Baraka in Memorium
AUTHOR-BANDLEADER GREG TATE REFLECTS ON THE HEROIC ICON OF BLACK LETTERS, POET AMIRI BARAKA (1934-2014)
When flames and non-specific passions wear themselves
away. And my eyes and hands and mind can turn
and soften and my songs will be softerand lightly weight the air. —Amiri Baraka
Born October 7, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey, Everett Leroi Jones shed hosts of styles, skins, friends, foes and belief systems on the way to becoming Amiri Baraka, the iconic legend of literary and political lore. Like Miles, he got beaten bloody upside the head by upsouth redneck cops for being a model of uppity nigra defiance. Like Miles, Baraka walked away with brains, cojones and swagger intact… intensified, even.
I’m Everett LeRoi Jones 30 years old. A black nigger in the universe. A longer breath singer, wouldbe dancer, strong from years of fantasy and study. (From: Numbers, Letters 1964)
LeRoi Jones is the byline the world first came to know him by, (simultaneously) as a poet, jazz critic, playwright, essayist and fiction writer. As Langston Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad, notes Baraka and Hughes are the only writers in the Black American canon to distinguish themselves in four genres of writing: poetry, fiction, drama and the essay. (Thulani Davis and Ntozake Shange belong on that list too in our humble—more fodder for diatribes to come.)
Every writer can tell you about the one book that changed their life, changed their mind, made becoming writer a fait accompli. For this writer here, that book was Baraka’s Black Music. His Blues People is standard reading for anyone wanting to know the history and socio-cultural-political significance of music to The Struggle, but Black Music is The One by freedom-swing musicologist Baraka that turned your boyee out. Made him leap overnight from 14-year-old Marvel Comics/sci-fi nerd to precocious warrior nerd for the cause of freakishly rad jazz improv.
Black Music introduced superheroic otherworldly entities calling themselves Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Pharaoh Sanders. And did so deploying a style that was as incandescent, indelible and whiplash smarting as the music itself. Laid down like grammatical law in Black Music is the mandate that music journalism seem as possessed by furies as The Music. Count this reporter among those writers who owe their adult vocation to being swept up by Baraka’s elegant prose juju at a tender, volatile age. Trumpeter Lewis Flip Banes, who frequently played with Baraka in William Parker's band, recently remarked, "The writing in that book was so visceral, you got excited about Wayne Shorter, Don Cherry and Archie Shepp before you'd even heard a note!"
The fledgling career of LeRoi Jones became noteworthy in 1959 with publication of his chapbook, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, which contains the poem of the same name now known as a much-anthologized classic. In a scant 18 lines, a gothic young Jones parses dissonant melody from his sorrows and hallucinations, confesses alienated harmony with everyday chaos, then achieves spiritual renewal observing the mysteries of infant curiosity.
At that moment, Euro-American poetry and fiction was being resuscitated by the bebop-inspired artistic offspring of the so-called Black Mountain and Beat Generations; Jones, then ensconced in Gotham’s East Village, swiftly bonded with the inner circle (Olson, Williams, Duncan, Creeley, Ginsburg, Burroughs, O’Hara, de Kooning, et al.) via books or bars. Jumped oboardn their drunken boat like twas lifesaver, barnacled their methods and milieu as his own.
Jones had arrived in the East a refugee of Howard University (where he served time with homecoming queen Toni Morrison, studied the blues with Sterling Brown, and Dante with the great Afro-Classicist Frank Snowden) and bombardier training in the Air Force (“Error Farce” in Jonesology). There, he became betrothed to the former Hettie Cohen, also a poet, editor and publisher, and became the father of two darling daughters, Kellie and Lisa—who rolling stonishly gained stepsister Dominique DiPrima in this period.
By the time Preface was published, Jones had become a promising fixture of the Village’s modern art-damaged bohemia. Hardly content simply hobnobbing with the Beats’ White male starchamber, an energetic and ambitious Jones read, wrote, and edited like a fiend. Thought very deeply upon all things poetical, personal and darkly sonorous, sipped cocktails, wrote down his jazz and what may come tales accordingly.
This proto-fly-brother in the ointment also devoted as much time as humanly possible going out to hear music of the great Black modernists who equally ignited his literary passions—John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor. These giants, among others, would provoke him to conjure his two aforementioned seminal classics of Black musicology.
By 1965, a barely 30-years old Jones had created the five now-canonical works that would forevermore insure his quothing on academic syllabi across the land and guarantee his dramas become mainstays of off-Broadway and regional theatre well into the 21st century: Blues People (once again, church sez Amen); The System of Dante’s Hell (a broken beat fictive odyssey through his childhood, adolescence and young manhood); The Dead Lecturer, his rapturously mordant second volume of death-obsessed née death-defying poems; Home, a book of cultural essays and belle lettres; and that first bevy of earth-scorching plays—Dutchman, Baptism, The Toilet and The Slave.
In 1959, the year 25-year-old Jones published …Suicide Note, a 33-year-old Fidel Castro and a 31-year-old Che Guevara took over Havana with a rebel army that overturned the U.S.-supported and Mafia-friendly Batista regime. In 1960, Jones accepts an invitation to join a delegation of upstart American artists for a visit to post-revolutionary Cuba, and gets to rap with Castro and Guevara. The Cuba voyage, essayed in Home, upstarts Jones’s turn away from poetic disengagement with tings politique—a 180 which will be propelled into r/evolutionary overdrive by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965.
This catastrophic event will provoke Jones’s 1966 exodus from the East Village (and his young family) up to Harlem, race-man re-purposing and action. Treating the end of Ellison’s Invisible Man like personal prologue, Jones had made the Village his underground asylum, tunneled his way out of existentialism, emerged as upright as pithecanthropus erectus atop the manholes of Lenox Ave, now learned in the ways of Western men and his own ’groidal Self, screaming his right to be Blacker Than Thou like a postgraduate King Kong.
MLK and the Civil Rights movement had never moved Jones the way Malcolm X had. But that movement, or at least a young firebrand faction led by Stokely Carmichael, was also moving X-ward since ’66, demanding Civil Rights now get down with some Black Power. In the years between 1965 and 1972, Jones will come under the sway of Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga, who’ll compel an epochal name change: Imamu Amiri Baraka (rough translation: the Wise Beloved Prince).
He shall also wed the woman who’ll become his 45-year life-partner, Amina Baraka, with whom he’ll embark on parenting six additions to the Barakas line—Ras, Shani (R.I.P.), Obalaji, Amiri Jr., Ahi, Maria Jones. He shall also transmogrify from heady Beat ingénue to the Father of the Black Arts Movement. Other milestone works of poetry, drama fiction and music criticism quickly follow—Black Magic Poetry, Black Fire, Tales of the Out & the Gone, Black Music, A Black Mass, Slave Ship. Read poems with the same jazz vanguard peers he’d written so exquisitely about earlier: Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Sunny Murray, Milford Graves.
In 1966 Harlem, he’ll obtain government funding (made available to stave off an eastward migration of the Watts Riots) to produce street concerts featuring Ayler, Graves and Sun Ra’s Cosmo-Drama Intergalactic Myth-Science Arkestra. Returning to Newark in 1967, he’ll form a performance group commune, Spirit House Movers; during that year’s riot/uprising, he’ll be held captive by a giddy gaggle of cops intent on death under the jail before Jean-Paul Sartre intervenes from Paris. (Another French Marxist icon, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, will show up at Spirit House seemingly more in pursuit of irony than comradery.) Later in court, a Newark judge and D.A. will attempt to convict Baraka of inciting a riot with a poem.
By 1968, Baraka had become a resolute Kawaida-principles-following, Black Cultural Nationalist. The demands of all this newness meant rallying, conferencing, speechifying, etc. became as central to Baraka’s existence as the more lyrical aspects of his production. His writing didn’t go cold unattended (quite the opposite), but his writing career, as such, became enmeshed if not subordinate to his political fervor.
Since some of the fervor was expended in verbally assaulting White people in general, and occasionally Jews in particular, those in the commercial American publishing industry who fit those descriptions, or were empathetic to same, saw fit not to publish any of 3new books by Baraka for another three decades. (Trust that Baraka’s literary executors will find piles of manuscripts, as the man wrote as prolifically as you or I exhale.)
The Black Arts Movement that Baraka godfathered (in ways alleged by some former da capo enforcers to be as Corleonean, and even Caligulan, as Conceptual) transformed the relationship between Black American society and its poets, painters, dancers, novelists and serious musicians. It challenged Black artists to be more accessible and engaged with grassroots folk; it raised esthetic, political and historical consciousness within Black America, rocked the bourgeoisie and the boulevard's working-class alike.
The Movement also fostered radioactive waves of self-love ethnic pride, tribal bonds and identity. Some commentators (like this reporter) believe Baraka’s rhetorically excessive brand of hyper-nationalism, while not immune to charges of Jewbaiting and whitey-hating, was a necessary counter-supremacist corrective: centuries of Black self-loathing, born of constitutionally and tacitly legal forms of American racism imposed on folk of African descent required extreme measures.
Say this for Baraka—he gave back to White supremacy as good and bad as he got. My mother, who maintained a friendship with the Barakas for decades, always liked to say, “Ooh, that man has a wicked tongue. Glad he never put that tongue on me!” A now dearly departed D.C. co-worker, Harlee Little, often described Baraka as a “word magician” capable of casting linguistic spells on his enemies liable to hurt them bad. To Baraka, once a rabid fan of Mandrake the Magician, Black Arts had a meaning beyond the obvious: he dreamed of BAM’s expressions deposing pale skin-did demonic forces.
Some Baraka admirers, colleagues, cronies and debunkers (like the Panthers) found the cultural aspects of his nationalism a tad too cultish and indulgent in pseudo-African pageantry for their taste. The Movement’s near-blind idolatry of all things Black as more beautiful than anything White got parodied by genius Black comic minds like Richard Pryor and George Clinton as soon as they felt safe.
Yet without the precedent and rage of the Black Arts Movement, it’s doubtful that various Ivy League schools, and even many HBCUs, would’ve felt pressured by students to create African-American studies programs or die. Many currently-employed Black professors/celebrity-intellectuals at upper-echelon schools wouldn’t have jobs today, nor would such capitalized cultural touchstones as Soul Train, BET, Essence, the NEA Jazz Masters Program, or the Alvin Ailey Company have found the funding or the audience to exist.
Black Arts branded blackness in ways market-savvy, capitalist America could understand. Baraka’s own poetic dynamism also gave rise to the generation of movement poets who would ultimately lend hiphop its tongue-lashing voice—David Henderson, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Amus Mor, Jayne Cortez, the Last Poets, Carolyn Rodgers, Mari Evans, Gil Scott-Heron. The equation is simple: no Black Arts Movement, no lyrical precedents for Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Mos Def, Kanye or Jay Z. Without Baraka and other Black Arts movement, there’d have been no radicalizing or modernizing lyrical precedents for hiphop’s streetwise poesy to build upon.
As the ’60s became the ’70s, those on the front lines of that ongoing Power Move we euphemistically call The Struggle (notably Baraka’s Congress for African People, the Black Panthers, Young Lords, etc.) raised the stakes by guiding their radical vision and agenda more concertedly towards seizing electoral power in urban America—rallying hard to see that Black faces got voted into high urban mayoral places. The former goal led to the first National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana circa 1972, which Baraka was instrumental in organizing and rousing with a speech. (One Mama Tate, who was there, still remembers his presence with passion. "Baraka was commanding—at one point the New York delegation rose up with ire over some point. Baraka looked over at them and said, 'New York, sit down!' And they all sat down.")
Within two years, the grassroots folk of Newark, Gary, Oakland, Detroit, and D.C. had their first Black mayors and Congresspeople. That time’s vanguard also aligned themselves with national liberation movements in Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria, Palestine, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola and South Africa. The turn towards identifying with the revolutions being waged by other peoples of color around the globe resurrected the inclinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in this regard.
In 1974 though, Baraka made a swift left turn away from being Mr. Super Pro-Black to becoming an avowed Communist. (Under Baraka’s fast-moving, ideology-switching hand, the Congress of African People eventually became the Revolutionary Communist League [Marxist-Leninist-mao Tse-tung Thought], which later merged with some Pan-Asian, Chicano-Latino socialists to become the League of Revolutionary Struggle.)
The suddenness of Baraka’s move struck some devotees like an ambush in the night; other less invested Black radicals considered these exotic switcheroos hilariously routine for the mercurial Baraka. Many position papers and sloganeering poems soon followed, as did epiphanic apologies for early acts of anti-semitism by Baraka’s younger, class-struggle-clueless self.
Now our man declared himself to be an anti-Zionist. This distinction failed to stop then New Jersey governor Jim Greever from snatching back Baraka’s Poet Laureate of New Jersey gig after he dropped “Who Blew Up America?” This bromide insinuates various and sundry forces—George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Ariel Sharon, CIA, State of Israel—all knew 9/11 was imminent, and took pains to insure all of Israel’s WTC-employed folk avoided the workplace that horrific day. From that meshuggeneh, our takeaway was that anyone who thought Amiri Baraka couldn’t still Set It Off didn’t know whom they were dealing with.
By 1980, Baraka had merged forces with the multicultural LORS-ML, while back in the post Civil Rights money jungle, the radical wing of Black American intellects had begun to come in from the cold at spots like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Brown and Columbia. Other old cells, like surviving members of the Black Liberation Army and Weather Underground who’d held tight to paramilitary dreams of plotting the Fall of America, got either killed or captured and sentenced to supermax federal prisons for forever and a day. For his part, Baraka would spend the next 25 years teaching literature at SUNY Stony Brook, with short stints at SUNY Buffalo, Rutgers, and his alma mater, Columbia, along the way.
Baraka’s changes in political philosophy never took him far from The People he loved or from prolific writing. He returned to music writing, a rich gumbo of which was published as Digging a few years back and contains definitive, up close and personal writing on the only two figures, musical or otherwise, who Baraka ever insinuated intimidated him in print: Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln.
The Barakas’ family home in Newark became legendary in the ’80s and ’90s among younger artists and intellectuals of the funk and hiphop generations for the generous, open verbal jam sessions convened there. At these, one might walk in (as my drummer friend J. T. Lewis did) and find yourself irrevocably immersed in hours-long conversations with “Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Sundiata (RIP) and Harry Belafonte all under one roof.”
In that same era, if one was engaged in social-justice movements against apartheid or gang-related violence in urban America or rallying for Run Jesse Run (and later Obama) or even conscious rap conferences at Howard University—all the forums in other words which defined The Struggle in the ’80s to the aughts—well, there you’d inevitably find a still physically vital, politically vigorous and satirically unsparing Amiri Baraka.
Furthermore, if you were in New York on the jazz club and concert sets, you’d see him still giving up the dap by his presence (worth way more than Jay Z’s to those in attendance) to the most advanced veteran musicians and young turks of our time. Baraka never stopped spitting lyrics with the world’s greatest players either—check YouTube for the vintage and recent clips of him holding down the bandstand with champs like David Murray, Henry Threadgill and William Parker. (Check as well for his appearances with the Roots, Boots Riley of the Coup, and on Def Poetry.)
At 79, our man Amiri refused all prognostications of him being anybody’s fossil. His out-the-blue jettisoning from the scene creates a power vacuum in our brainwaves. One of the many immeasurable losses of his absence is going to be those must-read memoriams Baraka wrote in bloodfire for our Struggle’s most vaunted fallen soldiers, like Mr. James Baldwin.
So many once-hot causes, personages and organizations dissolved around Baraka seemingly ages ago—as many of his most beloved younger comrades (notably filmmaker St. Clair Bourne and Sékou Sundiata) shocked him abruptly by transpiring long before he did. In their honor, one suspects bruh’s twinned passions for art and social justice sustained incendiary intensity. The poet and publisher Jessica care Moore recently broke how any event, poetical or political, always got more gangsta whenever Baraka shuffle-bopped into the room.
To this, we can testify recalling a gathering of Black Arts veterans convened by the producers of the Eyes on the Prize series about Civil Rights. Speaking last, Baraka rose and let the producers know that if they couldn’t come correct in narrating the co-terminus histories Black Power and The Black Arts, “We will come find you.” Since that Eyes on More Inflammable Prizes never happened, assume some figured they couldn’t get it right—or Left—enough, and didn’t need Baraka coming after them.
That said, let none assume Baraka’s too far gone now not to suddenly jump up and roundhouse they petit-bourgeois comprador asses from beyond the grave with the quickness.
Greg Tate is a writer and musician who lives in Harlem. His books include Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Everything But the Burden and Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience.
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A William S. Burroughs Community
Yugen Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Several years ago, I wrote on the potential joys of collecting Charles Olson. Olson loomed as a literal giant over the small press and little magazine scene from 1950 until his death in 1970. As a result, his work appeared in some of the most interesting chapbooks and magazines of the period. His books are beautiful and expansive (I am thinking of the Jargon Press Maximus Poems) as objects above and beyond the epic scope of their contents.
Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka, but Jones for the purposes of this column) appeals to me in a way similar to Olson and, of course, William Burroughs. My interest in Jones centers on his Beat phase lasting until the mid 1960s. This work would make an outstanding collection. In 2000, Brown University showcased its Jones holdings and the Beat pieces really spoke to me. I was especially struck by Jones’ work as an editor. It seems like he had his hands in every major magazine coming out of New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yugen, Floating Bear, Kulchur. This does not include his founding of Totem Press and that press’s publications with Cornith Books. Jones published Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Ed Dorn, Diane Di Prima, and Paul Blackburn.
I am going to focus here on Yugen. Yugen ran for eight issues from 1958-1962. The magazine filled a void for newly emerging schools of poets that were denied publication in the academic and mainstream venues, like Poetry or The Kenyon Review. Jones stated, “It was started because I didn’t see publications coming out that carried poetry or writing that I was interested in. Therefore, I thought I should start one to try to gather that poetry that I thought was interesting… I just thought nothing was happening on the poetry scene as it should be so I started publishing.”
Yugen is often described as a Beat outlet. Work by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen definitely appears frequently, but I think the content is much broader than that. Yugen billed itself as a “new consciousness in arts and letters.” The poetry dovetailed with the groundbreaking and monumental New American Poetry anthology of Don Allen published in 1959/1960. Jones included the New York School (Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch), Black Mountain (Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Joel Oppenheimer, Fielding Dawson), and San Francisco Renaissance (Robin Blaser) poets alongside a healthy helping of the Beats. The Black Mountain poets made a very strong showing. In the last issue, the table of contents reads like a who’s who of New American Poets. By 1962, Yugen‘s work was done. On ending the magazine, Jones stated, “Well, I think it just outlived its usefulness as far as I was concerned. By the time Yugen stopped publishing there were innumerable magazines that were publishing poets and writers that I had some respect for.”
Yugen was printed by Troubador Press in New York City. All eight issues have a similar design and feel. They are simple yet handsome chapbooks, much like the small books published by Jones’ Totem Press, like O’Hara’s Second Avenue and Kerouac’s The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. The defining characteristic of a Jones chapbook was arresting cover art drawn by an artist closely affiliated with the literary scene. The artwork for Yugen possessed a strong Black Mountain feel with illustrations by Basil King and Norman Bluhm. The covers contained elements of Eastern calligraphy and the brushwork of the abstract expressionists like Franz Kline. Yugen shows how printing cheaply does not have to detract from richness of design. All Jones productions of this period appeal to me as objects saying nothing of the appeal of the writing within. Highpoints include Kerouac’s “Rimbaud” in Issue 6 as well as defining work by Charles Olson. While all the work is not of a high quality (it is uneven like most little magazines), the sense of a newly emerging literary community shines through. Yugen captures a snapshot of alternative poetics as the New American Poetry anthology broke things open.
