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

So long had life together been that now
the second of January fell again
on Tuesday, making her astonished brow
lift like a windshield wiper in the rain,
  so that her misty sadness cleared, and showed
  a cloudless distance waiting up the road.

So long had life together been that once
the snow began to fall, it seemed unending;
that, lest the flakes should make her eyelids wince,
I’d shield them with my hand, and they, pretending
  not to believe that cherishing of eyes,
  would beat against my palm like butterflies.

So alien had all novelty become
that sleep’s entanglements would put to shame
whatever depths the analysts might plumb;
that when my lips blew out the candle flame,
  her lips, fluttering from my shoulder, sought
  to join my own, without another thought.

So long had life together been that all
that tattered brood of papered roses went,
and a whole birch grove grew upon the wall,
and we had monkeys, by some accident,
  and tonguelike on the sea, for thirty days,
  the sunset threatened Turkey with its blaze.

So long had life together been without
books, chairs, utensils-only that ancient bed-
that the triangle, before it came about
had been a perpendicular, the head
  of some acquaintance hovering above
  two points which had been coalesced by love.

So long had life together been that she
and I, with our joint shadows, had composed
a double door, a door which, even if we
were lost in work or sleep, was always closed:
  somehow its halves were split and we went right
  through them into the future, into night.

 

 

Excerpted from Joseph Brodsky: Collected Poems in English

Thanks – Yusef Komunyakaa

December 23, 2011

Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raises his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thank for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.

Excerpted from The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry

 

Related Links:

Yusef Komunyakaa on Poets.org

Komunyakaa reading his poem, Facing It

Deprived of their original language, the captured and indentured tribes create their own, accreting and secreting fragments of an old, an epic vocabulary, from Asia and from Africa, but to an ancestral, an ecstatic rhythm in the blood that cannot be subdued by slavery or indenture, while nouns are renamed and the given names of places accepted like Felicity village or Choisseul. The original language dissolves from the exhaustion of distance like fog trying to cross an ocean, but this process of renaming, of finding new metaphors, is the same process of renaming, of finding new metaphors, is the same process that the poet faces every morning of his working day, making his own tools like Crusoe, assembling nouns from necessity, from Felicity, even renaming himself. The stripped man is driven back to that self-astonishing, elemental force, his mind. That is the basis of the Antillean experience, this shipwreck of fragments, these echoes, these shards of a huge tribal vocabulary, these partially remembered customs, and they are not decayed but strong. They survived the Middle Passage and the Fatel Rozack, the ship that carried the first indentured Indians from the port of Madras to the cane fields of Felicity, that carried the chained Cromwellian convict and the Sephardic Jew, the Chinese grocer and the Lebanese merchant selling cloth samples on his bicycle.

And here they are, all in a single Caribbean city, Port of Spain, the sum of history, Trollope’s ‘non-people’. A downtown babel of shop signs and streets, mongrelized, polyglot, a ferment without a history, like heaven. Because that is what such a city is, in t he New World, a writer’s heaven.

 

Source

In the World language, sometimes called
Airport Road, a thinks balloon with a gondola
under it is a symbol for speculation.

Thumbs down to ear and tongue:
World can be written and read, even painted
but not spoken. People use their own words.

Latin letters are in it for names, for e.g.
OK and H2SO4, for musical notes,
but mostly it’s diagrams: skirt-figure, trousered figure

have escaped their toilet doors. I (that is, saya,
ego, watashi wa) am two eyes without pupils;
those aren’t seen when you look out through them.

You has both pupils, we has one, and one blank.
Good is thumbs up, thumb and finger zipping lips
is confidential. Evil is three-cornered snake eyes.

The effort is always to make the symbols obvious:
the bolt of electricity, winged stethoscope of course
for flying doctor. Pram under fire? Soviet film industry.

Pictographs also shouldn’t be too culture-bound:
a heart circled and crossed out surely isn’t.
For red, betel spit lost out to ace of diamonds.

