“Joyous Freedom” – Joseph “Black Atticus” Woods An Interview with Knoxville, Tennessee's Poet Laureate

The second part of the transcription from our exclusive interview with Knoxville, Tennessee’s Poet Laureate, Joseph “Black Atticus” Woods, continues below at the audio’s 31:42 mark. The transcript is edited with most of the filler words, repetitions, and interruptions removed.

Enjoy the unedited audio version in it’s entirety below.


Black Atticus 



. . . Because there’s nothing more personal, I think, than writing. Once you learn how to actually write, you’re literally doing it by hand. There’s nothing more personal than your signature. And so, yeah, you’d feel weird if somebody came along and grabbed your wrist while you were just trying to sign your name. It feels weird, let [inaudible] go. And I think it’s how we feel about prompts. If we’re waiting for inspiration, if we’re waiting for how, you know, how we do it.

AB: Yeah. And really, your life is full of your own prompts.

Atticus: Yeah, it’s full of prompts. See, now you’re getting into something. Now you’re getting good. See, I’ve gone through waves in my life, uh, eras of time in my life where I can see the poetry in everything. And then, I can’t see it at all. But yeah, that’s a poem of damn near everything.

AB: That’s very frustrating too.

Atticus: It is.

AB: Because you want it back.

Atticus: You want it back, yeah. But you know, I think that’s, I think that’s what it is. If you’re actually in the process, and I’m just theorizing right now, theoretically.

If you’re actually in the process of just the discipline, right? Now, it’s not so much as like your inspiration. If you’re in the practice, then maybe that’s the freedom of maybe getting past your own ego. Getting past your worries. Because it is work. Right? I think the science labs turn out things all the time. You know? They fail. Test. Fail. Keep going. You know? [Laughs] Everything won’t make it out the lab. You know?

AB: That’s true.

Atticus: Yeah. You’d be like, test number 6,212.

AB: Finally! [Laughs]

Atticus: Yeah. “It’s the first success we’ve had in twenty years.” [Laughs] And they’ll do it. We should do the same. So, I’m trying my hand at other things. I’ve written songs for other genres. I think that was ‘cause anybody that’s close to me knows I’m pretty good at voices.

Like, I do voices all the time. Really good voices. I was always fascinated with characters that could. How do they do that? How do they sound just like them? You know? So I’m really good at voices.

What got me was a friend of mine, before I actually performed Sergeant Six Weeks, before I actually performed, Langston Washington Carter, before I actually performed that in front of an audience, I had practiced in front of one of my liaison mentors, a guy named SEED LYNN, and, uh, he laughed when he saw it on page. He’s like, ‘Oh, you gotta read this one. What’s this?’ So I get up, and we’re downtown, in some loft he was stayin’ in. Anyway, I think he broke me out of my shell. ‘Cause I was trying this character. I was still nervous about it. Right? And he was like, no, no, no, Black. He said, ‘Dude, if you can mimic the voice, you can own the voice.’ And that one thing unlocked my mind. I was like, you’re right. If I can do that, I can sing in that voice. I can talk in that voice. I can rap in that voice. I can do whatever I want to in that voice. If I can actually, if I can mimic it, then I can own it. And that helped me deliver this piece. So, yeah, uh, I forgot how we got there. This journey. Oh, man, you’re just lettin’ me spin. [Laughs]


AB: You can spin. [Chuckles] So, how do you know when a poem is finished?

Atticus: Um, [Pauses] I think I get this feeling I’ve achieved understanding with spoken word pieces. I don’t really know until I’ve shared it.

AB: Really?

Atticus: Yeah. With slams, you only get three minutes. So usually, I’ll write until I’m at three minutes, right? Or, you know, if it’s too much, then we, then we trim it, trim the fat. But, um, with slam, I get the opportunity of sharing this piece out loud. If I don’t get the response I wanted, or if there was some kind of like, what were you trying to say there? That’s one, I think with slam you really have to be clear on your point to make points. If they don’t get it, there’s not a lot of room to be mysterious and whatever, right? Unless it leaves them with a really great feeling. Other than that, our aim is to connect. So, if it didn’t work and I’ve tried it out three, four times, and I’m not getting the score I want, we challenge it. We test it and go, what is it missing? Right? And then we’ll go back and edit.

