The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Paul Vangelisti about Amiri Baraka’s S O S Poems 1961-2013, which he edited. We also discuss Baraka’s place among American writers, the ways in which his poetry and politics intersected and collided, and the musical influences that shaped his work.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Hi Paul. How long have you been working on this project? And this might be a little inside baseball, but did you have any issues bringing together a corpus this size?
Paul Vangelisti: Off & on, in various book & editorial forms, since 1995. The specific project S O S, we began in February 2014.
Ellen: How did you get involved? I understand Baraka was involved too up until his death?
Paul Vangelisti: No, things went surprisingly smoothly with the folks at Grove Atlantic. We all had seriously bought in to the project.
Brian S: One of the things I realized as I got into the book is that I’d read very little of Baraka’s work in college. Maybe it was the programs where I was a student, but it made me wonder if he’s been marginalized to some extent?
Paul Vangelisti: I first interviewed & met Baraka in 1976 when I was working at KPFK Radio in LA. In 1995 I was asked to edit a selected poems, Transbluescency, for Marsilio USA and Baraka and I met, I made a selection of work from his published books up until 1995 and our collaboration began.
Camille D.: Baraka is one of the most important writers of the 20th c. The number of movements in which he was at the vanguard is staggering. What were some of the joys/complications of collecting such a robust oeuvre?
Dana: I thought the same thing, Brian. I had only encountered his work in anthologies I’d read AFTER college… I’d wondered if others had too.
Evie: I’d also love to hear about the criteria you used for selection, Paul. I personally wish like crazy that “Dope” had been included, just for example.
Paul Vangelisti: Well, the important thing in working with him while he was alive (I also edited a shorter book, Funk Lore (1996), of more recent work, was that we shared a vision of poetry & more specifically an understanding of his own career. That’s to say, the the real change in his work came after 1973, when he abandoned Black Nationalism (what he called “bourgeois nationalism”) and became an international poet.
Mark Folse: The references to Pound in the intro led me to same question, Brian, re: marginalization.
Jody: I don’t know what you mean by “Black Nationalism” and what happened to influence this change in 1973?
Camille D.: One of the reasons it was so important for me that we do this book is just what Dana and Brian speak of. People think they know the personality around Baraka but not the poems. The poems are so often phenomenal. What poems most struck the group? I love the Wise Whys poems.
Mark Folse: Some of the references in Crow Jane also speak to a break with any identification with the Beats before him.
Paul Vangelisti: Yes, the Pound comparison is one I ran by Amiri back in 1995 when I was doing Transbluescency. I told him about my comparing him to Pound, his, like P’s marginalization, etc., and he gave me a pensive look and then said “Cool!”
Jody: In my defense, I studied American History at UC Irvine – we watched Mississippi Burning and Full Metal Jacket as curriculum. It was just before Gulf War 1 …I think there were gaps.
Ellen: In the intro you say that he’s been misunderstood. What do we need to know about him?
Ellen: I’m fascinated to know more.
Paul Vangelisti: Yes, I think that’s an astute point. Dead Lecturer signals a break with the Beats aesthetically & politically. Though he remained friends with many of them up until their/his deaths.
Brian S: Like I mentioned on the Facebook page, I’d never read Black Art before, and then I was pissed that I hadn’t. I went to school in south Louisiana and Arkansas, so at this point I’m not surprised that my knowledge of poets of color is lacking, but it still irritates me.
Evie: I actually don’t think that what you experienced is exclusive to the South, Brian.
Brian S: Fair enough. But I also don’t think I had a single POC as a major professor for either of my degrees.
Paul Vangelisti: I think that as a poet (and probably as a political activist) he strived for an international audience certainly after becoming a Marxist-Leninist in 1972 & repudiating nationalism. But probably even before then if one can rely on some of the poems in Dead Lecturer, his 1964 book just before he joined Malcolm X and the Black Arts movement.
Ellen: Is his work well known internationally? are there any particular countries that have embraced his work?
