|Baraka (R) w/ John Coltrane (L)|
On the occasion of his recent death—
He was in many ways the poet I most admired. Not always agreed with, though at many times I did, but admired as a poet. His form, his aesthetic, his numerous changes and new directions. I mean the fact that he continued to change, to revise his views and his poetics as his life continued onward.
My own poetry is influenced by him in many ways: Ancestor Worship is partly my self-conscious “cultural nationalist” statement, even though I already knew that Baraka himself had long ago moved beyond cultural nationalism. The fact that even before his cultural nationalist period he had a period called his “transitional” period, and after it yet another — that awareness allowed me that freedom in a way. To see the good things in it and reject the bad. And to know that I would eventually move beyond it even if I didn’t know what that would be.
But it is not just in theme or in stance, or the evolution of stance. His form was and is also an integral part of it, for me too. As Baraka said in an interview with another great poet, Kalamu ya Salaam, “What became clear to me is that if you adopt a certain form that form is going to push you into certain content because the form is not just the form, the form itself is content. There is content in form and in your choice of form . . . . the shaping itself is a choice and that choice is ideological. In other words, it’s not just form.” I don’t know if this is always true, and it’s not even really original to Baraka, but it’s something I have thought about a lot.
When the publisher of my latest collection (Future Blues, Salmon Poetry, 2012) asked me for some back-cover material for the book, what I sent was actually based on the blurb from Baraka’s (then Jones’s) The Dead Lecturer, which is probably my overall favorite single unitary collection by him. At many times I have wanted to write an “Homage to Amiri Baraka,” but then I wondered how would that be significantly different from what I’ve already done in a number of poems I’ve written, called that or not.
A friend of mine, Allen Kirkpatrick, who moved to Manhattan in the early 1960s to become a poet, and later became an underground filmmaker, told me a story of his early days as a poet living in the Lower East Side (I being a kid who came later). He said that one day or morning he woke up and looked out his window down onto the street — Ave. A or B, something like that — and below him by his doorstep were LeRoi Jones and Allen Ginsberg having a conversation. “Boy,” he said, “that’s when I knew I was really in the right place. . .”
I have a print of an ink and marker drawing by Baraka that says, “Don’t ever / Be sad enough / Not to believe / in whatever / makes / you / Beautiful”.
I didn’t know Baraka, but I met him once after an AWP reading, February 2008 in New York. I was just some random person to him. But he shook my hand and signed a book for me: “For Michael / Unity + Struggle / Am- Baraka / 2/1/08”. His hand was soft and warm. But that could’ve been anybody.