An Interview with Larry Handy
Knowing you personally I have heard you say several times that poetry is your mistress, that it is the woman in your life. Can you explain that a bit more? Where does the passion for the words come from?
I started writing poetry in 1993 when I was 15. A year later I was 16 and got into Jimi Hendrix. I began reading interviews and watching documentaries. He used to believe—maybe it was his real brain or the LSD…I think it was his sober consciousness…He said that music was Music and the every time he “made” music with his guitar he was making love to Music. Capital “M” Music. I always was fascinated with this idea of a mortal man of flesh and bone communing with this timeless, formless, presence. It is very religious if you think about it. And for me Poetry is like that. Not so much my mistress but my bride. My high school sweetheart. Like any relationship there is work. Real love is work. It isn’t a I’m-into- you-one-day and out of you another day. I think a lot of people approach marriage that way and that is why 50% of marriages fail. For me, I spend time every day with poetry, I give my blood, my being, my money, my time to it, I’m always thinking about it. And when I don’t want to write I still write. That’s a commitment. It isn’t about me it is about something larger than me. I’m just a vessel or a medium. Poetry, like music, is an ancient thing and when I call myself a poet I take it seriously. I’m partaking in this ancient thing. Poetry is older than every government, nation, religion, that exists today.
Any other passions? I know you’re a marathon runner, where does that drive come from?
I ran my first marathon after I biked my first marathon. And I did that because my buddy Ricky needed a buddy to run and bike with. My bike chain broke on my bike marathon and so I had to push it to the end of the finish line. Mind you that is 26.2 miles. After that I said “F” it. Next time I’m running. But that was just for doing races, etc. But as far as making running a lifestyle I owe it all to my former girlfriend. I had this cool girlfriend from Japan. Naomi. She was a really cool girl. Her visa expired and she had to go back to Japan and we had this long distance thing. She got depressed and dumped me. 3 months later she was dating a guy from New Zealand. When that happened to me I pulled a Forrest Gump and I ran out my house and ran into the road. I didn’t care if I got hit, I just kept running. It really messed me up. I wouldn’t call it suicidal but it was a state of “I don’t care!” And so I kept running and running and I ran hard and fast and ended up sprinting for 4 miles straight. When I finally collapsed some Jehovah’s Witness lady prayed for me and gave me a WatchTower magazine. I don’t believe in that religion but at least God sent somebody. I realized then that what I was doing was a positive outlet if I could kept a positive head. That happened in 2003 and I’ve ran 14 marathons to this date. Only now I run for me and not for a woman.
But I would say that my passion outside of writing and performing would definitely be Chinese Martial Arts. I do Tai Chi Ch’uan and Kung Fu San Soo. I’ve been practicing for 11 ½ years now. The breathing techniques have definitely helped me with my running. The way we learn to use our body is very poetic. Chinese martial arts uses poetry to describe movements. The Old Man Reaches Over a Fence and Snatches a Flower. We use that to describe a take down technique. There are others in Kung Fu and Tai Chi. Repulse the Monkey, Cloud Hands, Needle At the Bottom of the Sea, The Plum Fist Form, The Iron Flute. I love the poetic descriptions and you train your body and style of attack to be poetic. Ballet is poetry, Break dancing is poetry but with the body and martial arts and marathoning help me to realize that there is more to poetry than just words. Now having that sort of consciousness helps my actual words to be more effective.
Was there a specific moment in your life when you knew, knew deep down, that poetry was your thing?
February 17, 1993. That was when I wrote my first poem. I was 15 years old. I had written poems before but for class projects. When I was given an assignment to write a haiku for class I brainstormed my ideas for the haiku and my brainstorm became a poem. I didn’t turn it in because it wasn’t the assignment I kept it for me. So I turned the assignment in for a grade but that “for me writing” was when I knew that poetry was FOR ME. So I kept doing more brainstorms and shaping them into verse and that feeling I got was very religious or intimate or not love-at-first-sight but love-at-first-write. February 17, 2012 will mark my 19 year wedding anniversary to Poetry.
More than just writing poetry, you are a part of Totem Maples. Can you give us Totem Maples’ origin story?
By the time I graduated high school I had 200 poems written. From 1993 to 1995. That was a book’s worth. I was writing every day. So when I got accepted to college I went to this little scholarship banquet and Matt was there. I told the people that I was going to have a book published because I was serious about turning my 200 poems in. I was 17 ½ and cocky. So they announced it at the banquet. Matt was impressed and shook my hand. That is how I first met Matt Coleman. Well when school started we would see each other but not really hang out. Around October 1996 Matt and a guy named Andrew Christopherson did a rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tale Tell Heart. Andrew was a tall skinny White guy but he had a deep Barry White Voice. And the audience loved it. Matt played guitar and Andrew read. Matt would still say high to me and ask me about my unpublished book of poems and ask me if I would be interested in reading my poems while he played guitar. I turned him down several several several times. I had this prejudice about open readings. I believed in reading silently and on the page. Poetry in my mind then was silent and meditative. So Matt invited me to a coffeehouse where there were singer-songwriters doing open mic. I broke my vow of silence and I read a poem. Matt didn’t play, I just read to the audience. What I found out after that experience was there was something special about a music audience that I wanted more of. I also felt a little defeated because I had some their attention but not all. I wanted to come back and redeem myself and get my revenge and give them more. So I told Matt that the following month he should play guitar behind my poetry just as an experiment. I had a stuttering issue back then that sometimes comes back to this day. So I wanted to practice with Matt because I didn’t want to be reading my poem to his guitar and be stuttering and making a fool of myself. So every day we would practice for this one little open mic show in April of 1997. And by practicing so that I could get over my stuttering I ended up memorizing my words and Matt perfected his chords, so on April 24, 1997 we brought the heat and the audience flipped out. They didn’t know if it was rapping or recitation. I told Matt that from that point on I wanted him to back me up with guitar, and that’s how it’s been since April 24, 1997. This year will be Totem Maples’ 15 year anniversary. Erik Elsey joined us in September 1997, Justin Punzalan joined us in April 1999, Brian Sadler joined us in January 2001, and Joanne Kim joined us in October 2001. We formed like a totem pole one by one. A face carved into a block of wood one by one by one. One building off of another. We didn’t recruit any musician or instrument, folks joined because they were friends and friends play with friends. I think if we would have recruited people to build a band we would not have lasted this long. Friends last longer than partners.
To be a “successful” poet the cliché is to aim for publication, but just like painting and photography, poetry is a dynamic art with so many opportunities for expression. What are some benefits that are only in performing poetry, as opposed to writing it?
The benefits that are only in performing would probably be strengthening necessary virtues that you can use in other parts of life. When you perform you have to be courageous. You have to battle stage fright and you are really sharing intimate words and thoughts with strangers. When you write for the page you don’t look your reader in the eye unless you are reading at a book signing—which is another style of “performance”. I was an introvert who stuttered and I had to teach myself not to stutter and throw myself out on the stage. This has helped me be a leader in other aspects of my life. I would say also that performing a work that was originally written adds to the complexity of the work. You are giving the receiver of the art more options and choices. A person can take my poetry to bed with them and read. A person can be stuck in traffic and listen to my poetry. A person can go out with their friends and in a concert setting be in the presence of it. More options are given.
Slam. Spoken Word. Performance. Readings. There are so many ways to get poetry out into the world. Could you explain a little about the different types of performance poetry? How does someone get involved in broadening his or her reach beyond writing solely for the page?
