David Lee Morgan (Seattle) Born in Berlin, grown in and around Seattle, for the last 30 years David Lee Morgan has been based in London, travelling the northern hemisphere as a performance poet and street musician (saxophone). He has written novels, plays and musical theatre. He’s won a fair few slam poetry competitions, including the London, the UK, and the BBC Slam Championships. He holds a PhD in creative writing and philosophy at Newcastle University. He’s a longstanding member of the Writers Guild of Great Britain.
- I know you were born in Berlin, then you lived in The States, and you have lived in the UK for the past 30 years. Are there any traces of those geographical movements in your poetry?
I think for me the biggest advantage to growing up in the US was that, because it was the number one imperialist bloodsucker on the planet, it made the contrast between internationalism and nationalism as stark as it could get. Nationalism as a movement can have a progressive side, as in the Vietnamese liberation war or the black liberation struggle in the U.S., but as an ideology, it is always narrow and reactionary: MY nation first.
I don’t think I got anything from being born in Berlin. We left when I was two. But coming back to Berlin in 1983… I met German punks, English buskers, learned to love The Doors – and I learned to play the sax on the streets and in the clubs of Berlin. How cool is that?
In the UK, squatting and busking meant I could be a full-time artist for the first time in my life. In the US I had industrial jobs… construction, shipyards, swinging the big hammer like John Henry on the railroad. I still get a thrill walking past a construction site and thinking, “I don’t have to fucking do that anymore.” I also got a chance to go back to university and collect a string of degrees – it was free back then – and best of all, I found this amazing spoken word audience: revolutionary minded (mostly) young people from all over the world.
- I got goosebumps reading your poem ‘FLYING THE FRENCH FLAG’. What do you feel when a reader tells you something like that?
I love it in general, but especially I love that you got that from reading my words. More often, people talk about my passionate performance, and it may sound ungrateful, but my heart sinks a little when I hear that – I have no ambitions as a performer, only as a writer. I perform because I can’t get other people to do my shit. Do you know anyone who would like to do one of my plays or some of my songs?
I would just add, it’s not good – I think it’s a weakness – to be stuck on people liking what you do. It’s much healthier for a writer to have a ‘Fuck you if you don’t like it attitude.’ Here’s a couple things about that, one by me, one by Lenny Bruce:
- When I first met you, during the 7 Min Itch (hosted by Michelle Madsen) I thought: ‘what I’m watching is unique’. How important is for you to have your own style as a writer?
I mostly think you don’t need to worry about that. It’s more the opposite. You need to absorb as much from other people as you can. Learn from them, copy them even. Don’t worry about style. Just try to tell the truth. If you dig deep enough, style will take care of itself.
I mostly think that. On the other hand, I nearly ruined my singing voice, certainly made it worse for decades, because I tried to sound like Robert Goulet, who sang the part of Lancelot in Camelot on Broadway. Cool voice, but not mine.
And on the other hand (if I had three hands), there is no great wall between form and content. As Brecht said when Lukacs accused him of formalism, “What he doesn’t understand is that an artist thinks in forms.”
- One of your poems, ‘The Gift of Pain,’ says that you are strong because you are weak and you can be hurt, and that makes you powerful and opens a path. And all this with a fabulous music from the back. What kind of power do you think is hidden behind the pain? Also, after reading some of your poems, what it first came to my mind was the idea of ‘tensions’. Tensions between forces: Weak-strong, War-Love, Words-silence. Do you agree with that impression?
Yes. Two of the three biggest influences in my thinking about art were Mao Tse-tung and Brecht. (Woody Guthrie was the third.) Brecht, like me, was greatly influenced by Mao’s On Contradiction. He believed that great art doesn’t give answers, it exposes deep contradictions. It thinks in opposites. Michael Shurtleff in Audition, a really useful book, gives this advice to actors: If you want to portray a strong emotion, you must show its opposite too. It is the opposite that gives it power: for example, a child who deeply loves her parents… what might bring that out, give it power, is when we see how hurt and angry and even how much she hates her parents because they are getting divorced.
- In ‘Woodshedding’ you say, ‘Revolution comes down as rain from the cloud of the world (…) with drops of blood’. Now, in a totally different world, in the opposite scenario, what type of rain would you like to have for a perfect and utopic world?
‘Revolution falls down like rain from the clouds of war/ no pure sweet springtime shower/ The air is thick with drops of blood…’ It’s not a totally different world. The same contradictions are there. The balance of forces seems much less favourable now than in the Sixties, but it may be that the desperateness of the situation pushes us to make the fundamental changes that are necessary.
Those lines come from Building God, the second part of a trilogy of poetry shows that has just been published by Stairwell Books under the title The River Was a God. In the first part, Science, Love and Revolution, the keynote poem has the lines: ‘How will you break free of the ingrained habits of a lifetime/how will you gain control of your own minds/How will you bring it together to set off a chain reaction/ and if you win… how will you free the world?’
I realised that I hadn’t really answered that question, so I wrote the sequel, Building God, which was a consideration of three great revolutions: the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, and the Cultural Revolution in China. I wanted to convince people that they had to study these revolutions, learn from their mistakes, but that they couldn’t do this without understanding the amazing things they did accomplish. I wrote it with an attitude of ‘This is what I think, fuck you if you don’t like it.’ To my surprise, many said they were convinced that they should take a look at these revolutions and question the ‘verdict’ that had been fed to them, but most went on to also say, ‘But it could never happen now. Things had changed too much.
So I wrote another sequel, The Other Side of the Flood, a through-sung spoken word musical that tried to imagine what it would feel like to actually win: “A computer wakes up in the year 2035 on the eve of a worldwide socialist revolution…”
- Recently you had a birthday party with a book presentation if I’m right… How did it go?
It was terrific, so wonderful in fact that I was massively depressed after. All these brilliant poets and musicians came to read poetry and say great things about the book. I was so grateful. But then the next morning I woke up to the fact that I would be lucky if I sold more than a few dozen books. Btw, do you have a copy of my book yet? J
- I don’t have a copy yet, but I would love to have my signed-book soon! Also, coming back to questions, I know you participated in the Fringe Festival at different occasions. Are you performing this year as well?
I do a show every year in Edinburgh at the Banshee Labyrinth as part of the PBH Free Fringe. This year I’m doing two:
The River Was a God, 4:20-5:20pm, August 4-26 (except Wednesdays) @ The Banshee Labyrinth
The Other Side of the Flood, 4:20-5:20 , August 8, 15, 22 (every Wednesday) @ The Banshee Labyrinth
- What’s the brightest side of being a poet and a street musician?
Being interviewed by you.
- Why a Spanish, Latin American or Portuguese reader should be interested in reading and knowing more about David Lee Morgan?
The Christian Fascists in the US are half right about the threat of Globalism. Capitalism is a worldwide system of exploitation. Blocks of capital fight each other, but they are united as one when it comes to keeping us down. Working people in individual countries don’t stand a chance unless we can build our own international revolutionary movement. Another opposite: international revolution vs. global capitalism.
Also, I hope I’m fun… a good read.
Bonus track 1:
There’s a very rough Portuguese translation of some of the poems from Science, Love and Revolution on my website at www.davidword.com.
Bonus track 2:
The River Was a God could be found at: