A gathering of renowned poets envisioned by the late Amiri Baraka arrived in a profusion of words and memory on Feb. 4 at New York University’s Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life.
The event was originally conceived by Baraka in collaboration with Manthia Diawara, the director of the Institute of Afro-American Affairs, as a tribute to Jayne Cortez, who joined the ancestors a little more than a year ago.
In his opening remarks Diawara recounted the plan, which largely fell to poet/scholar Rashidah Ismaili to assemble. Ismaili, who moderated the program, observed that rounding up such a cast of wordsmiths could not have been done without Baraka’s tireless efforts, and his heavy spirit was dutifully linked with Cortez.
“They were like bookends to me,” Ismaili said of Cortez and Baraka, both of whom she knew for years. Each poet either recalled the iconic pair separately or in tandem during their moments before a full room of spectators, including such notables as Louise Meriwether, Woodie King Jr., Denardo Coleman, Brenda Green, Jessica Care Moore, and Mel Edwards.
Sandra Maria Esteves paid tribute to Cortez by reciting her poem “Drums,” and she read the poem with the same intensity and riveting incantations that characterized a Cortez performance, particularly when she appeared with the Firespitters ensemble.
While Esteves centered her attention on Cortez, Askia Toure weighed in with his homage to Baraka, tracing their time together back to Umbra magazine and the nascent hours of the Black Arts Movement. Toure’s cadence was perfectly pitched for such words as “prime minister of hip,” and “pain into pageantry,” all of which were clearly in honor of his fallen comrade.
The “sonic apocalypse” of Toure’s tour de force was just the carpet Marvin X needed for his fond and sometimes hilarious reflections of nights and days with Baraka. “I knew Amiri for more than 40 years,” he said, “but I only met Jayne once.” He regaled the audience with the exchanges between him and Baraka, and the laughter they shared was vividly recalled.
Ted Wilson took the stage and paused below an image of Cortez and Baraka projected on a screen.
“In the middle, in the middle, I, we, you exist because of them,” he said, pointing to the enlarged image. He read a poignant letter from Jimmy Garrett, who remembered how Cortez recruited him into the Civil Rights Movement, but never mentioned her poetic prowess. Then Wilson turned the beat around insisting that we “let the music play,” which Marvin X had anticipated with bassist Henry Grimes accompanying him.
Ras Baraka, Amiri’s son, was invited to share a few words. He read with all the fiery conviction of Cortez and his father, delivering so much passion that his final stanzas came with the same admonition he said about the poets’ words: “all you can do is just sit back and dig it.”
Conjuring his New Orleans roots, Arthur Pfister was as entertaining as he was insightful, recreating a “second line” funeral dirge with a trumpeter performing “A Closer Walk with Thee,” and then a rambling “Down by the Riverside.” His explosion of metaphors about the differing kinds of poets and poetry was engaging and his fans will be glad to know that his new book, My Name is New Orleans, contains more of the same.
After singling out a few dignitaries, including his daughter Mariama, Haki Madhubuti reminisced about Cortez and Baraka, both of whom he has celebrated in his books of poetry. But he registered most rewardingly with his call and response with the audience, who answered each of his invocations with “Art.”
Quincy Troupe stitched together an encomium to the poets with the intention to “build bridges of new tongues,” which he did with the usual cascade of “sound wrapped around syllables…nouns.” His reference to “sheets of sound” defines his musical approach, his verbal equivalence of notes from “the bell of a horn.”
What began as a sermonette from Felipe Luciano gradually tamped down to calmer statements about each of the poets called to bear witness, citing Madhubuti’s 1960s command that we build institutions, “and he did it,” Luciano said. Of Cortez and Baraka, he said that it was impossible to be in their presence and not feel “spirit and revolution.”
Both spirit and revolution emerged from the lips of Linton Kwesi Johnson during his rhythmic salute to Cortez and Baraka. His lilting voice was at once captivating and gave his lyrics added profundity as he recited.
“I am wondering if the agony of years could be traced to the seed of an hour,” he intoned, “if the roots that spread out in the swamp ran too deep for the issuing flower.”