SLAM is a contest. Just like writing a poem for a magazine or writing a manuscript and sending your work in to be judged so you can win a prize or fellowship…that is SLAM except it is performance based. You look your judges in the eyes they see you, you see them and you get judged there. Spoken Word is what I call a “literary gumbo” of vocalization. A spoken word artist may start off with a poem then break off into storytelling, then venture off into political commentary, sexual rants, do a song and dance, go back to poetry, and end with a dramatic monologue. That’s why it’s called Spoken Word. But a lot of poetry purists think that when you depart from poetry and venture off into dramatic monologue that it is no longer poetry and so they may criticize the craft as being unstructured, but there is a craft to it. It is not always a smooth painting but a collage. Performance Poetry is poetry written to be performed or maybe not written at all, just improvised. Hedwig Gorski was the one who coined the term “Performance Poetry” because she didn’t want to publish and she wanted to distinguish her style of performance from “performance art”—her art was literature, hence “performance poetry”. You can use music or not, you can use stage lighting and props or not, you can use multiple voices or not. In performance poetry (which isn’t always about SLAM, and isn’t always about Spoken Word), the human body is the page, the human voice is the font or typesetting. And if you are a sign language poet, the fingers and hands are the font. Emotion is present in performance as well. Poetry readings are about as basic as you can get. You write a poem and you read it. I would say that if someone wants to broaden their reach beyond the page they need to start with the basics. Pick up some old Dylan Thomas recordings, Anne Sexton recordings, etc. And listen. Read the poetry while you listen to the recordings and pay attention to how they alter the words and adlib. Start with the masters. Go out to a spoken word reading and watch and listen to how they do what they do. Go to a traditional reading and watch and listen. There are so many styles and modes of poetry presentation. You may want to try your hand at it or just remain a page poet. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is awareness and respect.
Academically I know you have researched the history and the scope of performance poetry. During your research, and your own experience, what have you found to be the biggest misconception about performance poetry?
The biggest misconception is that performance cheapens or takes away from the words or the imagination of the reader. That is the prejudice that I originally had and why I kept turning Matt’s offers to play guitar to my work down in the beginning. That is also the prejudice that I have encountered by “traditionalists” who may not understand or appreciate Totem Maples. I don’t feel that performance takes away from words. I feel that performance can be bothersome if the receiver of the art is not prepared for performance. Art is very relational and it takes two to tango. And if a person has not been versed in performance and are a page person only then they may feel annoyed. But I always back up the fact that a lot of our “traditional” poetry came from performance. The troubadours invented the sestina, and primitive forms of villanelle, and some would argue the primitive pre-Petrachan sonnet. A lot of the reason why poetry is known for rhyming and rhythm has to do with performance. Rhyme helped with memorization. Books are a wonderful thing. But as more poets began experimenting on page during the Modernist period, less focus was on the stage and for a long time writers, critics, and educators created a “page-only class system”. In doing so, they forsook poetry’s heritage.
You’re also in the process of earning an MFA, which seems like such a different world than performance poetry. How did you come to your MFA program and what have you gotten from the experience? Do you have any advice for writers, especially those who have a passion for performance poetry, who are considering pursuing and MFA?
I enrolled in the MFA program at the University of California Riverside as a New Year’s resolution thing. It was a new decade. 2010. One of my goals was to apply to graduate school. I didn’t expect to get in. And I didn’t care if I didn’t get in. But dang. I got in. And instead of dropping out—because I am a marathoner and I go the distance—I stayed. And that is basically my MFA-how-I-came-to-be story. What I got out of it was the advantage of making wonderful friends who are writers. Most of my friends are artists and musicians. Now I have friends who are writers. I also honed my prose writing skills in my MFA program. Rob Roberge taught me the Two Commandments of Writing. “Thou shalt not confuse thy reader, and thou shalt not bore thy reader.” And he is a fiction professor, I wish a lot of poets would abide by those rules. Don’t confuse and don’t bore. I also developed some great self-editing skills. The MFA program didn’t make me a better writer, just a better self-editor. Now, as far as my advice for writers, both performance and non, who are interested in pursuing an MFA I would say do it if you have the time and money to do it. An MFA does not make you a “real” poet or a “good” poet. Work is what makes you a real poet and a good poet. You must work at your words every day. Your heart is the strongest muscle because it beats every day. Even when you sleep. It beats. And you have to write as the heart beats to be “real” and “good”. It’s not even about being published. Folks think that getting published makes you real. Heck no. There are a lot of poets who publish not because they are real poets but because they are Professors at a University and in order to keep their status they need to publish. And so they publish crappy poetry. It’s crap, but it’s still in print so they are “legit” as Professors. This is a dis-service to poetry. But my advice for a lot of spoken word, SLAM, and performance poets is always to read more. You exercise your craft on the stage—great! Now exercise reading. You would be surprised at the number of stage poets that don’t read. And vice versa, page poets must listen more to recordings. Cross training is what I call it. Bruce Lee was a great martial artist because he also studied dance. He had coordination because he loved dance. And he incorporated dance into his fighting. Well that is my advice to writers. If you specialize in one thing, train a little bit in another thing to make what you specialize in better. An MFA can help or hurt or nothing at all.
To wrap up, what is one poetry performance, reading or otherwise, that all poets should be familiar with?
TOTEM MAPLES!!! Hahaha. Seriously, that is a hard question to answer because I have to describe the “one” poetry performance/reading/ that all poets should be familiar with. Hmmmmm. Let me think. This may sound like a cop-out answer but I would say watch old tapes and listen to old speeches of Mohammed Ali. That sounds trivial but to me his life was a performance poem. To this day he is the most popular human being and American in the world. People who live in obscure parts of the planet know his face. And it is because he was more than just a boxer. He had a unique relationship with life and language—which is what true performance poetry is. Life and language not just page and language. Study his praises, study his rants, study his laments, study his insults, study his proverbs, and then study his vocal tone and facial expressions, study where in the world and what country he was in when he used those words. You can listen on cd, or watch on dvd… Ali material is out there. In the old ethnopoetic days when human beings lived in tribes, shaman/poets taught their tribe, praised their God and chief and people, and cursed the enemies. They didn’t have book deals. They were their poems. Ali did that. Ali was that. Whether he boasted how he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” or protested the Vietnam War by saying “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.” He did it all with a chant and a charisma and an enthusiasm for life—boxing was just a day job. He was a poet. A poet in the old tribal ethnopoetic shaman-bard sense. I mentioned that performing taught me to not stutter and to not be overly introverted and have courage and how I incorporated those lessons into other aspects of my life—well that is it. Life is what true performance poetry is about—life! Life beyond the the stage. Life beyond the page.
