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Interview by Amiri Baraka with D. H. Melhem
SOURCE: "Amiri Baraka: Revolutionary Traditions," in Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews, University Press of Kentucky, 1990, pp. 215-63.
In the following interview, conducted in 1982 by D. H. Melhem and Michael Bezdek, Baraka discusses a variety of topics including his upbringing, his work, and his views on art and politics.
Since the early 1960s, the figure to be reckoned with in Black political life and art has been Amiri Baraka. Controversial, responsive to changing social ambience, he has articulated the riotous "language of the unheard" (to invoke Martin Luther King's definition once again) within a vernacular and a new idiom of radical solutions. A founder of the Black Arts Movement of the sixties, he propounded a view that was, as the late Larry Neal put it, "radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community … the Black Arts Movement believes that your ethics and your aesthetics are one." Baraka's impact has been such that as early as 1973, Donald B. Gibson placed him among "major influences on black poetry: (1) the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties; (2) the protest writing of the thirties as reflected in the work of Richard Wright; (3) the beat movement of the fifties; (4) the life and work of a single poet, Amiri Baraka."
Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934, to Anna Lois and Coyotte (Coyt) Leroy Jones. His mother, a social worker, had been a student at Fisk University; her father, Tom Russ, had owned businesses, helped found a Baptist church, and endured persecution in Alabama by envious white businessmen who three times burned down his establishments before he moved his family to Newark. Although he died when his grandson was eleven, Russ remained a significant figure for the poet. Baraka's father, a man of independent thought, taught his son the importance of self-defense.
Coyt Jones's grandmother had been noted for her story-telling, especially about the era of slavery, and Baraka—recognized as a prodigy by his parents—was encouraged in his ability to make speeches before he was old enough for school. His dynamic competence as a public speaker and reader began in those early days.
After a year's unhappy encounter with Rutgers, Baraka attended Howard University, where as LeRoi Jones, he studied with Sterling A. Brown and Nathan Scott. Shortly before his twentieth birthday, he left Howard to enter the air force, which he refers to as the "error farce," serving two years, mainly in Puerto Rico and Germany. In 1958 he and Hettie Cohen, a Jewish writer, were married in a Buddhist temple on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Two daughters, Kellie Elisabeth and Lisa Victoria Chapman, were born to the couple. Baraka and his wife collaborated on publishing Yugen, an important literary magazine (later, with Diane di Prima, he edited Floating Bear). Since their divorce, Hettie Jones has remained active on the New York literary scene.
In the sixties Baraka wrote poetry and jazz reviews, and began writing plays with The Eighth Ditch (which is part of his 1965 novel, The System of Dante's Hell) and Dutchman. Turning to Black Nationalism, deeply affected by the murder of Malcolm X in February 1965, he left Greenwich Village for Harlem where, in the previous year, he had already founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S). In 1966 he was united with Amina Baraka (née Sylvia Robinson) in a Yoruba wedding ceremony. Formerly a painter, dancer, and actress, Amina is a strong poet in her own right and coedited with him Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women (1983), in which several of her poems appear (Brooks, Sanchez, and Cortez are also among the forty-nine Black women writers represented). A woman of deep political convictions, Amina shares her husband's world view and directs the New Ark Afrikan Free School, which originated in Spirit House, the community cultural center that he had organized in the 1960s. Her children with Baraka are Obalaji Malik Ali, Ras Jua Al Aziz, Shani Isis Makeda, Amiri Seku Musa, and Ahi Mwenge.
Throughout the sixties Baraka steadily gained respect for his work in jazz history, particularly Blues People; in poetry, with books including Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and Black Magic; in drama, with Dutchman, which won an "Obie" for the best off-Broadway play of 1964, and The Slave, which won the drama prize at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal (1966); and in fiction with The System of Dante's Hell and Tales. Recognized as a political and cultural leader, he was welcomed tumultuously at the Second Fisk University Writers' Conference in 1967. In the Newark riots later that year, he encountered a different sort of tumult when he was nearly beaten to death by police [an event which is recollected in Baraka's Autobiography.]
Home, a collection of his essays from 1960 through 1965, shows the development of Baraka's early thought. "After 1966," he says, "my work became self-consciously spiritual." In this period, he wrote Spirit Reach (1972). Richly experimental, mimetic of instruments, its "Preachments" contribute to a moving poetic document of spiritual striving.
In 1974, as chairman of the Congress of Afrikan Peoples (CAP), which split off into the Revolutionary Communist League, the poet attended the Sixth Pan-African Congress at Dar es Salaam. The assembly marked a deepening schism among Black intellectuals: some clinging to Nationalism; others, like Baraka, embracing the new wave of socialism. Ten years later, on the occasion of the writer's fiftieth birthday, Woodie King, Jr., asked, "What is it about Baraka that calls us to attention? I believe it is his daring." In his candid Autobiography, Baraka, using a Mao-invoking metaphor, writes of his "long march to better understanding" (p. 325). For him, change is the constant present and presence, the quintessential fact of existence and growth. He dares to grow and chafes at being held back by his own former positions, whether they were error or insight. The anti-Semitism that marred some of his early poetry, for example, plagued him for years after he disavowed the sentiments. Even his "Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite" failed to remove the stigma. It persisted mainly because of his view of Zionism as nationalism and therefore incompatible with his late Marxist/Leninist/Maoist international stance. "People are always catching you where you were," he says. One recalls the hero of Brooks's "Boy Breaking Glass," who cries, "Nobody knew where I was and now I am no longer there." While many have known where Baraka was at a particular moment, they could not seize his protean reality, because he was always both of his time and ahead of it, struggling, in a Hegelian labor, to achieve a further level of synthesis.
As artist, Baraka wants "more than anything, to chart this change within myself. This constant mutability in the face of the changing world." And yet it is the reality of his changeless core that generates his vision. William J. Harris views him as a Manichaean and a vatic poet in the line of Whitman, Pound, Patchen, and Ginsberg. In quest of philosophical truth, Baraka has turned to a variety of religious and political faiths. A serious artist, he has absorbed classical and modern literature and contributes uniquely to art that is experimentally alive to its social and political content. He uses music and multimedia to further the accessibility and impact of his works, in order to convey to the people his messages of strength, resistance, and political instruction. Like a great dancer (or skater), he risks all with bold leaps and turns, as evidenced by his play The Motion of History and Money: A Jazz Opera, neither of whom quite comes off theatrically, and The Sidney Poet Heroical, which does. His work has moved from concern with self and schools of white poetry to replacement of that Black self in a national and world community, at the same time developing an experimental Black art rooted in traditions of language, music, and religious and secular rhetoric.
Harris gives a solid interpretation of Baraka's methodology, which converts white aesthetics to Black aesthetic purposes: "Amiri Baraka's entire career is characterized by transformations of avant-garde poetics into ethnic poetics, of white liberal politics into black nationalist and Marxist politics, of jazz forms into literary forms … I call Baraka's method of transformation the Jazz Aesthetic Process, a procedure that uses jazz variations as paradigms for the conversion of white poetic and social ideas into black ones." Harris gives appropriate credit to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (who, in turn, acknowledges Roger D. Abrahams) in perceiving that the process is one of suggesting structure by dissemblance, a form of "signifying," and that "repeating a form and then inverting it through a process of variation" is the essence of the jazz aesthetic. Baraka's own explanation of how he turned the Black Sambo minstrel image into the fear-inspiring Uncle Sambo revolutionary patches worn by Walker Vessel's Black army, in The Slave, exemplifies the process.
Because over the years Baraka has become a recognizable part of American popular multiculture, familiarity makes him appear less threatening than was once the case. As professor (since (1979) and director (since 1986) of Africana Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and recently as visiting professor at Rutgers University, he may even tempt us to think of him as nearly an "establishment" figure (one can hear him chortle), though of a unique variety, to be sure. But he is ever Baraka: his mind, ranging freely, remains unfettered. His integrity as an artist and his ready polemics are partly witnessed by the history of some of his essays in Daggers and Javelins, pieces commissioned and paid for by such publications as the New York Times, Black Enterprise magazine, the Village Voice, and Playboy (Japan) and then not published—or, in journalistic parlance, "killed." Their survival and subsequent publication recall the mighty words of labor organizer Joe Hill in Alfred Hayes's ballad: "I never died, said he."
Dedicated to promulgating his views, Baraka has let nothing, not even enforced weekends on Rikers Island or teaching commitments, ever prevent him from writing, publishing, and participating in functions and causes he deems worthy. Among other activities, he continues to participate generously in Black writer's conferences. At the Medgar Evers Second National Black Writers' Conference in March 1988 he discussed destructive stereotypes about Black writing (such as maintaining that it doesn't exist, that American writing is white, and that Blacks fixate on the subject of slavery) and called for the mass infusion of Black literature into school curricula. At the Langston Hughes Festival in New York the following November he presented a paper titled "Langston, McKay, and Du Bois: The Contradictions of Art and Politics During the Harlem Renaissance."
Baraka's stature in American letters was further evident on two occasions honoring Black writers. At James Baldwin's funeral "celebration" on December 8, 1987, at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York, where tributes were given by Baldwin's friends Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison and by the ambassador of France, Baraka—also a close friend—served as honorary pallbearer and delivered a memorable eulogy: "Jimmy was God's black Revolutionary mouth," he said, "if there is a God, and revolution his righteous natural expression and elegant song the deepest and most fundamental commonplace of being alive." The eulogy was printed by Baldwin's family as part of the memorial program.
On February 11, 1988, Baraka participated in the public television literary series Voices and Visions, in its tribute to Langston Hughes. Baraka regards Richard Wright, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Hughes as the three most eminent authors of the Harlem Renaissance. His appreciation of both Hughes and Baldwin has as much to do with music as with message. His kinship with their knowledge, esteem, and application of Black music has been demonstrated by his own major writings on blues and jazz; he is vitally concerned with the relation of music to Black culture as a whole, the revolutionary impulse it expresses and the cultural tradition it embodies. Currently, his weekly music and poetry series, "Kimako's Blues People," named after his late sister and codirected with his wife Amina, continues to project his vision of art merged with politics and to support the creative struggle of Black artists.
