AMIRI BARAKA ANALYZES HOW HE WRITES
[People might think this is crazy, but I don’t remember when I interviewed Baraka. I know this is actually one of two in-depth interviews I did with Amiri. This was probably, but not definitely, in the nineties. The only other thing to note is that this is not just some random questions. Amiri and I had talked, over the years, about a lot of this stuff. All those references to the early writing came out of conversations and a lot of reading. This is a rough transcript, unedited. That’s it. Enjoy. —KyS]
KALAMU YA SALAAM: When you wrote A System of Dante's Hell, at one point you decided just to start with memory. You sat down and just started to write your first memories -- without trying to make any sense of them or to order them, but rather just to write whatever were your first memories. Is that correct?
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah. That's essentially what it is. I was writing to try to get away from emulating Black Mountain, Robert Creely, Charles Olson, that whole thing. It struck me as interesting because somebody else who had done the same thing was Aime Cesaire. Cesaire said that he vowed one time that he was not going to write anymore poetry because it was too imitative of the French symbolist and he wanted to get rid of the French symbolists. So he said he was only going to write prose but by trying to do that he wrote A Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. It's incredible when you think about that. For me it was the same thing, I was trying to get away from a certain kind of thing. I kept writing like Creely and Olson and what came to me was: "I don't even think this." What became clear to me is that if you adopt a certain form that form is going to push you into certain content because the form is not just the form, the form itself is content. There is content in form and in your choice of form.
SALAAM: Is there content or is there the shaping of content?
BARAKA: No, I'm saying this: the shaping itself is a choice and that choice is ideological. In other words, it's not just form. The form itself carries...
SALAAM: If you choose a certain form, then the question is why did you choose that form.
BARAKA: Exactly--Why did you choose that form?--that's what I'm saying. That's the ideological portent, or the ideological coloring of form. Why did you choose that? Why does that appeal to you? Why this one and not that one.
SALAAM: You said you were consciously trying to get away from the form?
SALAAM: So, why call it A System of Dante's Hell?
BARAKA: Because, I thought, in my own kind of contradictory thinking, that it was "hell." You see the Dante--which escaped me at the time. It shows you how you can be somewhere else and even begin to take on other people's concerns--I wasn't talking about Dante Aligheri. See? I "thought" I was, but I was really talking about Edmund Dante, The Count of Monte Cristo. You see, I had read the Count of Monte Cristo when I was a child and I loved the Count of Monte Cristo. Edmund Dante, that's who I was talking about and I had forgotten that. Forgotten that actually it was Dante Aligheri although I had read that and there was a professor of mine at Howard, Nathan Scott, who went on to become the Chairman of the Chicago Institute of Theology. Nathan Scott was a heavy man. When he used to lecture on Dante, he was so interested in that, that that is how he interested me and A.B. [Spelman] in that. He would start running it down and we would say that damn, this must be some intersting shit here if he's that in to it. So we read it and we got into it. It was like Sterling Brown teaching us Shakespeare.
SALAAM: So the Count of Monte Cristo is what you were remembering?
BARAKA: Right. Absolutely.
SALAAM: But you were saying A System of Dante's Hell. Explain the title.
BARAKA: I had come up on a kind of graphic which showed the system of Dante's hell. You know, hell laid out in graphic terms showing which each circle was. First circle, second circle, etc.
SALAAM: That was Dante Aligheri.
BARAKA: Right. But seeing that, I wanted to make a statement about that, but the memory itself was not about that. See what I'm saying? I was fascinated by Dante's hell because of the graphic but when I started reaching into Dante, I wasn't talking about that Dante. I was talking about Edmund Dante. Remember, Edmund Dante, as all those Dumas characters--you know all of Dumas' characters get thrown down, get whipped, somebody steal their stuff and they come back. All of them do that. Like the Man in the Iron Mask, that could be Africa sitting up inside that mask. The same thing with Edmund Dante, who I didn't think was hooked up to the earlier Dante, but who was disenfranchished. Despised and belittled. And then his son, the count of Monte Cristo, puts all this money and wealth together. He's got an enourmous fortune, and he vows revenge on the enemies of his father. That is what was in my mind. What's interesting about that is first of all that it is Dumas, which I had read as a child before I read Dante Aligheri. I had read Dumas not only in the book but I had read classic comics, you dig? I had read all of that, the whole list in classic comics. That Count of Monte Cristo made a deep, deep impression on me. I think what it was is that I always thought that Black people generally, particularly my father, Black men like him, I saw a parallel with that. They had been thrown down. My grandfather...
