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Joined: 08 Oct 2002
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This is why I like Amiri Baraka  Reply with quote  

ya Salaam: Amiri, was it a conscious decision to write both what academe would call "agit-prop" pieces which have a mass orientation, and also these, for lack of better term, these way out experimental pieces?

Baraka: No, I think the culture is that broad. I donít feel any less Black trying to find out something I donít know than trying to say something I do know. At one point, you are always trying to find out more which always leaves what youíre saying seemingly more discursive because you are not quite clear on what youíre saying. But you know a lot of things clarify themselves as you get older. When I wrote that play Dutchman, I didnít know what I had written. I stayed up all night and wrote it, went to sleep at the desk and then woke up, and looked at it and said "what the [f---] is this?" And then put it down and went to bed. (Laughter.) Some things you know absolutely what youíre saying, youíre absolutely clear. Bang, itís an idea you want to express. Sometimes though you canít limit your mind by what you know. You have to always figure that you can hold on and you just open your mind to where it wants to go to, which you donít know at the time, but if itís legitimate, youíll find out what youíre saying.

See, there are levels. Can you understand the levels of what knowledge is? The first level of knowledge is perception. Perception is nothing but a sponge. Everything you are around, you pick it up. You might not even know it, but your mind is just picking up stuff like a blotter. The second level is rationalization, you actually name it. Oh, that was this. But the highest form of knowledge is use. For example, I can say I know about the piano. I know all kind of stuff about the piano, about music, but then they say: can you play? I say, oh, no I canít play. You can conceive all kinds of things and give them names, but of that myriad of perceptions and rationales, how much of it can you use? A lot of stuff you do that is reaching out is really you trying to clarify stuff for yourself.

I always got the feeling that, well, I guess maybe some of it comes from Dumas. You know Henry Dumasí work? Dumas was a great writer of the Black Arts Movement, murdered by the police. Ark of Bones, those stories, great stories. I think Toni Morrison cops from him a lot. She really is influenced a lot by Henry Dumas, more than a lot of people know. The whole fascination with the bizarre, with the hidden. Moselyís first book is like that, Gone Fishiní. Yall read that book? You should read that. Thatís a much heavier book than those detective stories. But that kind book where you walk in the Black community and suddenly itís like youíre opening the door to a whole other world. You step into there and all kinds of wild things happen. Like that Dumas story Fon where these White people stop this brother at night on a road like they going to lynch him or something like that. He leads them to this abandoned city where thereís Black peopleís ghosts still living their lives. That never occurred to me that you follow blood down the road and that might lead you to a ghost town and then suddenly an arrow comes out of the night. And when they start messing with him, he says, my brothers are watching you. You better watch out and they donít believe him, and suddenly this arrow comes--twing through the air and gets them through the neck. Well, that opened up a lot in me because I started thinking about well, yeah, I know some Black people look like they be doing stuff like that.

Also, Larry Neal had a story about religion, a weird church. These Black people had a church and they had Jesus up in there beating him. It was like a White Jesus and they had in this storefront church. Thatís what they would do every Sunday, they would go to church and whip this White boy up in the church, and then they would, I guess, lock him up till the next Sunday. I donít know what that was. It was the sense of the strange, the bizarre. So, Iíve been writing these stories about these Black inventors. They are just brothers you see in the community, theyíre not in the University of Nowhere.

They are just in the community and might call you up and say, why donít you come over and check my stuff out, I got something new. And you go over there and they might have a machine that might do any number of things.

I think that idea of the depth and sometimes bizarre quality, sometimes profound quality of Black life, sometimes we miss that when we have to deal with the beast everyday. Iím talking biblically, Revelations. When you have to deal with the beast everyday you forget that thereís John sitting there, John the Revelator. You know everybody didnít see no stuff flying through the air. You know four horsemen of the apocalypse, everybody didnít see that. Now John was sitting there looking at all of that, but everybody looking up at the sky didnít see that. That sense of wonder, of revelations, has always intrigued me about Black people. I guess in our everyday struggles with 666 we sometimes forget that there are some very wonderful, miraculous things that Black people do. I saw this Negro play some spoons with an amplifier on it. Who would think about that? Who would look at a spoon and say, I know what, Iím going to amplify this sucker. That doesnít seem like an everyday concern.

I think itís that sense of the bizarre, the sense of the wonderful, and also the sense of the comic. In my studies of world Black culture, there still the smile at the bottom of the world. You know the masks of drama, one smiles, one frowns? That geography, thatís aesthetics, that smile at the bottom of the world. That sense of the wonderful, the bizarre, and the comic, I was always intrigued by that.

ya Salaam: Itís one thing to have that sense, and itís another thing to have the technical facility to put that sensibility on the page.

Baraka: Practice. Practice. Practice. I think thatís the only thing you can do. Like my grandmother said, practice makes perfect. To do anything you have to practice. You have to do it. If you donít do it, you wonít do it. You canít be a writer in your head, just like you canít play the piano in your head. Iím the meanest piano player I know--in my head. I can play some piano in my head, itís just when I get to the piano it gets difficult. You have to work at it.

And then I think, young writers, you have to get to the point where you start grading your work. At first when you start doing it, everything is great. Everything you write is valuable and you must (mimics holding stuff to his chest), this is my work, this a poem I wrote in nineteen-whatever. Thatís normal but you have to work through that and get over that. Iím not saying get to the point where you think your work is expendable, but get to the point where you can grade it.

