This section contains 1,679 words
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Interview by Amiri Baraka
SOURCE: An interview in The Sullen Art: Interviews by David Ossman with Modern American Poets, Corinth Books, 1963, pp. 77-81.
In the following interview, Baraka discusses his magazine, Yugen, his poetry, and his various literary influences.
Jones published only two more issues of Yugen after his interview was recorded early in 1960. Since then, he has co-edited The Floating Bear and has seen Corinth's publication of his first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, in association with his own Totem Press. Morrow has scheduled his study, Blues, Black & White America and Grove will do his System of Dante's Inferno. He continues working on prose, plays and on poems for a second collection.
[Ossman:] Yours seems to be one of the three or four "clique" magazines around today, in that if publishes a fairly restricted group of so-called "beat," "San Francisco" and New York writers. Why do you publish this group—this "stable" of writers?
[Baraka:] Well, it does seem to fall that way. But for a long time Dr. Williams couldn't get into the Hudson Review, and several other mature, older poets like Kenneth Patchen were never admitted there or in magazines like the Partisan Review or Sewanee. If those editors had a literary point of view in excluding their work, then I feel I have as much right, certainly, to base my choice on my literary taste. If it seems like a coterie—well, it turns out to be that way. There are other reasons—but that's the simplest explanation, actually.
The writers that I publish are really not all "beat" or "San Francisco" or "New York." There are various people who could also fit into other groups—for instance, the people who went to Black Mountain College—and others not affiliated with any real group. But they have some kind of affinity with the other so-called groups—their writing fits into a certain kind of broad category:
Many of the same names appear regularly in Yugen, Big Table, Evergreen …
It's a little different though. Most of the people that, say, Paul Carroll prints, he wouldn't have printed if it hadn't been for a magazine like Yugen. And Evergreen Review, to a great extent, has picked up on things that I've done already and that have appeared in magazines like the Black Mountain Review and Neon. They pick them up. As a matter of fact, in Paul Carroll's case, I know of at least two poets who appear in his magazine only because of various things he saw in Yugen and in an essay I wrote. He said he picked up some things in that essay that enabled him to understand or become more sympathetic with certain people's work.
I'd like to have your thoughts on a kind of contemporary writing that could be illustrated by Frank O'Hara's "Personal Poem" in Yugen 6. In it he describes his thoughts before and after having lunch with one "LeRoi." With its highly and specifically personal references it seems to be more an anecdote of interest to future scholars than something partaking of the heightened qualities of a more traditional poetic nature. What is the validity in this kind of writing?
I didn't especially think that there was any charted-out area in which the poetic sensibility had to function to make a poem. I thought that anything—anything you could grab—was fit material to write a poem on. That's the way I think about it. Anything in your life, anything you know about or see or understand, you could write a poem about if you're moved to do it. I'm certain that if they have to footnote what the House of Seagrams was in his poem, or who the LeRoi, was, that will only be of interest to academicians and people doing Master's theses. Anybody who is concerned with the poem will get it on an emotional level—or they won't get it at all. Certainly, if I didn't like it, I wouldn't go through any book to look up those names with the hope that I would feel moved once I knew where the building was or who LeRoi was. I don't think that means anything at all. I don't think that has anything to do with the poem, actually. What the poem means, its function, doesn't have to do with those names—that's just part of it. It doesn't seem to me to be the same kind of stupidity that's found when you have to go to Jessie Weston's book to find out what a whole section of The Wasteland means. The House of Seagrams is certainly less obscure than certain Celtic rites. And I don't see what makes it any less valid because it's a casual kind of reference or that it comes out of a person's life, rather than, say, from his academic life.
I'd say that if a poem, as a whole poem, works, then it's a good poem …
You once wrote that, "MY POETRY is whatever I think I am. I make a poetry with what I feel is useful and can be saved out of all the garbage of our lives." Would you like to develop that a little more fully?
Well, it's part of what you mentioned about "traditional" poetic areas. I believe that the poet—someone with a tempered sensibility—is able, or should be able to take almost any piece of matter, idea, or whatever, and convert it if he can, into something really beautiful. I don't mean "beautiful" the way Bernard Berenson means it—but into something moving, at least.
And I don't think that there are any kind of standard ideas or sentiments or emotions or anything that have to be in a poem. A poem can be made up of anything so long as it is well made. It can be made up out of any feeling. And if I tried to cut anything out of my life—if there was something in my life that I couldn't talk about … it seems monstrous that you can tell almost anything about your life except those things that are most intimate or mean the most to you. That seems a severe paradox.
You've mentioned your influences as including Lorca, Creeley and Olson. What from Lorca—a surrealist approach?
Yes, that, but at the time I got hold of Lorca, I was very much influenced by Eliot, and reading Lorca helped to bring me out of my "Eliot Period" and break that shell—not so much Poet in New York, which is the more surreal verse, but the early Gypsy Ballads—that kind of feeling and exoticism.
What about the Black Mountain people, and Williams?
From Williams, mostly how to write in my own language—how to write the way I speak rather than the way I think a poem ought to be written—to write just the way it comes to me, in my own speech, utilizing the rhythms of speech rather than any kind of metrical concept. To talk verse. Spoken verse. From Pound, the same concepts that went into the Imagist's poetry—the idea of the image and what an image ought to be. I learned, probably, about verse from Pound—how a poem should be made, what a poem ought to look like—some little inkling. And from Williams, I guess, how to get it out in my own language.
Is there a middle ground between natural speech and formal metrics?
Oh, yes. I don't mean that I write poems completely the way I'm talking now, although I'm certain that a great deal of my natural voice rhythm dominates the line. For instance, my breathing—when I have to stop to inhale or exhale—dictates where I have to break the line in most cases. Sometimes I can bring the line out longer to effect—you learn certain tricks, departures from a set method. But mostly it's the rhythms of speech that I utilize, trying to get closer to the way I sound peculiarly, as opposed to somebody else.
Does your being a Negro influence the speech patterns—or anything else, for that matter, in your writing?
It could hardly help it. There are certain influences on me, as a Negro person, that certainly wouldn't apply to a poet like Allen Ginsberg. I couldn't have written that poem "Kaddish," for instance. And I'm sure he couldn't write certain things that have to deal with, say, Southern Baptist church rhythms. Everything applies—everything in your life. Sociologically, there are different influences, different things that I've seen, that I know, that Allen or no one knows.
I asked that because I don't find in your work the sense of "being a Negro" that occurs, say, in the poetry of Langston Hughes …
That may be part of, like they say, his "stance." You have to set up a certain area in which you're going to stand and write your poems, whether you do it consciously or not. There has to be that stance. He is a Negro. It doesn't lessen my feeling of being a Negro—it's just that that's not the way I write poetry. I'm fully conscious all the time that I am an American Negro, because it's part of my life. But I know also that if I want to say, "I see a bus full of people," I don't have to say, "I am a Negro seeing a bus full of people." I would deal with it when it has to do directly with the poem, and not as a kind of broad generalization that doesn't have much to do with a lot of young writers today who are Negroes. (Although I don't know that many.) It's always been a separate section of writing that wasn't quite up to the level of the other writing. There were certain definite sociological reasons for it before the Civil War or in the early part of the 20th century, or even in the 30's, but it's a new generation now, and people are beset by other kinds of ideas that don't have much to do with sociology, per se.
I'm always aware, in anything I say, of the "sociological configuration"—what it means sociologically. But it doesn't have anything to do with what I'm writing at the time.
This section contains 1,679 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)