SALAAM: And it was on you. You were vowing revenge on those who had thrown down...
BARAKA: Absolutely. My grandfather was "Everett"--which always reminded me of "Edmund"--my grandfather's name was Thomas Everett Russ. He was the one who owned a grocery store and a funeral parlor and the Klan ran him out of there. Then he got hit in the head by a street light, that's what they said when they carried him in, and he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair spitting in a can. You understand? So Everett/Edmund, all of that shit. I always remembered him. Like the night that Dutchman came out. I went down to the corner to look at all these newspapers. They were saying all kinds of crazy things: this nigger is crazy, he's using all these bad words; but I could see that they were trying to make me famous. I said, oh well, I see.
SALAAM: What do you mean "make you famous"?
BARAKA: I could see that this was not a one night stand. They had some stuff they wanted to run about me, either on a long term negative or a long term positive. I said, oh, in other words you're going to make this some kind of discussion. For some reason the strangest feeling came over me. I was standing on the corner of 8th Street and 2nd Avenue at the newspaper stand reading. I had a whole armful. At the time there were a lot of newspapers in New York: The Journal American, The Daily News, The Post, The New York Times, The Herald Tribune, The Village Voice, The Villager, I had all of them in my hand. A strange sensation came over me; the sensation was "oh, you're going to make me famous," but then I'm going to pay all of you people back. I'm going to pay you back for all the people you have fucked over. That was clear. There was no vagueness about that. That came to my mind clear as a bell. That's why I think that whatever you do, there's always some shit lurking in your mind and if the right shit comes together--you know the difference between quantitative and qualitative, you know that leap to something else. It could be liquid and suddenly leap into ice, it could be ice and suddenly leap into vapor. When I got that feeling, it was a terrific feeling. It was like some kind of avenger or something. It was: Now, I'm going to pay these motherfuckers back!
SALAAM: Like, all of sudden you now know why you were put here.
BARAKA: Yeah, that's exactly right. Because until then people wanted to know about the village. I was kind of--not totally, but I was a little happy go lucky kind of young blood down in the village kicking up my heels. I mean I had a certain kind of sense of responsibility. I was involved in Fair Play for Cuba and those kinds of things. I had even worked in Harlem. But I had never determined that I needed to do something that personal and yet that general as pay some people back.
SALAAM: So this was not only personal; it was also taking care of business?
BARAKA: Exactly. I never saw that it was connected specifically to me...
SALAAM: So before your work, your writing, was personal?
BARAKA: Yeah, it didn't have nothing to do with nobody because it was just me. But then it was, now that people would know my name, I had a sense of responsibility. As long as I was an obscure person, I was going to kick up my heels and be...
BARAKA: Right. Whatever I wanted to do. Althought that's not a static kind of realization because you were moving anyway. You can't come to this new conclusion unless you have moved quantitatively over to it. So that was a big turning point because I said, God damn, look at this!
SALAAM: Was that when you got the idea for System? When did you get the idea to write System?
BARAKA: I had written System already, but the point is that that was actually a kind of a summing up of one kind of life to make ready for another. I can see that now.
SALAAM: So System, in a sense, was what made it possible for you to look forward because now you had looked back.
