Friday, August 03, 2007

Baraka Shines, Sanchez Sings

It's not every day you get to see two living legends perform, side-by-side, on the same stage. That said, I consider myself blessed to catch Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez reading together at Central Park SummerStage, on a steamy Thursday night on August 2, 2007.

This venue may be a wonderful setting for a reading, but it's a bitch to get to from Midtown, especially when you're wheeling along a heavy backpack, laden with books. Especially when the mercury has finally slid under the 90 degree mark, yet the park still shimmers with a day's worth of heat.

Yet, as you shake your heads about the books, the signing wasn't the primary objective here. I was more excited about the pairing. Say what you will about Amiri Baraka, but he is never boring. Ms. Sanchez is a shade less controversial, but equally captivating.

A little back story here about Baraka. In 1997, when I moved to New York, my friend Brian started sending me books to get signed. He is a huge fan of the man who was born LeRoi Jones, was an instrumental playwright in the 1960's and founded the Black Arts Movement, after the assassination of Malcolm X when he changed his name to Amiri.

Baraka, unfortunately, may be best known as the former poet laureate of New Jersey, who read the controversial poem, "Somebody Blew Up America" at the 2002 Dodge Poetry Festival. The poem contained the controversial lines about 9-11.

Listen: "Somebody Blew Up America" (mp3) via Baraka's website.

Unfortunately, this small smidgen of verse:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

was all that was heard, was all that was reported, and was all that it took to bring about a maelstrom of uproar (the wound was still so fresh) that made the national news and led to calls that he be fired from his post as state laureate.

How embarrassing for the establishment! For the law appointing him to a two-year term as poet laureate did not consider the need to ever fire the man or woman who held the post. The governor, Jim McGreevey could not fire him. The only way he could vacate the post would be to resign. They asked him to. They told him to. In characteristic Baraka style, he refused. And, in the end, the lawmakers cut off their noses to spite their faces, and passed legislation eliminating the position, shortening Baraka's term to one year. The post has not been reestablished.

And what people missed through all this rigmarole, was the message in the poem. All they focused on was a few lines. They read only that one piece, a few bricks in a building that they didn't like. So rather than addressing the bricks, they wanted to knock the building down.

So it is no surprise as Baraka chatted before the reading, that the crowd was multi-ethnic, a true American blend of skin tones and hairstyles. This was not the blanched literary establishment reading. It was, as are most, if not all, of Baraka's readings, a performance for the people.

The sun was setting in a ball of flame to our left,

when the emcee announced that Sonia Sanchez was en route from Philadelphia and fighting traffic. So Amiri would be reading first, followed by Ms. Sanchez, followed by a round-table discussion, moderated by Asha Bandele. Which, he added, would be followed by a signing.

Amiri took the stage. Standing ovation. He looked spry and healthy. He welcomed us and announced he would be reading a couple of short stories and some poems. He then warned, "I'm sure I'm gonna outrage some people....until Truth starts bangin' me in the head, sayin' you're a bad dude, I'm not gonna change." Applause and calls of support from the crowd.

His most recent book Tales of the Out & the Gone, from Akashic Books was the source of his first story, called "New and Old." This was about the situation in Newark. Click here to read a transcript from NPR in which he discusses the story in greater detail.

After that, he switched to a poem, saying he was going to read a memorial. I initially thought, ah for Sekou Sundiata, who recently passed. He mentioned "Brother Sekou," but went further back, a year or so ago, and read a tribute to the great "Nuyorican" poet Pedro Pietri, who died in 2004. One line that jumped out: "you told the truth on the installment plan".

Then Baraka read his version of the haiku, which he coined as "lowku". See video below...beware conservatives, he is not kind to the establishment, let alone the president.

Then he read what he called "Monk poems," after Thelonious. According to an article in the Guardian published on August 4, 2007, these are "a sequence...[to be] published serially in home-made editions. I

Then Baraka continued, "Let me read another one of these short stories, 'cause that's the only book they selling."

He read the story "Rhythm Travel". Listen to it here, via NPR.

He ended with a poem for Sonny Carson called "Eulogy for My Main Man".

They introduced Sonia Sanchez at 8:05 pm. Ms. Sanchez is a petite, yet stately woman who I have always seen with a wonderful crown of salt and pepper dreadlocks. As you will see from the video below, the dreads are gone, and there were murmurs around me: "Oooh, look how pretty her hair!" And "Oh, she looks so good!" The crowd rose and heaped adulation upon her.

She greeted us and said she had recently recovered from a serious out with the flu, and now she could understand how the flu could kill a person because she had had it bad.

Then she began, nearly chanting, "I call upon....." and she listed names for several minutes, a veritable who's who in Black history, arts, letters, politics, entertainment....I scribbled the following "Ella, Max, Oscar Brown Jr., Brecht, Mandela, KRS-One, Danny Glover." There were dozens more in the list, which was occasionally punctuated by a tongue-clicking normally associated with African languages, and humming, and an occasional scatting.

When she had finished, she explained that she normally led every reading with her calling upon all of those spirits, living and gone, because she often reads to children and high school students and, often, they come up afterwards and ask who so-and-so was, and she helps teach about history that way.

Sonia was very political and pro-peace, urging the audience to be more active in their voices against the war. "In the 20th century, we had 105 million war dead and we are starting up again in the 21st century."

She talked about teaching some students in Hartford and about a teenager who told her that one of their teachers had equated her being for peace as being equivalent to being a terrorist. She read "Peace". I found a clip from her reading the same poem last year, along with the preface about the student in Hartford:

I scribbled down the line "Can you make peace sing like butterflies, until it becomes the noise of the planet?"

Next she read a piece that was from a talk presented at a Twentieth Century Masters Tribute to Langston Hughes. You can read it here, and/or watch it on the video below.

Then she read a heart-wrenching piece called “Poem for Some Women...” about a news report in Philadelphia dealing with a woman who had been arrested for taking her 7-year old daughter to a crack house. She prefaced the poem with something very similar to the following, which is an excerpt from a piece about her from the Madison Times, written by Jonathan Gramling:

Sanchez's inspiration is from life itself. She may take a snatch of something that she has seen or heard and turn it into a treatise of the condition of African Americans in the United States. In her talk, Sanchez spoke of an item she saw on the news one day. "I was home one night watching the news on the idiot box that is television," Sanchez recalled. "And it is an idiot box. You have to choose very carefully what you watch. When you look at that stuff, you wonder what are little children really thinking because of that box. There is no intelligence going on in any way, in any way at all. The woman on the news said 'In North Philadelphia today, a woman took her child into a crack house and left the child there for one week.' And throughout the millions of people watching in like New York or Philadelphia, it had to be Black or White, I thought to myself. I watched the news and it was just that kind of thing and I went to bed and I felt I could go to sleep. I got up and began to write this poem. How can we come as African women in this place called America, women who were on auction blocks saying to the master 'Please, please, please, don't take my little one. I have nothing for you sir. She has not recorded my look, my face in her eyes, the look that sustains her as she grows older.' Women cried to keep those children and how did we move to a point where we take a child into a crack house and leave that child. That is something we have to talk about in this place called America."

She performed this on Def Poetry Jam (clip below):

She followed this with some racy love poems and haiku that had the crowd hooting and hollering in approval. Video below.

Next, Sanchez read "Ballad After the Spanish" a poem for Maria, who was a student of hers in New York, back when Sonia was living on Riverside Drive. As she explained it, Maria had attempted suicide over a failed betrothal.

 (after the spanish)

forgive me if i laugh
you are so sure of love
you are so young
and i too old to learn of love.

the rain exploding
in the air is love
the grass excreting her
green wax is love
and stones remembering
past steps is love,
but you. you are too young
for love
and i too old.

once. what does it matter
when or who, i knew
of love.
i fixed my body
under his and went
to sleep in love
all trace of me
was wiped away

forgive me if i smile
young heiress of a naked dream
you are so young
and i too old to learn of love.

She then read a blues poem, called "I've Been Keeping Company with the Layaway Man," ("each time he comes by we do it on the installment Plan") that she had performed originally with Toshi Reagan.

