Monday, January 20, 2014

MLA 2014

This year I spent much of the MLA in a hotel suite interviewing candidates for a position at Penn State, so didn't get to my usual 742 panels, but did stay warm in the post-polar-vortex Chicago. Good to be MLA interviewing again after various polar vortex hiring freezes - 

Among the panels I did get to were sessions on the second Chicago Renaissance, Black Voices during the Civil War, Black Aesthetics, Jayne Cortez and Adrienne Rich, and postcolonial Digital Humanities.

I was not able to get to some of the "off campus" events, which by all reports were wonderful, in part because of breaking, bad news. In the midst of the first day's interviews, a message landed on my cell phone that Amiri Baraka had died in Newark. The last reports I'd gotten before leaving for Chicago had been that he was out of the ICU, was improving, and was expected to go home before too long, so this was a shock.   One of my conference duties was to serve as a respondent on the collaborative panel sponsored by the Poetry Division and the Black American Literature and Culture Division on Black Mixed Media Poetics. Since Baraka had been at the forefront of such experiments throughout his career, I took the liberty of building remarks about him into my brief response to the panel. Margo Crawford's paper had included discussion of the photo book In Our Terribleness, a collaboration between Baraka and photographer Fundi, so Amiri's work was well placed in context for the audience -- Quite a large and attentive audience as it turned out. Saturday evening, Joycelyn Moody asked me to read poetry by Baraka and by Alvin Aubert, who had also recently passed, at the reception of the Black Lit Division -- It was a difficult moment; I kept hearing Amiri's voice in my head as I was reading the poem -- In the past week I've heard several people say that Baraka "didn't write for the critics," which I suppose is true enough, but overlooks the fact that he was a critic. What people recall most clearly is his music commentary, but go back to issues of FLOATING BEAR and give a good look to his literary reviews and comments.

The postcolonial DH group all went to lunch after their early Sunday panel and I tagged along -- A great way to end a sad weekend on an up note -- 

Friday, January 17, 2014


[The wake for Amiri Baraka is being held today at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark, or New Ark as Amiri wrote it. I wrote the poem below in 1979, but didn't get around to publishing it till I included it in my 1998 collection, VEXT.]


In the end then to a room
Half hangs outside
The hall trashed overheated
Pupils smart
Squirm in dust
Ashes add up under chairs
Motes streaming
Cling to blinking lids
An odor of investment accrues
To this room

English beats against the glass
Shadowing through the panes
Upon the table obstructing
Paths of passing planes the capital's
Accumulation of images in the mute
Wavering grain is something we dissect
Practicing between ourselves the
Removal of harmful forms

Head at the window
Scarring the glass
Meaning glazes over
The watching White House
Beating back American
Artist in residence in the new
Of corrections
Planes the blades
Of our speech
Asks examples

Mine is of a piece
With a room at an end
That hangs outside
In essential
Popular air

Mine is of a flight that exclaims

Fingers against the glass
I check my watch
Prepare to give examples

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Amiri Baraka in Maine

When the National Poetry Foundation series of conferences held at Orono, Maine, came to American Poetry of the 1960s, I was asked by the organizers to provide an introduction to Amiri Baraka's poetry reading.  This was the second of three times I've introduced Baraka at an event, the second of three times I had the task of introducing someone who used to grade my papers. Below I reproduce the remarks I made in bringing Baraka to the stage at the University of Maine.

"In the 60's, there was emotion to go around barreling explosions, at and against, waves of running, the world itself was feeling, all feeling. I felt that.
Those shadows haunt us now in various ways."

Three decades further on, we meet again. Amiri Baraka titled the poem from which I've drawn these lines "Courageousness. The poem ends,

"There was no reason to be square, that's what
we felt. We could do anything, be anything, even free. That's
how young we were. That's now long ago, that was."

Those too young to recall just how that was may not know the price that was exacted for such exacting measures. The end of the decade witnessed a flurry of memos within the Federal Bureau of Investigation outlining plans to send poison pen letters, forged in the name of the Black Panthers, denouncing Baraka. A similar plan had been put into murderous effect already, leading to violence between members of the Panthers and Maulana Karenga's US organization in Los Angeles. We can still read the glee with which the FBI addressed itself to these operations. One of the memos predicts that "This proposal will cause disruption not only within Jones' group but also in the Black Panther Party, since Jones has an appreciable following in New Jersey who will resent this statement." Few American poets have had to withstand this mode of critical attention. Few American poets have received a postcard, like the one sent to Baraka in 1981 signed by the "Polish Catholic War Veterans of America" : "A vicious treasonable enemy of the U.S.A. like you needs to be put in jail NOT for just 90 days but FOREVER! We will petition the F.B.I, and President Reagan to see to it that you are removed from positions where you can brain wash our youth. You belong in Iran NOT in the U.S.A."

On the other hand, Paul Van Ness, who had been one of Baraka's teachers at Central Avenue School, recalled the young Leroy Jones years later in a letter to William Kunstler: "He was a good student, a quiet, philosophical boy, and we had long discussions."

And there was a moment, in the sixties, when America's media establishment hoped to enlist Amiri Baraka in their swelling ranks. Following the remarkable success of the Obie-winning play Dutchman,, even the New York Times came calling. Baraka recollects in his Autobiography: "It was as if the door to the American Dream had just swung open, and despite accounts that I was wild and crazy, I could look directly inside and there were money bags stacked up high as the eye could fly." But Baraka closed that door. When the same play was performed in Harlem the white press read the text differently, took it personally, and the phone started ringing in J. Edgar Hoover's offices.

