Chuck Perkins is a New Orleans-based poet whose poetry collections include Bucket of Questions, and who has collaborated with jazz musicians. Recently I spoke with Perkins about his influences, his involvement with the poetry scene in Chicago, his work with Voices of the Big Easy, and his collaboration with the legendary pianist Henry Butler.
DG: How did you first get interested in the arts?
CP: I became interested in poetry when I was about 12 years old. Like many kids my age I would often become bored in class and wander. At some point I realized that I could escape the tedium of school by emerging myself in self created stories.
DG: Did you grow up in an artsy environment?
CP: Not at all — I have 3 brothers and a sister and we played sports almost every single day of my childhood.
DG: What’s one memory you have of growing up in New Orleans, as it relates to your writing?
CP: By the time I was in the 10th grade I was writing poetry, and on occasion one of the teachers would call me to the front of the class to recite my poetry. I remember reciting a poem I had written about the harassment of black kids by the police during Mardi Gras. One of my classmates accused me of plagiarism; she said that she had read the same poem in some magazine. On one hand I was angry because my classmates and teacher who really liked the poem thought that I may be deceiving them and accepting undeserved credit, yet on the other hand I thought that it was a good sign that they thought my poem was good enough to be in a magazine.
DG: Who are some of your influences?
CP: I found an album at my grandmother’s home that was given to my aunt; it had never been opened. The title really caught my attention — it was called Rapping Black in a White World, and the name of the group was The Watts Prophets. Their work was a combination of music, poetry, and singing that examined the black urban lifestyle of the 70’s.
DG: Did that record have a big impact on you?
CP: Yes — during my high school years this was the most played albums in my collection by far; it really helped to shape and inform much of my earlier work.
DG: Who is another artist who has influenced your work?
CP: Gil Scott-Heron has also been a big influence on my work; his process is very similar to Watts Prophets, in that he uses poetry, song and music. I saw him perform for the first time in San Francisco in 1992, and three years ago I was fortunate enough to meet him after his performance at the Essence Music Festival.
The poetry book Black Voices was also a very big influence.
DG: What are some things that you like about writing poetry?
CP: I like the fact that poetry allows me the opportunity to chronicle a piece of our current existence. It allows me to say something about who we are and what makes us tick.
In 100 years my poetry will remind readers that the people of New Orleans were resilient, and that our neighbors really aren’t as callous and self-absorbed as we tend to see ourselves, because when we needed them regular people from all across the country came here, rolled up their sleeves and worked their asses off to help us rebuild this city. In a hundred years people will be reminded from my poetry that the wealthiest companies on the planet who make billions of dollars a year extracting oil from the Earth, refused to spend the money necessary to know how to cap an oil well in 5,000 feet of water if it explodes.
DG: What’s an early memory that you have of performing?
CP: In the 8th grade during an end of school celebration we performed an episode of Good Times in front of the entire student body and their families. I was given the role of James Evans Senior, and I can remember the camaraderie that developed between me and the other cast members and the feeling of being apart of something really good.
DG: What’s an early memory you have of writing poetry?
CP: I wrote a poem in high school called “If a Tree Could Talk,” which was a take on Langston Hughes’ “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It was published in the Louisiana Weekly, one of the oldest black newspapers in the country. I was horned and thrilled as a 10th grader to have my poem presented in this paper.
DG: Would you describe one aspect of your creative process?
CP: When I was in the Marine Corps I would write letters to a girlfriend. After I had sent the letter I would be sitting aboard a ship in the middle of the Atlantic thinking of what I had said in the letter, and I realized that I could almost recall everything I had said in the letter without trying. This is when I first began to understand I had a really good memory.
DG: How did your writing process develop later?
CP: When I moved to Chicago in 1992 I started to get serious about writing poetry, and initially I would sit and write as most poets do, but again without trying I could recall everything I was working on. This freed me from a desk or any other physical place; I could work on a poem as I was driving, as I was taking a shower, or wherever I found a piece of solitude that allowed me to think.
DG: How would you say your writing process has affected the kind of poetry you write?