BARAKA: Yeah, it sort of like cleaned up everything. You know how you want to clear the table. I had dealt with all of the stuff, now I can deal with the next phase of my life. Also, there's this guy, I think his name is Brown, he's an Englishman. There's a book called Marxism and Poetry, a very interesting book, but anyway he says that drama is always most evident in periods of revolution. In other words when you get to the point that you're going to make the characters so ambitious that they are going to actually walk around like they are in real life that means you're trying to turn the whole thing around. That had been happening to me. I started writing poetry that had people speaking. It would be a poem and then suddenly I would have a name, a colon, and then a speech, then a name, a colon, and another speech. This would be within a poem. The next thing I know I was writing plays. You could see it just mount and mount and mount. You wanted realer than the page. You wanted them on the stage, actually walking around saying it. I had written a couple of plays before Dutchman but the way Dutchman was written was so spectacular that what happened with it didn't surprise me. I came in one night about twelve and wrote until about six in the morning and went to sleep without even knowing what I had written. I woke up the next morning and there it was. I had written it straight out, no revisions. I just typed it straight out.
SALAAM: So where did it come from?
BARAKA: I don't know. My life at the time. Whatever was interesting is that whatever had promoted it, I just wrote it.
SALAAM: When you came in did something tell you to write this or did you have a routine that you would write every night?
BARAKA: No, I didn't do that every night. Most of the time I would get up and work in the morning or the afternoon, even though I did work at night a lot too, but on this particular night, I don't know. I just came in sat down and started, and typed until I finished. I didn't even know what I had written. You ever had that kind of experience where you are in that zone or whatever, you just do it til you're finished, then you go to bed. I said I'll look at that tomorrow, I'm too tired to look at that tonight.
SALAAM: Had you named it at that point?
BARAKA: Yeah. At first I was going to name it The Flying Dutchman and then I said, it ain't really the "flying" Dutchman, so I just call it Dutchman. You know the "Dutchman" was really the train, that was the flying in it. But then there was a lot of ambiguity in it in my mind. I didn't know if I wanted the train to be the Dutchman or the dude to be the Dutchman or the woman to be the Dutchman. So I just said, fuck it, it's all Dutchman. I had nothing really fixed in my mind; what I'm saying now is all hindsight. At the time I just felt like writing some stuff, wrote it, went to bed and got up the next day trying to understand what I had written. You know how that is.
SALAAM: After you looked at it again did you do revisions on it?
BARAKA: No, not really. I just looked at it. I didn't understand it.
SALAAM: What do you mean you didn't understand it.
BARAKA: I understood the lines, the words, but I didn't really understand what I was really saying. You can understand the words but not understand what you are saying, like: this is a car. You know what that means, but why are you saying that. What does that mean? I didn't know. So, I left there a couple of days. Then it occured to me the best thing to do with this thing is to look at it. So I submitted it to this workshop I was in. The great benovolent Edward Albee who had made some money off the Zoo Story and Bessie Smith had started this workshop. In fact, Adrienne Kennedy and myself were in that workshop, and quite a few, I thought, intersting white playwrights. Israel Horowitz, a guy name Jack Richardson--Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You In The Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad--, McNally, and a couple of other interesting playwrights. I had got up in there because I had started writing this drama and I thought that maybe it would help me. I had written about three or four plays before that, The Baptism, The Toilet. I had written some plays and lost them. We did one of them on the radio, The Revolt of the Moon Flowers. I don't know what happened to them. Somebody will come up with it.
SALAAM: At this point you were doing a lot of what some people would call automatic writing?
BARAKA: Yeah, but I always do a lot of that. I always allow myself to be as free as I can be within the context of what I think I want to say. I always feel that whatever is in you is probably a little more knowledgable about you than you. The best thing you can do is make sure it doesn't get crazy; it's like you're releasing something out of yourself. It's like you turn on a faucet and stuff starts pouring out of you but you can't let it just run wild, but it's certainly something coming out of you and the best thing is to let it flow but at the same time guide that flow. You can't just be completely unconscious.
SALAAM: So you want to organize the flow of the outpouring of the self?
BARAKA: Right. You don't want to just be...
