January 12, 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.

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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.

FOX: Whoa.

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.

FOX: Absolutely.

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.

FOX: Yes.

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.

FOX: Whoa.

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.

FOX: Really?

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.

FOX: Really?

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.

FOX: Absolutely.

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

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