You know the worse thing you can do is write a "you-poem." Nobody can imitate you like you. I can write a hundred poems that I write, but those are "you poems." Those are poems using the things that you know are you. Once you become practiced in writing then you have certain skills that you can put a poem together, but the point is that it wonít have any substance to it. There wonít be any moving, there wonít be any life in it, any heart in it, cause you can imitate yourself.

The whole point of developing the skill is so that the words fly on the rhythm. You feel the rhythm before you know what youíre talking about. If you trust the rhythm and youíve worked so that you donít have a lot of dumb stuff in your mind all the time. (Laugher.) No, itís true, because you might want to write about McDonaldís boxes, I donít know. Thatís why Mao says--and this is very important--when we look at your work we can tell what you love and what you hate, what you celebrate and what you put down, and we can also tell what work youíre doing and what study youíre doing. We can tell what youíre concerned with, we can tell by your writing, what you know and what you donít know.

Now, the lyric poet is, of course, the great hidden personality of our time. They can write about "I"--I feel, I want, I do, I am--and really be hiding the world because all theyíre talking about is this great vacuum in my heart that must be filled by, I donít know, ice cream cones, a walk down the street, another person. You know what I mean, it could be anything? Thatís the lyric "I"--I want, I need. But actually to begin to talk about who is I and where is I in the world among all the other Iís, and how that relates to a real objectively existing world that exists independent of us. The world exists independently of us--if you can get that in your mind. The world does not depend on you to exist, it exists independent of you. Thatís hard sometimes, because weíre so subjective, especially we great artists, we think the whole world is in our heads. Itís not. The world exists independent of your will. Things will happen you donít want to happen. How did we get here?

That point of writing past the preservation of everything, being able to grade your work--you know what I mean, being able to tell the fake from the true--and of getting past imitating yourself, those are important things.

Also, going back to Mao Tse-Tung. You ever read the Yenan Forum written in 1941? Mao was trying to build the communist party and one of the things he was talking about was intellectuals. What is the role of the intellectual? What is the role of artist in making social transformation? Now, if anybody needs to know that itís us. That is what Yenan is about. The first question he asks: for whom does one write? Who are you writing for? Why are you interested in writing? Is it to titillate your own compulsive personality? What is it for? Thatís a good point. Think about it sometimes. Once you begin to isolate "for whom" then you also know "what it is." How do I explain what has gone down in this world for us?

So, when people be going up to me and saying Baraka you always political, I say why do you want me to be different from. You want me to be different from Baldwin, you want me to be different from Lorraine Hansberry, you want me to be different from Langston Hughes, or DuBois? Who should I get away from? Our tradition is intensely political. And for this recent group--and Iím not trying to categorize you in age terms--but for this recent little group of buppies that theyíre publishing who think that somehow writing is not a political act, that always has been around but itís something that Black people and indeed the people of the world have flogged.

Anyway, thatís a very important question--for whom?--because for whom answers why. You want to know for whom, look at your work. Who does it celebrate, who does it put down, who does it think is beautiful, who does it think is ugly, what work are you doing, what study? We can see it in there. We donít have to ask you nothing, you give me your poetry or literature, I read it and I know a lot about you just from reading that. You could be writing about something you think is totally disguised, donít have nothing to do with your life, you could be writing about Johnny Jojo way over there in Nobo land, you know, but it bees about you. Thatís what it bees about. Why? Because thatís all you know about. It bees about us.

Thatís another thing, a lot of people get frightened at; once they know that people know that when you write something, itís about you, Jim, it ainít about that one, itís about you, then people get constipated. They donít want to expose themselves. People be saying, I donít know how he could write that book, Baraka you... hey, what I care. You be dead in a minute, people will read it--I always thought that if you felt strongly about a thing then you would face it.

For me, I had come out of a lil petite-bourgeois family, my mother was a social worker, my father was a postman, they always told me: y'all, are the smartest colored kids on the planet. They gave me piano lessons, trumpet lessons, drum lessons, piano lessons, painting lessons. I used to sing Ave Maria with my sister. I used to recite the Gettysburg Address every Lincolnís birthday in a Boy Scout suit for about six years--this was my mama. The point is that for them two Negroes right there, they knew what they were going to do, they were going to give us all the information in the world, and they was going to equip us to go out and fight the White people. Thatís where my people were coming from. Why? Because they wanted that. You were fighting for them. I never knew that, I never understood what they had planned for me until one night when the White people came--I had this play, Dutchman, and all of these papers, they were calling me names and all kinds of things, stupid, crazy, evil, but I could see that they were going to make me famous.

The minute that that came to my mind that they were going to make me famous, I said, now, Iím going to pay your ass back. (Laughter.) Naw, it was very clear. It was like, bump. I could see how my mama had put the shell in there. Click. Right. Oh, you gon make him famous, I got some shit for you. Thatís what it was, it was like you had been doctored on by masters. You understand? Every night at dinner, theyíd be running it. Youíre sitting there eating biscuits and what not, and they would be running it. They would be telling you the history of the south, the history of Black people, the history of Black music and you would be sitting there. They were actually teaching you. But I didnít know that then. My grandmother would tell me all the time about this Black boy they accused of raping this woman and they cut off his genitals and stuffed them in his mouth and then made all the Black women come there and watch. My grandmother told me that story when I was a little boy. Why would your grandmother tell you that story? Because she wanted you to remember that shit forever. You understand? Sweet little old lady from Alabama would sit you down, give you something to eat, and tell you this horrible story, and then you trying to figure out: why would she tell me that story? Why would she tell you that story? Oh, you still know the story, you still got it in your mind, sixty years later, you still remember that story?--"yeah, I remember it"--in detail?--"absolutely"--well thatís why she told it to you.

