The great poet, playwright and activist Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) passed away today at the age of 79. I had the great honor of interviewing the former poet laureate of New Jersey in November 2008. Below is a recording of the podcast of that interview, and a rough transcript of our conversation. Rest in peace to a brilliant man and an incredible soul.
Download my interview with the late Amiri Baraka from November 2008 below:
Click here to download or listen. (Rough Transcript follows)
Dr. Kent: Welcome to Sound Authors. It’s Friday November 21st. This week is the week of thanksgiving and much more. It’s the leaves have started to fall off the trees, its beautiful weather; crisp air, you can see the stars at night and feel the chill – even inside. It’s a wonderful time of year. We’ve got three guests on the show today. At the very end of the show a fellow named Michael Cleveland, who won five international bluegrass music association fiddle player of the year awards. Then I’ve got a new author on the show named Carson Gilmore. He’s got a book called Boy on Fire. My special guest is at the beginning of the show today. His name is Amiri Baraka and he’s a world famous poet, writer, activist and its such an honor to have him on the show. He’s won many awards and we’ll talk to him right now. Welcome to the show Amiri Baraka.
Amiri Baraka: Yeah, how ya doin?
Dr. Kent: I’m doing great. How are you?
Amiri Baraka: I’m okay, I’m alright. I’m looking out the window at this beautiful fall day just before it turns cold.
Dr. Kent: Exactly. Let me ask you just to start out as a book that just is coming out in January 2009 in a couple of months of your essays from the 60s called Home, Social Essays and there’s a piece in here during one of the essays where you talk about hope and you said the old folks kept singing there will be a better day or the suns going to shine in my back door someday, and I’ve had my fun if I don’t get well no more, then what would that fun turn out to be and you said hope is a delicate suffering. And I wanted to ask you about that because Barack Obama just became the President elect and he ran on hope. What are your thoughts about that?
Amiri Baraka: Well I think we all experienced that delicate suffering you know fighting for him. I made several appearances speaking. Not officially of course but in forums and groups urging them to support Barack Obama because to me its just part of the civil rights movement. I see it as the fruition of the struggles of people like Dr. King, Carmichael and Malcolm X.
I feel it’s the fruition of their struggles at a much higher level and because of the inherent democratic content of that struggle, it raises the whole society to another level and we are approaching yet another cross roads. I mean capitalism obviously but capitalism, Barack’s in a position where he has to take on the battle of FDR, Franklin Roosevelt and I hope that in those first 100 days he can throw 100 left hooks and jabs and right crosses and get some kind of legislation passed that can transform this society as much as it can be transformed under this kind of debt.
It was a real highlight of my life to interview Galway Kinnell in 2008, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, Wallace Stevens Prize, and former poet laureate of the state of Vermont.
Here is a selected transcript of our interview.
Dr. Kent: Are you working on a new book? Is there a new project going on? Are you supporting these? What’s your plan right now?
Galway Kinnell: I don’t really have plans you know, usually. Occasionally I do. For example, when I wrote The Book of Nightmares, it’s one long poem and it self forms a book. So from the beginning of that until the end I didn’t write anything else and I considered that I had a plan to finish this poem and publish it but that was uncharacteristic. I just write poems and then publish them in magazines maybe and revise them from time to time and put them in a little pile and if the pile gets a little thick, then I think well, maybe I should put out a book.
Dr. Kent: So you mentioned The Book of Nightmares. I’m curious about and that was concerned with the Vietnam War. I’m wondering what your take is right now. Are you writing poetry that’s political then; that was back in 1971, are you still in that place?
Galway Kinnell: Well not really but partly. I think in some of these poems I’ve been writing this Iraq War has slid in and I don’t know provides a kind of context for what I’m writing about, whereas in the Vietnam war I wrote a lot of poems specifically about the war. Trying to persuade the young people from supporting it.
Dr. Kent: And now at the same time you also served in the military and from what I gather you were also in Iran?
