Never Be Alone Again: Hip-Hop Sampling as a Technique in Contemporary Australian Poetry

By | 1 May 2020

It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing a poem. It was fun to spend time thinking deeply about songs I love. Choosing a playlist, trying to blend iconic and lesser known lines, to find different ways for the lines to talk to each other. To shape the poem the way I wanted to shape it, and to see itself shaped by the songs. My understanding of the canon, and the power that enforces it, was enriched and I was able to add artists like The Warumpi Band, Ruby Hunter and Mop and the Dropouts to my personal canon, if not the Triple M playlist. Fitch recently described his writing in an interview with Elena Gomez:

I feel like I’m sometimes sifting through lots of different poets and their work, and other writers’ work, seeking out my own glinting fragments like some kind of rubbish collector or grifter, and then sculpting something out of that resonant trash.

This is what NYC’s X-Men and Avengers were doing rifling through crates at the Roosevelt Hotel record convention, eyes closely scanning the credits to see who was playing drums and who was on horns and just where the next four or six bars would come from.

In the case of ‘All the Skies Above Girls on the Run’, Fitch has been digging in some (relatively) mainstream crates, though Ashbery’s oeuvre is intimidatingly broad and many of us aren’t completists. (My copy of Girls on the Run has yet to arrive from Amazon.) This highlights an interesting point: when samples are used as wood and nails, it isn’t always necessary for the reader to understand the sample to reap the benefit. Unlike the James Brown sample in Rhee’s poem, which requires one to be familiar with the source to get the aural effect, samples used as building materials can often stand on their own. This poses a critical conundrum. A prominent poet-reviewer once expressed concern to me that they could inadvertently praise a sample in my work as an example of my own ability with language when in fact it was something I’d stolen. (This has happened. My poem ‘Bad News for Good People’ samples Basho, Joan Didion, the Bible, and Death Cab for Cutie amongst others, and I can recall an instance where one reviewer praised me for what were actually Charles Bernstein’s [or maybe Marjorie Perloff’s] words.) Duwell writes that ‘text-generated poems’ pose ‘a problem for critics’ and asks ‘how can you write about a poem whose textual genesis you might have been told about but whose processes remain covered up?’ He worries that this ‘might lead to a kind of hermeticism whereby only those ‘in the know’ – the friends and disciples – will be able to write sensibly about them.’ But I don’t think you always need to know how a poem was created or who ‘wrote’ a line; you can write, however modestly, about how the poems work.

‘[One] of the reasons poets have been compelled to use collage’, Fitch has written ‘has been to subvert the myth and tired conceit of the all-seeing Poet at the centre of the Poem.’ But this subversion is never quite complete, even after the poet abandons the traditional labour of selecting and arranging words in a pleasing sequence, the poet still has work to do selecting and fashioning. Fitch’s source text, Melissa Hardie writes, ‘recontextualises traces of [Henry] Darger’s phrases and preoccupations.’ Darger, an outsider artist who often worked in collage, is perhaps most famous for the posthumously discovered 15,145 page novel The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. (A collage of a semi-collage?) But you don’t need any of this back story to enjoy Fitch’s poem. Let’s take a stanza from the middle:

it was snowing a portent of shooting stars to come
the droplets made diagonal streaks
where pterodactyls had been climbing to get a better view
of the stars & the harvest moon
waxing as it waned into delirium tremens on the birdbath night

Here is a kind of nocturnal Mesozoic pastoral: a pterodactyl soaring over an impossible night sky where the harvest moon simultaneously waxes and wanes; full of shooting stars leaving ‘diagonal streaks’. This night could be riffing on something in Girls on the Run, in which case familiarity with the source text would enrich a reading, or it could be a scenario entirely of Fitch’s creation for which Ashbery simply supplied the materials. And the poem’s success rests with what Fitch does with the materials. His shaping of them opens the poem, literally, with a big bang:

a big boom was passing over my head lugubrious in the dark air
& a really bright light explored from the barn

And ends it by pushing the poem out into:

the dense night pouring over us & over the horizon
tidying us into pits of darkness where only the sky had hung before

Sure, il miglior fabbro and all that to Ashbery for the evocative final line and its depiction of nightfall, but it is Fitch who accrues a particular interest by placing it at the end of the poem and using it as the title for his book. And it is Fitch who knits the preceding line, presumably from elsewhere in Girls on the Run, making it work so well with the final line.

All of this is to say that there are many roads into poetry and hip-hop is only one of them. The culture’s trajectory could hardly have been predicted. DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy Campbell weren’t trying to launch a global cultural phenomenon (or open up a dialogue with Dada) – they were just trying to raise money for back-to-school outfits. They got new threads. Even Mike Pence has seen Hamilton and when I first came to that great wave of early 20th century poetry experimenters, their work made sense to me because hip-hop had already educated me in the power of the sample.

There are other frameworks to think about how samples function in poetry. We can focus, as Fitch suggested, on the de-prioritisation of the poetic Ego, or we can consider the various webs and threads that connect texts, or use any number of different critical schemas. But maybe the best way to end an essay that could be read as an apologia for artistic theft (it is) is with the words of CL Smooth who rapped about Pete Rock’s ability to pass on ‘The funk legacy … Every time we sample all the past time greats/Stick it in the SP-1200 … Just a little bit, set to make a whole lot happen’ on the duo’s ‘Straighten it Out’:

I start from scratch, cuz the bass line’s critical
Better than the original who first made it
But now you want to sue me, but fans never boo me
You’ll only get the credit where the credit is due
So, listen, what I shout out is true
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