I donít know if y'all still have that in your homes, I canít speak on that, but I know that is what we as writers have to do, continue that tradition. The only way I can see that tradition being extended is through the role and function of the writer in the community.

ya Salaam: You said earlier, practice. Tell us about what you did to practice to prepare yourself to write A System Of Danteís Hell.

Baraka: Iíll tell you about that book. Do y'all know Aime Cesaireís work? If you donít, you should. Thatís the first dictum of writing: to read. For African people hooked up around the world, we have the treasure chest that is boundless, boundless! You should never be bored in your life--of literature Iím talking about, whether you talk about Afro-American literature. Thatís what amazing about these folks, these filmmakers, Iím talking about Negroes, they can make all of this garbage, yet the treasure chest lies untouched. You got all of the slave writings for instance, Fred Douglas, Linda Brett, Henry Bibb. Incredible slave narratives, more exciting than anything you see in the movies. Nothing is more exciting or more beautifully written than Fred Douglas, there is no American speech at any higher level than Fred Douglas.

Anybody who tells you different is crazy. There is no higher level, not no Melville, nobody. You want to know about American language go to Fred Douglas. Tell me somebody can match that, anywhere, anytime. I go to Willie Shakespeare in English, you have to reference that. You need footnotes for that. Read Fred, you donít need no footnotes. Thatís talking about right this minute. "Would you have me argue the profundity of the human soul? Is that a topic for Republicans." He says, "there is no one who does not understand that slavery is wrong for them." That statement there, what can you do with that? Unassailable logic. In English there is no literature at no higher level than Fred Douglas. Not Shakespeare, not, not, not, not. Not the Bible.

Fred takes the Bible, he takes Shakespeare, when you read Fredís writing, he already copped the Bible, and he copped Shakespeare, and then he put the Black thing in there just to make it sweet. Read that.

How do you practice? You first have to read. You first have to read. You have to read everything. I can say that now, but then again, when I was a kid, when I was in the Air Force, I used to read everything because I didnít have nothing else to do. I was locked up in the Air Force, I would read for twelve or fourteen hours a day. I mean terrible stuff, Thomas Hardy. Stuff I would never wish on nobody. You know what I mean.

ya Salaam: But do you think that helped you?

Baraka: Yes, it did. Why? Because all of those things were confirmations. My mama and daddy already had told me, y'all the smartest colored people on the planet or we going to make you that. You see, but I wasnít sure, because I always thought that White people, because they had that enormous public relations outfit saying how hip they is--at seventeen and eighteen I was trying to figure it out. I said, well, let me check them out, they might know something, you know? I wanted to know something, so I checked them out. I was the night librarian at Randy Air Force base and I ran the library. This White woman who ran it found out that I knew the books and loved the books, so she went on a vacation. She went down to the beach and just stayed there and said, you got it. So, I would have my boys in there every night and we educated ourselves in the history of so-called western, i.e. European, culture. Thatís what we did, every night. Whether it was Palastrina or Bach, the madrigals, we would sit there and listen to it, and then we would read all that stuff. Tess Deíverviel, Thomas Hardy, all of that, Jude the Obscure.

Why? Because we thought it might have something of value in it. So we read through it. We would read all of the New York Times Book Review stuff. To say what at the end? There was limited information in it. Although I can not regret any of it, a lot of that time I could have spent trying to get through them ten thousand magazine articles DuBois has written. I could have spent my time trying to get through all of DuBoisí works and all of Langstonís work.

Just that. You know that DuBois actually wrote ten thousand articles that he published. Now figure that out. How could he write ten thousand magazine articles? Well, first you have to live to be ninety-five. Then you have to write maybe ten articles a month, thatís a hundred a twenty a year, no, that ainít enough. How many you have to write? About two hundred a year for fifty years.

Did I answer the question?

ya Salaam: No, you were talking about how you prepared to write A System of Danteís Hell.

Baraka: Oh, yeah, and I asked had anyone read Cesaire, and no one answered? Read Aime Cesaire. His great work is called Notes On A Return To My Native Land. He was one of the founders with Senghor and Damas from Guyana of Negritude, that was the Black consciousness movement that comes out of the thirties and the forties from French speaking peoples. They had a movement in Haiti called Indigismo, itís the same movement. They had a movement in the Spanish speaking Black countries called Negrismo, same movement. Blackism, Black consciousness. Throughout the West Indies, and through out the world.

The reason I say Ceasaire is because when he was a student over at the Sorbonne in Paris, he, Damas and Senghor were writing what they described as French Symbolist imitations. They were imitating the French Symbolists. So one day he got disgusted with this and said, Iíll never write another poem. Iíll only write prose. Well, he lied because the prose that he wrote was Notes On A Return. What does that have to do with Dante, well the Dante is the same thing. I was under the influence of a lot of writers in the Village.