Baraka's deep concern with tradition is part of a pervasive concern among Black intellectuals with identifying and codifying an existing tradition. In addition to Black music, literature, and religious and secular oratory, slave narratives are also being perceived as "central to American culture." The development of literary theory and the establishment of canons—begun with the prodigious work of W. E. B. Du Bois and the Harlem renaissance writers; carried forward by Baraka, the late Larry Neal, and the legacies of Hoyt W. Fuller and George E. Kent—continue apace, along with emphases that range from poststructuralism to feminism.
Underlying or overt, the concern with tradition and traditions (also evident in the other poets discussed here) counterpoints both political and aesthetic radicalism, and it locates unequivocally in Baraka's major poem In the Tradition (1982), which he has both published and recorded (with music). Dedicating it to "Black Arthur Blythe," the alto saxophonist (whose 1979 record album lent the poem its title), Baraka calls it "a poem about African American history … a cultural history and political history." If a single work could sum him up "at a certain point," he says, it would probably be that poem. It incorporates his spirit, his energy, his musicality, all that he ever learned about and contributed to the visual and aural elements of modern poetry. As Joe Weislmann points out (like Darwin Turner speaking of Madhubuti; see Chapter 3 above), "Baraka's recent work lives fully only in performance, yet rarely do Baraka's critics take that into account." A stirring reader, he frequently shares the stage with Amina, herself a dynamic performer.
The recent poetry seems to be gaining power through its depth and expansion. While it supports the range of his concerns—"Soundings," a passionate outcry against war; "Waiters," a poem for Larry Neal and Bob Marley that is essentially a tribute to Black music (it has been reprinted in "The Music"); and "Why's/Wise," which, Baraka notes in introducing a published fragment, is a long poem about "African American (American) History," recalling his earlier description of "In the Tradition"—two new aspects bear mention. First, the poet seems to be adapting his earlier connection to Olson and the Projectivists within the framework of Black culture. In his preface to "Why's/Wise," the poet mentions "the tradition of the Griots," but also includes Melvin B. Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, William Carlos Williams's Paterson, Charles Olson's Maximus Poems (one could also cite Ezra Pound's Cantos here) as antecedents, "in that it tries to tell the history/life like an ongoing-offcoming Tale" (Southern Review, 801). In the poem, which is still in progress, Baraka celebrates heroes (and excoriates real and putative villains) from all aspects of Black life. Utilizing the full vocabulary of his artistic development, he is seen by one critic as "moving forward in the world armed with both curiosity and wisdom.
Baraka's new book, The Music, clearly locates in its very title his focus for present and future. It is Black music that has provided the lens, the cohesion, and the communication he has been pursuing as he "investigates the sun." This anthology of recent work, of Amina's poetry and his own poetry, essays, and "anti-nuclear jazz musical," reveals a second and relatively new emphasis: Baraka as a poet/musician of praise—a lover of "The Music" (by which Black music is understood) and the family of Black musicians who create and interpret it, and a lover of his own family, itself consanguine within it. Witness his poet and prose tributes to great artists of jazz and blues, his instrumental articulations (he defines poetry as "speech musicked"), his remark that "Amina's poetry is itself child of the music, as Jazz is Blues'," and the poem to his sons, "Obalaji as drummer, Ras as Poet," in which he affirms: "and when the music goes through me I swear I imagine all kinds / of things. A world without pain, a world of beauty, for / instance." A Black Family man who remains lyrical with hope, he is a formidable champion of the cultural contribution of African American music and fierce defender against "The Great Music Robbery," the plundering of its resources by whites (328-32; cf. Gwendolyn Brooks, "Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle," Interview, Chapter 1).
Baraka's appraisal of Malcolm X may well serve as his own epitome: "A whole swirl of turnarounds hurricaned from him. The world was going through changes, and that world was in us too. We had to reevaluate all we knew. There were lives in us anyway filled with dynamite. We had a blackness to us, to be sure. It was always in us, we had but to claim it. And it claimed us."
To travel through the sprawling Black area of Newark is to be drawn into the nexus of Baraka's urgent rage: acres of slums, sullen in July—one imagines their bleakness in December. It is the Tuesday morning of our interview [conducted on July 21, 1981; the last question was posed to Baraka on November 24, 1988 at the Langston Hughes Festival at the City College of New York and is included in the text as an appropriate conclusion to the interview]. My cab drives on and on, through a city still partly burned out since the 1967 riots, until we come to a section of attractive private houses. And then: the red, rambling, Victorian-style brick house of Amiri Baraka. A tree, its trunk curving like a snarl, explodes into an umbrella of green to the left of the entrance walk.
Inside: Baraka, wearing a red T-shirt imprinted in black with a picture of the late Bob Marley. Inside: clean lines, beige walls; a fireplace with African art objects; an ample, beige sectional sofa. On the coffee table: Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folks. Baraka speaks briefly with a telephone repairman after showing me to the living room.
Mike Bezdek, a pleasant southerner on assignment from the Associated Press to report on illustrious Newark citizens, is seated on the sofa when I enter. I had not expected a second interviewer. Baraka joins us. He is budgeting his time, trying to do two things in the space of one, aware of the days slipping past until October 16 when he will be sentenced, wondering aloud whether he might be "taken off" in prison. He explains that he has been speaking to the telephone repairman, who has just left. "Every time I have to go to court, the phone is fouling up. You get a recording saying the phone is disconnected." He sits before us, flecks of gray in his hair and beard, poised yet intense as he mentions a "hit list" he will discuss in the interview, a list on which his name appears.
How does one live with fear and maintain sanity? Baraka's secret may be his productivity. During the interview he refers to a play, a jazz opera, a book of essays, a book of autobiographical essays, and an anthology to be co-edited with his wife—all works at various stages of completion and all subsequently produced or published.
The interview lasts approximately two hours. The poet speaks rapidly, but without haste, with seriousness and occasional humor, his manner forthright. The house is filled at times with sounds of activity from invisible children; no one invades the scene or interrupts the conversation. Baraka is to travel in the afternoon. Even though we are only one in a continuous series of commitments, he is relaxed. I am reminded of him at the New School, where I was first struck by his patience and quick intelligence as a teacher, his use of a socratic method, his description of "art for art's sake" as art created for the bourgeoisie. Once again I have the sense of constant reassessment or revaluation, of the very process of thought to which we are being admitted.
Interview with Amiri Baraka
[D. H. Melhem:] As a child, it seems you were regarded by your family as a prodigy. Did anyone at home or at school directly encourage you to write?
[Baraka:] In school I took a writing course as a senior in high school, before that in grammar school. When I was in elementary school I did a comic strip in seventh grade for a little seventh grade newspaper that we had, and I contributed cartoons for that. I didn't start really to get a sense of writing until high school.
[Melhem:] That comic strip you did, would you say that showed the influence of the radio and so forth—the comedians, mysteries, and dramas that dominated radio at the time? Would you say that the radio influenced your turn to drama?
Well, I think the radio was probably the biggest influence on me—radio and movies. I was always really an avid radio listener. Every day, after the playground, I'd listen to all the adventure stories. I think they'd start coming on about five-fifteen, Hop Harrigan and Captain Midnight—
[Mike Bezdek:] The Shadow.
Yes, that was on Sundays.
[Bezdek:] That was one of your most widely publicized early poems—
[Bezdek:] —about the Shadow.
Yes. All of those were. I guess what television is probably to little kids now, radio was to us then.
[Melhem:] Is the Green Lantern the Green Hornet?
No. The Green Lantern was actually a comic strip character, and he had a ring, and he used to take this ring and he'd sort of, I guess, recharge it at the end of each one of his bouts with crime. Then he had this little poem that he would recite, "In darkest day, in darkest night / No evil shall escape my sight." [Laughter] Something like that. And I always identified with that.
[Melhem:] Your paternal great-grandmother was an accomplished storyteller. You have an exuberant relationship with words per se, as well as a remarkably fertile imagination. Would you say that your great-grandmother's talent influenced you in both respects, the lexical and the imaginative?
I can't really be sure. I know that those stories were always fascinating. She would tell those stories out of the Arabian Nights—they were stories that I came to know later as the stories from the Arabian Nights—only in her own, unique, kind of way. But I think the whole language thing is the thing from the streets, really, from the playground, finding out that using words was as useful as being able to use your hands in some situations.
[Bezdek:] Was this in Newark?
[Melhem:] Would you say that joy in words is part of a Black cultural—
Yes, certainly the whole oral aspect of the culture, the fact of being kept out of formal replication just reinforces the oral quality. The fact that you couldn't just come off the farm and be a writer, you know, on the plantation and have access to the formal arts. It reinforces the kind of normally oral tradition of most people in the world. I think in saying that the African American people, because of being blocked in one area—it just reinforces that oral kind of tradition.
[Melhem:] Your identification with leadership seems to have begun early, with the independence and ego strength shown by both your parents, and your admiration for and closeness to your heroic maternal grandfather, Tom Russ, whom you refer to as "an American pioneer" in your dedication to Dutchman and The Slave. Would you couple his loss, when you were eleven, with the death of Malcolm X in 1965, as deeply significant events for you, influencing and even changing your life?
Well, I don't know. See, the Malcolm thing was much more conscious, much more of a conscious commitment and seeing somebody you consciously had seen as important, killed. My grandfather was such a personal loss. I think the loss begins early when he got hurt. He got hit in the head with a street light they said fell off the pole and crippled him, which is still a wild kind of coincidence. But I think the loss begins there, because the kind of prestige he had in the community and the awe that I hold him in was at that point, you know, sharply kind of—just weakened, because he then became a paralyzed person who couldn't move, who had to sit in a wheelchair. That sort of eliminated a lot of the kind of heroic projection that I had around him. And then his death was kind of—anticlimax.
[Melhem:] Was he in a wheelchair long?
Well, I guess the last few years of his life, about three years he lived after that, three or four years.
[Bezdek:] What did he do?
He was a storekeeper; he was a politician; he was in Black Republican politics. He lost his store in the Depression, and they gave him a political patronage job, which is very ironic. He was the night watchman I the election machine factory [chuckling], in the election machine warehouse where they kept the election machines. He was the night watchman in there, so we used to go over there in the evenings and sit around the election machines, protecting democracy, or something. [Laughter]
[Melhem:] More recently, do you consider Lu Hsun an important example for you of the writer as revolutionary?
