Something in the Way: A discussion of Amiri Baraka’s “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”
Al Filreis: I'm Al Filreis and this is Poem Talk at the Writer’s House where I have the pleasure of convening with three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close but not too close reading of a poem. We'll talk, maybe even disagree a bit, and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities, and we hope, gain for a poem that interests us and some new readers and listeners. And I say listeners because Poem Talk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our PennSound archive writingdocupen.edu/pennsound. Today we’re gathered in the Arts Café of the Kelly Writer’s House before a live audience and I’m going to ask the people here to register their presence by applauding now.
Al Filreis: There they are. They are present. Also again applaud as I introduce each one of our panel of Poem Talkers. The first of whom is Aldon Nielsen, Aldon Nielsen everybody. (APPLAUSE)
Alden Nielsen: I’m the Navajo Poem Talker
Al Filreis: That’s complicated. Who’s new book Tray was released by Make Now books in the Spring of 2017, he’s holding it up. Who’s previous books of poetry include Heat Strings, Evacuation Routes, Stepping Razor, Vexed, Mixage, Mantic Semantic, and Brand New Beggar. Who’s scholarship includes Reading Race, Writing between the Lines, CLR James: Critical Introduction, Black Chant and Integral Music, and who with Laura Vrana is editing the collected poems of Lorenzo Thomas and we wish that manuscript great luck and success in finding a great publisher, and who way back at George Washington University years ago was a student of Amiri Baraka’s classes on African American literature. And secondly, Billy Joe Harris. (APPLAUSE) Put a smile on your face when you hear applause. Who’s poetry the same Amiri Baraka once called “direct, quirky, funny with an understated profundity that is important”. Who’s books include Poetry, Hey Fella Would You Mind Holding This Piano, and criticism The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka and editions The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, who’s own poems have appeared in more than fifty anthologies, who was professor of American literature at the University of Kansas and director of the Creative Writing Program there in his last four years. Now happily lives and writes in Brooklyn NY. Lastly but not leastly, Tyrone Williams (APPLAUSE). Poet who has long taught literature, long taught literature, — I didn’t really mean to emphasize the long, but he’s on sabbatical so he’s feeling like alive and well right now — who has long taught literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, author of a number of books of poetry including On Spec, The Hero Project, Adventures of Pie among others, and is the subject of Poem Talk 86 in which we discuss two poems from On Spec, that was a lot of fun. Who’s newest work includes several reviews in the Constant Critic, Lana Turner, Chicago Reader etc. Also poems in recent Colorado Review and a new book of verse coming out from Omnidawn in the fall of 2018, tentatively titled As Is. That’s a classic Tyrone Williams title. The last time the four of us together was for a Poem Talk we did about Lorenzo Thomas the aforementioned, and somewhere along the line we decided to get the band back together. Alden, thank you for making the crazy trip from the middle of this state —
Alden Nielsen: Got me into platinum status (LAUGHING).
Al Filreis: And you got platinum status out of it, I think we should just drop that. Tyrone, congrats on the sabbatical, sad that it’s over but it sounds like you got a lot done.
Tyrone Williams: Yes, thank you.
Al Filreis: And As Is, can you give us a sneak preview? What’s the idea of that book, or what’s fun about it?
Tyrone Williams: I’m not sure there’s much fun about it, but it’s a book of poems about a number of different topics.
Al Filreis: Name one of those topics.
Tyrone Williams: (LAUGHING) It’s about Islam, about the Quran, about the Middle East, about our relationship to there — a number of different things like that.
Al Filreis: So As Is, “is” is a big pun there.
Tyrone Williams: Yes.
Al Filreis: Big sound. Billy Joe, hey. Thanks for coming. You look younger and younger every time we see you. I guess when you get to 7’5 it starts to wind back or something like that.
William J. Harris: It’s a family tradition.
Al Filreis: Youthfulness. Well we’re here today to talk about a poem by the aforementioned Amiri Baraka. It’s called “Something In The Way of Things In Town” and was recorded several times that we know of, including Barak’s performance of it solo at a reading, and also a 6 minute and 47 second performance accompanied by The Roots. The Roots recorded with Baraka just this once for their amazing Phrenology album of 2002. They were doing several of the Phrenology cuts at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich village when Baraka came in one day to add his vocals, just to say this poem “Something In The Way of Things In Town”. We’re going to listen to and then discuss this studio recording. Here now are Amiri Barak and The Roots.
Something in the way of things
Something that will quit and won’t start
Something you know but can’t stand
Can’t know get along with
Riding on top of the car peering through the windshield for his cue
Something entirely fictitious and true
That creeps across your path hallowing your evil ways
Like they were yourself passing yourself not smiling
The dead guy you saw me talking to is your boss
I tried to put a spell on him but his spirit is illiterate
I know things you know and nothing you don’t know
’cept I saw something in the way of things
Something grinning at me and I wanted to know, was it funny?