Mark Folse: I wondered just how quickly we’d fall into Politics and Race. Not that the subjects can be avoided. Still, to be a Black Nationalist was something dangerous in that era. To be a socialist internationalist would seem to be even more marginalizing.
Jody: Thanks Paul, that’s makes sense. So what is meant by Black Nationalism is that he moved from American Black and to a less American centric understanding of history and connection to an international class struggle, with racism as a by-product. Was he influenced by the Negritude Poets?
Paul Vangelisti: Certainly France and Italy, both as a poet and a writer on jazz & blues, all of which work has been extensively translated in those countries.
Ellen: What criteria did you use in making selections? anything poems or types of poems you struggled with omitting/including?
Paul Vangelisti: That’s a keen insight, Jody. He moved away from US-centric approach by his second book and became much more interested in such international work as that of Cesaire’s and Depestre’s, both poets who wrote in French and we’re major figures in the Negritude movement. As I mention in the intro, his interest then turned to both Negritude & European poets who wrote within the aesthetic of “lyrical communism.”
Mark Folse: Life in general conspired against my getting past through the first two books. There is a clear shift in authorial voice in Black Magic that resonates more of Stevens or Pound or Williams or even Olson (the Maximus voice). Without knowing his bio, was he reading more broadly, and/or looking for his own true voice?
Evie: Jody, that’s not entirely accurate. Black Nationalists were aware of and influenced by black political struggles globally, and took inspiration from the African Independence movements of the era, as well as from anti-imperialist struggles by people of color all over the place. Visiting Cuba had a big impact on Baraka’s politics during that time.
Dana: The question of identity is so prominent here, which I think everyone can relate to to some degree. But I think what stuck out to me, and made me so thankful for this selection, is that there are so many questions that I’ve never had to ask myself… that I never knew were worth asking, that the oppressed have always been so aware of. Trying to find some examples that stuck out to me…
Jody: I am going to steal that phrase ‘lyrical communism’. However, I do detect a connection and a consistency between the early poem ‘Hymn for Lanie Poo” with the epitaph vous etes de faux Negres (rimbaud) contrasted with “Who is You” which much later returns to the concept of identity. But I need to read it again …
Paul Vangelisti: Ellen, of my initial selection for Transbluescency Amiri excluded only one of the poems I chose. When he sent me some 300 odd pages of work for Funk Lore, which I edited down to 100 or so pages, he went along with my entire selection. The last section of this book, 100 or so pages of more recent work from 1996-2013, was about 400 pages in typescript, which I whittled down to the final section, “Fashion This”.
Ellen: Do you remember what he excluded or why?
Paul Vangelisti: As Whitman said in Leaves of Grass, “Well, I contradict myself, so I contradict myself.”
Brian S: Were there any poems you wanted to leave out but Baraka wanted to keep?
Paul Vangelisti: His relation to the figures you mention, Olson, Stevens, Pound et al, he came to hone carefully in his second book, Dead Lecturer, right before he left the Village and moved to Harlem. And I think you’re right, he revisited this major figures again after the nationalist period.
Camille D.: Paul, moving away from the ideology, can you speak to what you think are some of the most important elements of Baraka’s aesthetic? There are some things that strike me as consistent about how he approached the making of a poem, and some things that changed radically as his ideologies shifted.
Mark Folse: By the time I landed in Heathens while skipping around (knowing I wouldn’t be finished for today) I can’t help but think of Kaufman. Is there an influence there in coming to his voice mid-career? As if peaking for the silent Kaufman.
Paul Vangelisti: About all the questions of identity, i would draw your attention to a poem written upon his first visit to Cuba in 1960 (published in his first book),when he first begins to question his American identity.
Jody: Absolutely right Evie … there were clear shifts from leaving America(s) (Marcus Garvey), to making one’s own nation within America,the separatists of Malcolm X’s era, to attempting to ‘fix’ America from the Civil Rights Era to today.
Camille D.: Mark, perhaps I don’t understand your question, but Baraka (then Jones) and Kaufman would have know each other from an early stage. It was Kaufman who coined the term “The Beats,” and Baraka (then Jones) was part of that movement from the beginning.
