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Interviews with Amiri Baraka


David Ossman

What [did you learn from] . . . the Black Mountain people, and [William Carlos] Williams?

From Williams, mostly how to write in my own language—how to write the way I speak rather than the way I think a poem ought to be written—to write just the way it comes to me, in my own speech, utilizing the rhythms of speech rather than any kind of metrical concept. To talk verse. Spoken verse. From Pound, the same concepts that went into the Imagist’s poetry—the idea of the image and what an image ought to be. I learned, probably, about verse from Pound—how a poem should be made, what a poem ought to look like—some little inkling. And from Williams, I guess, how to get it out in my own language.

[. . . .]

Does your being a Negro influence the speech patterns—or anything else, for that matter, in your writing?

It could hardly help it. There are certain influences on me, as a Negro person, that certainly wouldn’t apply to a poet like Allen Ginsberg. I couldn’t have written that poem "Kaddish," for instance. And I’m sure he couldn’t write certain things that have to deal with, say, Southern Baptist church rhythms. Everything applies—everything in your life. Sociologically, there are different influences, different things that I’ve seen, that I know, that Allen or no one knows.

From The Sullen Art. Copyright 1963 by David Ossman


Kimberly W. Benston

Benston: How would you do a self-criticism, for example, of The System of Dante’s Hell?

Baraka: Well, first of all, in terms of form, it tended at times to be obscure. The reason for that is that is that I was really writing defensively. I was trying to get away from the influence of people like Creeley and Olson. I was living in New York then and the whole Creeley-Olson influence was beginning to beat me up. I was in a very closed, little circle—that was about the time I went to Cuba—and I felt the need to break out of the type of form that I was using then. I guess this was not only because of the form itself but because of the content which that form enclosed, which was not my politics. The two little warring schools that were going on then were what I call the Jewish-Ethnic-Bohemian School (Allen Ginsberg and his group) and the Anglo-German Black Mountain School. I was caught between the two of them because they were all literary buddies and so forth. So I wrote the novel defensively and offensively at the same time because I was trying to get away. I literally decided to write just instinctively, without any kind of preunderstanding of what I was shaping-—just write it down.

[. . . .]

Benston: In the early poetry, is there at any point an attempt to create the same kind of clarity you achieved in System, to attain a similar freedom from what you’re calling the Creeley-Olson influence?

Baraka: The poetry of that period was still definitely relying heavily on the Creeley-Olson thing. But, while the Creeley-Olson thing is still here in the poetry’s form, the content was trying to aggressively address the folks around me, the people that I worked with all the time, who were all Creeley-Olson types, people who took an antipolitical line (the Creeley types more so than Olson’s followers—Olson’s thing was always more political). I was coming out saying that I thought that their political line was wrong. A lot of the poetry in The Dead Lecturer is speaking out against the political line of the whole Black Mountain group, to which I was very close.

From "Amiri Baraka: An Interview" from Boundary 2, Winter 1978. Copyright 1978 by boundary 2.


William J. Harris

WJH: It seems that your moving to a longer line in your poetry has to do with a rejection of the white world, of "white music" if you will.

AB: I think it has to do with the poetry since the sixties being much more orally conceived rather than manuscript conceived. The poetry is much more intended to be read aloud, and since the mid-sixties that has been what has spurred it on, has shaped it.

WJH: Can you talk about this a little more? The latest poetry, some of the Marxist poetry, seems like it’s really less poetry than it is a score for you to read. Your readings are incredible and I am wondering are you caring less and less about the text?

AB: It is less important to me. To me it is a score.

WJH: What does this mean? In 200 years when you aren’t around, are you going to expect people to be listening to tapes of your work?

AB: Yeah, I hope.

WJH: That is really interesting because it means you are moving away from the idea of the written page.

AB: The page doesn’t interest me that much—not as much as the actual spoken word. The contradiction with that is that I should be recording all the time, which I’m not for obvious reasons. I’m much more interested in the spoken word, and I think that the whole wave of the future is definitely not literary in a sense of books and is tending toward the spoken and the visual. . . . I think that page will be used by people who want to read it aloud. The question to me of a poet writing in silence for people who will read in silence and put it in a library where the whole thing is conceived in silence and lost forever is about over. And I think it didn’t really influence many people. I mean if you conceive of how many people are in the world and how many people ever learned how to read.

From "An Interview with Amiri Baraka," from The Greenfield Review, Fall 1980, copyright 1980 by The Greenfield Review; all rights controlled by William J. Harris.


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