I said to myself, Iím not going to do this anymore. Why? Because youíll find out when you imitate peopleís writings, you also imitate their point of view. I wrote a long paper on something called the "content of form." Forms are a form of content. You understand what Iím saying? When Claude McKay, for instance, chooses the English sonnet form, thatís an aspect of his content.

His focus on that English form, tells you something about his philosophy. I began to see that even being influenced by these people, I was being influenced by their content which I didnít believe in. When I was among the White writers we used to argue all the time about politics not having anything to do with art, thatís what they would tell me and I would say, for whatever reason, say, but it does. Even down there among the beatniks, I would say that it does. Why? Because if you were describing an apple thatís your description of it. You are trying to convince me that that apple is an apple for me as it is for you. Whatís the difference between that propaganda and me telling you capitalism ainít no good. Finally, one might have more implications than the other. So anyway, I said, I have to stop being influenced by these peopleís form because the form is also making me think some of the things that they think. So, I said Iím not going to do that anymore. Iím not going to try and write poetry anymore. I didnít know Cesaire had said that till maybe fifteen or twenty years later. So, I said, what will I do? Iím going to write a story in which I do not the story, but write the story that the story makes me think of. And thatís what I tried to do. In other words, I was telling myself a story in my head, and I said, Iím not going to write that story that Iím telling myself in my head. Iím going to write the story that that story makes me think of. You know what Iím saying?

ya Salaam: No. Break that [s---] down.

Baraka: In other words if I say, I walked into this room and saw a group of writers sitting around a table with books on table. Thatís the story, but that ainít what I think. Thatís the story, but what that story makes me think of is something else. I called them association complexes. I would be thinking of something, but I wouldnít write about what I was thinking, I would write about what thinking about that made me think because there are associations. Because I would say, well, I know the story but I donít know what the story would make me think. In other words, Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Now, what does that make you think about? Thatís the story, but what does that make you think about? Well, I remember Jack when he was downtown last week, he had this funny looking hat on, so forth and so on. Then I saw Jill the other day coming out of this bar. It all had to do with what those associations were more than anything else. I think poets do that a lot and they donít know it, or they do know it.

Also, youíd be surprised if you let your mind run as free as it will, it ainít gon run that free, cause you going to stop it. (Laugher.) Naw, thatís right, cause youíll think youíre not making sense. But youíll be surprised, youíll be making sense that you donít know is sense. Itís true. Youíll say something, itíll come out your mouth--you know you mouth is fast--and then two or three beats later you will say, oh, thatís what that means. Youíve got to trust yourself. Itís just like anything else, like sports, like them basketball players. Youíve got to trust yourself. Michael Jordan says when he goes up in the air, he donít know what heís going to do. He goes up there and creates, thatís what you have to do. You have to create. Now, if youíre crazy, weíll find out. If you canít make it, weíll find out. But, youíve got to go for it.

This might sound peculiar to you, but thereís a lot of stuff in your own life you donít even know. You donít know nothing about yourself. You want to know about the world, check out yourself. What was your grandmother talking about the last time you saw her? What did she mean? Where did she come from? What her boyfriend look like? How did your grandmother get to the place where you met her. Thereís stuff in your life thatís incredible. All kinds of things. I donít know what they are, you donít know what they are, but you can find out. If you was to turn detective like Easy Rawlins and try to go down your own life, who are you parents, how did they meet, where they always your sweet parents, who were their parents, where did they live? Thereís a lot of secretes, even when you live with somebody, when you married to somebody, you donít know everything about the person youíre living with. My wife and I been together 31 years, now thatís a long time to be with anybody, but that donít mean you know everything about them. Cause every once in a while you be talking and you said "what??? I never knew that? I never knew you believed that? Life is very, very complex and it changes all the time. What you want to be today, you might not want to be tomorrow. What you called yourself a few minutes ago, you might not want to call yourself the next time I see you coming around the corner. I donít mean youíre all like Rodman--Rodman changes his hairstyle, he got purple today, tomorrow he might have yellow--I just mean your mind is subject to all kinds of things.

ya Salaam: What did you do in terms of craft. I want you to speak about craft. How would you practice writing?

Baraka: How would you practice writing? Read and write. Read and write. Write what? Whatever comes into your head. Whatever. But also have projects. Things that you want to do. I have projects lined up into 27A.D. that I want to do. A lot of which are done but not done. The reason projects are important is because thatís something you can apply yourself to. How do you do it? You have to do it. You have to write and correct it. You have to write and look at it. Iím not a big one for rewriting. Iím not a big rewrite fan. My rewrite is choome, into the trash can. I donít mess with it. If it looks like itís not going to hang out, Iíll throw it away. Iím not going to torture it. Why? Thatís arrogance. Like Bill Cosbyís says, Iíll kill you and make another one just like you. Iíll kill you poem and make another one just like you. Donít have that fear of it. Youíve got to be free and open to write about anything from any point of view that appeals to you but you have to actually study, do that mental gymnastics. You canít write on an empty brain. Some people does.