Was it so funny it followed me down the street
Greeting everybody like the good humor man
But an they got the taste of good humor but no ice cream
It was like dat
Me talking across people into the houses
And not seeing the beings crowding around me with ice picks
You could see them
But they looked like important Negroes on the way to your funeral
Looked like important jiggaboos on the way to your auction
And let them chant the number and use an ivory pointer to count your teeth
Remember Steppen Fetchit
Remember Steppen Fetchit how we laughed
An all your Sunday school images giving flesh and giggling
With the ice pick high off his head
Made ya laugh anyway
I can see something in the way of our selves
I can see something in the way of our selves
That’s why I say the things I do, you know it
But its something else to you
Like that job
This morning when you got there and it was quiet
And the machines were yearning soft behind you
Yearning for that nigga to come and give up his life
Standin’ there bein’ dissed and broke and troubled
My mistake is I kept sayin’ “that was proof that God didn’t exist”
And you told me, “nah, it was proof that the devil do”
But still, it’s like I see something I hear things
I saw words in the white boy’s lying rag
said he was gonna die poor and frustrated
That them dreams walk which you ’cross town
S’gonna die from over work
There's garbage on the street that’s tellin’ you you ain’t shit
And you almost believe it
Broke and mistaken all the time
You know some of the words but they ain’t the right ones
Your cable back on but ain’t nothin’ you can see
But I see something in the way of things
Something to make us stumble
Something get us drunk from noise and addicted to sadness
I see something and feel something stalking us
Like and ugly thing floating at our back calling us names
You see it and hear it too
But you say it got a right to exist just like you and if God made it
But then we got to argue
And the light gon’ come down around us
Even though we remember where the (light or mic) is
Remember the Negro squinting at us through the cage
You seen what I see too?
The smile that ain't a smile but teeth flying against our necks
You see something too but can't call its name
Ain’t it too bad y’all said
Ain’t it too bad, such a nice boy always kind to his motha
Always say good morning to everybody on his way to work
But that last time before he got locked up and hurt, real bad
I seen him walkin’ toward his house and he wasn’t smiling
And he didn’t even say hello
But I knew he’d seen something
Something in the way of things that it worked on him like it do in will
And he kept marching faster and faster away from us
And never even muttered a word
Then the next day he was gone
You wanna know what
You wanna know what I’m talkin’ about
Sayin’ “I seen something in the way of things”
And how the boys face looked that day just before they took him away
The is? in that face and remember now, remember all them other faces
And all the many places you’ve seen him or the sister with his child
Wandering up the street
Remember what you seen in your own mirror and didn’t for a second recognize
The face, your own face
Straining to get out from behind the glass
Open your mouth like you was gon’ say somethin’
Close your eyes and remember what you saw and what it made you feel like
Now, don’t you see something else
Something cold and ugly
Not invisible but blended with the shadow criss-crossing the old man
Squatting by the drug store at the corner
With is head resting uneasily on his folded arms
And the boy that smiled and the girl he went with
And in my eyes too
A waving craziness splitting them into the jet stream of a black bird
Wit his ass on fire
Or the solomNOTness of where we go to know we gonna be happy
I seen something
I SEEN something
And you seen it too
You seen it too
You just can’t call its name
Al Filreis: So there’s a lot of somethings, a lot of its, and when there’s that nice boy story toward the end, the speaker says “I knew he’d seen something” and it’s at that point that I as a reader or listener realize I really don’t know what that something is. I think the poem is great because it does for me exactly what poems I admire do, which is it tells me about something but it leaves me to work hard to figure out what that something is. Can we start by talking about how that something gets deployed? It’s very open.
Alden Nielsen: You start with the title because as is so often the case, it’s pointing in two directions simultaneously. On the one hand, something in the way of things as in Jill Scott’s “Getting In The Way”. Jill Scott’s a heavy presence in this collection too.
Al Filreis: Yes, in the great song “Complexity”.
Alden Nielsen: I don’t know about other English speaking countries, but at least in the United States we have the other dominant meaning, that’s something in the way of being a poem, or that’s something in the way of —
Al Filreis: In the manner.
Alden Nielsen: So we have both of those at the same time which makes it impossible to make the something just one thing.
Al Filreis: Right. Tyrone, something. What do you do with that as you’re listening?
