It was Valentine's Day when poet Sarah Blake received Kanye West's 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak from her then-boyfriend and now husband, Noah Schoenholtz. It was around the time both her grandfather and mother were diagnosed with brain tumors. For West, it was a time when he and his fiancée, fashion designer Alexis Phifer, broke up and his mother died.
For four years, through marriage, pregnancy, and graduate school, Blake periodically researched West's work and life. And just as West was told by his mentors that he couldn't be a rapper and should stick to producing, Blake, 30, was told by her professor that her book on West was worthless.
Now, four years and 46 poems later, comes the National Endowment of the Arts fellow's first full-length poetry collection, Mr. West. It's an unauthorized biography of West through poetry. With a difference.
Mr. West takes snapshots of the rapper's life, intertwined with details of Blake's own life, in a portrait of one of the most divisive artists in music.
At La Crêperie Café on Sansom Street, Blake, who lives in Havertown, spoke about West and her book.
What made you write about Kanye West in this way?
There were a bunch of people writing about hip-hop, but it seemed to be in play, playing with lines and juxtaposition. Like, what they could do with the words. And I was, like, "What if I tackled it more like content and personal, bringing it into my personal life?" I had a lot of fun. [Laughs.]
Did you find yourself caring about him more?
Yes. Oh, my gosh. [Laughs.] It's embarrassing how much I feel like I care about someone I've never met.
What similarities do you see between yourself and Kanye West?
Being artists. And I definitely do feel I have a level of arrogance, and it's necessary. I have a lot of admiration for him, and that drives a lot of it. He's a perfectionist and I'm a perfectionist. He's an innovator, and I think I'm an innovator. And in terms of music, our artistry surrounds words.
I guess I start to feel a connection to him that way, but that's not how I felt to begin with. His world is so different from mine. That connection came through the grief.
I enjoyed the polar opposites; I didn't work to connect with him as I went through the book. A lot of the poems, even when I'm in it I don't seem to be in the center of it. I really wanted it to be about him, America, and celebrity.
When talking about the Taylor Swift incident [in which West interrupted her during an awards show], you write, "You [Kanye] used over forty exclamation marks and I think that's how America needs to be spoken to."
You can see it on his Twitter. Always exclamation points and always caps. What's telling about all the attention Kanye gets and his Twitter rants is there's something really attractive about it.
We want that. We are seeking that from our celebrities.
And the Beck interruption at the Grammys, and his comments on behalf of Beyoncé?
All these articles came out asking, "When was the last time in 20 years a black person, let alone black woman, won Best Album?" And it's, like . . . hardly ever.
In the poem "Twilight: Starring Kanye" you say: "I'm thinking a black man can't be a monster because he is one, because we won't let a fantasy form around him." Tell me about that.
That "Monster" video came out, and everybody was flipping out. It was such an important thing to do to talk about the assumptions that we make about the strong black male, and to play on that and explore the monster narrative. I thought it was great.
Tell me about this line: "Kanye is not always treated like a man."
That was so necessary to say. It's heartbreaking if you look at the way we talk about people. And one of the craziest things about America and celebrity is that as much privilege as Kanye has as a celebrity, racism trumps it.
What do you hope people get from the book?
What kept getting me to write poems was catching glimpses of him in the media and online and thinking about what it is that America does to a celebrity. I find it disturbing.
There's so many things that count as media outlets now, and everyone likes to chime in. I confessed to my students what my big project was, and the first comment [about him] was, "Oh, what an ass." That's such the accepted response about Kanye.
I hope the book sheds a bit of a light on how we talk about people and how we let people become these flat things in the media that we feel fine insulting and being hateful toward.
Does Kanye West know about the book?
I'm not sure he knows about me . . . but his lawyers do. [Laughs.]
Excerpt from Sarah Blake's 'Mr. West'
You begin tweeting.
I learn about your suits, videos,
jets, pillows, the new words you
picked up overseas. You take
a picture of your diamond
and gold teeth. You make a joke
about a crown so lovely I see
it on nymphs in daydreams.
- Excerpt from "The Week Kanye Joined Twitter," from the book "Mr. West," by Sarah Blake