urgency and simplicity - An Interview with Kae Sun

One of One Ghana, One Voice's finest poets, Kwaku Darko-Mensah (aka. the soul/folk/rock/pop/reggae/just-about-everything-else musician Kae Sun), is performing in Vancouver this Friday:
Kae Sun in Concert
Friday, July 15th, 9:00 PM Doors, 10:00 PM Start
Calabash Bistro
428 Carrall Street, Vancouver

It's a rare treat when I get to promote an OGOV poet here in Vancouver, but Kae Sun is exceptional in many ways. For one, as my intro noted, he is a musician as well as a poet, though the dividing line between the two arts is often a blurry one (we profiled one of Kae Sun's songs, "Lion on a Leash", on OGOV, for instance).

Here's a sample of his recent work, entitled "When the Pot":

From Toronto via Accra, Kae Sun is at the end of a West Coast tour (he'll be in Alberta and Ontario in August - dates here), and took a bit of time out of his busy schedule to e-chat about writing Ghanaian-infused poetry and music in Canada:

Rob: An interview with you that showed up recently on YouTube features a funny moment in which you are talking about the influence of Asante gospel music and the interviewer thinks you are referring to Ashanti, the pop singer. Likewise, one of the poems of yours that we’ve featured at One Ghana, One Voice, “Ananse’s Grave” is more likely to be interpreted in Canada as a poem about the demise of one of this country’s leading small presses than as a poem about Ghanaian folklore. These are only a couple specific examples of how the same words carry different meanings in Africa and in North America – when you move into more fraught terms like “poverty”, “development”, etc. the gulf between the meanings of words is potentially even greater, and certainly more complicated.

There’s a good deal of talk in the poetry world about whether writers should write for themselves or for an audience (and if so, a specific one or a general one). As a Ghanaian writing about Ghanaian/African subjects in Canada, is it possible for you to write without considering an external audience? Can you write about the Asante without worrying about people thinking you are talking about Ashanti (in the interview, for instance, you clarify what “Asante” means before the interviewer brings it up himself – you can sense his confusion before he even says anything), and if you can’t, does that in some way limit or compromise your work?

Kae Sun: One of my favorite artists, Mos Def, said something in an interview that really stuck with me. He said in order to be universal you have to be really specific. In other words you can only be genuine about your own experiences, views, etc. and if you go deep enough with it you're bound to strike a universal chord. We're essentially pretty similar as people, the difficulty is cutting through the external cultural differences. To write for an audience requires the almost impossible task of guessing what that audience wants to hear and that's not something I'm interested in doing at all. Plus it's easy enough to research new information or cultural references that one is unfamiliar with, in fact I think it's important. I mean I had to do it in order to live and go to school in Canada, so other people can do it too.

R: Does the same hold true for your music as for your poetry? It seems to me that your poetry is more closely tied to Ghanaian/African themes than your music. Would you consider that a correct assessment? If so, why do you think that is? Do you consider your poetry and music as having different audiences, or as being written for different purposes?

K: Not at all. I haven't really analyzed them separately. I mean my writing is evolving and I find that especially with this most recent EP, a lot of the themes within the songs have to do with Ghana, going home, etc. It has a lot to do with where I'm at in life when those poems or songs were written and right now I'm very connected to home, for the first time since I left.

R: That seems like a good segue to talking about your new EP. "Outside The Barcode" is an acoustic EP that you've made available for free download. What inspired you take this route (both "acoustic" and "free")?

K: Urgency and simplicity. I'm very much against the pure business approach to bringing music to an audience. There are few things I hate more than being all formal and businesslike especially with art. It's just not cool to me. Being professional is good to some extent but I find that some people take it too far. In my case my vocation is to write songs and share them, so I really didn't see the need in making the issue more complicated than that. These particular songs were ready to be shared so I just went with it. Thankfully I have a very supportive team so I can do things a bit more creatively.

R: Speaking of bringing your music to an audience, I recently came across a cover [posted above] of your song "Lion on a Leash" by a couple guys in France (and a cutout of some dude leaning on a broom?). Was that cover a YouTube first for you? How did you feel about the first time you saw your music covered? Did it feel like a milestone of sorts?