Tyrone Williams: First of all yeah, I thought of it in two ways, those two directions that Alden mentioned. I always think of it, but this is probably because I’ve been working on this particular line talking about Marxism and it’s influence on his work. I tend to read this poem and listen to this poem in terms of talking about — in some respects just one direction, one tangent — in terms of commodification. That the something that’s in the way of things — and also of course in terms of phenomenology, something that prevents us from getting to the way of things themselves and so forth.
Al Filreis: Before I turn to Billy Joe can you just add an example of commodification? I think maybe what happens to the nice boy is one example.
Alden Nielsen: Something in the way of an example.
Tyrone Williams:(LAUGHING) Something in the way of the example. Yeah, early on,
“This morning when you got there and it was quiet
And the machines were yearning soft behind you
Yearning for that nigga to come and give up his life
Standin’ there bein’ dissed and broke and troubled”
Al Filreis: So he’s at a job.
Tyrone Williams: Yeah, that paragraph in particular for me resonates in terms of my father who worked in all three plants in Detroit and was miserable when he was doing that particular job. I tend to identify that with commodification as in the way of things.
Al Filreis: Yeah. Billy Joe, something.
William J. Harris: Yeah, something that I think is central — but before I get to that, what Tyrone talks about when Baraka gets to the boy and the plant, you do think about the socialism thing. You do think bout people being weighed down, but it seems like the weighing down goes back to racism, and that racism is this thing which is just permeating everything. The boy is happy at one point and then he kind of loses it. He becomes depressed and it’s just all this is pushing down. Then there’s the line about the garbage. This garbage is making you feel like shit. It all has to do with what a racist society does to individuals.
Al Filreis: Alden, that leads me to this next thought which is something is open enough, the deployment of the term “something” and then the it referring to something is open enough so that it could be, you could follow the idea of commodification. You can also follow the idea of racism being the something that this nice boy who is kind to his mother discovers. Of course it could be both connected. I guess this is kind of a dumb question that is a rhetorical question, but can we talk about how … I’m just going to say great, I’m going to stipulate great — how great it is when a poem can be so specific and so vague at the same time so that we have to do a lot of analysis.
Alden Nielsen: Well the answer to your rhetorical question is yes (LAUGHING). You’ve said it. The one thing I guess that nobody besides me is perverse enough to do is to read an allusion to a certain song by one George Harrison —
Al Filreis: “Something in the Way She Moves”?
Alden Nielsen: Yeah, that is a mark of greatness in poetry. The point I’d like to make about that in regard to Baraka is this is a classic example of late Baraka. The reason it’s so important to say that is that most of the American poetry world does not know that. For most of the academy, the image of Baraka was frozen in the 1960s. To most critics, he’s just this legacy that they trotted out at readings to shout out at capitalism and so forth and so on. But when you see some of these, and he did some of that, but when you see these late poems, like the one in S O S to Amina, this one, another one of my favorites along these lines which repeat some of the same structures and images is “Fashion This, From The Irony of the World”. You see he still had the intensity of lyricism that had always been there, people forget this, and he discovered how to wed that intense lyricism to political poetry. There are people who have noted that, but given his publication history, including in S O S, it’s not as visible as it should be.
Tyrone Williams: Just to follow up on something I was going to say in talking about the something and the it, for me at least I read the something and the it in the poem in terms of the narrator and the you and the narrator. There’s a parallel relationship between the narrator and the you and the something and the it, going back, shelling back and forth as we move through the poem.
Al Filreis: Speaker seems to be a guide a little bit, and also somehow implicated in the destruction.
Tyrone Williams: Right, because part of you, it’s a narrator. The other aspect of the narrator himself or herself.
William J. Harris: It’s really interesting to have this other voice which puzzled me for a while, but then the Baraka character, the speaker, they both see the same thing.
Al Filreis: The speaker seems to see it first. “I knew he’d seen something”.
William J. Harris: They both see it, but the speaker can speak it, can articulate it. The last line, can name it. That seems to be —
Al Filreis: You can’t call it’s name, but maybe that assumes that the speaker knows the unsayable? No.
Tyrone Williams: I don’t think the speaker knows.
I seen something
I SEEN something
And you seen it too
You seen it too
You just can’t call its name
Alden Nielsen: This goes back to the rhetoric at the beginning. I know everything you know and nothing you don’t except —
Al Filreis: Except what? What is the line? It’s not —
Alden Nielsen: “Except I saw something in the way of things”.
Al Filreis: “Except I saw” — so he keeps it open. He knows but doesn’t know, it’s unsayable.
Tyrone Williams: It’s not unsayable, it’s simply unnameable. That’s the difference.
William J. Harris: Unnameable but he’s —
Al Filreis: I think he’s trying to name it.
Alden Nielsen: I think he knows it’s name.
Al Filreis: You think he does?
Alden Nielsen: Yeah.
