Even if you’d never heard a single hip-hop track by Dessa, and knew nothing about her, you’d probably walk away from her recent event as part of the Talk of the Stacks series liking her as a person. That’s where I’m coming from. That’s what I did.
I was familiar with the name only due to the heavy Facebook advertising RainTaxi sent out about her recent book launch at the Walker Art Center. When I saw she’d be appearing at the downtown library, I listened to one or two tracks on her website—neither of them to the end. I like them both, but didn’t immerse myself.
Hilary is out of town, so I called a friend and suggested we meet for Happy Hour at Origami before the event.
“Sounds like a good idea,” he said. “I was planning to go anyway. I have two of Dessa’s CDs.”
This means that Tim is hip and I’m not. Or it means that Tim has adult children and I don’t. Or that Tim is into all sorts of music more deeply than I am. Or all of the above.
I am deeply immerse in the Talk of the Stacks scene. The series is altogether pleasant and I’ve been to six or seven events. There is something totally agreaable about a good Happy Hour meal at Origami, a nice stroll through a few blocks of downtown (now improved by the sight of colorful stacks of fruit just inside the glittering window of the new Whole Foods supermarket), a free reading in an elegant library with a bit of buzz to it...and free cookies of the chocolate-covered Pepperidge Farm type.
(It was a bit naive of me to imagine the wine they served after the event would also be free. But everything else was going so well!)
Dessa was introduced as the first musician to appear at Talk of the Stacks, but the written word, in the form of her first book of poetry, A Pound of Steam, was the evening’s focus. Eric Lorborer, the Rain Taxi publisher and impresario, sat across from her on-stage, asking her questions about the origin of this or that poem. This gave Dessa the opportunity to describe her approach to writing. She records snatches of conversation and later puts them into categories, depending upon whether they have potential as prose, poetry, or song lyrics. At one point she referred to the “butterfly net" she used to scoop up material out of the surrounding public space, and gestured evocatively from her chair as she did so. One of the next words out of her mouth was “mosaic.”
I’m sure Eric was lapping this up, because he’s a big fan of Surrealist literature, and the technique is not dissimilar to those the Surrealists often used, and probably still do.
As far as I can tell, Dessa isn’t much of a surrealist, however. Her work seems to be rooted in coherent narratives. And it strikes me that her rap performances carry a harsh, rough, edge and stuttering, explosive rhythms very much unlike the dreamy illogicalities of a Desnos or a Reverdy. The three or four poems she read were fair but somewhat lacking in pulse, as if, stepping away from her rapper stance, she’d lost touch with her inner core. I was reminded (though on a different level of achievement) of Duke Ellington, who in various jazz suites of the 50s and 60s strove for “long-hair” respectability but jettisoned a great deal of dance-hall swing in the process.
Throughout the evening it was interesting to listen to Dessa formulate elaborate sentences virtually free of cliché, in response to questions she’d been asked before, but seemed to be answering for the first time, or at least to be reflecting on anew, more fearful of sounding inauthentic or being untruthful than of exposing herself too much. Humor and integrity, insight and uncertainty. It’s obvious Dessa enjoys the workings of her own mind and is sometimes surprised and delighted by what comes out. But her inner censor is usually on high alert, and in response to one of Eric’s questions, she described in painful detail, how excruciating she sometimes finds it, attempting to select from between six or seven responses she might make in a given situation upon which her personal happiness is riding. Her biggest fear, it seems, is that she'll start sounding sentimental. (I'd like to hear a little more sentiment from her myself.)
The event took on a higher level of interest, I think, during the question-and-answer period, when there was less about literary matters and more of Dessa being herself. Young fans asked her intelligent questions about her career, her life-style, how her gender affects how she’s perceived and what she’s done to navigate and exploit such perceptions to make sure she gets her message across.
Dessa has a degree in philosophy from the U of M, and one fan asked her who, among that crowd, had influenced her work.
"I hate Kant," she replied. (Good for her!) It seems that the thinkers she's been most inspired by are not the dark and sometimes poetic Continental existentialists, as we might expect from an artist belonging to a collective called Doomtree, but the British analytic and utilitarian philosophers.
"I don't necessarily agree with their conclusions," she said, "but I like the ways they use the language."
One of my favorites questions came from a young woman in the first row: Why is it that so many more people like songs and song lyrics than written poetry? Her two-fold response was, people ought to explore written poetry more thoroughly…and poets ought to make a better effort to reach new audiences.
Dessa is moving in the other direction, stretching beyond her base in music in an attempt to reach a new audience that might find it difficult acclimatizing itself to a synthesized studio sound or a rapper’s beat.