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A Conversation with Amiri Baraka

by Kalamu ya Salaam

Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones) is widely celebrated as the father of the Black Arts Movement and is one of the most prolific and influential African-American writers of the 20th century. Baraka is a widely published poet, playwright, essayist, fictionalist and journalist. His book of music criticism, Blues People, is widely regarded as a classic in the field. In 1965 he, along with others such as Larry Neal and Askia Touré, founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, an institution which quickly became a model for the development of Black Cultural Centers in the sixties.

In addition to his creative work as a writer, Baraka is also a social activist. Baraka was a founder of the Congress of Afrikan People and the National Black Political Assembly as well as a major member of the Afrikan Liberation Support Committee. In the late sixties, Ebony Magazine listed Baraka as one of the 100 most influential Black leaders. Baraka started his professional life as a writer in Greenwich Village, moved on to become a Black Nationalist, and in 1974 converted to Marxism.

Baraka lives, writes and continues to be active in politics in his hometown of Newark, NJ.

This discussion with Amiri Baraka covers his development as a writer and his views on the craft and impact of writing. Baraka discusses in detail his formative years and gives an in-depth insight into his own approaches to style and technique in writing.

Advice to Young Writers: Amiri Baraka

On February 17, 1998 Amiri Baraka offered words of advice to aspiring writers of NOMMO Literary Society, a New Orleans based writing workshop founded by Kalamu ya Salaam. Baraka not only gave advice, he also expounded on his viewpoint concerning the importance and process of writing. In the process he often revealed both his idiosyncrasies as well as his insights. Filled with humor and highlighted by gestures and copious use of body english, the conversation was informal in tone and lasted over two hours. Baraka’s sharing was neither a lecture nor prepared speech, but rather was made up of spontaneous comments from the heart. The following is an edited transcript of that sharing.

Amiri Baraka was one of the first people to introduce to me [Kalamu ya Salaam] the possibility that you could write "Black" and at the same time write anything you wanted - Blackness was not a formula. There was no specific mode you had to fit in. Back in the day, it would be interesting when The Journal of Black Poetry or some of the other journals would come out, Baraka would have a poem like "SOS"--calling all Black people, calling all Black people, SOS, Come in, wherever you are, calling you, come in, come in--stuff like that which everybody could relate to. And then, he would have some weird-a-- [sh--]. You would go, damn, what was that. Since that time he has gone through various ideological developments, some people would call it changes, but I think he would choose to call them developments, in an effort to become clearer politically, but he has always maintained an oppositional stance to the status quo while balancing popular and experimental forms. Some of Baraka’s literature is what I would call "popular literature" written for the masses that not even Joe Blow the wino would misunderstand what is being said, and another part of his literature was written for, as he would say, the advanced, for people who want to sit down and study and peep some things philosophically and politically. He has agreed to take some time and talk a bit about his advice to young writers and to talk a bit about his approach to writing.

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 don’t feel any less Black trying to find out something I don’t know than trying to say something I do know. At one point, you are always trying to find out more which always leaves what you’re saying seemingly more discursive because you are not quite clear on what you’re saying. But you know a lot of things clarify themselves as you get older. When I wrote that play Dutchman, I didn’t 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 you’re saying, you’re absolutely clear. Bang, it’s an idea you want to express. Sometimes though you can’t 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 don’t know at the time, but if it’s legitimate, you’ll find out what you’re 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 can’t 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 Dumas’ 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. Mosely’s first book is like that, Gone Fishin’. Yall read that book? You should read that. That’s a much heavier book than those detective stories. But that kind book where you walk in the Black community and suddenly it’s like you’re 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 there’s Black people’s 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 don’t 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. That’s 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 don’t know what that was. It was the sense of the strange, the bizarre. So, I’ve been writing these stories about these Black inventors. They are just brothers you see in the community, they’re not in the University of Nowhere.

