Monday, August 08, 2005

I forget – have forgotten more than once – that Amiri Baraka came from a more privileged background than I did. His mother graduated from college, he grew up in a house & family filled with books & music, especially music. He lived in a house with many generations that had some sense of rootedness in the community, especially in the black church. Baraka was filled with an education in the arts before he even went to college – there were, it would seem, expectations. He speaks of all this with a great fondness in an untitled talk, given at a Free Jazz Weekend at Penn State, transcribed & published in the first issue of Mixed Blood, an elegant little journal edited by C.S. Giscombe, William J. Harris & Jeffrey T. Nealon:

My sister and I used to dance in the summer time, in the city chorus. What I am saying is that fundamentally there was a whole possession of art as a little boy that I had. Art did not intimidate me at all. I had been art-ified from the time I was a little kid, if you understand what I mean.

Baraka’s talk amounts to an intellectual autobiography in 14 pages & it makes for fascinating reading, both for what it does say & what gets left out. He is emphatic in identifying the attraction that the New American Poets held for him precisely because they were intellectuals – the distinction he makes between Olson, O’Hara & Ginsberg & the poets of Pack-Simpson anthology (the School of Quietude crowd of that era) precisely lies in the fact that the former had some understanding of their responsibility as intellectuals while the “gray flannel” poets seemed committed only to convention.

And yet, Baraka does not structure the narrative of his evolution from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka – he does call it “My own split from that particular club” – so much as a break as a instance of continued growth on his part, especially after he’d traveled down to Cuba in 1960, during the second year of Castro’s regime, and been confronted by the ideological mask of his own seemingly apolitical nature up to that time. So that it is not the tale of Baraka, the exile from the New American Poetry (as it might be, say, for Ed Dorn, or for Denise Levertov), but rather of the man who grew up to be Amiri Baraka.

It would take a long close reading of Baraka’s comments on politics to unravel all that is being said here, and not said. Mao, for example, is not mentioned, tho Castro and Malcolm X are characterized as “my two heroes for this century.” Events are compacted in his telling & times jumbled in ways that would be fascinating to unpack. This is Baraka riffing without notes to an audience mostly of college students in one of the most denatured college environments in America, Penn State having been put literally at the geographic center of the state of Pennsylvania, so that it is four hours from the nearest major city, a huge campus in the middle of the state with the most rural people of any in the U.S.

And there are few moments to cringe to as well, such as when Baraka discusses his classmate at Howard, Toni Morrison:

One of my schoolmates was Toni Morrison. Who I thought at the time was probably the most beautiful woman in the world next to my mother. Toni Morrison was a fantastic looking woman when she was young. I don’t know if you ever seen pictures of her, but I know I used to follow her around the campus from a distance. That’s interesting, isn’t it, that these two writers growing up on the same campus, you know what I mean. And I would see her and boy, she was a fine looking woman, that Toni.

No mention of her writing or of what she may have been thinking or doing, at all. Yet, given that we have Baraka the stalker & Baraka the man who has airbrushed the rather large shadow of Mao out of the portrait of his past, this talk is an oddly generous performance. Baraka is forceful on the contribution of Irish literature, for example, on Dumas, H.G. Wells & Ray Bradbury, and on the importance of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a text that he points to as vital to his own sense of a moral center. His comments on what constitutes English are fascinating:

Americans never spoke Standard English. Americans have never spoken English. George Washington and them beat the people who spoke English and drove them out of here. Most of the white people in America are Cockneys, Irish, Scottish, they never spoke English either. There are more English speakers in Nigeria than in the United States. There are more English speakers in India than in England.

The issue includes three of Baraka’s poems as well, my favorite of which is “The Intro to the Bopera: ‘The Sisyphus Syndrome,’” which is described as “For Chorus, spoken and sung.”

Part of what makes Mixed Blood work as well as it does is the ample room it gives to a relatively short roster of contributors. In addition to Baraka, the cover lists Jen Hofer, Erica Hunt, Ed Roberson & Juliana Spahr. In addition, Howard Rambsy II opens the issue with a piece describing the Free Jazz Weekend, setting a context for Baraka’s contribution. Further, several of the contributors (Hunt being the notable exception) offer both a critical and an aesthetic contribution. Roberson, for example, presents a piece on Nate Mackey. Hofer discusses politics and translation, moving all the way from Jabés to Heriberto Yepez. Spahr looks at her home in Hawai’i, on Dole Street, also in a piece that engages the social & the affective.

Giscombe, Harris & Nealson have done exactly what the best editing always does – join disparate works together in ways that illuminate one another. Language poetry & Baraka’s agit prop poetics don’t sit comfortably side by side, perhaps, but both emerge from a larger tradition that has much to say to all sides of that discussion, as do Spahr & Hofer, writers whose own work may be informed by, but is radically distinct from, these older modes. Hopefully, Mixed Blood will be an annual, at least. It offers a completely fresh way of looking at a range of writing that has never looked so coherent side by side by side.