BARAKA: Right. You want to keep some kind of hand on it, some kind of consciousness. It can't be completely unconscious.
SALAAM: You had written Blues People, which is a formal study, you had done this major fiction piece, A System of Dante's Hell, you were doing the poetry, and you had gotten off into the drama. Why were you working in so many different forms?
BARAKA: Because I never thought I shouldn't. To tell you the truth, I like that I could do that. That intrigued me as a person. No, there are no restrictions on any of this, that's someone else's problem, it's not mine. I do what I want to do and I always thought what gave me that liscense to do that was the fact that I said that, that I had that feeling. I also felt that I never had any kind of strict need to be governed by America in that way. Even as a little boy I always felt that, I ain't yall cause if I was yall, I wouldn't be going through these changes I'm going through. I wouldn't have to be this Black outsider. If I was in the shit with yall, I wouldn't have to be me, so since I am me, fuck yall in terms of that. I will determine what I do. If I want to write plays, poetry, essays and anything else, I'm going to do that. Why? Because I can do that and I don't see any reason not to do that. My view was that I'm not restricted by yall because I'm not with yall. Yall have told us that: we ain't yall, therefore why should we be restricted by yall? I had that sense real young.
SALAAM: But at the same time, when you were first writing that stuff. Like the interview with you about Kulchur and Totem press and the guy was asking you about that. He asked you about being a "negro writer." The line you used was something like, If I'm looking at a bus, I don't have to say that I'm a negro looking at a bus pass by full of people, I can just say there's a bus passing by full of people.
BARAKA: Well, you see, the point is that I could understand that what I felt was in that anyway. What I felt was going to be in that. I could say, I am a negro looking at that but, but even if I said, I'm looking at that bus, it's still me. The point was how do you invest that actuality into what you have created. How do you make sure that's in there? It is in there formally because you said it's in there and you are actually a negro, but how do you make sure that's in there? Well, once the whole Malcolm thing came about, we got super on top of being Black. I think what I said then was correct except that later on we wanted to make sure that it was actually in there, that it was actually functioning, because it doesn't change the object. If I say look at that lamp or if I say I am Black, look at that lamp, it doesn't change the lamp but the question is what recognition of yourself do you want and what interest does that recognition serve. The insistence of Blackness might be its own worth. The real consciousness of being Black might affect your description of the lamp even if you don't say that. It might affect how you perceive the lamp. That's what I was wrestling with; yeah, there's still the bus but it's also still me saying it. But it is true that the degree to which you want that to be in that description is important.
SALAAM: At this point, your work was not autobiography in the sense that people talk about formal autobiography, but it was autobiographical in the same sense that a musician's solo is autobiographical. You had your voice and you were telling a story, much of which happened to you but a lot of which happened to you on an imaginative level and not necessarily on what would be called a factual level.
BARAKA: Yeah, it's like a doubled up kind of thing. Certain things that actually happen give you a certain kind of experience, part of that experience is just a recounting of what actually went down but certain parts of it is just a result of what happened. The experience gives you an experience, the actual experience gives you another experience. So now you're dealing with what happened and with what that happening made you think. That's the double up thing. Now, if you try to talk about what happened and about what that happening made you think without roping one off from the other, you know, without trying to separate them then you are creating another kind of form. But let me tell you about the form of Dante. What I thought of--and this is really a musical kind of insistence--I thought I'm going to get something in my mind but I'm not going to talk about it directly. I'm going to get something in my mind and I'm going to talk about what it makes me think about. Like if I think about New Orleans but I don't mention New Orleans directly but I let whatever kind of imagery comes out of that New Orleans just course as freely as it can while keeping my own hand on it to a certain extent. That is what I called my "association complexes"--I thought up a name for it for some reason. I would say this and whatever came off of that, I would run it. And that's what Dante was actually about. I was trying to run through the literal to the imaginative. That's what I was doing: taking an image and playing off of it. I thought that was something like musicians who take harmonies and play of it or taking the melody, dispensing with the melody and playing some other stuff.
