Baraka in 2010
'To understand it as a worker and understand it as an intellectual'
Note: This — as far as I know — is the last scholarly interview with Amiri Baraka before his saddening passing on January 9, 2014. Baraka here tackles subjects such as radical politics and aesthetics, Marxism and class struggle (in music), vanguardism, Black Arts poetry performance and activism, language writing, the modernist epic mode, and responses to “Somebody Blew Up America” as well as anti-colonial and United Front politics. The interview was part of my research trip to New York City in fall 2010, working on critical theory and the interdisciplinary uses of poetics under the auspices of Bruce Andrews at Fordham University. Achieng Warambo and Ulrich Geister — with whom I stayed in the remarkably segregated town of Teaneck, New Jersey — had helped me to finally get a hold of and visit Amiri and his wife, Amina, at their beautiful home in Newark. Although Amiri had originally given me “one hour,” we all spent the rest of that sweet afternoon together, drinking strong coffee, eating strawberries (!), and talking radical politics, while Coltrane, Sanders, Shepp, et al. were taking turns and blowing choruses throughout. — Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich
Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich: It is a real pleasure, and a privilege, to get to sit down and talk with the poet icon and renowned playwright, novelist, Marxist critic, jazz scholar, community organizer, and political activist Amiri Baraka. Many thanks, Amiri, for inviting me and for taking the time to do this interview. I appreciate that wildly. So let’s jump right in: For some fifty years now, you have been instrumental in illustrating the vicissitudes of poetry in contemporary culture as you helped rejuvenate political art in America and expand the postwar idea of the poem. Through a dialectical process — which William Harris has written about so well — you have forged a poetry that synthesizes modernist aesthetics and populist politics, employing African American traditions and avant-garde techniques to (anti-colonial) revolutionary ends. Do you think that is a fitting description of your aesthetico-political development?
Amiri Baraka: Yeah, I think, in a very general sense Billy Joe Harris — he’s close to my work, he’s studied it, he’s not only edited it, but he’s studied it — so he has his own understanding of what it is. I think he’s more accurate than most people. And, I think, the reason is that he sees the intent of it, whether he agrees with it or not. He sees the intent of what I’m trying to do. What I’ve been doing really raised people’s consciousness, in a sense, at the same time as presenting that, you know, as art, as an aesthetic kind of choice. So, that’s what it is.
Büscher-Ulbrich: How would you describe your artistic and political agenda today?
Baraka: Well, to a big extent it’s the same except, you know, what’s — and I say this myself — what we need now is analysis, we’re very much in need of analysis. I just got through writing a piece about, you know, these people who are attacking Obama from the Left. So, in the piece these two people say “why are you different from the Tea Party?” And so this analysis of the political trend, political direction in the country or society, I have to be able to also translate that into poetry, transform that into poetry, as well as just flat analysis. At least that’s my feeling, you know, because lots of times people will resist, people will resist, you know, just plain kind of narrative about … they’re just opposed to you becoming too, you know, teacher-like, preacher-like, you have to somehow involve that in a more convincing, more poetic kind of feeling to it.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Yes, and I can see that in the aesthetic forms that you’ve been coming up with the last half-century.
Baraka: Yeah, you have to do that because people will resist being instructed, unfortunately.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I wonder if you think of your art as praxis in the Marxian sense of “critical-practical, sensuous human activity directed towards revolutionary change?”
Baraka: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I, that is my, you know, my clearly held intention, whether that succeeds all the time is another question. And, you know, for many, many years I’ve had to hear people — the critical establishment — telling me that I was a better poet when I was, well, before I became a Marxist. That has never influenced me, though. I mean, you know. Isn’t that sort of thing to be expected in this country? What is it that you liked about that other poetry? That’s the question, you know. What is it, what is it?
Büscher-Ulbrich: White liberal critics mostly lamented what they saw as “waste of talent.”
Baraka: Right. Well, one guy said that the poetry was better when it resembled T. S. Eliot. I mean, you have to put up with that, you know. Criticism is active class struggle, that’s what it is, you know, it’s “class warfare,” that’s what Mao said. So that if you’re in the midst of this society, you gonna get criticized about that.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You have always worked towards and contributed significantly to re-politicize poetry in the US at a time of neo-conservative backlash — a backlash that would hibernate the Carter years, experience its peak in the Reagan-Bush era, and return forcefully with the Bush II administration — always turning attention to “the ugliest ugly” that “is the social ugly.” Today, the dominant ideology of liberal pluralism seems to entail a form of repressive tolerance that shuts radical critique down and excludes Marxism from the political arena to maintain its liberal guise. What do you think about that?
Baraka: Well, you know, even liberalism now is a bad word, I mean, not to mention socialism. You know, I mean liberalism is — I mean we pushed so far to the right that liberal is sort of like another name for communist, you know, in this country. But the interesting thing is that they made such bogeys, such boogey people out of communism, and they accuse everybody of communism, like even Obama, you know.
Büscher-Ulbrich: That’s ridiculous.