I hate to say it, but not, not really. I don’t hate to say it, but I’m just now getting to the point in my life where I love editing.

AB: Oh, yeah. I got you there.

Atticus: Yeah. I love editing. It’s the shit.

AB: It’s like a puzzle.

Atticus: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s just like, how do we make it cooler?


AB: It becomes, I mean, it’s kind of monotonous in a way, but then it’s fun. Do you think a person should figure out the meaning of a poem or should it just be felt?

Atticus: I guess it depends on the poem. Um, different strokes I guess for, you know, ‘cause I’m not necessarily a fan. Just like I’m not a fan of all rap. I love rap music. I’m not a fan of all rap. I’m not a fan of all poetry styles. But I am a fan of poetry. Right? So some should be felt, some should, uh, I guess it depends on the aim of the piece, you know.

Let’s say if you’re trying to be funny, then you should be extremely direct. Right? There needs to be a clear set up and spike for that one, but if it’s also meant to be interpretive, then, um, I don’t know. I’m, I’m a fan of like, you know, ten-dollar words, so like, give me some good words, you know what I mean? [Chuckles]

But I am realizing that the page poetry still has a voice because, last time I checked, everyone who reads has a voice in their head that they’re reading it. Right? So there’s still a rhythm that has to be held and respected. And so, yeah, as long as the dance is good, I’m happy.


AB: Can you share an instance where somebody’s interpretation of your work surprised you?

Atticus: Mmmm. Um, yeah, there was two instances I can think of. One was a Metropulse writer. I was asked to host like this ridiculous, um, situation. Ridiculous scenario. It was some type of festival downtown, and they had me do poetry, uh, in the Oscar lobby, lobby of the hotel downtown.

AB: [Chuckles] That’s weird.

Atticus: Yeah. It was a weird space and I made it work. But, uh, his interpretation of it was that I was, uh, it was some way he had worded it where it kind of came off like that I was, not aggressive, but somewhere in that family of the word aggressive. But I’m also kind of like, ‘Yeah, dude, I’m doing poetry. I’m getting paid to do poetry and hold people’s attention, right? In a hotel lobby.

AB: Right. [Laughs]

Atticus: Next to the freakin’ elevators. I’m just kind of like, I don’t know how cool I’m supposed to be. You know what I’m sayin’? [Both laugh] That was an awkward situation when I think back on it. But again, that’s that early, early, early, early years of like, I mean, I did get paid for it.

AB: Your early years of ‘Sure!’

Atticus: Yeah, yeah, sure! But had I knew about the bar they had behind the wall, I’d have just did it in there. I was like, hey, let’s just hold it back here. Anyway, worked out, worked out.

AB: How do you feel about academic or critical interpretations of your work?

Atticus: Oh, um, I don’t.

AB: Good.

Atticus: Yeah, I don’t. [Chuckles] I just don’t.


AB: Have any historical events or figures inspired your poetry?

Atticus: Too many, yes, absolutely. Um, like I said, Langston Hughes was one. Langston Hughes played a big factor. Saul Williams, um, a lot of rappers. I never talk about this guy, but, Ras Kass. Ras Kass is a West Coast rapper. Um, if he was a villain, I would, I compare him to Ozymandias. I really feel like he’s an understated genius who’s also grimy at the same time, which I think also led to my fascination with MF Doom.

AB: Is it the [Gestures to face]

Atticus: Metal face mask? Yes. Rest, rest in peace. He just, oh, he was, oof. But yeah, MF Doom was a master at speaking in third person, writing in third person. Multiple characters. And just kind of created his own world. That was an influence. André 3000 from Outkast. So, when I first started getting into rapping, um, I was rapping before I realized I was rapping. [Chuckles] Yeah, me and my best friend, Irin [?], and uh, sometimes my man, Frankie Brown, these two kids, two guys I grew up with, you know, in Park City, Knoxville, Tennessee, uh, middle school, high school, we’re running rhymes all the time.

