Oslo Poesifestival 2008

by Nasibu Mwanukuzi

One of this year's guests at Oslo Poesifestival is the African American literary icon, Amiri Baraka. Born as Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, in October 1934, Baraka is considered as one of the most influential spokesperson for African American literature and theatre in USA today.

Baraka's literary work and life story is closely connected to the transformation of the American society during the 60's and 70's era, described as an era of African American renaissance. It is a period that witnessed the assassinations of both Malcom X and Martin Luther King as well as the growth of the Black Panther Movement and the Nation of Islam. This was also the period James Brown and Motown came to town. It was during this turbulent epoch that Everet LeRoi Jones canged his name to name to Imamu Amiri Baraka, after converting to the Kawaida Sect of the Muslim faith. He later dropped the first name, Imamu, which in Kiswahili means a spiritual leader.

Amiri Baraka received his education from various universities, among these Rutgers University and Howard University. He has produced volumes of essays, theater plays, poems and novels.

His radical orientation caused him trouble in the U.S. Airforce already in the late 50's when it was discovered that he was reading communist literature. This led to his discharge of duty from the army.

Baraka moved to Greenwich Village in early 60's where he founded Totem press which, among others, published such Beat icons as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. At Greenwhich Village, Baraka also came in contact with many other well-known authors and poets and together with his first wife, Hettie Cohen, published Yugen, a poetry magazine as well as co-edited a literary newsletter, Floating Bear.

However, Baraka's major shift toward political commitment as a writer began after his visit to Cuba in 1960. The trip radicalized his thinking about oppression in the third world. As a result he wrote Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note ( 1961 ), Blues People: Negro Music in White America ( 1963 ), and edited The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writings in America ( 1963 ). To most literary observers it was the bluntness of his radical thinking, as displayed in The Dead Lecturer: Poems ( 1964 ) that influenced the establishment of the American Theater for Poets.

Blues People: Negro Music in White America has been credited to being one of the most influential volumes of jazz criticism, especially in regard to the then beginning Free Jazz movement. Baraka has received numerous literary prizes including the Obie Award for his controversial play, Dutchman, which was premiered in 1964. Baraka has also won an American Book Award for his works as well as a Langston Hughes Award. In addition he has co-authored the autobiography of Quincy Jones and in 1998 was a supporting actor in Warren Beatty's film Bulworth. He has also collaborated with hip hop group The Roots on the song "Something in the Way of Things" on their 2002 album Phrenology.

Baraka's early life has been shrouded in controversies mainly due his radical views on Jews, white people, gays as well as women. As late as 2001, while he was New Jersey's Poet Laureate, Baraka caused uproar with his poem titled "Somebody Blew Up America" referring to the September 11, 2001 attacks. The poem was highly critical of racism in America and had references to public figures such as Condoleeza Rice and Trent Lott. This caused Governor Jim McGreevey to file a petition for the abolishment of the Poet Laurete's title, of which he finally succeeded in 2007.

As one of the key African American political activists, Baraka played a central role in the organization of the Congress of African Peoples in 1970 and the National Black Assembly in 1972. The 1970 election of the African American Kenneth Gibson as a mayor of Newark was due partly to Baraka's involvement in a voter registration campaign among African Americans of the city.

In an interview with writer Kalamu ya Salaam, Baraka offers advice to young apiring writers by emphasizing on practice. - Practice. Practice. Practice. I think that's the only thing you can do. Like my grandmother said, practice makes perfect. To do anything you have to practice. You have to do it. If you don't do it, you won't do it. You can't be a writer in your head, just like you can't play the piano in your head. I'm the meanest piano player I know in my head. I can play some piano in my head, it's just when I get to the piano it gets difficult. You have to work at it, says Baraka.

Oslo Poetry Festival, or Oslo Poesifestival in Norwegian takes place at Litteraturhuset from 7th 9th November. This is the third year that the poetry festival is being arranged.

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