Baraka

 

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Last week was a nutty one, in New Jersey. Bob Torricelli stepped down, and Amiri Baraka did not. Baraka, the poet, dramatist, and activist formerly known as LeRoi Jones, is the state’s poet laureate. Why he is the poet laureate is a good question, considering that he’s a revolutionary, a Marxist, and a conspiracy theorist, who not only goes around calling people “Nazis” but pronounces it “Nazzies” (as in snazzy).

 

There is nothing neccessarily wrong with any of these inclinations per se, but they would seem to give a politician pause. Still, in August Governor James E. McGreevy courageously or foolishly, proclaimed Baraka laureate, a sinecure worth ten thousand dollars a year, and managed to get in a few quiet weeks before he was made to regret the appointment, on learning that Baraka had written (and read aloud at a festival) a poem about September llth, titled “Somebody Blew Up America. ” Baraka’s poem suggested, among other things, that four thousand Israelis who worked in the World Trade Center had been tipped off about the terrorist attack and stayed home that day. This, of course, is a version of an insidious hot widely discredited ru- mor that has been embraced in places like Damascus and Marseilles but is beneath the dignity of Trenton and Newark The Anti-Defamation League went bananas and the Governor called for Baraka’s resignation.

 

Last week, Baraka used an appearance at an event at the Newark Public Library to respond to his critics. The television reporters, rowdy disciples, and bewildered library patrons who packed the grand panelled hall on the second floor brought a prizefight atmosphere to the musty stacks. When Baraka hunched, gray-bearded, gray-suited, took the lectern, he said, “This is my statement I will not apologize, I will not resign. ” There was raucous applause and cries of “Yessir!” Baraka began reading: “The recent dishonest, consciously distorted, and insulting non-interpretation of my poem by the Anti-Defamation League is fundamentally an attempt to defame me and, with that, an attempt to repress and stigmatize independent thinkers everywhere. ”

 

There followed a forty five-minute diatribe, in which he defended his work, fleshed out his sources (Congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney, the Jordanian news paper Al Watan, and other such impeccables), and pressed his case that the terrorist attack, of 9/11 were part of a global white-supremacist conspiracy. While, short on logic, it was long on citation. (He even said “op. cit. “) Distressingly, crowd reaction was split-generally, blacks nodding their heads, whites shaking theirs. He concluded with some words about poetry, citing Keats and Du Bois, Truth and Beauty, and the imperative”to illuminate the human mind and bring light into the world. ”

 

Afterward, he made his may out of the hall, greeting well-wishers, State of the Union style, and rode down an elevator with a few associates. (“Ask someone to bring me a barbecue sandwich, ” he told one of them. ) Then he stepped out into a garden next to the library, for a press conference. There was some good mayhem in the garden Camera- men jostled and joshed. There were arguments, intra- and interracial, about racial profiling, Zionism, and Ralph Nader. A woman from the A. D. L. offered comment. A black man with a gray beard sidled up to white reporters and muttered, “Watch out, I’ll stick a foot up in your ass. ” Some activists had ducttaped a banner to the garden wall with lines from “Somebody Blew Up America, ” which takes the form of an extended inquiry as to who perpetrated various atrocities and misdeeds:

 

 

 

Who made Bush president

Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying

Who talk about democracy and be lying

 

 

A producer from CNN asked, “Do you know who?”

 

Baraka said, “I don’t purport to be a statistician. I don’t have a mainframe. If I had a staff, like you do at CNN, I could answer these questions. ”

 

“So there isn’t actually a known answer to your questions?”

 

Baraka looked at her with some disdain. “No. ” After a moment, he said, “It seems to me that the government and the A. D. L. ought to apologize to me. ” Then he grinned. “They should also pay me. ” His poet-laureate check, apparently was late.

 

It was hard not to wonder, as the crowd dispersed, about the role of poetry in today’s fractious world. In 1969, Baraka wrote, in “Black Art, “

 

 

 

Poems are bullshit unless they are

teeth or toes or lemon, piled

on a step. . .

We want live

words of the hip world live flesh &

coursing blood.

 

 

Or perhaps it made more sense to turn to New York’s official state poet, John Ashbery. “The true crisis is only now coming to rest,” he writes, in “This Deuced Cleverness.”

 

 

Birdie, on your tree,

I like you. Can’t we be friends?

 

 

–The New Yorker, October 14 & 21, 2002, pags. 66-67