Archives For February 2013

Dylan the (Secretly) Well Dressed

Bob Dylan

“You never seem to give yourself away completely, but of course dark-haired people are so mysterious.”
Remark made by Lucien Carr to Jack Kerouac
in Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters

The black shirt with the white polka dots triggered the message that Bob Dylan was well dressed. It was subtle, but it was there in the cut of a tailored jacket, the angle of a hat, and the shape of his shades. This is a quick, informal, and incomplete study using photos from a recently published bio, album covers, and a viewing of No Direction Home (superb Allen Ginsberg moments).

Bob was definitely grooving in hip threads—after the Chaplinesque early Village debut and the plaid shirts and Woody work clothes. On that cold 1963 day with Suze Rotolo walking on Jones Street, garbed in a thin suede jacket with hands thrust in the pockets of his somewhat baggy jeans: casual and freezing, they present the world with an image of happy young love.

The 1965 black leather jacket at Newport signals a high-voltage change.

The 1966 corduroy jacket with the high collar, New Castle, England, so mysterious, like Garbo, and the tousled halo of curls, the aquiline nose, and puffed lips, seal the veiled sophisticated glamour.

Seersucker Bob wearing eyeglasses—the country squire, stay-at-home Daddy in Woodstock —conservative, traditional, but who else could pull that off?

Dylan as Alias in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid looks cowboy chic, bearded and hatted, and a dandy of a hat it is.

Bob in black and Johnny Cash in white in a black-and-white still photo from The Johnny Cash Show 1970, Bob with short hair appears every inch a cowboy angel—by the way, wasn’t JC the man in black? On the television show, both men in black, minus hat, curls, and glasses, is Dylan revealed in all his heartbreakingly handsome glory.

Who could forget that dapper, hand-crafted hat worn on the Rolling Thunder Review in 1975— with a patchwork quilt fur, multicolored fur? (Why not the return of fine haberdashery, Harry S. Truman?)

Robert the Nazarene, in a Palestinian keffiyeh, what a great look for he with the Arctic blue eyes.

Outlaw heroes, the posse of Traveling Wilburys rode nostalgic rails in traditional American uniform: jeans and sneakers, but somehow manage to take on the aura of Whitmanesque Civil War veterans. (America is this the final journey? The end of romance and freedom? Where goest thou soft halcyon years?)

And Dylan accepting awards, dressed like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, so chilling and unforgettable an American villain…Dylan the villain?

Everyone’s heard the story of Bob roaming around Long Branch, New Jersey, taking a walk and checking out real estate in a modest working-class neighborhood? This happened in August 2009 when he was on tour with Willie Nelson. On a rainy day he donned a couple of raincoats with the hood up and rubber boots, and he, Bob Dylan of the Hood, was picked up for suspicious behavior by a young police officer. The charge: he a strange man, a stranger, strangely dressed, looked in the window of a house for sale. He startled the residents, so they called the police. The young twenty-something-year-old cop didn’t know or recognize Bob Dylan—both were cited in various news reports—so she politely questioned him, asked for ID that he didn’t have, and brought him in. Everything turned out fine, he seemed amused, but she didn’t know Bob Dylan, ace of disguise.

In the midst of wild decades, he never looked outrageous, he looked self-possessed, dignified, princely. He could fit in anyplace. Who was the inspiration behind much of this fashion image? Perhaps someone even more mysterious than mystery man and that would be the lovely Sara. His best looks years were the years of their marriage.



Illustration by Isaac Bonan

William S. Burroughs on Dreaming

In the seventies and eighties, William S. Burroughs began to tour America doing public readings. These were, to him, performances. He spent a long time preparing for them, and talked at length on subjects close to his heart. He also read from his books, and answered questions from enthusiastic fans. Some of his performances were recorded by the good people at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and this one was put on YouTube:


Down by Law

Down by Law

“It’s a sad and beautiful world.”

            Down by Law a 1986 black-and-white indie comedy starts with gorgeous shots of real life, low-lying New Orleans and two beat characters: Zack the DJ (Tom Waits) and Jack the pimp (John Laurie). They’re battered by women troubles and more troubles and that leads both to Orleans Parish Prison, where they contentiously share a cell—two framed, innocent men.

Roberto (Roberto Benigni), an Italian tourist, gets tossed in with Zack and Jack. Bob killed a man with an eight ball during a card game: one well-aimed hit and the man is dead. Bob’s spirit is so irrepressible that nothing, not even being canned for murder, will keep him down. In his cell, he practices English language skills with his less than willing cell mates, draws a finestra, a window of opportunity, and then screams for ice cream and the whole prison joins in the howl of rebellion.

The three angelheaded hipsters crash through their minds in jail and break out—where they maneuver in the mosquito-screeching backwaters of Louisiana swamps, a place crawling with poisonous snakes and alligators three times the size of a little Italian man who’s bent on knowing American poets, especially Walt Whitman and “Bob” Frost.

A sweet love story saves everyone’s skin, and two of the three begin their life on the forked road less traveled. “Don’t forget to write.” “Wish you were here,” Bob shouts as he bids his friends goodbye in celebration of his new words and freedom.

Down by Law is a treat inciting lots of laughs. Tom Waits, John Laurie, and the supporting cast are all fun to watch, but Roberto Benigni steals the show. It’s amazing what a little story, a genius comic actor, a low budget, and brilliant director (Jim Jarmusch) can produce. A hip soundtrack underscores the heat.