They are just in the community and might call you up and say, why don’t 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. I’m talking biblically, Revelations. When you have to deal with the beast everyday you forget that there’s John sitting there, John the Revelator. You know everybody didn’t see no stuff flying through the air. You know four horsemen of the apocalypse, everybody didn’t see that. Now John was sitting there looking at all of that, but everybody looking up at the sky didn’t 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, I’m going to amplify this sucker. That doesn’t seem like an everyday concern.

I think it’s 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, that’s 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: It’s one thing to have that sense, and it’s another thing to have the technical facility to put that sensibility on the page.

Baraka: Practice. Practice. Practice. I think that’s 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 don’t do it, you won’t do it. You can’t be a writer in your head, just like you can’t play the piano in your head. I’m the meanest piano player I know--in my head. I can play some piano in my head, it’s 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. That’s normal but you have to work through that and get over that. I’m 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 won’t have any substance to it. There won’t be any moving, there won’t 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 you’re talking about. If you trust the rhythm and you’ve worked so that you don’t have a lot of dumb stuff in your mind all the time. (Laugher.) No, it’s true, because you might want to write about McDonald’s boxes, I don’t know. That’s 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 you’re doing and what study you’re doing. We can tell what you’re concerned with, we can tell by your writing, what you know and what you don’t 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 they’re talking about is this great vacuum in my heart that must be filled by, I don’t know, ice cream cones, a walk down the street, another person. You know what I mean, it could be anything? That’s 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 I’s, 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. That’s hard sometimes, because we’re so subjective, especially we great artists, we think the whole world is in our heads. It’s not. The world exists independent of your will. Things will happen you don’t 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 it’s 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? That’s 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 I’m not trying to categorize you in age terms--but for this recent little group of buppies that they’re publishing who think that somehow writing is not a political act, that always has been around but it’s something that Black people and indeed the people of the world have flogged.

Anyway, that’s 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 don’t 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, don’t 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. That’s what it bees about. Why? Because that’s all you know about. It bees about us.

That’s another thing, a lot of people get frightened at; once they know that people know that when you write something, it’s about you, Jim, it ain’t about that one, it’s about you, then people get constipated. They don’t want to expose themselves. People be saying, I don’t 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 Lincoln’s 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. That’s 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, I’m 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. That’s what it was, it was like you had been doctored on by masters. You understand? Every night at dinner, they’d be running it. You’re 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 didn’t 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 that’s why she told it to you.

I don’t know if y'all still have that in your homes, I can’t 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 Dante’s Hell.

Baraka: I’ll tell you about that book. Do y'all know Aime Cesaire’s work? If you don’t, you should. That’s 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 I’m talking about, whether you talk about Afro-American literature. That’s what amazing about these folks, these filmmakers, I’m 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 don’t need no footnotes. That’s 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 Fred’s 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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. That’s 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 De’verviel, 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 DuBois’ works and all of Langston’s 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, that’s a hundred a twenty a year, no, that ain’t 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 Dante’s 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, it’s 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, I’ll never write another poem. I’ll 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, I’m not going to do this anymore. Why? Because you’ll find out when you imitate people’s 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 I’m saying? When Claude McKay, for instance, chooses the English sonnet form, that’s 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 didn’t 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, that’s 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 that’s your description of it. You are trying to convince me that that apple is an apple for me as it is for you. What’s the difference between that propaganda and me telling you capitalism ain’t no good. Finally, one might have more implications than the other. So anyway, I said, I have to stop being influenced by these people’s form because the form is also making me think some of the things that they think. So, I said I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m not going to try and write poetry anymore. I didn’t know Cesaire had said that till maybe fifteen or twenty years later. So, I said, what will I do? I’m going to write a story in which I do not the story, but write the story that the story makes me think of. And that’s what I tried to do. In other words, I was telling myself a story in my head, and I said, I’m not going to write that story that I’m telling myself in my head. I’m going to write the story that that story makes me think of. You know what I’m 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. That’s the story, but that ain’t what I think. That’s 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 wouldn’t 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 don’t 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? That’s 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 don’t know it, or they do know it.