What do you have to study? The world! What a silly thing to be in the world and not know anything about it. I mean how silly is that to be here everyday and not know nothing about the world, to be walking around just ignorant. Thatís a hell of a thing. Iím ashamed of my own ignorance, you know what I mean?--not in anyway that would make me less arrogant--but ashamed of it in the sense of there is a lot that you gots to know that you will never know. When I get to something, you know, find out something and then think about how many years I been walking around thinking that I knew something and didnít really know it, didnít know nothing about it. Like I was somewhere today and I opened up a book and started reading about the Boer War. Now, I know about the Boer War. I read Conan Doyleís little jive thing--you know Sherlock Holmesí man--Doyle wrote a thing about the Boer War so I read it.

Why? Cause I wanted to know about the Boer War, but then, Iím reading some more on it and I say, I didnít know that. I started saying, hey, I better go back and look at the Boer War again. But then you say, why you want to know about the Boer War Baraka thatís some old corny stuff. Because I want to know about it, thatís why. I want to know. It was in South Africa. They were fighting over our land. Why would the Boers and the English fight? What was that about. What were the stakes in that. Who sold out? What niggahs sold out, I know there must have been some who sold out. Thatís true. When you look at the Civil War or the destruction of Reconstruction, you start thinking it was all White people, thatís a game. Just like today, if somebody was to tell you, aw, theyíre getting rid of Affirmative Action and this and that, and forty years from now, you say it was White people this and White people that. Hey, list all the niggahs that was in it. Who helped them do that. Same way during the Civil War. Yes, they did. Some of the same people we be calling out as the first Negro so and so, look at who they were and why they was that.

ya Salaam: When you wrote, you wrote on a typewriter?

Baraka: Always.

ya Salaam: Manual or electric?

Baraka: Well, it was manual until, letís see, a while back I started writing on an electric typewriter. Iíve had a computer maybe since ninety-something. But always with a typewriter. I didnít never like to write longhand.

ya Salaam: Why?

Baraka: My hand hurt. (Laughter.) I could write faster on a typewriter. I was the only boy in typing class in high school. I got a C, but I can type. Iím always grateful for that stroke of revelation that made me take typing. I wasnít thinking about it for no special reason, but then again, I guess I was thinking about writing because I had been to a writing class. So I learned to type and I am forever grateful for that. I think typing, computing, thatís the way you have to do it. That longhand, Iím not with that. I do it a lot because I donít have any choice, traveling all the time, Iíve written a lot of stuff in longhand but I canít do nothing with it because once I write it out like that Iím disgusted that I had to do that in the first place because thatís just a lot of work.

ya Salaam: And then you would have to do it again, type it over, because no one can read your writing?

Baraka: (Shakes his head yes and smiles. Laugher.) I donít know why that is. I know my wife says she canít read it, and, I donít know, I think she would be suspicious if someone else could, but I know I canít read it and she canít read it. It takes a long time for me to read my own handwriting. I donít know why even bother.

ya Salaam: Were you one of those people who had a writing routine or did you write anytime, the morning, at night, or whatever?

Baraka: When I was younger I used to like to write late at night and early in the morning. Now I write late at night.

ya Salaam: Whatís that about?

Baraka: Quiet. The rap concerts go off in the house. The little twenty-five year old children stop running up and down the steps. That donít slow down until about two. About three or four is the best time, four until light is the best time.

ya Salaam: If you were absconded as you walked out of the door and they said, tomorrow we do the operation and this operation is going to wipe out all of your books except two and you can tell us what two that would remain--itís sort of a Sophieís choice kind of question --what two books would you want to have left behind?

Baraka: The ones Iíve still got to write. (Laugher.) I really feel that way. I donít have no worshipful relationship to my work in that way. I did it. Thatís it. It ainít me, thatís just some books on the shelf, because if you donít act like that, then that will be you over there on the shelf. Youíve met people who donít go any further than that. Thatís where they at. What they said in 1928, thatís what they say today. Why? Because they worship that fact that hey, I have a book and I said this. A lot of stuff that I have in books, I donít even agree with that anymore. Somebodyíll say, well, you have it in a book. Yeah, but that book ainít me. That book was written in 19--, I was a little boy then, I donít believe that anymore. Thatís like Skip [Gates] and them be talking about DuBois and the talented tenth. Hey man, that was 1890-something he wrote that. For you to keep running that back to a guy who joined the communist party when he was 93 years old, thatís kind of far out. Why do they do it? For obvious reasons. They cannot deal with all of DuBois, so they make believe his life stopped there. The White people do that to me all the time with the downtown stuff, letís make believe his work stopped there. You canít allow yourself to be linked to the work as if it were you. You can defend it or cop out about it, but Iím not going to pretend itís me because thatís death. You become a bookend, a literary figure thatís somebodyís going to bury. Thatís what I loved about Jimmy [Baldwin] finally, when we made our rapprochement. He was a good brother. That was somebody you could hang out with. He didnít think of himself up on a bookshelf and he would burn you in a minute if thatís what you wanted to approach him with.

Jimmy had a terrible mouth for those of you that donít get that inference out of his books, he had the sting of a cobra out of his mouth. He would hurt you. He never took that idea of being "the author" seriously. Now, a thinker, thatís different. He didnít want you to take him light on the thought side. If you would try to play him cheap in terms of what he thought, then you were in for trouble, but the book thing. You see to be stuck like Ellison on one book and to be there polishing the weapon, polishing the gun so much till you donít get another shot. Thatís what that is. You be there polishing the gun so much till the gangster done went away. And youíre sitting there, well, Iím trying to get it so itís like this. The thing is to bam, pull it out and shoot it. For me thatís what writing is, you got to pull it out and shoot it. What is in your mind, what is in your feelings, go for it. Nobodyís feelings are more profound than yours. Nobody knows more than you if you know what they are talking about.

ya Salaam: What do you mean by that?