American Zen

Zen Books

Zen Buddhism is nearly impossible to write about. The use of words and logic to explain Zen are in opposition to its nature, one free of such restrictions. The question then arises: how can we know the principles of Zen if we can’t directly talk about them? The solution is that we study the principals of Zen, which are contrivances, to forget them in order to move closer to Zen. The point of such a contradictory exercise is to provide a base from which we practice zazen[1] in order to shed away our dualistic ways of thought and proceed towards Satori[2], or Zen enlightenment. This is at the core of the Zen Buddhist practice and was central to the Buddhist influenced work of the Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jackson Mac Low. These writers used Zen Buddhism as an influence to present a countercultural Zen aesthetic that frees the reader from the mainstream materialistic culture by exemplifying what an understanding of a truer nature of existence or satori-like experience might look like with poems that mirror the meditative practice of zazen. Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta” synthesizes Zen enlightenment while Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” provide us with zazen meditative “kôans” to contemplate. These poems are awakenings that transcend the dualistic and show us how we can arrive at a deeply realized nature of existence.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Last Night In Calcutta” begins: “Still night./ The old Clock ticks,/ half past two. A ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling. The gate is locked/on the street outside–sleepers, mustaches,/nakedness,/but no desire. A few mosquitoes/waken the itch, the fan turns slowly–/a car thunders along the black asphalt,/a bull snorts, something is expected–/Time sits solid in the four yellow walls.” (1-11) The opening phrase “Still night” frames the poem and the quietude of this opening utterance accomplishes two things: it centers the poem in the present, and invites us into Ginsberg’s zazen meditation. The lines that follow further establish this work as a meditation. The poet’s perception of his surrounding, the “old clock ticks…a ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling,” show him embarking on his meditation and exemplify his opening of “the hand of thought” through zazen practice. These lines are fixed in Calcutta, May 22, 1963, and present a grounded immediacy. This is what is, there is no construction, no imposition, these lines are and “time sits solid in the four yellow walls” of this place.

This opening initiates the zazen meditation and becomes more deeply entranced in Zen with the twelfth and thirteenth lines that read, “No one is here, emptiness filled with train/ whistles & dog barks, answered a block away.” (12-13) The statement is curious. If no one is here, who is writing the poem? The disintegration of the ego, of “I”, is essential in Zen, and for man to move closer to satori he must not suffer under the imposition of selfhood. Ginsberg is exercising this freedom, removing signs of egotism and self in order to get to the true nature of existence. We must note that Ginsberg, quite a self referential, does not use any personal pronouns in this poem and this is a testament to this poem’s Zen aesthetic. These selfless lines drive the poem deeper into zazen and set the poem in orbit around a possible satori state of transcendence.

The rest of the poem hovers around the Zen principal of satori and shows what this awakening to the nature of existence might look like. Ginsberg shows us that his meditation reshapes his understanding of existence and delivers him to a higher understanding through Zen. This epiphany is exemplified in the thirty-sixth line of the poem: “Skin is sufficient to be skin, that is all.” The realization that skin is skin shows the new way of thought achievable through enlightenment. This line is a shedding of meaning and focuses on the true nature of existence through Zen as being one that is inexplicable. This poem encapsulates Ginsberg’s aesthetic understanding of Zen and its poetic application. Ginsberg simulates the zazen process for us as readers with this poem and shows us what a satori epiphany looks like.

Gary Snyder’s poem “Riprap” and Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” are both Zen poems that provide us with “riprap” of our own on our journey towards satori. Snyder’s and Mac Low’s poems are not exhibitions of satori or an awakened state (as we saw with Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta”) but instead they are kôans that are meant to provide us with meditations that contribute to our Zen practice. We must quickly define “Kôan” and “Riprap” so that we may understand how these poets use these ideas in their poems. A “kôan” is a fundamental part of Zen Buddhism; it is a story, dialogue, question, or statement provided by a Zen master for a student to meditate on during zazen. A kôan is meant to transcend rational thought moving one closer to an intuitive state on the way to satori. “Riprap” is loosely defined as a set of stones one lies down on as a path to create traction, and we can see how a kôan might be considered a mental riprap of sorts. The concept of both of these poems, as kôans that provide us as readers with riprap, creates a framework into which we may understand the Zen aesthetic Mac Low and Snyder employ.

Snyder’s poem “Riprap” opens with the lines, “Lay down these words/ before your mind like rocks.” (1-2) This is an invitation. The poem is presented as a kôan with these lines, and Snyder is asking us to use this poem as “riprap” for our own personal zazen exercise. Snyder, like a Zen master, guides us through a meditation: “place [these words] solid, by hands/ in choice of place, set before the body of the mind in space and time:” (3-6) This instruction ends with a colon and the poem then lists what we are to “set before the body of the mind” to meditate on in this kôan. Snyder lists, “Solidity of bark, lead, or wall/ riprap of things:/ Cobble of milky way,/ straying planets/ these poems, people.” (7-11) The solidities in the first line send us into contemplation on the categorization of things and attempts to strip the meaning from this duality through juxtaposition. We are challenged to question this quality of things as “solid.” The list of “milky way” “straying planets” “poems” and “people” presents another set of comparisons. Snyder’s kôan poem induces a zazen state that forces us question the linguistic duality or separation of things, and we can’t help but meditate on the question: are we part of the Milky Way, a straying planet, a person, or are we poems? Finishing this poem we come to question the initial invitation of “laying down these words” and sit with the kôan contemplating if these words are riprap from which we gain a footing on our Zen way, or are we meant to lie down and forget the words that make us this poem.

Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” is a kôan that invites us into contemplation like the poem “Riprap” by Gary Snyder. The fundamental difference between Snyder’s poem and Mac Low’s is that “1st Dance” is more obtuse and lacks the instructive quality seen in Snyder’s poem. “1st Dance”, from the collection The Pronouns, opens with the pronoun “He.”(1) This is quite different from Ginsberg’s pronounless “Last Night in Calcutta” and Snyder’s use of the possessive “your” in “Riprap.” Mac Low’s use of the indefinite pronoun creates an ambiguity not present in the other poems. We immediately begin to question who “He” is. The poem then proceeds with a series of surrealistic images of what “He” does. The first two lines read, “He makes himself comfortable/ & matches parcels.” What does Mac Low mean by “matches parcels?” There is an inherent contradiction in “matching” or bringing together in pairs and “parceling” or dividing into portions. The lines that follow also stultify. Mac Low writes in lines 6-7, “Soon after, he’s giving cushions or seeming to do so,/ taking opinions” and we are left to wonder what this means. These lines act, just as Snyder’s poem, as a kôan, but are more perplexing because of these strange images that clear our mind and break down our categorized thought.

Mac Low ends the poem with, “A little while later he gets out with things/ & finally either rewards someone for something or goes up under/ something.” (15-17) and these final lines are an ambiguous riddle which sends us into a state of zazen that transcends rational thought. There is less invitation and instruction here compared with Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low seems less of a Zen master and more of a Zen practitioner. Mac Low pushes with this poem towards the transcendence of dualistic meaning and both ushers us and forces himself along on the journey towards satori. This poem offers a pure Zen aesthetic that initially confounds but hidden deep within it is the possibility of eventual satori state of enlightenment.

There are a few problems regarding these poems as Zen poems that we must confront. Zen Buddhism is a laborious task. There are no quick roads in Zen. In the early 1950’s, D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts popularized the principles of Zen in the Western world, and made them seem quickly accessible to all and any, (these poets are adapting Zen from what they learned from Watts and Suzuki and these poems make Zen seem extremely accessible.) This claim for Zen as accessible to all is not the case. Zen is something you dedicate your life to, that you must practice rigorously each day. Zazen is an especially painstaking activity of thousands of hours of meditation in order that one might come close to satori, while knowing quite well that they might never achieve this understanding. If this is the case, why do Ginsberg, Snyder and Mac Low write these poems that synthesize the zazen meditation? The answer is that these poets are showing us how this Zen process works and are using the zazen meditation and the kôan as a framework to present a poetic counter-reality that uses Buddhism as an aesthetic principal. This type of poem allows Ginsberg to show us what satori might look like, and for Snyder and Mac Low to help us on our way by providing meditative kôans. These poems invite the reader into a zazen state that opens his eyes to question: how can we transcend rational thought, break free of mainstream materialistic culture, and get closer to understanding the true nature of existence? These men show us this is possible, and that the Zen way is the road that will get us there even if it is not true to the sense of Zen, but instead what we then must call “American Zen.”


1. Zazen is the Buddhist meditative practice of “opening the hand of thought.”  This is done while sitting and allowing the mind to become unhindered by its many layers.  When this is achieved the experience gives way to an insight into the nature of existence and the individual then gains satori or enlightenment.


2. Satori refers to the “enlightenment” or individual awakening to a world that transcends the dualistic mind and deeply realizes the nature of existence as it is achieved through Zen.



This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #12. You can buy it on Amazon (as a paperback or ebook), or at our webstore.


New Beatdom Store

In order for Beatdom Books to move forward and deliver to its customers the best products in the most convenient manner, we have done our best to provide a quality online presence. Sadly, without much in the way of income, we have been unable to keep our site as relevant and up-to-date as it should be, and so it has fallen into disrepair.

However, this past week has seen a huge overhaul, with not only the removal of outdated information, but the improvement of functionality and aesthetics.

In other words, it’s less shitty.

Obviously these developments are not without their hitches, and we ask our dear readers to inform us of any issues they encounter while trying to purchase our products or peruse our sites. We hope that you enjoy our new home, and that you are able to learn more about our ever-growing stable of talented writers.

The First Fifty Years of City Lights

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One of the many rewarding aspects of editing Beatdom is that of reading a fine new piece of writing or viewing a great new art submission. Sometimes readers send works which are not intended for publication but are wondrous and shared simply for the joy of creation and pride in one’s own fine efforts (a vanishing thrill in an increasingly capitalistic society).

The current buzz around Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-founder of the famed City Lights Bookstore, brings to mind something we received at the end of last year and have been meaning to share(along with apologies for taking so long to post this).

Beatdom reader Donald A. Heneghan, Beat historian and literature-lover, contacted us in fall to order a copy of the latest issue. Taking up correspondence with Mr. Heneghan, we learned that his Beat book collection includes the complete output of Ferlinghetti’s distinctive Pocket Poets Series of books from 1955-2005. This includes each of the press’s fifty-seven volumes of poetry (actually fifty-six plus the only ‘out of series’ publication, Alain Jouffrey’s Declaration d’Independance, which bears an inscription from Jouffrey to Allen Ginsberg) as well as various translations, photographs and related ephemera.