CP: This process gives my poetry a very fluid sound, because as it’s being written, sound is extremely important. A part of the difficulty of embracing this style is that I’m not the most prolific poet, and while I’m working on a poem the editing process is very important, but once I’m done working with a piece it’s difficult for me to go back and re-access the poem. I use new ideas learned about writing in future poems.
DG: What would you say are some interesting connections between writing poetry and performing?
CP: Because of the way I write, the performance part is much more closely linked, the music and the cadence is already present. I can color a particular poem with a certain tone.
DG: What do you think about how poetry exists on the page verses how it happens in performance?
CP: I did a show for Mark Strand at Louis University again during the early 90’s, and I always remember him explaining to me that while he appreciated spoken word, that he nevertheless thought that spoken word and written poetry are two separate literary mediums, and that spoken word was not intended for the page. I will agree that there is an awful lot of spoken word that isn’t intended for the page, but I have heard a lot that is. Every time I write a poem Mark Strand’s comment are still in my ear and I’m always attempting to write a poem that can stand on the page and on the stage.
DG: What are some things you remember about the poetry scene in Chicago?
CP: The scene in Chicago has some of the same problems that are seen throughout the rest of the country. Poets should build bridges, and tear down walls. They should be risk takers and want people to love their work but not give a damn if they do. Instead poets tend to prefer preaching to the choir and embracing environs that are racially and politically homogeneous.
I became good friends with Kent Foreman, Regie Gibson, Tyhemba Jess, Maria McCray, and Tara Betts, and while I had many other friends who were amazing poets, this is a group of poets who would go anywhere in the city and share their work, north side, south side, and west side.
DG: How would you say you and your circle of poet friends inspired and challenged each other?
CP: I was fortunate enough to hang with a group of poets who challenged each other all of the time, sometimes we would head to breakfast at 3 o’clock in the morning, and regardless if someone performed a poem that the crowd loved, there were times when someone at the breakfast table might say the poem was garbage. We would argue for the rest of the night and sometimes I would find myself defending a poem or a position on some political topic without attempting to try and hear the position of others.
DG: How did you process those conversations?
CP: There were some points I never wavered on, but I soon realized that when the coffee mugs were empty and the smoked had cleared, when I would get to my car and drive an hour back to Kenosha, WI with no one there but myself it was the moment of truth. I would revisit discussions and occasionally accept that someone had said something that would make me a better poet; sometimes this realization was immediate and other times it took weeks, months, or years. The important thing is that in Chicago I was a part of a writing community where we challenged each other. While I wasn’t always the best at receiving criticism, I always knew it was the kind of thing that could help make me a better writer.
DG: Would you describe one experience you had with the National Poetry Slam?
CP: I was asked to MC the National Poetry Slam at the Chicago Theater in 1999, along with my very good friend and fellow poet Shelia Donahue. It was a beautiful theater with a great audience, my performance as MC was not the best, the process of requesting scores from the judges, knowing what poet was coming next, and being quick and witty doing the down times was not as easy as it seemed. While Shelia and I had a couple slip ups, we nevertheless had a fantastic time.
DG: Would you describe one experience you had with The Guild Literary Complex?
CP: The Guild Complex sponsored me in a tribute to Gil Scott-Heron at the Chopin Theatre sometimes in the late 90’s. This was my first solo show that included a live band, which included the saxophonist David Boykin.
DG: What have you been doing in New Orleans lately?
CP: Last year I was featured several times during New Orleans’ Tennessee Williams Festival. I wrote a poem and had a small part in a play that ran in New Orleans called A Decade at a Glance. This play had its original run in New York; it was put on by a group of students from Stellar Adler.
DG: How did you get involved with exhibit at the Amistad Research Center at the New Orleans Museum of Arts?
CP: I was hired by the New Orleans Hornets to write four poetic television commercials that are do to air sometime in September.
DG: How did you come up with the idea of working with Mardi Gras Indians?
