An Interview with Bill Carr (click here for his poem)

EP: So what do you think about "Black History Month"?

BC: I think it's very stupid. I think [black history] should be celebrated every day of our lives.

EP: Do you think there's a difference between, quote, popular art, and real art?

BC: That's a good question. The answer is, Yes. There IS a difference.

EP: You were just telling me about Chester Himes, and how, ironically, the serious pieces that he felt were his best were the ones that the critics ignored, while his quote, just kind of throw-away art, is what made the New York Times Best Sellers' List.

BC: I think that's the way it is with most art these days. Your sort of jive work, silly work, or work that pleases the mainstream is not exactly your most heaviest and thought-out pieces. It's stuff that people are comfortable with.

EP: It seems like a lot of people are uncomfortable with your work; and it's kind of funny because you don't seem to really care if people are comfortable or not.

BC: No, it's not that I don't care, it's just that I don't let it affect what I'm doing. I told [a poet], that's the thing she has to do, is let go of caring. Just do your thing and if it hits somebody's vein, that's cool. If it doesn't, it's alright.

EP: And some of the quote, best black writers like Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, wrote stuff that was banned and that people couldn't handle. Who are some of the other writers that you think led the way, so to speak?

BC: I would go with Richard Wright, you know, just talking for myself. Poetically, Allen Ginsberg was good. Paul Lawrence Dunbar. I like Nikki Giovanni. And there's a bunch of others that are not black, but who wrote really good stuff that black folks should read, like William Faulkner, and ol' Mark Twain. You know, using all those funny, "N" words in non-abridged editions of "Huckleberry Finn." Folks should check that out.

EP: As an English teacher in Sacramento, what kinds of books are your students reading? Do you think they're reading at all?

BC: Students never read. They're just concerned with answering questions on tests. But the kinds of books that I think they should read are books outside of their own culture to stretch them beyond their own little comfort zones. It sort of goes back to a lot of poets writing poems about things that they haven't experienced.

EP: You said before that you spend a lot of time in class just "babysitting" people or trying to break up fights. And kids can't pay attention or anything; and so do you have any insights as to why the kids are all messed up?

BC: Yeah I have some insights alright. Because the parents are messed up. And instead of getting . . . you know . . . . See, first of all, you have to understand that the system is controlled by folks in charge who keep putting folks that they're comfortable with in positions of working with kids. So if you take someone who's upper-crust and you put them in an at-risk school, they can't reach those kids 'cus they don't know them and they're scared of them. So quite naturally, they won't be able to motivate anyone. And that's the real problem. We need to throw the whole school system out. It's a failure. But the way you do that, that no one wants to admit, is to first get rid of the administrators who are making the rules, because they're passe. But they want to keep their multi-million dollar jobs or hundred-thousand dollar jobs, and so it's very hard to get rid of them 'cus they're already in place. See, what most of these folks believe, which is not true, is that there's a difference between black and white and green and yellow; but there isn't. They're all the same. It's about class, how you grow up. So if you take a black person who doesn't understand black folks and you put them in a classroom, they'll do the same as the white person does who comes from another culture and doesn't understand what these kids have to deal with. So you need to get rid of them both.

EP: I used to hang out with Mike Nettles over in the ghetto where he grew up, and whenever he was in his own neighborhood, he would kind of have to revert back to kind of a gang thing where he would see his homeboys and he'd have to flash them little signs and stuff. And he said he kind of never let on that he was reading or anything 'cus that was kind of like not accepted. And I think it is really hard, when you're surrounded by a certain culture and everybody is acting a certain way, for you to get out of that and educate yourself like he did just going down to the library.

BC: This is my comment. I think you're absolutely right. It's very hard for folks to get beyond what they're trained to believe and do. Mike Nettles is a perfect example. When I first met him, in fact, he was in one of my classes at Sac City, and I couldn't get the kid to do anything. Not because he couldn't do it. But because it wasn't a big deal, it didn't mean anything to him at that time. But he's the kind of kid that we're losing. You know, we're sitting around worrying about the Twin Towers and flying flags. But what you need to do is go into any classroom and see all these kids dropping by the wayside. And we're doing nothing about it.

EP: A couple of days ago, the Sacramento Bee quoted some recent statistics that said in the Fall of 2001, almost 17,000 students entering the Cal State University system were not proficient in English.