As the cover shows, this is actually a exhibition catalogue. Heneghan showed his collection at NYC’s Grolier Club in Spring 2005. Inside, he provides more than just a convenient list of the volumes published by City Lights. “I tried to capture the story behind each book,” says Heneghan, “It was an extensive project but a lot of fun.”
Details of the books go beyond mere description and illustrate just how avid a collector he is. Most are first printings and many copies are inscribed by the authors. Some are inscribed by two, such as 1958’s Gasoline by Gregory Corso (Number Eight), which is signed by not only Corso, but also by Ginsberg, who wrote the Introduction.
Particularly poignant is the inscription in Book Number Fourteen, Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Other Poems. As Heneghan writes, ‘ This first edition copy is inscribed from William Burroughs for Allen Ginsberg. The significance is that Burroughs signed his copy to Ginsberg prior to Ginsberg’s death in 1997 as Burroughs’ Kaddish to Ginsberg. Ironically, Burroughs died four months after Ginsberg in 1997.’
In his curation of the collection, he fastidiously included additional volumes to note the differences from one printing to the next. Book Number Twenty-seven, Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, for instance, appeared twice. ‘The copy displayed (sic) is inscribed on the title page with a drawing. The second copy displays the rear cover of this first printing,’ the catalogue notes. In the “Translations” section, we also find the first Dutch edition, Revolutionaire Brieven, translated by Simon Vinkenoog and published in 1979.
Other interesting inscriptions include one from Harold Norse to Gerard Malanga, along with Malanga’s inscription of ownership in Hotel Nirvana (Number Thirty-two). The following book in the series, Number Thirty-three, Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman, is inscribed to Amiri Baraka, and Number Thirty-Seven, Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs carries a note to Gotham Book Mart’s Mathew Monahan from it’s author, Peter Orlovsky.

Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder, the 2013 theatrical release of the 2009 San Francisco Film Festival entry, Ferlinghetti: A City Light, has been getting a minor amount of press with it’s re-release about two weeks ago. It was directed by Christopher Felver

As the press release from First Run Features, the film’s distributor, notes: “Since its inception in 1953, Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore quickly became an iconic literary institution that embodied social change and literary freedom. Continuing to thrive for over five decades, it is a cornerstone of America’s modern literary and cultural history.” Poetry lovers around the world can easily spot a copy of one of his black and white Pocket Poets Series books across a crowded library. The mini-formatting of the books probably reached the level of ‘Iconic’ when the fourth of the series, Ginsberg’s Howl, hit shelves to be confiscated by police in 1956 and finally released for public consumption with the landmark 1957 U.S. Supreme Court decision by Judge Clayton W. Horn, who found the work to have artistic merit, thus setting in place the legal precedent that protects controversial works of literature which have ‘redeeming social importance.’

As you can see, Heneghan’s authentic replication of the Pocket Poets Series was an excellent choice for the catalogue’s format. The photo you see to the right of the cover is one side of the Exhibition Invitation. According to an blogged inteview we found with Paul Yamazaki of City Lights, “The photo of the store dates from the early 60s. If I remember correctly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao are in the mezzanine window. Under the awning are Kirby Ferlinghetti, Bob McBride and a person who I cannot identify.”
To get a better idea of how much time and effort Donald Heneghan put into preserving these gems, you can find copies of the Grolier Club Publication and get your own copy on

We thank Mr. Heneghan for taking the time to share this great accomplishment with us!

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Buffalo 66: Valentine’s Day Flick Pick


Sweets for the sweet: Vincent Gallo is Buffalo 66’s director, star, writer, and composer, but Layla (Christina Ricci) is the cream in the puff, the cherry on the sundae, and the jelly in the donut. She’s a lush movie delight, so innocent and sweet. What’s a nice girl like her doing with a loser like Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo)? He treats her like an idiot, but she’s no dumb bunny, and smarter than he is—she can drive a shifter car. She just immediately falls for this loser; who knows why? The movie doesn’t explain much about Layla. However, don’t let that stop you from seeing this 1998 indie.

Billy Brown gets released from jail after five years. He’s there for a crime he didn’t commit, but he couldn’t pay up on a $10,000 bet on a football game—so he fills in for someone else. He leaves prison by bus. Freezing cold, miserable, and gray, it’s winter in upstate New York, and he’s out and on his way home to Buffalo—but first he needs to find a bathroom. He does in a dance school and then kidnaps young tap-dancing Layla, and forces her to act as his wife in an attempt to show off to his Buffalo Bill’s obsessed mother (Anjelica Huston) and his lecherous father (Ben Gazzara) who barely seem to remember him, their only child.

There are lots of downs, comic downs, and Billy plans to kill the guy who made him lose the bet by missing the football play, not the sleazy bookie (Mickey Rourke) who sent him to jail. There are a few almost tender scenes: one in the bathtub of a cheap motel and another in a coffee shop, where Billy breaks down and buys a heart-shaped cookie for the first person who’s shown him love, pure unconditional love.

[Vincent Gallo lived downtown in the early 1980s and worked as a dishwasher at a tiny French restaurant on East Fifth Street in New York. He was clearly focused on being an actor.]

This is definitely worth getting on DVD, and is great for Valentines Day. Why not get a bunch of old DVDs to watch on Valentines day, and then recycle them after at Or recycle any other DVDs that you have lying around your home, whilst de-cluttering you are also making some cash.

Somebody Blew Up America: A Conversation with Amiri Baraka

This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #12 – the CRIME issue. You can purchase it on Amazon and Kindle.


Amiri Baraka is Beat.

He walked away from the scene in Greenwich Village, where he edited literary journals Yugen, Kulchur, and The Floating Bear from 1958-65. Working with Hettie Cohen, Michael John Fles, and Diane Di Prima, respectively, the journals brought new works by new names. Featured writers included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen, and Michael McClure. He co-founded Totem Press and was influential in the launching of Corinth Books. Yugen magazine was perhaps most significant as the platform for the “new” Beat writers, allowing their work to find a place in one of the first venues to give credulity to the movement.