Oh, yes. Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. I think that it's a pity that his works are not known more widely in this country. But he's a very, very skilled short story writer and an acid essayist—
[Melhem:] Like "A Madman's Diary"—
[Melhem:] —a great story.
Yes. I have a book coming out in the fall, a book of essays, and I took the title from him. The title is Daggers and Javelins, and that's what he used to call his essays. He had some "dagger" essays, which were short and swift, and then he had some javelin essays, for long-distance [laughs] elimination.
[Melhem:] Who's publishing that?
Greenwood. Academic Press. Essays, 1975–1979. [Later published by Morrow.]
[Bezdek:] Speaking of academic life, you were well-known way back in the fifties. Do you have some trouble getting university positions? I seem to remember hearing that. Did that not further your anger, especially your home state where, for God knows what reason—
Yes, yes. Well, in New Jersey, I applied to Rutgers, Newark, about three or four years in a row. Then I applied to Rutgers, New Brunswick; Rutgers in Livingston, a couple of times; then Princeton; Essex county College—I've applied to all of these schools around here with the exception, I guess, of Seton Hall Upsala. But all the rest of the major schools I applied to. I know people inside these schools, and they tell me what's going on. They tell me, you know, in Newark Rutgers the English department says they will not have you. The head of the English department, a guy named Henry Christian, maintains that he will die first—
[Bezdek:] Where is that?
[Bezdek:] And why?
I think it's basically because my work in New Jersey has been—most people know it principally as political. And so it's different if you have a political professor who is essentially a professor and is political in that sense. But when you have somebody who people identify primarily as a political activist and only secondarily as a writer—a lot of these people around New Jersey and especially in Newark, they think of me primarily as a political activist. In terms of writing and stuff like that, they don't know a thing about that. [Laughs]
So it's like you want to hire a militant to be on the faculty. They don't want to do that. The fact that I can get jobs and go teach at Yale and George Washington, Columbia, you know, is lost on them. So that's essentially where it still is.
[Bezdek:] Has that ever entered your writing? Have you ever written about that?
What—the Rutgers thing?
[Bezdek:] About New Jersey, specifically?
I mentioned that I a couple of essays that I've done recently, in the last three years. I've mentioned that specifically in about three essays. One that Rutgers is supposed to be publishing in a collection called—you remember they had a conference on urban literature, something like that, a couple of years ago? They have a collection of those essays coming out in the fall, and one of those essays talks about Rutgers being a racist institution, and so forth and so on. And then I wrote about it in a couple of other essays, specifically about having applied and being turned down; having been sent a ditto sheet back, not even an answer—one of those purple ditto sheets from Rutgers. [Laughs] And all kinds of stuff like that. But I think it's par for the course. I don't see it as being weird, given the situation in New Jersey, specifically in Newark, the kind of intense political confrontation we went through, that I was involved with and identified with.
You can see what their point is. I mean, it's so backward. Obviously, most people in the country look at it as extremely backward, you know, what goes on. I have yet to get even a grant from the State Council on the Arts in New Jersey, you understand? That kind of—refusal to identify me as anything but a political figure, a political militant that they don't want to deal with. Which is very interesting.
[Bezdek:] Do we have any native sons who are more well known than you? I don't—
I don't know—not in that particular field, I would think.
[Bezdek:] I read about you for the first time in Alabama [Laughs] and if they know about your poetry down there, my God—
I don't think so. There are a great many well-known writers from New Jersey. Strangely enough, some of the best-known American poets are from New Jersey. Walt Whitman—
Yes, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg—
[Bezdek:] He's from New Jersey?
Yes. They're all from New Jersey. New Jersey has a particular, weird soil that turns out poets. Yes. But Ginsberg was born in Newark. He was raised, of course, in Paterson. William Carlos Williams lived most of his life in Paterson. Walt Whitman lived most of his life in Camden. So there's something in New Jersey that promotes poetry.
[Melhem:] I just want to go back to the childhood for a moment.
[Melhem:] There's a great deal of pain—inflicted and endured—in your work. As an adult, you observed discrimination in the army and suffered beatings by police during the Newark riots of 1967. Did you experience any comparable cruelty or discrimination from whites, Blacks, or anyone else when you were a child or an adolescent?
Well, see, interestingly enough, I'm writing this book now for Wyndham Press, which is a spinoff of Simon & Schuster, and it's memoirs. That's what they wanted, I don't know why. I'm writing all about the youth part now, and I will put there one of the first incidences that I recognized—God knows what happened that I don't recognize—was when we went to the Bronx Zoo. Students—they took us to the Bronx Zoo, and I was sort of lagging along at the end, the group had sort of passed through and I was still in the elephant house. There was this white guy clearing the place up, so I go over to him; I said, "Gee, mister, how can you stand it?—you know, the elephant house stinks!" and he says, "Well, I don't worry about that. I live in Harlem," he says. And you know I was about nine, and I knew what he meant. I couldn't really get down and argue with him or anything like that, but it went right through me, and I knew what he meant. And I began then to be much more aware of—you know. And I think we lived close to the Italian community when I was in my middle—what is it, nine, ten, eleven, twelve?—and, you know, there were always incidents.
[Melhem:] Well, The System of Dante's Hell and Tales are poeticized autobiographical—
[Melhem:] —works. Would you say that they're complementary? Would you consider Tales as, perhaps, an epilogue to System?
I'd say that there are certainly parallels, things focusing on the same things in a slightly different way. The things that I try to do in the Dante book I really wasn't even aware of, in a sense. I was just trying to stop writing like other people. And it's interesting that years later I read where Aime Cesaire did the same thing to get away from French Symbolist poetry. He says, "I'm going to stop writing poetry. I'm just going to write prose." And so then he turns up Return to my Native Land. But that's what I did when I started—I was tired of writing poetry like Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, you know, in principle. And so I said, "I'm going to do something that's going to very consciously break away." And so I just tried to just write spontaneously and without any kind of literary usage. Some critics say that's pretty obvious. [Laughs]
[Melhem:] They are unique. It really was a break.
Yes. But I tried to get away from just literary—from "literature." Then I think what happened was that I was permitted to find my own voice, and once I thought I had it near the end of that book; then I sort of calmed down and began to write more recognizable narrative.
[Melhem:] In "Heroes Arc Gang Leaders," the protagonist, sitting in a hospital bed, notes that "the concerns are still heroism." Does that show early interest in that whole theme?
Yes. Oh, yes. You see, what has always intrigued me, and I've talked to my wife a lot about this, that they taught us to love heroes, and specifically in my youth, when the United States was not quite as bloody as it is now, I mean, in its pursuits all over the world, they were able to project the straight-ahead type heroes. Our heroes were people like Robin Hood, Errol Flynn as Robin Hood—you know, "take from the rich and give to the poor"—that was a clear, you know—[Laughs]
[Melhem:] [Laughing] That was a good idea.
And so you really begin to be animated by those ideas in a real way; then later on you find out that it's all a lie. They don't really mean for you to believe that. But I internalized, certainly, a lot of—
[Melhem:] Is that ["Heroes"] an autobiographical story?
That story? Generally so. I think writers always lie about something—
[Melhem:] That took place in a hospital.
Yes—I think in taking autobiographical cores, writers always see parallel things that they blow up and other things that they leave out. [Chuckles] You know, it's never exactly, but it's generally so.
[Bezdek:] Do you have friends still around Newark from when you were a child?
Oh yes, yes. That's really the best part of being in this town. That's one of the reasons that I remain here. I do have friends that go all the way back to childhood, early childhood.
[Bezdek:] Do you have certain difficulties sometimes with your prominence with some of them? Do they have a hard time with that?
No. I think most of the people I know take it for what it is—you know, "It's a friend of mine." We get on pretty well. There's always some weird people. I know for instance I've gone to school with most people, probably with more people than [laughing] most people—then you find they went to school with you. You got a graduating class of three thousand! [Chuckling sound] But aside from that, most people. I think, a lot of people feel good by what you do, because they know that it's part of them, that it's actually been made public, you know. They feel, "Hey, I know him, and how he says some things that other people are interested in, and part of me is in that."
[Bezdek:] It's important for your work, I would imagine, to keep in touch with people in the city, all kinds of people. I know Baldwin had some trouble—he's sometimes considered by certain Blacks to be a little bit of an elitist. Some say he's lost a little bit of touch.
Well, I guess maybe what they mean is he doesn't—you know, Jimmy goes back and forth to Europe; he stays in Europe a lot of the time. But interestingly enough, when we had that conference on urban literature, they were doing a movie, some English filmmakers were doing a movie on him, and because we were together, they asked me to show him around to see Newark, since I lived here. I took him to the Scudder Homes, which is about the worst project in Newark, and I think what most impressed Jimmy—first of all, when we came here, there was almost nobody on the street. Inside of five minutes there must have been three hundred people on the street, because they had camera equipment, and stuff like that. And I think what impressed him most was some of the young people, teenage types and young adults, saying, "How you doing, Mr. Baldwin? I read your last book." And so on and so on and so on and so on, showing how people never really, once they know you and identify you—that they do try to keep track of you, you see, and you might not think so. You might think that you disappeared from sight. But I think that's important to remember, that you never do disappear from sight. There are some people who always measure certain things in the world by what you're doing. I think it's a very important idea.
[Bezdek:] Who is your preferred audience? Who would you like to meet on the street and have him say, "Hey I just read your latest essay"?
Well, I'd say the great majority of working people in this country. Certainly I'm closer to Black people, for the obvious reason of American segregation, you know, we've grown up in our own communities. And it's very very gratifying for some working person, some black working—some person that you know goes to work every day, you know what I mean, in some factory or on some assembly line, but any kind of working person, let's say, whatever their nationality, that's the most gratifying to me. When somebody you know who's a real person, who's in the real world, dealing with the real world, has taken some time, has put some space in their life for what you're saying, that's really gratifying—much more than college professors or students, or people you know whose job it is, in the intellectual world. I mean, some guy who makes cars all his life, and says, "Hey, I read that book you wrote and I really liked it."
