity, social choices, political choices, religious choices, and this being encouraged by those in power. Because what I think it comes down to in many ways is that those in power have an interest in keeping their power, and some of the way you do that is by making sure that those below you never consolidate, agree upon something and turn and look at you with dissatisfaction.
As long as the little guys are fighting each other they’ll never be able to accomplish anything more than barely getting by. The worst is that when a certain number of the little guys get to be big guys there’s no agreed upon set of rules about how to be a big guy, how to run things. Wielding power one person over another is something that I don’t think people do very well.
And all of us are put into the position of doing this all the time, at our jobs, in our relationships. We value one thing over another. We’re constantly having to make decisions that form a hierarchy, whether it be a hierarchy of our own thoughts and values or a hierarchy of people, social institutions. Humans are basically constantly guessing and hoping for the best.
J: Okay. I see. Are you going to carry on?
R: No, no.
R: No, I can’t talk any more about it.
J: What do you mean no?
R: That sums it up. It sums it up.
J: No, it doesn’t
R: Okay, social issues. Too many people are sick, needlessly. Too many people are alone, needlessly. Too many people die, isolated and in despair. Too many young people walk around with no clue as to the nature and potency of their bodies, what to do with them, how to develop their minds for both function in society and to think some original thoughts as well.
Too many people enter into situations where they becomes leaders of companies, leaders of governments and various institutions and their good intentions fly out the door very quickly because they realize that there’s a wide vested interest not in making things right but in keeping things going..
And I think this is why we don’t treat the earth well because we don’t treat each other well.
The worst of it is..
J: Now we’re getting down to the heart of it
R: The worst of it is that there are no easy answers. There are bookstores and libraries filled with proposals for how to fix the world and if you laid out all these books end to end and try to figure out if they had any common thread – you’d probably find they didn’t.
J: I always think that if you go back far enough, you’ll find that there is a common thread. You have to go to the first book from each of the various sects, not the things written afterwards, but the very first books. I think the thread is fairly simple, but it’s not very popular.
R: No. Well, you know fixing things is always hard. It’s hard and it takes a long time. And it’s often imperfect and you don’t know if you’re going to succeed.
Do you think poets have the ability to shake up people’s minds?
R: Uh – well yes, I think they do and they have. Although it’s said that poetry is one of a million different kind of things that shake up people’s minds all the time, so the effects are not always going to be very observable.
J: I see
R: If a person devotes some of their time and thinking to reading poetry, then its going to affect them, and poetry certainly occupies a valued place among other societies, in all societies.
J: Can you think of an example? either anecdotal or a poem that you know has shaken up an audience.
R: Well, let’s see- the easy one to think about is Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl. It’s a good case study because you can talk about how it was written about a man coming to terms with his own sexuality at a time when that was a very dangerous thing to do. And his book was banned as being pornographic and it had to stand trial in court because booksellers were arrested. The court case brought many well known writers and scholars into public to speak their minds regarding freedom of expression and when in the end the book was allowed to be published – it set a precedent for other books.
The important thing about it was that literature was brought into the realm of the courts and so the question the courts were answering was could the type of lit that howl represents be argued validly to be protected by the U.S. constitution – that was the question: did it constitute valid freedom of expression or was simply freedom of expression itself something that made Howl justified to be published and when the ruling came out in howl’s favour – it meant those that would shape freedom of expression to their own particular ends were defeated.
This opened up the doors to a lot of other kinds of works that followed. A lot of other cases were decided. So it was a landmark court case, a landmark social case, a case for what a person can speak and write and publish in this country and be allowed to do. I would even say that Howl, as one instance, led to things very unlike Howl in nature – the fact that people can say a lot of the hateful things they do, angry hateful things they do can be traced back to a decision that this gay poet could write about his gay desires. So what you end up with is the gay folks can speak out on what they care about and the ku Klux Klansmen can speak out about what they care about, and so on and so forth.
In other words it’s not monolithic – it was an acknowledgement that there are all different kinds of people and they all have a right to speak their minds in public either aloud or in the form of writing.
J: Okay. I think that’s an excellent example.
R: It’s a solid one, I think