Baraka: If you know what they are talking about--if they go off in some jargon or linguistic code, thatís different, but if they are talking about the world and you know what theyíre talking about, they donít know no more than you do. They might have more experience which you are then suppose to respect, but there is no such thing as they have an exclusive hold on meaning.

ya Salaam: Youíve spent a lot of your time being an editor. Assembling writers, poets, you put together a number of anthologies. You did a press. Put together Totem Press and worked with Corinth Press. You did Kulchur, Floating Bear, all those magazines, you even did that music magazine Cricket for a minute. Tell us about your perception of being an editor as integral to being a writer or do you see it as two different things?

Baraka: (right) I see it as a continuation. I also became an editor because I wanted to publish my own work when I was young. I never believed in waiting for anybody to publish me. I never believed I was going to be discovered by nobody. I never believed that somebody was going to say, hey, I want to publish you. I thought that if anybody was going to publish me it was going to be me. Iím not going to make believe, Iím just going to publish. Why? Because I wrote it. I want it out. Thatís it. Why did I do a magazine? Because I thought that there were a lot writers like myself who needed to be published. I think you all, you writers, you publish your stuff. All you need is a mimeograph. You donít need a whole lot of money and stuff. In this day and age of Kinkoís--we didnít have that when I was coming up--you can get twenty books published in five minutes. For the next poetry reading you can print twenty or thirty books and then sell them. I would do that. You love the poetry, youíre writing the poetry, put it together, charge a couple of dollars for it. You can make the money back you spent and get your work out. To me thatís the best armament for writers. Always have your stuff with you. Always. Mash it on somebody. Sell it. Give it away. Youíre a writer, you want people to read your work. Right? Thatís what you want. If you want to get rich, get into another field! But if you want to write, you want people to read your writing, well then, write it down and publish it, give it away. People been holding on to their writings talking about, one day, the sun god is going to come down and discover me, and make me chief editor of Playboy. You know that kind of stuff. Whoever discovers you is going to turn you into something you wish you wasnít, Iíll tell you that. They used to tell me all the time when I was down in the village, so and so sold out, so and so sold out. I would say, well, whereís the office. Ainít nobody asked me. They was discriminating even in selling out.

Donít wait for anything. Just wait for your own agreement. When you think youíre ready. Two poems. One poem. A broadside. Anything. Get it out. Because if you donít, youíre constipating yourself. Itís true. You walk around with a whole sheaf of stuff that youíre not publishing, thatís constipation because your mind is fixed on that, and youíre not going to do much until you get that out of you. And once you--even if itís on Kinko's paper-- do something with it, itís out of you. That act will get it out of you and then you can go on to your next thing. But you have got to do it.

ya Salaam: Talk a bit about poetry specifically and literature in general as sound rather than as text. Weíve been talking about text for the most part.

Baraka: First, the music. Always being intensely interested in the music, I always tried to use the music as a catalyst and a kind of object lesson or a paradigm for my own work. It comes from Langston who said, I try to use the forms and content of Black music, of jazz and blues. I was trying to do that. As far as the sounds are concerned I always thought of myself as a saxophone player or a drummer, and a trumpet player I guess, in terms of the poetry. I always thought too that the sound of the voice is important. Just the sound of your voice has an aesthetic quality to it. In order words, it's tonal. It has timbre to it, it has a sound, and that that sound is useful in terms of poetry. For me it always goes back to musical sounds, how do you replicate musical sounds, how do you replicate the percussive kind of catalyst that our music rides on.

ya Salaam: But why music?

Baraka: Because poetry is nothing but music. Poetry is words given the musical emphasis. Itís nothing but music. If you donít like music, then you shouldnít be no poet. I donít think you should be a writer, but then that might be biased. I know that there were several European writers who hated music. I donít know how they could make it, because language is musical, rhythmic.

ya Salaam: With performance, where did you pick that up? In the early years we can imagine you sitting down and reading your poetry, but by the seventies, no one can imagine you sitting down in a chair and reading Itís Nationtime.

Baraka: Thatís a combination of things. One, the first person I saw reading poetry to music was Langston Hughes. I had never thought that you were not supposed to. I never came into the world thinking that poetry and music were divorced. I always thought that they should be together. Why did I think that? From the blues, thatís where I took my thing from, the blues. I always liked that. Larry Darnell. The old talking blues, I loved that. Lighting Hopkins. Charles Brown. Thatís where I was coming from. And all them "bird" groups: The Orioles, The Ravens, The Flamingos. I used to walk down the halls of high school doing that. I thought it was hip. Also, thatís the activism coming in to it. I read a guy named Brown, I think it was W. W. Brown in England, who said, you can always tell when the activist period is coming in politics because theatre becomes dominant. At the point where words turn to action. When theatre comes in, when real theatre is dominant, then it means that people are getting ready to go to war, getting ready to make revolutionary change. Why? Because it means that they are actually going to do it and not just observe. I began to notice that my poetry began to have talking in it. Conversations in the poem. With peopleís names like in a play except this was before I started writing plays. And then the more I got busy actually, started working in Harlem, went to Cuba six months after the revolution, we were trying to send guns down to Robert Williams. The more I got into activism, the more the language changed. Then I met people like Askia Toure.