K: Yeah, it's a good feeling for sure. One way of knowing if a song resonates with an audience is watching at shows to see how people respond when they first hear a song without the hype. The other way is when people actually go out of their way to cover a song. It's a blessing.

R: Have you been to Vancouver before? To the West Coast in general? How have you been finding your time here? What can people expect from your show on Friday night?

K: Yes, I have. It's my third time here. It's beautiful out here, I love the pace of things. I'll be playing some of the new songs this time around. I'm still trying to decide if it'll be all acoustic or if I'll have a band with me. We'll see.

Don't miss out on the opportunity to see Kae Sun play in an intimate setting this Friday - and if you aren't in Vancouver, be sure to download his new EP (for free!), and stay "on the lookout" (sorry, couldn't help myself) for when he comes through your town.


what a strange thing!

Here's part three of my sporadic trip report: Poets House in New York City!

Poets House, on the bank of the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan, is the kind of place that makes me jealous of cities-that-aren't-Vancouver. It features a 50,000 book poetry-only library, a number of special collections (the stacks in the second picture below, for instance, are just for chapbooks!), a special exhibition room, and a series of open and well-lit reading and writing spaces. In addition to all that, it  hosts over 200 events and programs a year, though Marta and I weren't able to take anything in while we were in New York.

Founded by Stanley Kunitz and Elizabeth Kray in 1985, Poetry House moved into its current digs in 2009 after winning a lottery, open only to community non-profits, for free rent in the building (hint, hint, Vancouver).

More important than the building, though, are the free Poets House haiku pencils given out in the lobby. Be sure to take one if you visit, or better yet, grab three and you have a portable haiku-generator. Some (rather terrible) examples:

Erasure writing seems to be all the rage these days. How about Pencil + Eraser haiku writing? Maybe I should run a contest.

Speaking of clumsy segues, the deadline for Geist's Erasure Contest has been pushed back to July 15th. C'mon, you know you want to win a writing contest without writing anything - submit, already!

More trip updates to come (hopefully soon, before I forget everything we did)...


it certainly doesn't get any easier

This should be the boilerplate that appears at the beginning of every interview with a poet, or at least every interview with me:

Nothing works for sure. Every poem feels like a first poem. Every poem enters my airspace by a different vector. What works one morning, likely won’t work the next. Maybe that’s the only certainty. It certainly doesn’t get any easier.

The same can be said about discussions like this. Every statement I make about poetry, my own poetry in particular, I find I can just as easily say the opposite.

- Joshua Trotter, in interview with Jacob McArthur Mooney over at The Walrus blog. You can read the whole thing here.


a few july readings

Emphasis on a few. Oh, Summer. If I missed some, though, and I'm sure I did, send me a note and I'll add them.

Oh, and if you're in Vancouver and near a radio tomorrow, Daniela Elza and I will be on Co-op Radio's Wax Poetic show (Wednesday, July 6th, 2 PM, 102.7 FM) talkin' collaboration and reading a few poems.

The Kranky Reading Series

Thursday, July 7th, 7:00 PM
Kranky Cafe
#216-228 East 4th Avenue
, Vancouver
Featuring: Sandra Huber, Mariner Janes, and Nikki Reimer

Twisted Poets Literary Salon
Thursday, July 7th, 7:00 PM — 10:00 PM
The Prophouse Cafe
1636 Venables Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Trevor Carolan and Timothy Shay
$5 (suggested donation)

Cross-Border Pollination Series
Saturday, July 9th, 5:00 PM - 7:00 PM
SFU Harbour Center, Room 1530
515 W. Hastings Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Bren Simmers, Andrew Feld, and more!

Literary Arts Cafe
Monday, July 11th, 7:30 PM
Harrison Memorial Hall
98 Rockwell Drive, Harrison Hot Springs
Featuring: Trevor Carolan, Daniela Elza, Robert Martens and Franklyn Currie

TWS Reading Series
Friday, July 15th, 7:00 - 9:30 PM
Take 5 Cafe
429 Granville Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Ashleigh Rajala, Fiona Scott, and more!

Twisted Poets Literary Salon
Thursday, July 21st, 7:00 PM — 10:00 PM
The Prophouse Cafe
1636 Venables Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Natasha Boskic and ???
$5 (suggested donation)

And look - the TWS series scored some coverage from local media. Fancy stuff!