A wise and controversially outspoken man, his views have kept him on the Outside, the Beat side. The U.S. Air Force discharged him after two years of service due to his belief in communism. In 1961 he was arrested for distributing obscenity after mailing copies of The Floating Bear, Issue Nine, to subscribers; and his presence at the 1967 riots in Newark, New Jersey, saw him arrested and severely beaten by police. It was also the year he changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka. The charges against him were eventually dropped and much of his support came from the Beat community.

From Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, his first book of poems in 1961, to his upcoming play, The Most Dangerous Man in America, he has stayed the course, worked and fought for his beliefs of an equitable society.

With the death of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., (who visited Baraka’s Newark home a week before his murder), he left the mostly-white Bohemian literary scene and the environs of the East Village to take up a more radical stance towards Black Nationalism. But despite his distancing himself from the Beats in the mid-sixties, Baraka read poetry and attended panel discussions at Beat-haven Naropa Institute through the 1980-90s, and remained friends with Ginsberg until Allen’s death in 1997.

More recently his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” brought an end to his New Jersey “Poet Laureate” post when Governor Jim McGreevey took umbrage to the poem’s questioning of the events surrounding the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Centers. The “Who?’ of the exploding owl in the poem echoes the angst of Ginsberg’s voice in “Howl.” Having heard Ginsberg recite live from ten feet away, this writer finds both poems equally as exciting and important.

Baraka has been called “the triple-threat Beat.” His talent has brought him recognition and awards not just in poetry and prose but also in theater as an Obie Award winning playwright. A sampling of awards bestowed upon him include the PEN Open Book Award, the Langston Hughes Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, and National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships. Maybe one of the most bittersweet titles placed on him is that of the Poet Laureate of Newark Public Schools, which he received after Gov. McGreevey’s actions against him

Additionally, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and regarded as a respected academic, having taught at the state universities of New York at Stony Brook and Buffalo, Columbia University, and other institutions. Amiri Baraka photo


We started by asking why he walked away from the Beat Movement, which gave him a vehicle to establish himself as writer/thinker/activist to a wider audience.


Well, that whole thing [the Beat Movement], was very explosive, but remember that the whole Civil Rights Movement was intensifying. I got out of the service in 1957. The Montgomery bus boycott had gone on a couple years before. After they had successfully made them integrate those buses, they blew up Doctor King’s house. At that point, it really began to be clear this was the kind of struggle that was going on particularly in the south, at least for me, having been in the service for two years.

That was the point that it became clear… until they blew up King’s house and he says… you know, the black people showed up at his house with their rifles and said, “What should we do, what should we do, Doctor King?” and he said, “If any blood be shed, let it be ours.” So my whole generation reacted negatively to that and said, “No, it won’t be like that. If people are going to be shooting, they are going to be shooting back and forth.”

Malcolm X appeared at that scene with his whole idea about, you know, “You treat people like they treat you. They treat you with respect, you treat them with respect. They put their hands on you, send them to the cemetery.”

So a whole generation of black youth responded to that positively as a sign that Doctor King was indeed a normal man instead of some kind of a saintly non-violent kind of perseverant. During that period, the next years of 1958-1960… In 1959, Fidel Castro led that revolution in Cuba so I went down there the next year, 1960, to Cuba and met Fidel, Ché Guevara, and all those people. I also met the black activist from North Carolina, Robert Williams, who was in exile in Cuba because he had really been practicing a kind of a self-defense in North Carolina, a thing that actually ended up with him stopping the [Ku Klux] Klan – removing their hoods… and then he found out it was the State Police! Then they framed him for kidnapping a white couple and he went to Cuba to escape that kind of injustice, so I met him.

Anyway, that was the point – 1960 – when, while I had this kind of awareness of the Civil Rights Movement, I actually became much more directly involved in it. So, about 1965, when Malcolm X was murdered, I felt the best thing to do would be to get out of the Village and move to Harlem. I found that, for a lot of black people, that event made us take stock of ourselves and move out of Greenwich Village into Harlem. That was actually the point. I began the Black Arts Repertory Theater Company in 1965 at 130th Street and Lenox Avenue.


Who else was involved in the theater?


Larry Neal, poet, and Askia Touré, poet, those were two of the leading figures. Many people came to Harlem who were not already in Harlem, because they were attracted to the Black Arts Repertory School that we opened. We would send out trucks into the neighborhood every day… four trucks, one had graphic arts, the other had poetry, the other had music and the other had drama. We did this every day throughout the summer of 1965 so that created a kind of militant venue for Black Arts. They found that was desirable rather than having to submit to the continued racism of Greenwich Village.


The perception is that the Village was not so racist.


At that particular point, a lot of young black people felt it was better to move to Harlem to take an active kind of fighting stance against it, rather than to be isolated in Greenwich Village.


Taking action was better than writing about it or publishing work about it?


Right, absolutely… it was not only about the publishing; it was about actually being an activist in that community and on the street and actually making Black Arts relevant to the movement rather than simply commenting on it.


Do you feel that we are losing ground and giving back too much of what was gained then?


Absolutely! It is like one step forward, two steps back. The whole Obama campaign, the victory… on one hand has brought a kind of very sharp reaction. It is like after the Civil War – once the slaves were so-called “emancipated,” that’s when you get the Ku Klux Klan and the black “coons” and all of that strict re-segregation. Rather than ending slavery you got the whole segregation of the south and the whole dividing of the south into black and white even though they were theoretically free from slavery… but slaves were plunged into sharecropping and many times they couldn’t go anywhere. The white people in the south wouldn’t let them go until years after slavery was over. They started going north and west. You can read about that in a book called The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. She charts that whole immigration out of the south by my people.