Al Filreis: So when Baraka passed, Amir Thomson, Quest Love, wrote something of an obituary like comment. I’m going to read a paragraph from it and just invite you to respond. This is right after he talks about how they recorded Baraka once for Phrenology. The album he says was about racial profiling, social Darwinism and then hip hop itself. Then he writes this: “We were Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village and Mr. Baraka came in to add his vocal which consisted of reading a poem he had written, “Something In The Way Of Things In Town”. I listened to the track again Friday after he died, and I hear so many things hiding in the corners of the poem and his performance of it. There are traces of earlier poetry mentors, like Charles Olsen. There’s a little William S. Burrows. Theres a reminder of how he opened the door for poetry for speech, for recording, long before the last poets or Gil Scott-Heron. There’s a devotion to making language mean something even if, especially if, that something isn’t pre-approved.” Alden, your thought on Quest Love?
Alden Nielsen: A zillion thoughts. You can tell he’s young when he writes that because he says Baraka does this kind of thing long before the other poets. It was like three or four years. But if you’re Quest Love’s age in 2000 whatever, that was long before for him.
Al Filreis: I love the reference to Olsen. For young Quest Love to be thinking of Olsen there, that’s knowledge of literary history, right?
Alden Nielsen: It is so lovely. This wasn’t the place for it, but I’d like to hear him talk a little bit more about the way they talk through the recording. As you noticed just now hearing it, the repetition of “in town” at the beginning is not in the text. The echoing of name at the very end is not part of the text either. For people familiar with the history of this kind of music which I’m sure he is, I would call up things like Steven Reich’s “Come Out To Show Them” or Pauline Olivero’s “Early Tape”, so forth and so on. It’s a traditional studio technology today, but it’s one where you see the value in each iteration of the poem with the musicians finding something in Baraka’s poem to tease out that way so that by having that echoing name at the end it’s like demanding that we try to figure out the name, even more than Baraka did.
Al Filreis: Beautifully said. Joe?
William J. Harris: Yeah, I underlined the same thing. What interested me first of all that he did note Olsen, what does that suggest about —
Al Filreis: And heard Olsen in the background. It says there is an interest in this young musician in finding literary history. It’s not the 60s moment that’s obvious, it’s Ahmir Thomson saying I’m going to see some complexity in this thing.
William J. Harris: The whole piece playing with creating this world as a spooky, horror film sort of world. I was thinking things like Get Out, not meaning it was out but … He says an influence of Burrows and Burrows has those images, like the ice pick and the teeth biting into necks. I thought that’s a really terrific insight.
Al Filreis: Can we talk a little bit about Phrenology? I know it will take us away a little bit, this album of 2002. Maybe anybody wants to add in the post 9/11 moment for Baraka, so this is a pretty highly charged time. Alden, get us started?
Alden Nielsen: Let me start with the latter. The poem I mentioned earlier, one of the best poems in the latter part of S O S, “Fashion This, From The Irony Of The World”. Talk about irony; the opening lines are “That I, the undaunted laureate of the place, daunted in some as yet in pretense of what they see they be”, and so forth and so on. This was the high point of having hidden tracks, there are several silent tracks on this album. There’s the semi-hidden but everybody knows it’s there track with Tyler McCauley for example. So it was an interesting moment in the evolution of making albums and how they would appear in the public. We don’t really do that anymore, because people just stream things and so on. Baraka’s place in this is interesting because again, he starts in the studio recording with musicians I think ’83 is the earliest one. Continues throughout his whole life. This is the closest he ever came to doing what people might think of as a hip hop thing. It’s not a hip hop poem, it’s not a hip hop track. On stage sometimes when there would be these moments when the young rappers would be free styling they would invite him to join and he usually said no.
Al Filreis: Because —
Alden Nielsen: I never asked him, but because he always works from a text for one thing, even though he changes text every single time he reads.
Tyrone Williams: I think also that one answer to the question why he wouldn’t preform with other rap artists was because until the end of his life, by which I mean maybe the last ten years, he had a very ambivalent relationship or attitude toward rap. He makes a distinction that he’s interested in socially conscious or political rap. I think that’s part of the answer too. I think in the end — again what I meant when I said earlier that it’s not surprising that The Roots would have him come in for this particular cut in this particular poem is because it sounds more like jazz than “rap” in that respect. I always think of Baraka that no matter how much he valued R&B and the Blues and sorts, I think he truly loved in his heart and thought of himself in terms of jazz.
Al Filreis: Here’s a stupid association that I made that we can ignore or unpack: he comes off “Somebody Blew Up America”, which I’ve referred to a number of times and nobody’s taken me up on that, but the response to 9/11 which was controversial. “Somebody Blew Up America”; that somebody is wide open. There’s a lot of somebodies. I see a relation. This is 2002, the performance is. I see a relationship between that open somebody and the open something.
