Amiri Baraka in Berkeley

A little over two years ago, I got to hear Amiri Baraka deliver a full poetry set (complete with a moderated Q&A) at Bar13. It was my first introduction to his work and I walked away affected by poetry that was the wave and the undertow, a response to a political situation that both sheds light to a past injustice and to an uncertain future.

The next time I hear Amiri read was at City Lights, a reading that focused on his short story collection and a Q&A that focused on global politics, politically appropriate language, upcoming elections and the intensely personal side of being Amiri Baraka. Notice none of these questions dealt with Amiri as an eminent literary figure in American letters. (Note: I was one of the people asking questions of American politics instead of taking the opportunity to learn what it means to be a respected author.)

Now I come back from hearing Amiri at a couple of readings and feel a greater appreciation for his contribution to not only American letters but to African-American lit, Jazz lit, Black Arts lit, Hip-Hop lit, Pan-African lit, Pan-American lit and Orality; to name just a few areas of study where Amiri’s work would be a key point of focus. Maybe this is coming from the fact that I’ve heard his work in UC Berkeley, surrounded by students and faculty deeply interested in learning something from Baraka. I am happy to say that the audiences here learned a lot about poetry history and revolutionary art. A nice broad range of topics Amiri was able to seamlessly bridge. I say Happy because it still gnaws at me how much the City Lights reading gravitated so much on Amiri the political figure (which is a big part of his art) and paid almost no attention to Amiri the writer (which is his art).

It was also good hearing him read at different times with different audiences around different settings and seeing if there would be any change in the choice of poems and the presentation. While the set-list may have changed, the delivery remained consistent. A blend of jazz and poetics that relied so heavily on each other as to be almost the inhale and exhale, the wave and the undertow. Out of all his poems, my favorites may have been the ones filled with the pop of a mad pianist hunting for the perfect melody. Poems like the Lo-Ku series set to the Bud Powell, Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test set to the rhythm of what I call Snaps and some other folks call the Dozens, Monk Poems set to (who else?) Thelonious, Readiness set to “Johnny Come Lately” by Billy Strayhorn and Eulogy for Pedro Pietri that I will guess was set to the rhythms of Tito Puente.

The poem that Amiri kept returning to was Race & Class, a poem that followed the form he kept returning to, this conversation with someone either ahead or behind him on the road to self-examination and ultimately self-preservation in the struggle for Pan-African unity. This technique lets the reader in on some public knowledge of the Black experience and then lets them in on the greater knowledge, that spoken in living rooms and bars, the things marginalized folk say about the oppressor or wish they could say to the oppressor’s face. A truth Amiri brings to his poetry focused on the public, the out in the open, a poet who has no time for people how only write for himself or herself.

In an effort to make up for my silly question at City Lights, I was able to ask him at one reading, “What is your proudest literary achievement?”

Answer: Staying alive. And then he said, he thinks his last work was his best work.

At the same reading I was able to get a book signed and I thanked him for being such a major influence.

A: Do you write?
O: Yeah.
A: Poet?
A: Where’s your book?
O: Right here!

And just like that I was able to give him a copy of Anywhere Avenue. Score!

At another reading I asked him about his memories about the Nuyorican movement which led to a long recollection of the work and words of Miguel Algarin. Praise for the writing of Miguel Piñero and a story involving Piñero’s last birthday party where the First Lady of Nicaragua was dancing up a storm and a group of local kids gathered to meet Mikey, not Mikey the Poet but Mikey’s TV character- Calderon the Drug Lord from Miami Vice. The highest praise (complete with voice, singing and strut imitation) went to the poems of Pedro Pietri, and that led into the Pietri tribute and Amiri covering one of Pietri’s Telephone Booth poems.

I could go on and on but instead I am going to recommend that you all read Conversations With Amiri Baraka, where you get to trace a piece Amiri’s growth, not only as a scholar and an activist but also as a writer which is where it should always begin and end when talking about Amiri Baraka.

More on the web:
Amiri Baraka’s homepage

List of Books by Amiri Baraka

Audio files of Amiri Baraka

Barb’s thought on Amiri’s work. Part 1

Author: Oscar Bermeo

Born in Ecuador and raised in the Bronx, Oscar Bermeo is the author of the chapbooks Anywhere Avenue, Palimpsest, Heaven Below, and To the Break of Dawn. He lives and works in Oakland, CA.

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