The Understanding between Foxes and Light contributor Karl Roulston talks spirit, poetry, and killer harmonica with Russ Green
Karl Roulston can be found delivering his words and blowing his blues harp in and around New York City. He appears on the Hydrogen Jukebox "poemusic" CD brain ampin'. Recent written works have been published in The Bitter Oleander and the first great weather for MEDIA anthology It's Animal but Merciful.
RG: Karl, you are known for your cool blues cat rhythms in both your poetry and performance. Where does that come from? Who are your influences?
KR: Well, I try to allow the innate musicality of speech to flow freely. I don’t make much distinction between speech and other forms of music. With "speech" I include the written word because, even if you’re not reading aloud, you’re still hearing the words spoken by your inner voice. It's a silent music. That's my experience, at least. As for influences, it's funny, but sometimes we're more influenced by the spirit of things than by the particulars. Every Fourth of July, I'm reminded of how much I love James Cagney performing "Yankee Doodle Boy." To me, and to many others, those are three minutes of just the purest happiness. I should also mention the final episode of Patrick McGoohan's television series The Prisoner. It’s full of such crazy, ecstatic exuberance, it makes me want to jump around the room.
RG: I am, of course, not alone in digging those killer harmonica breaks in your performances that are so integral to your sets. How did that come about?
KR: The harmonica comes from the rock bands I'd see in concert when I was a kid. So many of the singers would pick up the harp for a number or two. Specifically, I remember Roxy Music at the old Academy of Music on 14th Street. Bryan Ferry played a little bit of harp and it made me want to try it. I don't have any formal musical training. It was many years of just messing around and annoying people, trying to find my way. I'm inspired by the great blues artists like Sonny Boy Williamson II, but in the same sort of way that I'm inspired by "Yankee Doodle Boy" and The Prisoner. I don't have any illusions and don't pretend to do what the blues legends did.
RG: Well, you are capturing their "spirit" though. I remember Bob Dylan said his words came from divine inspiration, but the choreographer Twyla Tharp said creativity is ninety percent work and ten percent inspiration. How much do you think that what you do with words and music comes from discipline and experience and how much from that "spirit of things?"
KR: It can be hard work to get yourself into a state of spontaneity. I think Andre Breton once pointed that out. To escape self-consciousness and let the waters flow. To not think. To not try. There's the kind of discipline you employ for careful architectural planning in order to achieve a clear, defined goal, and then there's the discipline of exploration, which requires you to relax and be receptive—which isn't always easy in a world full of stress and anxiety.
RG: It seems like the vibe and rhythm of the city bleeds right through your work. What are your thoughts on how that happens?
KR: I'm a child of transplanted New Englanders, so although I've lived most of my life right across from Manhattan in urban New Jersey, I spent almost every summer of my youth in rural Maine or New Hampshire. We slept on mountains and canoed down rivers. That's still a part of me too. If New York is in my work, it's probably the New York I'd think about as I lay awake in Maine late on a summer night, trying to get WNEW in on the radio, wishing I was back with my friends and that we were on our way to see the New York Dolls at the Gaslight Au Go Go. These days, I lay awake and think about a lake in Maine.
RG: Do you think you will reach a point of satiety where you are happy where you are, and does your craft help to assuage that longing for you?
KR: Is it a longing for a place or for a time? A time that's passed, or one that hasn't happened yet? I really don't know. I'm happiest when I can lose myself in performing or some other creative process. So I guess the craft does help to assuage the longing. My greatest satisfaction comes when I think that I've maybe helped other people to feel a little better too.
RG: That’s incredible that you were able to get WNEW from New York City in all the way up there in Maine! What do you think about how radio has changed since those days of Scott Muni on WNEW?
KR: Getting in a New York station depended on atmospheric conditions. It was a faint and fleeting affair, but I seem to remember succeeding, ever so briefly. I'd spin the dial like I was cracking a safe, hoping to catch the sultry tones of the “Nightbird,” Alison Steele. But I hardly listen to radio anymore. I bailed out a long time ago. Everything became too tightly formatted. But wonderful things could be happening now, somewhere, for all I know.
RG: Tell me about those days at the Gaslight Au Go Go and the music scene in New York City back then.
KR: It was nights in white satin with red feather boas. I mentioned the New York Dolls at Gaslight Au Go Go not because the venue was a regular haunt of mine—I was only there once—but because that was a very special night, the night I saw the Dolls for the first time. The opening act was The Brats and things didn't even get started until the wee hours. This was before the Dolls had released their first record, but they were already legendary. Some of us in the crowd I ran with wrote for the fanzines. Some of us covered music for our school newspapers. We were all pretty young. On nights like the one in question, a certain amount of stealth was required to get out of the house without being challenged and get back in again without getting skinned. David Bowie at Radio City Music Hall comes to mind. That was at 11:30 PM on Valentine’s Day, 1973, and to witness such an event in the middle of the night at Radio City was surreal in the extreme. Previously, I'd only been there on class field trips to see things like the Christmas show. Believe me, it was a very different sort of Santa who descended from the rafters that night.
RG: So, you are on brain ampin', the Hydrogen Jukebox CD compilation of performance poets with the Ne’erdowells that dear friend and great weather co-founder Brant Lyon put together based on his Hydrogen Jukebox reading series. Aside from the fact that that is a scene that is sorely missed—as is Brant, of course—in the NYC poetry circles, tell me your thoughts on performing with a full band versus just you and your harmonica.
KR: The first time I attended the Hydrogen Jukebox series it was one of those rare moments when it’s almost like you’re seeing the future, or like when you meet someone and feel you've known them your whole life. The Ne’erdowells were onstage and Brant was introducing all the "loyalists," as he’d call them. The whole Hydro Juke family of poets. I immediately felt certain that I would come to know these people and share adventures with them. And that’s exactly what happened. As you mentioned, the Hydrogen Jukebox gave me the opportunity to work with a full band on a regular basis, and nothing compares. Then Brant was suddenly gone and it was a deep and terrible shock. His acceptance of me and enthusiasm for what I do was so very, very important to me, and I'll never forget him.
RG: That’s beautiful. I know much of the community certainly share many of your sentiments. So, do you miss working with a band enough to make something happen in that direction and if you so, what form would it take?
KR: I'm on the lookout now, hoping to gather a few players who will gig with me consistently. I acquired some ready-made, royalty-free tracks to use as backing when musicians aren't available, and that's worked out well, but nothing's quite as satisfying as playing with live human beings.
RG: So, I have to ask you about the poems you clip around your neck in your sets. I love it. Where did you get the idea and do you think it adds an effect to your performance or do you do it for purely practical purposes?
KR: I do it because I need to keep my hands free to play the harp. There isn't always a music stand handy and even when there is, I don't like having to adjust it and fumble around. Also, I sometimes move around a lot when I'm performing.
RG: Are we going to see a book from Karl Roulston sometime in the near future, and if so how do you think your words will come across to those who have not seen or heard you?
KR: I'm always very pleased and proud to see the words in print. I can only hope that people enjoy reading them, and that they can hear the music in their heads. So a book would be very gratifying for me. An album even more so. Both at once would be the ultimate. If I can find a way to make this happen, I'll let you know!
Karl will be featuring at our Spoken Word Sundays reading series at the Parkside Lounge on August 11th 2013. He will also be performing at the Parkside Lounge for The Understanding between Foxes and Light book launch on August 28th.
Find Karl's poetry in the great weather for MEDIA anthologiesThe Understanding between Foxes and Light and It's Animal but Merciful.
Photo of Karl Roulston by Puma Perl