Amiri BarakaThe Obama Administration… since the first election, racism feels more prevalent.


It’s a stirring reaction to that election. Now we have the Tea Party. The Tea Party is correspondent to the Klan. They appear… the whole takeover of the Congress and the House of Representatives certainly existed because of these kinds of racist incidents – whether Trayvon Martin in the South [Martin was shot in February 2012] or shooting Amadou Diallo in the Bronx [police in February 1999] or the various kinds of murders out in California. It’s a sharp reaction and it shows the reaction is not just against black people but even young white people, like those taken up with the whole Occupy Movement across the country. There is just widespread dissatisfaction in society as it is.


How do you feel about the Occupy Movement?


I think it’s a good idea. It is uncertain and uneven but still a good idea and many times there are too many people completely lacking in the experience, in social struggle, or just anarchism, walking around who believe in no kind of government and no kind of organized response but certainly who are opposed to blacks in politics and it is a very ragged kind of result that comes out of that – but still the idea is a good idea and whatever kind of result you can get from that, even though it’s going to be much less than it would be if it were organized, you still have to support it.

Part of the reason is that it’s like the Sisyphus Syndrome. The only thing that’s happening now is that, between the Republican force pushing to the right, to restore the kind of Republican rule to go to back to Bush, which had been more extreme – what is underneath this is an attempt to erect a kind of corporate dictatorship. Coming out of all these Republicans’ mouths, especially the Tea Party, is the whole question that government is too big, that government is the enemy. The enemy is the lack of development. The fact that poverty still poxes this country and the development is, so far,  uneven without a gap between the little six-tenths of one percent of the wealthy and the rest of the people. This has grown bigger and, actually, since Roosevelt and the New Deal we were talking about closing that gap. We talked about creating a much more equitable society. Now even the middle class is feeling the kind of strains that the working class is feeling. So the only thing the republicans have done…I mean, look at the surplus that Clinton had, billions of dollars in surplus, George Bush got rid of it…in the couple of terms that Bush had, he got rid of it a couple of times. He got rid of it.

How? The war, certainly… 9/11 was, to me, just a door opening to exploit the Middle East.


Like the 2.9 trillion dollars that Rumsfeld announced was missing on the day before 9/11? He claimed they didn’t know what they did with it…


Right! They didn’t know what they did with it… the people who got it know what they did with it… (laughs).


Can any government be righteous?


I’m a communist. I’m a Marxist. I believe that, ultimately, people will become sophisticated enough to understand that they themselves must rule – not just some little, small elitist group of exploiters. That is what the struggle is for – to see if this society itself becomes equitable. It is going to be hard because we are going to have to go through this period of intensified corporate domination, this last ditch struggle and the fact that it is now a global economy. You see that the struggles on Wall Street have affected the whole world and the only way that they feel they can gain any kind of superiority is war. That’s when they can hire more workers. That’s when they can fill their coffers and that’s exactly what they want to do… war… and that’s the only way capitalism can remain balanced on two feet, so to speak, but it will never be secure. That’s the problem that the people of the world face, that they have to finally overthrow these governments. They have to overthrow the monopoly of capitalism. That’s the task that faces humanity if it is ever to be truly civilized. You can’t be civilized with capitalism. It is too elitist. Most people are up against it. Most people cannot ever get a real education. Most of us still live in slums. It is something that is destined to be destroyed that will be very difficult to destroy it in its last days.


Speaking of last days, what do you think of the FEMA camps and the things like the Georgia law that is in Congress to bring back the guillotine?Baraka book cover


Are you serious about the guillotine?


Yes, it is a bill in legislature. They say they are running out of the drug to kill people with. You also have the Social Security Administration buying thousands of rounds of ammunition lately and you have to wonder what they need that for.


That’s the penalty for moving towards a corporate dictatorship because these people, the republicans and the Tea Party and these people, they’re not talking about the government. They’re talking about the government. They are talking about straight-out rule by the rich. It may be a terrifying scenario but that is what is in the works unless the people can find the wherewithal, the understanding, and the organization to resist it.

Even in its ragged state, I would rather have the Occupiers than nothing at all. The problem is that, too often, the people in power are opposed to the Occupiers. That’s the problem, most of the people who are in these posts, these small bureaucratic posts, they are even acting against their own interests, not to mention the police and those who are charged with keeping the order – an order that does not even serve them! It’s a tragic situation. But I don’t know what Social Security would be doing with all those guns. I don’t know that.


“Somebody Blew Up America.” You were censored by the New Jersey governor for publishing and performing this poem. The media depicts others who have questioned the events of 9/11 as crazy.


I understand it, yeah. That’s it. You got it. All you have to do is open your mouth, like they say you’ve got freedom of speech – as long as you don’t say anything. The minute you open your mouth, then that’s the end of that. Then they attack you. It has certainly happened to me. It happens to all kinds of people… even somebody like Bruce Springsteen, when he first sang that song about “fighting the yellow man for the white man.” They silenced him for a few years but he managed to come back. It’s that way, if you talk to say anything. There is a long history of that, particularly (for) Afro-Americans, but everybody else, too.

Like that attack on the film industry in the fifties, to remove any taint of the Left from the film industry, the blacklisting of the whole film industry. The whole McCarthyism thing and the fact that, during World War Two, the United States’ closest allies were Russia and China, but after World War Two our closest allies were suddenly the same people we were fighting, Germany and Japan… figure that out! Then China and Russia became our worst enemies. Why is that? It’s because they wanted to cut loose any kind of sign of supporting socialism. Since China and Russia were socialist countries our struggle with these socialist countries, then, was to make sure they were opposed to that (socialism). Finally, Russia succumbed and China has been riddled with imperialist advance. Finally, this corporate America is what dominates and wants to make sure that monopoly capitalism and imperialism outlast anything.


Why do you think people do not pay more attention to this?


The people who could make the most noise about it are afraid they are going to lose their whatever, their positions, afraid they are going to lose what they have. The problem with the great majority of people is that they are not organized and sometimes they don’t have the facts so they don’t know what is going on. It happens too often, even if you elect good people… like in Newark back in 1970, the first black mayor, the second black mayor. We haven’t had a white mayor in Newark since 1970… but then we get somebody like Cory Booker, the present mayor, who actually is sent here by corporate ventures to turn the whole advance, the drive to some kind of equitable city government, around. Now we are struggling against that. Now we have a situation where the mayor is trying to sell our water to private interests. It’s unbelievable. He is trying to sell the water plus about two thousand acres of land where we have the water.


Water is getting more expensive, like oil.


That’s what they want to do – jack the prices up and so this is an ongoing struggle. The largest corporation in Newark, which is Prudential Insurance, the largest insurance company in the world, they haven’t paid any taxes since 1970. One of their buildings is worth 300 million dollars a year in taxes. They were given a tax abatement in 1970. That was the “white-mail” they put on the new black city government, “Either give us a tax abatement or we are leaving.” That is not supposed to be eternal. I mean, you could give them a thirty-year abatement and it still would be over by 2000. We still have twelve years of twelve times 300 million dollars a year, we wouldn’t have a deficit… but they refuse to pay their taxes. They built an arena. They have the NCAA [basketball]; they have the Devils hockey team, which is an interesting idea for Newark. When they have all kinds of big events, they say we owe them money. They utilize our water. They utilize our police for security. We have to pay the police overtime any time they have an event and they say owe money.


Funny how all the venues are named after financial institutions these days, as opposed to names of great people.


That’s right. That’s just an indication of where everything is going. Everything is named after a bank or some other kind of corporation… even baseball stadiums. That’s absurd. Here everything is named after Prudential. (laughs)


Which medium do you find most useful in reaching people and motivating them?


The problem, again, is the control by the organizations. In the sixties, for instance, the whole emergence of abstraction and the corporations first fought against abstraction. That is the problem with the arts… it is like “freedom of the press”. You can have freedom of the press if you own a press otherwise you have to deal with a mimeograph machines and small distribution. That’s the way it is with all of the arts. That is the theater of grants. Somebody has to bestow that support upon the artist. Unless you really qualify, philosophically, to be in those venues, you are not going to be there.

I produced a play back in the sixties when I was perhaps unclear what I wanted to say, though they could deal with that to a limited degree. Back then it made it very, very difficult for me to get anything onstage. I have a play coming out in the spring about [W.E.B.] Dubois, called The Most Dangerous Man in America. That’s what the FBI called him. It’ll be a month run at a small theater on the Lower East Side.


You are accomplished and awarded in so many art forms… if you were to be remembered by one piece of work, what would you choose it to be?


I think the book on black music, Blues People, that I wrote… people still quote that and cite that. I think that is the most important one. People came out in 1963 and is the book of mine that is the most constantly-referenced. I think it was the most popular. I have had other works which had a great deal of  (laughs) in the United States.

It’s about African-American music from Africa and how it developed in the United States. The seeds of that book came to me in a class I had with a man named Sterling Brown, a great poet who was my English teacher at Howard University. A friend of mine named A.B. Spellman who is also in the book, and who wrote a book called Four Lives in the Bebop Business, we had both finished class and he invited us to his house because we had some pretensions of knowing about the music. Once we were there, he showed us. He had this library with music, by genre, chronologically, by artist, and he told me, “That’s your history.”

In that kind of capsule statement what he was saying was that if you analyze the music, if you follow the music, you’ll also find out about the peoples’ history. So that’s what I did – tried to show how when the music changed it signified change in the status of the people and their condition. Everything about their lives has undergone some important change and the music is a result of the affect of the change. It goes to the earliest kind of music – the slave song, the early blues, the city blues, you know, the kinds of variations on that… like coming into the north and how it affected the music. It covers up to the 1960s.


You collaborated with The Roots about ten years ago… in hip-hop. Who are the most important artists or have been?


It changed a great deal from the early hip-hop of the 1970s, which was just a field called “rap.” Hip-hop is actually a kind of a category that includes different aspects of it all… the DJ, the rapping, graffiti, break dance. Rap, particularly, changed a great deal from the 1970s. The early rappers were much more conscious of making a social statement of protesting the kind of conditions they lived in and that black people lived in. It was really a kind of urban journal type thing, like Afrika Bambaataa from the South Bronx. Then, later on, people like Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

RunDMC was a period of development of that was put together by the guy (named) Russell Simmons, who then became rap’s biggest entrepreneur.


Do you think people like Russell Simmons can be as well-accepted and still keep an edge?


People have to sort that out themselves and find out how those kinds of ties (either) support what they are doing or obstruct it. They might just change what they are doing or what they thought and come out with something that may not be as important as what they were doing before. It depends on how you deal with relationships with those institutions and organizations.


Can you tell more about your new play?


The play is about W.E.B. DuBois, when he was about 83 years old and was taking a very activist position against nuclear weapons and everything, including going to conferences in Europe to protest nuclear weapons. He was indicted as an “agent of foreign power,” being a “father” of books. He had just run for political office, he and a man named Vito Marcantonio, a lawyer who was really the last Italian communist in the U.S. Congress. Anyway, when DuBois was indicted because he was in a peace organization [he was chairman of the Peace Information Center, formed in 1950], they had the trial in Washington, DC, and Marcantonio defended him. He was the lawyer.