But the work never stopped coming. Some readers, looking at the title of Baraka's Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note through the lenses of a retro-Beat ethos, seem to have overlooked the words "Preface" and "Twenty Volume." I took a census of my bookshelves before coming
here and noted that the volumes have now exceeded forty in number, and that's not even counting all the play productions, recordings, opera and broadsheets. The books of poetry include The Dead Lecturer, Black Magic, In our Terribleness. Spirit Reach, Reggae or Not, Transbluesency. Funk Lore and Hard Facts. The prose volumes, which one of his publishers oddly lists all under the rubric of fiction, include Home. Blues People, Black Music, Daggers and Javelins, Raise and The Autobiography. The newly published Fiction of LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka includes Tales. The System of Dante's Hell and his second novel, 6 persons, which until now could only be read in manuscript form among his papers. Then there are the genre-defying works such as Eulogies and The Music. The Music includes important work by both Amiri and Amina Baraka, and any accounting of Amiri Baraka's works would have to include such significant collaborations with Amina Baraka as the anthology Confirmation, their 1982 collection of writings by African American Women. The plays extend from 1964's The Baptism and Dutchman, through A Black Mass, The Toilet, Madheart, Slave Ship. What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production and S-l.

Amiri Baraka has been, as he has remarked, one who is loud on the changing of his ways, but some things have remained constant. The search for a populist modernism that he announced in his introduction to the anthology The Moderns back in the sixties can be found at the heart of all his endeavors. In an early essay looking back to his work on the magazine Yugen. Baraka said: "I found myself publishing that writing which I thought was the most valuable. Not the writing that reflected those tired white lives again, but necessarily those people, those white and black people who were talking about a side of America that was more valuable because it hadn't been talked about." This is the same impulse he addresses in his later poem "The Rare Birds":

Williams writes to us of the smallness of this American century, that it splinters into worlds it cannot live in. And having given birth to the mystery splits unfolds like gold shattered in daylight's beautiful hurricane"

And the one thing that is most easily traced through all of the works of Amiri Baraka is an absolute adherence to "The Aesthetic" as he describes it in a poem of that name included in The Music:

"If you can understand the complexity, of an African mask, the tense ambiguities of Black Blues
then my work should be clear to you, what I say easily understood."

To which I always want to append a line from Williams: "But you've got to try hard." Note that "The Aesthetic" begins in a conditional tense and in the second person. America has not always responded well to complexities and ambiguities, particularly to its own complexities and ambiguities, but there are always those among us willing to enter into a sentence beginning with the word "if," willing to inhabit "you," willing to attend to the myriad subtleties mouthed by the
Blues. There are always those ready to believe they can be anything, even free. Now that's tense ambiguity.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

CALL IT ART - The New York Art Quartet 1964-1965

"Call It Art." The phrase comes from Amiri Baraka's poem "Western Front," and it now does duty as the title for this amazing limited edition set of recordings. The New York Art Quartet's debut album on ESP disk included a recitation by Baraka of "Black Dada Nihilismus" -- though I had not heard that till the LP was reissued many years later.  As it happens, I spotted the reissue while in a D.C. music store with Baraka.  He was looking for Weimar era recordings as part of his research for an opera he was working on at the time. I snapped up a copy of the NYAQ album, though I didn't think to get him to autograph it, and have been using that recording in my classes ever since. I had long been a follower of the musicians who made up the Quartet. On that ESP disk they were John Tchicai, Lewis Worrell, Milford Graves and Roswell Rudd. That collection has since been reissued on CD in remastered form (also available as downloadable MP3 files), and the catalogue has been fleshed out by  the CD collections MOHAWK and OLD STUFF. There is also the wonderful 35th REUNION CD, which again includes work by Baraka, with Reggie Workman holding down the bass chair.

But it turns out that there was much more to be heard.

Triple Point Records has issued this limited edition (665 copies) collection of five LPs presenting the full evolution of one of the central groups of post-Ornette Coleman avant garde jazz,  accompanied by an impressive, well-researched book that traces the history of the music.  The book alone is a valuable addition to our knowledge of the era.  The whole set comes inside a sturdy wooden box.

For me, the great treasure is the second LP. This one begins with a set the group played at Judson Hall during the Four Days in December concert series organized by the Jazz Composers' Guild (a continuation from the first LP), then follows with the session the group played in the studios of WBAI radio on January 17, 1965, which again features Baraka. Here we hear the poem "Western Front" as part of a performance of John Tchicai's "Ballad Theta." That's followed by Baraka's recitations of "Bad Mouth" and "In One Battle" during a performance by the group of "Old Stuff." We have long had access to recorings of Baraka reading these poems that same year in San Francisco, but it is tremendously important to have this aural document of the poet's work with these musicians.  The other LPs cover sessions at Rudy Van Gelder's studio, in Michael Snow's loft space, at the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art and in Marzette Watts's loft. The book, by the way, not only gives readers a thorough history accompanied by powerful photographs, it reproduces many of the hand written compositions of the NYAQ members that are played on the tracks.

I hope that this material will be made available one day in more affordable CD formats for the general public.  Till then, get your library to buy a set (that is, if they still have a turntable to play it on.)


My intentions are colors, I’m filled with
color, every tint you think of lends to mine
my mind is full of color, hard muscle streaks,
or soft glow round exactness registration. All earth
heaven things, hell things, in colors circulate
a wild blood train, turns litmus like a bible coat,
describes music falling flying 

--Amiri Baraka, "Western Front"