Baraka: Yeah, I mean, but that shows you not only don’t they know what it is, you see what I mean, but if they’re communist, then the actual communists … you know, then you’re actually over there, somewhere, free to cohort, because they don’t need to know what you are, I mean, they’re calling … oh God. I mean, the idea of them calling — well, they’re calling us fascist, too, at the same time. See, and that would be stupid, I mean it is stupid, but it would just be laughable if it was anywhere else. That can get over here because they have no idea — they know it’s bad — but they don’t know the difference between, say, fascism and socialism. They don’t know the difference. They don’t know the difference, you know. And so to be questioned about that by people is to expose their ignorance in the main, you know, and that’s what is happening now with the “Obama is a socialist.” The stuff that he’s been accused of trying to do is stuff that Europe was doing since the Second World War. You know, I mean, if you talk about socialized medicine, you need to get a hold of Europe, you know what I mean. But somehow it’s a terrible thing for us, and these people need it so badly, you know, it’s just, it’s extraordinary how they can do that, you know. But one thing of the backwardness is what Bush did, is he allowed the FCC to permit corporations to not only holding print media but electronic media. So you have a guy like Murdoch who was, like Australian, I mean, Jesus! — Channel 9, Channel 5, Wall Street Journal, you know, the Daily Mirror, Twentieth Century Fox — so you got this kind of stream of attack.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, we have Berlusconi in Europe.
Baraka: You got what?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Silvio Berlusconi, in Italy. That strikes me as a rather similar situation, though maybe on a different scale, right?
Baraka: Yeah, but you know, when you talk to intellectuals in Italy, they’re all “Hey, Berlusconi?! How come people voted for him?!” Right when he got elected, I was in Italy at that time, you know. There is a backward person right there. In terms of his interests, how he manages to pull that off. But this is a very tense period in American life, very tense. And what will happen is — it’s gonna be important for the world. I mean, if they keep going, if they just start a war, I mean, not those two wars they’re involved in, but another big war — the whole Iran thing. Iran is not Iraq, you know what I mean. If you can’t beat Iraq you need to leave Iran alone. But that whole … the push between trying to make progress, as pitiful as it is, and being held back at the time, it makes a very tense, very tense kind of situation.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In the 1970s, you harshly criticized the political naïveté of the New American Poetry, Abstract Expressionism, and neo-avant-gardes like Fluxus. Now, my impression is that while dissecting what you considered the political failure of the New Left in the face of global capitalism and geopolitical wars, dominant modes of artistic expression were brought under similar scrutiny. You criticized much modernist and experimental poetry for being ideologically flawed — an instance of petty-bourgeois bohemianism and expressivism necessarily to be co-opted by the mainstream ideology of American individualism.
Baraka: Well, that was the problem. That is the problem, still. That people think because they can do weird things that somehow it’s important. [Laughing.] But it’s not important, it’s just weird, you know. There was a guy — we were in Italy one time — this guy named Jackson Mac Low, well, he read this poem that consisted of numbers — “eighty-five, eight hundred and fifty, eight thousand five hundred” — you know, it was a poem that consisted of numbers, and so one of the Italians hit him in the head with a piece of watermelon [imitates the sound], right in the face. And I said, “Gee, it’s pretty rough out here,” and he said, “That’s what happens when you bring too many people into a poetry reading.” I mean, he had not understood at all. There was this “unwashed mass” reacting to his highly sophisticated … but that’s stupid, I mean, why do I wanna hear you read numbers, I mean, whatever your theory in that is, it’s still a guy reading numbers, so what is it?
Büscher-Ulbrich: The theory makes the artwork then, but people don’t have access to that theory, or conceptual frame, or procedural method that generates the writing, and why should they care? Bruce Andrews, who’s also a poet I’m writing about, calls that “procedural (even aleatory) fetishism.”
Baraka: Calls what?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Aleatory fetishism. People like Mac Low and especially later epigones who were working in the “tradition” of John Cage, mostly. But much of what they did was, in some ways, a fetishization of certain “chance” or generativist procedures.
Baraka: That’s what it is. The problem with that is … thirty years ago poetry was important, you know, it was important. I mean, people actually … I even got locked up a couple of times. It was actually important in the sense that it did get in the social motion in society, people were infected by it. Back in the 1960s, when you had all kind of revolutionary [inaudible] people wanted to be poets, there was poets everywhere. But what’s happened with the years since then, you know the rock up, rock down, then you have — they’ve tried to reinvest poetry with academia, they’ve tried to make it academic again, you know. They’ve tried to make it — to marginalize it, as a human kind of — I mean, it becomes purely the interest of a small group. And that’s what it is. And somehow — but see, what it is, that’s like capitalism really. Few people have money, most have not. So, the art becomes “a few people understand it, most don’t,” you know. It’s an absolute reflection of the society itself. So that’s what they’ve done, and they so made it academic again it’s become less interesting, except for the rappers. And then they had the slam poets, but that was misplaced to the extent that it then became about only performance, not content.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Right, and it’s also a form of competition. I mean, it’s like a friendly, “let’s be fair” kind of voluntary competition, but it’s still competition.
Baraka: Yeah, still like capitalism. It’s — you’re “grand.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: One thing we don’t need more of.
Baraka: I think the slam thing has sort of worn off a little bit, but the academic thing is what has spread. And I was the poet laureate here for a hot minute. The question was that you can be poet laureate, but you can’t say anything about the real world. I mean, to talk about the real world, you know, that’s a dangerous idea. That’s … who said that? That’s Sartre. Sartre said, “If you say ‘something’s wrong’ and I don’t know what it is, that’s art. But if you say ‘something’s wrong’ and I do know what it is, that’s social protest.” It’s still true. You can’t be literal, or exact, or direct. You have to talk around things, you know, talk around things. That’s why people don’t like it, because it doesn’t say anything directly they can understand, you know. And so you try to do that — say something people can understand but at the same time, you know — as Mao said — to be artistically powerful and politically revolutionary.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I believe you once called Mao “China’s greatest poet.” People were shocked.