Also, you’d be surprised if you let your mind run as free as it will, it ain’t gon run that free, cause you going to stop it. (Laugher.) Naw, that’s right, cause you’ll think you’re not making sense. But you’ll be surprised, you’ll be making sense that you don’t know is sense. It’s true. You’ll say something, it’ll come out your mouth--you know you mouth is fast--and then two or three beats later you will say, oh, that’s what that means. You’ve got to trust yourself. It’s just like anything else, like sports, like them basketball players. You’ve got to trust yourself. Michael Jordan says when he goes up in the air, he don’t know what he’s going to do. He goes up there and creates, that’s what you have to do. You have to create. Now, if you’re crazy, we’ll find out. If you can’t make it, we’ll find out. But, you’ve got to go for it.

This might sound peculiar to you, but there’s a lot of stuff in your own life you don’t even know. You don’t 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. There’s stuff in your life that’s incredible. All kinds of things. I don’t know what they are, you don’t 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? There’s a lot of secretes, even when you live with somebody, when you married to somebody, you don’t know everything about the person you’re living with. My wife and I been together 31 years, now that’s a long time to be with anybody, but that don’t 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 don’t mean you’re 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 that’s 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. I’m not a big one for rewriting. I’m not a big rewrite fan. My rewrite is choome, into the trash can. I don’t mess with it. If it looks like it’s not going to hang out, I’ll throw it away. I’m not going to torture it. Why? That’s arrogance. Like Bill Cosby’s says, I’ll kill you and make another one just like you. I’ll kill you poem and make another one just like you. Don’t have that fear of it. You’ve 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 can’t 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. That’s a hell of a thing. I’m 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 didn’t really know it, didn’t 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 Doyle’s little jive thing--you know Sherlock Holmes’ 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, I’m reading some more on it and I say, I didn’t 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 that’s some old corny stuff. Because I want to know about it, that’s 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. That’s true. When you look at the Civil War or the destruction of Reconstruction, you start thinking it was all White people, that’s a game. Just like today, if somebody was to tell you, aw, they’re 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, let’s see, a while back I started writing on an electric typewriter. I’ve had a computer maybe since ninety-something.  But always with a typewriter. I didn’t 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. I’m always grateful for that stroke of revelation that made me take typing. I wasn’t 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, that’s the way you have to do it. That longhand, I’m not with that. I do it a lot because I don’t have any choice, traveling all the time, I’ve written a lot of stuff in longhand but I can’t do nothing with it because once I write it out like that I’m disgusted that I had to do that in the first place because that’s 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 don’t know why that is. I know my wife says she can’t read it, and, I don’t know, I think she would be suspicious if someone else could, but I know I can’t read it and she can’t read it. It takes a long time for me to read my own handwriting. I don’t 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: What’s 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 don’t 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--it’s sort of a Sophie’s choice kind of question --what two books would you want to have left behind?

Baraka:  The ones I’ve still got to write. (Laugher.) I really feel that way. I don’t have no worshipful relationship to my work in that way. I did it. That’s it. It ain’t me, that’s just some books on the shelf, because if you don’t act like that, then that will be you over there on the shelf. You’ve met people who don’t go any further than that. That’s where they at. What they said in 1928, that’s 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 don’t even agree with that anymore. Somebody’ll say, well, you have it in a book. Yeah, but that book ain’t me. That book was written in 19--, I was a little boy then, I don’t believe that anymore. That’s 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, that’s 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, let’s make believe his work stopped there. You can’t allow yourself to be linked to the work as if it were you. You can defend it or cop out about it, but I’m not going to pretend it’s me because that’s death. You become a bookend, a literary figure that’s somebody’s going to bury. That’s 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 didn’t think of himself up on a bookshelf and he would burn you in a minute if that’s what you wanted to approach him with.

