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“Thought Is More Important Than Art” – Looking Back On Amiri Baraka

amiribwI met Amiri Baraka in 2010 when I was managing editor of 12th Street, the New School’s undergrad journal. Rebecca Melnyk, our poetry editor, and I had gone to the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark to hear him read and set up an interview. He was so gracious! That interview can be found in the 12th Street Issue #4 (the Periwinkle one, Edited by Mario A. Zambrano).

As Editor in Chief of 12thStreet Online I had the honor of introducing him at our online launch at Barnes & Noble. Here is my introduction, which is fitting also as my very sad and heartfelt tribute to this brilliant and wonderful human being:

Amiri Baraka says this in his 12th Street Interview: Poetry should be the most direct expression of your reflections about life, but too often it’s not, because people get into indirection, misdirection, propaganda. They also try to hide from what the consequences will be of telling the truth. Poetry should be a clear, direct reflection of what is happening in the world.

When Rebecca Melnyk suggested we interview Amiri Baraka for the  journal, I was immediately onboard. I had already thought much about the fact that the issue of 12th Street would be released the year of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and I wanted to make sure that we were all cognizant of that time in history. Our journal is about Writing and Democracy and by including Amiri Baraka, I feel we have stayed true to the roots of those two words.

12thSt4_FrontCoverWhen I accompanied Rebecca to The Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark and got to witness first hand, Mr. Baraka read my very favorite Lucille Clifton poem “Wishes For Sons” I knew the choice we made was not only correct, but ordained.  To hear Mr. Baraka read and memorialize Lucile Clifton on that sunny Sunday was one of the highlights of all my years of schooling.

As artists, writers and students reared on the disciplines of Writing and Democracy, I urge you to always question, always speak your voice. Do your research, but also follow your heart and your inner truth. This is where we live and this is the responsibility we assume when we put pen to page.

Amiri Baraka was known for his politics and for shaking the tree. His poems spoke to me and not just the political. Here is one in particular that could only bring a smile:

In Memory of Radio

Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?
(Only jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me.
The rest of you probably had on WCBS and Kate Smith,
Or something equally unattractive.)

What can I say?
It is better to haved loved and lost
Than to put linoleum in your living rooms?

Am I a sage or something?
Mandrake’s hypnotic gesture of the week?
(Remember, I do not have the healing powers of Oral Roberts…
I cannot, like F. J. Sheen, tell you how to get saved & rich!
I cannot even order you to the gaschamber satori like Hitler or Goddy Knight)

& love is an evil word.
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn’t like to go out on that kind of limb.

Saturday mornings we listened to the Red Lantern & his undersea folk.
At 11, Let’s Pretend
& we did
& I, the poet, still do. Thank God!

What was it he used to say (after the transformation when he was safe
& invisible & the unbelievers couldn’t throw stones?) “Heh, heh, heh.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”

O, yes he does
O, yes he does
An evil word it is,
This Love.

Amiri Baraka, born in 1934, in Newark, New Jersey, was the author of over 40 books of essays, poems, drama, and music history and criticism, a poet icon and revolutionary political activist who has recited poetry and lectured on cultural and political issues extensively in the USA, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe.

Somebody Blew Up America headlined him in the media in ways rare to poets and authors. The recital of the poem “that mattered” engaged the poet warrior in a battle royal with the very governor of New Jersey and with a legion of detractors demanding his resignation as the state’s Poet Laureate because of Somebody Blew Up America’s provocatively poetic inquiry (in a few lines of the poem) about who knew beforehand about the New York City World Trade Center bombings in 2001.

With influences on his work ranging from Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Sun Ra to the Cuban Revolution, Malcolm X and world revolutionary movements, Mr. Baraka was renowned as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s that became, though short-lived, the virtual blueprint for a new American theater aesthetics.

The movement and his published and performance work, such as the signature study on African-American music, Blues People (1963) and the play Dutchman (1963) practically seeded “the cultural corollary to black nationalism” of that revolutionary American milieu

It has been said that Amiri Baraka was committed to social justice like no other American writer. He taught at Yale, Columbia, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and The New School.

His awards and honors include an Obie, the American Academy of Arts & Letters award, the James Weldon Johnson Medal for contributions to the arts, Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts grants, Professor Emeritus at the State university of New York at Stony Brook, and the Poet Laureate of New Jersey.

“Thought is more important than art. To revere art and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is.”

RIP Sir. May your influence ever reign on those of us who believe it is our inherent right to stand up to political and personal injustice and work towards true Social Equity.

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