8: Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones

I remember finding poetry, on an emotional level, in high school. Before that I had liked poems – a teacher in elementary school would do poetry days during English classes, and she would do dramatic readings of The Highwayman, and other classic poems. The drama and rhythm engaged me, but it wasn’t until reading outsider poets who had to fight to become recognized – first the Romantic poets, then the Beats – I didn’t have an emotional connection to poetry.

But it wasn’t all of these poets that I connected to. Shelly, with Ode to the West Wind was almost suicidal in his celebration of natural power and destruction. Ginsberg was too self righteous, and Kerouac combined both self destruction and self-righteousness into a soup of bullshit. Their frustrations seemed self created and self serving. White dudes with access at play in the fields of the poor.

In 1994 I was dating a girl whose father had been heavily involved in activist movements when she was a child, in the 70’s and early 80’s. Her home as a child, until her mom booted the hangers on and the paraphernalia, had been filled with activists coming through Eastern Iowa, smoking pot, talking politics, going to protests, raising money. Northern Aid, an IRA support group in the US, was a common topic, and family friends were members of the communist party and the Black Panthers.

That summer we went to New York, and our conversations naturally turned to historical sites of radical organizing. Most of those had been gentrified since that time. Leroi Jones came up. She knew his work on Jazz and his poetry and plays.

When we got back to Iowa I started reading his work, and the legitimate anger that burns in his writing is powerful.

His poem An Agony. As Now. Speaks powerfully of the experience of being filled with rage within a society that tells you happiness, joy, fun and play must supersede trauma.

As I was writing my masters and MFA thesis projects, which included a significant amount of poetry, Baraka’s work influenced how I approached ideas like activism, rage, justice and speaking when no one wants you to speak and when no one wants to hear your words.


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