LAST October, Mark McMorris invited me to come down to Georgetown University for a couple of days to participate in a program with Rod Smith and Amiri Baraka. There was to be a panel in the afternoon with faculty, students and visitors, which I was asked to moderate, followed by a public reading in the evening at which I was to introduce the poets. I was flattered to be asked, though it did occur to me that I might have been chosen simply because I was the only person available who knew both of these fine poets. You can see a few shots from the event by way of the link over there in the sidebar. There was an enthusiastic audience that evening and it proved to be one of the better readings I'd attended that year. I'm reproducing here the comments I made by way of introduction for each of the readers.
“One wants a friend in contingency.”
So one told Patrick Durgin in an interview, one Rod Smith, answering to the contingency of the Q & A form. “He does not even speak of himself, he merely speaks ‘on his own behalf,'” we read elsewhere, in an untitled piece labeled “Strange Loop” in the book In Memory of My Theories. The same could be said of so many interview subjects. When one is subjected to an interview, one, perhaps even you, one begins to measure the distances between speaking of oneself, speaking for oneself, speaking on one’s own behalf.” “Speak up,” his mother said to him. Once, when Ed Dorn called to one workshop writer’s attention (this was in England) his proclivity for speaking of “one,” the errant writer said, sounding somewhat stricken, “but sometimes when one says ‘one’ one means ‘one.’”
When one reads the works of Rod Smith, one finds a friend in contingency. Is it wholly coincidental that in Smith’s retelling of an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show, a piece that ends with Smith asking us to imagine Ted in charge, Ted in Lou’s chair, Ted as boss, we see, not contingency but an exact description of our current political moment in America? But our coming to this book in the first place is contingent, an episode in the serial dramedy of our lives.
Rod Smith could have taken another route altogether, but when he left Manassas he came to us. Like his fellow postal employee Charles Olson, Smith posted himself to the capitol. Olson said “people want delivery.” Smith has been in a whirl of correspondence rare in our instant messaging world. He’s kept his aerial, his strange loop, in the wind, picking up those contingent signals, like that snowy signal coming in from some far city carrying news of what the new poets in Ghana are doing today. The Boy Poems, Protective Immediacy, The Good House, Music or Honesty, titles that speak on their own behalf; a poet who represents, a writer who cares for company, who has always relied on the contingency of strangers, a writer who knows the terrible distance between you and you in the old joke that you can say what you like about America, but you can say what you like. A poet as likely to speak of you as to you, a poet like Rod Smith.
“We entered the city at noon! High bells. The radio on.”
Amiri Baraka seems always to be returning to D.C. In this early poem “One Night Stand,” he designs a car filled with the excitement of young poets; a car that doesn’t deign to slow for those stubborn cobblestones that a now half forgotten robber baron with the improbable name of O. Roy Chalk never got around to ripping up as he’d contracted to do; a car “snaring the violent remains of the day / in sharp webs of dissonance” as it heads through the old gates. The poem maps a return to the Hilltop, up Georgia Avenue to the old stomping grounds of his younger days.
Fast forward a couple of decades; Baraka returns again to D.C., passes through another set of gates on another hilltop, this time those now too familiar stands found at the entrance to so many public buildings, the electronic gateways to a congressional office building Baraka joked were “ideology detectors.” There was a lot of ideology to be detected that day, as we gathered to honor Baraka’s former teacher, Sterling Brown, as poet laureate of our city, of our stateless peoples.
Who knew? It has been reported that when Baraka was named Poet Laureate of his home state, New Jersey, he predicted to Governor McGreevey that there would be trouble. Who knew, other than McGreevey himself, that the Governor’s troubles went much deeper than anything a poet laureate might bring with the morning news. We’re used to this sort of thing here in D.C. Think of Walt Whitman walking back up Constitution Avenue, having just lost his job at the Department of the Interior after publishing “Children of Adam.” Think of Paul Laurence Dunbar consigned to work at the Library of Congress, not as the national Poet Laureate, not even as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, but as a fetcher of books. Think even of Charles Olson’s brief attempts at bureaucracy in the Office of War Time Information. This has always been a home to poets, but it has never been an entirely welcoming home. When Gil Scott heron used to live here, he sang “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.” – he must have just been reading a review of his work in the WASHINGTON POST.
But Baraka has always been a presence here; not only through his stream of books: PREFACE TO A TWENTY VOLUME SUICIDE NOTE, BLUES PEOPLE, DUTCHMAN, THE DEAD LECTURER, BLACK MUSIC, RAISE, BLACK MAGIC, IT’S NATION TIME, THE MUSIC, THE SYSTEM OF DANTE’S HELL, HOME, HARD FACTS, REGGAE OR NOT, SIX PERSONS, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY; it goes on and on through one of the most profoundly prolific careers in American literature; not only through those books but through the networks he has always been a part of, from his youthful experiences with our own Sterling Brown through those incomparable Neals, Gaston Neal and Larry Neal, and into our present. All those spiritual detectives hard on the case -
as is Baraka – He grew up listening to THE SHADOW on his radio – wrote a poem about it later on, about who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men - Later he took to investigating the sun – “I investigate the sun,” he writes, “and for my trouble get music — / / I investigate the sun. Doubt it if you will, what does a shadow know anyway?”
He may belong to Newark, but, just like Sun Ra, he’s never away from us for long – It’s never just a one night stand – he may be scarred from flying too close to the sun, but for his trouble we get music.