[Melhem:] Now this is your current target audience, but would you say that in the past you had a different audience you were writing for?
Well, I'd say this: I think that my early days of writing—I think I wanted to reach everybody, but obviously, my concerns were not broad enough. I think when I was a Nationalist, obviously, I then wanted to focus strictly on Black people. But I think now, the difference between, say, myself as a young writer, when I really was just talking to anybody who would listen but my concerns were narrow—now I try to broaden my concerns to make that voice broad enough to touch different people's lives. Now obviously I'm speaking as a Black person, and any person has got to speak from their own experience and where they are, but I think it's a—you desire communication with most people at a level that they can deal with it, use it.
[Melhem:] Did you start writing poetry when you were in the army?
I started writing poetry I guess in college. I started writing Elizabethan poetry, like [laughs] Sir John Suckling, Philip Sidney, people like that.
[Bezdek:] Which college was that?
[Bezdek:] Did you go there first?
No. I went to Newark Rutgers, when it was an all-white school. [Laughs]
[Bezdek:] What about Columbia?
That was later. That was much later. No, when I first came out of high school, I went to Newark Rutgers. I had scholarships to a lot of places, strangely enough. But I chose Newark Rutgers for some reason, I guess because it was in Newark, it was close, but I hated it once I got there. So I got out of there.
[Melhem:] Do you still consider yourself basically a poet?
Yes. Sure. Fundamentally a poet and, you know, a political activist. But you see, I've always liked to write other things. I mean, I think—well, I always wrote essays, even when I first started writing poetry; a little while after that I started writing essay reviews, jazz reviews, first. I started writing plays about '63 and, you know, my work had gotten more and more dramatic. In the poetry there were people always talking. [Laughs] Suddenly in the poem I would have a conversation between two people, and it gradually worked itself into—The System of Dante's Hell had plays in it.
[Melhem:] "The Eighth Ditch"—
Yes. I think that I developed the dramatic thing, and I liked that, because I think it's a much more ambitious thing to try and put people on the stage and make believe it's the real world or some real world, anyway.
[Melhem:] Your writing seems as visual as it is aural. How early were you interested in painting? And do you still paint?
Well, I took drawing lessons when I was a kid. I guess my mother was one of those middle-class women who was trying to put you in these different places. But I think it helps, because it gives you some kind of attention to things as other than just random, boring kind of life. You then see, oh, there's such a thing as music. I took trumpet lessons. I took drum lessons. I took art lessons. She used to have me singing and dancing with my sister on the stage. And then when I got into the service, I painted, because I met a friend of mine down there, William White, who became a painter, who was a painter, a very good painter. He died of drugs, unfortunately. But then that stimulated me to want to paint. And then I got back to New York. I made a decision as to whether I want to paint or do I want to write. I decided it was easier to write. In painting you had to go through too many changes.
[Bezdek:] How many brothers and sisters do you have?
[Bezdek:] One sister?
[Bezdek:] Does she live around here?
She lives in New York, New York City.
[Bezdek:] And then, your folks—are they still living?
Yes. My mother and father. They're still living in Newark. They're both retired now.
[Melhem:] There is often a fluid sense for me of exchange between your plays and your poetry and prose. Do you see them as distinct genres, or would you say your poetry is now being absorbed into your drama and prose?
Oh, I see them as distinct in terms of certain formal considerations, but I think my view has always been that poetry is the fundamental concern. If you're interested in words, then fundamentally you have to be a poet. I think that might be some poet chauvinism, but I think that fundamentally if you're really interested in words, then you will be a poet, because it seems to me that's the concern with words even before they become words, you know, sounds. And then I think that you have to utilize the poetic as much as you can in all the forms, because the poetic to me is just an intense sense of language, an intense concern with language; you know, rhythm, sound connote like "high speech," I call it. I think that you have to be concerned with that, whether you write a novel or a play or an essay. Lu Hsum said that he liked essays because in essays he could do anything. He could have a little poem; he could have a little novelistic bit of fiction, you know, but within the essay form. And so he could make that essay anything he wanted, but at the same time be talking in an expository kind of form about clearly identifiable reality.
[Bezdek:] If you had—it's impossible to do, but what would be a typical poem? What would be a poem that you would say, "That's what I'm all about"? More than some of the others mean? I know all—
I guess you always tend to want to uphold [laughs] your most recent works. I guess a poem I wrote recently called "In the Tradition," which is a long poem, a poem about African American history. It's a cultural history and political history. I think that would be, if I could say it was something that sums you up at a certain point, I would say probably that poem.
[Melhem:] Where does that appear?
It was published in the Greenfield Review, and then it was—I read it with music last year at Soundscape. It's coming out on a record called New Music, New Poetry, with David Murray and Stephen McCall. In fact, I got the test pressing today, so it should be out momentarily.
[Melhem:] Is your departure from lyricism, basically—although you still are writing poems, but you seem to be turning towards satire and the historical pageant—would you say that it is simply a function of the genre? It's not that you're consciously rejecting lyricism as a mode?
No. I've always had that, the lyrical thing, if you mean—to me, the highly personal song, which is what I've given up on, the lyric poems. On the one hand, I've always told my students you can't write lyric poems too long, only when you're a kid, because in those [laughs] you know, "I hurt, I feel, I love, I want"—after a while it gets to be—[laughter] kind of old, you know what I mean. [Laughs] So I try to—I think I do—maintain a connection with the lyrical urge, a sense of the self in the world, sensitive to it. But at the same time, that satirical thing that you perceive has always been present in my work, even from the first book that I put out, the poetry. There's edged in there, you know, the kind of satire and irony. And I think that's been a kind of characteristic of my view of things, even as a little boy, hearing these various dudes I know in this town talk about how I used to be when I was a kid. It was really the same thing. They were just subjected to the same kind of satire and irony, though, in speech, back and forth, back and forth, and that's why I always had to learn to run fast, because [laughing] you'd say certain things to people you didn't know would provoke them to such an extent. You had to get in the wind. But that has always been there, a kind of seeing, for instance, negative things in a very ironical and satirical way and really making them funny, with a bitter kind of humor. I think that's always been my way to a certain extent, and I mean I've suffered for that, God knows, in school and college, the service. If you make some comment to a sergeant or a lieutenant [chuckles], they wouldn't particularly like it. But I think that's always been there.
[Bezdek:] Do you think you're mellowing now? I don't mean—
No, I understand what you mean. I think in some ways, probably. But I don't think so. People still seem to think not. I mean in terms of reactions to various things that people—you know, they don't want to publish this, they don't want to publish that, so it seems like mellowing but it's still objectionable in a lot of quarters.
[Bezdek:] I mean do you think you 're still perceived as a militant, angry, or—
I think in some quarters, obviously, because those people will not give you an inch. Obviously, a writer who's been around as long as I have is supposed to be able to make a living from magazine articles, those kinds of things, you know what I mean. A regularly published book a year—you're supposed to be able to make it. But I can't. And the only explanation of that is that the content still disturbs people. They still want to wrestle with you about your conception of reality. So it makes it difficult. I think the mellowing, if anything, has been, perhaps, a greater kind of understanding of certain things. For instance, I thought that revolution would be immediate, at one point. And I don't think that's so much mellowing but deepening your understanding to find that that's not reality, that it's not an event, that it's a process, and you have to be aware of that process, help speed that process up, but not get so frustrated that it doesn't come about, that you actually drive yourself crazy.
[Melhem:] Do you think that any degree of revolutionary change can come through the polls or legislation?
Well, let's say this. To me, the use of electoral politics is only a tactic. I mean I think it does have to be utilized, because I think if you don't utilize it, you will find yourself in a position where you're backed up against the ovens, you know, and then the only thing you can do is fight for your life, I mean quite literally. Like people are talking about now they want to repeal the Voting rights Act. They came on with an editorial on Channel 11, WPIX, "Repeal the Voting rights Act." Now if you sit still and say, well, we can't fight against that, because finally, voting is not going to change monopoly capitalism—and it's not. I don't think, in the end, anything other than short of armed revolution will change this system of monopoly capitalism and end racism and women's oppression. But for you to sit quietly and let them wipe out the Voting Rights Act is just bizarre. For you not to fight for every kind of democratic right, inch by inch—you know what I mean, like they say, fight for every inch—is mad. It's like, I was very critical of a lot of people on the Left in the recent election, because their line was "Carter and Reagan are exactly the same." Well, look, they represent the same class, but there are different sectors of that class, and they are not identical, you see, as you now found out. Here's a man now talking about getting rid of Social Security—you can't say that's the same as Jimmy Carter. So I think that those kinds of sweeping, Leftist, ultrarevolutionary statements serve to do nothing but fog up the reality that you have to tight for every inch. Yes, you have to utilize voting. Absolutely you have to utilize it. People died in the South to get the right to vote, and then you're going to tell people, "Don't vote. It doesn't mean anything." That's bizarre. The question is, what does it mean? It has a limited and specific meaning, but it has to be utilized.
[Melhem:] Do you see any progress at all, in Newark or elsewhere, since the sixties?
Well, yes, sure. There's been general progress. I think we're in a period now when they're trying to eliminate that, and you'll find that in this particular kind of society, that's what happens all the time. For instance, in the 1860s, a period of revolution, the Civil War—the Civil War was a democratic revolution: It eliminated slavery; it changed the Constitution to guarantee democratic rights, equality, you know, not only for black people but poor whites, which is always a well-kept secret. But by the 1870s, 1880s, that had been almost eliminated. By that time, you had laws on the books now ensuring the inequality that had been fought in the 1860s. The same thing now: 1960s people struggled for affirmative action. Man comes along in the seventies and tch-tch—one signature, the Bakke decision [whistles]. Get rid of it. And the stuff that Reagan is doing now, to me, is the same that happened in the 1870s and 1880s, now in the 1970s, the 1980s, the same kind of attempt to eliminate what gain, what inch of gain was made.