Baraka: [Laughing.] It’s true.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Now, since you’re mentioning Sartre … I’d be particularly interested, especially as a “German academic,” you know, in how you would situate writers like DeBois, or Hughes, or Césaire, too, in the context of the rather Eurocentric so-called “Brecht-Lukács” debate that involved all those important European Marxists — Lukács, Bloch, Benjamin, Brecht, Adorno, and Sartre, too — in a passionate argument about politics and aesthetics.
Baraka: I mean, you know, in that sense, you have to remember how you yourself … what’s the social context of your intellectual development. No matter how my intellectual development was shaped, I was still a black man in America. And that’s — fundamentally, that’s the ground you stand on, that’s the air you breathe. Everything you see comes into that. So even if I don’t say “I am a black man in America” every time I write a poem, that’s still who’s writing it, and that’s the perception, based on my experience, you know. What DuBois says in, say, The Souls of Black Folk, and I’m reading a book, I’m reading this book here […], another fine book. When he says, in the beginning of that work, “How does it feel to be a problem?” See, that doesn’t resonate with anybody like it resonates with black people in the US. How does it feel to be “a problem?” It don’t feel good. But that’s the question. So the debate like Brecht-Lukács, people like that, becomes more of an academic understanding for me. The things that actually are “organic,” you know, that understand you — whether you understand it or not — that’s the question. And those are the writers, finally, that you have to seek, you know, writers that understand you. You can study all kinds of people, but when you read someone who understands your trials and tribulations, you see, no matter how they finally wanna put it, those are the ones that you go back to again and again.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I’m very much interested in a collection of essays of yours, in a book called Daggers and Javelins, which testifies to your vigorous attempt, in the late 70s, to identify an African American revolutionary tradition that could parallel anti-colonial struggles in the so-called Third World. Could you comment a bit on how the kind of Marxist analysis you were applying to African American literature, in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, differed from what academic Marxists like Frederic Jameson, on the one hand, and a “liberal” Black Studies scholar like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on the other, were doing?
Baraka: Well, Jameson was different, to a certain extent. I mean, he understands class struggle, classes, and there’s another (European) guy named Brown — Poetry and Socialism? ... I mean, they at least understand classes and class struggle, so you can relate to that in a very literal way. But Gates is just a reactionary. That’s what he is. I mean, colored though he may be, he’s reactionary, and he’s still a reactionary. He upholds the most backward tendencies in the university system. I was fired from Rutgers because in the speech that I gave to them, which was supposed to determine whether I was gonna become a professor, I just told them in this speech that the last, you know, that the university is the last bastion of colonialism, because they teach you not really American but English literature, and there’s been no English literature for a hundred years, you know. German philosophy, French drama, but what do we learn about the Western hemisphere? That’s my question, you know. What do we learn about American poetry, or Canadian poetry, or Mexican poetry, or Puerto Rican poetry, or Brazilian literature? And they didn’t take that kindly, they thought that was kind of a way out. But that’s the truth, you know … college students … the idea that you would be teaching English literature in thetwenty-first century in the United States is bizarre. [Laughs.] I mean, you should teach it, but it shouldn’t dominate the curriculum, which is the trouble. You know, a friend of mine said — we were arguing about Milton — you know, I said “Why are they teaching Milton?” and he said “Well, they should teach Milton, Milton’s a great writer.” I said “But they shouldn’t teach him in the exclusion of this, this, this, this, this, and this.” You know, I don’t even like Milton, but still to me the question of inclusion is crucial.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In academia, unabashedly Marxist theorists and scholars are commonly charged with economic reductionism and criticized for the insufficiency of their theoretical models of mediation between the base and superstructure to account for the (relative) autonomy of culture and politics. Do you think that is a straw man created by liberal academics to avoid having to deal with radical critique, not to mention revolutionary thinking?
Baraka: Yes. [Silently, then a little louder.] Well, I wrote a poem called “The Academic Cowards of Reaction.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: Oh, sure. I’m very fond of that one.
Baraka: Oh, yeah? Well, that’s what that’s about. They cannot — the thing — they do not wanna see the relationship to real life. Everything is abstract and academic, you know. But to actually come down with the thing? I read this guy who was putting down a man who wrote about — was it Balzac’s or Gorki’s relationship to reality? — but he’d said that was an absurd idea cause there’s no such thing as reality. That’s what he had come up with. There’s nothing you can relate to since all it is literature. You know, the thing is a thing, it doesn’t relate to nothing real, it’s just itself, right? Your knowledge is absurd. Then what is it? “What is a sign?”
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, I think what happened with French neo-structuralism and especially Derridean deconstruction as it gets absorbed in the American academy — and I’m thinking here of people like Bloom and de Man in particular — is they turn it on its head. I mean, it was a form of ideology critique which emerged in a specific historical context and from a very specific cultural milieu, and it does offer a critical method for analyzing ideologically functional discourses. But deconstruction in (Anglo-American) academia — at least that’s my impression — has become a means to refute socially contextualizing counterarguments — not to mention political economy — in order not to have to deal with them at all, which really is a cheap trick.
Baraka: But that’s what it is. This whole group called the “language poets,” that’s what their thing is.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You think so?