Askia always had that singing quality, that kind of epic quality like reciting the work. Larry Neal had that singing quality. Those were influences on my reading style, but it was the music that took it. So I guess, the music in combination with the activism.

ya Salaam: By the time you were doing Black Art, Sabotage, Target Study and some of those books, the poems actually had instructions for gestures in them in parenthesis.

Baraka: Right. Right. And thatís just making your way. You donít know where youíre headed but thatís where itís headed. First, the poetry is headed up on the stage. Itís going to come out of somebodyís mouth in a minute. Youíre writing it as a poem, but in a minute youíre going to put it in somebodyís mouth and theyíre going to be up on a stage. With that sound, you could write poetry but have some people say it. It was a much more popular form than theatre. I love theatre, I love itís results. You have to deal with a lot of nuts, but I still love theatre. Thatís really a sad thing, that we donít have a repertory company that you canít just see the works of an OíNeal, Langston, Zora, Tennessee Williams, thatís horrible, all the great works. Why we donít have it? Because that stuff is dangerous. If they start doing the historical literature of America: White, Black, Latino, Asian. Hey, itís so hot, in terms of what itís saying about this, not just us. Look at OíNealís The Hairy Ape or Waiting For Lefty. Those are hell of plays. They donít want young people to come in and look at that every day. Tennessee Williams, to me, is the greatest of American playwrights. His portrait of America is out to lunch. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Sweet Bird Of Youth, look at that. Iíll tell you the one, Suddenly Last Summer. You want to see something, see that. Itís a portrait of colonialism and a portrait of America. The White thing to Williams was a symbol of craziness and decadence, though White he may be.

ya Salaam: Whenever somebody asks you a question about basketball, we end up on a football field with a reference to baseball. I still want to know about the basketball. Your performance style as a poet.

Baraka: My performance style came from listening to other people influenced by the music and the political activism, I think. The fact that I was interested and attached to the music, attached, I mean I used to live over the Five Spot. When Monk and Trane played there, I was there every night. I donít mean metaphorically, I mean literally. I would go downstairs and Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane would be in there getting ready to play, where was I going to go? It was incredible. I think also that shaped a lot of my ways of seeing things. Like these group of stories Iím writing on the musicians about Sun Ra, and Monk, Walter Davis, Don Pullen, Albert Ayler. People I knew. The way they talked, the music they played, thatís very important. That influenced me a great deal. The performance style is wanting to be a horn but also the activist. Having to speak before people, speaking before hundreds and thousands of people. In the street, trying to move people in the street.

And then there was the fact of performing for the people. Iíll tell you, my class, anybody, you think your work is good, read it to some of these brothers on the street, you know the ones who be digging holes in the ground and they have a half hour break and they be sitting there eating them sandwiches on break. Read your stuff to them and see if it interests them. They are not blocks, nor stones, nor worthless, senseless things. They are human beings. See if your work can reach them. Dare that. Thatís your people. In that situation of being out in the street having to deal with people on the real side, then you have to come up with the real thing. You have to make your feelings translatable, reachable. You have to move people and not with no "do it baby, do it baby, do it baby." Not like that. But with the kind of depth and profundity youíre really talking about. How do you actually reach the people with a message of profundity and not some kind of artificial garbage that comes out everyday on the hit parade? You know what I mean, you hear the lyrics to them songs, they say the same thing all the time. And it doesnít have anything to do with the lyrics, itís (begins pounding monotonously on the table), if I do that your heartís going to pick it up. Your heart picks up the beat, you canít help it, and I could be saying: youíre stupid, youíre stupid!, youíre stupid! You need to kill yourself! And you would do it, you will start to say, Iím stupid, Iím stupid, Iím stupid! I need to kill myself. (Laughter.) They do it everyday on television, donít they. Everyday. And youíll be walking down the street, if you donít catch yourself, die, die, die, Iím stupid, Iím stupid, Iím stupid. They know it donít take nothing but that (beating). Your heart assumes the beat.

ya Salaam: Itís like people say, I didnít understand everything they said, but you could dance to it.

Baraka: Thatís the point. See? If you notice, now, rap and reggae have gotten intelligible, whereas before--Bob Marley was very clear. Try to understand these people now. See if you can understand what theyíre saying. Thatís movement into another thing. To me, the point of art is communication. Now, I ainít saying how or what, but thatís the point of it communication.

ya Salaam: Is emotional communication, for you, as valid as intellectual communication?

Baraka: I donít see that kind of separation. I mean I can see it in certain kinds of tortured kinds of definitions, but to me, I would say, what can not feel, can not think. What can not feel, can not think. Thatís what I think about that! The whole European thing about thought and emotion being at odds is bizarre. Thatís like Wagner and the birth of tragedy talking about emotionalism interferes with his thought; well, your thought is messed up. I mean if you Hitlerís hero, I can see that. Thatís always been one definition of that kind of tortured, alienated Euro-sensibility. Iím saying that not so much in terms of nationalism, but rather as an identification of the kind of psychology that has developed out of capitalism, because you canít feel if youíre going to torture people. You canít feel if youíre going to have slaves. You have to then find a way to define profundity as alienated from feeling, otherwise you canít have no slaves. You canít be whipping peopleís ass and doing all kinds of terrible things and celebrating feeling at the same time, you know what a mean? Because otherwise youíd be saying, oh, my god, look at that, oh, no thatís bad. Have you ever been to the slave castles in Africa? If you get a chance, check those out. Theyíll do wonders for you in terms of why the people who created slavery, can not feel, or rather, why you must not feel.

ya Salaam: And why you must celebrate thinking above feeling.

