Sparse Black Whimsy: An Interview with artist MSW



Marcus Scott Williams’ unapologetic method for reading Infinite Jest can be summed up in three steps. First, carry the book with you at all times. Deploy the use of two bookmarks, one for the book and one for its infamous footnotes. Finally, at some point and only if you have a healthy relationship to the substance, sit down with the book after doing a little bit of cocaine. This final step would ideally take place late at night.

My own thoughts on reading Sparse Black Whimsy: A Memoir (2fast2house) which takes its title from a text message exchange between the author and a friend, can likewise be summed up in a few steps; cue up some Kansas City trap, of which the neophyte will find plenty to be initiated by on MSW’s music instagram account “silentplaylist”. Imbibe liberally off of the marijuana consumption device of your choosing, and give yourself full permission to dive into a world rich in slang, substance, friendship, love, and decay.

Williams has pieced together in eighty-two chapters a book that is as much a memoir as it is an experience: the experience of having a front seat in the mind of the writer as an observer to their own ever-shifting perceptions. The driving power behind this Bronx based writer’s narration of the personal and profound is akin to the velocity of an out of control subway train careening wildly through the bowls of the city in which much of it was recorded, and we have been invited to come along for the ride.

Tribes: Starting easy here. What’s your name?

Marcus: Marcus Scott Williams. When I write though it’s MSW. Only because I like the aesthetic of MSW. And also it’s kind of funny because my name, MSW, could also stand for Master’s of Social Work. I think that’s funny ‘cause like I do like to help people. I don’t have a Master’s of Social Work, but you know. Same concept I guess.

Tribes: For sure. A memoir is defined as a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources. It’s also defined as an essay on a learned subject. Sparse Black Whimsy feels a bit like both.

MSW: Yeah, I would say that it’s a historical event, but it’s a record of my emotions per moment per day, you know. I just realized recently that there was a year in my life that’s blacked out when my parents separated for the first time. I remember like being in my freshman year of high school, I remember being in school, I remember some of the classes and the bus and where I was at physically but not where I was at emotionally at all. Part of writing the flash memoirs was just to track where I was at emotionally in order to get some perspective later on.  It is essayish. Because I’m writing a log of my day it’s like a diary, it’s multiple things; it’s fluid. It can be applied to several forms, or whatever.

Tribes: So it’s a taking account of the moment that you’re in, in order to make up for or…

MSW: Not to make up for. Just so I can someday track, see where my emotions were at. ‘Cause like I don’t know what the fuck, I don’t have any real writing from that year or anything like that, so I just don’t know if I’ll ever be able to figure out where I was at emotionally. Which is like, I’m past it now, my parents have since gotten back together, broken up, gotten divorced, my mom is remarried, so that’s all shit in the past, and it’s mad interesting that I can think about that and clearly that’s the reason why I was blacked out emotionally. I can’t recall any of the things that I was thinking about at that time. But I can remember the things I was thinking about the year before and the fucking year right after, so…I lost like an entire year of emotional, I don’t want to say progress…I don’t know what the fuck I was going through, really. It’s trying to keep track of my emotions so I can look back in a few years and be like oh damn, I remember when I felt that way and try to get some perspective. You’re not going to be able to understand anything until you get some perspective on it. Think about…I don’t have any fucking examples, but if you write something then in ten years you’ll be able to go back and think about it in a brand new way because you’ve lived through things, you’ve seen things manifest from that, you can see where all “this” started. It’s interesting to try to track points in time.

Tribes: Do you have thoughts on how much time should be spent analyzing the past and processing, and how much time should be spent in the present? On if there’s a way to find balance between those two things?

MSW: I don’t really have an answer. I think a lot of people spend too much time in the past, thinking about things they can’t control. I think that you should acknowledge the past and all that shit, but I think that you should live in the present as much as possible. It’s like…I’m trying to figure out how to word this…it’s like, you’ve got to give it immediacy. It’s happening right now. You’re with people, things are going on around you.

Tribes: You’ve talked about your writing as an opportunity to create cross-cultural empathy.

MSW: These are like very grand ideas, you know. We’re like pretty young, so I’m not going to purport to have any fucking like…

Tribes: Otis Redding died at age 26.

MSW: That’s true. Um, I think that one of the things I try to do with the writing is…well at first I didn’t know how people were going to take that it’s written almost exclusively how I speak which is with slang and words I make up, and I personally like the aesthetic of that. It’s very representative of me, and I was like “how are people going to respond to this?” It’s mad vulgar, it’s very idiosyncratic, and I say nigga a lot. But I think part of the beauty of the writing is that you’ve kind of got to let go. The last fucking sentence of the book tells you I’m a big proponent of letting shit go. Let go of your understanding of me. This is what he’s thinking about and going through, completely objectively. You know, I’m not preaching anything. This is what I’m thinking about and experiencing in this moment, and even though you might not understand exactly what I’m getting at, you can empathize to a point. I’m being as open as I can, I’m giving you all the information, so whether you want to or not you’re understanding me a little better. You’re going to be a little more empathetic toward me because you have more information to understand me. I think this could be applied to all different types of differences, ideological differences. You know, that shit doesn’t really…I want people to, you know, not to judge somebody because of their skin or religion, ‘cause that’s just a dumb ass reason to judge somebody. I’d rather judge somebody ‘cause his or her outfit is ugly. You can be a Christian or Muslim or whatever you want, I’d rather be like “I don’t like that shirt.” Again, these are grand ideas, and I have years and years to hone them and see what I can do with them, but I’m trying to get people to kinda just let go a little bit. To let go of their understanding of other people and shit.

Tribes: David Foster Wallace talked about that idea. You can either believe that you are the most emotionally complex being in the universe, or you can believe that the people around you have an equally complex emotional life happening within them as well. It’s easier to believe that you are the most important person in the world, but if you accept that everyone around you has a rich emotional life, and if you are able to go through life in that way, then it’s probably a more rewarding way of living.

MSW: Yeah, I agree with that. I’ll never be able to know anybody else’s thoughts and shit, so I assume that everybody is thinking about things just as deeply as me in their own way. Who am I to say you shouldn’t believe this? ‘Cause whatever, I don’t know what the fuck you been through, your situation, and even if I did, I didn’t go through it. Empathy. The world needs a little more of it.

Tribes: That’s actually a really good segue into…so there are a few themes that pop up in your writing over and over, and also in your photography, in your sculpture: empathy, decay, friendship, getting high…would you speak a little bit to those themes?

MSW: Spit ‘em at me again?

Tribes: Empathy. Friendship…

MSW: Decay, getting high? Well, getting high is like a constant. You know, I’m always smoking and doing other illicit shit. For me, specifically for weed, it softens me. I think that’s maybe because I first started smoking when I was twenty-three. It stopped me from having crazy panic attacks and that just softened me in general. I started to think a lot more about how these things affect you, about how substances affect you, and I started experimenting with these things just to see how it would bond with my chemistry, with my personal chemistry. Weed made me more empathetic towards other people. ‘Cause I was more likely to just sit down, chill, not deal with crazy running thoughts, just be there for people and try to understand them a little more.

Friendship I think is…friendship is the big thing. Friendship and relationships are the big theme to me. I think that the ultimate art form, above the rest of this shit, is developing relationships with people. It’s like the hardest fucking thing to do. To have a consistent, good, you know, relationship where both people are profiting emotionally from it, and to be comfortable enough with somebody to do that for long periods of time. It’s the hardest thing to do and it’s the most rewarding. No matter what, anything I’ve written or whatever, hanging out with one of my best friends in Kansas City will be, will make me feel a gamut of things. That to me is the ultimate art form.

I don’t really know about how decay fits in…I really like it. Decay seems really honest, in a way. People are obsessed with keeping things really clean and that’s just a facade.

I don’t really spend time thinking about how it all fits together. I think about them individually…in a way I’m just tinkering with these things, exploring different things, trying to get different perspectives…I don’t know if that answered the question or not.

Tribes: As close as it’s going to get.

MSW: I like to leave shit open ended. I’m not saying that “this is this way” necessarily. I got this information being processed through me, being understood this way, but clearly you are a different person/entity, you’ve been through different circumstances, so you’re going to process it in different ways. You’ll have different triggers than me. I think that’s how like, I keep all of the work empathetic in a way, even though it’s mad fucking rappy, and everything’s like a weird rap reference, or like some word I’m making up, an inside joke with one other person…

Tribes: It’s funny, none of it reads like an inside joke. Everything feels approachable.