Baraka: They want to disconnect the doer, the writer, the author, you know. But who’s writing that stuff? You know, it’s incredible. We had an argument with them, and this one guy would say — I can’t think of his name right now — he said that, “well, the question is that Afro-Americans are oral, their work is oral.” The assumption then being “we,” i.e. him and his friends, are literary, as opposed to oral. You know, first of all, it’s racist. But to really think that … it’s a stupid idea. This is a bizarre thing because he’s talking about reality, and there’s no such thing as reality. I mean, that’s a wild idea. I mean, that theory is … that’s like the Britannica, you know, the Britannica Encyclopedia. You know, they have the hundred greatest writers in the world. There’s one woman — it was this Catholic woman in the Midwest, Willa Cather — and no blacks at all, although they mentioned DuBois. But essentially they would dismiss him because he wanted to talk about reality. It’s like you’re being locked up in some kind of room with nuts. It’s no reality … what is this?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, it is one thing to critically reflect that there is no direct, or immediate, access to the “thing-in-itself,” or to the “Real,” and another to bluntly ignore, or even deny, social realities … and yeah, I have sometimes literally been locked up in a room in the academy with nuts. [Laughing.] It happens.
Baraka: Yeah. [Laughing.]
Büscher-Ulbrich: I’ve got one more thing. Well, I actually have a couple of things. In a book called Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual, Jerry Gafio Watts writes that you utilized Cabral as sort of a “para-Gramscian” theorist of cultural hegemony in your CAP position papers. What do you think about that statement?
Baraka: I don’t think he’s read both of those people — that’s one thing. Either he’s read Gramsci, you know, and never read Cabral, which I think is probably the case. I don’t think he would read Cabral and not read Gramsci. They’re related, in a certain sense, but the difference is Cabral was a revolutionary leader. So, a lot of the things he said mattered to me, you know, and the books of his that I really admire — one book called The Weapon of Theory, and also Return to the Source — those to me are great books. Though the theory that he’s advancing in those books I don’t necessarily agree with, you know, because I thought he was influenced by the Soviet model to a certain extent. But so was Gramsci, to a certain extent. But I was always closer to Cabral, I think, because I actually read his works and met him and talked to him, and all of that. To me that was very important — to actually hear what he was saying, you know. As a matter of fact, that essay called “Return to the Source,” he delivered that in a program that I was attending.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Characteristic of the avant-garde as well as the engagé writer and cultural worker, your writing is characterized by a passionate longing for political change and social transformation. Your ideal of poetry seems to be that of the poem as an agent of social change that does not only prompt to action but performatively acts upon social realities. It appears to me that ever since the mid-60s you have strategically combined avant-garde techniques and political provocation in performance with the purpose of intervening into social power relations by creating or catalyzing a powerful counter-discourse and driving people to action. Would you agree?
Baraka: You’re talking about Ellison?
Büscher-Ulbrich: No —
Baraka: Who were you talking about?
Büscher-Ulbrich: I’m talking about you — the strategic combination of avant-garde performance and political provocation.
Baraka: Provocation in the sense that people will react to what you say. But I always thought that you should say exactly what you feel, regardless of the reaction, you know what I mean, regardless of the reaction. You say what you feel. Although obviously you can predict —
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, certainly not in the sense of “playing a role,” like being a —
Büscher-Ulbrich: But even if you’re just speaking your mind, you may just function as the agent provocateur, in some sense.
Baraka: See, if you’re in a certain context and you say certain things, you know what the reaction’s gonna be, that’s for sure. But it’s not because you just want them to react. You know that they will react, you see. And hopefully …
Büscher-Ulbrich: That’s utterly important, I think, because then certain political reactions and discursive control mechanisms become very visible, or identifiable. To “hit the beehive,” basically. I mean, you’ve been doing that for a long time now, ‘hitting the beehive.’
Baraka: All the time. They sting.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Oh yes.
Baraka: No, but that’s like these poems, you know. You write a poem that says it’s a poem. But in 1967, this poem I wrote — “Black People” — this judge sentenced me to three years in prison. He reads the poem as a prescription for criminal anarchy. So, you wanna know, “Judge, do you think that people ran in my house, read the poem, then ran outside and start setting fires, is that what you believe?” [Laughing.] But to read that as part of my sentence, a poem as part of — that’s bizarre, you know. But that’s what you have to expect. And the same thing with this thing in — the poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” It’s just a poem. You told me that poetry was something that was permitted. And they went even up to the Supreme Court to say “You don’t have any First Amendment rights.” So, you need a poem to actually put you outside of the normal understanding of American citizens, you know, “I don’t have First Amendment rights.” Well, there’s a poet, I can’t think of his name, who said “You have freedom of speech, as long as you don’t say anything.” [Laughing.] So, that’s it. Do you say something, oh boy, you gonna pay for that. But the tension there is if you know in your mind the reaction and that holds you from saying it, see, that’s cause you don’t want the weight of that, you know. I even could tell, you know, once that controversy came up about my poem … then certain people I wouldn’t hear from anymore. Like Gates, for instance, you know. He had invited me, saying “Why don’t you come here and read, give four speeches, and we gonna put ’em in a book?” So, after the stuff with the poem, he disappeared. And then, one time, I actually found his cell phone number. And I called him. And he says, “Hello buddy!” [Chuckles.] That’s what Nixon used to call his wife. [Laughter.] So, I said, “Skip, now, are you really distancing yourself from me based on that poem?” “Oh, no, buddy, I wouldn’t do that. I told them that if they didn’t let you come up here, I was gonna resign!” “Oh, Jesus, he’s all up into fantasy now,” you know. If you think he would resign because of me, you’re really … that’s a dope knot, you know.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Partly because of that poem you’re still being bated as a notorious “anti-Semite” by mainstream media, despite your serious self-criticism and self-assessment of part of your own Black Nationalist thinking as “irrational” and “reactionary,” a theoretical and political “dead end” — not to mention the indictment of anti-Semitism the poem itself evinces. I’m afraid we don’t have time to enter into a big discussion about contemporary anti-Semitism, the troubled history of African-American and Jewish-American relations, leftist as opposed to reactionary, right-wing anti-Zionism, neo-cons and the ADL, people you don’t wanna have on your band wagon, and so forth, but is there anything you’d like to get on the record?
Baraka: That’s a very serious problem, you know. It’s a very sophisticated form of propaganda.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Is it true that you received death threats, even?
Baraka: Well, people were calling me up, threatening me with all kinds of stuff, like “There’s a hundred six-foot Jews waiting for you,” you know. [Laughing.] I mean, what kind of madness is that? Who would think of something dumb like that to say, you know what I’m saying? It’s like such childish shit. But, see … fools know no ethnicity.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Your poetry, at least since Hard Facts and Poetry for the Advanced, exhibits a special concern to synthesize the popular with the advanced. Commenting on the Free Jazz avant-garde of the 1960s in Black Music, you write that “the music reinforces the most valuable memories of a people but at the same time creates new forms, new modes of expression, to more precisely reflect contemporary experience.” It appears to me that this is the aesthetic paradigm you were trying to connect with Lenin’s notion of a “working-class intelligentsia,” a vanguard of “advanced workers.” Is that the audience that you’re still trying to target with your poetry?
Baraka: Well, I always think that that’s the most dynamic sector of the class, you know. Working class in general is one thing, but the most advanced workers, the workers who understand some things, you know, they might go to work every day, but they still read books and — you know, that’s a dynamic class. And I remember growing up in this town, and I grew up down the street, that there were always people like that on the street. People who, you know, worked in factories, made cars, or worked for the post office, and who still were intellectuals. And that’s a specific kind of understanding of America, you know, to understand it as a worker and understand it as an intellectual. To combine that is — that’s what I was talking about. Those people who themselves will study, study, study, study, study. Who may have never gone to a college but study, study, study, study, study, study, you know. That’s very important.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Much of your poetry is marked, I think, by the endeavor to turn from a Western cultural background — that you have, a college education — to the alternative “cultural flows” of Africa and the Americas. Would you say that your work aspires to escape the reifying logic of late capitalism by calling attention to the oral/aural dimension, processuality, and corporeality of live performance?
Baraka: Well, to actually give poetry a life outside of literature, to give it a life in the real everyday world, you know. The whole Black Arts Movement, when we used to go out into the street everyday on these trucks, four trucks, every day.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Every day? It was not like one scheduled event each month —
Baraka: No, no, no, it was every day, every day. Summer of 1965. What was the inspiration for that was the murder of Malcolm X, because I lived in the Village, Greenwich Village. When Malcolm was murdered, a lot of black intellectuals went out of the Village and went to Harlem. And that’s what we thought we were doing, we were bringing the most advanced culture into the street, you know. Musicians that people thought were too avant-garde to be appreciated, we brought them into playgrounds and play streets, on the sidewalk. Theater in the street, playgrounds, parks, you know, we set up easels on the street, you know, paintings. So that people who would never go into a gallery would see that. And so that had a real effect at that time. That was, I thought, “high level propaganda.” As a matter of fact, right on the cover of one of my books that just was released, Digging (2009), there’s a picture of that. I mean, there’s a picture of us waiting to go out into the street. And you’ll see Sun Ra at the top of the steps, you know, and we were waiting to go hit the street. So, [laughs] that’s a funny picture, because somebody coming back, I had just gone to the liquor store, you know, and I have a big bag full of wine. That’s our energy producer — wine that comes from no grape. [Laughing.] But that was important to do that. I think that should be done regularly, but now they’ve grown weary of that kind of thing … the source that would fund that. That was funded by the government.
Büscher-Ulbrich: It was?
Baraka: Oh yeah, they didn’t know what they were funding. That was the first anti-poverty program, see, it was called “Operation Bootstraps.” They didn’t know what they were funding, I mean, they knew what was on the page … “we’re gonna bring culture to the people.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: And you did that.
Baraka: We did that. But they didn’t realize the content of that, and how intense that was gonna be.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Now, that reminds me … Lorenzo Thomas has suggested that your work is best understood as that of a “neon griot,” a term which I think suits you and your work very well, thinking of how you base poems on forms of language approximating ritualized speech acts and how you have been able to fuse African American oral tradition with decidedly avant-garde techniques. Do you appreciate that term being applied to you?