SALAAM: You were doing the Cherokee/Koko thing?
SALAAM: You might alter the changes a little bit, but you were definitely changing the melody?
BARAKA: Oh yeah. I didn't want the melody. The melody was old, auld lang sgyne. I didn't want that. I figured that whatever I was going to play was going to come up in the same changes but it was going to be relevant.
SALAAM: What was your thinking about what people had to say about System? The reason I'm asking that is because the plays people could relate to as plays, the poems they had references for, particularly the early poems that they could deal with from an academic perspective, but System was a whole other kind of thing.
BARAKA: Like I said, I was trying to get away from what a whole bunch of people were doing, so it didn't make any difference to me. I saw this magazine for the first time in, I don't know, twenty or thirty some years, the magazine was called the Trembling Lamb. They published the first five, six or seven sections of Dante and I thought it was a breakthrough because I thought it was something different from what the little circumscribed community of the downtown hip was doing. So recognizing that, or at least what I thought I was recognizing, well, whatever people think, they'll think differently after awhile. It didn't make any difference to me what they thought.
SALAAM: So after it came out and you started getting reactions from people, what did you think?
BARAKA: Well, I never got any bad reactions at first. I got some reactions from critics whom I didn't think knew anything anyway, so that didn't mean anything. But in terms of my peers, I never got any bad criticism that would make me think I needed to do something else.
SALAAM: You describe it as a breakthrough...
BARAKA: A breakout!
SALAAM: So you make a breakout but all of sudden it's like you stopped writing fiction as far as the reading public goes?
BARAKA: I didn't see it that way.
SALAAM: I'm not saying you stopped writing fiction, I'm saying as far as the reading public goes what fiction came out after that?
BARAKA: Tales. But then when I look at it--well, the first couple of pieces in Tales are from Dante. They were written in the same period. And then a lot of those things that are post-Dante are still making use of the Dante technique. As a matter of fact Tales covers three periods, there's stuff from downtown, from Harlem, and even stuff from Newark. But it is the same kind of approach.
SALAAM: Ok, but then what? With the fiction--the reason I'm asking you specifically about the fiction is because publically we can trace Amiri Baraka the playwright. The plays are there, even the ones that haven't been produced that much, the scripts have been in circulation and in many cases published. The same for the essays and definitely the same for the poetry. Even when they weren't published formally, informally they were circulated around. But the fiction, not so. And at the same time, if we talk about a major breakthrough in terms of form, you probably made the biggest breakthrough with the fiction.
BARAKA: Hmmm. I guess you're right. But, you know, nobody ever asked me to write a novel.
SALAAM: What about the Putnam thing where they asked you to write...
BARAKA: Yeah, but then I wrote it and they didn't like it. See, the point is this is how I can guage what I can do. I'm a poet. How do I know that? I write poetry all the time. Can't nobody say shit to me about poetry. That's where I am. But if you want me to do some other stuff, you're going to have to say something about that. Like I wrote a lot of pieces of fiction in the last couple of years but that's because I decided to do that. I had some other stuff on my mind. I thought that maybe--and I still believe this--I shouldn't write fiction and I shouldn't write plays unless they are a form of poetry, that's my view of it.
SALAAM: What do you mean by that?
BARAKA: I mean that's the only way I think of writing. I would not think of writing a play or a piece of fiction unless it was poetic in the sense of investing the same kind of attention to the lines, and the rhythm, and the imagery. That's why in the last couple of years I've been writing fiction just to see what that's about. I'm very curious about things like that. I know that as far as the day to day America of my own mind, I'm a poet. That's the only thing I will do without nobody bothering me or asking me to do. I don't need nothing or no one to do that. I will write poems because I am alive. I will write them on envelops, books, paperbags. I'll write on anything in the world, newspapers, paper towels, toilet paper, anything. That's got something to do with your own obsession, your own modus operandi.
SALAAM: What I'm getting at is that you were conscious that you made a breakthrough with Dante and you were consciously trying to do something different. You were consciously trying to be different and you succeeded at being different.
