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Amiri Baraka Interview 

 

 

Amiri Baraka (born LeRoi Jones) has authored over 40 books of poems, essays, drama, music history, and criticism. Well-known in the New York Downtown literary scene in the 1950s and 1960s, Baraka soon became an integral part of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem. Baraka’s poetry has consistently challenged mainstream politics and aesthetics in such works of experimental poetry such as The Dead Lecturer, Black Magic Poetry, Hard Facts, Wise Why’s Ys, and Somebody Blew Up America; plays such as The Slave and Dutchman; and fiction in The System of Dante’s Hell, Tales, and, recently, Tales of the Out and Gone. He has also written extensively on African American music in books including Blues People and Black Music. As a teacher, Baraka has taught at Yale, Columbia, and the State University of New York at Stonybrook, among others. Baraka currently lives in Newark with his wife Amina, where he leads the word-music ensemble Blue Ark: The Word Ship, and co-directs the artspace Kimako’s Blues People.

   

 

Aaron Winslow is a writer, student, and archivist currently living in New York City.

 

 

 

AW: Music, particularly jazz music, plays a central role in your poetry and critical work. In your recent essay compilation of music writing and criticism, Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music, you write about the concept of the Griot/Djali, a figure which represents the intersection of storyteller, poet, musician. I wonder if you could elaborate here on the importance of the Griot? In what ways is this figure historically important, particularly within African American literature, music, and politics--and how does it resonate today?

 

AB: The Griot got much attention in the 60’s-70’s because of the heavy 'cultural nationalist' thrust in the Black Liberation Movement as it morphed out of the more traditional Civil Rights Movement. A tendency sparked by the influence of Malcolm X and the African Liberation Struggles on the continent and its great thinkers like Kwame Nkrumah, Mwalimu Nyerere, Sekou Toure, Amilcar Cabral and others. Griot resonates enough for you to ask questions about it today. Even though Griot is French, the African word is Djali.

 

AW: There is, of course, much interest in your relationship to jazz and jazz poetics. I've recently been reading old issues of The Cricket, the magazine that you edited with Larry Neal and AB Spellman in the late Sixties, which adds a new dimension to your approach to jazz—not just as an artist, but as a publisher and editor. What's so interesting is how The Cricket brought together such a diversity of artists, musicians, and intellectuals from the Black Arts Movement—you published both Sun Ra poems and Stanley Crouch essays! I wonder if you could say a few words about that magazine—both in terms of editing it and in the sense of using a magazine to project a certain political and aesthetic standard.

 

AB: Larry Neal, AB and I realized the historical influence of music on African /Afro American Culture. I saw the magazine as a necessary dispenser of this influence as part of a continuum. And that attention to the culture was a way of drawing attention to the people’s needs and struggle

 

AW: In his book The Black Arts Movement, James Smethurst has made the claim that, due to your various engagements with free jazz and other African American music traditions, your work represents something of a “popular avant-garde.” And, indeed, you are one of the few poets who continues to have a major public voice. Can you explain the role of the audience, and performance, in your work? How do you balance the performative aspects of poetry with its more purely 'textual' or 'page-bound' aspects?

 

AB: For me Content is the important aspect of the two aspects of art, i.e. Form and Content. Mao put it thus, we should create an art that is “Artistically powerful and Politically Revolutionary”. It is also Mao who asks “For Whom” do you write? That is the important prescription for 'popularity' at least for the class you write for. But at the same time I am 'popular' with the class I have chosen to write for, I am intensely unpopular with the class that I attack (specifically or objectively), With that “For Whom” also describes the language I choose, a 'popular' language, a mass language.

 

AW: To me, one of your major contributions to poetics and the study of music and literature is your insistence on recovering an often-obscured African American aesthetic tradition, particularly in such fundamental works of music history as Blues People and Black Music, and poems such as “In the Tradition.” You've also carried this theoretical and aesthetic concern into your life in the academy, where you've been a prominent advocate for the establishment of a multicultural canon within higher education--advocacy which has often, particularly at Rutgers, met with hostility and resistance. So, first, can you talk a little bit about your take on contemporary literary education? And, second, why do you think there is so much resistance to canonic reform, especially at a time when the notions of 'multiculturalism' and 'post-racial' have, at least superficially, become very much entrenched in US society?

 

AB: I was 'fired' from Rutgers for telling them that the university is the last bastion of colonialism in the US. I asked, in a speech I gave, just before a tenure vote at Rutgers, where I was a visiting Professor, (though I was already a tenured, Full Professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook) “Do you teach anything about literature in the Western hemisphere? Canadian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Brazilian, Haitian…I know you teach English Literature, German Philosophy, French Drama, but do you teach anything American? Not even US Literature on the serious side.”