Paul Vangelisti: Yes, I suppose this isn’t telling tales out of school but the only poem he excluded was one often anthologized from his first book, a poem to his first wife Hetti Cohen.
Paul Vangelisti: Yes, I think Amiri, then LeRoi published Kaufman in his & Diane DiPrima’s magazine Floating Bear.
Paul Vangelisti: As for ‘back to Africa’ movements, see Baraka’s poem on p.504, “Four Cats on Repatrionology.”
Mark Folse: Not having read much of Baraka but Kaufman over and over again, when I get to Heathens, it seems as if he is exploring Kaufman’s voice a much as he was that of the Big Boys mentioned earlier, looking for an appropriate poetic vernacular for what he hoped to say/
Jody: The poem “Four Cats on Repatriationology” for a poetic discussion of the shift and identity. He plays with the whole of it… what is it all about Alfie?
Brian S: I’m trying to find a way to ask this question and I’m having trouble because it involves an assumption that may not be accurate. But here goes—what’s the reason why, to the extent this is accurate, that Baraka’s poems aren’t as well known today as his personality/politics is?
Paul Vangelisti: Camille, perhaps the $64K question. Too long to develop here but I think the key throughout his career was the musicality of his verse. As jazz (or African-american classical music) developed so did Amiri’s aesthetic. I make a stab at your question when toward the end of my intro I write, “The musicality of Baraka’s earlier books is challenged and extended to where it’s inseparable from his thinking.” This seems to me to have been his goal as a poet. A very noteworthy one.
Jody: OK Paul, we’re literally on the same page.
Camille D.: Thinking about this question of voice, as it relates to Kaufman’s self-imposed silence and other silences, I think this is why I’ve been drawn to the poem “Wise 1” for so long. I remember hearing Baraka read from that book when it was first published. (Evie, were you at that reading in Durham in the mid 90s?) Hearing Baraka read, “If you ever find/ yourself, some where/lost and surrounded/by enemies/ who won’t let you/ speak you own language… who ban/ your omm bomm ba boom/ then you’re in trouble/ deep trouble” and then stop and riff of his own lines and then go on was a marvelous experience.
Evie: I was there. It was my first time hearing him read, and it was amazing. So we’re all connected now, at the point of musicality.
Jody: What is your assumption Brian?
Brian S: That his personality and politics are better known than his poem. It could just be a hole in my reading.
Mark Folse: The musicality seems to have been there from the beginning, but he dumped the string quartets of Stevens for the swing, no shred, by the end of Funk Love.
Camille D.: So what are the ways he enacted that musicality? It’s something we talk about all the time, the jazz influence in Black poetry, but I think it’s worth understanding some of the ways this is created on the page and in the air.
Mark Folse: The silences and odd timings of Monk ring all through those jazz poems.
Paul Vangelisti: Brian, Amiri said it himself in a 1984 interview, “When I was saying white people go to hell I never had trouble finding a publisher. But when I was saying black and white unite, destroy capitalism, then you suddenly got to be unreasonable.” Remember his best-selling book of poetry during his life was Black Magic (Morrow, 1969) a separatist work. Its difficult to overlook the cultural politic here. I try to treat this in my intro., pp. xiii-xiv.
Jody: So you are wondering if he is the Kanye West of his time? I think the whole concept of celebrity v. art is rapidly rapidly and vapidly evolving.
Camille D.: My question is connected to Brian’s I think. Without looking carefully at the poems and their contexts, the sorts of assumptions that can be made about a poet like Baraka are cursory and dangerous.
Brian S: Part of it has to be the way he dropped whole lines of sound words (as opposed to sense words), which gave the poem a drum line, if you will.
Evie: They’re different methods, aren’t they, Camille? On the page, there’s the movement away from the left margin, the abrupt line breaks, the hovering around rhyme…
Brian S: I’m not thinking of Baraka as celebrity poet so much as I’m thinking about how people who don’t know much about him or his work or his career would maybe only know “Who Blew Up America.”