By 1962, Burroughs was a completely different man and writer. Burroughs discovered the cut-up which replaced the routine as his major literary technique. Similarly, Gysin replaced Ginsberg as the major collaborator and confidante. The effects of the change can be seen in Burroughs’ essay on Gysin and the cut-up. Burroughs writes an authoritative essay featuring a cut up, not a routine. He has become a spokesman on writing technique and history. His belief in his style is absolute. Everything is a cut-up and all literature can be subjected to the cut-up. “ALL WRITING IS IN FACT CUT-UPS OF GAMES AND ECONOMIC BEHAVIOR OVERHEARD?” Burroughs’ voice is more confident and strident. Burroughs speaks from the mountain top; he has seen the light. You get the sense of a power shift between issues three and eight. In issue three, Burroughs benefits tremendously by appearing in Yugen. In issue eight, Yugen benefits tremendously by featuring Burroughs. Between the two issues, Burroughs went from literary unknown to an international cult figure.
To this day, Yugen remains fresh and vibrant, like the New American Poetry it featured. Putting together a complete run of Yugen is tough but not impossible. Issue four marks a turning point in the magazine’s availability on the collector’s market. Issues 1-4 are tough to find and are expensive, roughly $100-150 per issue. Issues 5-8 are much more common and cheaper. The later issues provide a good bang for the buck. Issue 6 includes Kerouac’s “Rimbaud” before it was published as a broadside by City Lights. Of course, issue 8 has the early Burroughs appearance. Visually and textually they are worth the $35-50 price tag. For anyone interested in the Beats and modern poetry in general, Yugen is a fun purchase. Truly, Yugen was a laboratory in which poets of the post-WWII era experimented before their work became accepted as mainstream.
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Philip Whalen, Ed James, Judson Crews, Tom Postell, Allen Polite, Stephen Tropp, Bob Hamilton, LeRoi Jones, Diane Di Prima, Ernest Kean, Jack Micheline, Allen Ginsberg
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Gregory Corso, Tuli Kupferberg, Thomas Postell, LeRoi Jones, Barbara Ellen Moraff, Ron Loewinsohn, Diane Di Prima, Oliver Pitcher, James Boyer May, Gary Snyder, Ben Spellman, George Stade, Harold Briggs, Tomi Ungerer
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Gary Snyder, William S. Burroughs, Charles Farber, Barbara Moraff, C. Jack Stamm, Phililp Whalen, Gilbert Sorrentino, Allen Ginsberg, Mason Jordan Mason, Diane Di Prima, George Stade, Peter Orlovsky, Fivos Delfis, Ray Bremser, Robin Blaser, Thomas Jackrell, Stanley Fisher, Peter Schwarzburg
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Charles Olson, Peter Orlovsky, Frank O’Hara, Max Finstein, Fielding Dawson, Allen Ginsberg, Ray Bremser, Edward Marshall, Joel Oppenheimer, Judson Crews, Michael McClure, Ron Loewinsohn, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, John Wieners, Robert Creeley, Gregory Corso, LeRoi Jones, Gilbert Sorrentino, Mason Jordan Mason, Fielding Dawson
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William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Guest, David Meltzer, Max Finstein, Paul Blackburn, Philip Whalen, Diane Di Prima, John Wieners, Walter Lowenfels, Michael McClure, Fielding Dawson, Rainer Gerhardt, Jerome Rothenberg, Frank O’Hara, César Vallejo, Lillian Lowefels, Bruce Fearing, Jack Kerouac, Barbara Moraff, Gregory Corso, Larry Eigner, Joel Oppenheimer, Basil King
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Michael McClure, Charles Olson, Ron Loewinsohn, Philip Lamantia, Paul Blackburn, Robin Blaser, Hubert Selby, Jr., David Meltzer, Ray Bremser, Ed Dorn, Rochelle Owens, Paul Carroll, Robert Creeley, Tristan Tzara, Daisy Aldan, Gary Snyder, Edward Marshall, LeRoi Jones, Jack Kerouac, David Wang, Kenneth Koch, Larry Eigner, Edward Dahlberg, Frank O’Hara, Basil King
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LeRoi Jones, Gilbert Sorrentino, Bruce Boyd, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Koch, George Stanley, Frank O’Hara, Gregory Corso, B. Smith, Stuart Z. Perkoff, Gilbert Sorrentino, John Ashbery, Philip Whalen, Larry Eigner, Max Finstein, Joel Oppenheimer, Diane DiPrima, Charles Olson, Edward Marshall, Joel Oppenheimer, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Bluhm, Frank O’Hara
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George Stanley, Gilbert Sorrentino, Steve Jonas, William Burroughs, Speckled Red, George Stanley, Gilbert Sorrentino, Edward Dorn, Robert Creeley, Edward Marshall, LeRoi Jones, Charles Olson, Basil King
Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 30 April 2006. Updated Dec 2010 and Dec 2012.
January 9, 2014
During the mid-1960s, Baraka underwent his own ideological transformation from integrationist Beat writer to Black Nationalist playwright and author. Along this path he divorced his White Jewish wife of seven years, Hettie Cohen in 1965 and married Amina Baraka (nee Sylvia Robinson) the following. With the assassinations of Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Jr, and other political leaders, Baraka became increasing radical and militant, embracing art as a form of revolutionary engagement.
In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Baraka was closely tied to Mualana Karenga (nee Ronald Everett) and embraced the philosophy of Kawaida and Black Nationalism. During this time, Baraka continued to emphasize embracing African traditions and cultural production for their emancipatory potentials. In the mid 1970s Baraka shifted from Black Nationalism to Marxism. He would characterize his move from race-based politics to class-based politics not as a turn away from Black people and political interests; instead it was an expansion in his understanding of conditions that faced oppressed peoples. Despite these political shifts and emphasis on challenging oppression, Baraka’s writings in the 1960s and 1970s often featured violent language and declarations which often had him characterized anti-White, homophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynistic.
Read more at EBONY http://www.ebony.com/black-history/amiri-baraka-our-griot-1934-2014-400#ixzz2rYqjxZUV
Yet for me, as a young writer coming of age in the early 1980s, it was the discovery of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) spearheaded by poet Amiri Baraka which inspired me to aspire higher in my chosen craft. These were the cats, with their beards and their poetics barbs, who first made me aware it was all right to be me when I sat in front of a blank page.
‘AFTER MALCOLM’S DEATH, BLACK ARTISTS MET AND DECIDED WE WERE GONNA MOVE INTO HARLEM AND BRING OUR ART, THE MOST ADVANCED ART BY BLACK ARTISTS, INTO THE COMMUNITY,’ BARAKA TOLD NPR IN 2007.According to novelist Ishmael Reed, whose early novels Mumbo Jumbo and Flight to Canada show the ink stains of BAM, “There would be no multiculturism movement without Black Arts. Latinos, Asian-Americans and others all say they began writing as a result of the example of the 1960s. Blacks gave the examples that you didn’t have to assimilate. You could do your own thing, get into your own background, your own history, your own tradition and your own culture.”
Read more at EBONY http://www.ebony.com/entertainment-culture/on-baraka-and-the-black-arts-movement-111#ixzz2rYzKKLd9
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I really love this short piece by someone at UC Press who actually worked with Amiri producing Baraka's masterly and joyously comprehensive 2009 book on Jazz "Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music." What is striking about Ms. Pivirotto's heartfelt remarks is that her description of the man's personality is EXACTLY the Amiri that I knew for 40 years and that many, many others also knew (which of course is what was so enraging on a micro level about the predictably hostile and condescending obits by the likes of the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times etc. and other typically racist representatives of the venal "mainstream press"). In other words this brief remembrance really captures just what kind of person Amiri really was and also why not only his tremendous work but his kind and generous presence always was deeply admired and appreciated by so many people throughout the world. For the bottomline truth about this edgy quicksilver dynamo of a man and artist /genius is that he was A VERY SWEET CAT in the best and most honorable sense of that phrase. And this piece reminds me all over again what we have all truly lost and what I will never forget about him. GENUINE. REAL. AUTHENTIC. SINCERE. I know that some folks think those things are mere platitudes or mere hagiography in this torn and cynically destructive age but the truth is that Baraka embodied those words and their meanings to a T...Thanks Ms. Pivirotto for warmly revealing these undeniable facts about AB once again...
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS BLOG
Digging Amiri Baraka
To commemorate the passing of the great Amiri Baraka, we bring you an insider’s perspective on what it was like to work with such a towering cultural and literary icon. From 2002-2011, Kalicia Pivirotto worked as an Associate Editor at UC Press, where she assisted Baraka on the publication of his collection of writings on music, Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music.
Digging Amiri Baraka
By Kalicia Pivirotto
I held photos from his personal collection in my hands. It felt illicit, like ripping out a page from a library book. Except it was my job to sort the photos, correctly label and tag the art program for use in Digging. Over years of preparing books for production at UC Press I had handled hundreds of photos, but a poet is as Pavlovian as anyone, and when I got my hands on his manuscript you better believe I drooled right on cue (not on the photos!)
It posed a bit of a conundrum. Amiri Baraka! The man! Tremendous respect and reverence. Made me want to freak out, in the best and most festive sense of the word, like a teenager at a Beatles concert, British Invasion-style. Appropriate? Not so much. Pull it together, girl.
These are important conversations we have with ourselves. How do I demonstrate respect, appreciation – no, proper understanding of the magnitude, context within history, poetry? And not come off crazy, sycophantic, a nuisance? It’s not about you, it’s about him – that’s how. This is the pulling it together part.
Early in my tenure at UC Press I spoke briefly with the artist Shirin Neshat, who had agreed to provide something (art? A blurb?) for a book I was working on. I may have gushed a little. I regretted it – not because she wasn’t gracious, but because it introduced a dynamic: the fan. You need a barrier from the fan. The expectations. The feeling that the fan knows you – personally – through your work. What do we want, fans? I think we want recognition, appreciation – for our good taste, at very least. When do we want it? Now! It’s a lot to ask when you think about it.
I did think about it. Regardless of the impact his work had on my own poetics, I didn’t want to alienate with over-eagerness again, however genuine my admiration. In other words, I filtered. Kept the crazy in. I think it made a difference.
When we spoke on the phone (Amiri Baraka calling meeeeeeee!), I aimed to be as supportive and professional as with any author I worked with. I hope the approach engendered ease, a sense that I was a trustworthy guide through the tortuous, exacting hoops of scholarly publishing. My reward: he called back. He let me help.
Here’s the thing about authors, especially renowned authors: they don’t do this part, typically. If they’re established, there’s an assistant or prize grad student taking care of details. Word count, formatting, permissions, art placement, who’s got time? Amiri Baraka did, apparently.
So it wasn’t just the photos, the manuscript. It was his voice. He was soft-spoken, which surprised me, mighty as his voice is in his work. He wanted to get it right, and he spent time to follow it through. I remember wondering if he were always so calm and unpretentious – would a diva materialize if something didn’t go smoothly? No book is without snags when you get down to the technicalities – was it just a matter of time?
An expression comes to mind: “judge the art, not the man.” Why? Because the art is transcendent, but the man is a jerk. Not so with Baraka. He was unfailingly even, unassuming, focused. It was calming, elevating even. Of course I didn’t know him in any real sense of the word – a few phone calls, email exchanges – but impressions are made from experience, however limited, and he left a pretty great one. The coolest, to let the fan have her say – not in grand gestures or statements, but in character.
To have a hero, and have the hero live up to the ideal. It’s illuminating, even after the light has gone out.
Kalicia Pivirotto is a poet with a day job in San Francisco. She received a MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California in 2003, and holds BA’s in Italian and English from San Francisco State University. She has been published in 26, Five Fingers Review, Transfer Magazine, and received an honorable mention in the 18th Annual National Writers Union Competition judged by Adrienne Rich.
January 12th, 2014
CONVERSATION BETWEEN AMIRI BARAKA AND ALAN FOX
Studio City, California, November 15th, 2011
Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. After leaving Howard University and the Air Force, he moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1957 and co-edited the avant-garde literary magazine Yugen and founded Totem Press, which first published works by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others. His reputation as a playwright was established with the production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York on March 24, 1964. The controversial play subsequently won an Obie Award (for “Best off-Broadway Play”) and was made into a film. In 1965, Jones moved to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. The BARTS lasted only one year but had a lasting influence on the direction of Afro American Arts. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka was published in 1984. His recent publications are Y’s/Why’s/Wise (1992), Funk Lore (1993), Eulogies (1994), Transbluesency (1996), and Somebody Blew Up America & Other Poems (2002). Amiri Baraka’s numerous literary honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, the Langston Hughes Award from The City College of New York, and a lifetime achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation. In 1994, he retired as Professor of Africana Studies at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, and in 2002 was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey and Newark Public Schools. He died on January 9, 2014.
FOX: This is November 15th and we’re having a conversation with Amiri Baraka. You’re pretty controversial. [both laugh] Is that fun for you?
BARAKA: Not always.
FOX: What are the good parts?
BARAKA: Well, if you’re doing what you want to do, and you believe in what you’re doing, then the controversy is like going to work when it’s snowing. It’s just part of the gig; it’s not unusual. It’s not always pleasant but it’s not unusual. I faced that quite a bit actually before I got to be a poet.
FOX: Tell me about that.
BARAKA: Well, I was a good student in high school, a very bad student in college. I got thrown out of college. I joined the air force; I got thrown out of the air force.
BARAKA: And then I went to New York to learn how to write. So apparently I had already been controversial even in that situation. [laughs] But it’s like anything that you encounter doing what you do. People agree with you, people don’t agree with you. You don’t have to say anything and people disagree with that. You say something and people disagree with that. So it’s a question of making up your mind what you want to say and what you want to do. The rest of it you have to expect. And I think when you are public with your ideas, then you open a democracy. So that’s the way I take it; it’s just about this or about that, or about then or about when. It’s always something. You can’t go into a bar and get a drink without getting into an argument with somebody. [Fox laughs]
FOX: That’s true. What would you like to accomplish? In other words, if you transformed society, what would it look like?
BARAKA: Well, first of all, most of the people in the world would have equal rights and self-determination. They’d have enough to eat and a place to live and something to do that didn’t make them sad. That would be a great deal. As far as personally, I want people to say, “He tried to do that.” And that’s about all you can hope for, I think. Even though people will lie about what you did do, who you were and what you thought. But that’s part of it, too, you know. And then you have a group of scholars trying to say, “That’s not true.” [laughs] So, what can you hope for in the world but to try to learn more about it before you disappear? And try to take the right side always because life is always divided between this and that. You always have to try to take the right side to be comfortable and live with yourself.
FOX: I think it’s important to be true to yourself and do what you love and it sounds like that’s how you try to live your life.
BARAKA: Absolutely. I think you have to struggle to do that, too, because people always want you to do something else. You go anywhere and they want you to do something else. When you’re little, there’s nothing you can do about it. When you get old, you can say, “I don’t want to do that,” or, “I’m not going to do that.” But, you know, the world is full of learning experiences, if you are conscious. But unfortunately a lot of people in the world have no idea how the world works and they go through life ignorant. And that’s the tragedy, I think, of life, that people are left to be ignorant.
BARAKA: Because I don’t think it’s necessary for people to be as ignorant as they are. But apparently it suits the people who benefit from that.
FOX: Some people think if you keep people ignorant they’re easier to control.
BARAKA: Oh, absolutely. That’s the history of the world. But the whole world is primitive, and it keeps being less primitive and more primitive at the same time. I mean, you made technological advances, but then, all those people you just put out of work … you find a way to make stuff cheaper by sending it out of the country to be made and there’s a lot of people that were put into the poorhouse. So there’s always a dialectic in it, advance and retreat at the same time. It’s always at the same time. So the correct thing is to try to do what you do best and what you think will do best for other people.
FOX: How has your approach to that changed? As you get older, maybe you have more insight but you don’t have quite as much energy … how has that been for you?
BARAKA: Well, you have to find out what you can still do and do that. It’s like a baseball player—“can’t play shortstop anymore, I’ll play first base.” So you’ve got to make a change. So that’s part of it, sort of adjusting to what you can do. I think when you’re young you want to do everything and you find out you can’t do most things. So you have to find out what it is that you can do, and hopefully that you can do well, and that you can learn to do well by doing. But I don’t think most people have that chance, because most people’s lives are spent trying to earn a living, trying to eat.
BARAKA: They don’t have time to think, or read, or experience other places. And that’s something that will end one day, but there’s going to be a lot of turbulence and violence and bloodshed unnecessarily until that happens.
FOX: That’s human history.
BARAKA: It’s the history of the world so far. But we’ve always had people saying, “That’s not necessary,” from the first philosophers on the planet. They’ve always said that people don’t listen. They claim to listen, but they don’t listen. People claim these ten commandments were hip at one point … they don’t listen, they don’t do that. Whatever religion people aspire to, they don’t do that. They do what they want to do, or what television or radio tells them to do, or what their own peculiar desires tell them to do. So those are good ideas—churches, religions—when they work, but most of it is just businesses.
FOX: I think if Jesus came back today he might be horrified at what is done in his name.
BARAKA: He’d be in big trouble, I know that! [both laugh] I was on a forum one time and I said, “I’m a socialist; where are all the socialists? Where are all the communists?” The guy next to me said, “I’m a Christian.” I said, “You know what happened to him, though.” [all laugh] If Jesus were here today, he’d be out there in those Occupy movements with twelve other dudes.
FOX: What’s the role of the poet in bringing the change that we’re talking about?
BARAKA: I think making people think beyond the box, think beyond what is given to them. Try to see more of the world than they think exists in their everyday kind of life. That’s what art’s supposed to do, open up people’s minds, make them experience things they rarely experience, teach them. And the problem with the way the world is constructed now in most places is that that’s the last thing most people think about. Somehow art is the least considered thing on the planet, and then after everything else, then comes the art. When actually there wouldn’t be anything without it—this desk, this light, that window, that door. That’s all art. And we would be really primitive, but that’s not the way it’s dealt with. So you spend your life trying to say things like that to people, trying to tell people what you think is important. Because you don’t have much life in the first place.
FOX: Pretty short.
BARAKA: Plus, you know, life also is about trying to figure out what somebody else did for thousands of years and thousands of writers and thousands of painters and thousands of musicians … try to find out about that. That’s a lifelong work right there. A poet came to me sixteen years ago and gave me his book and I was speaking up in Berkeley. And I took the book home and put it down. Fifteen years later I stumbled on that book and thought, “What happened?” You know, where had it been? And it was inscribed; he inscribed it to me. It was a poet named Juan Gelman in Argentina who was a very great poet. And I had been given this; he put it in my hand, and I put it down. So that means that fifteen years ago, you could’ve known that. But we get distracted by so much. And this guy’s a poet from Argentina, and what he wrote about—what did they call that, the Dirty War, when the fascists took over Argentina? They killed his son, his wife. He exiled himself. So there’s stuff happening that could help you all the time if you’re just perceptive enough to dig it.
FOX: In the United States, it seems to me that poetry isn’t as valued as it is in other countries. Here if you go to a reading and get a hundred people, that’s pretty good. In other countries, it would be three or four thousand.
BARAKA: That’s right. I read poetry in Rome once to 10,000 people. In a park, just literally a park. I remember there was a poet there … I can’t remember his name; he was an American poet, funny guy. He read this poem—he’s supposed to be avant-garde—he read this poem that was all numbers: “68 … 78… 29 …” [all laugh] And suddenly out of the audience comes a piece of watermelon. Pow! Right in the middle of the face.
BARAKA: So … I had to read next. [all laugh] I said, “That’s pretty rough.” He says to me, “That’s what happens when you let too many people in a poetry reading.” [all laugh loudly] He didn’t learn anything. He’s a pretty well known poet. But he thought people would think—he thought that was a hip … “this is a poem about numbers,” you know. So somebody finally didn’t think so. Somebody with good aim. [all laugh]
FOX: Wasn’t there a guy in Iran who threw a shoe at George W. Bush?
BARAKA: Right, right. The worst insult in the Middle East. But Italians are not far from that when there’s 10,000 people in a park. But that’s a wonderful place, if you’re going places, to go to, Rome, the city. Because once you go to Rome, you remember that these people used to rule the world. You see the stuff all over, walking down the street: history, history, history. But they still have that consciousness.