It was a drawn out trial but finally he won the case because it turned out that the chief witness against him was, in fact, the man who had invited DuBois to join the peace organization. So the thing was overthrown but DuBois was prescient enough to understand it. that he said, “Now the little children will no longer see my name.”

After that they took his passport and tried to keep him from traveling. Then in 1958, the Supreme Court overthrew that ruling and gave him back is passport so he was able to travel throughout the world… Europe, Russia, China. He had been invited to edit Encyclopedia Africana by Kwame Nkruman, who was the newly-elected Prime Minster of Ghana. He went there, declared his membership in the Communist Party and he died in Ghana on the day before the March on Washington, which was started by Reverend Martin Luther King, so it’s a real cycle.


That covers a lot of territory.


It is going to be mainly the drama of just before the indictment… and how they prepared for this trial. The main part of the play is the trial itself, and the rest focuses on his travels around the world, particularly Russia, China, and Ghana. That should be out in spring of next year.


Did you have a personal relationship with Malcolm X?


I met Malcolm one time, after he had his house in Long Island firebombed and he was moving around Manhattan. I saw him, actually, with a man named Mohamed Babu at the Waldorf Astoria, where Babu had a room. We met into the wee hours of the morning. That was the only time I actually talked to Malcolm.


You and Lenny Bruce were often mentioned in the same news stories and seem to have been crucified at the same time.


I didn’t know him. Like I said if you speak out and identify with any kind of activism you are going to get jumped. That’s it – and you can’t expect any other thing to happen.


Did you like his act? Were his racial routines funny to a black person?


Sure, at the time. What was relevant is that he was trying to be for real, to bring some reality to America and make a commentary on America and that was the point. Given the content, he was attacked for profanity and obscenity and all those things.

At that time, I was arrested for sending obscenity through the mail [for] publishing The Floating Bear. In one of them I had a play of mine in there or a short story… whatever, and an essay by William Burroughs. [The material deemed obscene consisted of “The Eighth Ditch” an excerpt from his novel, From the System of Dante’s Hell, and the Burroughs’ poem, “Roosevelt after Inauguration”].

This stuff that happened to Lenny Bruce was common, given that situation, because that is when that whole attack was common when you tried to do that – you were met with some kind of withering charges. I defended myself in court by reading the decision on [James] Joyce’s Ulysses and certainly that won the decision for me… (laughs).



The 1934 Supreme Court decision to lift the ban on Ulysses opened the doors for the publishing of many literary works besides those published by Baraka. Joyce’s book was used in the defense of novels Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Tropic of Cancer. The works of Amiri Baraka have, similarly, pushed open doors for new generations of creative minds to pass through.

Mr. Baraka was open and generous with his time. He still reads poetry in performance and we encourage you to see him if you ever have a chance. If you want Beat, he is more real than all the recent movies about the “usual suspects.” He is a living literary treasure and his work should be celebrated by all freedom-loving Americans and World Citizens.

Watch for his new play, The Most Dangerous Man in America, in spring and pick up a few of his books while you are waiting. He is the real deal and he speaks more sense than any other public figure that comes to mind.


Salute him and enjoy his work!


Apologies to those of you who attempted to access our website throughout late January and early February. This site was hit by a particularly nasty hacker, who disabled all features. We were able to get the website back online after maybe two days, but since then functionality has been limited. As of yesterday we are nearly back to our good old state. All articles etc are online, and most of the widgets have been restored.

Drugstore Cowboy

Drugstore Cowboy poster

Is this a punk flick? Maybe a beat-punk film? Celluloid where punk and beat meet? Characters are beat, get beaten, there’s a beat hotel, but a punk by any name is still a punk.

Drugstore Cowboy is a great little American movie set in 1971 with a soundtrack highlighting Desmond Dekker & The Aces “The Israelites,” jammin’ Jamaican beat. A perfect cast features a knockout cameo by William S. Burroughs playing a bony old junkie priest. Perhaps something about Burroughs the man can be gleaned from his film role. “That stuff’s for squares,” and coming from Bill, it’s brilliant and hilarious.

Bob (Matt Dillon), the dope fiend leader of his “crew” shoots straight when he says right at the start, “We played a game we couldn’t win,” but speaking of the prescription drugs he and his gang go to riskier and more and more dangerous lengths to steal “as long as it lasted, life was beautiful.”

Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir,
so that every mouth can be fed.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

And that’s what this family of junkie thieves does: their lives revolve about scoring dope, nothing else matters, get up, get dope, get high, get up, get dope, get high.

Shirt them a-tear up, trousers are gone.
I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

Aah, many are the darkly comic moments, particularly one with a beefy neighbor armed with a shotgun, and pearls from Bob’s mother and the drug counselor lady.

Crossroading, on the road, through tidy suburbs, sad cities, and the wide open spaces of the Pacific Northwest, Bob, his dissatisfied wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch), Rick (James Le Cros), his mild-mannered partner, and young Nadine (Heather Graham), a hapless wannabe druggie, scrap with cops as they rob pharmacies and a hospital. These adults posed as children, want to play, play, play, but it’s play with big time consequences. Things get out of control when they have a corpse on their hands, and that’s when Bob decides it’s time to clean up, and finally concludes that the boredom of a straight life is not so bad.

After a storm there must be a calm.
They catch me in the farm. You sound the alarm.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.