The band consists of poet Larry Handy, guitarist Matt Coleman (who is also a member of local favorite Hobo Jazz), Brian Sadler on electric guitar and Hammond organ, Joanne Kim ..boards, Justin Punzalan on turntables and Erik Elsey on percussion. All the members except Kim met while attending Azusa Pacific University. Coleman approached Handy in February 1997 at the university and asked him to read some poetry at the campus coffeehouse with Coleman playing guitar behind it. Handy turned him down at first, but then decided to take him up on his offer. "I told him I'd read a poem while he played guitar. So in April Matt and I sat down. I had three poems and we put music to them," Handy said. The first show was just with Coleman and Handy. "The audience thought it was some weird hip hop stuff. They thought I was reciting stuff off my head because I wasn't reading," Handy said. "Mind you now, in 1997, Slam was not big in LA. There was no Poetry Lounge. Poets weren't memorizing their words as they do now. So what Matt and I were doing was foreign." It wasn't new. Handy found out later that the first rappers were poets. "The Last Poets, The Watts Prophets, Gil Scott Heron were all doing what Matt and I were doing and what Maggie Estep was doing but they did it in the 1970s," Handy said. "And what we all had in common was we were all reciting poetry with music, not reading a poem to background music; there is a huge difference." The duo knew they had something special
and stuck with it. And even though the two friends were not looking to start a band, the band soon grew. "We weren't out to play rock or hip hop or jazz or blues or whatever. We just wanted to put the right chords to the right words," Handy said. Punzalan said he "dug" the duo's sound, appreciating their authenticity. "It was different," he said. "I love going against the grain and these guys did it so well." Friends with Punzalan, Kim went with him to a Totem Maples show and was soon asked to jam with band. She has been with them ever since. The band members are all experienced musicians, chock full of musical influences and artistic inspiration. "I think what has had a big impact on me to this day musically are my childhood teachers," Handy said. "My kindergarten teacher who told me I can make music out of anything and my junior high school marching band teacher who taught me to be tough with music and to attack it relentlessly." But Handy still gives credit to one man who helped him see music for music and art for art - Jimi Hendrix. "Hendrix's lyrics weren't concretely about the black man's struggle in America, he used symbols and metaphors and wrote about science fiction," Handy said. "He was part Cherokee Indian and so he used Native American dream imagery in his lyrics. That led me to really examine what real art was, what real music was. It's not always about dancing, or bumping in your speakers, it's also about listening. And a black guy like myself doesn't have to always be writing about racism, he can write about nature if he wants Hendrix did it. Why can't I?" Punzalan started playing piano when he was 6 and taking voice lessons when he was 8. One of five boys, Punzalan said his mother wanted to create some kind of "Filipino Jackson 5." "Crazy thing is we all ended up being mobile DJs in the end," Punzalan said. Punzalan said working with the Totem Maples really stretches his disc jockey muscles. "I just can't do what is comfortable, such as cuttin' and scratchin,'" he said. "I end up having to do other things, creating sounds, adding loops, sound sequences and other effects. I've become something of an electronic sound mechanic of sorts." Kim began banging on the piano keys, trying to make up songs, at the age of 3. Her mother said Kim would sit at the piano for hours trying to figure out the melody, "and that's when she decided that she would start my classical training in piano." Kim went on to study music with an emphasis in baroque, classical, romantic and contemporary eras, later entering three or four competitions a year. In her junior year of high school, Kim's piano teacher told her that she was competent enough to teach herself. "My genre became larger and I've started listening to different types of music and started writing my own songs," she said. "Once I joined Totem Maples, there was a freedom for me to improvise and create my own version of music into our songs and I felt very comfortable right away." "If you study Totem Maples, stylistically we do make music out of anything and everything, and we have lasted for 10 years by being tough with music," Handy said. "These are the same philosophies taught to me by my childhood teachers." After the band produced their second album, "Ars Poetica," they went on hiatus. "What I did was concentrate on my writing - working on novels, and the musicians ventured off and joined other groups," Handy said. "We were still a band, and had product out, still promoting, we even got nominated for awards but we just didn't play much together." This both helped and hurt the band. "It hurt the band because we didn't have as much time to devote to each other as in the other projects, but it helped the band because everyone grew one way or the other," Handy said. "Now we are together again on this third album and if you listen to everything lyrically, and musically you can hear the fruits of our maturity." Handy said over time the band's music has become more complex. "The mix of poetry and music is always going to be challenging to Americans and be looked upon as complex," he said. "The sad thing is that a lot of spoken word artists who get signed to labels end up becoming rappers because right now rap is more marketable and less complex." The band has three CDs out - two versions of "Trip to the Sun" and a second album called "Ars Poetica." And they are currently working up their third album, "In the Realm of the Senses." The band's song "Gethsemane" was nominated for Best Spoken Word Song at the 2004 Just Plain Folks music awards and they performed the song at the awards show. "Trip to the Sun" was the second runner-up for Best Hip Hop Album and Best Jam Band Album at the 2005 Independent Music Awards. And "Ars Poetica" was the third runner-up for best Jam Band Album "I do want to see our music on TV, radio and film and I do want to open for Ben Harper or have him open for us," Handy said. "These are fantasies, of course. I think one day they are going to open up the history books and research poetry in 21st-century America and find Totem Maples in the bibliography because we contribute to the cultural movement of American poetry the spoken word."
Totem Maples are a local spoken word troupe from Azusa who have recently released two CDs, Nus eht ot pirt//Trip to the sun (revised), and Ars Poetica, but they deftly mix their message of spirituality and social issues with spoken word and music.
Totem Maples started back in 1997 when founding members Larry Handy and Matt Coleman got together to form The Maples. Erik Elsey, Joanne Kim, Justin Punzalan, and Brain Sadler joined later, and then the troupe rechristened themselves the "Totem Maples."
The first CD, Nus eht at pirt//Trip to the sun (revised), is a revamped version of TM's first CD of the same name. According to Handy, the first album was recorded in one night for a mere $700, and the decision to re-record was to "bring some justice to the songs."
I'm not privy to what was missing from the original, but the new version of Nus is entertaining, thought-provoking, and just on the left side of experimental. Nus is peppered with spoken word gems like "City Jazz and Fire," (two versions, I like the second one better) "Rain/Storm/and After," and my personal favorite "The Parting Glass/Last Call" which starts with a heartfelt recitation of that Irish traditional, and ends with a PSA by Punzalan outlining the more graphic symptoms of STDS accompanied by the gentle strains of an acoustic guitar. About a third of the tracks on Nuis begin and end with a conversational vignette; it's the poetic equivalent of Sublime's 40 Ounces to Freedom.
TM does emphasize:
a) They are "spoken word artists," not slammers.
b) Poetry should be fun.
This particular point is driven home in "Tabloid," a tongue-in-cheek, free-flowing and humorous piece about how to win a slam competition: the key is having "the voice. If one has "the voice," then that person could win by reciting passages from The New York Times.
Ars Poetica continues in the same quirky vein, but with more emphasis on spirituality (the poet's relationship to God, or the poet in the role of shaman/visionary), as illustrated in "The Musician," and "Gethsemane." The issue of whether or not a poet's views are heard is explored in "Spoken Turd," a caustic, yet honest query:
Hey reader why are you reading this poem? Why do you read any of the poems I write? Are you searching for answers you think I might have?
Sadly, the only distraction from both Nus and Ars Poetica is that some of the tracks are overwhelmed by the volume of the music, but fortunately not on the more jazzy pieces. Both CDs are available at Amazon.com, and through the TM's website. If you want to catch a gig with the Totem Maples, you can visit at http://www.totemmaples.com/.
Totem Maples, Nus eht ot pirt//Trip to the Sun,(copyright 2004 Furor Poeticus/ASCAP), 18 tracks, $18.00.
Totem Maples, Ars Poetica,(copyright 2004 Furor Poeticus/ASCAP), 18 tracks, $18.00
copyright 2005 Marie Lecrivain
Spoken word for the music lover
Local band, Totem Maples, merges music and spoken word, with a dash of faith and innovation.