Galway Kinnell: Yeah I was in the Navy in the Second World War and I spent about maybe ten years later I spent two years in Iran. Not quite two years. Two chunks of two years, maybe it all added up to a year and a half. I lived in Tehran and I went there as a Fulbright Professor, as a teacher at the university of Tehran and I did and made a lot of acquaintances among the students. Then my time came to go but I didn’t want to go, I was so attracted by this country and so I stayed around for quite a while after that and made my living by writing for the English language edition of the Tehran Journal. I translated a newspaper, the first prominent newspaper.
Dr. Kent: So it sounds like a painful experience through the years to see Iran in the news for the last 25 years.
Galway Kinnell: Yes indeed. At the time I was there the money, the oil money had not started to pour in the way it did later and the Shah who was very progressive in many ways in road building and removing any fines for people, women without fedoras and so on. He was very good in that respect but you could tell that he didn’t really connect with the people. He stood apart and he could not have stayed in there very long and then the oil money came in. This was after I left, and then he was able to do whatever he wanted without any fear and his fear, the fear of the Americans who were there and of the Iranian Regime; their fear was of the left. Everyone was caught by surprise when the revolution came from the right.
Dr. Kent: How did all of this turn for you into a career in poetry? Were you a poet even back at the very beginning in the Navy? When did you sort of start to own your poetness?
Galway Kinnell: I never call myself a poet. Robert Frost said that the term poet is a word of praise and therefore one must never apply it to oneself or it sounds like boasting. But in any case, I was serious about writing my poetry even before I went in the navy and when I was in boot camp I was put in charge of 120 men who had also come into boot camp at that time and I was put in charge because I had taken a semester of college. Then I fell into the habit at night when everyone was in bed and it was very quiet of reading one poem before the lights went out. So, I’ve been interested in poetry, in writing poetry basically all my life but I hadn’t published anything then. When I was in Iran my first book was published in this country and mailed to me. That was very satisfying to see that book.
“We hit that tree with the sound of lightning.”
I nearly lost my life in a car accident on the afternoon of 3/11/2001, exactly 6 months before 9/11. That event and its aftermath forced me to reexamine my life, and to dedicate myself from that day forward to “things that matter.”
The leaves are almost all fallen here in Pennsylvania where we are currently hanging our hats. I hope that you have braved the first snows and freezes of autumn with good courage and many cups of hot tea.
After teaching Millenials for a decade at Stony Brook University and a few other small colleges in New York, and working with clients from military generals to CEOs to young entrepreneurs, I see one thing on the decline everywhere I look: #creativity.
That’s the main reason I applied for, and accepted the invitation to speak at the TEDxSBU conference last month. It was a great honor to see the big TED Talk symbol behind me on the stage, to have incredible filming done by Livestream and Stony Brook, and to spend 18 minutes on the red carpeted dot that so many incredible thought leaders have stood upon over the past few years.
I delivered the most emotionally difficult speech of my life.
Please take a listen, and start the conversation with those around you about the importance of creativity in this fast-paced world.
I know that TED Talks are long. This is no exception. I used just about every one of my allotted 1080 seconds to deliver my message. So here’s the deal. If you listen to this TEDx speech of mine, I will give you something that takes me 18 minutes to do. You name it, and I’ll do it! Just drop me a line, or hit me up on social media with your request. (No reasonable request will be refused)
My former students enjoy the part of the talk where I describe the incredible power of creativity in our lives and work. I describe our experiences and training as a “wingsuit,” and encourage us to make more “leaps” in our lives — to take measured risks — and in my favorite line of the talk, I say: “We will #fail, but we will never fall.”
Here’s just one more thought to leave you with. I believe there is significance to sharing our stories with people. I could have spoken about so many things, whether music (where I have my PhD and academic credentials), publishing or business (where I make my career and run a successful company). But I decided to speak about the three words that changed the rest of my life. Ever since March 11, 2001, I have decided to blink my eyes open each morning and do things that matter.
How about you?
I would love to hear your thoughts — and how you blink your eyes open each day. We are alive! Also, if you are moved by this talk, please drop me a line and/or spread the word: