Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Remarkable Ingenuity (and indifference) of Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka remains one of our most resourceful poets—so resourceful in fact that his career as a playwright, jazz critic, cultural historian, performer, theorist, and political activist has been as central to the histories of modern African American artistic writing and thought as his poetic contributions. In a way.

Even his name changes from Everett Leroy Jones to LeRoi Jones to Imamu Amiri Baraka to Amiri Baraka suggest something of his vibrant interests in continuous reinvention and embodied innovation.

A google search or a look on Wikipedia can yield a range of information concerning Baraka’s biographical sketches. What’s less noted in those sketches, however, is Baraka’s remarkable ingenuity, his ability to compose provocative poems, influence and organize groups of arts, and rewire the means of showcasing his works and theirs. Somehow, he has managed to continually facilitate the production of poetry at multiple levels—as a writer, publisher, editor, vocalist, and so forth.

Baraka is one of the few big-time poets who have managed to loom large for decades without the sustained support of a large publishing house. Hughes had Knopf. Nikki Giovanni has William Morrow. Baraka has apparently relied on some other things.

Certainly, his popularity is, in part, the result of a wide-range of interest his works have received from general readers, scholars, and fellow poets. But his appeal is also based on his gritty and creative determination to publish his own poems when official publishing outlets were unwilling to do so.

Audiences are impressed by the rebellious spirit that pushes Baraka to (still) self-publish small booklets and broad-sides with his own hand-drawn images. It’s that rebellious spirit that also likely guides Baraka’s legendary indifference at the mechanisms and credentialing system of the official literary world.

Perhaps major publishers are nervous, if not fearful, about what it would mean to publish a poet as “controversial” as Baraka. Whatever the case, Baraka shows little interest at gaining the support from established publishers and magazines—typically a requirement for those seeking literary success.

Baraka’s apparent indifference to some of those official channels is a product and process of his ingenuity. And maybe his indifference at the thought of becoming or being an “award-winning” poet is less important than. The real issue might be that he seems to privilege things that are not necessarily literary, at least not in the conventional senses.

More to come.

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