by Adam Pasion
The Totem Maples have had shows on and off Sunset in Hollywood, been nominated for "Best Spoken Word Song" at the Just Plain Folks Independent Music Awards, played at the award ceremony, was offered a project for an MTV pilot with X-Patriot Studios and released three albums. So why aren't you listening? For those looking to break away from the whiny acoustic and emo bands, the Totem Maples (TM) are truly new and innovative. Composed mostly of APU graduates (and one hoping still to graduate), TM emerges on the scene. Named after the Algonquian word totem, which means "his relations," and an old maple tree that poet and alumnus Larry Handy used to write poems under, TM are simply poetry and music. They are a band without peer, but in a market that demands classification, they are most commonly labeled spoken word. For those unfamiliar with the genre of spoken word, it is an umbrella term that encompasses everything from political ramblings to slam poetry but even those terms don't adequately define TM. As Handy declares, "it's like a genre-less music. We have songs with harmonica, songs with the organ now, piano, electric guitar, congas, drums, turn tables, sound effects, you name it. You can bring a bagpipe in, just don't let it conflict. We are a very imaginative band, and the possibilities are endless." Within their genre, they are perhaps the only spoken word act to incorporate a full band, which goes far beyond the simple three-piece (guitar, bass and drums) formula. They incorporate Justin Punzalan on turntables, keyboards provided by Joanne Kim and Erik Elsey's percussion-everything from African djembes to South American goat toes. Also included is Matt "coffeehouse" Coleman, whose soulful acoustic guitar draws from influences such as folk singers and jazz greats like Louie Armstrong. And if needed Coleman, throws in Irish tin-whistles, thick bluesy harmonicas and anything else that may come up. Brian Sadler finishes off the roster on electric guitar, as well as the new love of his life, his Hammond Organ. Each song has its own feel, like "The Musician" featuring harmonica or "DJ Kimochi vs. Scratch Mouth Master Owlyism," with beatbox and turntables. All of this is complemented by Handy's thoughtful and provocative poetry, of which Kim declares, "it's genius." His carefully crafted lines paint pictures of his own Los Angeles as a mistress with smeared lipstick, and at other times it breathes with powerfully honest, probing questions that make you reflect on your own faith. Handy's intensely personal lyrics reveal intimate daydreams about life, love, religion and anything else-moving at the speed of thought. He probes into Christianity, but theology is not his primary concern, as he writes about music, race issues and the monotony of life in a cubicle ("Reflections Beyond 9 to 5'). Handy's poetry is and always has been the focal point of the music. Coleman attests, "One reason all of us even started playing music in the first place was because of Larry's poetry...it's all based on what you're gonna hear vocally." While TM are made up of mostly APU alumni, and certainly all Christians, they cannot be (and all but refuse to be) labeled a "Christian Band." As a matter of fact, Handy tries to avoid classification, as he states, "I don't want to teach, I don't want to preach and I don't want to persuade-I want to inspire." The other members agree that their sound should not be lumped in any particular genre, especially one that has a tendency to pigeonhole artists. Perhaps the most insightful comments on Christian music came from Sadler. "My guitar is really Christian on the album," Sadler said. "The bends [of the guitar]: You can't hear it but I am actually sounding out scripture in them. I think its Leviticus that I got most of it from!" Nonetheless, the spirituality of the Maples inevitably exudes from their music. Such honest lyrics like the award nominated song "Gethsemane" go on to describe the inadequate views of God inherent in churches, atheism, New Age and even among theologians, who Handy declares, "limit You [God] to the left brain." The provocative and honest lyrics falling at the cadence of folk guitar and melodic piano is a new kind of experience. The music, "delivers thought to the listener but it also demands thought from the listener," Coleman said. "It's a home cooked meal, not fast food."
Totem Maples – Innovators of the Underground by Brandon Backhaus
(article taken from www.Getunderground.com)
Brandon Backhaus: Well lets get this underway – introduce the band.
Larry Handy: The band Totem Maples consists of: Matt Coleman – acoustic guitar, Brian Sadler – electric guitar, Joanne Kim – piano, Erik Elsey – drums, congas, percussion, Catharina Dinwoodey – she is on hiatus but when she is around viola and violin, Justin Punzalan – turntables and Larry Handy - spoken word poetry vocals. We are the magnificent 7. The nucleus of the band would be me and Matt Coleman. We are like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, or Garfunkel and Simon, or Erik B. and Rakim. The song writing is structured like this: I write a poem. If I feel like it has a verbal quality I read it to Matt wherever: in the park, living room floor, at his house, in the car.
BB: I can see you guys kicking it and just vibing. You can see it on the stage, the connection between you two.
LH: Yeah, I tell everyone he is my cousin. I don't tell him what to play I tell him WHAT NOT TO PLAY. That way the poem has an identity with the music and Matt can still keep his originality. When we have a piece done, Matt and I do local open mics, small ones, for weeks, months. Then when we flow well with it the others in the band add their stuff to it and then we play, practice, play and stuff happens through time and vibe.
BB: Larry talked about how he and Matt first clicked, how did you come to be in the group Brian?
Brian Sadler: In early spring 2000 I was given a Totem Maples NEOP album because Erik, the drummer thought that I might enjoy listening to his eclectic poetry band. I studied that album forwards and backwards, on repeat and on random, in the car and at the house. Naturally I began to whip out my own guitar and see what I could add to these tracks. Nothing came- I could not follow where Matt’s guitar was headed and I could not compete with the (what I considered to be at the time) odd structuring of the songs. But as a good sculptor would do, I hacked away, alone in my room, studying and researching this TM album. Later on that fall I finally saw a statue hidden in one of the TM songs-well more like I found a hangnail of a finger of a hand of a statue hidden in one of the songs. That song was called "Rain" and it put me one the map and really was the impetus for my place in the band today. I begged Larry to let me do the song with him and the band. In fact, I had a bit of a phone audition with him to let him know the vibe I was trying to give to the song. I sat the receiver down next to my guitar amp and the CD player while I played along to the song. He was quiet on the other end of the line. I would not take no for an answer. Later on that night at Sweet Daddy’s café in Glendora, CA I won Larry and the band over Soon I was invited to the next practice at Justin Punzalan’s basement groove shack. I have been sculpting ever since.
BB: Cool and since the poetry is the priority element what got you writing Larry?
LH: I've been writing since 1993. I have 877 poems counted.
LH: A teacher wanted us to write a haiku so I was brainstorming in class and my brainstorm felt weird. I was feeling like I was doing something more than a class project. I wrote the haiku about a volcano, but I kept my brainstorm – which had nothing to do with the volcano OR class project anymore. It was a poem about Africa cause I was in my BLACK MAN phase back then and it was beautiful. It was about nature.
BB: No doubt. I don't know if I could give you a definite year when I started writing. I find that some people can and some can't... it’s cool that you know when it was.
LH: For me my Poetic birth date is like a born again experience. I know the date too: February 17, 1993. I date all of my poems when I start and when I end like a diary.
BB: That's a good idea. So not only did you find an outlet you found an entirely new life?
LH: Next month I will be 10 years old (laughing). Yeah poetry changed the way I thought, what music I listened to, ended a lot of prejudices I had and brought me closer to what life really is. I mean life is a mystery but I can celebrate that mystery and not try to run from it or complain.
BB: Or solve it. It comes across in your work that you regard poetry very reverently. I treat poetry like a girlfriend, like a bowel movement.
BB: (Thinking – bowel movement?)
LH: I say that because when you have to go to the bathroom very bad – you go.
BB: HA! no doubt.
LH: You can be busy talking to George W. Bush but it's like sorry dog, can you hold on. I have to take some time to myself and he is like that. Too much. So many friends get mad at him for that but I understand.
BB: I have tried to surround myself with people that understand that about me, but not all do.
LH: Yeah usually in those PEOPLE, it is just one or two, even though the whole group is cool, there is always that inner inner circle.
BB: Always. You say 877 poems – how many of those have been translated into songs played by the entirety of Totem Maples?
LH: Well about the 877, we have 30 TM songs but out of those 30 – I don't know – because 1 song will have 6 short poems and one song will just be a 10 page poem put to music.
BB: Oh ok – that's interesting to note. Cool. So it varies?
LH: I would say 50 or so (have been translated into songs played by the entirety of Totem Maples).
BB: What about you brian when did you start playing guitar?
BS: My mother had an old acoustic guitar she had bought at a pawnshop in her closet. I took it out one day and decided I needed to play the song "Black Gold" by Soul Asylum. As I tapped my finger down the frets of one string, I suddenly realized that the musical talent I had had finally found a comfortable home. As I learned the simple guitar intro by one of my favorite bands at the time and I was off and running. I suppose this was a defining moment in my musical instrument selection, however it is not as whimsical as I believe Larry’s enlightenment under the maple tree. But we all have our moments right!!! HAHAHA! Music has always been in my soul and artistic ability runs deep in my family.
BB: How did you guys all meet. I guess I don't want you to have to take me through each story in detail but is there a common bond like a school, or a hangout, or what?
LH: Except for Joanne who is still at Univeristy of California Riverside studying nursing – she was Justin's friend from clubbing – the rest of us went to Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, CA. It’s in between Pasadena and Pomona. It was a small college. We all graduated.
BB: Why did you choose that particular school?
LH: I chose the school because I consider myself a Christian and I go to church. I don't bash organized religion. Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister, Mother Theresa was a Catholic nun, both of them fought for causes but did not force anyone against their beliefs.
BB: Really... I was raised Catholic but have since distanced myself though I still feel very spiritual connections to the world around me.
LH: I believe lack of love is the cause not organize religion.
BB: I think your statement about forcing people is crucial.
LH: Yeah, when you look at MLK and M. Theresa – they were examples of how the Church should be. So many in the church aren’t and so it turns folks off. Bob Marley is a RASTA. He loves Jah. But I think there are a lot of Christian bands who suck because they are not artists but propaganda folks. But if you love life and God and just want to do your thing - do it. Marley did, George Harrison did,
BB: I feel very strongly that there is divinity in the very fabric of the world around me and however one chooses to experience and interact with that divinity – from acid head ravers to nuns – is entirely a personal choice.
LH: It is easy to get caught up in material stuff. Even hip hop has big booty girls and lowrider cars, gold teeth, icey chains.
BB: Hip hop is pretty much despicable. I feel sorry for her sometimes cuz people are just using her. I say that though I love her with every ounce of my being.
LH: My DJ talks much about that. You have pillars: rapping, djing, breaking, graffiti..
BB: The elements.
LH: but folks fail to recognize that those ELEMENTS themselves have elements. They only take notice of the four. Like I like Irish dancing. Take Irish dancing mixed with Black rhythm you have tap dancing.
BB says: So what your saying is you are down for River Dance? : )
LH: Take tap dancing and mix it with something else but folks don't know black folks invented the banjo.
BB: You are saying that everything is kinda connected?
LH: Yeah, but if I were to play the banjo in Watts right now I'd get called uncle tom trailer trash wannabe. But those are our roots and the reason why hip hop sucks now.
BB: More than just the banjo – all popular musical forms are direct descendents from African-American musical forms: the blues, jazz, rock & roll and hip hop, even disco and house music.
LH: It is because folks have not opened their minds to the other elements and some not so popular.
BB: Part of that can be argued as social.
LH: Blame whoever for stealing. I know the upper class has their fault, but if I love something I'm going to teach my kids and if they choose not to like it cool. But at least they will have it in their head. I hate chitlins but I know what they are.
BB: No doubt... hahaha... you know I think that the reason I so love non-mainstream music is that all my parents listened to was popular lite rock.
LH: I think Totem Maples is on that banjo vibe.
BB: I am feeling the banjo vibe.
LH: Zydeco – that stuff is tight. Lite rock – I even listen to that. Well, JONI MITCHELL I LOVE. It is cool, just respect it.
BB: I mean like Journey... Wham!... PUKE!
LH: BRIAN likes all of that synthesized stuff. I don't so we argue. We have had THE BIGGEST CREATIVE DIFFERENCES and still do.
BB: I can see where that would lead to misunderstandings and resentment. How do you guys deal with this?
BS: Misunderstandings and Resentment…uhh yeah…I think that is the name of our newest Album!!!!! Yes the diversity in the band brings conflict. But I see our musical differences as more of a challenge, than our cultural or spiritual differences. Sometimes it is a case where our musical decisions are influenced by our culture. That can be troublesome, but this is a rare occasion.
I believe that the misunderstanding and resentment comes from a lack of communication more than the homogeny of beliefs and culture. In building relationships, I believe we can end the confusion and begin the revolution. (YEAH QUOTE THAT…IT’S MINE!!!)
However, relationships within TM struggle do to varying factors. Some of us are introverted and some are extroverted. Some live in Riverside and some live in San Gabriel Valley - and then some live in San Francisco. Some of us are neck deep in marriage and school, and some are just chillin’ at home and work. Some of us are dedicated to practice and some of us are bored by it. If someone would just pay for us to live together and write music together, I think that we could all get along much better - if nothing else because we are in proximity to one another.
Also, I am less aware of the challenges that accompany such diverse involvement. I am a white guy in the band and have much to learn about racial reconciliation. I do not pretend to be perfectly attuned to the varying properties involved in my fellow band mates’ ethnicity and culture. This is a learning process and I can honestly say that I am a better person for joining forces with such a diverse and understanding group of people. It is a privilege to be in creative, musical communication with such a wide variety of people and influences. I believe it is evident within our music that we can work with the strengths that come along with diversity.
Our common ground may not be in the way we hang out, or spend time with family, or the movies we see or music we listen to, or even the way we view God, but instead, we lean on the music to, in a sense, dialogue together in a shared language we all can understand. The relationship builds out of our goal to create together.
BB: Cooperation was the major reason any large – I say large meaning more than 3 members – project I tried to work on just fell apart. So many personalities. How do you guys deal with that when it comes up? I tend to work democratically now.
LH: But you got to have that nucleus. Me and Matt. Democracy is cool but I see things kind of like a monarchy, but the monarch ends up being the servant.
LH: So it is balance. I say to folks in my band the poetry is the guide to what the sound should be. So if you don't like something save what you like for your own personal songs. Matt has a demo he is working on, Justin does gigs up in San Fran, Joanne does her thing.
BB: Have you ever changed a poem or written one to fit something that the band comes up with on its own?
LH: No not really. I have edited poems for sake of flow and that is good for the poem. It gives it variety.
But the poems comes first. It has to. No one in my band really writes poems, lyrics yes, poems no. And the world has not seen a POETRY BAND really. So the reason why we are so uniqueI think is because we bend the rules of what a band is or should be.
BB: What do you say to the argument that good lyrics are poetry, sung, rapped or otherwise?
LH: Good question, give me time to answer… In my opinion poetry is the voice of all around you and above you and within you and of what created you and so if you can do that just in music lyrics it is poetry. Aside from my definition of poetry which I just gave, I will say that when it comes to "word poetry" there is Lyric and then Literary. And the type of poems I recite for TM are literary and not LYRIC even though I feel they are LYRICAL. They are lyrical because they flow but they are not LYRIC because I don't write words specifically to accompany the music. I write words for the sake of words and the natural music which is in words. The guitar and the TM song always comes later for me. So when I say Matt writes lyrics and not poetry I don't mean it negatively – I mean that he writes poetry but lyric poetry and not literary poetry; because his poetry is written either while he is creating the guitar music or after the guitar music has been created.
BB: Good answer.
LH: I am not going to argue that the written word is more poetry than the sung musical word BUT there is not much oratory poetry music. When I recite I recite as if it first came from the page even though I memorize it. And so literature is ever so present in our art.
BB: There are hardly any poetry/music bands... I think that is what makes you guys stand out. What are your hopes for Totem Maples outside of just playing music and putting literature to music. Is it something you are doing with the hope of making a living? Or simply a creative release? Or just something to show your grandkids that you were a fly mo'fo' in your day?
LH: I want us to have the videos, the shows, that is why I work so hard to promote and record BUT I want to reach people on a mental, spiritual level. Def Poetry Jam kept talking about innovation and poetry so I sent them a TM demo, but they only wanted me so I turned them down. I should have gone.
BB: Interesting... why do you say that now?
LH: I was like YOU GUYS DON'T KNOW INNOVATION AND POETRY LET ME SHOW YOU IT FULLY! I say I should have gone because poetry was with me before TM. When I write a poem I don't thing of the music I only think of the words and so I have been promoting this band for 5 years and that was the promoter in me talking and not the poet.
BB: I understand.
LH: Even though I still believe that we are better than Def Jam’s definition of INNOVATIVE, the page and the stage are both tuggin’ at me. Since I have invested so much time and money in the studio and am really trying to perfect the concept of a spoken word music album and have given so much of my sanity to it, I can't help but to dream big. Yeah I do want to tour with Saul Williams. I want my own movie like him about poetry. I see Totem Maples opening for Ben Harper and Dave Matthews and Aceyalone. I want videos, you name it – I've worked for it – we’ve worked for it. I want to perform for the White House like Maya Angelou and Robert Pinskey. But in reaching people – the common people – I also want to reach the students: the high schoolers, the college students, anyone who studies poetry in school. In this day and age they teach books on Shakespeare and Langston Hughes, but one day in the future when they start teaching CDs and records and multimedia as literature and teach poetry not just in the written tradition but in the oral tradition as well. I would love to one day see the Totem Maples' albums as required listening. Those are just dreams but they could very well become reality.
BB: I hope that is what makes you guys successful... because your music literally holds a room captive.
BS: Really and truly what I want by this musical forum is: To be dead for forty years and have people enjoying the songs myself and the other TM’s have lived our lives by. To engender the belief and pleasure in creating and maintaining relationships within the musical setting. To achieve something no one else has ever achieved. To fulfill and advance to the fullest the inventive design of Totem Maples. To watch Larry say I told you so to the world!!! To break out of my own molds and discover what others enjoy in music. To be pined over by young blonde women who believe in themselves. At the end of the day Brandon, I want to hear only one thing: The music in my own head. Not someone’s hit single, not a dead poet’s refrain, not even the sound of my favorite band- I want to hear myself.
Not one band has ever played the exact kind of music that I want to hear. To me there is a beauty in God’s gift of creation in that, as we are his creation, so then are we his creators. As God creates us as unique individuals, so then are we uniquely creative. As I seek to satiate my thirst for the perfect song, or the perfect sound, or the perfect emotion in others’ music, I find that I am always left with a dry throat. When I hear my own creation, I am satisfied. Although I am being highly extrinsic in my own motivation, I believe that pleasing myself first will always be the most pure form of musical invention. Any people that enjoy our music beyond my own enjoyment is a bonus.
BB: Where do you see Totem Maples in 5 years?
BS: I will change the answer to this question to a more hopeful glance into the future, rather than a predictive declaration. I would like to see a clear-cut avenue for our music to spread. I would hope that we could find a solid niche of people that relate to what we are doing and want to become a part of that experience. I want to be able to join other poets and musicians in their journey through the world. I would like to see a budget for another studio project wherein we could fully exercise our creative muscles. I would like to see our music on regular rotation at KCRW radio 89.9. I would like to be better friends with all of my band mates. I would like to have Justin living back in so-cal.
LH: I don't know how long this union of 7 will last so I do all that I can to promote, play, record… because you know I am the only person in this band to major in English and Philosophy because I wanted to be a writer. Other folks majored in nursing, law, business, teaching, and they may actually want to do those things. But the writing is what I want to do even if I have to work a b.s. job to support it. It’s a risk you know?
BB: It is... I know several people out there struggling to write and make a living... but I also know people struggling to lead a life that means something. It is not easy, or rather it is not made easy, but I think that if it WAS then it wouldn't be worth half of the satisfaction i get from helping people or rocking a mic. What is the meaning behind "totem maples"?
LH: Totem Maples. I was writing poetry under these maple trees every summer and it was hot and the trees sheltered me so I could create and not be in hot sun. Totem. I respect the Native American culture deeply even though I am not Native American. They are the only minority who were once a majority AND WE STILL FORGET THEM! Minority means: black, Latino, Asian, but why do we fail to mention the Natives? So I do. Plus, I look at a Totem Pole it has various ancestors on one wood. When you look at TM you have Justin-Filipino, Joanne-Korean, Larry-Black, Matt, Cat, Erik, Brian-white, Justin-Catholic, the rest-protestant, Me and Matt are dirt poor for family reasons, the rest middle class, and then Justin is hip hop influenced, Jonne is classically trained, Matt is folk, I am literature, Brian is JOURNEY AND WHAM - haaa! But we are all of one wood. So it is like we are on the maple wood, the wood that shelters me while I write.
BB: It took me a minute to decipher the title to the album too. I thought it was another language like Sanskrit or something, but it says "trip to the sun" backwards? What's up with a trip to the sun?
LH: As far as TRIP TO THE SUN GOES, I spelled it backwards because it is "mirror language" and we need real poetry and real art to be our mirrors. So if the title took too long to find out what it was that is why. Search!!! But the trip to the sun is like the "conquerors" put a USA flag on the moon. Damn, the moon use to be a glowing body that tribes looked to and praised. We put a flag on it and proved that it is just a rock. Well fine.
BB: There are those who would argue that no one has ever landed on the moon... carry on... sorry... those crazy conspiracy theorists in my head again!!!
LH: You take a trip to the moon. Try going to the sun you know?
BB: I know. I think it's a great title.
LH: And it is just that whole thing of the real light. The hot light that you can't touch.
BB: And i enjoyed it so much when i figured out what it said. i am a sucker for shit like that.
LH: Conspiracies - it is like a tabloid. It gets your attention but no one knows – we think we do but we don't.
BB: Your music (meaning the poetry as well) is so positive and beautiful. It is like a mellow, easy riding trip to the sun.
LH: Yeah and like the whole Christian thing, I look at a sunset and I can pray to God and say thank you
And then a weed head can look to the sunset and get high off of it but it is still a sun and different people respond to it or use it for different things and that is how our music is. It is not religious, so folks dig it. It is not something to get you high while you are smoking but so many people ask me HOW MANY BLUNTS DO I SMOKE? I am like none. I just write about life and the language of dreams.
BB: Language of dreams... i love that. i have to confess that i have listened to your album while puffing a fattie, but that's my deal. Because it is so often so aggressive and often time vacuous and materialistic, do you think popular music could learn something from you guys as far as its message, or vibe?
BS: Larry Handy not only lyrically represents, he is "The Poet President!!!" (A line from one of his poems).
If Larry Handy were a super hero he would be Non-Conformity Man and with his two-decades-too-late Super Afro Puff Power, he would terrorize his archenemy, the villain known as none other than, Vacuous Venom. And while the Great Whore, Los Angeles stood by and watched the two battle for the good of humanity and the righteousness of all things good-like from the heart poetry-he would stab the savage beast with two turn tables, and a microphone!!!!! But unfortunately the super hero analogy is flawed. Larry’s foe could not be so consolidated to be that of one man. Los Angeles is the true villain, the world is the truest villain.
We fight ourselves. If one man could put together a voice to attend to these battling people, it would be Larry Handy. Popular music is only a reverberation of society’s whims, as Totem Maple’s creation is only a wave in the ocean of its members’ lives. I seek to change my life according to the principles by which humanity is best considered, and so accordingly, my creative endeavors do too. If the world changes by these words and notes, chords and measures, it would once again be a bonus to the fact that we are just humans making music.
LH: I feel TM is laid back. But if you listen to us on songs like Jazzmonad, City Jazz and Fire, The Americans, If the Sky Were Purple (aka "Purple"), Diary of a Night (aka "Desperado"), Alternate Episodes--Those songs are really KICKING SONGS. No they aren't ear-deafening electric metal but they KICK. And then we have songs like The Parting Glass, Janet, April, SongHazael, that are truly laid back. We have songs for all moods.
If anything, I feel popular music, underground music and just art in general from martial arts to Christianity to painting to whatever needs to embrace honest life and to not be bound solely by style. Honest life means expressing all of your moods and not just limiting your art solely to one mood.
The history of rock music is a history of revolts. Rock used to be dance based. Black peoples' music. The lyrics were about boyfriend and girlfriend. Look at Motown. Then Bob Dylan comes along and strips it down with just acoustic guitar and harmonica. And his lyrics were about social activism and not boyfriend girlfriend--as a revolt against the "candy relationship" music. And then every "band" after him had to "say something" and Rock went from something you could dance to to something you could "move" to. And when all these message bands went too far with it--too "good guy" with it the Punk rockers came in and started being "bad guy". And people started painting their faces up like Devils. Why? To just get the bad out. To express. To revolt. Then when they went too far with the hair, the theatre, Nirvana and Kurt Cobain came along and stripped it all down to just the 3 man: drum-bass-guitar-no extended long solos-no elaborate theatrics-just mosh it all out--why? to revolt against the excess of 80's materialism, and hair. And now Rock is in another phase.
The reason why TM doesn't fit well with the College and Cafe people is that we represent real life. We have something for all moods because we, like all human beings, feel all moods but we are honest about it in our art. We have angry songs, happy songs, sad songs, introspective songs. But If I go to a spoken word reading and ALL PEOPLE ARE READING ACTIVIST POETRY and I read a poem about a rose or a tree or a bird they look down on me and call me soft. But it's like come on! In real life is that ALL you think about is just protesting? Why can't Heavy Metal people be happy? Ozzy Osborne is a funny clown in real life that's why he is so cool. But why can't his music reflect his laughter as well? And on the flip side why can't the happier genres have real songs about anger? THE MOVEMENTS THEMSELVES ARE LIMITED THATS WHY THEY REVOLT AND CHANGE OVER TIME.