Tyrone Williams: Yeah. His comments about “Somebody Blew Up America” is very defensive about responses to the criticism. He got a lot of this from the internet and web and all of that, so he clearly had somebody in mind when he wrote “Somebody Blew Up America”. I think the hesitation, which is what I think you’re getting that, the hesitation to name that in that particular poem was probably more maybe at the last minute caution on his particular part. I think of that as different than this poem because again I see this poem as talking about what’s going on within these communities in terms of the ways in which people have become alienated from themselves because of all the political and economic, social context in which they live. Again the young man in the end making a mockery of the sort of thing we always say after a young man or young person does something horrendous, “Oh, he was always a good man, went to school”. The same thing that happened with Trayvon Martin, with Michael Brown and so forth. Before that happened, he knows this is the rhetoric, this is the way things go. One way to think of the something or the it is that it’s so multifaceted that to name it would be almost like the name of god, just a stream of names that would be infinite.
Al Filreis: God is one of those things that in some theologies one is not supposed to name, or not supposed to name easily, or cannot name. Let’s go all the way around and look and pick out passages, lines, something that you want to have us discuss. Something that hasn’t come up yet.
Tyrone Williams: I didn’t know, I’m just looking at two lines in the middle of that fourth stanza, the one that begins “My mistake is”. About half way down, a little bit more than half way down, “Something get us drunk from noise and addicted to sadness” which in and of itself I think is a very interesting line. And then toward the end, the next to last stanza, the last line —
Al Filreis: That’s a great stanza.
Tyrone Williams: Yeah, “Or the solomNOTness”
Al Filreis: solomNOTness —
Tyrone Williams: “Of where we go to know we’re going to be happy”.
Al Filreis: solomNOTness, is that “solemn” with an “n”, negatively? Or does it have to do with Solomon like wisdom?
Tyrone Williams: Well, I think the pun or the joke, the fact that he conflates those two words is about rejecting the solemnity which he associates with sadness. It’s also in that respect a form of negation, a negation of sadness, of where we are at this particular point. That we don’t have to be sad, we’re going to be happy. Not yet, but —
Al Filreis: Do you think he’s happy that he’s seen something? At least he’s seen something?
Tyrone Williams: Well he can imagine, in that stanza you point out because it turns back on him, “And in my own eyes too”. So he’s not exempt from what he sees out there. It’s in his eyes too, the same thing that was in the eyes of that young man who went on that murdering rampage. It’s in his eyes too.
Al Filreis: That’s great. Alden, you have a passage for us to look at?
Alden Nielsen: Not so much a passage as something that happens through the entire poem and that’s the way it networks back with the entire history of Baraka’s poetry from the very beginning. From the very beginning we have these images of Mantan Moreland, sleep and eat, and Willy Best, so forth and so on. Those are connected to the other things that happen in the poem. For example, the part about “Remember the Negro squinting at us through the cage? You see what I see too”. Another late poem, “Suppose you had to live with ignorant white people and Negros in cages with important chains around their mouth.” He is constantly going back to this way that the society in which we live interpolates us with these images and these entertainments. There are very few places in his career where he’s not doing that. He does it particularly powerfully here. Which makes it interesting that the way most people know it is through an entertainment commodity.
Al Filreis: Yeah, yeah. I’m going to follow right on to that and then you’re up Billy Joe. I’m putting together what you just said and Tyrone’s idea that’s taking hold of me that this is a critique of commodification, or significantly one. We get on the second page of our print out, which must be the third or fourth stanza, “You know some of the words but they ain’t the right ones”. Theres a groping toward expression. Then, “Your cable back on” — I assume that’s cable t.v., maybe you paid the bill or maybe the cable company doesn’t care about your neighborhood so they didn’t put it on — it’s back on but “ain’t nothing you can see”. In other words, if you look to the boob tube, you're not going to see what my eyes are seeing, but I see something in the way of things. He’s turning away from the blankness of the cable choices and he’s seeing something else.
William J. Harris: And also the newspapers, the white rags.
Al Filreis: Exactly. He’s seeing, the critique needs to come from what we see rather than what’s being fed to us. Billy Joe, a passage?
William J. Harris: The passage I want I can’t find, so I’ll do another passage. But I’ll talk about it even though I can’t find it. You think of Baraka being non-religious. It’s an interesting line about I thought it was God, but it turns out to be the devil. That’s interesting. There’s another line later about religion. I was wondering about how this religion gets into it. But talking about what the poem is about with page 2 in mind, and I think Alden was moving toward this quote; “But they looked like important Negroes on the way to a funeral” —
Al Filreis: You laughed when that line was performed.
