When Idris Goodwin is writing poems, raps, or plays, he’s always thinking about two things: the question and the beat.
The latter—physically and figuratively—moves his work forward, but it’s also is what protects his ideas and shapes his aesthetic. “You have space within the beat to talk about whatever you want, to rhyme however you want, to sound however you want, to dance or dress or express however you want, as long as it can live within the time signature,” Goodwin says about his work.
As for the former, “I’m not a writer that likes to toil over a draft for like five years, then bring [a draft] to the table with the actors,” Goodwin says. “I’ll bring it when it’s a mess—I’m not precious and I’m very collaborative. As long as I know what question I’m trying to ask, that never changes. I’ll revise the hell out of something, but the central question never changes.”
A cross-genre creative and Colorado local, Goodwin is one of 60 up-and-coming and established artists to be awarded an unrestricted $50,000 fellowship grant from United States Artists (USA), a Chicago-based national arts organization dedicated to financially supporting artists spanning 10 disciplines including dance, film, music, writing, architecture & design, theatre, and visual art. Each year, a panel reviews thousands of applicants and awards individuals who they believe contribute to society significantly and in turn, hopes to support their ongoing artistic and professional development.
Because the funds are unrestricted, the award-winning fellows are able to determine for themselves how to use the cash—”whether it is creating new work, paying rent, reducing debt, getting healthcare, or supporting their families.” According to a press release, this year’s winners were selected for their bold artistic vision—each demonstrating generosity and care toward field-building that can continue to inspire and propel their discipline forward.
Goodwin’s artistic vision began to develop in the basement of his parents’ house in the suburbs of Detroit, listening to funk, rhythm & blues, and soul. But it was the rising rap and hip-hop icons of the mid 1980s—like LL Cool J and Run-DMC—who captivated him like no one else. He spent his childhood writing raps and drawing comics, but “got too lazy to draw the panels,” and eventually made the switch to stories. Since earning an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Goodwin has scripted more than 50 plays, rapped on a half a dozen albums, and written three books of poetry. He has performed on NPR, HBO, and Sesame Street; and his award-winning staged works have been produced in theaters across the country. He currently serves as the director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.
In regards to his work, Goodwin says he can’t help but be wildly prolific. According to the 43-year-old, he’s blessed and afflicted with both “an overabundance of ideas” and “an obsession to execute them.” He’s always writing something new and always for a new combination of reasons: to reach the people he cares for, enter into a creative conversation, get a check, experience a sort of therapy, commune with the divine.
No matter what kind of piece Goodwin is writing, sound is his focus. Swift sibilance, crunchy rhymes, and “hearing the words in action, how they pace out,” propel his processes, Goodwin says. He is best known for his “break beat” poems and plays, which adopt hip hop’s tight wordplay and political urgency by translating them into fresh forms. To stay afloat in mainstream creative communities, Goodwin says that artists of color often “end up altering what stories they tell, what language they use, what references they make.” Goodwin helps shape the BreakBeat Poets imprint—a trade name under Haymarket Books in Chicago—that for half a decade has made space for young Black and brown writers to sound like no one but themselves
“What is the poetry when you’re with your friends, around your house, around the dinner table?” he wants to know. “What is the poetry in your community? Of your rituals?”
While Goodwin didn’t share what he’s planning on using his grant money on, he’s currently working on a new book of poetry. Following behind James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, he hopes this book will serve as a collection of “roadmaps and survival guides” for his two young sons and their generation.
In the meantime, Goodwin continues to celebrate the accolades and creative license the fellowship endows him with. “It’s like a big hug,” he says, or like playing Little League as a kid and “cracking one out of the park.” But he also knows that after the pomp of the moment has passed, he’ll return to the daily joy and struggle of creative life—sifting through ideas and trying to realize them, one-by-one; interrogating the present and riding the beat toward a better future.
“Most of the experience of being an artist is staring at that blank screen, or reading that rejection, or banging your head against the wall,” he says. “And that’s the work you commit to. And you have to learn to love that.”