Make music, poetry, art, whatever based on ALL THE AVENUES of your life. Pop music and ESSPECIALLY UNDERGROUND MUSIC gets sickening when the artists don't fully express their joys, as well as their tears as well as their anger and aggression all of these things are what make you human.
BB: About the album, it's done very professionally.
LH: But it is old, 1999. I feel we have grown and that is why I am in the studio doing a revised – not remixed -but revised thing. I spent money on the 1999 professional thing. I needed to because SO MANY FOLKS KEPT SLEEPING ON US. They didn't take us seriously. They call us soft because we aren't hip-political-ish. So I went out and packaged it so they would see that we are serious and I know that it isn't about art covers. But when others who claim to be more real than you but aren’t are just burning (CDs)… I want to show them that my money is where my mouth is, and you better believe I worked minimum wage, raise wage, and put everything I had into it then. I have a better job now but I still i only make $2000 a month, but already I have spent $5000 in the studio on 2 albums AND they are DAMN GOOD. Excuse my Creole French, but a lot of these hip hop poets, never invite us to perform and they tell me yeah we will let you play with us but then they don't. I ain't going to name names but it has been like that for so long. It's cool.
It just makes us stronger. You got to keep pressing on.
BB: For one i have to say that doing the whole band thing is a bit different from the just a poet tribe or what not, but i feel you. i feel like you guys should be ripping up houses all over LA - fuck it houses all over America. Maybe you are ahead of your time. Innovation has seldom been met with open arms.
BS: The poetry community cannot handle it right now. Soon. Soon they will trying to hassle Larry to get rid of his two bit musician group and try on a professional group of musicians. He will say no, and the record company will turn us down. Soon others will decide to put together similar groups, they will succeed and we will sit back and tell our grandchildren how TM changed the face of poetry and music forever.
LH: TRUE, people love our stuff. I would not say that people exit out the back door when we get on stage. The thing is the poetry world is divided - I even sent in a poem to getunderground.com called "Colleges, Cafes, and Neither" and it was about my experiences as a poet.
The colleges are filled with "literatuses" - as Ernest Hemmingway called them. People who say things with great intellect but write to and for their own intellectual circle. That type of poetry is deep but boring. Philosophy textbooks in verse. Back when me and Matt would perform at those writers reads, we kept it simple. Just poetry and a soft acoustic guitar. But the "high" poets, looked down on us for bringing music even though we were conservative with our music. To them we weren't traditional.
Next you have the cafes and they are filled with the people who try to "keep it real". And so to them "keeping it real" means speaking in slang--the "common" tongue, and "dis-ing da system", and alot of it is hip hop based which is all cool. In the 50s when the Harlem Renaissance and The Beats did it, it was to Jazz, now in these days it is to a hip hop beat.
When me and Matt kept things simple back in the days with just acoustic guitar and poetry it was not rhythm based but folk. And alot of minds could not adjust. And also I was not cussing in my poetry, And I substituted street slang for INTENSE METAPHORE. And alot of these poets were writing about the issues of the day while I was spitting lines like: "Night sky, sometimes you are as a cheapened LA Hollywood model for the city and her bright lights make you as the day/ cool wind, come cool me and teach me what music cannot." And folks would listen and be like: What does that mess he is talking about have to do with "DA STRUGGLE"?
So the colleges were condemning TM for bringing music and they labeled us as "CAFE-URBAN". And the cafes were condemning TM for "high lyrics" and they labeled us as "ACADEMIC". And that was just when it was me and Matt performing. Add a turntable, congas, and everything else and folks are REALLY blown away.
People look for genres. To market his album Saul Williams called his stuff "Rock" - I even talked to him after me, Matt and Erik performed at DA POETRY LOUNGE and Saul was like "My stuff is Rock, it's intense." And alot of poets who do Def Poetry Jam call their stuff "Hip Hop or Rap Poetry" - Def Jam is a rap label. I would say that more than half of the poets who are into slam and spoken word are "washed-up rappers with big vocabularies" Totem Maples is Totem Maples. I define our style as "Recitare"--which is not a genre but a synonym a nickname for us.
The folks that really dig us, who really understand us are the ones who have a diverse cd collection and/ or diverse tastes in art. Not those poets who only bob their heads to "da drum" or those poets who only close their eyes to hear "the symphony"--but TM appeals to those that listen to everything and understands or at least tries to take the time to understand different styles--not every one wants to do that it is hard. I love both Picasso paintings and the artwork in X-Men comics. BOTH!! That is how our music sounds. But not everyone is like that
BB: When is this new album due.
LH: Well we've been in the studio since June ’02. We are done recording. We are currently mixing 15 tracks on 2 albums. So 30 songs total with interviews/poems with out band/skits the whole nine yards.
LH: I see them done by spring…
LH: I won't release until summer maybe. I want the art work to be fat, but they will be burnt and given free to you of course and to the hip hop poets who ignore us.
BB: Is there a new title?
LH: About the new titles - Nus eht ot pirt, 2003, Revised, and Ars Poetica, The art of poetry. Our next album is called In the Realm of the Senses.
BB: And that one is recorded too, but will come out after the other two?
LH: No, we have songs for it but it is not recorded.
BB: Are you looking at getting that out sometime in '03, or is it on the shelf until '04.
LH: Shelf most def. But as we perform we play songs from whatever album - it doesn't matter. Ultimately it is about the playing. In the Realm of the Senses was an old Japanese movie that was banned in Japan back in the days.
BB: Cool… why was it movie banned?
LH: It was based on a true story in Japan in the 1940s. A lady loved a guy so much, she cut off his penis and kept it. The cops found her and arrested her but she went crazy. Hey my girlfriend is Japanese but she won't do that - I hope. She's in Japan right now. Let me give her a shout out - WHAT UP NAOMI girl.
BB: Cool. My best homie is Japanese and just got back from visiting over there too.
LH: Japanese love hip hop
BB: Seriously. Living Legends have a Japanese MC.
LH: If I never "make it" in America, I have a second home.
BB: And of course DJ Krush is Japanese.
LH: Have you heard of Cibo Matto? Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda.
BB: yeah... Cibo Matto rules!
LH: I LOVE MIHO HATORI… not as much as my girl Naomi though, but DANG.
BB: She’s done stuff with the Gorillaz…
LH: "get the cool shoe shine"… hahaha
BB: One of the members from Cibo Matto did this track on Prince Paul and Dan the Automator’s Handsome Boy Modeling School called "Metaphysical". She actually flows. It’s great!
LH: A Japanese female MC? Yeah that's Miho.
BB: Japanese movies too.
LH: Heck yeah! Akira Kurosawa - he is genius!
BB: Have you seen Spirited Away? It’s the new movie from the guy who did Princess Mononoake?
LH: No, not yet. I like Kurasawa films. He took Shakespeare and made them Samurai movies. I love foreign films. People in other countries tell stories so well. I like the Chinese director, Jhang Yimou. He grew up poor and his old stuff was about peasants in China who just lived and lived righteous despite the government. Movies like Raise the Red Lantern, good stuff! A lot of home boys aren't into that type of stuff, I guess that is why they sleep on the TM. But whatever you do just celebrate life whether you like TM or not. I have a greater respect for all folks just by embracing foreign art and reading subtitles and closing my eyes just to listen to the rhythms of their language.
BB: Crouching Tiger... and Akira and some off-color animation... Ninja Scroll is the best fucking animation movie ever made!
LH: I saw crouching tiger in the theatre 6 times. 2 times I watched it and the other four I just listened with eyes closed. I ain’t joking either.
BB: You seem to know a lot about it. I need to come borrow some DVD’s.