Baraka: Right. Why you must elevate the intellectual process above emotions, cause you couldnít possibly feel because then you couldnít make that money. For instance, my son Ras and I went up there in Goree. He had just graduated from college and we went over there, and when we went to the slave castle and we sat up there in this dungeon with the door closed and everything, tears started coming out of our eyes. The two of us sitting there, father and son, not saying a word, just sitting there crying. Why? I don't know. It's just that feeling is too strong, it's too strong. You sit in there and there's a window (pointing towards the twelve-foot high ceiling) about up to where that chandelier is, you have to leap up there just to see the ocean. Imagine fifty Black people in there trying to survive. You just sit there and suddenly, psychologically you begin to feel it on you. It's something. You don't want that but you start feeling it. I remember we came out of there crying and when we came out in the open, it was a group of French tourists walking towards us, and Ras says to me, Imamu, what they want? What do these White people want? At another point I stood by a wall that had those chains on it and I put my arms in the chains and said, Rashida, take a picture of this. She said, no. I said, Rashida, take a picture of this. She said, no, no, no, and she started crying. She said, no, I'm not taking a picture of that. That thing grips you. When you come into that, when you actually come close to slavery itself--I don't mean stories of it, but when you actually get close to it, it will do something to you. No doubt about it. They got a hole in the wall, the door of no return and if you couldn't make it they would just kick you aside into the ocean. A lot of the people had never seen the ocean, you know, because they were from inland. They had seen lakes. They might jump out there and think they could swim it, might think it was a lake, but that was the Atlantic ocean and the sharks be circling down in there. Now when you conceive that and conceive that there were people upstairs over the prison, who lived there, who had a little hatch, like that light in the ceiling, a trap door in their floor where they could look through there and check on the slaves, you understand what I'm saying? You've got to be a cold mamajamma to do that. People down there (makes screaming sounds) screaming and what not, and you can pick up the door, you have your dinner and [sh--] upstairs and you could pick up the door and look down and see what was happening with that, well, you can't have no feeling with that. Feeling has to be abolished. That's why I'm saying they make that separation between the intellectual process and emotion. But I say, if you can't feel you can't think. That's my feeling about that. That's why we ask philosophers every morning, how you feel? (Laughter.) That's it.

ya Salaam: When you spoke of DuBois and the rhythms and forms he used, do you think they had trouble with DuBois' rhythms or his content?

Baraka: It's always the content. Always the content. Form is secondary, always. Each class has its own politics and that's what it's about. That's what literary criticism is: a form of class struggle. In the literary canon that was just published by the Encyclopedia Britannica, the greatest books in the world, there's no Black people in there. There's no Brown people, Yellow people, there's nothing in there. There's one woman in there, Wilma Catha, the Catholic writer, and all White men. They had a little disclaimer, well not a disclaimer, I guess you would say "claimer" where they explained that DuBois almost made it, but he kept insisting on talking about real [sh--]. It is in essence political. Like the man said, the most dangerous thing the devil does is convince you he don't exist. That's why the man says, politics, ah that's too political to be art. But you're fighting politics against politics. You mean to tell me you really believe their stuff is great. Look at it. Tell me what you think of it.

If you are not forced--and that's what your education does, force you to accept something you would not accept otherwise. The middle class is taught to be bored. You could sit there and be bored, and be bored, and be bored because somebody has told you that's some hip [sh--]. And you start to say, oh, yes, yes. And all the while they be beating you up. But see the average working person won't go for that. They said that's corny, I'm getting out of here. But we've been taught by our education to go for it, to stay there. You might hate it, it might be ugly, it might be nonsensical, but, it's deep! (Laughter.) Oh, my god, when you imagine all the hours and hours of your life you have spent investigating trash, and garbage and stupidity. It's incredible. It's the politics. Form is important but I think content is more important. What you are saying is more important than how you are saying it, but at the same time, how you say it is important because if you don't say it in a way that people can understand you than then there's no use in you saying it. The form that you develop has to suit that content, has to be a vehicle for your content, it should enhance that content. It's not form our critics be objecting to, finally though, it's the content, it's the politics.
Post Sun Nov 03, 2002 8:02 pm
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I know, its a little much, but I think it would be worthwhile to read this, especially for any aspiring writers or poets etc.
Post Sun Nov 03, 2002 8:03 pm
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Man, he's dope.
I need to pick up "Blues People."

He needs to steer clear of anti semeitc remarks though....he doesn't need to get into that kettle of salmon.
Post Sun Nov 03, 2002 9:00 pm
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I think Sage would particularly enjoy this

And I think his son might be Ras Kass
Post Tue Nov 05, 2002 12:24 pm
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I don't have time to read that, I just want you to know that his autobiography is fucking crap, its so goddamn boring, he's had an interesting life, he just doesn't know how to fucking tell it
Post Tue Nov 05, 2002 4:29 pm
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