BARAKA: Which allowed me then to continue doing what I was doing in the first place. In other words, once I discovered that I had gotten past that, then I could write poetry if I wanted to do it. For me, although I am interested in anything at any given time, poetry is the fundamentaly interesting things because it's the shortest and the most intense.
SALAAM: Yeah, but you write some long poems.
BARAKA: That's because I can sustain that, but I still believe that poetry is the most intense and the most direct.
SALAAM: In terms of what you do technically, at one point you were trying to write a certain way. Now that you have proved that you can write a certain way, do you still try to write in specific ways or do you just write?
BARAKA: I just write. It like that Billy the Kid story. Billy the Kid was walking down the street and his nephew said he wanted a whistle, so Billy pulls out his gun and pee-owww, shoots a reed through. And they said, how do you do that, Billy, without aiming. Billy says, I was always aiming. The point is that you get skills and understanding that is part of your whole thing and that gives you the confidence to do it, once you know you can do it. Whatever you need to do you can do that because you have already done it, you have thought about it, and you know what that is. To me that's the initial gratification. I think there's a lot of gratification in that people don't even know about. People see the results of it, but there's a lot of stuff about form and content that nobody will ever really know why they did it. It's a matter of actually feeling your own self. For instance, Art Tatum. They say Tatum would practice twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day. Now somebody practice the piano sixteen hours a day, when it comes time to play, playing ain't nothing. It's effortless. But what was he doing in that crib for sixteen hours.
SALAAM: So what kind of shedding do you do?
BARAKA: Shedding? Well I do that all the time. I throw a lot of stuff away. I mean I write a lot of stuff and throw it away, but it don't be a long thing, it might be a series of short things. I mean experiments with stuff, with voices, tenses, the abulative, the past perfect.
SALAAM: So you try all kinds of things?
BARAKA: Why not? I don't want to be held down by the language. In other words, if you just know one thing, well that's all you can do, but if I know that in this tense I can do such and such, then there's all kinds of stuff that can come to you imaginatively.
SALAAM: Are you viewing it like music then? You take a given theme, but you know that if you play it in a minor key you will get one feeling and if you put some major chords in it, you will get a different feeling?
BARAKA: Absolutely, absolutely. It's always music in that sense. I always use the reference of music to justify anything wild that I might want to do in writing. I mean I could go from James P. Johnson, to Duke Ellington, to Monk and be playing the same tune, but it come out different sounding. Listen to Liza for instance. How much more stength do you have to know all three of those references, to have all that laid out in your mind...
SALAAM: And not just to know it abstractly, but to be able to do that. To be able to play like that. That's one thing about using the music as a reference: all the cats who were innovators, who make a breaktrhough and made a contribution and created a new form, they had first mastered a previous form.
BARAKA: I would agree with that, yes.
SALAAM: So in a sense you were working at mastering the previous shit, so you could do the out shit?
BARAKA: Oh yeah. Absolutely. At a certain point when you get to that (he mimics running scales on a piano), that itself provides the logos for doing the next. You keep saying well I did that shit, so what's next? if you were free to do what that suggests, what would you do? Play backwards, play it upside down. What if I took just those two notes? You know what I mean? What are the feelings that come out of there.
SALAAM: So then you're talking about the freedom principle?
BARAKA: That's what it is. It's nothing else but that.
SALAAM: Did you ever decide to be a writer and if so when?
BARAKA: I think I decided when I got back to New York from the service. When I first came back I was thinking that maybe I would be a painter.
SALAAM: You were really thinking about being a painter?
BARAKA: Yeah, but at the time I said, well, that's too much work to buy the canvas, and then to have to buy paints, framing shit and having shit all stacked up in the studio. I thought that, finally, that was too much trouble.
SALAAM: Did you like painting?
BARAKA: Oh yeah.
SALAAM: What did you like about it?
