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Poetry Moment: Amiri Baraka 
serves up fiery words

Amiri Baraka did not mince words. He wrote words, he played with words, he even sang words. But mince? Never.

One of the founders of the Black Arts Movement, Baraka was known as a fiery, frenetic speaker, a firm believer in the insertion of Black music and culture into poetry, and an indefatigable advocate for free speech.

Here is an excerpt from “Home”, one of a series of his essays published in 1996: “The black artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and, if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness; and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil.”

Words were weapons for Baraka, and he was going to wield them as bravely as he could.

New readers are discovering his work, a good companion to the Black Lives Matter movement and the push for human rights in this country. His famous “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” was this summer the subject of a Poet’s House project, offering electronic access to the original 1961 chapbook, video about Baraka, and scholarship about the poet and his work.

After his death in January 2014, thousands of people watched our episode of The Writing Life featuring Baraka, interviewed by poet and activist E. Ethelbert Miller. One viewer wrote: “Be part of the struggle to transform reality. Legacy indeed.”

In this Poetry Moment, Baraka reads and croons a portion of his epic history poem, “In the Tradition,” in which he names Black people who added to American life—Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois, H. Rapp Brown, Thelonius Monk, and countless unnamed musicians, thinkers, and artists. He dedicated his book to saxophonist Arthur Blythe.

Critic William J. Harris wrote about the poem, “The black tradition Baraka affirms in this poem is more complex than any conception of black culture he had expressed in the past. It is a tradition of heroes … and it is a tradition of villains … . But while the poem is nationalist, affirming black people, it is revolutionary nationalist rather than culturalist.”

After Baraka died, The New Yorker’s Jellani Cobb penned a tribute with the headline, “The Path Cleared by Amiri Baraka.

Cobb wrote, “His poetic voice, with its Ebonics conjugations and sly rhythms, was that of the man on the Newark boulevard or the Harlem avenue. If black people can exert a valid claim on American democracy, Baraka seemed to be saying, then there’s no reason for their language not to have equally powerful standing in American literature.”

Baraka has achieved that powerful standing in literature, and to get there, he never minced words.

— Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

Poetry Moment: A cool recitation 
by Gwendolyn Brooks

In 1985, Gwendolyn Brooks arrived from Chicago in Washington D.C., to become America’s first Black person to hold the position of Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress.

Early in her term, she read at the Howard Woodson High School in D.C. As she began to recite her signature poem, “We Real Cool,” students popped up around the library, chanting her lines and snapping their fingers.

“I loved that,” she told the Library of Congress’s Alan Jabbour and poet E. Ethelbert Miller, who were interviewing her for HoCoPoLitSo’s first author interview show, which would become The Writing Life. “Young people like it because it has a kind of insouciance and a staccato effect that they enjoy.”

More than thirty years before, she had won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, but by the mid 1980s, Brooks had reached the pinnacle of her success. The very young poet and activist Miller and Jabbour interviewed Brooks in 1986 in a small room at the Library of Congress, supervised and produced by HoCoPoLitSo founder Ellen Conroy Kennedy. Here is that interview in full.

Brooks had also recited “We Real Cool” September 30, 1985, in front of a packed audience, after 300 people had been turned away from the Library of Congress’s auditorium. Her most anthologized work, the poem had become one that audiences would request.

The Library of Congress, just this past April, digitized and uploaded the recording of that reading, during which Brooks says, “At this point I better recite ‘We Real Cool’ before I forget. I know some of you are sick and tired of this poem, because if you see my name, you see it. It’s been published in a good many school textbooks, but it has also been banned here and there—chiefly because, I understand, the word ‘jazz’ has been considered a sexual reference. That was not my intention, though I have no objection if it helps anybody—but I was thinking of music when I used the word ‘jazz.’ ”

In the HoCoPoLitSo interview, Brooks explains the short poem’s origin, which still speaks volumes to the nation’s treatment of young black people.