William J. Harris: In a way this poem is hysterical. But it’s hysterical at times like — We are in a very bad condition, and the happenings in this poem are tragic but they’re done in this incredibly — they’re really funny. But it’s dark laughter, not intended in a racial — But they looked like important Negroes on the way to your funeral
Looked like important jiggaboos on the way to your auction
And let them chant the number and use an ivory pointer to count your teeth”. Going back to the whole racial thing, we’re going back to an imagery of slavery.
Alden Nielsen: And phrenology. (LAUGHING)
Al Filreis: And phrenology, which isn’t a word used but of course that’s the name of the album in which that poem appears.
Alden Nielsen: We don’t necessarily know that he knew that at the time.
Al Filreis: There’s phrenology in here. Maybe Ahmir Thompson picked the poem and said will you do this one with us, because it will compliment what we’re trying to do on the album. That seems possible.
Alden Nielsen: That later reference to religion you’re remembering Billy Joe comes a little bit farther down the page when he says I see this thing stalking. Then he says “You see it and hear it too, but you say it got a right to exist just like you, and if God made it But then we got to argue”. He let’s that come into the conversation, that the other person is religious. Then also the great thing, “But we got to argue”.
Al Filreis: I want to do two more rounds. The first round — you can pass on this because it’s a big question. First round I want us to say why Baraka is important. It’s fairly big and obvious statement but here’s an opportunity —
Tyrone Williams: Why Baraka’s important, are you serious?
Al Filreis: I’m inviting us to say something to people who may not be familiar with a lot of Baraka’s poems, who may be stuck in a stereotypical version of Baraka that they were taught, that’s the first thing I’m hoping we’ll do.
William J. Harris: Should I start so other people can — (LAUGHTER). I’m really going back building on what Alden says which is this is really a great poem. It’s a great poem because I don’t know if I’d use the word lyric, but there’s this incredible imagination at work to do this critique, whether it’s a political critique or a racial critique. There’s just an imagination and an intelligence here. I think something Alden was saying before; when he started writing his poems they were a bit clanky. They got better and better and more complicated then the lyricism and the imagination came back.
Al Filreis: Alden?
Alden Nielsen: I was going to say something else very long but you remind me of something I witnessed that’s perfect for this occasion. Some years ago I say Joseph Jarmin and some other members of the Art Ensemble in Chicago, and someone asked them about their slogan, “Great black music of the future”. Along with the other explanations, Roscoe Mitchell said “Nobody ever said it was great”. The crucial thing here is the academy still will not call Amiri Baraka a great poet, and he absolutely is. The longer answer had to do with his fundamental role in American literary history of the last 70 years.
Al Filreis: That’s absolutely true, that can be documented. That’s what they cannot name.
Alden Nielsen: They can’t call him great.
Al Filreis: Tyrone, your thought on this.
Tyrone Williams: When I think of Baraka I think of his great adaptability. Starting writing those very interesting “quasi-beat poems” in the 50s and 60s, then adapting to the times through the 60s and 70s, but also willing to criticize himself. Yes other people are more than wiling to criticize Baraka like his daughter, but he himself was willing to be self-critical. To me as an ethical model, that makes him a great poet, that he can look back on his work and he can see both the strengths and weaknesses as that as well as his political commitments.
Al Filreis: Okay, final thoughts. We can talk about this poem and Baraka for a long time, but this is one more thing you wanted to add —
William J. Harris: About Baraka?
Al Filreis: Or about the poem, whatever. One more thing you wanted to say and didn’t have the chance today. We’ll turn to Alden first.
Alden Nielsen: I’ll start with another anecdote. The very first Baraka reading I ever attended there was a Q&A, which seems to happen far more to black poets than to white poets for whatever reason. As happens a young fellow stood up in the background and asked if he had any advice for a young black poet starting out. Baraka said “get a copy machine”. Then he added, “If you waiting for these people to discover you, you will die an old and angry man”. I can’t tell the whole story but if you go into the biography you remember that moment where he realizes that if the poem in the New Yorker is what it takes to be a poet in America, I can’t be one. But he doesn’t say he can’t. He starts journals, he starts presses, and to his dying day everyone here who’s been to a reading knows he always had that case with him, and there’s be some drawings, some things he made in his basement, stapled books and so on. He knew they weren’t going to do a true collected while he was alive, but he could put out all those little chapbooks all the time.
Al Filreis: Thank you. Tyrone, final thought?
Tyrone Williams: Briefly a story from when I met Michael Harper. It was a pilgrimage for me to go up to him, I admire him. I said, I admire your work, and so forth, you’re wonderful, you’re great. He looked at me and said “Do the work”. That’s all he said. Went back to whatever he was doing. That’s a whole other thing.