FOX: It seems to me that all empires rise and then fall: the British empire, the Roman empire. And I’m thinking that the United States—we’ve kind of ruled the world for a while and I think we’re on the down slope here.
BARAKA: Absolutely. But you try to understand how those others got into that, whether it’s ancient Egypt, or Greece, or Rome, or England when they said the sun would never set. But I think you’re right; we’re going through that now, absolutely. You can see that. We were just talking about that, that whatever Obama has done and how he’s stumbled and needs to be criticized, he couldn’t possibly be replaced by those other people; that’s a horrible idea.
FOX: It seems to me it’s kind of short-sighted to just be unremittingly selfish. Rich people need customers; they need employees.
BARAKA: It’s just getting isolated, isolated in your own kind of desires, not needs. And just not seeing the world correctly. People had slaves. You wonder, how could people have a slave? But reading all those books about Frederick Douglass, slave narratives, all that stuff, then you begin to understand that, wow, it’s like Du Bois said. “Many people have suffered as much as we have,” he said, “but none of them was real estate.” And that’s the final thing, when you don’t think of people as people anymore, but something to be bartered with. So, it’s the same thing; it’s more sophisticated, it’s a different form, but it still exists. If you can outsource 10,000 jobs and therefore cause a city in this country to collapse because you can get the product done cheaper in India than in the United States, that’s very short-sighted, because you’re really weakening the very kind of strength that the society has in the first place, and that’s what’s going on. I remember when I was a kid I used to believe all that stuff. Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne …
FOX: Yeah, yeah.
BARAKA: America, you know; we were Americans, we wouldn’t do that. And it’s weird that you could think that, and come from a legacy of slavery, but still believe there was some essential greatness in America that you were part of. That’s a wild dichotomy but it’s true. In fact, I still look at Turner Classic Movies to look at those old guys, because you really believed that. I mean, I believed it.
FOX: Well, what caused you to change your consciousness on this?
BARAKA: Well, just living, having to struggle and to be shaped by my parents who really taught me to understand America better. Like I said, my mother had me recite the Gettysburg Address every Lincoln’s birthday when I was a kid in the Boy Scouts. So why did she do that? So that you would be able to say, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” She wanted you to say that, to say that every year on Lincoln’s birthday and know who Lincoln was and look at Lincoln’s statue, so you know that’s real; he was real; he freed the slaves. Then later you learn the context of that, what it meant and so forth. But they meant well; they meant well for the country. They were educating you so you could help educate Americans so they wouldn’t be so ignorant. Even when Du Bois was younger, that’s what he thought. He thought the question of America was a question of education: These people are ignorant. He found out later it was a question of capitalism. At first he thought people could be educated, which is still a good proposition, but it’s difficult.
FOX: You’ve taught a lot. Where have you most enjoyed teaching?
BARAKA: Well, it varies. I taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook for eighteen years. I guess I enjoyed teaching most at Columbia in the grad school. I think that was probably the most comfortable because at Stony Brook you’ve got a lot of kids who are poor kids and you have to wrestle with stuff that should’ve been dealt with in high school. You’ve got to actually almost teach reading comprehension to college students, which is all right. Columbia was easier, because the kids are better prepared. I taught at Yale once and a kid comes up to me, a freshman, and shows me an essay that he has in a little magazine, in a literary journal. He had gone to one of those prep schools. So, it’s different. I used to tell my students, “You know, the education you get here at the state university is not the education you’re going to get at Yale or Harvard, but you should try to transcend that obvious kind of difference.”
FOX: Did you find … when I talked to Phil Levine, he teaches at Fresno State, and he was comparing that with Princeton—he taught at Princeton for a semester, and he seemed to feel that the Fresno State students were more real, working class, and at Princeton they wanted to write “what I did on my spring break” kind of stuff.
BARAKA: Well, I would’ve gone to Princeton, but there was a quota on blacks when I got out of high school and only one black could get into Princeton that year. That was 1948. And it wasn’t even—it was clear; it was not hidden. That was the deal. “Sorry, Mr. Jones, we only have one student.” Who turned out to be a guy named Eddie White who became a diplomat and played in a string quartet with his brothers called “The White Brothers,” ironically. [both laugh] But even that kind of integration that we’ve seen in the last twenty years was impossible back then: ’40s, ’50s. And it was not a hidden thing. They’d tell you: “We got a quota.” We got a quota, that’s it. They’ve probably still got one, they just don’t say it. But it’s more than one. [laughs]
FOX: When you look back over the past 40, 50 years, do you think there’s been significant change in that area?
BARAKA: There had never been a black mayor in Newark. When I came back home, in ’65, and started working to do that, that was controversial. I mean, talking about “black political power.” Let me show you how controversial that was: We had a poetry reading that the cops stopped. We walked down to try to get into the poetry reading and there was a police officer at the door. I was directing a play and the cop came up and took the script out of my hand.
FOX: In this country we have an enormous number of people in jail. I mean, enormous.
BARAKA: There’s a book by Elijah Mohammad’s grandson who’s now the chief of the Schomburg, which is the New York City public library in Harlem. And he’s written a book called The Condemnation of Blackness. The chapter I remember is a chapter that says, “Where did all the white criminals go?” [both laugh] What he shows is that until the ’60s, criminals in America were considered immigrants—Italians, Irish, Jews, those were the criminals, the criminal type. But after the ’60s, that turbulence, then they started locking up blacks and Latinos by the boatload. So that’s what’s happening. Now even black women and Latino women are locked up.
BARAKA: Oh, yeah. That’s the new prison population. But it’s interesting because it just shows that the people that run it respond to what they think is the threat. You can look at all those movies made in the ’30s and ’40s, Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and all those people, and you could make those about boys in the hood today. They would be black kids, the juvenile delinquents—The Dead End Kids, for instance. Or Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan in Boys Town. They’re dealing with the same things. Another group; that’s it.
FOX: Looking back, are you pleased with your career as a writer?
BARAKA: Well, I’m doing what I want to do; I can say that. And as such, I like the things I’ve been able to write and the people I’ve been able to talk to and teach; I have to say that. The context is not desirable … if you decide to be a poet or a writer, first of all you have to take an oath of poverty in your mind. [Fox laughs] You have to say, “That’s it. My dream of having millions of dollars is over with.” But at the same time, you wish it was not like that. Not that you want millions of dollars, but you wish you could live like, you know, people live. So it’s a contradiction always. You can do something else. When I lived in the Village, people would come up all the time and say, “You know, So-and-So sold out.” I’d say, “Where’s the office? Nobody offered to let me sell out!” [all laugh] But sometimes you have more integrity than is healthy for you.
FOX: Say more about that; that’s a good point.
BARAKA: Well, they offered me a couple movies to write. On one hand, when I lived in the Village, I knew these other white guys were making all this money, who had sold out, and I was thinking, “Well, that’s not enough to sell out for.” [all laugh] Sam Goldwin Junior asked me to write the screenplay for Cotton Comes To Harlem: “That ain’t enough money, man.” Sammy Davis, when he did Golden Boy—they wanted me to rewrite that. Leonard Bernstein and Lauren Bacall came to my house when I was in the Village. They wanted to make a musical out of my play The Toilet, and so, you know, that youthful defiance, that desire to be rich versus the desire not to be poor all your life … although you can regret it afterwards, as a joke, but at the time it was very serious. Leonard Bernstein wanted to know, did I want him to make music for The Toilet. First of all, I thought that was bizarre. And I asked him, “Do you know Duke Ellington?” I was going to be that mean to him, because I knew I wasn’t going to accept their money, so I wanted to put it out of reach. I said, “You don’t even dress as well as Duke Ellington.” There’s no need to be that insulting to people, but I guess that was to protect yourself from—you didn’t want to do that, so say something really negative. Because I had nothing but respect for them, really—certainly Lauren Bacall, because of her husband, and Leonard Bernstein for West Side Story. You always do that in your youth; you can do that and get away with it. But I don’t regret those things; they’re just funny to me now. “I could’ve made the money if I’d done this,” “Yeah, but you wouldn’t do it, that’s the problem,” you know.
FOX: Is your approach to life significantly different now than it was 34 years ago?
BARAKA: I don’t think so. I think I’m more moderate in what I say to people. See, I think you know, if you’re serious, what you want to do, and you should know the things that will divert you or subvert you to some other thing you don’t want to do. So, that’s the thing; you just have to take care of yourself and be aware of situations and ideas that are opposed to what you want to do. That’s what I think. It’s a hard job. They made this film about New Orleans called Treme. You know that film? It’s a series that’s all about New Orleans’ musicians and music. So they called me up and wanted me to do a role in that and instead of saying, “Yeah, I’m gonna do it; I wanna get paid,” blah blah blah, I started asking them all these questions: “Well, what kind of role is this? What do I have to do?” They got pissed off about it. They don’t want to hear all that. “I’ll call somebody else; they’ll do it.” But then you can say, “Well, I should have done that” later, but the point is, you wouldn’t have said that. You would have said, “Well, what is this about; what do I have to do; what kind of character is it?” Because you’re taking care of yourself, that’s why. No other reason. It’s like how Billy Eckstine said that he could’ve made a lot of money in the movies but he wouldn’t take those roles because, he said, “I’m glad I did that because I’d hate to be sitting watching the late show and see myself as Uncle Tom.”
FOX: Whoa, whoa.
BARAKA: So, there’s something in that. But I think it’s like that, though, you know, the pitfalls of being alive—as you get older, you’re supposed to memorize them. You’re not supposed to do it twice; once is bad enough. [Fox laughs]
FOX: Right. Do you do many poetry readings?
BARAKA: I guess, yeah …
FOX: And is that something you enjoy doing?
BARAKA: Yeah. I was in Europe a few weeks ago. We did Rome, Strasbourg, Amsterdam, Stockholm, in a week. Then I went to Minneapolis, to rehearse a long poem of mine we cut—it was 40 verses, 40 poems; we did 20, but they were orchestrated and stuff, so I was there for a week. So that’s what I do. We just came from Sacramento and yesterday we were in Oakland and tonight we’re going to be at a bookstore down there and tomorrow USC.
FOX: Do you find the audiences in different parts of the country or different parts of the world are different?
BARAKA: Yeah, there’s some variation. Europeans are less familiar with what’s happening in the United States, but they have a general understanding of it, but they have fewer of the American prejudices.
FOX: You talked about orchestrating, and I know you’ve talked in the past about the relationship between music and poetry. Could you comment on that?
BARAKA: Well, poetry to me is a musical form. It begins as speech musicked, that’s what it is. What we try to do is, we emphasize the musical aspect of it. In fact, a thing I did in Europe was called “Word Music”—we emphasize the musicality of poetry, as well as its content. Especially if you’re saying something people might not be ready to accept, the more musical the better.
FOX: Ah, yes.
BARAKA: That’s what it is. It’s an attempt to keep poetry as musical as possible, as related to music, give it the same kind of laws as music. For many years I’ve been trying to find the connection between language and musical notes, so that each alphabet corresponds to a note of music so that when you write a poem, you’re writing a song. It’s hard work to do that, but it’s a good idea. I think you would have to have some kind of grant and some time to just …
FOX: That sounds like an interesting—
BARAKA: Yeah, it’s been interesting to me for a long time. See, the whole African thing, that African-Americans cannot do anymore, send words through space by beating on a drum. There was a guy who used to be head of the NEA—I taught with him at Yale—who did a film of this great drummer named Tony Williams. He took him to Africa, set him up on the shore, and he starts playing the drums. So you know, the drum set was developed by the ex-slaves, which is different—this is a one-man band; you’ve got all kinds of drums, pedals, levers, cymbals. So when the Africans heard that, on the hand drum they’d come back. And they’d say, “We hear you all.” See, they thought it was a bunch of them, not one guy. “We hear you all, but we do not understand what you’re saying.” “We don’t understand what you’re saying.” But see, that’s the break from the continent. You don’t know how to do that anymore. Even though the slave masters cut off the use of the drums because they thought they did know how to do it, they didn’t know how to do that anymore. You can make noise with it, and you make beautiful sounds, but to actually send words through space, that’s a higher level of drum use.
FOX: What sort of things do you want to pursue in the future?
BARAKA: I just had a book come out two or three weeks ago called Razor: Revolutionary Art for Cultural Revolution. I just finished a novel that I read the last chapter of at Yoshi’s in San Francisco last night with Roscoe Mitchell, and a guy named David Wessel who worked electronic stuff. It was interesting. So I just read the last chapter of that, and I’m going to try to get that published this year, or probably in 2012.
FOX: How do you compare the experience of writing poetry to writing a novel?
BARAKA: Well, I wouldn’t write novels. That’s a hard thing to do. I don’t feed off of that. The poet actually essentially wants to say something and walk away. You don’t want to live with that for a year or two years—three years, four years, five years, just saying stuff. But I have a couple of novels unpublished for that reason, because I wouldn’t just fight to get them published. But then eventually, I figured it’s like having money in the bank; I got books. But it just depends on what interests me at the time. This last book, this novel I just finished called Negrossity, is about black people in this period, after the Civil Rights movement, during the time of Obama, what the contradictions are between those of us who fought in the Civil Rights movement and so forth, and those who have no understanding of that.
FOX: Sometimes I think poets just have Attention Deficit Disorder; you don’t want to spend a lot of time on one thing.
BARAKA: It took me about six years to write this book. And it’s a miserable experience as far as I’m concerned because you know it’s in the drawer waiting for you. [Fox laughs]
FOX: Well, but you always have something to do! [laughs] Do you write every day, or just when inspiration strikes?
BARAKA: No, not every day. But every day I do something. Writing for me is like “you must do it.” It’s not a hobby or anything. You have to do it, and you do it because you’re compelled to do it. I’ve got scraps of paper all over the house that I have to translate one day. When I was younger, I’d go in there and write and stay there for a while. There’s too much else I have to do now. Can’t do that, can’t do that.
FOX: What advice would you have for young poets, people just starting out?
BARAKA: Write. Write, that’s all. The best advice to young writers is to write on. And for them to understand that poetry is not just some kind of spontaneous orgiastic experience. You have to study; you need to study. In order to write poetry that people are interested in, you have to have something to say. You have to read, to study everything. And you have to know as much as you can. If I say, “Who was the greatest dancer in the world?” I want to hear what you’ve got to say. If I say, “Who’s the greatest actress in the world?” I want to hear what you’ve got to say. I want you to at least have an opinion. It might not be my opinion. But what you should try to do is, like you say, find out the hippest stuff in the world—what’s the most important stuff, what’s the most intelligent stuff—who’s the greatest American composer?—you’re supposed to know that. And I don’t mean know it in a kind of formalistic way, but know it because you love that and you want to know. And if you don’t have that curiosity, you’re not going to know what you’re going to write about. Richard Wright said, “A writer has to be at the top of his time.” In other words, whatever’s happening, you have to know that to be an interesting writer.
FOX: Do you think it’s the role of a poet to be an activist, to push for change in society?
BARAKA: Certainly the ones I value. A lot of great poets come from Latin America. Americans don’t even know it.
FOX: Yeah, that’s true.
BARAKA: They probably know more European poets than—a lot of the great poets in the Western hemisphere are Latin Americans. But see, they don’t teach Puerto Rican literature, or Haitian literature, or Venezuelan literature, or Brazilian literature—our whole hemisphere, absolute ignorance. And then the political thing—they wouldn’t let Neruda in the country for years. Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua, I heard him—we went to a poetry festival, my wife and I. They have poetry festivals all over Latin America. They have more jazz concerts in Italy than they have in the United States.
BARAKA: It’s hard to believe. Little towns that you never heard of have jazz festivals, in Italy, all over Italy. But it’s like you create something and have no use for it, but everybody else does. We got invited to go play in Tunisia right after that revolution. But then they started shooting again and they rescinded the invitation—thank goodness. I’ve been all over the world—haven’t been to China, unfortunately; haven’t been to Russia because of the politics here. I’ve been a lot of places in Africa and all over Latin America, all over Europe.
FOX: What are some of your favorite places that you’ve been to?
BARAKA: Well, Rome. Senegal. Those are two. And in Latin America, Venezuela. We went to a couple of poetry festivals in Columbia in the very city they said was the great dope capital of the world. They’re famous for dope, not poetry, you see. As far as the United States, Medellín—you say Medellín, you’re talking about the great dope capital of the world. But it’s a great poetry center. They have a poetry festival there with two or three hundred poets from all over the world. They have a poetry festival in Venezuela and Nicaragua, in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
FOX: I still wonder, why do they do that so much in Latin America and Europe, and not here?
BARAKA: Because these people are not interested in that, the people that run it. I don’t know, it might be also fear of having that kind of spirit and presence. I don’t know if I can say Americans are not that interested in poetry. In times of turbulence they get more interested in poetry and drama. There’s an Englishman who says that drama is created in the periods of social turbulence, so that the drama is trying to put real people on the stage, real life presented actually as it is. There’s something to that. But here we’re afraid of our great dramatists and great poets. We have no American National Repertory Theater, but go to England, you go to see the Shakespeare; you go to France, you go to see the Comedie Francaise; you go to even Czechoslovakia they got it, but not the United States. Why? Well, I don’t think they want to put a real repertory and have, say, Tennessee Williams, Langston Hughes … to be seen by people all the time.
FOX: It sounds like you’ve enjoyed your life pretty much.
BARAKA: Well, yeah. Except the bad parts. Well, if you can do what you want to do, that’s one important thing. I tell my kids that: “You should be able to do what you want to do.” It might be difficult to do that; there might be a lot of set-backs, but if you’re not willing to go for that, then you have to do something you don’t want to do.
BARAKA: If you want to take anything, then you can do that; that’s easy. You can just do anything. But to be able to stay strong and say, “No, I don’t want to do that; I want to do this.”
FOX: That’s a good trick. But, you know, if you’re not true to yourself, you’re probably going to suffer anyway, so you might as well suffer going for what’s important.
BARAKA: You’d be a very grouchy person too.
FOX: [laughs] That’s for sure. Tim or Daveen?
Green: You mentioned the good parts and bad parts. Is “Somebody Blew Up America” and being Poet Laureate and all that stuff—is that a good part or a bad part?
BARAKA: Well, it’s like I said, there’s always different things. I mean, that poem … we lived right next to it, in Newark; you could see the Twin Towers. I was supposed to go to New York to do work for
—from Rattle #37, Summer 2012
Amiri Baraka reads his haunting poem, “Something in the Way of Things”:
*[People might think this is crazy, but I don’t remember when I interviewed Baraka. I know this is actually one of two in-depth interviews I did with Amiri. This was probably, but not definitely, in the nineties. The only other thing to note is that this is not just some random questions. Amiri and I had talked, over the years, about a lot of this stuff. All those references to the early writing came out of conversations and a lot of reading. This is a rough transcript, unedited. That’s it. Enjoy. —Kalamu Ya Salaam]
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah. That's essentially what it is. I was writing to try to get away from emulating Black Mountain, Robert Creely, Charles Olson, that whole thing. It struck me as interesting because somebody else who had done the same thing was Aime Cesaire. Cesaire said that he vowed one time that he was not going to write anymore poetry because it was too imitative of the French symbolist and he wanted to get rid of the French symbolists. So he said he was only going to write prose but by trying to do that he wrote A Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. It's incredible when you think about that. For me it was the same thing, I was trying to get away from a certain kind of thing. I kept writing like Creely and Olson and what came to me was: "I don't even think this." What became clear to me is that if you adopt a certain form that form is going to push you into certain content because the form is not just the form, the form itself is content. There is content in form and in your choice of form.
SALAAM: Is there content or is there the shaping of content?
BARAKA: No, I'm saying this: the shaping itself is a choice and that choice is ideological. In other words, it's not just form. The form itself carries...
SALAAM: If you choose a certain form, then the question is why did you choose that form.
BARAKA: Exactly--Why did you choose that form?--that's what I'm saying. That's the ideological portent, or the ideological coloring of form. Why did you choose that? Why does that appeal to you? Why this one and not that one.
SALAAM: You said you were consciously trying to get away from the form?
