Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Amiri Baraka in Denver

Last Friday (February 28, 2010) I went to see the poet Amiri Baraka read at Denver University. The former Poet Laureate of New Jersey, Amiri Baraka is a distinguished poet, author, playwright, music critic and political activist. Familiar with controversy, Baraka's poetry (and other works) battle subjects such as racism, slavery, white culture and conservatism and his reading this Friday was no exception. A jazz critic, Baraka's words were filled with jazz references, and accompanied often by rhythm as he pounded on the podium, tapped the microphone, sang refrains and scat melodies. At one point drumming with so much enthusiasm all his papers fell from the podium, his energy was especially impressive considering Baraka recently turned 75.

At times Baraka's words were full of remorse and resentment for the history of African slavery--my brother the king sold me to the ghosts--and the connected history of the Americas--at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean/there's a railway/made of human bones/black ivory. Yet he added to this the songs slaves sang to keep their pride--I may be wrong, but I won't be wrong always. Still, the history he retold warranted the notion the preparation for pain is minimal/for joy, a lifetime.

Perhaps the most animated and comical part of Baraka's reading was his series of lowkus (haikus for Afro-Americans who "don't have time to count the syllables"). Baraka strung the lowkus together by singing the melody of Bud Powell's "Un Pollo Loco." The lowkus were full of humor, much of it directed towards whites--the devil said he left heaven because there were too many niggers/that's why he started Europe--the rich--since the rich eat more than anybody else/it's reasonable to assume/that they there are more full of shit--and Bush--the main thing wrong with you/you aint in jail and in Mandarin the word Bush mean dumb motherfucker. (Watch a video of lowkus at a UC-Berkeley reading. The lowkus begin at the 31 minute mark.)

Baraka's reading was a powerful reminder of the world's madness, which is recognized by liberals, conservatives and apoliticals alike (although opinions about the root cause of this madness vary). While demonstrating the tensions that still affect issues such as race and class, Baraka spoke of the need for this country to stay vigilant against conservatism. In order to do this, "we" need to stop fighting each other and fight the common bigger enemy, which Baraka would call the Republican devils. In addition to the outcry of his poetry, Baraka repeatedly offered another solution, referencing the DU student crowd by saying things to effect of, "You are all students, study this stuff."

Baraka ended the reading with a poem that has attracted much attention entitled "Somebody Blew Up America." Living in Newark, New Jersey, directly across the river from the Twin Towers, "Somebody Blew Up America" is Baraka's response to watching the smoke rise as the buildings fell. Baraka lost his laureateship for the poem, which repeatedly asks the question, "Who?":

       Who fount Bin Laden, maybe they Satan
       Who pay the CIA,
       Who knew the bomb was gonna blow
       Who know why the  terrorists
       Learned to fly in Florida, San Diego.

While implicating the Bush Administration, and many others, in the execution of 9/11, the poem’s questioning criticism goes far beyond any single event:

       Who got the tar, who got the feathers
       Who had the match, who set the fires
       Who killed and hired
       Who say they God & still be the Devil
       Who the biggest terrorist
       Who change the bible
       Who killed the most people
       Who do the most evil
       Who don't worry about survival
                                  (Read the rest of the poem)

During the question and answer after his reading, a young woman asked, "Who exactly are you talking about?" to which Baraka replied something to the effect of, "That's just what I'm asking, who? ... You're in school, study this stuff." But while you're picking up those books, be warned: poets on the loose, we're coming around.

Written by Derek Pyle. Photo by Lynda Koolish from www.amiribaraka.com.