Danny Shot, who has been working with me to put together the Something Old, Something New (Jersey) reading at the Hoboken Historical Museum on April 6, is a poet, high school teacher, former publisher of Long Shot Magazine and good friend to CavanKerry Press and me. As he says in the opening paragraph, “Amiri Baraka was a controversial figure and people seemed to either love him or hate him. ” So why did Danny love him? read on. -Teresa Carson, Associate Publisher
Thus Spoke Baraka
The man went out with style. The funeral was on Saturday, January 18 at the Symphony Hall in downtown Newark. The morning couldn’t decide what it wanted, going from thick heavy snow to a drenching rain and back again. At least 3,000 people came to say their goodbyes during a four-hour service complete with actors, poets, musicians, firefighters, bagpipers, drummers, politicians, workers, communists, community organizers, friends, and family. You can see it on YouTube. Obviously, Amiri Baraka was a controversial figure and people seemed to either love him or hate him. I loved him (though I sometimes did not agree with him). Here’s why.
I met Amiri Baraka in 1982. He along with his wife Amina was doing a poetry reading at Rutgers with a portion of the door money going to Long Shot, a literary magazine founded by Eliot Katz and myself around that time. Cheryl Clarke, who at the time was in charge of the student center, went with us for a pre-poetry dinner at a New Brunswick restaurant. Eliot and I brought a big bottle of chianti; you know the type, with wicker around it. Cheryl Clarke lit into us, “Don’t you know that Amiri Baraka is a well known Muslim. Muslims don’t drink alcohol, don’t you know that?” I felt horrible for the obvious faux pas. When Amiri met us in front of the restaurant, he looked at the bottle in my hand, “What’s that you got there? You brought something to drink? Thank God, I’m thirsty.” That’s where our friendship began.
Over the next thirty years there are so many memories, many of them centered in his house in Newark at parties including a wide range of luminaries. I’ll never forget the drunken conga line at his fiftieth birthday, with me clasping the hips of actress Ruby Dee and doing my best to follow her rhythm. Or dancing (awkwardly) in the basement to jazz greats Archie Shepp and Max Roach.
Amiri always thought I was more politically committed than I was. He called me a cultural worker (which annoyed me) for being a poet and an inner city high school teacher. At times he could be amazingly undogmatic. Sometime in the early 80s I told him that I was thinking of voting for Millicent Fenwick for NJ Senator. My reasons were simple, or more accurately, simplistic. I was going to vote for her (a Republican) because she was a character in my favorite comic strip Doonesbury. Amiri was shocked at my reasoning, “You’re going to vote for a cartoon character? What the fuck?” He went on to explain that Frank Lautenberg was a good man, and that there is a difference between Democrats and Republicans and that our votes do make a difference, as a matter of fact it is the one thing in America that is equal, and that each of us has exactly one vote, and that to throw it away would be foolish and disrespectful. I was chastened. I can proudly say that I’ve voted in each election, big and small, since then.
Amiri could be infuriating. In 2002, Joel Lewis and I drove down to the Dodge Poetry Festival, which at the time was held at Waterloo Village. For whatever reason, we got there late. The first person Joel and I encountered was Amiri, sitting alone but surrounded by reporters in the pub/food hall. “Mr. Shot,” he called out, “Come join me for a beer” (we were drinking buddies after all). He went on to introduce Joel and I as “young Jewish-American poets.” Joel and I were mystified, after all I guess we were Jewish, and I guess we were younger than Amiri, but neither of us identified ourselves that way. Of course, later we found out that he had just read his inflammatory Somebody Blew Up America poem and was using us to prove to the world that he indeed had Jewish friends. I felt manipulated and was pissed. I wrote a poem entitled 4,000 Jews Can’t Be Wrong, which begins with the following lines:
Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day?”
Thus spoke Baraka
poet laureate of the garden state
having found these facts on the internet
and sure enough it’s there.
I sent a copy to Amiri, who responded: “Good. Good poem. Get it out of your system. I’m not going to apologize. The lines you find troubling are part of a larger landscape. Don’t get hung up on the small stuff.” I was still pissed, but figured what the hell.
Over the next decade I saw Amiri here and there, at readings in New York, at the Dodge Poetry Festival, now in Newark. In 2010, my 22-year-old son Casey and his friend Eric were amazed when Amiri called me over to an outside table at the Dodge Poetry Festival to join him “for a beer.” The boys delighted in hearing him talk about Newark politics and his dislike of Mayor Corey Booker, and his own son’s ambitions in Newark politics. He reminded the boys how important it was to stay involved, and of course to vote.
A week after he passed, I went to pay my respects to Amina and the family at their Newark house along with Nancy Mercado, Miguel Algarin and David Henderson. The house was warm, packed with people, music, food, beer, sad but good spirits, and the two bottles of chianti I had brought along. Rest in Peace Amiri Baraka…
— Danny Shot