 MSW: I want it to be approachable for anybody, and this is why I abandoned trying to write regular prose. I tried essays and short stories in like a more conventional style for a while and I thought, that it’s not necessarily approachable. I like the format of the flash memoirs, how short they are, how short the book is…I don’t expect everybody to read a 600 page, you know, novel if you’re living in 2017. People do, and I encourage people to read big things. Like I read Infinite Jest last year and it was wonderful, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Same with fucking A Hundred Years of Solitude the year before. Both were incredible, but they’re both fucking long and dense and I don’t have the expectation that someone will pick up a book and read it now and that’s why I want to keep it short…I forgot where I was going with that initially. Fucking tangents…I wanted to write something that was like, mad fun to read.

Tribes: It is fun.

MSW: I want to reward you for reading. In 2017 if you’re going to pick up a book and read it cover to cover, I want to reward you by making it fun, making it short, digestible.

Tribes: What you’ve written, it feels like you could plug into any part of it and get something out of it.

MSW: Yeah. Approachable. And there’s always that weird thing in the art world, how every major artist is only funded by people and organizations that have money, white men, so it’s looked at as super elite. I think this is specifically with me coming from the Midwest and shit where people are not as open to art because they feel like, it’s like a thing, oh I’m not an artist, I don’t understand this shit. It doesn’t matter if you understand. If you look at it and if you feel a way about it, if you connect with it on any level either positive or negative, if it makes you feel away then you have a connection to it. I don’t know, I’m just not an elitist person. I want to make something for everybody to…you don’t have to enjoy it but I want to leave it open for you to enjoy if you want to come back to it. It’s around if fucking need it, you know.

Tribes: Technology has a powerful influence on your work. Text messages play a major role in your writing, you set a 350-word maximum for the flash memoirs based off of Instagram’s word limit, you make video installations. Where do you think all of this is going? Are you afraid for the future of language, afraid that connection is going to diminish?

MSW: I think that human beings are smart enough to adapt to technological changes. It’s scary to us and to our parents, but people who grew up, who’ve had cell phones since they were like five years old and shit, they’re going to completely learn to connect with people in a different way. We’ll see where all of that takes us. Technology is definitely going to change the way we communicate but I think for the better. Maybe I’m just optimistic that way. It’s just different. I don’t think it’s like, necessarily bad just ‘cause people don’t write letters anymore, talk on the phone for long periods of time, we might lose those types of connections sure, but like if I didn’t have text messaging I would not communicate with my parents as often. You know what I’m saying? I’m always there with them. Pictures used to be like, a special occasion thing. You’d get dressed up and have your photo taken at Sears, get a disposable camera for vacation. Those were the only images that you had. It’s mad weird that I can be in Thailand and take pictures and send them to my Mom and Dad, my brother and grandparents, and they can see oh, he’s there now, he’s safe…it makes communication a lot easier in a different way. In an extreme way ‘cause this shit happened very rapidly and we had to catch up, but I think that it’s good. I have relationships with people that are primarily text based and it’s just as fruitful a relationship. Shit always fucking changes, there’s always like new shit we need to adapt to, it just seems very scary in the moment.

Tribes: There’s one thing I wanted to do just for fun. You talk in the book about OK Cupid and using their questions to answer questions about yourself, so I want to drop one or two of those questions on you right now.

MSW: That’s very good, okay I’m ready.

Tribes: How open are you to trying new things in bed?

MSW: I’m pretty open. You know, I’m not like the most sexually explorative person, I haven’t had a ton of sex in my life. I started fucking late. But I’m open, whatever. If it’s not going to maim or kill me, and if its something someone I like and trust is into I’ll give it the old…I don’t wanna say college try ‘cause fuck college, but I’ll give it a fucking shot, why not.

Tribes: This is a good one to close it out with. When birds stand on power lines and don’t get hurt it is most likely because of a.) good timing, b.) they are insulated from the current, c.) they are not touching anything else at the same time, or d.) they get hurt, they just express it poorly.

MSW: (Laughing) I like the last one, they get hurt they just express it poorly. Maybe they just get like a little shot and they’re like well, fuck it, it’s not that bad.