Frank was more into the South sound, so it was a lot more of the music coming out of New Orleans, coming out of Memphis. Me and Irin, we were, uh, we like the South sound, but we also love the North sound. So like, uh, there was a song by Redman and Method Man called “How High.” We would recite those back and forth, line for line, like walking to school from school. We had it down pat. We just loved that song. And then Frankie gave me my first copy of Redman’s cassette tape. It was like this red cassette tape. Man, I took it home and played that album. It blew my mind. Blew my mind. So, again, tapping into what I was saying earlier, it was like, hearing young black men who spoke eloquently, and sometimes, you know, kind of gutter, and they still kept their voice and dialogue just as honest as Zora Neale Hurston.

So, I’m loving these guys for also being, like I said, intelligent, cool, but also tangible. So when I first started writing, at least with rap, rap was all about the effect, right? Did it have an ‘effect’ on the room? When I first started getting into writing, it was online, and I met a guy, we’re still friends to this day, and I think he’s, hands down, one of my favorite writing companions because I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who talks at length about the effect of rhyme. His name is Robbie. He’s from New Orleans. I didn’t know his name for years, but we liked each other’s styles and we talked at length about rhymes. So, getting back to Andre 3000, we were talking about how he was the spoken word poetry of hip-hop.

Like he came out spoken word. He really did. It was like, what is it about his flow? Why is it so conversational? Why don’t we love this so much? He was just giving us poetry. Yes. He’s just giving us poetry. Love it, love his stuff.


AB: The next set of questions are, are deep questions. [Laughs] You answered how you manage vulnerability with sharing personal work or emotional content. How do you resolve creating art for self-expression versus creating it for an audience?

Atticus: I think, for me, rule number one is if you’re going to share it, you got to answer your why. And you should consider your audience. If it’s to be shared, and if it’s not going to be shared, if it’s just for me, I don’t know, by all means, you just, you just make it. Right? If it happens to work out for other people, great. If not, cool. It’s a hard balance because I do wish for all, for myself and all creators, to get where my brother Philip is right now. Like he’s been here for years. I don’t know how he got there. He’s a videographer, but he’s at the perfect quan of like, you know, put something out and go, ‘Hey, I like it.’ Okay. ‘I don’t like it.’ Okay. Like he’s totally neutral. Like, it’s not about a response as far as his approach goes.

Me, however? I don’t like dodging that. If the aim is to connect, then it needs to connect. So, I consider that with anything I know I’m going to share. Now, I have gotten to the point where, I don’t feel as though I truly did the piece justice if it doesn’t change me. That’s how I make sure I’m still involved. If it doesn’t affect me, then how do I expect it to affect you, right? Some of my funnier pieces, when I wrote it, had me cracking up. I was laughing my ass off when everybody else heard it.

So, that’s how I know it has a higher chance of connecting. Yeah, the last one I did like that, they definitely laughed at the parts that cracked me up the most. I think it’s similar with any artist or anybody creating something, whether it’s culinary arts, right? I hope you’re taste testing, [Laughs] you know what I mean? You know, checking the ingredients first. Right? Yeah, we should.


AB: If your entire body of work could only impart one message to readers or listeners, what would you want it to be?

Atticus: Wow. Wow, you are serious. You’re serious. [Laughs] What? [Pauses] Hmm. [Pauses] That’s probably the best question. Seriously. Uh, I’m leaning toward, [Pauses] uh, ‘joyous freedom.’

AB: Oh, that’s beautiful.

Atticus: Yeah. And getting back to it is the most important thing we can do in this life. Which lends to what I haven’t addressed in my work is that, uh, I actually had to have a friend point out to me that I’ve been through more traumas than I’ve ever bothered to acknowledge.

Then I have realized that it’s been a while since I’ve been nervous to approach a page. ‘Cause there’s so much room on a blank page, and you know what you got to say. And so it’s like, I think for me, like going to an open mic, which is my, which is my aim.

I want to get open mics on every side of town. And I want them to have their own autonomy. I want them to grow in their own way, you know, be their own animal. So that I can come in as a poet and, you know, each house feels different, right? It has its own feel, got its own culture.