[Bezdek:] Now there's talk—I don't know if it's some sociologist at Harvard or some place like that recently, in one of these vague generalizations about America, but he said that we are on the brink in some cities, I think Newark was one of them, with a permanent underclass of people, you know, who forever will be shackled to the situation. Do you think that that's—
Well, I think that as far as the present economy, that would have to be true, but since, if we understand reality, we know nothing stays the same. Things are not static. There is going to be motion; it's either going to be upward or downward. Then you know that those people are not going to stand for that, and the only thing you're doing then is preparing for some kind of broad, urban unrest. I mean, this Heritage Foundation has already advised Reagan to abandon the cities—don't give any aid to the cities, talking about the Northeast, in particular—abandon those cities, leave them, and the Midwest, the New Yorks, and the Detroits, and the Chicagos, and the Clevelands, and the Phillies, and Pittsburgh, abandon those cities, head for the Sun Belt. And then now, you see, even in this pseudopopular culture that they manufacture—there's a movie called Escape from New York, which actually now would turn New York into Alcatraz—
[Melhem:] [Laughing] I find that insulting.
Well, if you see who's in there, locked up in there, you would really find that insulting: Blacks, Latinos, Asians, homosexuals, aggressive women, punk rockers. [Laughs] They're the ones who are locked up.
[Melhem:] I wanted to ask you something about that. In terms of your current position, your article in the Village Voice, "Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite"—
—which is not my title.
[Melhem:] Oh, it wasn't? What was your title?
My title was "A Personal View of Anti-semitism." That's our friend [David] Schneiderman, who was the editor. That's his idea of something that would sell papers. What apparently it did.
[Melhem:] Okay. Well, in that article, you equate Zionism with white racism as "reactionary." Would you now add Black Nationalism to that list?
Well, I say this. To me, all nationalism, finally, taken to any extreme, has got to be oppressive to the people who are not in that nationality. You understand what I mean? If it's taken to the extreme, any nationalism has got to be exclusive and has got to say, "Us, yes; you, no." I mean, that's the nature of nationalism. But you have to make a distinction between, say, people who are oppressed as a nationality, who are fighting national liberation struggles. I think in terms of Zionism, the difference is this: that previous to the Second World War, Jews generally were not interested in Zionism, what Chaim Weizmann and, you know, the other dude put forward. Generally it was like some right-wing intellectuals, some right-wing nationalist intellectuals. Once the British got hold of that, the Balfour Declaration, in which then it's made a part of British foreign policy to settle Jews in a Palestinian homeland, you know, obviously to look over the oil interests—that changes into an instrument of imperialist policy. Now, a certain sector of the Jewish population becomes interested in Zionism as a result of the Holocaust, for obvious reasons, for obvious reasons. Once you knock off seven million people, then, if there's somebody saying, "Look, you got to get out of here, that's the reason, you got to get out of here," then that's going to become attractive.
But I do not believe that Zionism is the general ideology of Jews in the world. I think the great contributions that Jews have made in the world have been much more advanced than a narrow nationalism, and I think obviously what [Menachim] Begin and Company are doing now, it just isolates the State of Israel from the world. I think more and more people will come to see, and especially Jews, that the state of Israel and Jews are two separate entities. And I think that it's a great cover story for somebody who may jump on Israel, for you to say you're attacking Jews generally, and you have to shut up. But I don't think that's going to work. It's very interesting, for instance, to see a lot of Palestinian Jews, now, organizations. It's an incredible thing, but I think of course in New York, when you've got a stronghold of world Zionist organization, it's very hard for you to say things like that without people beating you to death as being anti-Jewish, which has been my fate. Even that article I wrote, which was an attempt to set the record straight, you know, was hacked up so unmercifully. It made you wonder just what they wanted to present. I mean, at the end it seemed like they wanted to present you as an anti-Semite, even though I volunteered to write the article.
[Melhem:] You're talking about the editing of that article?
Oh, yes, yes, oh yes. You see, what I did—
[Melhem:] The "Confession," with Jewish people I've spoken to, was not received as any kind of apology.
Oh, no. Well, the thing on Zionism, the minute you jump on Zionism, you're going to get it back, no matter what you say. You see, what was removed, to me, was critical, because I did a whole history of anti-Semitism. Essentially, it's an ideological justification for fundamentally economic and political oppression. Anti-Semitism rises, you know, in the struggle between the Greeks and Jews in the Middle East, and the Romans and the Jews, and basically then in the Middle Ages as an attempt to keep economic superiority. Economic attack is what it justifies: "These people are Christ-killers. Let's take their money." You know, it's like the Japanese you've put in a concentration camp: "These people are our enemies; let's get their truck farms. Let's get their truck farms; these people are our enemies." You know what I mean. There's always an ideological justification for some economic and political shenanigans. That's what it essentially is. No matter that you might have some people down the road who really believe it, like you might have some Klansmen walking around who really believe such and such a thing is true, when actually, what's happening is you've got some landowners who are not going to let Black people, for instance, have democracy down there because it means they're not going to control that land. They're not going to control the U.S. Senate or the colonies anymore. You always have people who walk around, who believe stuff on one level: but you also have the people who are putting that out, who are gaining from that. That's the real significance of that.
[Melhem:] I'd like to ask you about your thinking on homosexuality and also on the women's movement. Even as late as The Sidney Poet Heroical, which was published in '79, you refer to gay men as "faggots," referring in a derogatory way. Has your thinking changed with the movement for gay rights? Would you say—
Well, I say this—
[Melhem:] —there's a certain parallel in, you know, the raising of your consciousness in thinking about those things?
Well, in a certain way. You see, first of all, I say this. The use of the term "faggot," although obviously it's derived from homosexuality, from homosexuals, was not meant in the Black community simply as "homosexual." It meant, essentially, a weak person, you know, somebody who could not do what they were supposed to do. That's what it really meant.
[Melhem:] You're saying you absorbed this.
Oh, sure. So that, a lot of times, calling people "faggots" did not mean specifically that it had to do with homosexuality. It had to do with the question of weakness, although obviously it is taken from that, and as such still is a kind of what would you call it—attack.
[Melhem:] Yes, attack.
Yes, attack. I don't think I believe in any gratuitous attacks on homosexuals as such. I've tried to stop saying that, calling people "faggots," even though, still I would say when the majority of Black people say "faggot," they're not talking about homosexuals. You might say, "Reagan is a faggot"; I mean, you're not talking about him being a homosexual [laughs]; you're talking about him being a weak, jive person. But I think it does come from the denigration of homosexuality, and I think that, as I said, gratuitous attacks on homosexuals have to be opposed. We do have to oppose any kind of attempt to limit homosexuals' democratic rights, because when they're doing that, they're coming for us. You know, attack homosexuals' democratic rights—it's really coming for everybody's democratic rights, but at the same time, I believe this: that homosexuality is a minority issue, except in the way that I just mentioned, where it can be connected up to everybody's democratic rights. I think that living in L.A. or New York or San Francisco, one might tend to think that it's much more of a mass issue than it is. But the majority of people are not interested in homosexuality; they don't care anything about it. I think this: if you were to raise up as a mass question. "Do you want this homosexual to teach your children?" I think that, in the main, is going to be negative. I think most people are going to say, like, negative.
[Melhem:] But how do you feel?
Well, I think this. The question is, if a homosexual is teaching my child in a way that I can see is beneficial to the child, it doesn't matter to me. You see what I'm saying? But obviously I don't want the child to be taught homosexuality, and I don't want the child to be a homosexual. I don't want that to be raised up as a positive thing, because I do believe that homosexuality is a social aberration. I do believe it's a social aberration, and I think it's a product of class society, essentially. I do not believe that homosexuality, by and large, is going to help human beings to make progress. But I do not believe that homosexuals need to be attacked.
[Melhem:] So your thinking is some what modified, but not—
Oh, yes. It's modified in the sense that I think that just loose-mouthed calling people "faggots" is out of the question. I mean, even when some of my best friends—that sounds really corny, and it is—but see, even when some of my best friends—that sounds really corny, and it is—but see, even when some of my best friends were homosexuals, I still called people "faggots," and I didn't mean them. [Laughs] It meant something else. But I think that that question of dealing with homosexuals and understanding that you cannot attack these people's democratic rights—they cannot be subjected to any gratuitous attacks—does not, in any way, justify homosexuality, because I don't think I can justify it in that sense.
[Melhem:] What about women's rights? Women don't seem to come off very well in your work, except, at best, in a passive—
[Melhem:] Has your consciousness been raised at all in connection with the Feminist Movement?
Probably, but I don't think the Feminist Movement per se; but I think the whole struggle for women's rights—the Feminist Movement is part of that; it's certainly in there. I would agree with you that until the last four or five years, works on women or about women have either been missing or, as you say, largely passive. In the last four or five years there has been some kind of significant change. I would attribute that to my wife, principally.
[Bezdek:] What is her name?
Amina, A-m-i-n-a. And to the whole question of—you see, when people like, for instance, Michele Wallace come off talking about it in that book that Ms. magazine wants to push to give a kind of a feminist interpretation of Black Liberation—that's completely off the wall, because what it does is it attacks Black women again. Because if you think that because you weren't there, that the Black women in the Movement just went for that, just passively said. "Oh, yes, we must go and deal with these male chauvinists," well, you saddle your thinking, because our whole history of women's participation in the Black Liberation Movement of the sixties, from my own knowledge of it, was constantly marked by women fighting against the male chauvinism of people like myself, you know, and a great many other people. So that for somebody to come and make it seem that "Yes, you know, the problem with the Black Liberation Movement is male chauvinism, and none of these black women knew it" is like the height of an attack, and the only person who could do that is somebody who didn't know, who wasn't there. But talk to the people who were in the Movement, who knew, and who know, and had to go through that, and had to be subjected to that, while people like Michele Wallace were off in some private school in Paris. It's ludicrous, because they actually had to be subjected to that and fight against that and have their lives crippled by that, and then somebody comes along and says, "Well, you know what the problem was."
[Bezdek:] What do you remember about Newark in 1967, the riots—just immediately, what comes to mind?
Well, the fires; seeing U.S. Army military weapons in a city that was supposed to be in America. I mean, you look up and see tanks, and soldiers fully armed: then you want to know where you are—this must not be America, because this is what they did in Vietnam or Korea. But then people, the police checking people's ID…. I was arrested the first night of the thing and I was locked up through the period of the worst kind of burning and fighting. But the police came up into my house, which is the Spirit House on Stirling Street. My wife and child—young child was in there, oldest son—were in there, and they were on the third floor, I think, and then the National Guard and the cops came in on the first floor, destroying stuff, turning stuff over, breaking up things. They never went up to the third floor; they didn't think anybody was there. And, you know, bullets through the windows, and stuff like that.