Jimmy had a terrible mouth for those of you that don’t 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, that’s different. He didn’t 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 don’t get another shot. That’s what that is. You be there polishing the gun so much till the gangster done went away. And you’re sitting there, well, I’m trying to get it so it’s like this. The thing is to bam, pull it out and shoot it. For me that’s 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. Nobody’s 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, that’s different, but if they are talking about the world and you know what they’re talking about, they don’t 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: You’ve 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. I’m not going to make believe, I’m just going to publish. Why? Because I wrote it. I want it out. That’s 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 don’t need a whole lot of money and stuff. In this day and age of Kinko’s--we didn’t 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, you’re 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 that’s the best armament for writers. Always have your stuff with you. Always. Mash it on somebody. Sell it. Give it away. You’re a writer, you want people to read your work. Right? That’s 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 wasn’t, I’ll 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, where’s the office. Ain’t nobody asked me. They was discriminating even in selling out.

Don’t wait for anything. Just wait for your own agreement. When you think you’re ready. Two poems. One poem. A broadside. Anything. Get it out. Because if you don’t, you’re constipating yourself. It’s true. You walk around with a whole sheaf of stuff that you’re not publishing, that’s constipation because your mind is fixed on that, and you’re not going to do much until you get that out of you. And once you--even if it’s on Kinko's paper-- do something with it, it’s 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. We’ve 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. It’s nothing but music. If you don’t like music, then you shouldn’t be no poet. I don’t think you should be a writer, but then that might be biased. I know that there were several European writers who hated music. I don’t 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 It’s Nationtime.

Baraka:  That’s 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, that’s 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. That’s 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, that’s 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 people’s 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 that’s just making your way. You don’t know where you’re headed but that’s where it’s headed. First, the poetry is headed up on the stage. It’s going to come out of somebody’s mouth in a minute. You’re writing it as a poem, but in a minute you’re going to put it in somebody’s mouth and they’re 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 it’s results. You have to deal with a lot of nuts, but I still love theatre. That’s really a sad thing, that we don’t have a repertory company that you can’t just see the works of an O’Neal, Langston, Zora, Tennessee Williams, that’s horrible, all the great works. Why we don’t have it? Because that stuff is dangerous. If they start doing the historical literature of America: White, Black, Latino, Asian. Hey, it’s so hot, in terms of what it’s saying about this, not just us. Look at O’Neal’s The Hairy Ape or Waiting For Lefty. Those are hell of plays. They don’t 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. I’ll tell you the one, Suddenly Last Summer. You want to see something, see that. It’s 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 don’t 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 I’m 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, that’s 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. I’ll 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. That’s 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 you’re 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 doesn’t have anything to do with the lyrics, it’s (begins pounding monotonously on the table), if I do that your heart’s going to pick it up. Your heart picks up the beat, you can’t help it, and I could be saying: you’re stupid, you’re stupid!, you’re stupid! You need to kill yourself! And you would do it, you will start to say, I’m stupid, I’m stupid, I’m stupid! I need to kill myself. (Laughter.) They do it everyday on television, don’t they. Everyday. And you’ll be walking down the street, if you don’t catch yourself, die, die, die, I’m stupid, I’m stupid, I’m stupid. They know it don’t take nothing but that (beating). Your heart assumes the beat.

ya Salaam: It’s like people say, I didn’t understand everything they said, but you could dance to it.

Baraka:  That’s 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 they’re saying. That’s movement into another thing. To me, the point of art is communication. Now, I ain’t saying how or what, but that’s the point of it communication.

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

Baraka: I don’t 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. That’s what I think about that! The whole European thing about thought and emotion being at odds is bizarre. That’s like Wagner and the birth of tragedy talking about emotionalism interferes with his thought; well, your thought is messed up. I mean if you Hitler’s hero, I can see that. That’s always been one definition of that kind of tortured, alienated Euro-sensibility. I’m 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 can’t feel if you’re going to torture people. You can’t feel if you’re going to have slaves. You have to then find a way to define profundity as alienated from feeling, otherwise you can’t have no slaves. You can’t be whipping people’s ass and doing all kinds of terrible things and celebrating feeling at the same time, you know what a mean? Because otherwise you’d be saying, oh, my god, look at that, oh, no that’s bad. Have you ever been to the slave castles in Africa? If you get a chance, check those out. They’ll 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 couldn’t possibly feel because then you couldn’t 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.

from The Black Collegian Online.