You know, the common ground is the word. I love going to open mics and I love seeing the new poet. It doesn’t matter their age. It’s their first time sharing something they’ve kept private for so long, and there’s something about hearing that tremble in their voice or seeing that paper shaking.

It reminds me, ‘Oh yeah, this is important,’ because I think that’s a plight with anyone who’s been at practice with their discipline for so long. We plateau and we start getting kind of stagnant.

And sometimes it’s good to reconnect with that moment, like why are you so nervous? Because this matters. And so, I’m like, this is pushing me to what makes me nervous. A lot of this doesn’t. Doesn’t at all. I can get in front of a crowd of 2,000 and just do some stuff I know and be happy. No problem. But getting to what I don’t talk about or pushing toward what I haven’t, now that makes me nervous. So it’s a lot I can’t wait to unpack.


AB: Could you share your belief in where poetry is headed in the future?

Atticus: I believe poetry is already starting to head toward being recognized more and more. I mean, the fact that I’m sitting in this position now, a spoken word poet as a poet laureate. Um, I didn’t qualify four years ago. Yeah, I didn’t even qualify. So, I believe that poetry is heading toward being recognized in more arenas, even scientific arenas, as far as its actual functionality.

And then, I don’t know, is it heading there or is it returning?

AB: Because the last poetry era, really, was the Beat poets. You know, and now it’s, I think it’s a continuation.

Atticus: Yeah, right. I mean, it’s being shared, especially as artists are collaborating more. The poet meets the videographer, the videographer meets the musician, the musician meets the sound engineer. Then they all meet somebody who’s got OCD. [Laughs] You know what I’m saying? And then life works. [Laughs] Yeah, I think it’s going to be great. It’s heading to a higher arena.


AB: What advice would you give somebody who wants to start writing poetry, but they’re unsure where to begin?

Atticus: To just start, and figure out real early in your journey. Do not be afraid to make a mistake. That’s it. Just don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Everything I make isn’t great. Everything I make I don’t share. Right? But I make. I make it a higher rate than the average human being. So, therefore, I get to the good stuff more as you create stuff.


AB: Do you, whenever you write, like, let’s say you have a notebook full of little writings here and there. Do you ever look back on your work and piece together, like, this poem, I like this line, and this poem, I like this line, and this works? Do you do that?

Atticus: Mmm. I call it playing Tetris. [Laughs]

AB: Oh, yeah. That’s awesome, yeah.

Atticus: Yeah, I play Tetris sometimes at work. One of my favorite rappers, MF Doom, and I heard this from Oriana Lee, who was married to Count Bass D at the time.

Count Bass D is one of the few artists that MF Doom has ever collaborated with and actually said their name. MF Doom would do a lot of features and never say the person’s name. So him and Count Bass had a real connection. The point is that MF Doom used to write lines on sticky notes, and he had a room full of sticky notes.

AB: Oh, wow.

Atticus: And he would just pull verses together that way. These are lines he already agreed on a long time ago. And if you listen to his rhyme style, it does sound like, why is it so random? But it’s great. It’s really great.

So, yeah, I definitely play Tetris. I wish I could do it at that level, but I don’t know. I keep notes now of just one or two lines. It doesn’t have to be a whole poem, but if it’s a good line, it’s a good line. Right?

AB: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

Atticus: Yeah, and then come back. It’ll find a home later. I’m real good on that, more so with songs. I got tons of songs. We actually just cleared out my folder. [Laughs] We moved it to an external hard drive. I was taking up a lot of space. I was taking up 7 gigs of space on our computer with just songs I’ve started and I’m just going back and find a home for these rhymes later. Yeah, that happens all the time.


AB: Um, and the last question is, can you share more about your projects that you’re working on?

Atticus: Yeah, yeah. The first one I’m tentatively calling it rap rhythm assisted poetry. Rhythm assisted poetry. I’m actually going to be dropping the first single that I’ve dropped in a while. What I want to do with it is really, it’s all about reconnecting. I think I’ve come to a place in my life, uh, stepping into the storyteller, right? And I do feel like that’s a goal. I want to step into the storyteller, Let’s go back to Robbie, my liaison.