[Bezdek:] What were the circumstances of your being arrested?
Well, we were driving around looking at it, what was going on. A couple of friends and I were riding around the Central Ward—you know, I lived there at the time—looking at what was happening. Picked up a couple of people, took them to the hospital, things like that, and then we stayed out too late afterward. People had cleared off the streets and we were coming down the street, and we were stopped by about twenty cops, I don't know. They pulled us out of the car and they started beating us. They split my head open, knocked my teeth out, I mean I couldn't see, I mean my face was so covered with blood I thought I was going to die, you know; there just was blood everywhere, I couldn't even see. But the people in the window were screaming, there were black people up there who kept screaming, kept screaming—that's what cooled it out. Otherwise, I was finished. When you feel the blood in your face, you can feel it warm in your face, and you can't even see for the blood; it's in your mouth, your eyes—
[Melhem:] [Softly] And then you could have been killed.
Oh, yes. That was understood. That was understood, you know. Oh, that was it. I mean, that was really where they were going to take us off. But, after that, they charged us with possession of weapons, which was the first trial we lost, and then we got another trial because the judge was obviously out of his mind. He reads a poem and sentences. He reads one of my poems as a reason to sentence me. I knew that was out, even if he wouldn't do anything, I said this guy's a nut. As if the poem was the reason to—it was a poem about rebellion that had been written just before the [Black] rebellion. And so that was—I got a retrial and it was thrown out. It took about two years, three years.
[Bezdek:] Have you ever served time?
No. I've never served any; I've been in jail a lot but I never—except for a couple of days.
[Bezdek:] I mean, you've never been, like, sentenced, like this thing coming up.
Well, even when I was sentenced to three years, no parole, for this gun thing—
[Bezdek:] This thing?
No. The thing in '67. I was sentenced to three years, but I didn't—I served about three or four days and got out on appeal. And I had done a couple of days before that. This time I did about four days and was discharged. But that's about the most time I've ever done.
[Bezdek:] What do you think of this ninety days coming up, if that goes down?
Well, that stuff is so wild that it's very hard to consistently take it seriously, but now we've been at it two and a half years; they've been on us for two and a half years.
[Bezdek:] This case?
Yes. From '79, June of '79.
[Bezdek:] You mean this incident with the argument? Is that it?
Yes. June '79. So, apparently they're serious they're going to lock me up. Why they will get so much satisfaction in locking me up for ninety days is something that needs to be looked into. I mean, they've had two years of court costs, five days of grand jury hearings for a resisting-arrest charge. You're wondering, "Why, why would you spend so much money when you're talking about the need to cut the budget?" Our boy William Butz just got sentenced to thirty days for a $96,000 tax evasion. [Laughs] What is it in this "resisting arrest"? But really, it's a form of intimidation—not only for me, but I think they want to intimidate, generally, people. They want the people to know, "Look. This is what we do." And then there's also the possibility that they're going to do something to you in the prison. You could never be sure of that. Especially with this hit list that's circulating. We just published this hit list of cultural workers and artists. Two people who work for the government leaked this out to a publisher—not a publisher, to a producer, and somebody in his office leaked it to me. And I've been trying to leak it to various people. We published it in our newspaper [Unity]; I've read it on the radio; I've sent it to different newspapers. Interestingly, one of the people who was on the hit list died last week—Harry Chapin, the folksinger.
[Melhem:] He was on that?
Yes, he was on there. Me got this mysterious accident—somebody hit him from behind. That is so spooky that I think that I'm going to reopen that whole thing. I've got a copy of it upstairs; I'll show it to you. But there are about twenty people on it, who they say have to be, you know, done something to—people like Pete Seeger, Bread and Puppet Theatre—
[Bezdek:] Where did the list come from?
[Melhem:] Are you on that list?
It was supposed to be leaked from a government—two people working in a government agency, who were cultural workers working in a government agency, and said these people would have two things going: blacklist, which is to make it difficult for these people to get their works out; and a hit list, that is, certain people within this list need to be done away with. And it talks about arranging accidents for some of them, and a couple of them who have already disappeared, a guy named Dan Silver, a guy who made films in El Salvador. Then there were a lot of people who do political theater, who are cultural activists, things like that. When that Harry Chapin thing happened, really, my eyes shot right open. Jesus Christ!
[Melhem:] Are you on either list?
Yes. Oh, yes.
[Melhem:] You're on both lists?
Yes, I'm on that list. They put them together. The ones that are supposed to be killed have asterisks by them. [Laughs] Chapin was supposed to be—they said they were going to do something to remove him, something like that.
[Bezdek:] Do you know what agency it came from?
No. They didn't say. It was a letter, with a list attached to it. The letter said that "we are two people who work for a government agency, whose business it is to set up a blacklist on the following artists and also remove the ones that are listed on there." So we published it. Like I said, I broadcast it over the radio. I've sent it to a couple of big publications, but they haven't done anything with it. Recently, I just sent it back out, saying, "Well, look, since this Chapin thing, you can at least raise that up; you know, you might be able to sell a few papers." Because I believe that's the only thing that would really cool that out; to a certain extent, it's publicity.
[Bezdek:] Yes, sure.
Even if it turned out to be a hoax. Obviously, generally we know such things exist. I've got two thousand pages from the FBI that I had a lawyer get through the Freedom of Information Act, but now they're getting ready to close that loophole.
[Melhem:] This list was published before Chapin's—
Yes. I'm sure. Published a couple of weeks before Chapin died.
[Melhem:] That's scary.
Oh, yes. It was published in June.
[Melhem:] That should really be investigated.
Yes. So we're going to try to get some more publicity on that.
[Melhem:] In moving from Kawida to Marxist-Leninist-Maoism, did you have any strong influences on your transition before the Sixth Pan-African Congress in 1974?
Influences to change to Marxism?
[Melhem:] Yes. And people, thinkers—
Yes. A lot of changes. First of all, I think my own experience in terms of dealing in this town with electoral politics; seeing a Black middle class benefit from those electoral politics and no changes for the majority. So I began to understand what "classes" and "class struggle" was about, you know, from my own experience. Meeting Black Marxists in different united fronts I belonged to, like the African Liberation Support Committee; beginning to see and talk to people who are on the Left; finding out that a lot of people that I admired who were African revolutionaries were really anti-imperialists and Marxists. They were not talking "hate white," as I was at the time, people like Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau; Nkrumah in Ghana; Samora Machel in Mozambique; the Pan-African Congress in South Africa—people like that. Beginning to see that, hey, there was a whole different view by Black activists around the world. And I think those are the things. I had read Mao, but I would always come to excise the part about communism, where he would talk about he was a communist, and stuff. [Laughs] You know, censor that part and try to read the rest of it, which was, of course, bizarre. And so then I decided that I was fooling myself, and I should go ahead and investigate and find out what was happening, and I did. I mean it was in a lot of ways a painful experience, in a lot of ways. Organization nationally split in half. We had a large organization in some sixteen, seventeen cities, and then split in half.
[Melhem:] Which organization?
That was the Congress of Afrikan Peoples. But I thought that it was necessary, and I still do think it is necessary and important.
[Melhem:] The deep concern of your leadership is with "unity and struggle." Whom are you seeking to unite?
Well, the great majority of people in this country—in fact, the great majority of people in the world—who have the same general enemies. I think the great majority of people in this country are objective allies; they're fighting against the same class of people: I think the six-tenths of one percent of the people that actually own the land, that actually own CBS and NBC and ABC, that actually own Standard Oil and Exxon, I mean those of us who have been taught to think like them, I mean the six-tenths of one percent that actually own that, the rulers. I think a great many other people, let's say, 90 percent of the people—there's another 9 percent that will die with that six-tenths of one percent. But I think 90 percent of the people in this country can unite, and I think eventually they will. Everybody comes to it in different ways. You have some very deep problems in this country with that unity. Obviously, the whole history of slavery and chauvinism in this country makes that very difficult. But I don't think it's impossible.
[Melhem:] In looking toward unity, what about coalition on the Left? I mean the breach between Soviet-oriented communism, scorned as "Red Squad Functionaries" in your play S-1, and Mao-oriented communism, expressed by the "Revolutionary People's Union" in that? Do you see any possibility of a coalition?
Well, you see, no, because I think that if you look at the world with the view that I have, the view I guess best expressed by the "Theory of Three Worlds" of Mao Tse-tung, in my view, the United States and the Soviet Union are two imperialist super-powers, and while obviously a lot of people in the Communist Party U.S.A. are just—don't understand what's happening, are dupes, the people in the leadership there act as a kind of fifth column of the Soviet Union in the United States, and even make it difficult to struggle against U.S. imperialism; they make it more difficult to struggle against U.S. imperialism, even though it seems that they're struggling against it. And I say they make it more difficult because they are always putting out this line that reforms are the answer, that reforms are the end. They're even telling people that no, you can get socialism through the election machines—that's like somebody selling dope, you know. You're not going to get socialism; you're not going to elect the people's control of the wealth anywhere in the world; I mean, Chile should have taught us that for all times. It was a legally elected socialist government in a modern, industrial country. What is it now? A fascist state. So I think the question is, if you've got people representing a superpower, imperialist country, whether it's the U.S. or the Soviet Union, then you can't make a coalition with it.
[Bezdek:] When you were young, did you ever talk politics with your parents? Your father, say, a Republican—you must have had a hard time with that.
No, no. My grandfather was Republican. My father has always been a Democrat. My father says he voted for the man, not the party, whatever that meant. But he tended to be a Democrat. I think he was a Roosevelt man. Now, I don't know where he's at, but I would think that he's generally a Democrat-leaning person. But my grandfather was a Republican, obviously, even up until Wendell Willkie. We used to have Willkie buttons around the house. And, you know, my father was a Democrat, so there would be some tension in that. But I talked politics to them or raised up political issues, and we'd agree and disagree. I think for one thing, though, both my father and mother were radicalized somewhat by the '67 rebellion, and I think when my father, especially when he saw what they had done to me, it snapped him out, because he had been much more conservative before then. But I think that when he saw that they had tried to kill me, he knew that whatever I was doing, it wasn't that bad. I think it really snapped him out. And then he came to the court and saw the kind of obvious racism. It's one thing to see it abstractly, but when you see that it's your child they're doing these things to, that probably would light you up.