    

They had three 'elections'. I won the first two, but they said they didn’t count. The first because the whole department voted. The second, which only tenured professors could vote (translation 'old white men') but I won that one too. So that was 'too close', they said. The third election they sent out and when I returned to my temporary office, they had packed all my books and somebody else’s too. They wouldn’t let me return to the campus to bring the grades for Final exams. The acting Chairman drove to Newark to pick them up.

               

The Rutgers establishment was shook up because the students had taken over a building for a couple of days in protest. When asked by the press about not getting the vote for tenure, I told the story and said the Rutgers establishment acted like 'Nazis'. The Rutgers establishment told the press  the next day, that’s why I wasn’t hired  because I called them Nazis. The official Ivy League University line is that Europe is the place and the culture we Uncle Sam hicks must emulate and imitate. That is why it is still the 'English' department because they are still teaching from the point of view of The US as an English Colony.

 

AW: You've spent much of your life as a leader within a variety of social justice movements—as founder of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre-School, and an organizer of the Congress of African Peoples, to name just two. I'm particularly interested in your experiences during the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the idea of 'cultural revolution' which was so prevalent gave a very central place to artistic practices within political movements. Could describe how you situated the practice of making art alongside the more straightforwardly-political parts of your life?

 

AB: “Ethics and Aesthetics are one,” I read many years ago, in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which confirmed my own thinking. A few years later as a writer in New York, I had a character say in a play “Right is in the Act” and that was proven over and over that it is not enough to write ideas, if they are important ideas in which one believes, one must fight for them.

 

AW: Historically, and certainly today, people have liked to divide poetry (and art, in general), between that which is political, and that which is 'innovative' or 'experimental'. You are someone who has managed to be avant-garde in both of these senses. Could say something about the relationship between the 'political' and the 'experimental' in art? Why are these two aesthetic modes so consistently opposed to one another?

 

AB: The attempt to divide art and politics is Bourgeois philosophy which says good poetry, art, cannot be political, but since everything is, by the nature of society, political, even an artist or work that claims not to have any politics is making a political statement by that act. Plus, the greatest artists, certainly poets and writers are intensely political but they are in the main anti-bourgeois (though not necessarily Marxists). To say that great US artists like Melville, Twain, Douglass, Dickinson, Whitman,  DuBois, W C Williams, Hughes, Margaret Walker, Baldwin, Tennessee Williams are not political is an extraordinary absurdity. Great art attacks and protests oppression, exploitation and mediocrity directly or indirectly. The Bourgeoisie, in any country, are guilty of all those, hence great art, almost by definition, attacks them. And they fight back. As Sartre said, if you say something’s wrong, but you don’t know what it is, that’s Art. If you say something’s wrong and you know and say exactly what it is, that’s not art that’s social protest!

               

Even in music, when Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk’s early recorded works were released Downbeat Magazine, gave them 'No Stars' meaning the music was worth nothing. A few years later when it was clear that Parker and Monk had been hailed as great innovators, Downbeat re-reviewed the records and gave them Five Stars. By then the record companies had probably talked to them.

               

At first the bourgeoisie hated abstract art but then they realized that unlike figurative art they could hide their social sentiments under abstraction. Brecht said they realized how much safer abstract red is, than as blood flowing out of the slain worker’s chest.

 

AW: Along these same lines, how would you describe the politics of poetry? Does poetry become political only when it attached to a more concrete movement for social justice or some other political cause, or is there a political potentiality within poetic writing itself?

 

AB: Poetry reflects the world’s concerns and the classes within the world. Mao’s Yenan Lectures is one of the clearest documents on the relationship of art to social struggle. Your art shows what you think is good what you think is negative. It shows what you celebrate and what you put down. When you use your art openly and particularly for social struggle it simply makes it obvious “which side you’re on” and immediately draws friends and enemies.

 

AW: Finally, I'm wondering if you could give us your impression of the state of contemporary American poetry? While we're clearly quite far from the days when poetry was in any way central to culture, what role does poetry have in the US today?

 

AB: Today the cultural and arts 'police', i.e. the formalist and academic establishment have tried to cover most of the art from the turbulent 60’s and 70”s and reintroduce the passive unmusical self focused academic and formalist models. Most of the poets from the Beat, Black Mountain, San Francisco, New York Movements and Black Arts Movement  are rarely published, except occasional mentions of Allen Ginsberg or another prize to John Ashbery. Great poets like Larry Neal or Frank O’Hara are rarely mentioned.

 

 

 

 

copyright © Amiri Baraka & Aaron Winslow