SALAAM: So, why call it A System of Dante's Hell?
BARAKA: Because, I thought, in my own kind of contradictory thinking, that it was "hell." You see the Dante--which escaped me at the time. It shows you how you can be somewhere else and even begin to take on other people's concerns--I wasn't talking about Dante Aligheri. See? I "thought" I was, but I was really talking about Edmund Dante, The Count of Monte Cristo. You see, I had read the Count of Monte Cristo when I was a child and I loved the Count of Monte Cristo. Edmund Dante, that's who I was talking about and I had forgotten that. Forgotten that actually it was Dante Aligheri although I had read that and there was a professor of mine at Howard, Nathan Scott, who went on to become the Chairman of the Chicago Institute of Theology. Nathan Scott was a heavy man. When he used to lecture on Dante, he was so interested in that, that that is how he interested me and A.B. [Spelman] in that. He would start running it down and we would say that damn, this must be some intersting shit here if he's that in to it. So we read it and we got into it. It was like Sterling Brown teaching us Shakespeare.
SALAAM: So the Count of Monte Cristo is what you were remembering?
BARAKA: Right. Absolutely.
SALAAM: But you were saying A System of Dante's Hell. Explain the title.
BARAKA: I had come up on a kind of graphic which showed the system of Dante's hell. You know, hell laid out in graphic terms showing which each circle was. First circle, second circle, etc.
SALAAM: That was Dante Aligheri.
BARAKA: Right. But seeing that, I wanted to make a statement about that, but the memory itself was not about that. See what I'm saying? I was fascinated by Dante's hell because of the graphic but when I started reaching into Dante, I wasn't talking about that Dante. I was talking about Edmund Dante. Remember, Edmund Dante, as all those Dumas characters--you know all of Dumas' characters get thrown down, get whipped, somebody steal their stuff and they come back. All of them do that. Like the Man in the Iron Mask, that could be Africa sitting up inside that mask. The same thing with Edmund Dante, who I didn't think was hooked up to the earlier Dante, but who was disenfranchished. Despised and belittled. And then his son, the count of Monte Cristo, puts all this money and wealth together. He's got an enourmous fortune, and he vows revenge on the enemies of his father. That is what was in my mind. What's interesting about that is first of all that it is Dumas, which I had read as a child before I read Dante Aligheri. I had read Dumas not only in the book but I had read classic comics, you dig? I had read all of that, the whole list in classic comics. That Count of Monte Cristo made a deep, deep impression on me. I think what it was is that I always thought that Black people generally, particularly my father, Black men like him, I saw a parallel with that. They had been thrown down. My grandfather...
SALAAM: And it was on you. You were vowing revenge on those who had thrown down...
BARAKA: Absolutely. My grandfather was "Everett"--which always reminded me of "Edmund"--my grandfather's name was Thomas Everett Russ. He was the one who owned a grocery store and a funeral parlor and the Klan ran him out of there. Then he got hit in the head by a street light, that's what they said when they carried him in, and he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair spitting in a can. You understand? So Everett/Edmund, all of that shit. I always remembered him. Like the night that Dutchman came out. I went down to the corner to look at all these newspapers. They were saying all kinds of crazy things: this nigger is crazy, he's using all these bad words; but I could see that they were trying to make me famous. I said, oh well, I see.
SALAAM: What do you mean "make you famous"?
BARAKA: I could see that this was not a one night stand. They had some stuff they wanted to run about me, either on a long term negative or a long term positive. I said, oh, in other words you're going to make this some kind of discussion. For some reason the strangest feeling came over me. I was standing on the corner of 8th Street and 2nd Avenue at the newspaper stand reading. I had a whole armful. At the time there were a lot of newspapers in New York: The Journal American, The Daily News, The Post, The New York Times, The Herald Tribune, The Village Voice, The Villager, I had all of them in my hand. A strange sensation came over me; the sensation was "oh, you're going to make me famous," but then I'm going to pay all of you people back. I'm going to pay you back for all the people you have fucked over. That was clear. There was no vagueness about that. That came to my mind clear as a bell. That's why I think that whatever you do, there's always some shit lurking in your mind and if the right shit comes together--you know the difference between quantitative and qualitative, you know that leap to something else. It could be liquid and suddenly leap into ice, it could be ice and suddenly leap into vapor. When I got that feeling, it was a terrific feeling. It was like some kind of avenger or something. It was: Now, I'm going to pay these motherfuckers back!
BARAKA: Yeah, that's exactly right. Because until then people wanted to know about the village. I was kind of--not totally, but I was a little happy go lucky kind of young blood down in the village kicking up my heels. I mean I had a certain kind of sense of responsibility. I was involved in Fair Play for Cuba and those kinds of things. I had even worked in Harlem. But I had never determined that I needed to do something that personal and yet that general as pay some people back.
SALAAM: So this was not only personal; it was also taking care of business?
BARAKA: Exactly. I never saw that it was connected specifically to me...
SALAAM: So before your work, your writing, was personal?
BARAKA: Yeah, it didn't have nothing to do with nobody because it was just me. But then it was, now that people would know my name, I had a sense of responsibility. As long as I was an obscure person, I was going to kick up my heels and be...
BARAKA: Right. Whatever I wanted to do. Althought that's not a static kind of realization because you were moving anyway. You can't come to this new conclusion unless you have moved quantitatively over to it. So that was a big turning point because I said, God damn, look at this!
SALAAM: Was that when you got the idea for System? When did you get the idea to write System?
BARAKA: I had written System already, but the point is that that was actually a kind of a summing up of one kind of life to make ready for another. I can see that now.
SALAAM: So System, in a sense, was what made it possible for you to look forward because now you had looked back.
BARAKA: Yeah, it sort of like cleaned up everything. You know how you want to clear the table. I had dealt with all of the stuff, now I can deal with the next phase of my life. Also, there's this guy, I think his name is Brown, he's an Englishman. There's a book called Marxism and Poetry, a very interesting book, but anyway he says that drama is always most evident in periods of revolution. In other words when you get to the point that you're going to make the characters so ambitious that they are going to actually walk around like they are in real life that means you're trying to turn the whole thing around. That had been happening to me. I started writing poetry that had people speaking. It would be a poem and then suddenly I would have a name, a colon, and then a speech, then a name, a colon, and another speech. This would be within a poem. The next thing I know I was writing plays. You could see it just mount and mount and mount. You wanted realer than the page. You wanted them on the stage, actually walking around saying it. I had written a couple of plays before Dutchman but the way Dutchman was written was so spectacular that what happened with it didn't surprise me. I came in one night about twelve and wrote until about six in the morning and went to sleep without even knowing what I had written. I woke up the next morning and there it was. I had written it straight out, no revisions. I just typed it straight out.
SALAAM: So where did it come from?
BARAKA: I don't know. My life at the time. Whatever was interesting is that whatever had promoted it, I just wrote it.
SALAAM: When you came in did something tell you to write this or did you have a routine that you would write every night?
BARAKA: No, I didn't do that every night. Most of the time I would get up and work in the morning or the afternoon, even though I did work at night a lot too, but on this particular night, I don't know. I just came in sat down and started, and typed until I finished. I didn't even know what I had written. You ever had that kind of experience where you are in that zone or whatever, you just do it til you're finished, then you go to bed. I said I'll look at that tomorrow, I'm too tired to look at that tonight.
SALAAM: Had you named it at that point?
BARAKA: Yeah. At first I was going to name it The Flying Dutchman and then I said, it ain't really the "flying" Dutchman, so I just call it Dutchman. You know the "Dutchman" was really the train, that was the flying in it. But then there was a lot of ambiguity in it in my mind. I didn't know if I wanted the train to be the Dutchman or the dude to be the Dutchman or the woman to be the Dutchman. So I just said, fuck it, it's all Dutchman. I had nothing really fixed in my mind; what I'm saying now is all hindsight. At the time I just felt like writing some stuff, wrote it, went to bed and got up the next day trying to understand what I had written. You know how that is.
SALAAM: After you looked at it again did you do revisions on it?
BARAKA: No, not really. I just looked at it. I didn't understand it.
SALAAM: What do you mean you didn't understand it.
BARAKA: I understood the lines, the words, but I didn't really understand what I was really saying. You can understand the words but not understand what you are saying, like: this is a car. You know what that means, but why are you saying that. What does that mean? I didn't know. So, I left there a couple of days. Then it occured to me the best thing to do with this thing is to look at it. So I submitted it to this workshop I was in. The great benovolent Edward Albee who had made some money off the Zoo Story and Bessie Smith had started this workshop. In fact, Adrienne Kennedy and myself were in that workshop, and quite a few, I thought, intersting white playwrights. Israel Horowitz, a guy name Jack Richardson--Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You In The Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad--, McNally, and a couple of other interesting playwrights. I had got up in there because I had started writing this drama and I thought that maybe it would help me. I had written about three or four plays before that, The Baptism, The Toilet. I had written some plays and lost them. We did one of them on the radio, The Revolt of the Moon Flowers. I don't know what happened to them. Somebody will come up with it.
SALAAM: At this point you were doing a lot of what some people would call automatic writing?
BARAKA: Yeah, but I always do a lot of that. I always allow myself to be as free as I can be within the context of what I think I want to say. I always feel that whatever is in you is probably a little more knowledgable about you than you. The best thing you can do is make sure it doesn't get crazy; it's like you're releasing something out of yourself. It's like you turn on a faucet and stuff starts pouring out of you but you can't let it just run wild, but it's certainly something coming out of you and the best thing is to let it flow but at the same time guide that flow. You can't just be completely unconscious.
SALAAM: So you want to organize the flow of the outpouring of the self?
BARAKA: Right. You don't want to just be...
BARAKA: Right. You want to keep some kind of hand on it, some kind of consciousness. It can't be completely unconscious.
SALAAM: You had written Blues People, which is a formal study, you had done this major fiction piece, A System of Dante's Hell, you were doing the poetry, and you had gotten off into the drama. Why were you working in so many different forms?
BARAKA: Because I never thought I shouldn't. To tell you the truth, I like that I could do that. That intrigued me as a person. No, there are no restrictions on any of this, that's someone else's problem, it's not mine. I do what I want to do and I always thought what gave me that liscense to do that was the fact that I said that, that I had that feeling. I also felt that I never had any kind of strict need to be governed by America in that way. Even as a little boy I always felt that, I ain't yall cause if I was yall, I wouldn't be going through these changes I'm going through. I wouldn't have to be this Black outsider. If I was in the shit with yall, I wouldn't have to be me, so since I am me, fuck yall in terms of that. I will determine what I do. If I want to write plays, poetry, essays and anything else, I'm going to do that. Why? Because I can do that and I don't see any reason not to do that. My view was that I'm not restricted by yall because I'm not with yall. Yall have told us that: we ain't yall, therefore why should we be restricted by yall? I had that sense real young.
SALAAM: But at the same time, when you were first writing that stuff. Like the interview with you about Kulchur and Totem press and the guy was asking you about that. He asked you about being a "negro writer." The line you used was something like, If I'm looking at a bus, I don't have to say that I'm a negro looking at a bus pass by full of people, I can just say there's a bus passing by full of people.
BARAKA: Well, you see, the point is that I could understand that what I felt was in that anyway. What I felt was going to be in that. I could say, I am a negro looking at that but, but even if I said, I'm looking at that bus, it's still me. The point was how do you invest that actuality into what you have created. How do you make sure that's in there? It is in there formally because you said it's in there and you are actually a negro, but how do you make sure that's in there? Well, once the whole Malcolm thing came about, we got super on top of being Black. I think what I said then was correct except that later on we wanted to make sure that it was actually in there, that it was actually functioning, because it doesn't change the object. If I say look at that lamp or if I say I am Black, look at that lamp, it doesn't change the lamp but the question is what recognition of yourself do you want and what interest does that recognition serve. The insistence of Blackness might be its own worth. The real consciousness of being Black might affect your description of the lamp even if you don't say that. It might affect how you perceive the lamp. That's what I was wrestling with; yeah, there's still the bus but it's also still me saying it. But it is true that the degree to which you want that to be in that description is important.
SALAAM: At this point, your work was not autobiography in the sense that people talk about formal autobiography, but it was autobiographical in the same sense that a musician's solo is autobiographical. You had your voice and you were telling a story, much of which happened to you but a lot of which happened to you on an imaginative level and not necessarily on what would be called a factual level.
BARAKA: Yeah, it's like a doubled up kind of thing. Certain things that actually happen give you a certain kind of experience, part of that experience is just a recounting of what actually went down but certain parts of it is just a result of what happened. The experience gives you an experience, the actual experience gives you another experience. So now you're dealing with what happened and with what that happening made you think. That's the double up thing. Now, if you try to talk about what happened and about what that happening made you think without roping one off from the other, you know, without trying to separate them then you are creating another kind of form. But let me tell you about the form of Dante. What I thought of--and this is really a musical kind of insistence--I thought I'm going to get something in my mind but I'm not going to talk about it directly. I'm going to get something in my mind and I'm going to talk about what it makes me think about. Like if I think about New Orleans but I don't mention New Orleans directly but I let whatever kind of imagery comes out of that New Orleans just course as freely as it can while keeping my own hand on it to a certain extent. That is what I called my "association complexes"--I thought up a name for it for some reason. I would say this and whatever came off of that, I would run it. And that's what Dante was actually about. I was trying to run through the literal to the imaginative. That's what I was doing: taking an image and playing off of it. I thought that was something like musicians who take harmonies and play of it or taking the melody, dispensing with the melody and playing some other stuff.
SALAAM: You were doing the Cherokee/Koko thing?
SALAAM: You might alter the changes a little bit, but you were definitely changing the melody?
BARAKA: Oh yeah. I didn't want the melody. The melody was old, auld lang sgyne. I didn't want that. I figured that whatever I was going to play was going to come up in the same changes but it was going to be relevant.
SALAAM: What was your thinking about what people had to say about System? The reason I'm asking that is because the plays people could relate to as plays, the poems they had references for, particularly the early poems that they could deal with from an academic perspective, but System was a whole other kind of thing.
BARAKA: Like I said, I was trying to get away from what a whole bunch of people were doing, so it didn't make any difference to me. I saw this magazine for the first time in, I don't know, twenty or thirty some years, the magazine was called the Trembling Lamb. They published the first five, six or seven sections of Dante and I thought it was a breakthrough because I thought it was something different from what the little circumscribed community of the downtown hip was doing. So recognizing that, or at least what I thought I was recognizing, well, whatever people think, they'll think differently after awhile. It didn't make any difference to me what they thought.
SALAAM: So after it came out and you started getting reactions from people, what did you think?
BARAKA: Well, I never got any bad reactions at first. I got some reactions from critics whom I didn't think knew anything anyway, so that didn't mean anything. But in terms of my peers, I never got any bad criticism that would make me think I needed to do something else.
SALAAM: You describe it as a breakthrough...
BARAKA: A breakout!
SALAAM: So you make a breakout but all of sudden it's like you stopped writing fiction as far as the reading public goes?
BARAKA: I didn't see it that way.
SALAAM: I'm not saying you stopped writing fiction, I'm saying as far as the reading public goes what fiction came out after that?
BARAKA: Tales. But then when I look at it--well, the first couple of pieces in Tales are from Dante. They were written in the same period. And then a lot of those things that are post-Dante are still making use of the Dante technique. As a matter of fact Tales covers three periods, there's stuff from downtown, from Harlem, and even stuff from Newark. But it is the same kind of approach.
SALAAM: Ok, but then what? With the fiction--the reason I'm asking you specifically about the fiction is because publically we can trace Amiri Baraka the playwright. The plays are there, even the ones that haven't been produced that much, the scripts have been in circulation and in many cases published. The same for the essays and definitely the same for the poetry. Even when they weren't published formally, informally they were circulated around. But the fiction, not so. And at the same time, if we talk about a major breakthrough in terms of form, you probably made the biggest breakthrough with the fiction.
BARAKA: Hmmm. I guess you're right. But, you know, nobody ever asked me to write a novel.
SALAAM: What about the Putnam thing where they asked you to write...
BARAKA: Yeah, but then I wrote it and they didn't like it. See, the point is this is how I can guage what I can do. I'm a poet. How do I know that? I write poetry all the time. Can't nobody say shit to me about poetry. That's where I am. But if you want me to do some other stuff, you're going to have to say something about that. Like I wrote a lot of pieces of fiction in the last couple of years but that's because I decided to do that. I had some other stuff on my mind. I thought that maybe--and I still believe this--I shouldn't write fiction and I shouldn't write plays unless they are a form of poetry, that's my view of it.
SALAAM: What do you mean by that?
BARAKA: I mean that's the only way I think of writing. I would not think of writing a play or a piece of fiction unless it was poetic in the sense of investing the same kind of attention to the lines, and the rhythm, and the imagery. That's why in the last couple of years I've been writing fiction just to see what that's about. I'm very curious about things like that. I know that as far as the day to day America of my own mind, I'm a poet. That's the only thing I will do without nobody bothering me or asking me to do. I don't need nothing or no one to do that. I will write poems because I am alive. I will write them on envelops, books, paperbags. I'll write on anything in the world, newspapers, paper towels, toilet paper, anything. That's got something to do with your own obsession, your own modus operandi.
SALAAM: What I'm getting at is that you were conscious that you made a breakthrough with Dante and you were consciously trying to do something different. You were consciously trying to be different and you succeeded at being different.
BARAKA: Which allowed me then to continue doing what I was doing in the first place. In other words, once I discovered that I had gotten past that, then I could write poetry if I wanted to do it. For me, although I am interested in anything at any given time, poetry is the fundamentaly interesting things because it's the shortest and the most intense.
SALAAM: Yeah, but you write some long poems.
BARAKA: That's because I can sustain that, but I still believe that poetry is the most intense and the most direct.
SALAAM: In terms of what you do technically, at one point you were trying to write a certain way. Now that you have proved that you can write a certain way, do you still try to write in specific ways or do you just write?
BARAKA: I just write. It like that Billy the Kid story. Billy the Kid was walking down the street and his nephew said he wanted a whistle, so Billy pulls out his gun and pee-owww, shoots a reed through. And they said, how do you do that, Billy, without aiming. Billy says, I was always aiming. The point is that you get skills and understanding that is part of your whole thing and that gives you the confidence to do it, once you know you can do it. Whatever you need to do you can do that because you have already done it, you have thought about it, and you know what that is. To me that's the initial gratification. I think there's a lot of gratification in that people don't even know about. People see the results of it, but there's a lot of stuff about form and content that nobody will ever really know why they did it. It's a matter of actually feeling your own self. For instance, Art Tatum. They say Tatum would practice twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day. Now somebody practice the piano sixteen hours a day, when it comes time to play, playing ain't nothing. It's effortless. But what was he doing in that crib for sixteen hours.
SALAAM: So what kind of shedding do you do?
BARAKA: Shedding? Well I do that all the time. I throw a lot of stuff away. I mean I write a lot of stuff and throw it away, but it don't be a long thing, it might be a series of short things. I mean experiments with stuff, with voices, tenses, the abulative, the past perfect.
SALAAM: So you try all kinds of things?
BARAKA: Why not? I don't want to be held down by the language. In other words, if you just know one thing, well that's all you can do, but if I know that in this tense I can do such and such, then there's all kinds of stuff that can come to you imaginatively.
SALAAM: Are you viewing it like music then? You take a given theme, but you know that if you play it in a minor key you will get one feeling and if you put some major chords in it, you will get a different feeling?
BARAKA: Absolutely, absolutely. It's always music in that sense. I always use the reference of music to justify anything wild that I might want to do in writing. I mean I could go from James P. Johnson, to Duke Ellington, to Monk and be playing the same tune, but it come out different sounding. Listen to Liza for instance. How much more stength do you have to know all three of those references, to have all that laid out in your mind...
SALAAM: And not just to know it abstractly, but to be able to do that. To be able to play like that. That's one thing about using the music as a reference: all the cats who were innovators, who make a breaktrhough and made a contribution and created a new form, they had first mastered a previous form.
BARAKA: I would agree with that, yes.
SALAAM: So in a sense you were working at mastering the previous shit, so you could do the out shit?
BARAKA: Oh yeah. Absolutely. At a certain point when you get to that (he mimics running scales on a piano), that itself provides the logos for doing the next. You keep saying well I did that shit, so what's next? if you were free to do what that suggests, what would you do? Play backwards, play it upside down. What if I took just those two notes? You know what I mean? What are the feelings that come out of there.
SALAAM: So then you're talking about the freedom principle?
BARAKA: That's what it is. It's nothing else but that.
SALAAM: Did you ever decide to be a writer and if so when?
BARAKA: I think I decided when I got back to New York from the service. When I first came back I was thinking that maybe I would be a painter.
SALAAM: You were really thinking about being a painter?
BARAKA: Yeah, but at the time I said, well, that's too much work to buy the canvas, and then to have to buy paints, framing shit and having shit all stacked up in the studio. I thought that, finally, that was too much trouble.
SALAAM: Did you like painting?
BARAKA: Oh yeah.
SALAAM: What did you like about it?
BARAKA: The question of interpreting something from real life and making it into an image of it. That was interesting. Plus, my mother had sent me to all these different classes. I took piano lessons, drum lessons, trumpet lessons--I must have taken piano lessons three different times. I went to drawing and painting lessons. That was when Newark was a real city and they had these classes with teachers all over the place, but then the middle class left to pay us back for burning Newark down around `66. Anyway, that's why I had a broad kind of aesthetic and knowledge about creating stuff.
SALAAM: Ok, you had all those music and art classes, but you only had one creative writing class and that was in high school. Is that right?
BARAKA: Yeah, but my mother used to have me reciting the Gettysburg address once a year in a Boy Scout suit, and she would have me singing, there was always some kind of approach to word, image and music. I always had that in my mind as points of a triangle.
SALAAM: Of the three, which one held the most interest for you early on?
BARAKA: The music because I always wanted to do that but the word was always closer. I always had more control and more understanding of the word.
SALAAM: So why did you go to New York thinking about being a painter if the music was what you liked and the word was what you could deal with the easiest?
BARAKA: Because I had given up the idea of being a musician when I went away to college. I used to play the trumpet locally until I went away to school. When I went away to school, I never picked it up again. I figure it must have been something. Maybe it was the closeness to the word that relieved me of that other need to deal with the music. It was the closeness to the word and then a beginning to see the word as a kind of music that I could control as opposed to the instrument.
SALAAM: Which you could play but which you couldn't control as much as you could the word?
BARAKA: I didn't have the kind of facility. The things I had in my head as far as music, I never got close to except with words.
SALAAM: So what you were carrying around in your head, you tried to get it out with the horn and it wouldn't come but with words it would come out?
BARAKA: Yeah. With the horn I could just hear it, I heard what I wanted. I heard trumpet players who sounded like I would have played like that if I could have played. I would hear people say, damn, that sound something like Miles, but Miles was a paradigm rather than what I wanted to sound like. As a kid I used to try to play like Miles and be like Miles but actually it changed at different times. At one point I thought Kenny Dorham was closest to what I wanted to sound like, then parts of Don Cherry, than parts of this kid named Norman Howard who played with Albert Ayler. But it all was a kind of word making sound. That's what I liked about Kenny it would be (imitates a Kenny Dorham riff), that clipped, staccato sound, that sound of actually breaking it down to almost syllables and vowels rather than that logato sound. I guess it was more percussive and sounded more like spoken phrases.
SALAAM: So after Howard you went to the service.
BARAKA: Yeah, after I got thrown out. I wouldn't never read the stuff asigned for class, I was reading all the time but I wouldn't read assignments. I had taken chemistry, that pre-med stuff. I got very bad marks in chemistry. The only courses I really did well in was, perdicatably, English, the humanities, philosophy, that kind of stuff, although I got good marks in physics for some reason. But chemistry and all that other stuff, I bombed in that.
SALAAM: You were thrown out because of academic reasons?
BARAKA: Yeah. Plus, I had been thrown out two or three times for various things.
SALAAM: Like what?
BARAKA: Well mostly for academics but also for not being cool. I had a real bad reputation in the dormitory and my room was always filled with merrymakers. A whole crowd would be in there. So the dormitory director was always in there. We had like a crew actually. It was a combination of Jersey, New York, and Philly in the main, but we also had some Chicago people and we even had a couple of hip dudes from St. Louis and Detroit. I guess it was a big city thing.
SALAAM: So there is no currency to the rumor that you were thrown out for eating watermelon.
BARAKA: Well, that was one of my suspensions but that didn't get me thrown out. What happened was I was just sitting out on campus on a park bench cutting this watermelon in half. I wasn't even eating. Actually, I was just sitting there with it and was about to cut it because half of the watermelon belonged to another dude, Tom Weaver, who is now a lawyer in Philadelphia. Half of it was his, so I was sitting there. But, you know, we knew what we were doing. We were making fun of these negroes. I was sitting there with it and this guy comes up to me and says, hey, don't you know you're at the capstone of negro education and you're sitting there blah, blah, blah--get rid of it. I said, well, I'll get rid of the half that's mine--which was, of course, more bullshit. [Howard President] Bush figured that we were fucking with him all the time. I don't know if the watermelon qua watermelon was the real deal, although to be sure the negroes didn't like that, but I don't know if it was a regular colored person with watermelon and he said that to them and they just left, I don't know if it would have had the same impact.
SALAAM: ...as when it was the leader of the merry pranksters?
BARAKA: Right. He knew we hadn't just wandered in off the fields with that watermelon. So he figured what are you niggers trying to do, you know you're trying to make a joke. That was funny to us because we thought they were corny anyway. Nobody there dug Charlie Parker. That's the way we estimated it. They didn't dig Charlie Parker so they didn't know what was really hip.
SALAAM: What year was this?
SALAAM: When you got kicked out what did you tell your parents?
BARAKA: I told them I got kicked out. There was nothing else I could tell them. That's when I went to the service, because I was really hurt and embarassed. I was embarassed because they were hurt.
SALAAM: Because you didn't mean to hurt them.
BARAKA: No, but I was their oldest son. I had scholarships when I went away from home. I wasn't supposed to just dive bomb like that. I don't know what they thought really except that they were surprised and disappointed that I had fucked it up like that.
SALAAM: And then you headed on in to the service which was a complete disaster.
BARAKA: Complete! I figured I had dive bombed into the underworld then. I even saw some of the guys I had been in college with who were now officers and I was like an airman nothing. I didn't have any stripes and then I got to be an airman third class and had one stripe, an airman second class with two stripes, while most of these dudes--hey, some of the dudes I was in school with are admirals and generals now. Andy Chambers the head of the naval something. Tim Bodie the head of air military command or some shit. A lot of these jet pilots was close friends of mine. The guy who was head of the secret service that guarded the president was my roommate in college.
SALAAM: You were kicked out of the air force also weren't you? What was the specific charge?
BARAKA: I was kicked out of the air force for fraudulent enlistment.
SALAAM: What was fraudulent about your enlistment?
BARAKA: That I hadn't told them that I was a red, that I had been fucking with people who were on the House Unamerican Activities Committee. It was largely bullshit, but you know. Remember they had the attorney general's list, which turned out to be completely unconstitutional, but the list which listed these organizations which were "out." Well, a couple of those organizations I had had affiliation with.
SALAAM: When they asked you or when you enlisted?
BARAKA: When they asked me later and when I thought about it, I told them.
SALAAM: These are your late teens and early twenties; was there any place that you could stay that was acceptable to you and you to them?
BARAKA: I don't know. I'm still trying to figure that out. When they kicked me out of the village, I thought that was complete.
SALAAM: What do you mean "when they kicked you out of the village"?
BARAKA: When I left. It's the same thing; when you figure you can't stay there anymore, when you figure that whatever they are doing you don't want any part of it, so what's the difference? In other words, when the management grows intolerable, you have to hit the road. If you don't hit the road then, that means you're just fooling around.
SALAAM: You were doing a Trane book a while back, whatever happened to it?
BARAKA: It's still around. The early chapters, about five or six chapters, are there, plus I've written reams of stuff on Coltrane that would go into it. So, I would do that early stuff and I would add all the stuff I written since and that would be the book.
SALAAM: Is Trane the only person you've done a book like that on?
BARAKA: No, I've got a book like that on Monk, and one on Miles, and probably Duke in a minute.
SALAAM: So what do you do, you just write this stuff? I mean, how do you write stuff like this knowing that it probably won't get published?
BARAKA: Some of it is published in small journals, some of it is published in Europe, some of it is fugitive stuff published in this review, that review, stuff all over, which when taken together would make a book. I would probably put a circle around it as an overview of the material, but I know there's enough material to make a book. Oh, I have a book on Malcolm X too. It's about thirteen or fourteen essays and some other stuff, seven or eight poems and a couple of plays...(end of transcript from Part One of a two part interview)
Poetry, Music, History, Message
Griot has grown in significance in the U.S., essentially because of the burgeoning perception here, now, that Afro-America is inextricably bound not only to Africa, but to the U.S., Pan-America (the Western Hemisphere, the actual “Western World”), and, through its Pan-African diaspora (pre and post and always, right now, modern), international culture too.
So the word Griot, the poet, musician, historian, story teller, is getting known all over the world. Though “French” as transmitted “symbol,” it is the best-known term for the West African Djali (or Djeli, but Djeli ya also means the Djali’s act, his “getting down” to take us up and out), the Central and South African Imbongi, the East African Mshairi or Ngombe (rapper), the Yoruba Iiala, all carry the same general meaning, though altered somewhat by the detail of his- tory of the specific culture they come out of, Africa is a continent, there are many cultures, from West to Central to East as from South to Central to North. To say African anything is like saying European anything. Where you talking about? . . . the question. Griot, with its “French” vibration, from the colonial “gift” the northerners imposed on their piece of the West African pie, yet carries with it the insistence of “Cry.” As in Cry Out? From tears, or in the
essentially secular remonstrance of “Town Crier,” as it was used in the North, Europe. (There is also, with that, the inference, in the word, of “Gray,” as in Gris, so that the Gray is being cried away, or there is some presence bursting out of the grayness. The fact that “gris-gris” is a “fetish,” i.e., carrier of, or celebrator of, or homage to, whatever power kept us cool, kept the gray away. (You mean “Grays,” like we used to call “white” people? If African “Lucy” is human #1, how does “white” get in it, unless you from outside the Van Allen belt?) What is important about this is that if you look at the Masks of Drama, you see the geography and philosophical aesthetic of the world. The smile at the bottom of the world, sided by the frown at the top. It means that the southerners’, the Africans’, highest point of revelation was the unbridled joy that we still find in Black U.S. churches, or now, with more “integration,” in Rock concerts everywhere. Those old women screaming in church on Sundays, “getting happy,” the Gospel (God Spell). Going up and outta here to receive the soul’s revelation!
In the north, they taught us in school, tragedy is the highest revelation of humanity, hence the frown. In Ency. Brit, they say they yet do not understand the purpose of laughter! and describe it as a concatenation of physical connections!! (Oh, yeh!). So that the dude who iced his ol man, slept with his mommy, and put out his own eyes so he could go colonial and not have to dig it is a paradigm of northern revelation, like Nietzche said, Emotion interferes with my thinking!
The Djali is not a “Town Crier,” he is a Town Laugher. We were not screaming when Trane blew because we were sad, were dragged, Trane had got down and went out and took us up with him! Up up and away, beyond the squares. He had got ON (like the African city named so because it was precisely constructed under the Sun to dig the biggest Sol we know). The original meaning of “Comedy” is “together or to gather in Joy” not “Slap Stick” (ow!).
The misunderstanding that many of us have, even those who style themselves “Afrocentric,” is that we don’t understand that Africa colors everything that exists! In the Western Hemisphere, we are a combination of African, European, Native (Asian). That is the culture and the people, what ain’t that ain’t here, except on paper, or as paper. The reciting of poetry with music, recycled in the ’50s by Langston Hughes, etc., and which received such ignorant response (both pro and con), was not new, it was the basis of what poetry (musical speech) has always been. Just as the talking heads of European theater, which got, after the Victorians and the modern Imp of colonialism, less integrated with music and dance, as ignorant supremacy, the devil’s brew, took over the world’s mind, and convinced people they didn’t exist and nobody else did either, Never did! Otherwise yall wouldn’t be laughing and still in chains.
Jam? You mean Jamaa, the family? Like a Jam Session? Or Ujamaa, the communal society. Is you all in all them colors (many stories, colores) because you communal, like Max Roach said, our Music always is. My man call it polyrhythmic, polyphonic. When the priest (before the is, and digging, prying into it) calls and we respond (come back), we together many, this connection opens us as Gates. You straight, Gate? Or the Imbongi, you mean you can drum (Ngombe) your way inside us? Be at the where we is under standing, so we get ON?
From the magazine: ISSUE 25, November 2004
people. May they pick me apart and take the useful parts,
the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave the bitter bullshit rotten white parts alone. — “leroy” (1969)
It is easy to mistake Amiri Baraka for a bitter old man. He grimaces a lot. He hisses when he laughs. He doesn’t hide his anger. Nor does he hide his love. Amiri Baraka loves Black people. The art. The history. The struggle. The musicality. The perseverance. In that sense, he is no different than many across the world who sometimes romanticize the artistic merit of Africans/African-Americans and the struggle from which it arises. Yet, within that love there is a far greater struggle, sometimes called “intellectual rationalization,” where one fights to justify a love being given where very little is given back in return. Amiri Baraka is our greatest living American poet. In this, the hip-hop era, one might expect that to amount to something. In our glorification of original gangstas and rebels how could we ever forget to glorify one of the most original voices of Black anger? The man who turned the New York theatre scene on its head 40 years ago with his play Dutchman. The man who spearheaded the Black Arts Movement of the late ’60s and early seventies, catapulting artists into capital-B, Black artists who flaunted their blackness like custom made bling. The man who, after a generation of horn blowers, dared to use his own baritone as his instrument. What Malcolm was to Islam, Amiri was to art. And art is culture.
We are unfair
We are black magicians
We make in black labs of the heart.
The fair are fair
And deathly white.
The day will not save them
And we own the night
— “We Own The Night” (1961)
Baraka has gone through phases. A downtown Beat poet who kicked it with Ginsberg, married a white Jewish woman (Hettie Cohen), danced to bebop, and visited Castro. A Black Nationalist who abandoned his white wife, moved to Harlem, studied Malcolm, and paraded with Sun Ra. A Third World Marxist who studied Mao, abandoned Black Nationalism, embraced the struggle of poor people around the world, and moved back to his hometown of Newark, New Jersey. Through it all he has remained a literary genius who has been loved and revered as one of America’s most original writers by Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, and a generation of contemporaries.
As a lover of theater, the first thing that enters my mind upon mention of Amiri Baraka is his OBIE award-winning play, Dutchman, which he penned when he still went by his birth name, LeRoi Jones. Dutchman was first presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City on March 24, 1964. Baraka had just published his now classic book Blues People: Negro Music in White America and won a Whitney Fellowship. So, he then turned to theater to offer a dramatic interpretation of his music text in one of the most famous monologues ever written:
“…They say, ‘I love Bessie Smith.’ And don’t even understand that Bessie Smith is saying, ‘Kiss my ass, kiss my black unruly ass.’ Before love, suffering, desire, anything you can explain, she’s saying, and very plainly, ‘Kiss my black ass.’ And if you don’t know that, it’s you that’s doing the kissing… And I’m the great would be poet. Yes, that’s right. Poet. Some kind of bastard literature… all it needs is a simple knife thrust. Just let me bleed you, you loud whore, and one poem vanished. A whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be your murder… If Bessie Smith had murdered some white people she wouldn’t have needed that music. She could have talked very straight and plain about the world. No metaphors. No grunts. No wiggles in the dark of her soul. Just straight two and two are four.”
Can you imagine?! Well, about 30 books and 20 odd plays later, imagine how it feels to be sitting in his Newark home as he delights in showing us the high craftsmanship of a CD box set of a late jazz musician that includes his liner notes. He’s excited. Happy. It’s obvious that even Amiri Baraka, who I have heard scream at Gen-Xers, “You are Black, first!”, he is an artist at heart. An artist who still gets excited at the prospect of being able to share his art with the people it was intended for. This is something I can relate to, deeply. It is one thing to be able to create, it is another thing, entirely, to be blessed with the opportunity to share that creation with others. And then, it is a completely different thing to have that creation be well received. Some artists gauge their entire careers on how the audience responds. Whether the audience realizes it or not, they are an essential part of the creative process. Baraka recalls the press after the opening night of Dutchman, saying, “I go down to the newsstand that night. All these papers. I look at all the papers, ‘Crazy nigga,’ ‘Nigga talk bad,’ ‘Nigga hate white people,’ and it became clear to me that they [white people] were gonna make me famous. So then, this thing came down to my head. This startling wave of responsibility that I had never had before… ‘oh, so you’re gonna permit me to speak?’” Yes Amiri Baraka was permitted to speak for an entire generation of frustrated black artists during the Black Arts Movement of the early ’70s. Poets took to cafes, open mics, and rallies and added their voices to the telling of his-story which was once singular and exclusive but was now becoming inclusive of greater truths and new realities. Playwrights took to the stage. Fashion took to the streets: dashikis, afros, head wraps. Get it? Art yields influence. (Shout out to Michael Moore)! And Amiri Baraka influenced the Black Panthers, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, you name it. The real power of influence occurs when you influence people who don’t even realize that they’ve been influenced by you. They may not even know who you are. This mainly happens when your art is so deeply embedded with love and your desire to see change in the world that the message becomes detached from the author and travels on its own. From heart to heart. We felt Amiri Baraka. I wasn’t even born yet and I felt him. I felt my mamma feeling him. He was part of the reason my mom turned to my dad, after having already birthed two mid-complexioned daughters, and said, “I just want a dark, dark boy with curly, curly hair.” Presto. Black Magic.
I ask Baraka about the function of the artist and he says, “I believe what Keats and DuBois believed: Truth and beauty… There’s no sense in being an artist except to tell the truth and to make the world more beautiful than it is. Now, the problem is that there are a lot of obstacles in the way of that. First of all, you can’t make a living off truth and beauty, but actually you can make a living by defying them. But in terms of my own view, it has broadened since the ’60s. Then it was Black Nationalist struggle and I felt that was necessary. You know, the whole domination of those folks, not merely for us to tell them but to regard them as being the standard above which we must measure ourselves? That’s bullshit. Don’t tell me how to write a poem… Our art has to be the refining sensibility of our own selves. Not somebody else’s soul. Certainly not our enemies’ soul. It has to refine and define our own lives and history.” And our future.
Amiri Baraka excuses himself from our short interview. He has to attend a basketball game that was organized by his son, in memory of his daughter Shani Baraka, the victim of a hate crime in Newark last year. His sister was murdered in the same way, years ago. He ponders out loud about what he is supposed to learn from these two tragedies in his life. Both sister and daughter victims of the clenched black fist once raised as a symbol of power. Black Power. But we seem to find our greatest strength when our fists clench pens, horns, drumsticks, microphones, balls, and other hands. And even Amiri Baraka, whose lifelong work could practically be described as a treatise on Black Anger, whose fist pounds podiums as he recites his poems, the most beautiful thing about this man is his smile.
Read more: http://www.thefader.com/2014/01/09/amiri-baraka-poet-laureate/#ixzz2rs5CnLP0
Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)
Most major news media outlets were fixated on the New Jersey bridge traffic scandal and Governor Chris Christie’s claims to have no knowledge of an intentional traffic block. However, a more personal loss in the poetry world was also announced today. Early Beat, iconic Black Arts Movement poet, and playwright Amiri Baraka was confirmed dead at age 79 today. He was admitted to Beth Israel Medical Center in December 2013 for unknown reasons, and the cause of death is not clear at this point.
Baraka hosted the Kimako’s Blues readings at his home in Newark and continued to publish work in recent years, including Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1961-1995, the essay collections Razor: Revolutionary Art for Cultural Revolution and Digging: The Afro American Soul of American Classical Music, and a short story collection Tales of the Out and Gone. His recent essay “A Post-Racial Anthology” on the Poetry Foundation blog criticized Charles Rowell’s Angles of Ascent and has been circulating on social media since May 2013.
A prolific author, his most popular works include his notable music-related writing in Blues People, the Obie Award-winning play “The Dutchman,” and the highly controversial poem “Somebody Blew Up America” about 9/11, which eventually led to the dissolution of the New Jersey Poet Laureate post. He was also a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
These are some of the details that will appear in most of the articles, like tonight’s New York Times and USA Today, on NPR and BET, and in the New Jersey news. What it will not say is how Baraka was inimitable and still reached out to poets everywhere and kept addressing controversial political stances until the end. Even if people didn’t agree with Baraka, he did challenge people and make them think, which is certainly the occupation of a poet.
By Eugene Holley Jr.
His funeral will be held at Newark Symphony Hall on Saturday, January 18 at 10:00 am. A viewing at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark will be held Friday, January 17 from 4:00pm to 9pm.
“He wrote plays, short stories, poetry, essays, and liner notes. The range of his gifts were formidable. The scope of his works is daunting. And he’ll forever be known as one of the greatest American writers, ever,” said Baraka’s son-in-law, University of Pennsylvania professor Guthrie Ramsey, author of The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop. (Ramsey is the husband of Kellie Jones, a professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, and she is one of two daughters born to Baraka and his first wife, Hettie [Cohen] Jones).
PW interviewed Baraka in 2000 at the time of the release of The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka from Lawrence Hill Books.
Born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, N.J. in 1934 to middle class parents, Jones attended Rutgers and Howard University, where he changed the spelling of his name to LeRoi, and he later studied comparative literature at Columbia University. After his discharge from the Air Force, he settled in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he joined the literary circles of Beat poet, Alan Ginsburg and Charles Olson of the Black Mountain Poets.
Baraka’s early poetry and criticism appeared in numerous literary and jazz periodicals including Naked Ear, Evergreen Review, The Record Changer and Big Table. He met Jewish poet/writer Hattie Cohen, whom he married in 1958. They co-published a literary journal, Yugen, and he founded a publishing company, Totem Press. Baraka’s first book of poetry, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, published in 1961, showed the influence of the Beats, and the genre’s critique of pretence, convention and materialism. But his trip to Castro’s Cuba in 1960 (recounted in the essay Cuba Libre in Home: Social Essays, a collection of essays), and his displeasure of the gradualism of the Civil Rights Movement, along with the assimilationist impulse of middle-class blacks, caused Baraka to move away from the Beats and focus more on race and African-American culture.
Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Baraka’s first major non-fiction work, published in 1963; a “theoretical endeavor,” that traced the evolution and aesthetics of black music from, “the neo-African slave chants through the primitive and classical blues to the scat-singing of the beboppers.” The book was inspired by Howard University English professor Sterling Brown’s lectures on the importance of jazz and the blues.
Baraka’s advocacy of jazz imbued his poetry with a fluid, rhythmic style that evoked the rhythmic and improvisational feel of an impassioned jazz solo, married to a fiery and unapologetically demand for social justice and self-determination.
"We want poems that kill,” Baraka wrote in his influential 1965 poem Black Art. "Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns/Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/ and take their weapons leaving them dead/ with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland."
His shift from the Beat poets and Greenich Village bohemianism to Black Nationalism is evident in his 1964 plays, The Toilet, The Slave, both of which also featured naturalist and absurdist themes. His most prominent stage production, Dutchman, is a one-act play where a white woman seduces an assimilated black man to his doom on a subway train. The play was awarded an Obie award for the Best American Play of the Year in 1964 and was later made into a film.
In 1965 Baraka moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater and School, wrote Home: Social Essays, a compendium of writings dealing with a number of subjects including Harlem, black literature and a critique of non-violence. He also co-edited Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing with Larry Neal. The book, a collection of works by such noted African American writers and activists as Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), Harold Cruse, A.B. Spellman, and Ed Bullins, marked Baraka as the father of The Black Arts Movement.
Inspired by Kawaida, a philosophical synthesis of Islam and traditional African beliefs developed by Maulana Karenga – the creator of Kwanzaa – LeRoi Jones changed his name, first to the Swahili Muslim Ameer Baraka (“blessed prince”), added “Imamu” a title which means “leader,” and finally settled on Amiri Baraka. After divorcing his first wife, Baraka married Sylvia Robinson (who later changed her name to Amina Baraka). He later moved back to his hometown, Newark N.J., and participated in many black political movements, including being arrested and jailed during the 1967 Newark riots, the Pan African Congress of African Peoples in Atlanta (1972) and the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Baraka later became a radical Marxist issuing a number of works that reflected his new political caste.
In 2001, Baraka’s poem, Who Blew Up America?, written in the aftermath of 9/11, contained language that was deemed anti-Semitic. He refused to apologize or resign over the incident and he was subsequently stripped of his title of Poet Laureate of New Jersey. Nonetheless, Amiri Baraka’s activism and artistry influenced generations of writers including Sonia Sanchez, Haki R. Madhubuti and Nikki Giovanni.
Among Baraka’s many published works are Black Music (1968), The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (1987), Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995)(1995), and Razor: Revolutionary Art for Cultural Revolution (2011). Several of Baraka’s recent works have been published and reprinted by Akashic Books, including new editions of Home: Social Essays (2009) and Black Music (2010) and Tales of the Out and The Gone (2009), a collection of short stories.
His introduction to Home: Social Essays (1966) offers an appropriate epitaph:
“I have been a lot of places in my time, and done a lot of things. And there is the sense of the Prodigal about my life that begs to be resolved. But one truth anyone reading these pieces ought to get is the sense of movement – the struggle, in myself, to understand where and who I am, and to move with that understanding.”
Edited by Paul Vangelisti
Marsilio Publishers, $32.95 (cloth),
Review by Robert Creeley
Reading this wide-ranging selection of Amiri Baraka's poetry over the almost forty years of its writing, one finds not only the much emphasized antagonism he has long felt toward the white majority but also the shifts of strategy and relationship in his own life that are his constant preoccupation. Wanting to understand what either Baraka or his poems have worked to accomplish, one must recognize how insistently he has tried to find a common ground of person, which will be neither the poet's usual lyric "voice," isolate and individual, nor simply the rhetoric of a generalized "public" persona. Clearly Baraka is always there, wry, often contemptuous, with characteristic quick wit and displacing humor, but what he values is the collective, the "we" which comes again and again into his poems.
The human world is of necessity political, endlessly repositioning its co-opted authority, frustrating the obvious plea for justice with privilege and abstract response, partitioning, dividing, isolating. If we use literature as a basic cultural qualification, and if reading and writing obviously are privileged, then these poems had to find a way to get in back of such arbitrary advantages to a means that all might have as a common term. It is perhaps too simple to argue that Amiri Baraka's uses of jazz and its great innovators (John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and many others) for his own locating measure prosodically, and as the company he most values as model, give him that securing place. Yet always he anchors himself in music, or better, in the physical sounding of whatever is said. How translate his title here aptly? By means of, way of, "blues," the having got there by, "blues," the I see the-"Blues." The light. (Duke Ellington!)
Some years ago I found by chance in the Buffalo Public Library a taped recording of Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) reading to a gathering of black writers here in Buffalo in the early sixties. It was just at the time when he was about to publish Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and Gwendolyn Brooks is introducing him to the company. She emphasizes that they may find him difficult, not just because he writes "modern poetry" but because he is not easy on the black community itself, and speaks of its accommodation of white middle class power with contempt and anger. He refuses its tacit agreement although he is still very much preoccupied with what his own feelings locate and define as are so many of the poets of this time.
I write poetry only to enlist the poetic consistently as apt description of my life. I write poetry only in order to feel, and that, finally, sensually, all the terms of my life. I write poetry to investigate myself, and my meaning and meanings.
But also to invest the world with a clearer understanding of itself, but only by virtue of my having brought some clearer understanding of my self into it. I wrote in a poem once, "Feeling predicts intelligence." ("Gatsby's Theory of Aesthetics")
One poem often anthologized, "An Agony. As Now," can serve as an example of Baraka's great power as a poet and also of the way in which his experience of himself becomes a means to recognize and respond to the world surrounding. Despite its articulate outrage, it is a simple one for the white reader to understand in that the emotional ground it makes evident is a common one, even if the social terms are not. It's a classic poem of existential isolation, almost Kafka-like-except there is no victim. Instead the compressed life of an increasingly volatile intelligence, put in a literal body which the surrounding "body" of the society defines as hateful, realizes vividly, bitterly, the trapped situation of its life.
I am inside someone
who hates me. I look
out from his eyes. Smell
what fouled tunes come in
to his breath. Love his
It is not possible to accept such a destructive state. Baraka's resistance (as Charles Olson might call it) becomes an adamant condition of both Baraka's world and his writing. Despite his particular relation to white peers such as John Wieners, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure (there are dedications specific to all three) and Jack Kerouac ("In Memory of Radio"), his friendship with Ed Dorn for whose magazine Wild Dog he provides a "New York letter," his co-editing of Floating Bear with Diane di Prima, all the company he finds and offers support to in his own magazine Yugen, his publication of Charles Olson's Projective Verse and Proprioception, his recognition and use of Robert Duncan ("Duncan Spoke of a Process") or Frank O'Hara, his readings with Allen Ginsberg and others of the Beat company, nonetheless he finds himself confined by their world, and misappropriated. It may well be that the violent, seemingly generic attack on Jews he makes in "Black Art" is a consequence of his need to become black in his own mind. The poem which follows in this present collection ("Poem for HalfWhite College Students") must be instance of a harshly earned rite of passage which his background-middle-class, well-educated-could not simply provide, and so a demotically inspired anger finds a like speech.
Whatever the point or explanation, Baraka refused to be a victim, and so such moving early poems as the "Crow Jane" sequence (seeming to echo the white world's proposal of Billie Holiday) give way to a far more aggressive attack on the societal evils he presumed were the case. Such a determination is clear throughout Baraka's work, whether in the poems of Transbluesency or in all his other collections, or else in equally significant books of fiction, essays, and drama. One of the public markers, surely, of black outrage in the sixties was Baraka's off-Broadway hit Dutchman, which earned him an Obie Award. There is also his crucial study of black music, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, a work of great range and clarity, wherein he notes, for example, that Louis Armstrong becomes a culture hero in the black community, whereas Bix Beiderbecke-in some obvious ways Armstrong's peer as a musician-is attacked and rejected, in contrast, by his own white neighbors. Even more persistent is Baraka's emphasis upon the destructive character of white habits and institutions for the black community, and he attacks his company for its attempt to find a compromise, to accept, even partly, roles that the enclosing white world has designed for them. So there has been an expectable cost to pay for his never having been a convenient minority artist or representative.
No doubt there is still resentment against the way Baraka gave up his rank and authority among the leading Beat poets as well as those akin, like Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Frank O'Hara, and all that now familiar company of the contesting, alternative "New American Poetry" of the fifties. There was a place for him among them which could finally have been accommodated by even the status quo, whereas his emphatic turn to the black community specifically, and his overt suspicion of, if not hostility to, all things "white," are to this day irritating indeed to all who wanted him to be as he seemingly first was. Reading the earlier poems, one's taken particularly through the ways in which his world was having to gain hard facts, shifting from the brilliantly introspective stance of his initial poems to the increasingly contemptuous anger at a body politic so bloated, so inherently lodged in its static complacence, that its own despairing people, black or white, mattered little.
Perhaps it would be far easier were our writers not to engage their worlds directly, particularly so if those worlds are also, in any part, our own. Teaching Freshman English in Buffalo toward the end of the sixties, there had been a number of books I'd assigned, hoping to make evident all the various and often opposed "places" we each one willy-nilly are. Finally, after we had read the painful accounting which Dutchman insists upon, a young woman, who came from an upstate New York small town close by, blurted out, "Why don't they go back where they came from and just leave us alone?" Then added, "Oh my god, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to say that."
It's fine if one's a person of the defining majority, which can manage without having to recognize its own presumption. Or so it might seem. Curious, too, that such loneliness comes of such fact, that our "silent majority" is David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd of the fifties, that no matter how many we are, there seems never the "other" we can recognize as not ourselves again but the companion, camerado in Whitman's own great cry, the endless, securing presence which is not a paranoid reflection but finally another simply and completely there. This will never prove an easy recognition.
What to do about the disparate, determining worlds we attempt to find lives in, the meager spaces, all size and no air, nowhere at all to sit down? How be nice, patient, polite, quiet, when it all never gets there in time and never will? How believe in what hates you, wants you gone?
The rot, the lie, the opposite
will always, if there is ever
that, exist. As life means death
and hot cold. Darkness light's
closest companion. Its twisted,
& rises as a spiral. It is No &
Yes, and not It for long.
Motion, the beat, tender mind
you humans even made music.
But, our memory anywhere
as humans and beyond, parallel
to everything, is rise is new is
Changed, a glowing peaceful
("'There was Something I Wanted to Tell You.' (33) Why?")
It is finally too simple in all respects to say only that LeRoi Jones, or Amiri Baraka, or this black poet, or just this poet is a great one. "Great poets" in the usual reference are a dime a dozen, i.e., "you pay your money and you take your choice." But it is always deeply useful, even instructive, to recognize that a poet among us has found means to speak for that common body of others with whom he or she shares a life. Obviously we are not always pleased. We are so rarely a "we" even to begin with. Often racist, never fair, always partial with a vengeance to his people, Baraka really is a great poet in that he tells us how it is with him and those others, and he always has and will. Even more, he's been able to make it sing with a wild, percussive insistence, and an abiding, utterly artful grace. I don't think it gets any better.
Paul Vangelisti, capable poet and translator in his own right, has done a great service in the editing of this book, and he provides a succinctly defining history of Baraka's life in his introduction, making clear the pattern the writing itself effects. Too, the select bibliography Vangelisti includes at the end notes thirty-one books of poetry, fiction, essays, drama, and autobiography by Baraka published between 1961 and 1995 (the year of this book's publication). It is a stunning record. What it adds up to is a gift for all concerned.
By Mike Sonksen
January 10, 2014
Amiri Baraka, the poet-activist-playwright-music critic and founder of the Black Arts Movement, died on January 9 at 79 years of age. Dating back to his earliest days, affiliated with the Beat Generation poets, to his time as New Jersey State Poet Laureate, Baraka's long, complicated career places him in the pantheon of most influential scribes of the last Century. This week L.A. Letters celebrates one of the greatest to ever pick up a pen, write a play or rip a poem. Long live Leroi Jones.
Born in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey, as Everett LeRoi Jones, his prolific career is too extensive to describe it all, but here are key particulars: he studied briefly at Rutgers and Howard before a quick stint in the U.S. Air Force in 1954. An anonymous letter to one of his commanding officers accused him of being a Communist, and when his journal writings were found in his personal belongings he was issued a dishonorable discharge by the authorities.
He took his potent words and landed in Greenwich Village soon after, where he collaborated with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in venues like the Living Theater. He married Hettie Cohen in 1958, and edited several literary journals, like Yugen, Kulchur, and The Floating Bear. His own writings began to be noticed as his first book of poems, "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note," was published in 1961. He had an affair during this time with poet Diane DiPrima; several books deal with this era and the women of the Beat Generation.
During this time Jones participated in the legendary "Umbra" Poetry workshop with Lorenzo Thomas, Ishmael Reed, and David Henderson. Still known as LeRoi Jones, his 1963 book, "Blues People" was described by Langston Hughes as "the first book on jazz by a Negro writer," shortly after it published. His insight into the ethos behind the music and its influence is why the book is still considered one of the greatest books on the development of Black Music in America. The 50th anniversary of its publication last year led to another reissue of the classic work.
The book explicates the history of African-American music, from its development 500 years back, all the way up to the mid-20th Century. He analyzes the path made from slavery to American citizenship, and how the social factors endured created new forms of music. The narrative differentiates different genres of jazz, and maps subcultures of the Blues scene in cities like Kansas City and Chicago. Another factor that makes the book great is that he intimately knew most of the contemporary musicians he mentions, like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, and Miles Davis.
One of the conclusions the book makes clear is that the continuous re-emergence of strong Negro influences to revitalize American popular music should by now be pretty well understood. What usually happened [...] was that finally too much exposure to the debilitating qualities of popular expression tended to lessen the emotional validity of the Afro-American forms; then more or less violent reactions to this overexposure altered their overall shape [...] The result was a deliberately changing, constantly self-refining folk expression, the limbs of which grew so large that they extended into the wider emotional field to which all of Western art wants to constantly address itself.
What makes this comment even more prescient is that it was written in 1963. Motown had only just begun and the musical form known as Hip Hop was still a decade away from coming to rise in the South Bronx. Following those developments, this phenomenon he describes is even truer now than it was then, and the influence continues to grow as time goes on. In a larger context the appropriation of African-American culture he writes about in music is also true in other forms of art, as well as sports and other realms of popular culture. Jones' early jazz criticism also found a home in "Down Beat" magazine. Following "Blues People" was his play, "The Dutchmen," in 1964. Portraying an encounter between an interracial couple on the New York City train, the play received an Obie Award and incited controversy for the issues it raised.
In 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones changed his name and became known as Amiri Baraka. He left his wife Hettie Jones and their two children, and a few years later married Sylvia Robinson, now known as Amina Baraka; they have stayed together the last five decades. All the particulars are too much to get into here, but what's most significant is that in 1965 his poem "Black Art" launched the Black Arts Movement and the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School in Harlem.
He renounced his former interracial integrationist policies and became a "Black cultural nationalist." As most know, Baraka was not the only one politicized by the death of Malcolm X. As the Black Panthers were coming to rise, it was universally agreed that Baraka's poetry and the emerging Black Arts writers were the artistic branch of the Black Power Movement. Around the same time the Watts Writers Workshop came to rise in Los Angeles.
Baraka's poem was one of the manifestos of a movement that quickly went worldwide. Inspired by the Black Arts Movement, Kamau Brathwaite, John Larose, and Andrew Salkey cofounded the Caribbean Arts Movement in London in 1966. Guided by Black Self-Determination like the Black Arts Movement, the Caribbean Arts Movement also proposed a Caribbean-centric platform focused on creating and perfecting a Caribbean aesthetic representative of the islands rather than Europe.
There are few writers that can match the sheer productivity of Baraka. In addition to the 30-plus volumes of his poetry, drama, fiction, and cultural criticism are several anthologies he edited. Perhaps the most famous is 1968's seminal "Black Fire," the anthology he edited with Larry Neal. Among the many volumes from the Black Arts Movement, this collection is one of the undisputed definitive tomes with over 70 black writers, including Sonia Sanchez, Sun-Ra, Stokely Carmichael, A.B. Spellman, Reginald Lockett, Q.R. Hand, K. William Kgositile, Henry Dumas, Lorenzo Thomas, Victor Hernandez Cruz, and Ben Caldwell.
Baraka loved to engage crowds and never shied away from a literary festival, bookstore or major reading. He did a number of events in Southern California over the last five years, including the Leimert Park Book Fair where I last saw him in the Summer of 2012. His presentation was spirited as ever as he delivered his poem "Low Ku's".
I first saw him in Oakland in 1997 at the La Pena Cultural Center. The first question he asked the workshop was, "Why do you write?" He then asked, "What poets do you like and why?" I had just graduated from UCLA at the time and coincidentally was in the Bay Area when Baraka was reading. Somewhere lost in an old journal are notes from that late afternoon workshop/performance he gave.
A few years later I saw him read at USC in a big auditorium. An angry heckler in the corner of the room tried to interrupt him in the middle of the reading and Baraka yelled him down with no hesitation. His 2002 poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," eventually led him to losing the post as New Jersey Poet Laureate because he was accused of Anti-Semitism. Around the same time he recorded his poem, "Something in the Way of Things," with the Roots. The piece is well performed and as powerful as ever. The musical backdrop created by the Roots harnessed the poem's explosive quality, changing tones and tempos. Baraka delivers line after line: "I tried to put a spell on him but his spirit was illiterate."
In 2009 the University of California Press published a 400-page book of 85 of his essays, "Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music." In his John Coltrane essay he writes, "Trane's constant assaults on the given, the status quo, the tin pan alley of the soul, was what Malcolm attempted in our social life." Baraka's standard for writing about music equals the notoriety of his poetry. In May 2013 he reviewed a new anthology for Poetry, the influential Chicago-based literary magazine. The anthology "Angles of Ascent" is a collection of Contemporary African-American poetry. Titling his review, "A Post-Racial Anthology?" Baraka takes issue with the collection for several reasons. Baraka notes, "This is a bizarre collection. It seems that it has been pulled together as a relentless 'anti' to one thing: the Black Arts Movement." Baraka proceeds to take the editor, Charles Henry Rowell to task, taking the conversation back to 1966, Robert Hayden, and Fisk University. This is when Hayden and Baraka split over differences in opinion on the spirit of Black poetry. Baraka also name checks Rowell's literary magazine, Callaloo, and disputes the organization of the anthology and a few of the poets selected. The quote Poetry put on their back cover and one of the strongest sentiments in the article is: "Are we being faulted for 'hating' slavery, white supremacy, and racism?"
The entire review is filled with quotable blurbs charged with his patented wit. "This is poppycock at its poppiest and cockiest." Baraka also laments Rowell for ignoring spoken word and rap when he writes, "E.G. Bailey, Jessica Care More, Ras Baraka, Ewuare X. Osayaande, Zayid Muhammad, Taalam Acey, Rasim Allah, Black Thought, Daniel Beatty, Saul Williams, and Stacyann Chin are all missing." Around the same time Baraka's review published in Poetry he appeared at Cal State L.A. for a reading. Though I was unable to attend, I heard he was sharper than ever. Over the years he showed gradual signs of aging, but never slowed down his prolific rate of publishing and public readings. He was scheduled to appear at UC Merced in March 2014.
There are not enough words to eulogize Baraka and his influence on literature and contemporary culture. His own words from a poem on John Coltrane are a message I have often returned to in moments of uncertainty and question. In the poem "AM/Trak," reflecting on the death of his close friend John Coltrane, he closes with the following sublime series of lines:
And yet last night I played Meditations
& it told me what to do
Live, you crazy mother
Like Coltrane did for him, Amiri Baraka has inspired generations to organize their ish as rightly burning. Salute to Amiri Baraka's pioneering spirit and contribution to contemporary culture. He's an undisputed heavyweight champion in the realm of International and American letters.
by Andrew Epstein
Locus Solus: New York School of Poets
To try to help fill this gap, I’m posting an extended excerpt here from my book, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry, about the close personal and literary relationship between Baraka and O’Hara. (This is just one part of a much more extensive argument I make about Baraka’s work as a whole and its interconnections with O’Hara, including discussions of Baraka’s works that echo O’Hara’s writing or refer to him by name — if you’re interested, please check out another longer excerpt from a different chapter here, or the book as a whole).
So here it is — an excerpt (sans the lengthy footnotes) from my chapter “‘Against the Speech of Friends’: Baraka’s White Friend Blues” in Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Roi and Frank: The Bobbsey Twins in Greenwich Village
Soon after Baraka dove into the heart of the New York avant-garde milieu in the late 1950s and began establishing a tight network of literary alliances and friendships, he grew close to that human whirlwind at the center of the art and poetry world, Frank O’Hara. Of all the friendships Baraka established with prominent members of the avant-garde, his relationship with O’Hara became one of the most important in his early development, and one of the most interesting alliances within the New American Poetry movement. At what was arguably the peak of both of their careers (from roughly 1958 to 1964) they were deeply involved in each other’s lives and works, supporting one another’s writing, reading each other closely, performing together frequently, appearing alongside one another in the pages of Baraka’s two journals Yugen and The Floating Bear, and working as editors together on the journal Kulchur. If for this reason alone, it is necessary for us to reconsider Baraka as a figure deeply intertwined with the developing New York School and its poetics.
In his recent, posthumously published memoir about O’Hara, one of his closest friends and longtime roommate Joe LeSueur includes Baraka in a short list of people who were not merely “casual friends and acquaintances” of O’Hara’s, but rather “friends who saw him all the time, who confided in him, and who in some instances went to bed with him” (126). LeSueur adds that, among the legions of young poets who flocked to O’Hara in the early 1960s – like such acknowledged members of the New York School’s so-called “Second Generation,” Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson, Frank Lima, Tony Towle, and David Shapiro – Baraka was surely one of the most important: “Frank was closer to Roi than he was to Ted or any of the others, Bill Berkson excepted” (244). And because Baraka was “unusually mature and accomplished for his age,” and also because as editor of Yugen and The Floating Bear “he was one of Frank’s publishers,” LeSueur affirms that “from the beginning of their friendship, Roi was a colleague of Frank’s and never, like some of the other budding poets, a disciple, or in future years, after his death, what I called an O’Hara freak, as in Jesus freak…” (245).
In one letter, O’Hara characterized his friendship with Baraka by using the familiar trope of siblinghood, simultaneously hinting that such closeness can turn into a threatening merger of identities: “We’ve been giving a lot of readings together which is getting to be like the Bobsy [sic] Twins so we’re stopping out of exhaustion” (Gooch 426). At editorial meetings for Kulchur, the poet Jim Brodey recalled, the two were playfully in cahoots – “[Frank] would make remarks, then LeRoi would make a remark, and they’d kick each other under the table” (Gooch 388). In her memoir, Baraka’s ex-wife Hettie Jones observes that this tight, even fraternal bond was founded on a sense of kinship and resemblance. “He and Frank O’Hara had become good friends,” Jones writes, “They were equal and alike, small, spare, original, confident, stuck on themselves for good reasons” (98). Despite such ample evidence of their close affiliation, despite their frequent references to one another in their works, little attention has been paid to Baraka’s friendship with O’Hara, nor to his more general proximity to the New York avant-garde milieu centered around O’Hara and the New York School of poets (in contrast to the Beats, with whom he is much more often associated).
Almost a decade younger and a much later arrival on the New York scene, Baraka was deeply influenced by O’Hara’s poetry and intellectual sensibility. In his Autobiography, Baraka offers a capsule assessment of what he saw and admired in his friend’s work: steeped in “the high sophistication and motley ambience of the city,” O’Hara’s was “a French(-Russian) surreal-tinged poetry. A poetry of expansiveness and big emotion. Sometimes a poetry of dazzling abstraction and shifting colorful surfaces. It was out of the Apollinaire of Zone but also close to Whitman and Mayakovsky” (233). When asked years later by an interviewer about what he might have learned from O’Hara and Ginsberg, Baraka responded, with a touch of defensiveness,
the only aspect I could say of O’Hara and Ginsberg that I could have possibly appropriated was the kind of openness that I always got from them… . O’Hara’s openness was much more casual and personal (Ginsberg’s was super dramatic). O’Hara’s openness and Ginsberg’s openness might have influenced me because finally I wanted to write in a way that was direct and in that I could say the things I wanted to say, even about myself, and maybe that did help me to lose any restraints as far as doing it. (qtd. Harris 141; printed in 1980)
Notwithstanding Baraka’s rather cagey retrospective assessment, his work shows the profound impact of not only O’Hara’s candor and open, mobile poetic form, but also his embrace of the demotic, the casual, and the colloquial, his pluralism and impatience with rigid absolutism, his attention to popular culture and quotidian urban existence, his use of ironic humor and play within the heretofore deadly serious realm of poetry, and his steady attention to friendship and the vagaries of the protean self.
As we will see, O’Hara himself makes often subtle appearances in Baraka’s work, becoming a locus of complex attitudes about friendship and homosexuality. Just as Baraka would become a figure, or as Aldon Nielsen puts it, an “intertext” in O’Hara’s poetry, O’Hara is an important marker in Baraka’s verbal and mental landscape, a magnetic force he is drawn towards and repulsed by – an attractive symbol of the avant-garde, whiteness, and homosexuality he will later feel compelled to renounce (Writing 214). In other words, Frank O’Hara (via both his poetics and his presence as avant-garde companion) plays a significant role in Baraka’s poetry and its ongoing effort to represent and understand friendship and community. It is also not hard to spot signs of O’Hara’s language, his poetic tone and typical motifs, dotting Baraka’s work. For example, the dire, prophetic ending of Baraka’s important essay “Cuba Libre” seems to echo, in a strange way, the last words of O’Hara’s “Personism”: where O’Hara writes in 1959 that “Personism” “like Africa, is on the rise. The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out,” in 1961, Baraka characteristically appropriates and makes over O’Hara’s language and idea into a more political, serious statement: “But the Cubans, and the other new peoples (in Asia, Africa, South America) don’t need us, and we had better stay out of their way” (CP 499, Home 63).
In his 1984 Autobiography, Baraka spends several pages recalling his relationship with O’Hara with evident fondness. “Frank and I were friends,” he writes. “I admired his genuine sophistication, his complete knowledge of the New York creative scene” (234). In his eyes:
"Frank was one of the most incisive and knowledgeable critics of painting in New York at the time. The New York school was chiefly, to me, O’Hara. And if you were anywhere around Frank, as he launched into this subject or that, always on top, laughing, gesturing, exclaiming, being as broad as any topic, and the easy sense of sophistication which gave him an obvious “leadership,” you’d understand. (He’d turn red at such a suggestion. “Listen, my dear, you can take that leadership business and shove it!”). (233)
As Baraka recalls, the friendship took off quickly and was energized by a sense of camaraderie, alliance, and mutual exchange: “I started meeting Frank for lunch some afternoons at joints near our workplaces – We’d meet at some of those bar-restaurants on the Upper East Side and drink and bullshit, exchange rumors and gossip, and make plans and hear the latest about the greatest” (234). (One of these lunches would be immortalized in O’Hara’s well-known “Personal Poem,” where the two poets dine on fish and ale, talk about Miles Davis being beaten by police, and gossip about their likes and dislikes). Baraka informed O’Hara’s biographer Brad Gooch that the two had an unusually healthy alliance that stood out in the back-biting, competitive avant-garde scene: “I think Frank and I had an unspoken agreement not to jump on each other. We tended to be allies. It was a political jungle Downtown. Even as an artsy world, it was still very political, and very much he-said and she-said, and rumors of this and rumors of that, and a coup in the East and a coup in the West. But we were very supportive of each other” (Gooch 338).
An alliance with the well-connected O’Hara also undoubtedly opened doors for Baraka, as he recalls that “with Frank O’Hara, one spun and darted through the New York art scene, meeting Balanchine or Merce Cunningham or John Cage or de Kooning or Larry Rivers” (A 235). In Gooch’s O’Hara biography, Baraka explains that “Frank introduced me to Lincoln Kirstein, Leonard Bernstein, Lauren Bacall. Bernstein came up with this idea that he wanted to do music for The Toilet” (although he does go on to say how he rebuffed the tuxedo-wearing Bernstein in true bohemian fashion, telling the composer “I would get somebody elegant like Duke Ellington. I told him he didn’t even dress as good as Duke Ellington”) (427-8).
Like many intense friendships, the relationship seems to have been inspiring, mutually satisfying, and even symbiotic. For his part, O’Hara was drawn to Baraka for a number of reasons. For one thing, Baraka stirred O’Hara’s political sensibilities and his passionate convictions about racial equality and justice. Gooch observes that “Jones’s involvement with the politics of race in America was thrilling to O’Hara. As Kenneth Koch once remarked to David Shapiro, ‘Frank is a revolutionary poet without a revolution’” – and knowing Baraka gave him special proximity to the most burning issue of the day (426). Even long after Baraka had renounced the entire world of the avant-garde for what he felt was its apolitical passivity, he still believed that O’Hara, like Allen Ginsberg, was more politically progressive and committed to the Civil Rights struggle than the rest. “Frank at least had a political sense,” he told O’Hara’s biographer. “Kenneth Koch and Kenward Elmslie and all those people were always highly antipolitical, which is why I couldn’t get along with them longer than two minutes” (Gooch 425).
Furthermore, as I discuss later in more detail, O’Hara’s fascination with Baraka was no doubt complicated by a powerful romantic, sexual attraction that may or may not have been reciprocated. (Critics have begun to unpack O’Hara’s complicated attitudes about race, including the sexual fantasies about black male sexuality that frequently enter his work, which undoubtedly shape his friendship with Baraka). Gooch relates that “O’Hara’s relationship with Jones was always a matter of conjecture to those around them and O’Hara did little to allay the confusion.” He goes on to quote Kenneth Koch’s recollection of O’Hara’s initial excitement upon meeting Baraka:
He said he’d met this marvelous young poet who was black and good-looking and very interesting. ‘And not only that,’ he said, ‘he’s gay’…. I don’t know whether LeRoi yielded to Frank’s almost irresistible charms or not… So I assumed that LeRoi was gay for a while, but that’s before I got to know him. I don’t know whether Frank was serious or not. Maybe he was just optimistic. (337)
At the very least, we can assume that the relationship between O’Hara and Baraka was flirtatious and intense, and that O’Hara – who was both notoriously attracted to black men and had a knack for falling for his ostensibly straight friends – probably propositioned Baraka. Baraka’s own sexuality seems to have been rather fluid at this point; as we will see, he filled his writings with oblique allusions to his own bisexual experimentation and homoerotic desires. Gooch mentions that Diane di Prima, who was sleeping with the married Baraka, “was also privy to signs of the light flirting [between Baraka and O’Hara] that went on at the time. According to di Prima, ‘When Roi and I were in the thick of our affair, I said to him, ‘Let’s run away together to Mexico.’ He said, ‘You’re the second person who asked me to do that this week.’ I said, ‘Who was the other one?’ He said, ‘Frank’” (Gooch 370). In LeSueur’s memoir, we find yet another clue: he relates that Baraka would frequently drop by the apartment LeSueur shared with O’Hara, “sometimes staying over and sharing Frank’s bed, while I, the very soul of discretion, was in my own bed, minding my own business, never asking questions, never saying a word to anyone about what I thought might be going on, Roi being a married man, a father, a stud, a sexist, a heterosexual!” (246).
For whatever mixture of reasons, O’Hara took a keen interest in the young, energetic Baraka (whom he described in a letter to Ashbery not long after meeting him as “editor of Yugen and a saint”), and became an avid and vocal advocate of his work, at the same time that Baraka was printing O’Hara’s poems in his own publishing ventures (29 October 1959). In 1961, he told Vincent Warren about a reading they had given together, informing him that “Roi has now completed his The System of Dante’s Hell (he read parts of the last ‘canto’) and I think it is one of the best and most important works of our time” (17 July 1961). In an open letter O’Hara wrote to defend Baraka after he had been arrested on obscenity charges for publishing an excerpt of The System of Dante’s Hell (a play) and parts of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, O’Hara wrote that “Mr. Jones’s play I found powerful and moving. Part of a longer and not-yet published work, it is a strong indictment of moral turpitude. This work as a whole, The System of Dante’s Hell, is to my mind a major contribution to recent literature, certainly the finest piece of American prose since Kerouac’s first publications. I was therefore grateful for the publication of even this excerpt” (16 October 1961).
In 1964, O’Hara reported to Larry Rivers that “Roi has also had a resounding triumph at the Cherry Lane … with a one-act play called Dutchman. It’s a thrilling play…. Roi also had an almost full page on him in Newsweek. Isn’t that heaven?” (18 April 1964). When Dutchman became a succès du scandale in 1964, and was hotly debated by the intelligentsia and roundly criticized by Philip Roth, O’Hara wrote a forceful defense of the play in a letter to The New York Review of Books. Countering Roth’s preference for Edward Albee’s Zoo Story over Dutchman, O’Hara argues that Albee’s play has “a ridiculous denouement and puts in question all that went before; Dutchman grows in power, concentration and meaning through every word and gesture” (qtd. in Gooch 427). Typically unwilling to see the play as a simple diatribe about racial hatred, O’Hara writes that his friend’s play offers “a larger, and more final, vision of American life which relates as closely to thirty-eight mute witnesses to murder in New York City as it does to brutalities in Florida and Mississippi. This is all rendered in action and its wide application cannot be denied” (qtd. in Gooch 427).
In another letter to Rivers, O’Hara mentions playing the role of sounding board for (or even collaborator with) Baraka as he worked on his play The Toilet: “I have to get myself down to the 5 Spot where I am going to meet LeRoi and get the manuscript of his new play which he is giving me to read because his square agent wants him to make some changes which will render it less ‘out.’ He is certainly asking the right person to read it, for as you know I would never ask him to put it back ‘in’” (7 April 1963).
Not only did O’Hara vet, champion, and influence Baraka’s work, but he was influenced by Baraka in turn, finding poetic inspiration in his friend’s presence and example. It is worth stressing the pivotal, almost collaborative, role Baraka plays in the genesis of O’Hara’s most important statement of poetics, “Personism,” the mock manifesto which announces the arrival of O’Hara’s own “movement.” Reflecting on this manifesto in a later statement, O’Hara indicates that without Baraka the piece would presumably not exist: “It was, as a matter of fact, intended for Don Allen’s [New American Poetry] anthology, and I was encouraged to write it because LeRoi told me at lunch that he had written a statement for the anthology” (CP 510-11). As Baraka remembers it, this new “movement” was born out of their insouciant, spontaneous conversation, and, despite its lightheartedness, it seems to have had its roots in aesthetic soil they both shared: “We went to lunch and said ‘Let’s think of a movement.’ ‘What movement?’ ‘Personism.’ It was Frank’s movement. He thought it up. What was good for me was that it meant that you could say exactly what was on your mind and you could say it in a kind of conversational tone rather than some haughty public tone for public consumption” (Gooch 338).
At the very crux of the manifesto itself, O’Hara relates this curious moment of inception: “It was founded one day by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born… It puts the poet squarely between the poet and the person” (CP 499). If one of the raison d’êtres of O’Hara’s poetics, as he lays out here with half-seriousness, is the idea of poetry as an intersubjective, communicative act, it is interesting to note that while the inaugural “Personist” poem he wrote that day, “Personal Poem,” is in some ways a love poem (for Vincent Warren), it remains largely about the dialogic exchange carried on by O’Hara and Baraka over lunch (“LeRoi comes in / and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12 / times last night … we go eat some fish and some ale it’s / cool but crowded we don’t like Lionel Trilling / we decide, we like Don Allen we don’t like / Henry James so much we like Herman Melville” (CP 335-336). As Michael Magee notes, “The poem itself recounts the conversation between O’Hara and Baraka, so it is some sense already ‘between’ them as much as it is ‘between’ O’Hara and Warren” (“Tribes” 698). With Baraka as its inspiration, O’Hara’s poem captures the sense of friendship as conduit and exchange, where “we” align our tastes and judgments within a network or cultural field of literary affiliations and cultural forces (for example, jointly deciding that Don Allen trumps Trilling).
For all its sense of camaraderie, the encounter and the sense of unity it fosters is depicted as momentary, fleeting, and shadowed by trouble. First, as a tableau of interracial communication, the racially-charged beating of Miles Davis – sparked by his rapprochement with a white woman – lingers ominously in the background of this “integrated” poets’ lunch. (At the same time, it is notable that what touched off the disturbing incident in which Davis was beaten was the musician’s daring to cross the racial divide in 1950s America, just as O’Hara and Baraka do in this poem). Second, the poem breaks off with a departure and return to solitude: “I wonder if one person out of 8,000,000 is / thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi / and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go / back to work happy at the thought possibly so” (CP 336).
Perhaps O’Hara’s friendship with Baraka had something to do with his effort, in “Personism,” to account for his poetics as a kinetic, improvised art form founded on both friendship and its distances (“It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it!”). Magee makes a forceful case that Baraka is extremely important to “Personism” and to O’Hara’s poetry in general, pointing out that not only did “Personal Poem” and “Personism” first appear in Baraka’s Yugen, but that his conversations with Baraka (and especially the latter’s belief in “jazz as a form of democratic symbolic action”) inspired O’Hara’s interest “in the politics of poetic form and the possibilities of collective improvisation” (697).
For O’Hara and his vision of friendship, Baraka in some ways embodies both the inspiring possibilities of person-to-person communication (“the only truth is face to face,” he puts it in his greatest poem about interracial concord, “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets”) and its limitations.
… As intertexts in each other’s writings, as friends deeply intertwined with one another’s lives and poems, O’Hara and Baraka exemplify the way friendship and poetry criss-cross in postwar American poetry. Baraka’s writings find him articulating again and again the severe ambivalence and confusion he feels about the friendships he had fostered with a circle of brilliant, ambitious, creative white friends at a moment when everything in his life and times seemed to be spinning wildly out of control.
The Collected Letters of Amiri Baraka and Ed Dorn (1959-1960). Edited by Claudia Moreno Pisano
Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: Selections from the Collected Letters 1959-1960
ed. Claudia Moreno Pisano
Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters presents the correspondence of twentieth-century North American poets Edward Dorn and Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) between the years 1959 and 1965. The major basis of their relationship, and these letters, is undoubtedly an artistic one, the early 1960s finding both poets just beginning to publish and becoming active, public figures. This correspondence becomes the primary ground for a wide range of discussions, from quotidian observations of being snowbound without enough heat or being overdressed on an overly warm spring day to the hashing out of experiences, fears, and anxieties directly related to the socio-political culture of the early 1960s: bar fights around race matters, an aggravated police presence around fears of agitation and protests. A look at the complete set of letters finds them formative and showing signs of what is to come later: by 1965, knowledge, beliefs, actions, friendships, and alliances had shifted drastically, setting the stage for a highly tumultuous late 1960s. The correspondence between Dorn and Baraka takes us from a time when the norms of cultural ideology held Americans squarely in a superficial postwar ease to the moments when the uncovering of darker truths became manifest and the veneer of consumer culture began to fall apart. Dorn and Baraka both understood the poem as an act of the intellect and knew that poetry is a public action that carries with it responsibility. With this sense of art as not only a valid but a necessary means of grappling with and understanding both the beautiful and the horrific in the world fueling each poet, the letters become both reflection and place of creation, the ground upon which to experiment.
34 pp, soft-bound, stapled
Dorn at Electronic Poetry Center (University of Buffalo)
Dorn at the Poetry Foundation
Dorn at Penn Sound
Baraka at Modern American Poetry
Baraka at Academy of American Poets
Baraka at Penn Sound
Claudia Pisano is a doctoral candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, working in the field of American Studies. She is currently teaching literature courses at Hunter College. In the past several years she has taught as an adjunct lecturer at several CUNY colleges, worked for various activist, research, and poetry non-profit organizations, and edited a small arts-centered magazine. She is a native Brooklynite.
Edward Dorn (1929-1999) was born in the poverty-stricken Illinois of the Great Depression, forever marked by the circumstances and land from which he came. Intellectually hungry and always dissatisfied with the status quo, Dorn spent several years studying with Charles Olson, both in and out of Black Mountain. Dorn engaged in sharp, critical inquiry in an attempt to push into motion what he knew was a too-often complacent country. His frankness landed him the dubious honor of, in the words of fellow poet Tom Raworth, “a lonely position at the best of times… a persona non grata.” In the Summer 2004 special double issue of Chicago Review dedicated to Dorn, editor Erik Steinhoff understands that though “Dorn should need no introduction” given his location in the radical and powerful lineage of “the Black Mountaineers arrayed under and around Charles Olson’s decisive influence… it is also understandable that Dorn would need an introduction.” Deemed a “difficult” poet and man by many, Dorn’s work “functions as a department of disturbances, running athwart whatever linguistic, political, or cultural securities or sincerities we might hold.” Dorn spent his life writing, teaching, and editing as he traveled between England and North America; he would accept a position at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1977 and remain there until the end of his life.
Newark, New Jersey-born Amiri Baraka (b. 1934) is a poet, writer, dramatist, and activist. Rejecting his lower middle class black lifestyle and receiving a dishonorable discharge by the Air Force (the Error Farce, in his own words), by 1958 Jones had ventured to New York City, where he spent many years in Greenwich Village, an integral participant in the bohemian poetry, theater, and music scenes. Baraka would write in a wide range of artistic forms, including poetry, plays, essays, reviews, even liner notes for the jazz records coming out of the artistic ferment of the mid-twentieth century music world. Having seen several poems of Dorn’s in various small literary magazines, Baraka began writing to him with praises and a request for poems for his own magazine, Yugen. This was the first little magazine to include all the various groups that would come to comprise the New American Poetry; the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance poets, among others, were all featured. In 1965, after the death of Malcolm X, Baraka moved uptown to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre, a key part of the Black Arts Movement. Baraka has since returned to Newark, continuing his works in the arts and as an activist.
A Post-Racial Anthology?
Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry
BY AMIRI BARAKA
This is a bizarre collection. It seems that it has been pulled together as a relentless “anti” to one thing: the Black Arts Movement. Charles Henry Rowell’s introduction and many of the quotes he gleans are aimed at rendering the Black Arts Movement as old school, backward, fundamentally artless. He calls his poets “literary,” i.e., Black Literary poets.
The blurb from the publisher W.W. Norton says that the bookmmmmm
"...is not just another poetry anthology. It is a gathering of poems that demonstrate what happens when writers in a marginalized community collectively turn from dedicating their writing to political, social, and economic struggles, and instead devote themselves, as artists, to the art of their poems and to the ideas they embody. These poets bear witness to the interior landscape of their own individual selves or examine the private or personal worlds of invented personae and, therefore, of human beings living in our modern and postmodern worlds."
My God, what imbecilic garbage! You mean, forget the actual world, have nothing to do with the real world and real people ... invent it all! You can see how that would be some far-right instruction for “a marginalized community,” especially one with the history of the Afro-American people: We don’t want to hear all that stuff ... make up a pleasanter group of beings with pleasanter, more literary lives than yourselves and then we will perhaps consider it art!
This embarrassing gobbledygook was probably a paraphrase of the editor’s personal gobble. But the copywriters might be given a temporary pass because they know nothing about Afro-American literature; it is the Norton “suits” that could be looked at askance because of their ignorant hiring practices.
To get a closer view of where Rowell comes in, look at the quote that he gives from the poet he constantly cites as poetic mentor and as an example of what great poetry should be. The quote is where Rowell got the title of the book, Angles of Ascent:
He strains, an awk-
ward patsy, sweating strains
leaping falling. Then —
silken rustling in the air,
the angle of ascent
— From For a Young Artist, by Robert Hayden
Rowell says this is an image for the poet’s struggle and transcendence. But Lord, I never did see myself or the poets I admired and learned from as awkward patsies! In 1985, Rowell had Larry Neal on the cover of his literary magazine Callaloo, after Larry’s death from a heart attack at forty-three. You can look in the magazine and see that Larry Neal was no “awkward patsy.” Or that after leaping / falling we would not be glorified by some unidentified “silken rustling in the air, / the angle of ascent / achieved.” Actually it sounds like some kind of social climbing. Ascent to where, a tenured faculty position?
Rowell’s attempt to analyze and even compartmentalize Afro-American poetry is flawed from the jump. He has long lived as the continuing would-be yelp of a Robert Hayden canonization. Back in 1966 I was invited to Fisk University, where Hayden and Rowell taught. I had been invited by Nikki Giovanni, who was still a student at Fisk. Gwen Brooks was there. Hayden and I got into it when he said he was first an artist and then he was Black. I challenged that with the newly-emerging ideas that we had raised at the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School in Harlem in 1965, just after Malcolm X’s assassination. We said the art we wanted to create should be identifiably, culturally Black — like Duke Ellington’s or Billie Holiday’s. We wanted it to be a mass art, not hidden away on university campuses. We wanted an art that could function in the ghettos where we lived. And we wanted an art that would help liberate Black people.
I remember that was really a hot debate, and probably helped put an ideological chip on Rowell’s shoulder.
I find the list of what Rowell calls “Precursors” quite flawed, but it predicts and even prefaces his explanations and choices. He lists Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Melvin B. Tolson. But how can one exclude Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and Margaret Walker, who are the major poets of the period after the Harlem Renaissance? This kind of cherry-picking reveals all too clearly what Rowell means by “literary” poets.
Brooks’s most penetrating works illuminate Black life and the “hood.” Langston, most people know, is the major voice of that period and what we mean when we talk about Afro-American poetry. What is distinctive about Rowell’s introduction is that just about every page mentions the “Black Arts Movement,” “the Black Aesthetic poets,” “the Black Power Movement” — all like some menacing political institutions. But that poetry was created in a different time, place, and condition from the verse that Rowell presents here as new revelation.
Rowell goes on:
"In other words, the works of these new poets are the direct results of what such poets as Yusef Komunyakaa, Ai, Cyrus Cassells, Rita Dove, Thylias Moss, Toi Derricotte, Harryette Mullen, Nathaniel Mackey — the first wave — dared write, which is whatever they wanted and in whatever forms and styles they desired, as the influence of the Black Arts Movement was first entering its decline."
But this is simply a list of poets Rowell likes. I cannot see any stylistic tendency that would render them a “movement” or a coherent aesthetic. Perhaps their only commonality is their “resistance” to the Black Arts Movement. Komunyakaa says:
"Growing up in the South, having closely observed what hatred does to the human spirit, how it corrupts and diminishes ... I unconsciously disavowed any direct association with the Black Arts Movement."
Are we being faulted for “hating” slavery, white supremacy, and racism? For trying to fight back, just as the Deacons for Defense and Justice did by routing the Klan in Komunyakaa’s own hometown of Bogalusa, Louisiana?
(Ironically, one of Komunyakaa’s early books was sent to me by a university publisher to ask my opinion if should it be published. My colored patriotism bade me recommend it, though in truth I found it dull and academic.)
But Rita Dove does go on to say something that seems true:
"By the time I started to write seriously, when I was I was eighteen or nineteen years old, the Black Arts Movement had gained momentum; notice had been taken. The time was ripe; all one had to do was walk up to the door they had been battering at and squeeze through the breech."
Dove spells out her separation from the Black Arts Movement very honestly, in revealing class terms:
"As I wrote more and more ... I realized that the blighted urban world inhabited by the poems of the Black Arts Movement was not mine. I had grown up in Ohio ... I enjoyed the gamut of middle class experience, in a comfy house with picket fences and rose bushes on a tree-lined street in West Akron."
But that is not the actual life of the Black majority, who have felt the direct torture and pain of national oppression, and that is what the Black Arts Movement was focusing on, transforming the lives of the Black majority! We wanted to aid in the liberation of the Afro-American people with our art, with our poetry. But the deeper we got into the reality of this task, the more overtly political we became.
The lynching of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks’s resistance, Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (the peoples’ resistance), the bombing of Dr. King’s home in Montgomery. The sit-ins, sclc, the Civil Rights Movement. The emergence of Robert F. Williams and his direct attack on the Klan. The emergence of Malcolm X. I went to Cuba on the first anniversary of the Cuban revolution. The rise and murder of Patrice Lumumba, the African Liberation Movement. I met poets like Askia M. Touré and Larry Neal in front of the un screaming our condemnation of the us, the un, Belgium, Rockefeller for murdering Lumumba and our support for Maya Angelou, Louise Meriwether, Rosa Guy, Abbey Lincoln (all great artists), running up into the un to defy Ralph Bunche. The March on Washington, the bombing 0f 16th St. Baptist Church and the murder of four little girls. JFK’s assassination, Watts, Malcolm’s assassination, Dr. King’s assassination, rebellions across America!
All those major events we lived through. If we responded to them as conscious Black intellectuals, we had to try to become soldiers ourselves. That is why we wrote the way we did, because we wanted to. We wanted to get away from the faux English academic straitjackets passed down to us by the Anglo-American literary world.
Rowell thinks the majority of Afro-American poets are MFA recipients or professors. Wrong again! Obviously the unity and struggle in the civil rights and Black Liberation movements have resulted in a slight wiggle of “integration” among the narrowest sector of the Afro-American people. Rowell gives us a generous helping of these university types, many co-sanctioned by the Cave Canem group, which has energized us poetry by claiming a space for Afro-American poetry, but at the same time presents a group portrait of Afro-American poets as mfa recipients.
Rowell organizes his view of Afro-American poetry like this: precursors, Modernists, 1940s–1960s; the black arts movement, The 1960s and Beyond. There’s me, Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni, Bobb Hamilton, David Henderson, Calvin C. Hernton, Haki Madhubuti, Larry Neal, Carolyn Rodgers, Sonia Sanchez, A.B. Spellman, and Edward S. Spriggs. Where is the great Henry Dumas or Amus Mor, who inspired a whole generation of us? Where are the Last Poets, whether the originals Gylan Kain, David Nelson, Felipe Luciano or the later incarnation Abiodun Oyewole, or Umar Bin Hassan? Most of the poets in the ground-shaking anthology that tried to sum up the Black Arts breakthrough, Black Fire, are nixed.
Of the group “Outside the Black Arts Movement,” Bob Kaufman and LeRoi Jones (Rowell omits Ted Joans) were called “the Black Beats” and had already formed, under the influence of William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and the surrealists, a united front against academic poetry with Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, the San Francisco school, O’Hara and the New York School, Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets. It was the murder of Malcolm X that sent me and other Black artists screaming out of the various Greenwich Villages to a variety of Harlems!
We saw poets like June Jordan as allies. Check her statement in this anthology: “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.” Lucille Clifton and I were classmates at Howard, taught by the great Sterling Brown, as were Toni Morrison and A.B. Spellman. Brown’s fundamental insight on America flows through our works.
That Rowell can disconnect Etheridge Knight from the deep spirit of the Black Arts Movement is fraudulent. Sherley Anne Williams says in her blurb, “I remain, more firmly now than then, a proponent of Black consciousness, of ‘The Black Aesthetic’ and so I am a political writer.” You ever read Alice Walker’s marvelous poem “Each One Pull One”?
Because when we show what we see,
they will discern the inevitable:
We do not worship them
We do not worship them.
We do not worship what they have made.
We do not trust them
we do not believe what they say.
It is this spirit that aligns both of them with the Black Arts Movement. And certainly it is this same spirit of self-conscious resistance to American racial or gender craziness that puts Ntozake Shange in that number. The Black Arts spirit is old, it is historical, psychological, intellectual, cultural. It is the same as Black Abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet’s call in 1843 in his “Address to the Slaves of the United States”: “resistance, resistance, resistance.”
Jayne Cortez is obviously close to the spirit of the Black Arts Movement, in the content and force of her poetry, although Rowell stays away from her best known works. Lorenzo Thomas, who actually identified with the Black Arts Movement, is likewise dissed. It is the spirit of resistance, of unity and struggle that connects us. And where is the mighty Sekou Sundiata, whom I first met when he was sixteen at a meeting for those getting ready to go to the 6th Pan African Congress in Dar es Salaam? One of the finest poets of his generation, and not even a mention. Plus no mention of Marvin X, who founded Black Arts West in 1966 with Ed Bullins.
Gaston Neal, criminally underknown, was also director of the New School for Afro-American Thought in dc. His work has yet to be published in its collected version. If you don’t know Sun Ra’s music, it’s doubtful you know his own powerful verse. Other missing significant: Arthur Pfister. Tom Mitchelson, Kalamu ya Salaam, Amina Baraka, Brian Gilmore, Mervyn Taylor, Lamont Steptoe, John Watusi Branch, Everett Hoagland, Devorah Major, Kenneth Carroll, DJ Renegade, Safiya Henderson-Holmes, Charlie Braxton. Where is Nikki Finney? Or the bard of Trenton, Doc Long?
“Outside the Black Arts Movement” (italics mine)? What the Black Arts Movement did was to set a paradigm for the Black artist to be an artist and a soldier. This is what I said at Louis Reyes Rivera’s funeral:
"We must urge our artists and scholars ... our most advanced folks fighting for equal rights and self-determination ... to create an art and scholarship that is historically and culturally authentic, that is public and for the people, that is revolutionary."
A sharp class distinction has arisen, producing a mini-class of Blacks who benefited most by the civil rights and Black Liberation movements, thinking and acting as if our historic struggle has been won so that they can become as arrogant and ignorant as the worst examples of white America.
It is obvious, as well, looking through this book, that it has been little touched by the last twenty years of Afro-American life, since it shows little evidence of the appearance of spoken word and rap. E.G. Bailey, Jessica Care Moore, Ras Baraka, Ewuare X. Osayande, Zayid Muhammad, Taalam Acey, Rasim Allah, Black Thought, Daniel Beatty, Saul Williams, and Staceyann Chin are all missing. This “new American poetry” is mostly dull as a stick.
Rowell’s icy epilogue is too comic to be tragic, though it is both. It is a cold class dismissal by would-be mainstream Negroes on the path to mediocrity:
"Without the fetters of narrow political and social demands that have nothing to do with the production of artistic texts, black American poets, since the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement, have created an extraordinary number of aesthetically deft poems that both challenge the concept of “the American poem” and extend the dimensions of American poetry."
This is poppycock at its poppiest and cockiest. You mean the struggle for our humanity is a fetter (to whom? Negroes seeking tenure in these white schools who dare not mumble a cross word?). Why is the struggle for equal rights and self-determination narrow? To whom? Racists? You think Fred Douglass was not one of the greatest artists of the nineteenth century because he kept demanding an end to slavery? Bah, Humbug!
As for the Black Power movement’s “death,” last I heard we have an Afro-American president who has taught the Republicans the value of community organizing twice. But what Rowell proves is that the old Black-White dichotomy is in the past, at least on the surface. The struggle, as my wife Amina always says, is about whose side you’re on. Romney and them lost because they don’t even know what country they’re in. Neither does Charles Rowell.
Originally Published: May 1, 2013
Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY
Amiri Baraka, the noted poet, playwright and co-founder of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960's, will headline two special events on campus. At 4 p.m., the widely published author plans to present present a Master Class for RIT students and others interested in writing poetry, fiction or creative nonfiction at 4 p.m., in the 1510 Lab Theater at RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Following, at 7:30 p.m., in the same space, his award-winning play, Dutchman, will be performed by the theater troupe Many Voices, co-produced with Maplewood Performing Arts Center.Both events are free and open to the public.
AMIRI BARAKA GIVES MASTER CLASS LECTURE AT ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY BELOW ON DECEMBER 13, 2010:
The New World
The sun is folding, cars stall and rise
beyond the window. The workmen leave
the street to the bums and painters’ wives
pushing their babies home. Those who realize
how fitful and indecent consciousness is
stare solemnly out on the emptying street.
The mourners and soft singers. The liars,
and seekers after ridiculous righteousness. All
my doubles, and friends, whose mistakes cannot
be duplicated by machines, and this is all of our
arrogance. Being broke or broken, dribbling
at the eyes. Wasted lyricists, and men
who have seen their dreams come true, only seconds
after they knew those dreams to be horrible conceits
and plastic fantasies of gesture and extension,
shoulders, hair and tongues distributing misinformation
about the nature of understanding. No one is that simple
or priggish, to be alone out of spite and grown strong
in its practice, mystics in two-pants suits. Our style,
and discipline, controlling the method of knowledge.
Beatniks, like Bohemians, go calmly out of style. And boys
are dying in Mexico, who did not get the word.
The lateness of their fabrication: mark their holes
with filthy needles. The lust of the world. This will not
be news. The simple damning lust,
float flat magic in low changing
evenings. Shiver your hands
in dance. Empty all of me for
knowing, and will the danger
Let me sit and go blind in my dreaming
and be that dream in purpose and device.
A fantasy of defeat, a strong strong man
older, but no wiser than the defect of love.
Amiri Baraka, “The New World” from Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1961-1995 (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1995). Copyright © 1995 by Amiri Baraka. Reprinted with the permission of Sll/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
Source: Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones 1961-1995 (1995)