Clip follows.

She ended with "For Sweet Honey in the Rock," which included the line "I'm gonna stay on the battlefield 'til I die." Click the title to read the poem and there is also a link to listen to it as well.

The audience showed its appreciation vociferously and Sanchez acknowledged us: "There's nothing like a New York audience." She talked briefly about how she was an "ex-stutterer" and that she had given her first poetry reading in the city, and has always been thankful for the New York audiences.

With Sanchez' section over, I took advantage of the break as Baraka and Bandele joined her at a table behind the podium.

There were hundreds of people in the crowd and it was getting late, so I wanted a jump on the signing table. I stood up and walked back to the merchandise tent and purchased the book of short stories Baraka had plugged. It can be awkward when approaching an author with a stack of
books, none of which are the one he or she is currently promoting, so I figured I'd show good form and support the cause. Perhaps contributing to this is Baraka's persona: I will be quite honest here. I may not agree with everything he says or does, but I admire his unwavering strength and longevity in a world that has seen the loss of so many literary icons from
the '50s and '60s. The last thing I wanted was the perception that I was exploiting his celebrity status.

So while I was back getting the book and wandering over to the side near the signing table, this discussion ensued. They started with a discussion of "What is the Black Arts Movement?" Baraka explained the cultural and societal climate in which he decided to unify Black artists at a time of turmoil when the community needed a shining light to focus its energies on.

The topics bounded a bit, and the subject of rap and poetry, and the whole Don Imus controversy entered the conversation. Baraka stated that art does not control the rap industry, it is commerce. "Commerce demands the vulgarity and self-hate," Baraka proclaimed, which is why artists must recognize the "importance of self-determination". The consensus was that the degradation of women in Rap videos, the violence, the profanity, etc., all help sell the product, and so the corporations profit and have the most to gain from such negativity.

Some final notes, the crowd was invited to pose questions, none of which made any sense but seemed to be proclamations of admiration for Baraka and Sanchez, or silly forays into errant self-expression.

The discussion ended and the line formed quickly. It was a fairly well-controlled event and I was glad I lined up when and where I did. I was within the first ten individuals in the queue. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I brought a limited amount of books with me because of the heat/distance/access quotients. In all, I brought 6 things for Baraka to sign and 1 for Sanchez. The item for Sanchez was an anthology called Poetry Daily: Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Website.
However, I decided to seek out Mr. Baraka first, which made it more difficult to go to Ms. Sanchez (think: moving the wrong way down the buffet line). And, it was only a lesser anthology in my collection.

Mr. Baraka was very cordial and inscribed everything I had (with the exception of one duplicate item I left in the bag). Everybody lining up had onesies and twosies and I had a stack of six.

He inscribed my copy of Tales of the Out & Gone. And then he signed four things for my friend Brian:

The Drama Review, Black Theatre Issue, Summer 1968. Oops. I learned later that Sonia was also in the issue. Anyway, LeRoi Jones has several pieces in this issue: "Communications Project," "Home on the Range" and "Police".

African American Review, Summer 1995, for which Baraka contributed a piece called "Diz and Sun Ra".

The Off Off Broadway Book: The Plays, People, Theatre, includes his play "Slave Ship".

When I handed Baraka this book, he said "Wow, haven't seen this in ages!" He inscribed below Sam Shepherd's inscription, and said, "Who's that? Oh, Sam Shepherd! I knew him when he was just a boy!"

LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka): A Checklist of Works By and About Him by Letitia Dace

Lastly, he inscribed my copy of The United States of Poetry anthology on his page with the poem "the X is Black (Spike Lie)". Listen to it here via PennSound. After signing everything I thanked him, he shook my hand and I headed home.

Here's a more subjective view of the event here: "Unhinged in Central Park" via JB Spins.

Plus more perspectives: "Icons- Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and KRS-One" via individuality1977.

"Amiri Baraka in the Park" via

I enjoyed the event. Those things that were criticized by others I expected from the reading. I may not agree with all of the politics espoused, but I respect the steadfastness with which both Baraka and Sanchez hold to the cause.

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