We used to think like the whole point of the rhyme was that you got to be effective. And you know hip-hop is extremely competitive. I think that’s why I gravitated so well to slam culture because slam is also very competitive. We literally give five random people scorecards and, we’re brazenly judging art. What sucks and what doesn’t. So, I loved it.

But hip-hop. I think we set the bar at a realistic level. Imagine writing a rhyme and saying a rhyme that’s so interesting, that you could say it live at a barbecue. That’s gotta be a good rhyme, man, to make somebody stop long enough to ignore the potato salad. You know what I mean? You’re saying something that actually holds my attention? Live at the barbecue like Nas. That’s saying a lot. So yeah, holding people’s attention. It is all about the effect. And I want to reconnect with that. I want to reconnect with what got me into this in the first place. What was my initial love for the way words move and how they can move, right? The first one is kind of like reintroduction, reconnect with not just the audience, but also with my love for the art.

And then the second one is going to be telling the story. That’s going to be Park City Pedestrian. And I’ve already connected on all these projects. I’m working with visual artists. I’m working with Beth Meadows. And she made this wood sculpture piece, that I think [looks around] Oh, I didn’t bring my bag. Anyway, I’m working with visual artist Beth Meadows. And I’m hoping to work with, um, Drake.

Beautiful, uh, wonderful painter. Wonderful painter here in town. Vincent Drake. We’re gonna do a collaboration, because I think over the last few years working with Good Guy Collective and helping everybody pretty much produce their projects. I was having a problem for years seeing it visually. How does it look in video? Because I came from the age of, you know, you just heard the rap song on the radio. You know, before video killed the radio star. [Chuckles] I think that’s why I love Doom so much. He wore the mask because he wasn’t worried about what he looked like. Did the song work? So anyway, I’m still in that school. I’m working with them because I feel like the years I’ve spent helping people doing graphics or whatever, helping people with their business plans and making logos and making t shirts and stuff like that, there’s something that happens to people once it crystallizes into reality.

I’m working with these artists to help me crystallize this. So I make it real for me. And something about seeing it reminds me, ‘Okay, this is happening now.’ It’s going to be probably the more collaborative efforts that I’ve ever done. Most of the stuff has just been me and maybe Star. Me and one other person, we just make something. But now I’m working with like three or four to bring it out. But the first one is going to be a lot of work that I wish I’d shared. You know, songs I started. I’m playing Tetris. Like songs I started and like, ‘Oh you know what, let’s finish this.’


AB: It’s almost like, to me, I’ve always said that when you’re writing, if you’re a poet or a fiction writer or even nonfiction, you’re taking a piece of yourself and putting it down.

Atticus: Yes.

AB: I would imagine that a lot of times when you have wanted to be more vulnerable about your story that you probably even subconsciously thought, I can’t do this right now. I’m going to come back to it later.

Atticus: Yeah, exactly. Finally, now it’s time to catch up to it. It’s time to really apply what you know, right? I know. I know the power of word. I know that I know the benefit of what can happen when you purge and you just, at least if you can’t say it out loud, say it to a page, right? That point is communication has to happen. Somewhere, somehow. Kind of like the irony of books having locks. There’s an irony in that, right? Some books having locks. So it still had to be said, but you don’t want it read, right? But you didn’t burn the page. [Laughs]

AB: Right.

Atticus: It shows how bad we need to communicate. How crucial it is to this experience. When people can’t talk, we develop sign language. When you can’t see, we make braille. That’s how serious communicating is to the experience. Yeah, it’s just time to redirect it.

AB: Well, thank you so much. For coming here and allowing us to interview you.

Atticus: Thank you. You’re very welcome. Thank you for this. This is awesome. Probably the best interview ever.

AB: Really?

Atticus: Yeah, it really is. You have the best questions, man. ​


The written version for Part 1 of our exclusive interview with Joseph “Black Atticus” Woods can be found here.


**All images taken at JACKS in downtown Knoxville, TN, photographed by Delonda Anderson

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