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An Interview with Dessa

2011 October 19

Photo Credit: Kelly Loverud

Wren and Timothy share a love of local hip hop collective, Doomtree, a group of talented and versatile artists whose interests extend beyond music. One of their members, Dessa, in addition to being a singer and emcee, is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist. Her first collection, Spiral Bound, was released on Doomtree Press, a publishing wing set up solely to publish her work. Dessa’s album Castor, the Twin was released at the beginning of this month, and included, for the first 1,500 preorders, a new piece of fiction titled “Sleeping With Nikki.” Wren and Timothy caught up with Dessa recently to talk about her process, and experiences in the local literary scene.

Wren & Timothy: How long have you been writing? Was there certain point when you started to separate your musical writing and your literary writing?

Dessa: I’ve been interested in language since before the tape was really rolling in my memory. My mom says that I sat across from her and asked, “Can we do the thing where you talk, then I talk, then you talk again?”

“You mean a conversation?”

“Yes, please. A conversation.”

I loved talking; I loved the themed conversations at the adults’ table; and I loved innovative turns of language. Still do. I remember writing silly poems in 4th grade, unsuccessful fiction in 6th, and really lousy juvenilia in high school. It wasn’t until college that I was introduced to creative non-fiction in general, and the literary essay in particular—my favorite form hands-down.

W&T: What is your writing process? Is it different than your more collaborative relationship with your fellow Doomtree artists? How so?

D: I write slowly, with great effort, and lots of cursing. The feeling I get from crafting a perfect metaphor, or planting a clever seed of subtext is a very powerful feeling. There’s the thrill of personal accomplishment and there’s also a brand of awe—the recognition of a connection that had been previously hidden. But it’s not easy and it’s not really fun, at least for me. I can’t speak for the other members of Doomtree, but my impression is that Sims and P.O.S seem to have an easier time of it than I do. Cecil is a slow, deliberate writer. I know less about how Mike works than I do the others—though I think spontaneity plays a much larger role in his process than in mine.

W&T: Do you have separate writing styles and/or approaches for both your musical writing, and your literary writing? 

D: When I write songs, I listen to the music again and again and again. I listen for a feeling, for melodies, and for phrasing. I write little 2- and 4-bar sections that I’ll sew into a full lyric.

When I write prose (which I do far less frequently than I wish I did), I write on the computer and I do my best to restrain my impulse to write and edit simultaneously—I try to come up with a substantive draft before going back in with a scalpel and a plan.

W&T: How do you approach writing while on the road?

D: On the road, I’ll sometimes catch a phrase or a snippet of an idea. But not too much really gets done until I’ve had the chance to sit down and stitch these scraps together into a cohesive whole.

W&T: Do you find much crossover between the music world and the literary world here in Minneapolis?

D: I think we’ve got some very literary songwriters in this market, among them Jeremy Messersmith, Peter Mayer, and Astronautalis. We’ve also got a lot of talented writers who regularly appear in our music scene, among them John Jodzio, Maggie Ryan Sandford, and Shane Hawley. It’s tough to create an event that showcases both music and writing, but when it works, it’s pretty kick-ass.

W&T: How did you come to the decision to self-publish rather than pursue more traditional modes of publication?

D: Well, I didn’t really have too many deals to turn down. I met with one, very small publisher and was rather unimpressed by the business model he presented. It seemed as though distributors and retailers were taking considerable margins and very little risk. I’m a big advocate of shared stakes in business relationships: where all the parties in an agreement win or lose together, so there’s a shared incentive for success.  I didn’t see that in my little peek into the publishing world. But to be honest, I wasn’t looking too hard. Doomtree already had a modest infrastructure for selling art straight to consumers: we sell CDs at our live shows, through independent retailers, and on our website, where we can reach customers around the world. I figured why not just get an ISBN and see if rap fans will buy a book. So I published Spiral Bound through Doomtree, we invented a little publishing wing called Doomtree Press. I was a little surprised, to be honest, at how readily our listeners were to buy a literary item.

W&T: As a piece of fiction, “Sleeping With Nikki,” is a departure from the non-fiction and poetry in Spiral Bound. Does this mark a shift in what and how you’re writing, or can we expect to see more of all three genres in the future?

D: I think I’m strongest when I’m working in creative non-fiction. But there have been a few story ideas that compelled me to sit down and come up with a bit of fiction. “Sleeping With Nikki” is a story about debt and human agency, sleep and submarines. Because it might not fit easily into a future collection of essays, it seemed like a great candidate for a stand-alone piece. I had it bound at a printing house in Minnesota and ended up with 1,500 tiny, saddle-stitched books. The spine is just over 4 inches high. I gave those copies away to people who preordered my new record, Castor, The Twin.

W&T: You’ve taught classes for young adults at the Loft Literary Center. What got you interested in this? How was the experience?

D: The Loft approached me to ask if I’d conduct a workshop at the literary center. I’ve worked with youth before, and I’ve had mixed experiences. I love writing and I enjoy teaching willing, engaged students. But I don’t use writing for therapy in my own life, so I’m probably not the best instructor to advocate such an approach—many youth writing programs are more interested on providing an outlet for feelings than they are in developing skills. But The Loft worked with me to create a free program that could really help teen writers hone their talents. I liked the students, I think they liked me, and together I think we made some real literary headway.

W&T: As far as your non-music writing goes, is there anything new in the works? Will you be teaching writing again? What’s next?

D: As slowly as a person can write—and still claim to be writing—I am assembling a new collection of prose. It’s tentatively titled The Perfect Burn.

In the meantime, Doomtree is releasing an all-crew record called No Kings on November 22nd  of this year. It features all seven members and it’s a big, bold, weird project. The ideas are radical, the beats are aggressive and full of unusual sounds. If you’d like to check it out, we’ll have a song available soon at [ed. The song in question, “The Grand Experiment,” is out now.]

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