Baraka: Well, you know, I liked Lorenzo, I thought his poetry was great, I really loved Lorenzo. And I love his theories. I think he was a very fine writer. I’m very sorry that he’s gone. My whole generation is dying left and right, you know, but Lorenzo was — he was a perceptive person, you know. How he died, I don’t know how these diseases — when you get these illnesses — suddenly he’s there and whoop! he’s gone. And recently we had about three or four people like that, dying, you know. People in their seventies are getting out of here left and right, bam bam. Well no, young people, too, fifties. I mean, in the last two years, man, so many people I loved have died, you know. I mean, artists that I really … Abbey Lincoln, her funeral is October 1. That’s gonna be madness — [we have to get over there very early] — that’s gonna be madness.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You have addressed central themes of Black history and culture from a genuinely Marxist perspective in poems like “Class Struggle in Music,” “Somebody Blew Up America,” of course, and your book-length epic poem Wise, Why’s, Y’s: The Griot’s Song Djeli Ya (1995). Can you talk a little bit about this modernist epic mode as well as your collaborative performances of those pieces?
Baraka: The pieces are meant to, again, to take history, which I learned from poets like Langston Hughes and Charles Olson and Ezra Pound, to take history and make it understandable artifact, you know. Something that you can recite and it would be actually history at the same time, you know, something that would stick in your mind. But that’s one function of poetry, the whole historiography. That’s important. How do you teach people history at the same time you’re trying to reach their poetic understanding, you know, their poetic appreciation, but understanding history, in a sense.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Not to be doomed to repeat it?
Baraka: That’s right. Or be cut down in the middle of your life by not understanding it, you know, it’s true.
Büscher-Ulbrich: When I was watching a taped performance of bits of Wise, Why’s, Y’s the other day, I felt like watching something right out of Brecht’s epic theater — a one-man play about the history of colonialism, capitalism, and racial oppression.
Baraka: Yeah. [Chuckles.]
Büscher-Ulbrich: I loved that one. You performed using the microphone, I think, as a drum, because there was none.
Baraka: Right. We talked about improvisation. No drum, you have to use something, you know. But that whole thing, that was meant to be a history of the people themselves. I was very happy with that work, Wise, Why’s, Y’s, because it’d fulfill my intention, my intention was that. And it was something that I worked on, you know, you get this thing in your mind, you wanna do that, so those poems will come one day, two days later, the next day, next week, but they’ll keep coming and they’ll be part of that same thing. There were actually forty of them. Like forty days and forty nights. Yeah, I was very happy with that poem, and still am. I would still like to read that, the whole musical thing, with music and singers and stuff like that, one day. And like you say, that’s like theater, so it takes something to do that.
Büscher-Ulbrich: It seems to me that some of the most remarkable poets that no one talks about these days, and some of whom never published a book of poetry, are jazz musicians. I’m thinking of Charlie Mingus, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, or Tom Waits. And your collaborations with the New York Art Quartet, with David Murray, Stephen McCall, and a host of others, are certainly prime examples of how New Black Music and modern poetry can be integrated in stunning avant-garde performance. I wonder how a self-consciously avant-garde and thoroughly politicized work like New Music, New Poetry, or more recently, 35th Reunion, would be received by your US-American audience?
Baraka: See, the musicians, even though they don’t say anything, they’re playing the horns and stuff like that, they understand what you’re talking about. That’s the most important thing, that the content of the poetry is not alien to them. They understand what you’re talking about. And though they might never say those things directly like that, unless they were asked, they don’t find that abstract, or obscure. It’s just mouthing. Now, one thing I’ve learned in doing poetry and music together many years is that many times the poet can actually induce the spirit of that poem into the musicians, they begin to — I can see that all the time — when I start, you know, they were playing when I started. It’s like they feel that, you know.
Büscher-Ulbrich: That’s non-verbal communication?
Baraka: That’s right, they feel it. And you can always tell that because the music becomes — not only is it in tune with what you’re doing but it becomes — a reflection of that, you see. It’s not just poetry and music. It becomes a mass. Because you actually summon them with what you’re saying, you’re calling them, you know, it’s not two different things. You’re demanding that they “get in it,” and they “get in it.” That’s a good feeling. I mean, when you’re doing poetry and music, what really works is great feeling, you know, the poetry just sails where the music sails … if you got people who are not skilled then it’s like work, see. It’s hard work then, you don’t wanna do that. But I have got a lot of readings coming up.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, I would love to be able to see and hear those.
Baraka: Oh yeah, we have a reading this Saturday, at a place called Skippers. And then there’s the Dodge Festival, October 7, 8, 9, 10, and then October 16, at Sistas’ Place. So that’s like a flurry of readings with music, which is good things in the fall, we’re opening up a new season. Plus I’ve got readings outside of town, two as usual, and I just came back from Norway about a week. I don’t know, but, being in Norway is … I’m really an American.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Like culture shock?
Baraka: Well, yes. [Laughing.] It’s a whole different thing. But that’s true, when I go away I always gonna come back, you know, right away. I mean, as backward as this place is, it’s still your home, you know, what can you do? It’s really got a deep addiction, you know. One should rather be abused here than anywhere else. [Laughing.]
Büscher-Ulbrich: I have two more questions. Do you think we can do that?
Baraka: Sure, go ahead.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Some of the practitioners of so-called “Language-centered writing” describe themselves as coming out of a Brechtian tradition of social modernism, seeking to adapt the Verfremdungseffekt from the dialectical theatre to late modernist or “post-avant” poetry, or politicized experimental writing. While some academics are all too eager to portray Brecht as a fashionable postmodernist avant la lettre, neo-Marxist language writers such as Bruce Andrews, or Ron Silliman for that matter, take the example of Brecht very seriously. What do you think about that approach?
