from A Conversation with Amiri Baraka


[Note: The following is excerpted from a 14-page interview, which appears in full in Rattle #37.]

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 But then they started shooting again and they rescinded the invitation—thank goodness.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 Felipe Luciano, a great Puerto Rican poet. They called me up and said, “Turn on the television.” I turn on the television and the building is burning. So I thought it was like, when I was a kid, a plane hit the Empire State Building. There was a hole in the Empire State Building for about two or three months that we used to look at every time we went to New York. Anyway, I was looking at it and here comes the next plane, pow. And so I was frightened, you know, I was scared, because nothing like that had happened in the United States. But after a while, listening to Bush prevaricate, I began to think about what was being said. You know, if you want to talk about terrorism, that’s how we got here. Slave trade, that’s terrorism; the Klan, that’s terrorism; those are terrorists. And so then I began to think about all the people in the world who’ve been subject to terrorism, many of them at the hands of the United States.

So I sent that poem out in October and within a month I got a response and I put it on the net. Then I got to be named the Poet Laureate of New Jersey. Not because of that poem but just because of some serendipity of the government. So when they named me Poet Laureate, I said to the governor, “You must not read poetry. You don’t know anything about my work.” [laughs] So when I read the poem at the Dodge Poetry Festival for about a thousand people, read it twice, people came up, my wife and I signed books for about an hour. The last people who came up there was this man and woman who walked up and said, “That was a hateful poem.” So I wanted to know what part was hateful.

The next day the governor called me and said, “You have to apologize and resign,” because they said it was an anti-Semitic poem. And that really astonished me. It was stupid, I thought, and of course I refused to do it. Interestingly, the governor had to resign a year later because he had a homosexual affair with his Israeli assistant. But then they start harassing me, on the phones and television and everything, about that. I went to the acting governor, because the governor got out of there, and I said, “Look, if you all think this, why don’t you let me go down to the state house and read this poem, put it on the wall, call everybody you think needs to read it and we discuss it. Tell me what you think is negative in it.” Acting Governor Codey says, “We don’t have to do that.” I said, “What do you mean we don’t have to do that?” He says, “We don’t have to do that. We can do anything we want to do.” So we’ve been through three courts including the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court refused to hear it. The lower courts said I had no personal rights because I was an employee of the state as the Poet Laureate. I didn’t know if you were an employee of the state, that meant you didn’t have any personal rights. So, that’s where it is right now. The Supreme Court refused to hear it. But it depends on the politics of the nation. And it will change, because there’s nothing in there that I don’t believe as fervently as I did when I wrote it. But for a while it was really a frenzy, people calling me up and threatening me on the phone.

FOX: Whoa.

BARAKA: Television, radio, and stuff like that. And it’s persistent; there are still groups of people who believe that somehow I did something anti-Semitic. But it’s simply not true. And the poem itself needs to be read. If you think there’s something wrong with it, publish it. You know, that’s what I think, because it doesn’t make any difference to me. But I hate the fact of being accused of stuff, because 50 years from now there’ll still be people walking around saying that, you know. Until the day you die they’ll be people saying that. All you have to do is be called a name and it lasts forever.

GREEN: To reach that many people, though…I mean, more people read that poem than—

BARAKA: I know, which seemed to me always stupid—I mean, the best thing you did if you didn’t like the poem is say, “Shh.” Why broadcast it all over the world? But that’s what they did. And it’s not the first time I’ve been jacked up about a poem. 1967, a poem called “Black People.” I was arrested during the Newark Rebellion on possession of guns and sentenced to three years and the judge read the poem and said, “Wait a minute, you’re being sentenced to prison on possession of two guns?” And I said, “And a poem.” He said, “This is a prescription for criminal anarchy.”

FOX: About your poem?

BARAKA: The poem. Because the poem predicted the rebellion. So I was living in Newark and I knew, the way things were, people would not take that forever, so because I said it in a poem, then I created it. So I wanted to know, “Judge, you think they came over to my house and read that poem and then ran out and set fire to the town; you really believe that?” But we won that on appeal. But what was I supposed to say: “Okay, I’m sorry I wrote that poem, burn it up”? Anyway, such is the life, the literary life.

from Rattle #37, Summer 2012

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