Evie: …but in performance, well, how to even describe it? He had a whole-body instrument at the mike, with a mental Jazz jukebox on shuffle.
Mark Folse: Those who dig Thelonius Monk are not surprised, Evie.
Camille D.: ”a mental Jazz jukebox on shuffle”! Evie, I love that very accurate image!
Evie: Yes, Mark Folse. I’m thinking of “Bang, Bang, Outishly.” : )
Evie: You’ve seen it in action, Camille!
Brian S: Yeah, this book reminded me just how much Coltrane and Monk and Dizzy and and and I have in my iTunes that hasn’t gotten a lot of run lately. I’m changing that.
Camille D.: And then there’s his playful use of rhyme to consider. It’s really masterful, the way he plays words and defies expectations as he juggles with language.
Paul Vangelisti: Unfortunately, Amiri became, especially after his notoriety as Poet Laureate of NJ, a whipping boy of the US press, both conservative & liberal. It’s what he expected & I think gave him a certain glee in attacking in his rather sardonic verses, like the “low coups.” Again, he consistently repudiated the Anglo-American models of culture, as well as the imperial designs of our perishing republic.
Brian S: This is the first time in years we’ve done a collected, isn’t it? Elizabeth Alexander was the last?
Evie: Paul, is a collected in the works? (What a door-stopper that will be! 2-volume set, I suppose…)
Jody: Following why his politics may be better known than his poems—read—”Race or Class” quoting from it—”but slavery still make it plain that black he was and black you is” …
Brian S: The madness of the world right after 9/11 was terrifying in a lot of ways.
Camille D.: It’s uncomfortable being repudiated. Even if you know what the critic is saying is the truth. Paul, what do you think posterity is going to make of Baraka now that we can look back on his work and understand its cultural and historical context and wisdom?
Evie: Because this is a selected, Brian—not the whole kit and caboodle.
Brian S: I’m really glad the book came out when it did, so close after his death, because it keeps him from sinking out of consciousness some.
Paul Vangelisti: Yes, I think speaking with Baraka’s agent who was an invaluable go-between in all this, a longer selection is definitely a possibility.
Evie: That’s great to hear! Thanks for your work on this volume—and for chatting today.
Mark Folse: So much Baraka (not a bad thing) and so little poetry. Next time you send us a book this big and rich, Brian, can we go for two hours?
Brian S: *points finger at Camille* She picked it.
Camille D.: For some of us he was never out of our consciousness. I find it baffling sometimes that we know all about the work of Bishop and Stevens and Pound and Plath, despite all their problematic issues of them as individuals and sometimes poets, but that we don’t know the work of Baraka because, so they say, he was sometimes a problematic poet or individual. Race, man. And America.
Paul Vangelisti: In my opinion, he will go down as one of the most important poets writing in English of the second half of the 20th century. For me as a poet, he is one of my three masters from my own time.
Evie: I’ll second that, Mark!
Jody: and the other 2 are?
Brian S: It’s more evidence (as if we needed any) that white supremacy is an issue in the arts, just as it is in the rest of our society.
Paul Vangelisti: George Oppen and Jack Spicer.
Brian S: Camille, I can count on the fingers of two hands the number of poets of color I spent any real time on in grad school. Maybe one hand. It’s a problem.
Camille D.: Paul, thank you for your work on this book and for your time with us today. I hope this is the beginning of the next great age of Baraka enthusiasm for a wider and wider group of writers and readers.
Mark Folse: Hell, Evie, I could go all night on this book. Having only read sporadically of him before S O S, few poets have not so much touched me as grabbed me by the windpipe and made me listen.
Camille D.: Probably one hand with a few amputations. Race, man. America.
Paul Vangelisti: By the way, when I was in graduate school 1968-1972, Pound was read, taught or anthologized. I had to fight to do a dissertation on him.
Jody: Race women too … and by the way, America isn’t alone.
Mark Folse: Yes, I thought so much of Pound in society v. poet, Reading Baraka having just spent month at the Castle with John Gery immersed in the Cantos.
Brian S: Thanks everyone for the terrific chat.