LH: I just love art and that is what poetry taught me. Remember when I said that I had prejudices? Well writing poetry and seeking that FEELING I had when I was brainstorming that poem back in 1993 drove me to find the real substance of life in many genres and cultures that I had previously ignored. Before it was just rap, R&B, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou. Now it is all of that plus Akira, Pablo Naruda, Pablo Picasso, Van Gogh, Coltrane, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, you name it. Like on the poem, "A City Rose and Blue" - Picasso had a rose period and a blue period and those were the color he would paint in just during those periods and in that poem I use those periods to describe city life.
BB: Great concept.
LH: But Van GOGH - IT is because of him that I carry a pen and paper everywhere I go.
BB: The divinity in all.
LH: He believed in painting on the spot, so whenever the muse strikes me I write. Of course I go home and edit
BB: I need to do more of that...
LH: But so much can be lost if I wait
BB: That happens to me all the time...
LH: I write little notes on my hand. It's called living your art. Let other folks laugh so what!
BB: I agree, and they do laugh, but eventually they see what you are trying to say. You might be dead but eventually. What are some of your influences Brian?
BS: Counting Crows, rather Dan Vickrey (Guitar) and Charlie Gillingham (Hammond Organ/ Accordion). The solo and layering styles of Dan Vickrey has shaped how I sometimes attack a solo or guitar part in a song. I am in love with Dan’s country/rock style. He is the only one in the world who in my opinion successfully merged the two genres into one. Also, Charlie Gillingham is the King of Song sculpting and will never be fully compensated for his gifts to the music world. Tears For Fears, rather Roland Orzabol- kicks the crap out of Bono on his worst day!!! Quickly I must explain that this man came to power in the Eighties with the rise of Tears For Fears, but he was soon dethroned by the public in the nineties. Stigmatized as a retro-music virus who could not escape his own decade, the crowds subsided and the fans grew fewer. The faithful remained, and Roland began to embark on new adventures in music. He is a genius songwriter, a near-flawless singer, and a most inventive guitarist. My last major influence is Matt Slocum. Matt Slocum is an amazing song writer and an equally valuable guitar player. You might know him and his band, Sixpence, from the song, "Kiss me," that hit the radio several years ago. They also sing a cover of The La’s hit, "There She Goes," and recently released a cover of "Don’t Dream It’s Over" by Crowded House. I cannot tell anyone how incredibly talented this man is, but I pay homage to him in my implementation of his style into my own. He is a genius!!!
BB: This isn't so much a question as a comment... YOU GUYS ARE FUCKIN' DOPE!!
BS: You’re FUCKING DOPE!!! because it seems that you Brandon, out of all the people we have been in contact with, you have been the most loyal, the most kind, the most supportive, and the most fair!!!! I thank you for your time and energy, regardless of what happens with TM. By the attitude I see in your website, I can tell that you fight for many great things in this world. I am proud to be supported by your site and you.
LH: Oh one last thing before we go… It is because some one was laughing at me one time that I wrote these words that I deeply mean, "Should I live my life with my spirit who am I to care that I have lost all of their applause."
My first impression listening to Totem Maples was of those spoken word interludes which used to show up on cheesy pop songs in the 60’s. Where the singer took a break from the song to talk about truth, beauty and walking in the rain.
At first I think was simply the tone of poet Larry Handy’s voice, combined with the gentle backing of guitar and piano, which evoked these memories. But I realized there was a deeper similarity. Those interludes always aimed for some general profundity. And that is what I found throughout these two discs: generalized “profundity.”
Handy loves general words — poetry, love, beauty, music, jazz, rain, the night sky, stars and moon. He repeats these words over and over throughout both discs. At times the poems seem to be nothing more than variations on these words. (In fact, it wasn’t long before I wondered if Handy is even capable of writing a poem with using the words “poet” or “poetry”.)
This overuse of general words creates very generalized poetry. It sounds profound, but it’s really all shimmering surface. I tried repeatedly to grasp the depths of these poems, but there was nothing to grab onto. My thoughts just slid off their generalized surfaces. Here is a sample:
“I go out under stars to become poetic. Arisen with love, I see Her face in the sky so sweeter when not around me and funny how verses perfect under relaxation. To be in love with the silent night and her stars above me, I can only awaken to a sweet subtle grace, with gentle winds cupping me in her palms. I never thought I’d write a poem tonight having a conversation with the cool of an airy night’s wind, and here I am dreaming of a woman who dreams not of me and wishing upon a woman like I wish upon stars...”
See what I mean? It sounds pretty, but on examination, it really means less than it seems to. (My definition of good poetry is poetry which, when studied, reveals more than it seemed to mean initially.)
Not that I found nothing to like on these discs. A couple of the cuts on “Ars Poetica” did have something new to say. “Gethsemane” examines how people approach God with an honest and critical eye. “(The Almighty) Jazzmonad” takes on the personas of various jazz instruments to find the power of music (although the piece would be stronger accompanied by an actual trumpet and saxophone, rather than the same “dramatic” scratching which shows up elsewhere on the album).
Overall, these albums are very well produced. The music, a combination of new age-y guitar and piano and hip-hop beats, complements the poetry quite well. However, like the poetry it is pleasant, but rarely challenging.
Which, in the end, is the essence of these CDs. I’m sure Totem Maples think of their work as challenging and thought-provoking, but I found it more comforting and reassuring. The message is that truth, beauty and love do exist in our world. And poetry can be the medium to find and celebrate them. Which is a message we can all stand to hear sometimes.
Sweet Taste of Maple Syrup
syrup – n. mass 1. a sweet, fairly thick liquid food made from sugar.
maple – n. count 1. a tree with five-pointed leaves that grows in countries which do
not have hot climates. 2. maple leaf is the emblem of lovers in Oriental cultures.
totem – n. count 1. an object that is regarded as a symbol by particular group of people who treat it with great respect.
If you have never listened to Totem Maples before, you are bound to get completely immersed in the poetically thick, lyrically sweet but not sugary sound of their musically backed spoken word that overflows with symbolism and love. Maple syrup at its best, indeed! And now it is available on a CD. Totem Maples first (double) album, titled "nus eht ot pirt" (Trip to the Sun), was released early this year and is already making waves on the spoken word scene. Recently, I managed to get my dirty little hands on a copy of this gem, and I highly recommend it to all of you, LitRavers.
From track one of this recording, you will be floating on the surface of music like on calm ocean and diving into the meanings of words, sailing on the smooth, polished and soulful sound of “sweet poetry unshackled,” wishing to drown in the depths of imagery, and wanting to never come down from this poetic and musical high. You will be asking yourselves “if the poets are cursed” (Dusk Cantation) … and if you are cursed. You will be wondering “if Jesus is ever writing poems about you and does he treat you as a singer, hanging posters on the wall.” (Muse) You will fall under the spell of Totem Maples “sweet legacies,” and “close your eyes and let poetry experiment with you.” (Experimental) From unpretentiously jazzy sound of love poems (love for nature, the city, as well as fellow human beings), over the ambient sounds underlying spiritual messages, to an Irish drinking song in The Parting Glass and the captivating cacophony of The Americans, Totem Maples explore a whole gamut of human emotions and universal truths as Larry “pours his hot poetic soul into a cup” (The Parting Glass) and “speaks in tongues of rainbows.” (Modern Prometheus)
It is extremely hard to pick just one favorite from this album, and it is even harder to decide between the studio recording and the live one. While the studio recordings present themselves as polished and professional, the live recordings on the other hand, capture all the energy of Totem Maples in live performance, from the mystery of Indrumduction, over almost tactile imagery of Solomon's Princess, to “Columbine, Waco and coffee & cream L.A. … suits and ties, white collared lies” of The Americans. So, “What else can a poet say?” What else can a critic say except, “Bravo!” If a book can be judged by its cover, the book titled Totem Maples is bound to be a bestseller.
Note: Information about purchasing the album and a schedule of Totem Maples live performances can be found on their website, www.totemmaples.com or by e-mailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org