Al Filreis: And you’ve done the work!
Tyrone Williams: I’ve tried to. But in terms of Baraka, I just want to echo what Alden said at the beginning. I’ve been saying this over and over again and it needs to be said over and over again. The late work is some of the best work he’s ever done and very few people know about it. It’s not exactly, maybe it is sort of like great artists who do late work and people have frozen them in time and think of their earlier work. But Baraka’s late poems are just magnificent, and complicated and lyrical. Particularly of this book the last 30 or 40 pages, it’ll bring tears to your eyes if you read it.
Alden Nielsen: I should point out he’s referring to the hardback. The paperback has a different last 30 pages. That’s another story for another time.
Al Filreis: Let’s do the bibliography there. We’re referring to S O S
Tyrone Williams: But I guess I’m referring to the hardback.
Al Filreis: Paperback is different.
Alden Nielsen: The paperback has a set of transcriptions that were done by Harmony Holiday except they aren’t all transcriptions, and it’s not always clear what they are. It does add tremendously to the book, but again when you think about what’s missing from this book like the peak of the Black Arts era is just not here. The transcription points in that direction by having a piece called — I’m forgetting the title of the poem now.
Tyrone Williams: “It’s Nation Time”?
Alden Nielsen: Yeah, “It’s Nation Time”, thank you. It’s only a piece of the poem. It’s not a transcription from the recorded version.
Al Filreis: Appropriate now, we turn to final thoughts to a Baraka editor, par excellence. Final thought?
William J. Harris: My final thought isn’t about being a Baraka editor except that that is what I was doing the Baraka reader, it was very interesting being in conversation and dialogue with him, and fights, lots of fights.
Al Filreis: Tell us about the fights.
William J. Harris: I don’t remember the poem, it wouldn’t end. I said this isn’t a very good poem, it’s a didactic poem. It’s a political poem. He said “we have a different aesthetic” (LAUGHING). I thought okay, that seems true. But I think the late Baraka is a great Baraka. He’s doing all these things … Here’s a guy that’s brought it all together at the end. The last thing I want to say is we have S O S and I’m glad it’s there but there has to be a collected poems.
Al Filreis: Absolutely. Is it underway?
William J. Harris: No.
Alden Nielsen: Not officially, no.
William J. Harris: Here’s a man who’s produced a huge body of work. I was just looking at a video the other day, and it had him come to a reading. What’d he do? He would have this folder with 600 poems in it, and he said oh I think I’m going to read … But it’s really important to have the collected poems, and I’m so happy that we are in agreement about the late Baraka. I’m so glad Alden suggested we do this poem.
Al Filreis: My final thought is anecdotal. I was preparing for this, and I’ve been doing a lot of Amtrak travel between New York and Philadelphia. I was sitting there in 30 street state reading this poem, waiting for my train, listening to The Roots and him. I was sitting in a spot on one of the pew like benches there, right in front of a screen that’s the “If you see something, say something” screen. That’s been there since 2002, like this poem. What’s being said there is be prepared, because things are so urgent to rat on your neighbor or somebody you don’t know. Tell the police because this person’s privacy is not as important as the bomb throwing you may prevent, or something like that. I’m getting to the point where he’s talking about the cable t.v. back on and there’s nothing on. I’m sitting in front of this giant screen that’s basically propagandizing me about what I should see if I see something. And then I get to the end of this poem, “I see something, I see something”. The thing that’s so great about this poem is if i see something and say something, I’m probably saying something that I don’t know how to say, that I shouldn’t be saying, that there aren’t good words for because the something that’s wrong isn’t going to be encompassed by the person I report who’s looking suspicious or who has too many weird bags or whatever. When you realize that you’ve seen something but you cannot call it’s name, then you get to poetry rather than simply reporting some phrenological suspicion. We like to end Poem Talk with a minute or two of gathering paradise - I forgot to remind you about this - which is a change for several of us to spread wide our narrow hands and celebrate something really poetically good, to hail or commend someone or something going on in the poetry world, or maybe that’s gone on in the poetry world in the past. Alden, you’re ready. Gather some paradise.
Alden Nielsen: Today I will urge upon you a new book by Derry O’Harris, No Dictionary of a Living Tongue from Night Boat editions. He’s always done great work from the very beginning but this is a really worth while piece of work. In this tradition but moving it farther along.
Al Filreis: Fantastic. Tyrone Williams?
Tyrone Williams: And I will have a review of that book coming out in Chicago Review.
Al Filreis: And that’s your gathering paradise, your review! No, go ahead.