Baraka: Well, you know, first of all what the language poets would have to explain to me is why their poetry is so dull. I wrote an essay in the Poetry Project Newsletter that said, “Why get poetry so boring again?” And they are one of the groups that, I think … I don’t know what it is. Because maybe they write about intellectual themes, rather than … life … and how it provokes you like it provokes you.
Büscher-Ulbrich: So, you are concerned about the poetry becoming kind of a superfluous attachment to the theory?
Baraka: Well, you know, that’s what you have to watch if you’re an ideologue, even a Marxist ideologue.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, they are Marxists, I believe. At least the group’s “hard core” is —
Baraka: Not really, I mean —
Büscher-Ulbrich: But in their critical-theoretical stance, at least —
Baraka: That’s the problem. That’s the problem, you know. Artistically powerful? No. Politically revolutionary? No. So then what makes it “Marxist?”
Büscher-Ulbrich: Okay. Well, one thing they did was they entered academia and they brought with them a lot of [Marxist] critical theory. And they’re teaching critical theory in academia. So I think that there might be an important social group there — those young academics. Because they all go out into the world and … they’re not exactly “working class,” but people have acted against their own class-interests before, historically speaking, and they might get to be some sort of “social engineers” and might enter into powerful positions, so they better be in contact with at least some critical theory and progressive ideas. Doesn’t that make them a counter-hegemonic force?
Baraka: Not really. They even think the kind of agent provocateur stuff that Ginsberg and them guys did, think of that as (what’s it called?) “a ridiculous ideology.” Well, if you don’t go out and stop those trains bringing nuclear waste, then what is your alternative to that?
Büscher-Ulbrich: The writing won’t do it.
Baraka: That’s what I’m saying.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I agree.
Baraka: You don’t have to do that, but I can understand that, you know, as an activist I can understand that. If you wanna stop that you gotta go stop it. And that’s all you can do, you know. But to say that that is ridiculous because the poet doing that is ridiculous, that’s absurd.
Büscher-Ulbrich: There’s an article by Kristin Prevallet talking about how you met Barrett Watten at an NPF conference on the poetry and poetics of the 1960s — “The Opening of the Field” — in Orono, back in 2000. You almost picked a fight?
Baraka: Yeah, right, right, right. No, it’s stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Because that’s my line on that, you know, academics that turn the struggles of real people into post-modern subjects in order to get tenure — what are you looking awry? I know you got tenure, you’re teaching, you got tenure, you got theories, but what are you doing in the world here, what’s … how can we see the dint of your, you know, the dint of your, like, theories in the world. Now, where is that?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, my next question is related to that. The proliferation of poetry readings and performances, avant-garde or otherwise, writes Charles Bernstein in 1998, “has allowed a spinning out into the world of a new series of acoustic modalities, which have had an enormous impact in informing the reading of contemporary poetry.” Black Arts poets during the 1960s contributed largely to this transformation of the institution of poetry in the United States. Now, coming out of that movement and being one of the most dynamic poetry performers — at least since Mayakovsky — you seem to be taking the poems off the page, out of the realm of ideas, and into action. Is that the task of the revolutionary poet — to help transform ideas into action?
Baraka: Yeah. But, see, the point is you have to watch that because, like the criticism that Lenin made of social democrats, like Bernstein’s “the movement is everything, the goal is nothing.” But that’s not true. I mean, I don’t believe just in that. There has to be something you’re doing that for. You know what I mean, there has to be a goal, a particularity that you want to affect. That’s it, but that’s true. You want to take … the things that you say have to be important enough to do. Truth is in the act, finally, you know what I mean. You know, I mean, it’s boring if somebody is gonna tell you that there is this and this and this and this. Where is that theme? I read a little bit of that, I can’t read much of that, talking about the language poets. But why didn’t I read more? Cause it was boring. You know [laughing], that’s the only reason. I mean, I don’t wanna torture myself, right?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Now, that’s interesting [laughing]: “Boredom is counterrevolutionary. Always.” But that’s Guy Debord and the Situationists, who some language poets actually were very fond of and probably still are.
Baraka: And, you see, the other thing is that that stuff can be perfectly plausible — perfectly fit into the academic situation.
Büscher-Ulbrich: It is not challenging the status quo, you mean … despite its critical-theoretical stance?
Baraka: Yeah, they could be there, or they could be, you know, comfortable with that, you know. The university could be comfortable with that. But when I got kicked out of Rutgers, man, they told me, you know, “You’re through.” They had put all my stuff — when I went in my office they had taken all my books and everybody else’s books, because I was in somebody else’s office, so they took all of that books and my books and put them into boxes. So I walked in the office, they got all my stuff in boxes, and I said “You at least gotta let me get the tests out of that box, you know, cause it’s the end of the semester.” [He] says “No, no, no, no. I’ll come to your house.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: They kicked you out like that?
Baraka: [Laughing.] They put the books in the box.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Unbelievable to me.
Baraka: And, I said, “Well, look, I’ve got the tests in the box.” They said, again, “No, no, no, I’ll come to your house.” And the guy drove from New Brunswick up here. I mean, he was a nice enough guy — he’s just acting [on behalf of the] head of the department — he actually had cried. Him and my wife were friends, and he actually wept about, you know, how they’ve taken me out. But he had to carry out, see. And I had three elections, you know, to get on the faculty you have to be elected by the faculty. So, the first election … I won (by eight or nine votes). So they said, “Since you are a full professor, you have to have another election, and only full professors can vote.” So they figured, “All right then” … I won that, too. But I won that by about three votes. So they said, “That’s too close.” And the third election they send out, and so I said, “Oh, I see … it’s over with.” And when I went back to my office, the books were in the box. Plus, the guy who was running that department, Richard Poirier (he wasn’t a chairman, he was running the department), he had written an essay before I even got to Rutgers, he’d written an essay saying why he would never teach my work. You can look at that essay in Partisan Review. He’d never teach my work or Richard Wright’s. And I come to the campus … I didn’t even know that essay existed, until I came to the campus and they showed me that.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, thinking of German academia … it’s not exactly progressive, but it’s liberal, at least it’s liberal, although increasingly neo-liberal, of course. It’s certainly not a leftist —
Baraka: I understand.
