Amiri Baraka in his own words
Joe Richey | Feb 27, 2010
Poet Amiri Baraka escaped a tremendous snowstorm on one of the last flights out of Newark, New Jersey to take questions in an open forum at the University of Colorado’s Memorial Center in Boulder on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010.Blinding snow followed the skinny black poet from Jersey, and as it accumulated that afternoon, he spoke to all one hundred or so of us, fielding questions for over an hour, as the snow, and our prospects for travel through it, disappeared moment by moment.
Amiri Baraka, at 75 years old, is a pre-eminent African American poets’ essayist playwright, sometimes called “the father of post-modern Black poetry in America.” He gave us the skinny on a range of topics and subjects after CU Professor Noah Eli Gordon introduced and cued up the first salvo on his writing process, the importance of preparation and nerve.
Baraka opens with a quick parable from the American West:
There was a story I always like to tell that I heard from somebody who I can’t give credit to:
He told me he said,
Billy the Kid and his nephew were walking down the street one day. They go past this field of reeds.
And the nephew says, “Uncle Billy make me a whistle.”
And he said “bkrrrrrr,” and he quickly shoots a hole in it.
“How did you do that without aiming?”
He said, “I’m always aiming.”
That’s the story about the writer.
You’re always aiming. Whatever you see or feel or look at is gonna come out. You might write it down; you might not write it down.
Writing it down is a good idea. The best poets I know, you know when they go into their pocket man they’re bringing out their notebook.
It’s a question of study. You can’t write without studying. These people who think that you just write off the top of your head are boring usually. You have to do a lot of studying. Try to find out what’s happening in the world.
You know Richard Wright used to say that you have to be at the top of your time.
On many a topic…
Amiri Baraka jabbed at easy targets on this day when Barack Obama convoked a health care debate with top GOP; e.g., those who would deprive themselves and others of publicly funded health care, Condoleezza Rice, etc., but Baraka mostly talked about the importance of study and not dodging hard questions.
He drew largely from the Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka: living hard, and fighting hard among hard-hit people. But he warned that different times demand different art, that his formative experience and that of his generation was unique. That was then. This is now.
Afterwards, at the Hotel Boulderado, he talked for two hours more: a recent festival in Grenada; Nicaragua; the availability of collected W.E.B. DuBois even as the building with the Dubois archive in it at UMass Amherst sinks an inch deeper into the ground, and along with it, all things public in higher education around the country.
He talked about Sonny Carson, his education, the funerals for blacks in Bedford Stuyvesant killed by police violence, his granddaughter at Howard University next semester at 16, if his papers are going to Columbia.
Baraka stopped briefly to listen to Mark Diamond, another Jersey-born artist, before heading back to Denver. He read poetry on Friday night to a packed house at Sturm Hall at the University of Denver.
He’ll return during the second week of July as part of The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics’ Summer Writing Program at Naropa University in Boulder.
Below: Hear Amiri Baraka, an elder spokesperson for the politically engaged left, including socialists and communists, still alive but radically unorganized.