[Bezdek:] Were you a fighter as a child, or were you more, as you mentioned earlier, a wordsmith? I mean you would say things—
Really, when I had to fight it was because there was no other way out. [Laughs] But no, words became weapons for me a long time ago, and my physical prowess was in speed. If you couldn't talk your way out of it, then you had to decamp, change landscapes rapidly. But then when I got into the service was when I really started actually having to fight all the time. I'd never wanted to or even found it necessary to get into fisticuffs, but then I got into the air force and I really had to, first because of that kind of overt racism which I could not stand. It's one thing to see the Klan in the newspaper, but to have somebody call you a name, it always just set me on fire, and that's when I came in contact with that. Then I actually started to roll around on the ground with people, and I really had not done much of that before—especially when I didn't feel I could win, anyway. [Laughter] But in the service, though, I found that, always coming up with that.
[Bezdek:] Did you grow up in the Central Ward?
[Bezdek:] You mentioned Italian, so you must have been near the North Ward.
West Ward, near the North Ward, yes, right by Central Avenue. I grew up, my early days, right in the Central Ward, Barclay Street, Boston Street, and then later on, Central Avenue, back over to the Central Ward, Belmont Avenue.
[Bezdek:] What high school did you go to?
Barringer; it's in the North Ward. At the time, there were very few Blacks in it.
[Bezdek:] And how many children do you have?
Five by the present marriage, two by a previous marriage.
[Bezdek:] Five by the present; two by a previous.
[Melhem:] You're including the two children that are in Manhattan, before—
No. She has two by a previous marriage.
[Melhem:] Oh—so there are seven?
In the house?
Well, there are six in the house. One of them is not here; one of them is actually on vacation somewhere, and the other lives elsewhere. There usually are six kids here.
[Melhem:] Three were in a play, weren't they—S-1—I saw three names—
Yes. That's right.
[Melhem:] —"Baraka." Are they interested in the theater?
I think so. Well, let me see, one of them, the oldest boy, plays the drums; he's a very good drummer. The next boy—I don't know if he's interested in drama; I think he wants to be a writer. The little girl is always reading poetry aloud, so I think she wants to be an actress.
She's always proclaiming these poems, so she might want to act.
[Melhem:] Do you act?
No, no [Laughs] My mother was always putting me in different little things, skits, but I never did any serious adult acting.
[Melhem:] I was wondering about the responses of Black writers. Intellectuals, to your views. How receptive have they been to your view on these political aspects?
Well, I think you'll find that there's a kind of class struggle raging among Black intellectuals like everywhere else, and I think that the people are divided around the lines they take. I think there are more and more people who are much less hostile, say, to Marxism than they were in '74, '75. In '74 and '75 people were calling us all kinds of bad words, you know, "traitors," I remember at the Sixth Pan-African Congress this woman actually went to the foreign minister, weeping, saying stuff that I had said and this other guy, Owusu Sadaukai, had said; that we were really betraying Black people. And I mean I thought that was kind of extraordinary. There is still, of course, a lot of sentiment in the Black community, but I think there's much less hostility to Marxist ideas.
[Melhem:] I just want to ask you a couple of more things on [Charles] Olson.
[Melhem:] Olson's theories of Projectivism and "composition by field" still seem alive and well in your work. Apart from your progress toward a Black aesthetic and the Marxist approach of your recent work, would you say that Olson remains your most useful poetic influence?
Well, no. I think my most useful poetic influence is Langston Hughes. Charles Olson was important to me at one time, and I think the most importance that he had was that within the kind of aesthetic that I was actually involved in, he provided a kind of opening for the ideas that I saw, and then I said. Well, wow! A lot of the things that I think and want to do, he's actually expressing these things. You see? Because I was drawn to certain white poets, like Allen Ginsberg, even before Olson. I was drawn to them because they legitimized things that I wanted to do and that I felt. When I came up against the New Yorker magazine poets and the Hudson Review and Partisan Review poets, they made me weep, because I really didn't want to write like that; I really didn't think I could write that; I mean, it was dull, it was dead. The things that I wanted to write, I didn't think could even be called "poetry" by their standards, you know—so that was very depressing and discouraging. But then when I got to New York and discovered, wow! Somebody like Allen, who was talking about, you know, the "nigger streets" and junkies and all kinds of things that I could see and I could identify with, then I said, yeah, that's closer to what I want to do. And then when I saw Olson's statement, he was saying, actually, that this old dead poetry that people have been writing is exactly that, exactly what you thought it was: old, dead poetry. Then it actually just encouraged me, because I had thought these things anyway. It's like somebody saying something that you've got bubbling around in your head, and then they come out with it, and it legitimizes what you're dong; it encourages you.
[Bezdek:] What about [Jack] Kerouac—him, too, as part of—
Well, in a way. But Ginsberg always was more important to me, I guess being a poet. Because Allen is an intellectual; Kerouac was not much of an intellectual; he was more of a—
[Bezdek:] Street wise—
—yes, kind of person. I think you could see that when his later views became so backward, because he was never really rooted in investigation of ideas. It was more like reacting to things, spontaneous, which, because it was so open and free in terms of its form, was positive. Because there was no deep investigation into the history of ideas, then the form could be undermined by the content.
[Melhem:] Ginsberg said, "First thought, best thought." Do you agree with that?
No. [Laughs] Obviously.
[Melhem:] Do you revise it all?
Yes. So does he.
[Melhem:] In all genres—
[Melhem:] —in all genres, poetry and prose?
Yes, sure. So does he—so what? [Laughs]
[Melhem:] I don't know whether he'll admit it, though.
Oh, I don't see why not. I say this: what he means is that you get to a point where at one point in the fifties people were then showing you just—poems—"I worked on this poem twenty years!" Really. There's so much more in people's normal perception that's worth being exposed to. But to tell somebody you're working on something—getting a word changed for twenty years is not really impressive anymore. It becomes like some prescription for—a mummy farm.
[Melhem:] So then you're somewhere in between le mot juste—Flaubert's le mot juste—and "if I write it, it's a poem."
Oh yes, sure. I don't believe in "absolute spontaneity is always the best." No. Absolutely not. That's why you have certain levels of understanding. You know, there is perception where you do perceive a thing, and sometimes that perception can hold. But then you bring your rational mind to bear on it, and sometimes you have to modify that, or sometimes you see a way that you can make a thing stronger, and that helps. And then a lot of times you find out, whoa! You're way off base; you might come back to something a few years later and say, "Oh, Jesus—did I say that? Oh, get that out of there." And that's obvious.
I don't like to … pretend that I never thought those things—somebody says, "Well, look, you had these backward ideas on such and such a date"—and then sneak around and cross them out. No. I think the point is to say, "Yeah. Well, that's true. But, hopefully, the later work has changed and shows some kind of growth and development." But I don't think you can hide your tracks. And that's kind of—
[Bezdek:] When is your birthday?
October 7, 1934.
[Bezdek:] So you're earning up for—
Forty-seven. Forty-eight? [Laughs]
[Melhem:] A young man.
[Bezdek:] Well, you'll be forty-seven—
[Bezdek:] I don't want to say that too loudly in ease your son was around and it was a secret he wasn't supposed to—
Oh, no! [Chuckling] He asked me that the other day.
[Melhem:] There's an abundance of punning in your work, and you'll recall Olson's saying, "Pun is rime" in his "Projective Verse" essay?
[Melhem:] Did he to any extent spark that interest in punning?
No. That's a street thing.
[Melhem:] That's just a street thing.
Oh, yes. The pun—the rhyme and the pun are really part of the Black oral tradition. I think they're part of everybody's oral tradition—the whole first, what you'd call "delicious accident," and then a much more rational juxtaposition of sounds and things. But that always, I think, goes back to the oral tradition, the pun.
[Melhem:] The use of the word Negro, the pun "Knee-grow," and "New Ark"—these are your inventions?
"Knee-grow" is: "New Ark" is the original name of the town. People resist that.
[Bezdek:] That's what it's called in Delaware.
Yes. If you look on the charter, it's two words, "New Ark," and obviously, it's a biblical reference, but when he started to use it, then people resisted it because it was identified with us, I mean, the backward people in this town. But that's the real name. And it's interesting that southern Blacks always say that to this day; you know, they keep saying, "New Ark."
[Bezdek:] The town in Delaware is spelled the same way, and they all call it "New Ark."
Yes, that's interesting. That's obviously the name. And I think the southern Blacks probably say that because they're probably going back to an older English, too, that's "New Ark."
[Bezdek:] Actually Newark lately has become a sort of—when the guy on the train announces it—"Nerk" [laughing], it becomes the one syllable—
It's not even there—
I know. That's another kind of speech.
[Bezdek:] Speaking of speeches, can you—I'm sure your answer to this is "yes"—you can go out there and talk jive, right? You can go down to the corner and—you don't talk—
[Bezdek:] Not only Black English. I mean you just—I don't really mean Black English; I mean, just guys-on-the-corner sort of talk. I don't know what the name is, but—
[Bezdek:] I mean, you don't talk the way you're doing now.
No, not altogether. But I think I've always had a reputation in this town—
[Bezdek:] If I could borrow one of them at—
No, I've always had a reputation in this town for talking "funny." [General laughter] Obviously, I do speak more like these people around here speak. I've always had a reputation of sounding funny and so on. I know people—about the way I used to say "motherfucker," they'd say, "I don't want you to call me that because you say it too nasty. [Laughter] Because you pronounce—you say 'mother'—you know what mean? That is really ugly when you say it like that." [Laughter] But no, I tend to sound more like the people out there, I would imagine. But it be hard to get all your training out of it. [Laughs]
[Melhem:] Would you say the Dozens were an influence in the frequency of direct insult in your work? Like Hard Facts, would you say the Dozens—
[Melhem:] Did you do the Dozens as a child?
[Melhem:] Did you play it as a rhyming game?
