Amiri Baraka, Newark Poet

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Amiri Baraka, a seminal Beat poet, angry playwright, revolutionary activist and scrappy indie publisher from Newark, New Jersey has died. The Allen Ginsberg Project blog has the scoop. Here's a Litkicks article about Amiri Baraka by Jamelah Earle from 2003.

Please feel free to share your memories or personal encounters with Amiri Baraka by leaving a comment below.

9 Responses to "Amiri Baraka, Newark Poet"

by Jason Chervokas on

I was a student of Baraka's at Columbia University in the early 1980s. Even in class he could be controversial, occasionally confrontational, but always -- and most importantly for a teacher -- thought-provoking. (I remember him being hissed by students in the class once for referring to James Baldwin's homosexuality as a "problem.") I didn't take a writing class with him, I took an African-American lit survey class, and I learned a lot, but shortly after my class with him The Autobiography of Leroi Jones was published, and reading it in the context of what I knew about his ideas about African-American lit, it's social role, and the exploration of identity, I found it really enjoyable. Might have to go back and read it, or pick up the later, and I believe longer (not so much because it was updated, more of a "director's cut") version. His politics seemed, if not mercurial, at least fraught with unresolvable contradictions (in a way, whose isn't?), and his was one of those very bright minds that seemed to like to argue as much for the tilt and joust of it as for the substance. At least that was my impression as an 18 or 19 year old student. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with him, sour and sweet. but I didn't spend a lot of time with him, unlike another of my friends who spent a lot more time hanging out with him after hours (that was the great thing about Columbia in those days, and maybe still now -- kids getting access to great minds in formal AND informal settings).

by Levi Asher on

I saw him read poetry once at the Bowery Poetry Club, in the early 2000s. His onstage demeanor was angry, matching my expectations. I know he had many identities -- activist, teacher, poet laureate, playwright, spoken word poet -- but I thought of him mainly as a poet. He was never my favorite of the early Beat poets ... but I'll always admire his tough fighting, his strong convictions, and his energetic work as an indie publisher helping many other underrepresented writers.

by Milton on

"You look like you been trying to grow a beard. That’s exactly what you look like. You look like you live in New Jersey with your parents and are trying to grow a beard. That’s what. You look like you’ve been reading Chinese poetry and drinking lukewarm sugarless tea. You look like death eating a soda cracker."

I have absolutely no idea what this means, but it's one of my favorite insults in all of literature.

by WIREMAN on

Yes I saw him perform at the Baltimore book festival in early 2000's. He took the podium and used it as a big drum, pounding out rhythm with his words, his timing impeccable, best in performance I had ever seen. The man had lots to say.....his We Wailers piece on the poetry in motion DVD from 80's with jazz accompaniment is priceless performance....I feel honored to have witnessed him in performance, he had a profound influence on my direction as poet performer, he will be missed.

by Graf on

Saw him at soulpepper in Chicago c.1998 and he was on fire that night …. an angry lad (as ever, quite rightly, I guess)

by TKG on

I remember around the time Spike Lee's Malcolm X came out, there was a little tit for tat spat between Lee and Baraka. I don't remember what Baraka's criticism of Lee's film was, but I remember Lee's retort, which was something to the effect that: back in the day of the struggle, Malcolm X was putting his life on the line and Leroi Jones was hanging out in Greenwich Village with Allen Ginsberg.

Kind of small of Lee to think that was a relevant and nasty put down.

Jones edited an anthology in the early 60's called The Moderns. It featured pieces by Kerouac (including cityCityCITY) and Burroughs, among others. The book is in public domain today and available at the Internet archive, linked below.

The Moderns. Jones, Leroi (1963)

https://archive.org/details/modernsanthology00bara

One of the Kerouac pieces was Manhattan Sketches, an excerpt from Visions of Cody. In it, I noticed when I first read it back in the 80's, Jones added a sentence to Kerouac's work.

Here is an excerpt from Jones's introduction where he cites the influence of Joyce on Burroughs and Kerouac. I think Jones's essay here was well articulated and quite insightful with regard to Kerouac and Burroughs and also Joyce.

For all his theatrics, Baraka was really an academic and writer/intellectual in a classic sense. Which is, I guess, what Lee was trying to condemn.

Here's the excerpt, dated April 1963.

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But Selby's hoodlums, Rechy's  homosexuals.  Burroughs' addicts, Kerouac's mobile young voyeurs, my own Negroes, are literally not included in the mainstream of American life. These characters are people whom Spengler called Fellaheen, people living on the ruins of a civilization. They are Americans no character in a John Updike novel would be happy to meet, but they are nonetheless Americans, formed out of the conspicuously tragic evolution of modern American life. The last romantics of our age.

Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs are writers whose names came into prominence about the same time, though of course, Kerouac's was much more public. I mention them together in this instance because they both seem to have paid homage to similar literary traditions, though their final uses of these traditions have moved quite evidently apart. For one thing, both seem to have benefited consciously by the model of the James Joyce of Ulysses (and Burroughs, of late, e.g. the "cut-ups" and "fold-ins," has even moved into the relatively unknown concerns of Finnegans Wake). Even though Burroughs is relatively a formalist when compared with Kerouac, they both depend on the Joycean mode in its various expressions for very definite characteristics of their styles. Burroughs is interested not only in the linguistic innovations, as for example the Molly Bloom soliloquy can propose, but in the whole social reconstruction that should have taken place in order for one to write intelligent fiction after reading Joyce. Joyce made the novel, as a traditional literary form, almost meaningless. And more important, he destroyed its social pretensions as well simply by focusing Ulysses on the socio-cultural intelligence of the city Dublin, as revealed by whom? Joyce. There is no one talking in Ulysses but Joyce. There is no A. aged 26, the young clerk or factory worker, or squire, son of B. aged 65, the old judge or foreman or aging Lord, and their wives and children, and the long chronicle of their novelistic lives. Joyce destroyed the artificial humanity of the novel by re-focusing its concerns. The writing itself! also becomes important then, in all its elements, and not merely as a vehicle. Samuel Butler's writing is important only insofar as it is about something. Joyce's writing became an event in itself.

Twentieth century Western fiction, even in its middlebrow aspects, has had to adjust to at least a superficial adaptation of the social qualities Joyce's fiction proposed. The "psychological" novel was how it was popularized. "Stream of consciousness," the middlebrow novelist thought, meant only another way of writing a traditional novel; the difference was that the characters didn't have to talk as much. But Burroughs took up the social and literary propositions and reduced his personnae to a Joycean anonymity (as Samuel Beckett did also).

Naked Lunch is Burroughs spinning a parable in which all of existence can participate. He merely names it as it shows up, i.e., he is not necessarily "pulling for anything." Guilt in this sense, as the modern philosophers posit it, becomes anonymous. There is no one good person or one bad person, living out their lives under the auspices of the reluctantly mortal Augustan Christianity; there is only the idea of good and the idea of bad and "characters" wander into these categories as they relate to the central logic of the writer's intent. Popular novels are still so popular, like Protestant jingles, because they are one place where God still exists very definitely on the side of right.

Kerouac is interested in Joyce for the most part for his innovations in word division. The spontaneous prose which Kerouac has talked so much about seeks merely to keep prose writing as personal as it ought to be. To keep even the rhythms and awkwardness of its creator as a part of its final "story": the writing as part of what is being said.

This has been the essential concept the important twentieth-century writers have worked through. Joyce was just very apparent in his innovation along these lines. As Robert Creeley has said about poetry, "Form is no more than an extension of content" so Ulysses made this clear in prose, and so the prose writers in this volume contend, though, of course, they are not all by any means indebted specifically to Joyce. Stein, Hemingway, West, Fitzgerald, Lawrence, Wolfe, Beckett have been definite influences, but also, as I said, twentieth-century poetry has contributed equally, and in some cases even painting and music (though perhaps, in the last two cases, more specifically music, because it occurs in time, the same way a poem or a story does, and is motivated rhythmically as well).

by Bob McNeil on

Soul without a Heaven

Evermore, Amiri’s spirit is a disobeyer,
Fighting all oppositional visions.
On Newark’s numerous walls,
He smears odes to Marxist contrarians.

Evermore, Amiri’s spirit is a disobeyer,
Whose rancor for imperialists
Could torch their needs
To ashen nothingness.

Evermore, Amiri’s spirit is a disobeyer,
Whose right hand manages a pen,
Whose left banks on its shank,
And both will shiv his enemies’ livers.

Evermore, Amiri’s spirit is a disobeyer.
Delighting anti-Semites and homophobes,
His published pressure cooker bomb explodes.
Such shaitan ire never erodes.

Shaitan: an evil spirit in Islamic countries

Copyright 2014
by Bob McNeil

by Howard Park on

I saw Baraka read, for free, at the MLK Library in DC in the mid-1990's. He was veery nice, signed lots of books and was a powerful communicator. He had a lot of demons but ttranscended most of them.

by Levi Asher on

Great to hear from you again, Howard -- been many years!

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