photograph by Patricia Spears Jones
The Poetry Project and Cave Canem did a great job of paying homage to Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones poetic roots and branches this afternoon. Poets and musicians performed Baraka’s works and/or paid tribute in poems to him. Quincy Troupe’s “Avalanche” had us thinking of Baraka’s welcome to that “unknown country” that he has now gone to. Julie Patton deconstructed his name melody collaborating with a bassist. David Henderson read his work/a Baraka poem and also a fine poem from Diane DiPrima. Cornelius Eady and Rough Music (Poetry’s house band) did a gorgeous multi-vocal arrangementl. I was also moved by Tracie Morris and Vijay Iyer’s deconstruction of “My Favorite Things”.
Bob Holman’s exegesis on Baraka’s most famous poem, you know the one about 9-11, the one that got the New Jersey legislature to remove the Poet Laureate position, which as Bob pointed out leads Baraka to be New Jersey Poet Laureate in perpetuity. It was a masterful critique of the poem, poet and situation. Thank you Bob Holman.
Steve Dalachinsky almost matched his wonderful performance at Jayne Cortez’ memorial last year w/ a wonderful piece in collaboration Matthew Shipp. Greg Tate brought some of Baraka’s prose from Black Music (me thinks “The Changing Same” is one of the great essays of the 20th century, just saying) reading a short riff on Wayne Shorter. And Martha and Basil King who met “Leroi” in the 1950s, Latasha Diggs, Toi Dericotte and James Brandon Lewis added to a generous and diverse group of poetic and musical voices in the tribute.
I almost left and then I realized I had to stay for Anne Waldman, who along with Henderson, Troupe, the Kings was a long time friend of Baraka and so her perspective had to be heard. She read a lovely elegy from Hettie Jones, Baraka’s first wife. Anne also discussed Baraka’s connection to Naropa. and the she and her band Ambrose Bye, Steven Taylor, and Devin Waldman served the material well. Because Anne did a fiery version of “BLACK DADA NIHILISMUS from “The Dead Lecturer”. I remembered how fascinated I am by the readings of poems across genders and Baraka was very much the enraged hetero male and Anne brought out her masculine side and worked those words. And then she ended with a kind of blessing on Baraka’s spirit and for all of us from her own summoning of female power.
I agree with Ammiel Alcalay who remarked that there are more works to unearth from Amiri Baraka and that he was extremely generous to the scholars and poets at CUNY Grad Center. Baraka, indeed all of the poets, Black and White who created the downtown literary scene deserve more scrutiny, to be read, wrestled with. They were not all Beats or Buddhists. They were as diverse as the neighborhood they lived and worked in. I am a huge O’Hara fan as many of my friends know, but I am also glad to have been part of the downtown scene in it’s third iteration in the 1970s w/ Anne and Lewis Warsh and Bernadette Mayer and Ted Greenwald and dear dear Lorenzo Thomas as my mentors, teachers, friends. It is good to see Bernadette and Ted begin to get their due and Lewis is now carving out more poets at LIU. As Steve Cannon told me, “Roi” always came back”. In many ways Baraka went back to Newark but Leroi/Amiri came to New York for friends, fun, the chance to wear his boogie shoes. And finally, Oliver Lake’s solo was extraordinary and his tribute poem a thing of great joy and admiration. Plus, he wore the most beautiful garment-truly a shirt of many colors. Where ever Baraka is he was tapping his feet.
I thank all the poets/ musicians and all the great people who made their way to the Sanctuary to pay tribute.
photograph by Patricia Spears Jones