Dear Emily Post-Avant,

What’s with Harmony Holiday just now discovering Amiri Baraka went to Cuba? She hadn’t ever realized he never wore the same poet shirt twice? The ultimate shape-shifting bad ass poet extraordinaire. There were numerous sides to the man, as it were, those amazing turns of his as he kept going    ever!  embracing and discarding and incorporating, never stagnant!  his brilliance!   I wonder what else she’ll discover if she continues reading his work—–  how will she handle it when she finally has a fuller glimpse of A L L? This reminds me of the time I quite inadvertently reduced a grown woman of color to tears all because I insisted on defending Baraka against her accusations that he was an unforgivably patriarchal misogynist. That he was an abuser of Power. Huh? 

(also, what a snoozy miss she makes of Hettie Jones, being the “white wife” is all she gets?  and jeez  di Prima gets nothing @ all!? 

what gives? 

Puzzled Poet in extremis Over Fellow Poets In Want Of Reading


Dear Puzzled Poet in extremis,

I write this in extremis myself: My husband and I are welcoming 13 family members in one week for the holidays. Almost all of them are staying for six days—at our house! We moved in six months ago, and there are still boxes that haven’t been unpacked. I am already exhausted, help me gods.

I have some critiques of Holiday’s essay, as well (there is a particularly important one we share), though I believe my overall take is quite a bit more favorable than yours.

More favorable because I admire Holiday’s willingness to step out and fiercely scorn the current, voguish POC VIP set, which has, in chamber ensemble, quickly and happily assented to the protocols of a ruling institutional dispensation (i.e., an ideologically reproducing subcultural pecking order that, after a long tradition of racist disappearances,, finds itself suddenly “woke” in wake of the Black Lives Matter momentand which now seeks to paper over its sins in frantic, self-congratulatory redress. That the redress is fundamentally in interests of guarding the subcultural order’s privileged, genteel essence, cannot be mentioned, of course.)

And I am pleased that Holiday advances such correction only five days after I offered some satirical candor, myself, in the direction of PLOTUS Tracy K. Smith and her comfy, complacent Ivy League cohort (see December 5 column). Forgive me for the self-pat on the back.

Yes, we agree, Puzzled Poet, on Baraka’s brilliance, and with all his contradictions; to be sure, he partly shines bright because of the frankness with which he took on and bore those contradictions. You say:

There were numerous sides to the man, as it were, those amazing turns of his as he kept going    ever!  embracing and discarding and incorporating, never stagnant! 

To which I say: Well said.

Now, not least among my own criticisms is that Holiday seems to be under the illusion(as many younger poets still are) that the Poetry Foundation is an unproblematic location for declarations of “rebellion.” In fact, the PF exists as a cunning location for the very assimilation and recuperation she sets out to censure. Since its $200 million remake into a corporate entity, the PF’s cynical Big Tent policy (aided by handsome paychecks for those on the take) has been highly effective in partially corralling would-be poetic dissidence inside a hierarchized, atomized, and cutthroat field of position-taking. The broad, soft-power calculation is to fashion a collegial and complacent Parliament of Verse. The PF is what Althusser would have called a cultural Ideological State Apparatus. The Poetry Foundation literally calls the cops on poets who dare peacefully protest on its teak-floored premises, and then sends representatives to the Chicago Court House to argue for prison time. Holiday and others would do well not to take any more of its bait.

A couple more criticisms, the first one in the pedantic range: As someone who grew up with the Spanish language, I can assure Holiday (and the challenged Harriet editors) that Latifundia” is not the term for Cuban agrarian reform. “Latifundia” is the word for massive agricultural estates, which in the Cuban case were expropriated, of course, by the revolutionary government. The phrase Holiday was looking for is “Reforma Agraria.”

That’s a totally insignificant matter next to the egregious slight you point out: her vulgar snub of Baraka’s spouse and major collaborator, Hettie (Cohen) Jones, whom Holiday somewhat alarmingly dismisses as “the Jewish wife,” without even bothering to mention her name. Almost as depressing is her bizarrely hostile sneer at the great Diane di Prima as “the girlfriend.” Like Hettie Jones, she goes unnamed, even though she was, as well, an indispensable comrade of Jones/Baraka—a founder and co-editor of Floating Bear, and publisher of first books by Audre Lorde, A.B. Spellman, and David HendersonThese insults are wholly unjustified (they’d cause a scandal if a man had made them),and Holiday should apologize.

That said, though, I return to the general worth–the refreshing audacity, really–of herpolemic. She is doing something very few people have had the nerve to do, so far, and that is to call out the careerist opportunism and willing self-assimilation of an elite poetry clique, ready to play by the “venerable” rules laid out for them. How unlike Baraka they are, indeed! How unlike Audre Lorde. How unlike Jack Spicer or Charles Olson. Just to keep the examples to the Imperium…

I’ll let Holiday have the last word. And everyone, no matter what color or flavor poet they are, should give close attention:

LeRoi wanted to be a writer in a time before the hyper-professionalisation of the craft. Black writers coming of age in the 1950s weren’t told they had to get MFAs. Baldwin hadn’t gone to college, Langston Hughes had dropped out. LeRoi had been at Howard with Toni Morrison, and though she’d finished, she hadn’t yet published her first book by the time he, a ‘drop-out,’ had. The most heralded writers were living adventurous and very raw social lives, not yet mediated by the demands of universities, and their art imitated their very singular modes of existence. The United States had yet to convince the entire population it was middle class and had a vested interest in the continuation of the status quo, so that these same writers were belligerently opposed to how their nation was being run, how their families and friends were being forced to live, in Harlem, in Paris, in Bohemia, everywhere capitalism was sold. Without the flimsy safety-net of bureaucratic writing and literature degrees, writers were not as busy pandering to that machine and could be honest about its dirty grooves. So instead of being in a classroom in a system scripted by Western ideology and pedagogy, instead of being indoctrinated in the merits of unconditional ‘objectivity,’ LeRoi was writing his own script, fumbling, but on his own terms. And so there was no sense of propriety or trepidation when the call came inviting him to a newly Communist country, and when presented with Fidel and Robert Williams, LeRoi Jones didn’t have a counter-indoctrination in the primacy of democratic ideas to make him resent their revolutionary thinking. [….] Because most of us are following procedure and programs today, so many decades later, the society deeper in its decay, the bureaucracy more intimate and better at hiding and stylizing itself, it makes sense that our collective pitch is flustered with self-righteous democratic ideals. Today’s would-be black radicals are in big-name schools living on stipends or loans or salaries from those schools, while spouting off about the revolution, or they’re self-satisfied in organizations that try to solve racial warfare without addressing class warfare and end up endorsing Hillary Clinton, like good tokens. I don’t know if anyone’s going to Cuba or saying yes to anything that volatile on a whim, unless it’s for the clout or the resorts and mind-numbing ready-made vacation packages. I don’t know if anyone’s that spontaneous and undifferentiated anymore.

Thanks for writing, love. Onward on the path, however crooked and steep it may be, at this late hour.

–Emily Post-Avant