Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Amiri Baraka, 1934-2014: The Modern Writer As Artist, Thinker, Activist, and Seer


Amiri Baraka was a cultural and political GIANT whose creative literary virtuosity greatly transformed and elevated our consciousness and thus enriched our lives via the prophetic and incisive command of language, knowledge and art on a monumental scale and with a profound social depth that is very rare, and thus all the more valuable. Because he possessed a strong and abiding LOVE for black people he was able and willing to share that deep sense of humanity and compassion with all the world. Go to any place within this society or on this planet generally and you will find that Baraka and his many great works are well known and deeply appreciated (not to mention highly USEFUL). As an artist, teacher, activist, and scholar Amiri was always inspiring and shall remain so for millenia to come. May his eternal GRIOT soul rest in peace.


(October 7, 1934--d. January 9, 2014)


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Locus Solus:  The New York School of Poets

News, links, resources, and commentary on poets and artists of the New York School

Remembering Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) 

January 10, 2014     
by Andrew Epstein
Locus Solus

Yesterday, the sad news spread that Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) had passed away at the age of 79. There have already been a number of substantial obituaries and tributes, and surely there will be more to come in the coming days and weeks.

Like so many others, I’ve long been fascinated by Baraka’s groundbreaking and always-controversial work, his immense influence on multiple fields (from music criticism to hiphop to drama, from the New American poetry to the Black Arts movement), and his complicated and often polarizing writing, politics, and legacy.

In my first book, Beautiful Enemies (and elsewhere), I’ve argued that Baraka’s powerful, agonized early writing emerges out of, and exerts a profound influence on, the (largely white) postwar avant-garde, particularly as it existed in New York in the 1950s.  The early LeRoi Jones was not only deeply connected to the Beats, as one so often hears, but also to the poetry of the New York School — thanks in particular to his close friendship with Frank O’Hara in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  If you’re interested in hearing more about this, you can read one of the two Baraka chapters in my book here.  (I’ve also posted a bit about Baraka on this blog — for example, here, here, and here).

On a more personal note, I was also fortunate enough to meet Baraka a couple of times in person.  First, in 2000, at the “Poetry of the 1960s” conference held at the University of Maine (where he played a memorable and controversial role in the conference itself). Among other things, I remember a group of us standing rather star-struck around Baraka in a semi-circle one late night in Orono, listening to him telling funny stories over beers.

In 2003, I had another fortuitous encounter with Baraka when a student organization invited him to visit Florida State University, where I teach.  The student group hadn’t told the English Department about his reading, and I only learned about it a day or two before he arrived when a student asked me if I’d be willing to shuttle Baraka from the airport to his hotel and to the reading.  I jumped at the chance.  I met Baraka as he got off the plane at the tiny Tallahassee airport and drove him around town for a very memorable afternoon and evening.  As many others have said, in person, one on one, he was kind, gentle, down-to-earth and funny.  I told him about the book I was then completing on his work and his ties to Frank O’Hara and the New York School.  He lit up as he talked fondly about “Frank” and his early days in Greenwich Village.  We also talked about our shared Jersey roots, since I grew up in South Orange, one town over from his hometown of Newark.

When I dropped Baraka off at the hotel, I was a bit embarrassed, because the students who organized the visit had apparently put him up at a humble Best Western on a busy, unappealing highway, rather than at one of the more high-end hotels where we usually host visiting speakers.  But he didn’t seem to mind in the least.  I offered to take him to dinner, but he declined and said he just wanted to rest in the hotel before the reading.  When I came to pick him up a couple of hours later, I remember him saying, with pleasure, that he’d just walked over and gotten an egg salad sandwich for dinner from the chain deli next to the Best Western.

I drove Baraka to campus and delivered him to the huge auditorium on campus.  A few minutes later, I was struck by the transformation when he appeared on stage.  The quiet, friendly, low-key seventy-year old man I’d just spent a couple hours driving around was gone, and he suddenly seemed larger than life — full of energy, rage, and wicked humor, bristling with righteous indignation at the surreal and disturbing politics of the moment (this was March 2003, after all).  The crowd, mostly made up of students, was riveted by his booming voice, his angry eloquence, and his inspiring calls for young people to learn about history, art, and culture, and to take action against racism, militarism, ignorance, and injustice. 

Baraka’s visit to Tallahassee occurred at a very politically charged moment, both nationally and for Baraka himself — this was only months after the controversy surrounding his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” when the governor tried, unsuccessfully, to remove him from the post of State Poet Laureate of New Jersey.  But Baraka, true to form, didn’t shy away from that poem — instead, he defiantly performed it as the centerpiece of the evening.

In short succession, I’d seen two sides of Baraka — the smiling, genial, egg-salad sandwich guy chatting about Frank O’Hara and northern New Jersey, and the dynamic and masterful performer.

Four years later, I had the chance to meet Baraka again.  In March 2007, I was given the honor of introducing Baraka when another student organization brought him to read at FSU.  Once more, we chatted before the reading, and someone snapped this picture of the two of us.  I’d just given him a copy of my book, Beautiful Enemies, and he’d just asked me to sign it.  He’s leaning on a copy of the book in the picture.
Andrew Epstein and Amiri Baraka, March 2007, Florida State University
n his poems, Baraka expressed the belief that his own identity — that any identity — was protean and plural, composed of different facets (“all / my faces turned up / to the sun,” one poem explains, while another speaks of “publicly redefining / each change in my soul”). Rather than a fixed, single entity, a “self,” for Baraka, is a process in which many different, changing selves are constantly created, dissolved, and then re-fashioned:

And let me once, create
myself.  And let you, whoever
sits now breathing on my words
create a self of your own.  One
that will love me.

Among his many different selves, Baraka was an influential, moving, and rousing poet and playwright, an incisive critic, a radical activist, but also, at least based on my own experience, a kind and generous man.  He will be missed.

When they say, “It is Roi
who is dead?” I wonder
who will they mean?



Rare footage of Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, and Amiri Baraka reading in 1959*

Posted on November 6, 2013   
by Andrew Epstein

Via the Allen Ginsberg Project, I just learned of the existence of some rare, but apparently now-available, footage by the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas that features Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), and Ray Bremser giving a poetry reading and hanging out together at the Living Theater in 1959.* Until now, the only remnant of that evening I’m familiar with was the well-known still photo by Fred W. McDarrah that can be seen on the Ginsberg blog.

It’s quite mind-blowing to see this familiar still image brought to life and set in motion. Here are 3 minutes of silent footage taken by Mekas. (The audio soundtrack features Ginsberg reading “Sunflower Sutra” in 1960).

There are so few moving images of O’Hara available at all that it’s a thrill to be able to see him in action. It’s also extraordinary and moving to see these poets, looking impossibly young, reading their poems, smoking, drinking, and goofing around (O’Hara even seems to be trying on a hat, possibly someone else’s, at one point). The footage also testifies to the close but complicated friendships and alliances between Beat and New York School poets in the later 1950s.

I’m especially taken with the sight of O’Hara and Baraka leaning in close to one another, laughing and at ease, exhibiting precisely the kind of intimacy and camaraderie I wrote about at length when discussing their friendship in my book Beautiful Enemies.

* Update: I’m not entirely certain of the date of the reading this footage captures because there are three dates listed in various places: the Mekas clip begins with a title card that reads 1957, the information accompanying the clip on Jonas Mekas’s site says it was filmed in 1958, while the photograph by McDarrah says it was November 2, 1959. My hunch is that the reading took place in 1959, especially if the occasion was a benefit reading for Baraka’s journal Yugen.

Allen Ginsberg (with glasses) with Amiri Baraka's back to camera--short film shows all the poets in full view talking and moving about on the stage





Upcoming conference: “Amiri Baraka at 80″ (CFP)
Posted on August 17, 2013   
by Andrew Epstein

In 2014, in honor of his 80th birthday, there will be a conference devoted to “Amiri Baraka at 80” held in England. One entry on the list of possible topics may be of particular interest here — “Jones/Baraka and the US avant-garde” — along with many others. The keynote speaker will be Paul Gilroy and the event will include a reading by Baraka himself. It sounds like it will be a great conference.

Here’s some information about the conference and details about submitting abstracts, which are due September 30.

