Super Ambitious: D. Watkins talks books, Baltimore, and his new collection of essays, 'The Beast Side'

D. Watkins talks books, Baltimore, and his new collection of essays, 'The Beast Side'

Writer D. Watkins didn't come out of nowhere, but it sure did seem like it. In February 2014, his essay for Salon, 'Too Poor For Pop Culture,' about how the other side lives, knocked readers over or alternately stuck in their craw because it was both deeply sympathetic and unapologetically bleak—a presentation of black life that is hard to reconcile for those either used to typical hood narratives that dote on the gritty details or respectability-politics-tinged laments.

Following the online success of the essay and a number of other similarly knotty pieces, it seemed as though everybody was interested in or infuriated by D. Watkins, Coppin professor and the newly anointed voice of black Baltimore, a label he has rejected, out of modesty and because he is skeptical of monoliths of any kind. Still, during the Baltimore Uprising, he became a go-to local voice and was one of the strongest and most searing commentators and context builders for the city. He took heat just for being brutally honest when he wrote in the New York Times, "The only option is to rise up, and force Mayor Rawlings-Blake to make what should be an easy choice: Stop protecting the livelihoods of the cops who killed Freddie Gray, or watch Baltimore burn to the ground."

It turns out D. Watkins didn't come out nowhere. When 'Too Poor For Pop Culture' appeared, Watkins had been obsessively, competitively honing his writing and storytelling skills for years and was already shopping around a memoir called "The Cook-Up," about his early life in East Baltimore, including some stints as drug dealer—a biographical detail that seemingly every piece about Watkins finds a little too fascinating. Now, everybody wants a piece of D. Watkins. His brain is picked for ideas, everybody wants his input, and with that comes, it would seem, some attempt to smooth him out and turn him into something different than he is—someone who is less complex and easier to categorize.

"The Beast Side," Watkins' book of essays, out this week, collects the majority of his online writing over the past year or so, including a number of pieces that first appeared here in the City Paper, as well as work for Aeon, The Guardian, The New York Times, Salon, and elsewhere. It is, we think, part of a powerful triptych of recently released black Baltimore books, along with Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between The World and Me" and Lawrence Grandpre and Dayvon Love's "The Black Book."

But "The Beast Side" is different than those too. It's more accessible than those and preaches to the converted far less often. It recalls poppy personal-is-political books such as Akil's "From Niggas To Gods," Iceberg Slim's "Pimp," and Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul On Ice"—literary affronts that put every reader up against a wall at some point or another. It feels like the sort of book you might scoop up at a store that doesn't otherwise sell all that many books—the kind of thing somebody places in your hand and implores you to read.

Because we could not rightfully review "The Beast Side" (Watkins is a contributor to, a columnist for, and a friend of CP) we sat down with Watkins for a long talk about how "The Beast Side" came about.

City Paper: Let's begin with the Baltimore Uprising. It's that event and other recent events tied to police brutality and racism in America, like the shootings in Charleston over the summer, that frame the essays in "The Beast Side." One of the final essays in the book is 'Smells Like Victory—But the Baltimore Uprise Is Only the Beginning' and the book's dedicated to Freddie Gray. What do you think is important about the Baltimore Uprising?

D. Watkins: There's a whole lot of people, white and black, who are far removed from Gilmor Homes who didn't really understand these things were happening until video cameras came out. People far removed from what's going on in the city were saying people were making stuff up, but now they can't say that. And it gave a guy like me a way to voice my opinion and listen to other people and for other people to speak. For too long we've been in this place where there's one black voice: every black person speaking for all black people. There's not one black leader, black hero, or one black anything. And now there's an emerging group of people from these areas participating in different types of activism. Now, they feel like they have a voice and a purpose and hopefully they stick with that and add that organizational component to it so they can actually make change in the community. And I hope that everybody's still connected. If you looked at lot of those marches and rallies, it was the first time you saw all these different types of people in Baltimore coming together. Not even race-wise but dudes from the projects with dudes that hang out at The Crown. You never get that mix.

CP: "The Beast Side" is structured like a cassette tape—side one and side two, with all of the explicitly current-events-oriented essays on side two. Why did you decide to organize these essays like that?

DW: My editor, David Talbot, thinks my writing is like music and he wanted to frame the book like an album. Like a mixtape. That was all his idea. I just agreed. Think of it like a '90s Puffy album—all the club stuff on the front and all the grimy stuff on the back. That was his insight.

CP: Why did you title it "The Beast Side"?

DW: I really liked that word. I'm from East Baltimore and so, it says East side, and you know, you have to be a beast to make it out of some of these situations. And I like "beast coast" and I like "beast side." Some of my friends used to say we were from the beast side but it never went viral or nothing. But I always wanted to use that word. If it wasn't this book, then I would've had a kid or something, and named them Little Beast Side.

CP: Your memoir "The Cook-Up" was already announced and then "The Beast Side" appeared pretty quickly. How did this book come about?

DW: It's a weird story because back in March I was talking to Marc Steiner about how it was bittersweet. How I was so happy and fortunate to get a book deal but I have to wait a whole year for it come out. That day, after I was talking to Marc, I left and went back to Coppin and when I got back to my office—the adjunct office, not my office, I didn't have my own office—I got an email that said, "Hey I'm David Talbot, I'm a big fan of your work and I wanna offer you a book deal." I'm like, is this supposed to be a joke? Then I got another email: "I wanna offer you a book deal, can you have 25,000 words for me by June?" That 25,000 words turned into 40,000 words. We had two or three good phone conversations, it was that simple. They wanted me to write something brand-new, but I told them through my contract with Grand Central, who are publishing "The Cook-Up," that they had first dibs on my second project. Then we came up with the idea of the essay collection and that's how it came about.

CP: "The Cook-Up" is still on its way?

DW: I pushed that book back from November 2015 to February 2016 and now, May 2016. But it's done, I completed it. I get one more chance to read it and then I let it go. I put so much work into it and I don't even know, having it so long, I may have over-edited it. I had times when I wrote things and went on binges that I was really proud of, and then other nights where I just hacked chapters that I can't ever get back. It's a memoir that starts around the time my brother Bip gets killed and ends when I go back to college. It goes through my journey: trying to fit in at school, trying to fit in on the streets, just doing everything. It's centered around how, when I first started reading things, that really led to me processing my own thoughts. Before that, television told me what was beautiful, rappers told me what to wear, and I tried to play like athletes. All this time I was just fueled by everybody else's thoughts and had to develop my own. So I think the key component of that book is not only the redemptive power of education but just growing up and becoming your own person, because some people don't catch that wave until they're 60 years old. They wake up like, "Yo, do I even like what I think I like?"

CP: The essay that really first gave you attention was 'Too Poor For Pop Culture' for Salon. How did that come about?

DW: My agent told me, "Nobody's buying your book [proposal]," which was "The Cook-Up." But she said, "You're getting some really pretty rejection letters. You should publish something for Huffington Post or Salon." And she said, "Write it out and I'll send it to my people at Huff Post and they'll run it." So I write 'Too Poor For Pop Culture,' and it was very easy for me to write because I was broke and I really had nothing to do but write. When you're too broke to do shit, you're just stuck with your brain. At the time, I was teaching [at] Sojourner-Douglass College before they shut down and I was walking across the street after and I was hooking up with people I knew for years. We'd go half on a fifth or we'd play cards, we would just kick it. When I got paid sometimes, I would go to Charles Village, I knew some people there, but I can't go there if it isn't pay day. So I would go back around the way and play cards and shoot the shit.

CP: What's so striking about 'Too Poor For Pop Culture,' especially when it's recast within the context of these other essays, is that your friends and people you grew up with and your neighborhood feel lived-in and real, and for you, it's a comfortable place to be even if it is, in some ways, supremely fucked up.

DW: That part of my life, that whole element of my life, where I'm from, that's the best. That's like the sanctuary for me—to be able to go on some of the blocks where I grew up and just kick it and not have to deal with the bullshit. In this writer world and this success world, whatever it is, you're nothing but what you do: "Oh he's a writer . . . oh, he does TV . . .this guy built a building." Nobody's a person, you're what your title is. You're shrunk down to that. When you're a writer, they always expect you to say something smart or cool with words.

CP: 'Too Poor For Pop Culture' is how a lot of people found out about you, but when did you start seeing yourself as a writer?

DW: So, it's two components of writing. One, I think of writing as, of course, language and things like that. Things I'm still working on and developing. But the second component, storytelling, is something I've been addicted to and part of since I was a kid, so I'm nice with storytelling. We used to just sit outside and just listen to dudes talk about the most random simple thing, but it would just be magical. The tradition of African griots—that's the same thing. Like, I got this book called "African Kings," and it's a photo book and it's full of Africans who look like rappers. Like you think, "Where'd these big necklaces come from and this male bravado, like, where does this come from?" It's like, yo, it's embedded in you for generations before you even know it's part of your makeup. And storytelling's always been part of that makeup.

CP: When did that first component you mention come together with your storytelling abilities? When did you become a writer?

DW: As far as being a writer, I was about to graduate from University of Baltimore and I needed some electives. What fit my schedule was a fiction class and a poetry class. Fiction class, I was good. A lot of fiction writers are so self-deprecating, you can slide into a fiction class and not be the best and not be the worst and you're OK. But poetry class, they'll pull your fucking card, they'll get you. My poetry teacher was Kendra Kopelke at UB. I'm not a poet, I'm not a writer. I'm like the only person there who's not an English major so you know, I'm just having fun with this shit.

CP: What were you studying at UB?

DW: History. So, I'm in this poetry class and I'm thinking this will be easy. You know, I'm gonna knock it out. And art is subjective, so I can argue anything even if it's trash. So she said there's two rules in the class: no centering and no rhyming. So, the next week, of course I come back with my shit, it was a rap and it was centered. It was horrible.

CP: What was the rap about?

DW: It's crazy, I remember. It was about throwing money at someone you love instead of trying to connect with them as a person. The same bullshit I've been struggling with my whole life, because it's like, you know, this is America. People just buy shit. So, Kopelke said to me, "Wow, there were two rules, and you broke both of them." So the class was clowning me, laughing super hard. Some of them were laughing and poking fun because I wasn't a poet but some of them were assholes talking shit. And you know I'm not really used to be being laughed at, I'm super competitive. I'm really competitive. Like, I just was playing at Hopkins earlier and I stole the ball from an 80-year-old who was on the court. Like, I love him to death, he plays every week—a guy named Ralph. But it was clutch time and yo, I don't want to fucking start my weekend with a loss. It's not gonna happen. So he caught the rebound and, "Oh, I'll talk that Ralph" and I laid it up. So I'm a competitor. I was like, I can't go out like this. So I read everything. Everything by Langston Hughes, everything by Amiri Baraka, and I wanted to come back the next week with some ammo. And then I heard this other dude read a poem that was not really from the place where I'm from, but a real nice cool guy and his name's Justin Sanders. Remember that magazine Artichoke Haircut? He was one of the black dudes who is one of the owners of that. So he read a poem about graffiti and losing one of his friends. And that's when it clicked for me. So I started rapping with him about some things I wanted to write about and he was like, "Go ahead man, you should write that." So I went back and wrote this poem about my man Dre who was a squeegee kid who got killed. When I read it, the whole class was quiet and they was like, "You ain't write that shit." I was like, "I wrote that, right?" So I didn't pay it no mind and then a couple weeks go by and [Kopelke] is like, "I can't stop thinking about that poem. You should get that poem published." And I was like, "Yeah, whatever." And then she actually got it published in the school journal. And some other poems I wrote got published by the Artichoke Haircut people. It still wasn't a thing to me. "OK, cool, I got three poems published." I don't really give a shit about that. I'm not really into it. So after that I went to school.

CP: You then went to Hopkins and studied education, right?

DW: I tried to go to Johns Hopkins for history and they told me "no," and I couldn't believe it, but now looking back, the program was super competitive and my packet could've been way stronger but I didn't know how that system worked. All this and I was competing for a spot that was held by like 11 people a year. I got a denial letter, so I called the dude up who runs the program like, "You made a terrible mistake." Because I'm from that school of keep pushing, keep asking. Figure out how to turn some of those "no"s into "yes"s when it comes to business. So I told him he made a mistake and he invited me in for a conversation and we had a great conversation, and he was like, "Man, if you would've wrote this stuff in your packet, you would've had a better chance of getting in. I'll tell you what, if you really wanna go here, go through our program and find a professor you want to work with, and resubmit your packet and come back in." At the time, I owned a tag and title shop, I had a rental property, I was living off the money I had from my old job, and I was this close to going back on the street. And I was like, to myself, "Yo, I can't sit out school a year." And all this stuff is hitting me while we're sitting here. I can't sit out for a year. If I sit out for a year, I'm going back. I'm not going back to school, I'm going back to the street. I didn't tell him that.

CP: What did you tell him?

DW: I told him I'll lose focus, I said everything I was supposed to say. He told me to enroll in the School of Education. "They got a one-year program, you'll get right in here," he said, "and if you need a nudge or anything give me a call." I went down the street to the School of Education and I met Dr. Eric Rice, a mentor to me. So I got in, and in the process, I took a memoir class about teaching memoir to middle school and high school students as a way of dealing with trauma. Again, I started writing my stuff down and a lot of people in my class were feeling the things I was writing. And at the same time, I'm meeting this guy MK Asante and we're playing a lot of basketball together. He had a book out called "It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop," and he's like, "Yo, you should read my book." So he gave it to me and I threw it in my trunk and never read it. And I remember one day he said, "Do you know how hard it is to publish a book?" and I was like, "It can't be that hard, I published all these poems" and I showed him. And he's like, "These are pretty good, they're all right. This reminds me of some old Saul Williams stuff." So, I'm like, "Cool. Who's Saul Williams?" I didn't know who Saul Williams was at the time.

CP: Did you go study up on Saul Williams after that?

DW: No, well, one day, Asante hit me up like, "Yo, I'm going to this event in London. If you got your money to get a plane ticket and a hotel, you should roll." So I went and that event was called 'The Evolution of the English Language' and it was him, Saul Williams, this U.K. rapper Akala, and another U.K. rapper named Lowkey. They were all talking about all of the amazing stuff that we do with language in the ghettos and hoods in America and how we evolve the English language every day. And the people in the audience were just in awe. It was at the British Library, they were just going crazy. But I was like, yo, there's something missing. I was sitting in the stands thinking that they definitely represented for dudes from messed-up type of situations, but not really though. I wasn't represented there. There's a certain kind of blackness being represented here, but I'm not a part of that. I felt like, I should be writing.

CP: It sounds like an extension of the culture wars in hip-hop, "conscious hip-hop" vs. "ignorant hip-hop" or whatever, where one type of black attitude and perspective is implicitly pushed forward as more valuable.

DW: Right? I feel like they had really good representation for black America but not the black America I represented. There's a hierarchy of race and I feel like I'm from the bottom of that. So, you know, I felt like they were speaking for black people in general, but from where I was, one of the bottom dwellers, we weren't in the conversation. Even some of the words they were using weren't really accessible. Some of the way they were explaining ideas wasn't really accessible to a dude with lead paint on a second-grade reading level that's 40 years old. I felt like street guys and poor people and single moms working three jobs couldn't sit there, and they weren't! They weren't in the stands. They don't know who any of those guys are. They aren't reading their shit. I felt like there's a huge lane for me if I just figure out how to get my stuff out there. I decided I wanted to enroll in a MFA program at UB. I wanted to learn the game. Even though you really don't learn to write in an MFA program, I later found out, I needed to be around writers and I needed people to tell me "no" and to reject me. I needed to learn. Where else can you learn about Joan Didion unless you're in an MFA program? I needed the program. And I came in way more aggressive than any other student, but it was something I knew nothing about. I probably never even read a fiction book, maybe Ben Carson's book, "Gifted Hands"—that's a joke, I know it's supposed to be a memoir.

CP: You really hadn't read any fiction?

DW: I don't think I ever read a fiction book coming up. I read "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," I read "Manchild in the Promised Land," and I read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," and I read bits and clips of "Revolutionary Suicide." I never read a fiction book coming up. My mentality was like, "Yo, nobody really reads, people watch movies and TV and whatever." I had that ignorance in me. I needed to learn that world. And I was like, one of the only black guys in the program. Not a lot of black guys hanging around MFA programs. These roots are planted early on: Books are boring, books are not fun, reading's not for you—reading's for them over there.

CP: What was the MFA program like?

DW: I was super ambitious there. In the first year, students were trying to figure out if they're going to pick poetry, memoir, or fiction, and I was already writing book proposals and already trying to figure out the game. By my second semester, I was like, "By end of my first year, I'm gonna get a agent, second year I'm gonna get my pubs up and try and sell a book, and by the time I graduate I'm going to publish a book." That's what I used to tell myself and put the work in. So that's how I kind of got really into it. And then it became kind of psychotic because, when I would submit to places, I would submit to places over and over again until editors were kinda like, "Yo, fuck this creep, somebody run this shit for this guy." But it kind of happened in that order: I got an agent my first year and then I started publishing a bunch of places my second year—not places you would've heard of, kind of like obscure literary journals, but I'm always happy and humble for the opportunity—and then I wrote my first Salon piece my first semester of my last year of school. And I sold my book by the end of that school year.

CP: Your book begins with a Langston Hughes poem along with a quote from James Baldwin. What other writers were you reading and getting into separate from class?

DW: On the poetry side of it, Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, and writers like Sister Souljah and Richard Price, who wrote "Clockers," because I didn't know you could write books like that. If you're teaching school and it's surrounded by open-air drug markets, why are you reading Mark Twain? Like, if you want kids to pick up books, maybe something that's a little more relative would be more effective. Then they can learn as readers. Start with what they might be interested in and then bring in the rest of the world so that they can have that exposure. It's almost like we don't want our kids to read. It doesn't make any sense. If you're in a place like Baltimore there's a cultural gap, people in Baltimore don't think outside of Baltimore, so you got to hit them, trick them, slip them into that world at first.

CP: One of the things you do in "The Beast Side's" essays is describe white spaces and navigating them. Like in 'Stoop Stories,' you talk about briefly attending Loyola University and befriending a white guy named Tyler. How long were you at Loyola?

DW: I don't think I lasted a month. It just didn't work at the time. It's not the school's fault. First, it's a problem with society. I never really learned how to accept other cultures. Those skills came to me later. I used to sit back like, "They racist, they don't fuck with me." But a certain part of me didn't fuck with them. I called the dude Tyler in the book, his name is something else in real life but if he never came to me, I never would've said anything to him. The way we grew up, if you're not from a certain neighborhood or block then fuck you. We don't care. It's that segregated and that cut off. Even building with Tyler gave me a better understanding.

CP: How so?

DW: Like for example, I didn't get white sense of humor, like snarky or sarcastic-type jokes, but now I get it, from interacting in different circles. And I think going into some of these white spaces and taking white people into black spaces enhances social relations. You don't even know what you're into until you experience it. Shit, my favorite show's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." My favorite show. And you see the shit I write about, but that's my favorite show and has been before I even knew white people like that. I've been rocking with Larry David for years. That show's fucking brilliant.

CP: How important is comedy in your writing? Beyond storytelling which you mentioned, there's the way you work with hyperbole sometimes or disarm readers with humor—like when you mention how Charleston shooter Dylann Roof has hair like Lloyd from "Dumb and Dumber" in the introduction. I feel like your writing is close to stand-up comedy sometimes.

DW: Comedy is the one thing that shows, individually, how fucked people we all are, in a funny way. With stand-up comedy, it's all of these different people from all of these different walks of life controlling their insecurities and blowing them up and turning it into beauty and delivering joy to so many people. My favorite of all time is Chris Rock. Close second is George Carlin and Richard Pryor. And Dave Chappelle's always gonna be a favorite. But these new cats—like Amy Schumer's stand-up is crazy, Bill Burr. I'm watching a lot of stand-up comedy now too because I want be a better presenter. Like, I saw Sherman Alexie at the Book Fair a couple years ago and his whole thing was like a stand-up comedy act, it was crazy: crazy jokes, crazy one-liners, brilliantly told stories. And comedians are activists in their own way. They're like teachers. Same if you listen to hip-hop. The dudes who care about the lyrics, they're telling you stories and teaching you. I didn't learn about the Black Panther Party or Malcolm X before rap. You don't learn that in school and those things are need to know. Hip-hop taught me that.

CP: Is music, specifically hip-hop, an influence on your writing?

DW: I'm addicted to music. I'd rather listen to music than hang out, music is addictive. Right now I'm listening to Nas' "Hip-Hop Is Dead," because I never gave that album a fair listen. It wasn't the kind of album I thought it was going to be so I dismissed it. Right now I'm going back, because when I listened to it, I wasn't a writer. I listen now as a writer and I see things different. Nas has this song where he's like, "Yo, I wonder if Langston Hughes and Alex Haley got blazed before they told stories/ I'm gonna get blazed before I tell y'all stories/ I saw on TV today, this man lost his son, his son died/ So he had him cremated, took his ashes and then made it into a diamond ring./ Now he watches his son shine every day." I guess it's not like that deep, but you listen different as a writer. And right now I'm listening to a local kid who is trying to come up, Fresh. And King Mez. And you know, it's crazy because I had the same Uber driver all day yesterday and we were bumping Scarface and he took me all over. We were bumping Scarface, like "The Diary." We were both Scarface fans, so I definitely got a blast of that yesterday. And I'm listening to Fela Kuti right now.

CP: Fela's great. And stuff like 'Sorrow, Tears, and Blood,' about what the Nigerian government did to him and his family, makes me think of your stuff. He's turning memoir into something that's real, but it's bigger and broader than reality somehow. It's also similar to rapper Young Moose, who you write about in 'Crimes of the Art'—an artist who is being attacked by those in power for his art.

DW: Since you like Fela so much, next time the dude selling the Fela outfits come through, I'll get you one. You can wear that out one night.

CP: Oh man, I don't think that would be a good look at all. Though it does tie to something I think you address in your essays that I want to talk about: identity and gentrification. In the essay about gentrification, 'My City is Gone,' it really seems like you're also writing about people in the city trying to gentrify you. They want to take a piece of you and hope some of your perceived authenticity rubs off on them, but they also want to simplify you and move you into their world, so they dine you in Hampden and try and take your ideas.

DW: I see what you mean. It's more or less a situation of like, they want to know your thoughts and your ideas and they also wanna know how they can affiliate with you strategically to benefit them. They don't want [to] invest in you, at least the people I met don't. I think sometimes they think I'm something I'm not. I'm a simple person who is gunning towards simple change with people I can directly affect. I don't have the blueprint to change the world, collaboratively we can. I also know that they'll affiliate with me but they don't want me to affiliate in their world. "I'll meet with this guy, I'll pick his brain for something I'm trying to put together." I speak at all these schools, but I'm not working at any of them. I feel like I should be teaching at one of these universities but I'm not. At Coppin, I couldn't come back because it would've been disrespecting myself. They were telling me they were gonna hire me for the past two years, and when the media stuff picked up, they were telling me they were really going to hire me. I had put the work in. I was on my way to getting the fame and I was the guy who was staying late to make the students write better. Coppin is an HBCU that's like a 100 years old, and in their English department there's like no black men and one black woman. It's almost like you're telling these black students at this black university that people like you can never ever teach English.

CP: You can be an adjunct professor though, right?

DW: "Can you adjunct? Thank you for saying our name on television, can you adjunct? . . . we saw you mentioned us in Baltimore magazine, can you adjunct?" It's like a Chris Rock phrase: "Can you adjunct?" Coppin pays $1,700 a class. Morgan and MICA pay $3,000-$3,500. I got to live off that? I have to freelance like crazy, I ghostwrite for some people, I'm shooting rap videos with Dave Manigault, and I do web design for people because I know a little code. These are the ways I'm making an income, but I should just be teaching. Magazines sometimes pay more than working 15 weeks at a college, but I like teaching. I like recommending books like books were recommended to me. I like seeing students leave with ideas of their own. Teaching, writing, everything—it's all about communication. It's very difficult to communicate. If we could all effectively communicate, the world would just flip. Communication is clarity and understanding: "Yo, this happened and then this, so how can we go forward?" So many students don't know why they were born where they where. "Why was I born in a place of guns and drugs and crazy cops and diabetes? How'd I get there?" Telling them, "Yo, you're not here because it's bad luck. It's been going on for a while. It's part of a system." And now that they know this, they can create or construct their own path.

The book release party for "The Beast Side" takes place on Sept. 9 at Union Baptist Church of Baltimore.

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