“I wrote it because I was passing by a pool hall in my neighborhood in Chicago one afternoon. And I saw, as I said in the poem, seven boys shooting pool,” Brooks said during the episode. “I wondered what they felt about themselves. I decided they felt not quite valid, certainly they were insecure, not cherished by the society, therefore, they would feel that they should, well, spit in the face of the establishment. I used the month of June as an establishment symbol. Whereas the rest of us love and respect June and wait for it to come so we can enjoy it. They would “jazz June,” derange it, scratch at it, do anything that would annoy the establishment.”

When Brooks recites the poem, she drops her voice at the end of the lines on the word “we.” She told interviewer George Stavros in 1969 that she does so because the protagonists are questioning their own validity.

“I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don’t bother to question every day, of course,” Brooks explained.


— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life

A Poem for Freedom: HoCoPoLitSo presents its third Poetry Moment

The former National Poet Laureate and official national treasure Rita Dove stars in this week’s Poetry Moment, featuring her poem “Lady Freedom Among Us.”

In an episode of The Writing Life, Dove explains to fellow poet Michael Collier that in 1993, she walked down to see the massive bronze statue of Freedom. The statue was lowered from its perch atop the U.S. Capitol Building by helicopter in May 1993 for repair and cleaning.

Dove thought the statue looked disheveled and dirty, rather like a homeless woman, and was inspired to write a poem.

Freedom, who wears a helmet of stars topped with an eagle’s head and a robe trimmed in fur, holds a sheathed sword, a laurel wreath, and the shield of the United States. On Oct. 23, 1993, when the buffed-up and repaired statue was lifted back onto its pedestal atop the Capitol building, Dove read her poem for the ceremony.

Dove visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences in 1999 and in 2015. In this clip, Dove reads her poem about the statue, “Lady Freedom Among Us” from her book On the Bus with Rosa Parks.

— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life


HoCoPoLitSo Stands Against Racism; Poetry is One of Our Weapons

HoCoPoLitSo was founded to celebrate diverse literary heritages and to foster literary appreciation in diverse populations, including varying gender, ethnic and cultural identities, age groups, and income levels. We believe that opening a book, reading a poem, or attending a literary event can be a powerful humanistic journey of exploration, education, and enlightenment. We all benefit when we seek to deepen and extend our understanding of the experiences of others and ourselves.

We are profoundly sad and outraged by the violence perpetuated against black lives and by the ongoing systemic lack of accountability. We believe black lives matter, and we stand in solidarity with all those seeking to effectuate long-lasting change in our communities.

In an effort to do our part, we offer something new — HoCoPoLitSo’s Poetry Moment — as a way to address, extend, and deepen these crucial conversations. Starting today, we will be showcasing poems written and read aloud by black authors hosted by HoCoPoLitSo over our forty-five years, whose art examines and illuminates our American experience.

— The board and staff of HoCoPoLitSo

Poetry Moment: Terrance Hayes reads “Carp”

Terrance Hayes is an American poet and educator who has published seven poetry collections. In conversation with the poet Tara Betts in this #PoetryMoment clip from 2011, he reads “Carp” from the book Lighthead.

Because Black Lives Matter: Introducing The Poetry Moment

HoCoPoLitSo was founded to celebrate diverse literary heritages and to foster literary appreciation in diverse populations, including varying gender, ethnic and cultural identities, age groups, and income levels. We believe that opening a book, reading a poem, or attending a literary event can be a powerful humanistic journey of exploration, education, and enlightenment. We all benefit when we seek to deepen and extend our understanding of the experiences of others and ourselves.

We are profoundly sad and outraged by the violence perpetuated against black lives and by the ongoing systemic lack of accountability. We believe black lives matter, and we stand in solidarity with all those seeking to effectuate long-lasting change in our communities.

In an effort to do our part, we offer something new — HoCoPoLitSo’s Poetry Moment — as a way to address, extend, and deepen these crucial conversations. Starting today, we will be showcasing poems written and read aloud by black authors hosted by HoCoPoLitSo over our forty-five years, whose art examines and illuminates our American experience.

Sincerely,

The HoCoPoLitSo Board and Staff


Poetry Moment: Lucille Clifton reads “good times”

#BlackLivesMatter #HoCoPoLitSoPoetryMoment #PoetryMoment

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