Amiri Baraka at 80

Keynote speaker: Paul Gilroy
With a reading from Amiri Baraka

2014 marks the 80th birthday of Amiri Baraka, of one of the most influential, controversial and galvanising cultural figures of the twentieth century. As poet, novelist, playwright, music critic, editor, and cultural organiser, Baraka has extended the possibilities of modern writing. This conference, organised by the University of Kent and hosted by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, will seek to analyse how. From his early work as LeRoi Jones through to his agitational verse since the 1970s, Baraka has interrogated the relationship between art and political action, speech and act, writer and society, tradition and power, race and class, poet and nation, in the process re-imagining and enacting a radical politics that has forever marked the US social landscape. This conference seeks to assess the scope of nearly 65 years of work, considering the importance, paradoxes and potentialities of Baraka’s career across a range of disciplines. Topics for papers may include, but will by no means be limited to:

Writing, performance and resistance
Baraka in the 21st Century
Baraka and British poetry
Third-World Baraka
Baraka and anti-capitalism
Baraka and Black Arts
Baraka and class
Baraka and race
Jones/Baraka and the US avant-garde
Music and Baraka
Baraka and gender
Baraka as editor and organiser


200-word abstracts, along with your full name, academic affiliation (if applicable), and brief bio, should be sent to Ben Hickman at b.hickman@kent.ac.uk by 30th September 2013.

Organising committee: David Stirrup, Juha Virtanen, David Ayers, Kat Peddie, Ariane Mildenberg, John Wills, David Herd, Simon Smith, Ben Hickman.


Baraka / the divide


We are three editors at Commune Editions, a new press for poetry and other literary writing committed to anticapitalist and antistate politics. We hope in this series for Jacket2 to consider a series of issues, texts, and moments corresponding to the intersection of poetry and communist/anarchist activity.

January 4, 2014
Amiri Baraka at the Orono Poetry Conference in 2000

(NOTE:  The following article in Jacket2 appeared only five days before Amiri's death on January 9, 2014):

At the first poetry conference I ever attended, war broke out. It was the National Poetry Foundation’s  North American Poetry in the 1960s, in 2000. Barrett Watten, fortuitously also providing Commentaries for Jacket2 just now, gave a plenary on “The Turn to Language after the 1960s,” which in my memory charted a two-way street between campus radicalism at UC Berkeley (both the Free Speech and anti-war movements) and a politics of form foundational to what would be “language writing.” In Watten's own words, “In my multimedia presentation, I tried to reconstruct a context for the poetry’s “turn to language” in the conditions of public discourse of the period, focusing on Berkeley as a site and Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals as a text, using Ernesto Laclau as theorist.”

From the back of the hall, Amiri Baraka wasn't having it. There are varying accounts of the debate, though few understate the vituperation. I was sitting just a few feet from Baraka and he was pissed. For some, the bone of contention was whether the FSM and the purportedly petit-bourgeois concerns of students offered a serious politics, and thus a serious way to understand the historical period, in comparison to the Civil Rights Movement, for example. Alongside this, there was a more immediate insistence that the militancy of the era was being recuperated into academicism: “Baraka...finally lashed out at Watten for being a ‘hyper-rational pseudo-radical’ and for ‘pimping‘ radical politics for his own academic benefit.” The argument might have gone all night but for the hasty intervention of the organizers, who arranged for the two to continue matters the next day during a special lunchtime debate.

Of that latter event, I recall largely the set-up. Watten arrived loaded with books to argue his position, which he built into a fortification of texts on the folding table: here, surely, was the materiality of the signifier. Baraka, in counterpoint which would have been comedic but for the charged atmosphere, pulled from various pockets some wadded notes. The divide between the two could not have been more decisive. In memory, it reduces easily to clichés: the militant and the scholastic, town vs. gown, raced and classed, divided by irreconcilable structural positions.

The tension nested most dramatically in one exchange. Watten had shown a clip from a PBS dcumentary in which a former Panther claimed that they had raised money for guns by buying Mao’s Little Red Book cheap in Chinatown and selling it dear on the Berkeley campus; the Panther claimed not to have read it himself. For Watten, this made of the celebrated text an empty signfier. For Baraka, this move effaced one of the signal political events of the century. “And besides, this is just one man who said he hadn’t read the book. We read Mao, Baraka insisted.”

I was put in mind of this as Baraka has been in the news of late; he turns 80 this year, and his health has been uneven. The prospect of living in a world without Baraka is a bleak one. He is not without failings — human, all too human — but he wrote eighty great poems and he wrote

you cant steal nothin from a white man, he's already stole it he owes you anything you want, even his life. All the stores will open if you will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up! Or Smash the window at night (these are magic actions) smash the windows daytime, anytime, together,  lets smash the window drag the shit from in there. No money down. No time to pay. Just take what you want.

There is something from that 2000 debate which seems paradigmatic, if misleadingly so. The skepticism about university leftists in relation to communities of color and political organizing casts a long shadow in the Bay Area, where Commune Editions lives. The contemporary association of Marxism with whiteness, bourgeois hypocrisy, obfuscatory theory, and scholasticism is not universal, but not uncommon either. In this context it is salutary to be reminded with a start that Baraka is a Marxist, was one in 2000 as he pulled the scraps of paper from his pockets, was one when he joined the Congress of Afrikan People, which would become the Revolutionary Communist League.

It is difficult now to imagine the commingling of cultural nationalism and Maoist thought, to imagine its prevalence in the sixties and seventies among intellectuals and militants, to imagine the synthesis of positions to which this tradition aspired — a systemic critique of capitalism staged from the position of the peripheral, the colonized, the underdeveloped world, the subjects of empire domestic and global. Perhaps it is easier to see in France for example, where past and present Maoist intellectuals remain international figures: Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Badiou, Julia Kristeva. Jean-Marie Gleize, just translated into English, is scarcely the only poet who identifies thusly. In the United States, a set of phantom oppositions render such a confluence practically inconceivable. It has for the most part been forgotten that the Panthers themselves, adopting and adapting elements from Mao, moved from black nationalism toward revolutionary internationalism, much as did Baraka.

It would be easy enough to reflect on that world’s  passing away — there’s always room for more left melancholy! Moreover, the limits of Maoism and third-worldism deserve attention. But not here, not now. The document that I have found most moving in the last year is the list of books taken from George Jackson's cell in 1971, after his shooting by prison guards. It has its oddities: Euell Gibbons? And so few women! But I wish that my friends had read half of these books. I wish that I had. This is part of what Baraka means. For the present I want to hold on to the possibility that we are at a divide, that the moment in which the opposition between clichés of intellectualism and clichés of militancy might dissolve is both behind us and ahead. 

Jasper Bernes is a lecturer in the Department of English UC Berkeley, where he received his PhD in 2012. He is currently completing a book manuscript, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization, about the role literature and art play in the postindustrial restructuring of labor. He is also the author of a book of poems, Starsdown (ingirum, 2007) and two small chapbooks, Desequencer (Taxt, 2009) and We Are Nothing and So Can You (Tenured Ninja, 2012). Recent poems of his appear in Lana Turner, The Capilano Review, The American Reader and Everyday Genius. He has also published on contemporary politics and social movements in Endnotes, The New Inquiry, Los Angeles Review of Books and the anthology Communization and its Discontents.

Joshua Clover is the author of four books, two poetry and two cultural theory. He recently edited and co-translated Tarnac, a preparatory act by Jean-Marie Gleize (Kenning Editions, 2014); he has articles forthcoming in Representations, South Atlantic Quarterly, and Critical Inquiry. The poetry collection Red Epic is due out this year, and The Transformation Problem: Poetry, Capital, Crisis is expected before the world ends.

In addition to Commune Editions, Juliana Spahr edits the book series Chain Links with Jena Osman and the collectively funded Subpress with nineteen other people. With David Buuck she wrote Army of Lovers,a book about two friends who are writers in a time of war and ecological collapse. She has edited with Stephanie Young A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays about the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun Feminism (Chain Links, 2011), with Joan Retallack Poetry & Pedagogy: the Challenge of the Contemporary(Palgrave, 2006), and with Claudia Rankine American Women Poets in the 21st Century(Wesleyan U P, 2002). With Joshua Clover, she has twice organized somewhat free schools, the 95 cent Skool (summer of 2010) and the Durruti Free Skool (summer of 2011), written on politics, on manifestos, applied for a job at the Poetry Foundation, and organized, with Chris Chen too, the conference Poetry and/or Revolution.

All of the entries here are collectively authored. We might use "I" in ways that are confusing or inconsistent, though we will try to avoid this. It's really ok