Both, both rhyming and unrhymed, oh, yes. And I think that was my real introduction to the strength and use of poetry. Because by it you cold actually keep people off you; with poetry you could make them leave you alone. I mean if you couldn't fight, if you could really use those words like that, they would get away from you, because they didn't want to be called twenty-five different kinds of motherfuckers in twenty-five seconds, you know? So they would leave you alone. And then it did become very conscious to me. Yes, speech can be as effective, almost, as your fist. But that was my real introduction to the uses of poetry.
[Melhem:] So that was very young.
Oh, yes. Oh, sure. But they used to have some people—still do, obviously—walking around, going for hours, rhyming, rhyming, rhyming, rhyming, rhyming, you know, top speed.
Just a whole flow of insults.
[Melhem:] In some of your recent work, do you use what Stephen Henderson refers to as "virtuoso free-rhyme"?
[Melhem:] Rhymes within a long sentence with lots of different rhymes strung—
Yes. I have much more respect for rhyme, now. I've always used internal rhyme like that, because I felt that was, you know, slick, to do it like that; but I have much more respect for end rhyme, too. And it's like the old story about how, as you get older, you discover how wise your parents were [laughing]. I've grown to love Langston Hughes's poetry more now, because I want to use rhyme more. I begin to see then the strengths of that in ways I couldn't see when I was just dismissing rhyme completely. Obviously, rhyme can become a very dead weight in any kind of language. The kind of unrhymed verse that academic poets write is probably as deadly as rhyme. So—[Laughs]
[Melhem:] Yes. Well, in connection with that, apart from the critically important work you've done in writing Blues People and Black Music, you seem to he using music and musicians increasingly in your poetry and drama, the Advanced Workers, which is your musical group, specifically. Would you say there's a connection between the interest in music and the interest in rhyme? And what, specifically, is the function of the music?
Well, the music, to me, is two things, but it's one thing first. The music, first of all, is poetry. I mean, to me, fundamentally, poetry is a combination. Poetry is a musical form, just like blues. I think blues is a verse form, but it's a musical form, too. You see what I mean? And to me, poetry has to be that, and at the same time, verse, but it has to be a musical form. I mean it doesn't exist as poetry unless it's musical, you know, "musicked speech," high speech. And I think that my own interest in poetry comes from the kind of love that I've always had for music, basically. I played trumpet when I was a kid, and I wrote this poem called "I Would Have Been a Trumpet Player If I Hadn't Gone to College." And essentially, that had something to do with it, because once I left this town and went away to school, I stopped playing the trumpet. I never lost my love for music. I began to listen to it, of course, to study it—I studied it informally with Sterling Brown. At Howard he had classes for a lot of us in the dormitory in the evenings, and he'd teach us about the blues and early forms of jazz.
[Melhem:] You had some fine teachers there; you had Nathan Scott, too.
Yes, Nathan Scott, right. Me taught me Dante. That's where I got my interest in Dante. It wasn't even because I understood it, you know. He was so enthusiastic about it—
[Melhem:] Was it a course—
—I said, "Jesus, this must be good!" [Laughs]
[Melhem:] It was a course in Dante?
No. It was a survey course in Western literature. We got all the biggies, everybody we were supposed to get, in that one-year survey course. And when he came to Dante, he was so in love with it. And now I understand why—because he was religious. I didn't know that. He was a Reverend—something like that. He was a Doctor of Divinity, as well as a Ph.D.
[Melhem:] In your adaptation of a Black aesthetic to Marxist, agit-prop aesthetics, you seem to be seeking new forms for the new content: for example, your historical pageants, Slave Ship and The Motion of History, and your satire, The Sidney Poet Heroical, in which you musically adapt a classical, Greek-style chorus. Apart from your self-criticism of The Sidney Poet as "petit bourgeois cultural nationalism," are you satisfied with these works? How do you feel about S-1?…
The Sidney Poet. No, I'm satisfied with that as a work of a certain period; it said certain things. I think it still has some kind of general uses. It got Sidney Poitier mad at me, though, so I don't know—there was a negative feedback to it. But as far as S-1 is concerned and The Motion of History, I would like to see them done again. I directed both of them, you know; I had this thing of directing my works, at least one a year, every other year, when I could. I took the moneys that I had, whatever money I could borrow, and I would do some performances of the play, because I couldn't get any producers. Since this police harassment two years ago. I haven't been able to do that, and as a matter of fact, that interrupted the production of The Lone Ranger that was being done, which I was producing at that time, because I had to use all the money for the court thing, you see, so I didn't have any extra money to use for the production. I would like to see S-1 done again; I would like to see The Motion of History done again. I think particularly S-1 is relevant during these Reagan times, because what that was about was the attempt to bring fascism to the United States, and I think that's a very, very relevant play, now. I would like to get somebody who would produce it and direct it.
[Melhem:] Was [Bertolt] Brecht an influence?
Brecht has been an influence, I'd say, in the last few years. In the last few years, certainly, this whole educational theater, in that sense, the "theater of instruction" is important to me, and a lot of the technical innovations. The jazz opera [Money] that I wrote a couple of years ago that we're going to do parts of the end of the year at La Mama, I think is closer to, say, Brecht than cold, traditional opera.
[Melhem:] And the use of scene—one scene after another?
Yes. Well, certainly in the way I tried to direct The Motion of History. That was influenced by Brecht's wanting to use signs, you know, those kinds of things. I've always been, I think, interested in using audiovisuals along with the theater. In the play that we're doing in the fall, called Boy and Tarzan Appear in a Clearing!—they're going to do that at the Henry Street in October. That uses a lot of video, television, and film at the same time. I'm interested in expanding the theater, using technological advances of society in general.
[Melhem:] Which of your works would you say has given you the most satisfaction, so far?
Always the most recent one [laughter], when you see it produced—although I've done some bad productions myself. I think it's always gratifying to be able to see the most recent thing, the last thing that I've done, so I'm looking forward to the two things we're doing this fall and winter.
[Melhem:] You have a cinematographic technique in your later works.
[Melhem:] Who would you say has influenced you there—[Sergei] Eisenstein?
Movies generally. Movies generally. I think Eisenstein intellectually, if I look at his theories on the dialectics of image. I think it would be impossible for anybody who makes film, whether they know it or not, to say they haven't been influenced by Eisenstein. The question of montage is impossible without Eisenstein, whether they know it or not. But then, I've been influenced by all the moviemakers that I've seen. I'm a moviegoer. I've always been a moviegoer. It always insults me when people try to say that movies somehow are some kind of inferior art form. I can never understand that. That always seems to me the most bizarre thing in the world to say.
[Melhem:] You said you would prefer a less sentimental ending for The Toilet.
[Melhem:] Although you don't turn your back on that time of your creative life.
No. That ending was tacked on, that's what I meant, first of all. When I wrote it, I wrote it straight through and I tacked this ending on. The way it ended was first with the guy just left there, in the toilet, and then I tacked it on I guess as some kind of attempt to show some kind of, you know, reconciliation, or something like that. And I think that's where I was at that time.
[Melhem:] Is there any other work you feel that way about, that you would like to redo or revise?
[Emphatically] oh, yes Shhhhh! [Laughter] Different things I see, the different reasons. Some, I might. But most, I won't, because, like I said, I don't want to cover up my tracks, you know what I mean? You should at least show where you've been, so people can understand how you got to where you are, and what have you.
[Melhem:] Okay…. What advice do you have for beginning writers, white, Black, or otherwise?
Um-hum. Well, I say this, what I tell my writing students: The only thing that helps you—I'm not going to say the only thing—I say the main thing that will help you learn to write is to write. That's the first step. That's the most important, is to write. The second thing is to read. Now those two things are very important, writing and reading. Of course the other thing, analysis, is observation, observation of everybody and everything: all classes of people and their relationship with each other; their ideas, how they contrast, how they be similar. And I say that the other thing is that for any serious writer in the United States, regardless of nationality, it's going to be difficult to get published. And so they better also learn how to run a mimeograph machine; photo-offset machine [laughter], learn how to bind and staple and how to put out their own works; and I would say, it's best you start putting out your own work. Don't wait to be discovered—
[Melhem:] Yes, right.
—because for most people that's going to be a myth.
[Melhem:] Of desire.
Yes, exactly. It's going to be a myth. You're going to have to do it yourself. Even if you're later discovered, it's best to start.
[Melhem:] Do you have any advice for contemporary American writers, Black or white or any other?
Those things, and I think it's important that they be very, very aware of what is happening in society. Because I don't think your work can either be viewed, nor is it obtained, in isolation from society; and especially in this period now that we're moving rapidly to the right, it's very important. The rise of censorship, for instance—these kinds of wild things. I'm especially gratified to see this American Writers' Congress that they're going to have in the fall, that the Nation magazine is sponsoring, Victor Navasky. It's going to be, I think, a three- or four-day writers' congress at the Roosevelt Hotel in October; I'm supposed to be on one of the panels. I think that's a very important thing.
[Melhem:] Okay. What are your current or future projects?
Well, like I said, this play Boy and Tarzan is going to be done in October. Then this jazz opera that we're going to do in workshop, that we're really going to try to raise money for; we're going to try to raise money to produce it. So those are two things in drama. I have a book of essays that's going to be published in the fall; I told you about Daggers and Javelins. And then I've got some other projects that are on the back burner, unfortunately. Oh, another important project is my wife and I are doing an anthology of Black women writers—
—that Morrow has just accepted. And so we'll be doing that. In the next couple of weeks we're going to start on that.
[Melhem:] Are there any misconceptions—about yourself or your work—that you want cleared up?
[Laughing] Oh, ho-ho!
[Melhem:] [Laughing] I mean, any outstanding misconceptions.
I can't, I can't. No. Except that people are always catching you where you were.
[Melhem:] This is the last question. What role do your foresee for Black poets in the 1990s, and whom do you think they should address?
That's a good question in this sense. I expect the same role from them that they have had—the same role that Margaret Walker had, the same role that Langston [Hughes] had, the same role that [Claude] McKay had. That is, intellectual leadership, you understand, commitment and struggle. But we must always learn from each other's lives. And in terms of the audience, the audience is all of the people, the majority of the people.
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