Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baraka lives!

Baraka (R) w/ John Coltrane (L)
Baraka lives.

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.


puthwuth said...

What is your view though of Baraka's racist views -- the full-on misogyny/rape fantasies, the anti-Semitism and the 9/11 conspiracy theories? How do you think posterity will view these?

Mike Begnal said...

As Questlove wrote in a recent New York Times piece (12 Jan. 2014), “Mr. Baraka got himself into trouble sometimes with the things he said, but then he got himself out, too, and it wasn’t his fault if you decided to pay attention only to the first part. He had an unshakable devotion to change, even if his ideas were imperfect.” And to reiterate, as I stated above, I myself do not always agree with Baraka’s various positions through time. In regard to misogyny, this is most definitely something he struggled with, and the whole cultural-nationalist / Black Arts period is very problematic in this regard. But Baraka has since been very critical of himself for this, writing for example in his Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984, 1997) that some of the ideologies he became involved with toward the end of his cultural nationalism “provided a perfect outlet for male chauvinism, now disguised” (313), and that he himself was “a middle-class black intellectual deeply confused and legitimizing male chauvinism” (343). In regard to anti-Semitism, Baraka has similarly admitted this and similarly repudiated it in his essay “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite” (1980), though there’s some material in the same essay that bears further criticism. In regard to the 9/11 conspiracy theories, I personally find that kind of thing to be unbelievable and a bit paranoid. So I think that “Somebody Blew up America” suffers for that, though it is not anti-Semitic as has been charged. To answer your last question, I think that posterity will view Baraka as someone who struggled with his own prejudices and hopefully to some extent overcame them. He certainly was by no means a perfect person, as great as he often could be as a poet. Can someone who ever held such views be completely free of them? I don’t know, maybe; I’d like to think so. I did not know the man personally. But I appreciate that he tried.

puthwuth said...

Many thanks for that. I'd be interested to see Baraka grappling with these issues in the texts you mention. Must chase them up. Thanks again.