CP: As I mentioned earlier, sports was a big part of my early childhood. We would go to baseball, basketball or football games in the back of Coach Mims’ truck, and we would sing songs all the way to the venue. Many times we sang Mardi Gras Indian songs or songs that were influence by the Mardi Gras Indian sound. The Mardi Gras Indian sound is all call and response; the leader would say something and the group would have a repetitive part that was rhythmically matched to the lead guy. On many occasions I would be the lead guy.
DG: Was there a particular Mardi Gras Indian who inspired you in particular?
CP: I can remember hearing Bo Dollis, who is still my favorite Mardi Indian, and wanting to sound like him. My aunts and cousin would follow Bo all over the uptown part of New Orleans. As a kid, I was connected with and was inspired by this part of New Orleans culture.
DG: How did you start working with Mardi Gras Indians in your performances?
CP: At first I would do shows and invite the Indians to perform a sound or two but then I worked them into the entire show and I love it. I take pride in knowing that there is no other poet on the planet who works with this combination. The name of that group is Voices of the Big Easy.
DG: What are some recent developments with Voices of the Big Easy?
CP: We’ve traveled to France as a group, and they will appear with me on the Hornets commercials. We have had some fantastic shows and we plan to have many more. I will be the owner of a new performance space that is currently being renovated. We will be ready for our grand opening sometime in February and Voices of the Big Easy will be a big part of what I do there.
DG: Have you been involved with any projects in response to the current oil disaster?
CP: I have not so far. However, I’ve been interviewed by the French magazine Libération. Also, a group that’s working on a documentary is planning to come to my home and interview me tonight. I am working on my first poem about the spill.
DG: How did you first find out about Henry Butler?
CP: The first person to ask me if I knew Henry Butler was Dave Jemilo, who owns the Green Mill. At the time I didn’t know Henry, and I saw him for the first time at the French Quarter Festival in about 2003 not long after I had moved back to New Orleans.
DG: What were your first impressions of Henry Butler’s music?
CP: I remember listening to him and being blown away. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, and Henry had the piano lit up. A cruise ship was passing behind the stage, and I can remember thinking that the people on that cruise were probably wishing they were with us.
DG: How did your collaboration with Henry Butler develop?
CP: A couple of weeks later after that show, I ran into him on Frenchmen Street and I told him I much I enjoyed his show. We realized that we lived only blocks from each other, and over time we became friends. He seems to like my work, and he was always been talking about us working on some project together, but after Katrina he had to move to Boulder because his house took on about five feet of water. I cleared all of the water-soaked furniture from his house. He has recently moved to Brooklyn. I had a show at the Bowery Poetry Club a couple of years back, and the owners of The Jazz Gallery were there. They mentioned that I could perform at the Gallery anytime. Since this was a standing offer, and since Henry was in New York, I thought it would be a great time to work with Henry as we had discussed in years past. I also contacted Antoine Drye and Leslie Harrison to be a part of the ensemble.
DG: How was your recent performance with Henry, Antoine, and Leslie at The Jazz Gallery?
CP: The performance was great. Henry is a perfectionist, and while working with him it doesn’t take long to see why he’s so good at what he does. He challenged me to perform with more grit and more passion.
DG: What are some things you think about as you approach a collaborative project, whether it’s with a musician or a group of New Orleans Indians?
CP: A few years back I would do my part but not listen to the music. Now I am listening more to the music and trying to match my cadence to the rhythm of the music. The that remains difficult is that my work is a lot more dense than the average song, there’re a lot more words in my poetry so I really have to focus, especially if it’s a faster tempo. We have been weaving the Mardi Gras Indian songs and the poetry together, when it’s my turn instead of doing a typical Indian call the band breaks down and I I read a poem and when finished we’ll go right back into the regular call and response.
DG: What other projects are you involved with?
CP: The French journalist Marc Oriol is currently working on a documentary about my life in the city of New Orleans. In September I will be headed back to New York to perform in the Stellar Adler poetry series. I will be in Europe for most of October performing in the Bluecoat Festival in Liverpool, the Manchester Literary Festival, the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. During that trip I also have performances at the Southbank Centre of London and in Toulouse, France. Next March I will also be returning to Paris to perform at a blues festival.
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