Black is the ace of spades. The king of spades
reads Union boss, the two is feeble effort.
If is the shorthand Libra sign, the scales.

Spare literal pictures render most nouns and verbs
and computers can draw them faster than Pharough’s scribes.
A bordello prospectus is as explicit as the action,

but everywhere there’s sunflower talk, i.e.
metaphor, as we’ve seen. A figure riding a skyhook
bearing food in one hand is the pictograph for grace,

two animals in a book read Nature, two books
inside an animal, instinct. Rice in bowl with chopsticks
denotes food. Figure 1 lying prone equals other.

Most emotions are mini-faces, and the speech
balloon is ubiquitous. A bull inside one is dialect
for placards inside one. Sun and moon together

inside one is poetry. Sun and moon over palette,
over shoes etc. are all art forms–but above
a cracked heart and champagne glass? Riddle that

and you’re starting to think in World, whose grammar
is Chinese-terse and fluid. Who needs the square-
equals-diamond book, the dictionary, to know figures

led by strings to their genitals mean fashion?
just as a skirt beneath a circle means demure
or a similar circle shouldering two arrows is macho.

All peoples are at times cat in water with this language
but it does promote international bird on shoulder.
This foretaste now lays its knife and fork parallel.

Source

Related Links:

LesMurray.org

Interview with Les Murray

for Lois, deceased

he described you as a cracker battle axe
but the woman i met was thin and haint-like

i spoke to you as little as one can speak
to an in-law and get along
as did you
we never called one another by name
converse for the sake of function
biding, tolerant

whenever the three of us sat down together
he preached his gospel of civil rights
you silent, as was i
wishing he would let us be-each in her own distance

and as the social pressures of our miscegnation
ate away love
i tried to make him understand
the dangers

the whip has bitten into the back of the slave
clean through to the heart

sing dixie
wave the stars & bars

our marriage decomposed into a gangrenous animosity
no understanding-black or white

six years after divorce he called long distance
you were dying of colon cancer
your last wish
to see your grandchildren

he begged me to send the kids

i said no

and he will never understand

(excerpted from African Sleeping Sickness: Stories and Poems

 

Related Links:

What the Gin Rummy Queen Taught Me (poem)

Bedtime Story (poem)

Gwendolyn Brooks on Langston Hughes:

“I met Langston Hughes when I was sixteen. When I went to Metropolitan Community Church to show him some of my poems at the behest of my mother who accompanied me and saw to it that I did this. He was most kind and read the poems right there after his reading and told me that I had talent and that I should keep writing. Later I met him again because he came to a poetry workshop that a reader on the staff of Poetry Magazine had started at the Southside Community Center. Her name was Inez Cunningham Stark. And he attended one of the meetings. People who belonged to this group were Bill Couch, Margaret Burroughs, Fern Gayden, Margaret Cunningham, who is now Margaret Danner and Edward Bland. Langston Hughes was mostly excited about the work that we were reading and he predicted a beautiful future for all of us. Later on still I gave a party for him when I lived at 623 Sixty-third Street and there were about seventy-five people or so crowded into our little two room kitchenette, and nobody had a better time than Langston Hughes who was real “folk”. Never any airs or pomposities from him. And as you say, he has helped a great many young people. Showing interest in their work and encouraging them.”

Excerpted from Conversations With Gwendolyn Brooks

Reggae for me is very much associated with the ’70’s, with a time of a lot of self-questioning, nationally, individually. And not just self-questioning, because also I think it was very much a time when people were open to ideas about what I will just loosely call the spiritual world, you know, the inner world. And there was a sense that both things were important – that is, making things right in the world of the here and now, the social world, kind of building a New Jerusalem impulse; and also the other important thing was attending to what was going on inside of you and becoming right, becoming what the rastaman referred to as the higher man, or the Iya-man. So yes, I think reggae was important in terms of keeping the significance of those two strands of living very alive and real and accepted and normal for a lot of us.

Excerpted from Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets, editor: Kwame Dawes

Twelve years ago, before I was a Mother myself, I gave my Mom a copy of Mothers of the Revolution. Reading the subheading of the book: The War Experiences of Zimbabwean women, she thought it was going to be the war experiences of gun-toting nappy-haired women who don’t hesitate to shoot upon seeing the white of someone’s skin. But it wasn’t. It was about the quiet, non glamorous, non-romanticized work of revolution; the work that is so quiet we don’t normally see it unless it’s not there…or unless it’s a threat to the dehumanizing status quo.

The whole question of motherhood, revolution and writing has been on my mind lately due to a conversation I had with a sister-friend about the sacrifices inherent in good mothering/parenting. She says that she may not be cut out for motherhood because she wants to be able to spend time writing and having mornings in bed, etc. Oh, how I can relate! What wouldn’t I give for just a week of that!! Then I look at my chocolate bundle of goodness, stubbornness and just plain 6 yr old boyness and I think no. Mornings in bed alone or with a man or a book or music or just the sunshine streaming through the window can’t compare with his scream of laughter when I tickle him in his armpits or the tightness of his arms when he comes to me for a hug after being hurt or even the endless questions that have me telling him to hush.

What’s even more ironic about her position is the fact that she had previously informed me, during one of my venting sessions, that my Son is now my revolution. I had understood that since writing

Sankara Mantra (7 Months)

Lashes like mine
Eyes like mine
even in the way
they peruse a room
Skin like mine
but darker.

A bafflement inside me
every time I hear him
referred to as black.
(how’d you get such a black baby?)

It has happened twice.
Just like my response.
(black is beautiful.)

His mouth like his father’s.
He even smirks like him
causing an almost instantaneous
transfer of affection.

Sankara
whose birth filled the holes
that were consuming my heart

Sankara
who is entranced by his reflection
in the mirror
has begun to stand.

I am in awe of his determination
and the fact that
at barely seventeen pounds
his head is already past my knees.

Sankara
who I brought into an oppressive world
clutches his walker with his pudgy fingers
and walks completely around it.

I watch with a joy that is miraculous.

Sankara
Who I brought into an oppressive world
is owed happiness and well-being
and that is a debt I will pay
like Malcolm said
by any means necessary.

 

Still even though I love my revolution too deeply to ever to ever abstain, this quiet work sometimes gets to me.  I once wanted to be louder than oppression. Now I find myself writing poems about wanting quiet! The same sister-friend mentioned earlier says it’s due to maturity but I miss immature me!  I miss the woman who wrote oppression should be shot down like john f. kennedy. I don’t quite know the woman who wants it quiet like days at ocean beach. I don’t know much of anything except there’s a richness to my life that wasn’t there before…no matter how much I gave of myself to the people and causes I believe in.

I guess I just have to unite womb and mind. The pre-mother me heard Tupac say “I’m your son” and even though he wasn’t talking to me, I said yes. And now that I’m a mother, I’m still saying yes.

 

Links:

http://www.postcolonialweb.org/zimbabwe/miscauthors/mothers1.html

Louder than Oppression

My Spirit Talks

napowrimo 2010

May 1, 2010

i didn’t make it. thirty poems in thirty days seems to be beyond me. last year i lasted about a week. this year, i did about a total of two weeks worth but it was haphazard. some days, i wouldn’t write/post anything. two days later, i’d write/post two or three poems.  the week my son was on april vacation, i didn’t write/post anything. oh well. so it goes…or so i thought until i did a mental run through.

i already knew poems have gestational periods but i learned i can hold the amniotic sac of a poem in my mind until i can tend to it. I learned i can craft the lil pieces of life released from the sac into something worthy of sharing…as well as being the seed of something greeter. i’ve also learned not to neglect what’s left behind in the sac.  basically, i learned to be a tiny bit more disciplined with the craft i call my calling.

30 days will come
and 30 days will go
with the assignment incomplete
but still
i be smithing
words
into new iron
configurations