INTERVIEW: Amiri Baraka: Djali Dialogue – Advice To Young Writers

May 20, 2012

Amiri Baraka addressing the Malcom X Festival ...

Amiri Baraka addressing the Malcom X Festival in San Antonio Park, Oakland, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The quote below is excerpted from an interview Kalamu ya Salaam did with Amiri Baraka.

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 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.

To read the entire interview, click here

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