New Jersey’s Unrepentant Poet of Indignation
NEWARK JUST before Gov. James E. McGreevey introduced Amiri Baraka last month as New Jersey’s new poet laureate, the celebrated and controversial activist writer said he warned the governor this might happen.
“I said, `Governor, you’re going to catch a lot of hell for this,’ ” Mr. Baraka said. “He said, `I don’t care.’ I said, `If you don’t care, I don’t care.’ ”
Mr. Baraka still doesn’t care.
But the governor suddenly does. Political turmoil has found the last virgin turf in New Jersey public life: the poet laureate.
The governor has demanded that Mr. Baraka resign because a poem he read at a poetry festival 10 days ago said Israel had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Baraka is refusing to resign. The governor’s aides say Mr. McGreevey cannot remove Mr. Baraka from his two-year term, since he was selected by a committee of poets and cultural aficionados. State law gives that group the power only to select, not oust, laureates.
Besides, poets are usually ignored, not censored. “A sticky wicket,” said a State House aide, apparently practicing for the laureate’s job, should it open up.
In his offending poem, entitled “Somebody Blew Up America,” a litany of massacres and oppression, Mr. Baraka refers to five Israelis filming the attacks, and asks:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
In an interview Thursday, the day before the governor demanded his resignation, Mr. Baraka was unrepentant. The artist formerly known as LeRoi Jones has had so many phases — Greenwich Village beatnik, Harlem black nationalist, bloodied warrior of the 1967 Newark riots, Marxist, critic of Newark mayors — that he seemed unfazed by the rocky start of his laureate phase.
Told he offended people, he said: “I know. What can I do? I’m not perfect, alas.”
Reading the Internet convinced him that Israel knew about Sept. 11 beforehand. “Obviously they knew about it, like Bush knew about it,” he said. Espousing a theory popular in parts of the Muslim world, he said the White House let it happen to get “carte blanche” to have its way with Afghanistan, Iraq, the rest of the Middle East. President Bush knew in advance? “Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.”
And he added: “So did the Russians, so did the Germans. Why do you think investors sold their stock in United and American Airlines the month before?”
Mr. Baraka’s career at the keyboard and on the street has been guided by the view that the powerful conspire against the powerless. “Terrorism,” he said. “Black people. We’ve been terrorized for years. There’s been no alert to stop the K.K.K. and the skinheads.”
OVER the years, Mr. Baraka has been lauded and accused every which way. The American Academy of Arts and Letters called him “one of the most important African-American poets since Langston Hughes” when it inducted him last year. He pleads guilty to the Communist label and regrets his early anti-white writings. In 1980, he wrote a self-defense entitled “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite.”
Mr. Baraka, 67, gray and slightly hunched, holds court in a large house in a faded Newark neighborhood. His suspicion of power oozes from every pore. He mentions that he was named poet laureate at the governor’s mansion, called Drumthwacket. Could a poet laureate ever use Drumthwacket in a poem? “Let’s see,” he said, hardly missing a beat:
This place must have some kind of racket
To be named Drumthwacket.
His selection as laureate honored his strong voice, long career and prominence. The committee chairwoman, Judith Pinch, said that the group felt he could promote poetry among city youths and that “his strengths outweighed some past reputation for being slightly outrageous.”
This standoff between governor and poet is surprising in a state with a poetic tradition that includes Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg and a Turnpike rest stop named for Joyce Kilmer. But Mr. Baraka said, superfluously, that he dislikes poetry “as decoration.” He likes strong stuff that rattles people. “If they resent what I’m saying, I can resent their resentment,” he said, “but I’m not going to censor them.”
“Whatever they want to say, they can’t say, `He’s changed,’ ” Mr. Baraka said, referring to himself. “They’ll say, `We’re trying to cool him out with the poet laureate thing, but he’s still nutty.’ “