Tyrone Williams: Wednesday night in New York I met this young poet through Brenda Iijima, Asiya Wadud who has a very very good chapbook on Brenda Iijima’s portable press, Yo Yo Labs Press. It turns out completely coincidentally she’s reading at the ICA just a few blocks from here tonight at 6pm. So I’ll be attending that. The chapbook is great, and what’s even stranger, and we’ve emailed about this, is it turns out she refers to the same Derrick Walcott lines in that poem in the book that I used in one of my poems in See, See. We’ve been talking about how is it that we’ve both been drawn to the same lines in “The Schooner Flight”, that great Derrick Walcott poem. But anyway —
Al Filreis: That’s fantastic. I’m going to spell the name so everybody gets it right. Asiya Wadud. The name of the book is We, Too, Are But The Fold. Tonight’s ICA reading is being sponsored by someone who’s in our audience today, I think Davie is that correct? Davie Nittle and also the second reader is a Writer’s House favorite, Anna Strongsaford. That will be really cool. So we’re all going to that. Billy Jo, what are you going to do here?
Alden Nielsen: He’s got his notebook out (LAUGHING)
William J. Harris: A book I’m reading and I think is terrific is called Epistrophes: Jazz and the Literary Imagination. It’s written by Brent Edwards. It covers Louis Armstrong, James Weldon Johnson, Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, Mary Loo Williams, there’s a lot of Baraka running through it. I belonged to something called the Jazz Study Group at Colombia University, and when I started there was this graduate student running it named Brent Edwards. He’s been in the group ever since, and he’s dealt with every important theme. Not only does it clarify my ideas, these themes are important for understanding jazz and poetry. Something that’ interesting about this book is he will talk about musicians like Sun Ra as poets.
Al Filreis: Say the title again so people can …
William J. Harris: Epistrophes: Jazz and the Literary Imagination. It’s terrific. There are oodles of ideas on every page.
Al Filreis: Fantastic. My gathering paradise is a possible influence on Baraka. Maybe one that Quest Love didn’t mention, or maybe it’s not there consciously. We look back to the 1930s to members of the communist party, so anti-capitalist critic poets who were also modernists, who were also experimentalists and lyricists. The poem from that period that I think of when I think about Baraka, this poem and some other poems, I’m thinking about a poem called “Incident” from the 80s, Baraka’s “Incident” where a murder has happened but we don’t know who the subject and object of the murder were. The pronoun he gets used and you realize that’s real, that that’s really the way this kind of violence occurs. I’m going to take the liberty of reading this poem, Kenneth Fearing’s “Green Light”. Similar to “something”, there’s something here, “it” but we just don’t know what it is. It’s a critique of capitalism for sure.
Bought at the drug store, very cheap; and later pawned.
After a while, heard on the street; seen in the park.
Familiar, but not quite recognized.
Followed and taken home and slept with.
Traded or sold. Or lost.
Bought again at the corner drug store,
At the green light, at the patient's demand, at nine o'clock.
Re-read and memorized and re-wound.
Smashed, put together, and pawned.
Heard on the street, seen in a dream, heard in the park, seen
by the light of day;
Carefully observed one night by a secret agent of the Greek
Hydraulic Mining Commission, in plain clothes, off
The agent, in broken English, took copious notes. Which he
Strange, and yet not extraordinary.
Sad, but true.
True, or exaggerated, or true;
As it is true that the people laugh and the sparrows fly;
As it is exaggerated that the people change, and the sea stays;
As it is that the people go;
As the lights go on and it is night and it is serious, and just
As some one dies and it is serious, and the same;
As a girl knows and it is small, and true;
As the corner hardware clerk might know and it is true, and
As an old man knows and it is grotesque, but true;
As the people laugh, as the people think, as the people
It is serious and the same, exaggerated or true.
Bought at the drug store down the street
Where the wind blows and the motors go by and it is always
night, or day;
Bought to use as a last resort,
Bought to impress the statuary in the park.
Bought at a cut rate, at the green light, at nine o'clock.
Borrowed or bought. To look well. To ennoble. To prevent
disease. To entertain. To have.
Broken or sold. Or given away. Or used and forgotten. Or
That’s Kenneth Fearing “Green Light”. Well that’s all the knowing things you know and nothing you don’t know we have time for on Poem Talk today. Except — Poem Talk at the Writer’s House is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania and The Poetry Foundation, poetryfoundation.org. Thanks so much to my guest, and here’s your change to say how great they were, Alden Nielson, Billy Joe Harris and Tyrone Williams, thank you, and to Poem Talk's director and engineer today, Zack Carduner and Mary Oshallana, and to our editor as always the same Zack Carduner, and a shout out to Nathan and Elizabeth Light for their very generous support of Poem Talk. This is Al Filreis and I hope you'll join us again for that or for another episode of Poem Talk.