BARAKA: The question of interpreting something from real life and making it into an image of it. That was interesting. Plus, my mother had sent me to all these different classes. I took piano lessons, drum lessons, trumpet lessons--I must have taken piano lessons three different times. I went to drawing and painting lessons. That was when Newark was a real city and they had these classes with teachers all over the place, but then the middle class left to pay us back for burning Newark down around `66. Anyway, that's why I had a broad kind of aesthetic and knowledge about creating stuff.
SALAAM: Ok, you had all those music and art classes, but you only had one creative writing class and that was in high school. Is that right?
BARAKA: Yeah, but my mother used to have me reciting the Gettysburg address once a year in a Boy Scout suit, and she would have me singing, there was always some kind of approach to word, image and music. I always had that in my mind as points of a triangle.
SALAAM: Of the three, which one held the most interest for you early on?
BARAKA: The music because I always wanted to do that but the word was always closer. I always had more control and more understanding of the word.
SALAAM: So why did you go to New York thinking about being a painter if the music was what you liked and the word was what you could deal with the easiest?
BARAKA: Because I had given up the idea of being a musician when I went away to college. I used to play the trumpet locally until I went away to school. When I went away to school, I never picked it up again. I figure it must have been something. Maybe it was the closeness to the word that relieved me of that other need to deal with the music. It was the closeness to the word and then a beginning to see the word as a kind of music that I could control as opposed to the instrument.
SALAAM: Which you could play but which you couldn't control as much as you could the word?
BARAKA: I didn't have the kind of facility. The things I had in my head as far as music, I never got close to except with words.
SALAAM: So what you were carrying around in your head, you tried to get it out with the horn and it wouldn't come but with words it would come out?
BARAKA: Yeah. With the horn I could just hear it, I heard what I wanted. I heard trumpet players who sounded like I would have played like that if I could have played. I would hear people say, damn, that sound something like Miles, but Miles was a paradigm rather than what I wanted to sound like. As a kid I used to try to play like Miles and be like Miles but actually it changed at different times. At one point I thought Kenny Dorham was closest to what I wanted to sound like, then parts of Don Cherry, than parts of this kid named Norman Howard who played with Albert Ayler. But it all was a kind of word making sound. That's what I liked about Kenny it would be (imitates a Kenny Dorham riff), that clipped, staccato sound, that sound of actually breaking it down to almost syllables and vowels rather than that logato sound. I guess it was more percussive and sounded more like spoken phrases.
SALAAM: So after Howard you went to the service.
BARAKA: Yeah, after I got thrown out. I wouldn't never read the stuff asigned for class, I was reading all the time but I wouldn't read assignments. I had taken chemistry, that pre-med stuff. I got very bad marks in chemistry. The only courses I really did well in was, perdicatably, English, the humanities, philosophy, that kind of stuff, although I got good marks in physics for some reason. But chemistry and all that other stuff, I bombed in that.
SALAAM: You were thrown out because of academic reasons?
BARAKA: Yeah. Plus, I had been thrown out two or three times for various things.
SALAAM: Like what?
BARAKA: Well mostly for academics but also for not being cool. I had a real bad reputation in the dormitory and my room was always filled with merrymakers. A whole crowd would be in there. So the dormitory director was always in there. We had like a crew actually. It was a combination of Jersey, New York, and Philly in the main, but we also had some Chicago people and we even had a couple of hip dudes from St. Louis and Detroit. I guess it was a big city thing.
SALAAM: So there is no currency to the rumor that you were thrown out for eating watermelon.
BARAKA: Well, that was one of my suspensions but that didn't get me thrown out. What happened was I was just sitting out on campus on a park bench cutting this watermelon in half. I wasn't even eating. Actually, I was just sitting there with it and was about to cut it because half of the watermelon belonged to another dude, Tom Weaver, who is now a lawyer in Philadelphia. Half of it was his, so I was sitting there. But, you know, we knew what we were doing. We were making fun of these negroes. I was sitting there with it and this guy comes up to me and says, hey, don't you know you're at the capstone of negro education and you're sitting there blah, blah, blah--get rid of it. I said, well, I'll get rid of the half that's mine--which was, of course, more bullshit. [Howard President] Bush figured that we were fucking with him all the time. I don't know if the watermelon qua watermelon was the real deal, although to be sure the negroes didn't like that, but I don't know if it was a regular colored person with watermelon and he said that to them and they just left, I don't know if it would have had the same impact.
SALAAM: ...as when it was the leader of the merry pranksters?
BARAKA: Right. He knew we hadn't just wandered in off the fields with that watermelon. So he figured what are you niggers trying to do, you know you're trying to make a joke. That was funny to us because we thought they were corny anyway. Nobody there dug Charlie Parker. That's the way we estimated it. They didn't dig Charlie Parker so they didn't know what was really hip.
SALAAM: What year was this?
SALAAM: When you got kicked out what did you tell your parents?
BARAKA: I told them I got kicked out. There was nothing else I could tell them. That's when I went to the service, because I was really hurt and embarassed. I was embarassed because they were hurt.
SALAAM: Because you didn't mean to hurt them.
BARAKA: No, but I was their oldest son. I had scholarships when I went away from home. I wasn't supposed to just dive bomb like that. I don't know what they thought really except that they were surprised and disappointed that I had fucked it up like that.
SALAAM: And then you headed on in to the service which was a complete disaster.
BARAKA: Complete! I figured I had dive bombed into the underworld then. I even saw some of the guys I had been in college with who were now officers and I was like an airman nothing. I didn't have any stripes and then I got to be an airman third class and had one stripe, an airman second class with two stripes, while most of these dudes--hey, some of the dudes I was in school with are admirals and generals now. Andy Chambers the head of the naval something. Tim Bodie the head of air military command or some shit. A lot of these jet pilots was close friends of mine. The guy who was head of the secret service that guarded the president was my roommate in college.
SALAAM: You were kicked out of the air force also weren't you? What was the specific charge?
BARAKA: I was kicked out of the air force for fraudulent enlistment.
SALAAM: What was fraudulent about your enlistment?
BARAKA: That I hadn't told them that I was a red, that I had been fucking with people who were on the House Unamerican Activities Committee. It was largely bullshit, but you know. Remember they had the attorney general's list, which turned out to be completely unconstitutional, but the list which listed these organizations which were "out." Well, a couple of those organizations I had had affiliation with.
SALAAM: When they asked you or when you enlisted?
BARAKA: When they asked me later and when I thought about it, I told them.
SALAAM: These are your late teens and early twenties; was there any place that you could stay that was acceptable to you and you to them?
BARAKA: I don't know. I'm still trying to figure that out. When they kicked me out of the village, I thought that was complete.
SALAAM: What do you mean "when they kicked you out of the village"?
BARAKA: When I left. It's the same thing; when you figure you can't stay there anymore, when you figure that whatever they are doing you don't want any part of it, so what's the difference? In other words, when the management grows intolerable, you have to hit the road. If you don't hit the road then, that means you're just fooling around.
SALAAM: You were doing a Trane book a while back, whatever happened to it?
BARAKA: It's still around. The early chapters, about five or six chapters, are there, plus I've written reams of stuff on Coltrane that would go into it. So, I would do that early stuff and I would add all the stuff I written since and that would be the book.
SALAAM: Is Trane the only person you've done a book like that on?
BARAKA: No, I've got a book like that on Monk, and one on Miles, and probably Duke in a minute.
SALAAM: So what do you do, you just write this stuff? I mean, how do you write stuff like this knowing that it probably won't get published?
BARAKA: Some of it is published in small journals, some of it is published in Europe, some of it is fugitive stuff published in this review, that review, stuff all over, which when taken together would make a book. I would probably put a circle around it as an overview of the material, but I know there's enough material to make a book. Oh, I have a book on Malcolm X too. It's about thirteen or fourteen essays and some other stuff, seven or eight poems and a couple of plays. You know but it's li