BC: See, that's not the half of it. You're quoting stats about college. You should check out the stats about high school, if you really want to be upset and scared. I mean we were already 49th in the 50 states. We've gone down. So there you go. I'll tell you one thing. One day, when the kids come to your back door with a screwdriver instead of coming to a classroom with a pencil, you'll begin to worry and understand. I had a kid on Wednesday who couldn't tell me where Louisiana was on a map. I said to him, look in the southern area, the southern part, right, and he looked near Oregon.

EP: Well, and our President is setting a fine example. This is someone who is not very proficient in English, or anything else for that matter.

BC: Some kids in my class were speaking Spanish, and a black kid turned, and said, "I'm not speaking African, so you shouldn't be speaking Spanish." I explained to him that African is not a language.

EP: This goes back to my comment about our President saying that he would try and speak Mexican when he went down to visit ol' Vicente. So switching subjects, how come it seems like some of our local black poets like Charles Curtis Blackwell and Mike Nettles . . . everybody's trying to head out of town and go down to Berkeley and San Francisco. What's wrong with the Sacramento poetry scene? [laughter]

BC: I'll try to say this in a nice, kind way . . . unless you're really part of the establishment, you're not exactly invited to do new types of things. You know, people get alienated by new types of things. You sort of have to do sonnets, which are o.k., but one wants to move past that, you know?

EP: You guys have tried to do some different things. Like I know you've written several different plays that people sometimes they don't always understand. And Charles is trying to do some different things. You want to talk about some of your plays and maybe what you're trying to do?

BC: Well my plays are not "black" plays, and I don't mean that negatively; they're more universal, if you can call them that. I like to call them, "cosmic." They're very difficult pieces to understand. I sort of have to explain them as I go, when talking to artists. I use a lot of symbolism and a lot of metaphors. They're not "straight." They don't necessarily have a beginning, a middle and an end. They might start from the end, or right in the middle. And then we may end with the beginning. You know that's not the norm here in this particular town. So you know, I sort of have to digest them for people. Soften them down. Liquefy them. So maybe they can consume them. It goes back to Chester Himes. The only plays that people really get are the ones that I wrote that have more comedy like, "The Old Man," play where it's sort of a minstrel show. But the other ones that are reaching a little deeper beyond "the shining knights" and that play . . . well it's been a difficult road. And that's why folks go to Berkeley and San Francisco because you have an audience there that will sort of go, "Heh. Alright. I see what you're doing there." Instead of sitting there and sort of gawking at you. Now of course I don't mean everybody's gawking at you. There are some beautiful folks in Sacratomato that are understanding and open.

EP: Well one really disillusioned Sacramento poet once told me that this is like a really good "beginners'" town in all the genres. Like in music or poetry, you can go to open mics and practice reading in front of people. But once you kind of get up to a certain level, then you can't go anywhere. And that's why you have to go someplace like Berkeley. . . So you moved from poetry into painting a few years ago, and people who've seen your paintings have all just really been amazed at . . . they're almost like your poetry with colors and symbolism. Why did you start painting?

BC: You know a lot, so you're asking good questions. Well, I think it's a way to work things out, without being called on it. Poetry, you read it, and you get called on it. Painting, you do it, and you hand it to people, and people go, "Wow. That's pretty good." Even though it's the same emotion. The painting's been very meditational.

EP: So how is the writing experience different for you from the painting experience?

BC: Well, in writing, I'm usually writing about other folks that have affected me. Painting, I'm painting about me, and whatever I'm feeling. Like the last poem I wrote was about a student who wasn't doing well, and who was having a battle with drugs. And so that's what came on the page. But the last painting I did was about a tree, and how cool it was looking as I was looking at it, the sun was coming down . . . . So it's very different.

EP: Have you ever thought about combining all of your artistic talents, and having kind of a musical play with some of your paintings up there while you're reading poetry, like a kind of a one-man minstrel show?

BC: No, but thanks for the idea.

EP: And just to close things up, I wanted to say that I think your poetry seems to have changed since you started painting. The painting seems to have opened things up for you, your words are less constricted, more flowing.

BC: Yeah, like wide brushstrokes on the canvas.

EP: You had to go inside the paint to get to the poetry.

Interview conducted at Lyon's, Sac, February 2, 2002. Copyright EPG and BC.