Monday, September 15, 2003

Baraka on the Bayou; a report from Brett Evans 

Amiri Baraka reading : September 10, 2003, Xavier University, New Orleans

Michael Dominici was the one with the secret bacon to share : he had heard from some fellow WWOZ deejay that Baraka was reading. Good thing that, as it was listed nowhere in the paper and even the oft-knowledgeable poetry heads I phoned had nothing to say about it. Probably this was due to it being an in-house for-Xavier sort of project: 700 or so students in the audience, many, no doubt (judging by the cell phone convo during speech in the row behind) made to go by their teachers.

My main question upon entering the school ballroom was, I wonder if he's going to read his 911 poem? Chris Stroffolino in a previous New Orleans visit had described the poem ("Somebody blew up America") and the shit pit it landed the newly inducted NJ poet laureate in.

I didn't know that Baraka had lost his 31-year old daughter to some in-the-wrong-house-at-the-wrong-time bullshit gun rage only a month or so ago. I also didn't realize that Mr. Baraka was billed more as a speaker than a poet.

He began by speaking about his daughter. He said some things - said he would rant a bit to keep himself from weeping. He warned the girls in the audience to stay away from male bullets. He said his daughter was gay, which added to the strikes of being African-American and being a woman. Mostly he celebrated his daughter's life and her achievements as a basketball player and coach.

He went on, speaking about the ugly hand of American imperialism in the world today and how the coming fascism prophesied back in the 60s was finally coming to full b(l)oom. Something like: A large craft called Asscraft looms over, spitting out Bush-shit. He went on to talk about what has come to pass in recent years: the shameful use of 911 fear for evil purposes wide and deep. He talked about how the African-Americans in the upper Bush echelon are not Toms but just self-interested, not unlike the blacks who sold blacks into slavery. "What kind of skeezer is a Condoleeza?" he asked, and later, in a line of a poem, "The devil wears his ass in front so the Colon may wear a uniform." It felt like breathing to hear someone rail against our shitty leaders in front of so large a crowd.

Seamlessly he announced he would read a poem, "Somebody blew up America," after giving an intro of his poet laureateship and the hot H-2-O he got in over the poem.

The man's vocal power and range was in full effect as he sonorously questioned the invisible orchestrators of [an endless list of American genocidal engagements and artifacts], ending with a Who who WHO WHO Who rise and fall - out-of-daylights Tiresian owl up in the night tree. A prophet, but also cartoonlike, as delicious countermeasure to all the harsh truth-outings of the accusatory poem's history lines.

From this great symphony, Mr. Baraka moved backward and forward oer his oeuvre, ending with a couple of the more recent jazz-interjected poems from Funklore.

One poem in particular cracked me up but good and has kept giving and giving this week, seamlessly segueing with the shirt Tatyana brought back from the NY anarchist shop [ a black tee with white etched Bush head, all earnest, over the word, "PRAEY," the AE run together in that Old Eng style]: The poem was called "The Mind of the President." Baraka explained how it was written for Reagan but certainly could be applied to our current fearless leader. This is how I remember it:

Peeee peeeeee
Pooo poooooooo

K I L L !

In the after-session he fielded questions about politics and music. He explained that African Americans need a national congress to hash out collective concerns rather than just another political party. He spoke of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Someone asked him about rap music today - whether any of it would be as enduring as those guys - and he said that basically in any art form you have the Backward, the Indifferent, and the Progressive element. To find the progressive wing is the key - to take you places now, that will hence be the most enduring.


A harvest moon hung full outside as we left the building. Hearing this great man speak and read had the effect I like my poetry [art/music] to have: It made me want to do something. It made me feel less cheap and used. Of course the question is always, Well, now what? What exactly should I do? And, yeah, just having the flame going enough to give a fuck to ask the question is half the battle.

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