Büscher-Ulbrich: — environment, but, for instance, your work is appreciated. It’s taught, basically, in each and every American Studies department, all over Germany. In Hamburg, as I remember, a group of students even played a recording of “Somebody Blew Up America” on campus, over the loudspeakers, while preparing for a protest march against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Baraka: It’s funny … that’s very funny. I read that poem, at the last Dodge Festival I read that poem, and that’s why that happened, you know. The last two people that came — it was about a thousand people — the last two people — I was signing books, my wife and I were signing books — the last two people to come to me said “That’s a hateful poem.” Hateful, you know. What part is hateful? Anyway, the next day the Governor’s office called me and said “Apologize and resign,” which, you know, to me was stupid. But that’s, again, you know, “You said this in a poem!” It’s like I threw a bar, or something like that, you know, or shot somebody. If you don’t like the poem, say you don’t like it, or why. That’s all. But to go around with this hysteria about that?
Büscher-Ulbrich: One last thing I want to ask you about, because it has been on your mind now, I think, for decades and because it has been so thoroughly discredited by many contemporary Leftists: the notion of a “United Front.”
Baraka: Two people were always talking to me about United Front. One was Malcolm X. The other was Martin Luther King. Ironic that they had the same ultimate understanding, you know, when you would think that they would be miles apart. But not really … Malcolm, about a month before he was murdered, and I talked to him all night in the Waldorf Astoria with an African named Mohammed Babu, who became the minister of economics in Tanzania. He was one of the revolutionaries who helped form Tanzania. So I was trying to be militant, and he was telling me “Better you try to get in there” — in the NAACP — “and influence them,” rather than to be outside and be less effective. So, Dr. King, he came to my house — I was living on the other side of town — he showed up at my front door when he had just finished a march in Newark, and I thought, “Somebody pinch me,” you know. He’d come to talk about a United Front. A week later he was shot dead in Memphis …. See, the same people that elected Obama, the same coalition that elected Obama — and that’s the only coalition that has the material base to do it — have got to come back together to defend the little inch of progress we made … ’cause they gonna take it back. They gonna take it back.
Newark, New Jersey, September 23, 2010
1.This is a line from Baraka’s “Afro-American Lyric,” originally published in Poetry for the Advanced (chapbook, 1979) and reprinted in Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (New York: Morrow, 1997), 322–27. For a videotaped reading of the poem at Naropa Institute of Disembodied Poetics in 1978, go here.
2. Bruce Andrews with Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich, “The contextualizing capacity of the writing itself,” Jacket2 (October 2012). Andrews introduces the notion in his “Praxis: A Political Economy of Noise and Informalism,” published in Charles Bernstein’s collection of essays on sound in poetry, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 73–85.
7. Amilcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory” (1966) and Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral (New York: African Information Service, 1973).
8. For a critical account of this, see Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich, “The Poet/Poem as Agent Provocateur: Sounding the Performative Dimension of Amiri Baraka’s ‘Somebody Blew Up America,’” in States of the Art: Considering Poetry Today, ed. Klaus Martens und Ramin Djahazi (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 2010), 86–101. An excerpt from the court transcript is quoted in Werner Sollors, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Populist Modernism” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 201–2. The original source is “State of New Jersey v. Everett Le Roi Jones, Charles McCray and Barry Wynn,” Essex County Court, Law Division: Criminal Indictment No. 2220-66, January 4, 1968, 17–18.
9. V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed. (vol. 4), 269. Both Hard Facts (1975) and Poetry for the Advanced (1979) are reprinted in Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (New York, Morrow: 1977). For Baraka’s explicitly Marxist-Leninist notion of vanguardism, see his preface to Poetry for the Advanced. However, as I have suggested elsewhere: “In a remarkable collection of political essays and analysis, Daggers and Javelins […], the Marxist-Leninist Baraka finds himself aligned, as it were, with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a “minor literature.” Rather than being stuck with a vulgar-Marxist notion of “reflection” when pondering “the revolutionary tradition in African-American literature,” he conceives of it as “a projection of what [the people] struggle to become” (148).
11. Amiri Baraka, “Why Most Poetry Is So Boring, Again,” PPNL 209 (December 2006/January 2007): 14.
12. Kristin Prevallet, “The Exquisite Extremes of Poetry: Watten and Baraka on the Brink,” Jacket 12 (July 2000) and Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, and Juliana Spahr, “Baraka / The Divide,” Jacket2 (January 4, 2014).
14. That is, the aphorism or pragmatic slogan of the German ‘revisionist’ Eduard Bernstein: “I frankly admit that I have extraordinarily little feeling for, or interest in, what is usually termed ‘the final goal of socialism.’ This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me. The movement is everything.” Bernstein: The Preconditions of Socialism, ed. Henry Tudor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), xxviii.