Two internationally known men who were appointed poet laureates in New Jersey shared a stage for the first time since the post was abolished 10 years ago amid controversy surrounding a poem about the Sept. 11 tragedies. Gerald Stern, 88, and Amiri Baraka, 78, respectively the first (2000) and second (2002) poet laureate appointees in the Garden State, were joined by their partners in poetry, spouses Anne Marie Macari and Amina Baraka, respectively.
Last Friday, the four artists took turns stepping up to the lectern during the New Jersey Poet Laureate Family Reading at Aljira, a Newark-based center for contemporary art that spans a 30-year history. The multicultural audience of about 150 people first heard from Newark resident Amina Baraka, who sang the introduction to freedom songs before presenting a soul-stirring tribute to Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Emmett Till and Fannie Lou Hamer. Macari of Lambertville used words to create vivid pictures of food, animals and her perspective on life before Stern was introduced by event creator and host Jim Haba of Hillsborough. Both Haba and his spouse, Erica Barton Haba, had artwork on display during the event.
Haba, founding poetry director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and former poetry festival director, said, “What you’ll find is a remarkable retentiveness and awareness of the cycles of history in the world, in Europe, in the United States, in his own life. [Stern] has a genius for finding ways to bring those cycles together in moments of exquisite feeling.”
Haba was a member of the committee who nominated both Stern and Baraka to the two-year poet laureate appointment that was originally established by the New Jersey Legislature in 1999 and presented by the governor.
NOW, 10 YEARS LATER
Publicly, Stern said, “It’s a great pleasure for me personally to be reading with Amiri and Amina.”
While at the microphone, Baraka also vocalized mutual respect and appreciation for Stern’s craft after saying, “First of all, I want to say, our son Ras (Baraka) is running for mayor (in the city of Newark),” as Amina Baraka raised her arms with clenched fists and exclaimed, “Yes.”
Ten years ago, Stern reportedly was offended by lines from “Somebody Blew Up America?,” a poem Baraka read during the September 2002 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Baraka didn’t read that poem last week, but he did recount what happened after the festival. “The next day, the governor, who is now in the seminary, called and said, ‘You have to resign and apologize.’ The next year,” Baraka joked, “he [Gov. Jim McGreevey] had to resign and apologize.”
In 2002, the Anti-Defamation League and others called the poem anti-Semitic, and as a result of the criticism, Baraka’s term was shortened to one year instead of two. He refused to step down. Since there was no provision in law for the removal of the state’s poet laureate, legislation was introduced and the position was abolished in July 2003.
What was his reaction at that time? “I felt assaulted falsely that I wasn’t the actual devil and that for people not only to pile it up, but not even pay me for being the poet laureate. I thought that was an injustice, but at the same time, back in the 1960s, they locked me up for a poem. So we had made progress when they took my money,” he said and smiled, referring to the honorarium of $10,000.
“Well, you have to remember, see these people don’t want to admit that, at the time, they were actually being accused by other people of having agitated 9/11. Talking about Israel, I never did that,” said Baraka, before mentioning he was intentionally misunderstood. “Nobody knows. That’s crazy. If you can’t criticize a sovereign state without being called out of your name, you understand what I mean? You can criticize all kinds of rulers in Africa. I criticize them all the time. That doesn’t make me anti-Black.
“‘You criticized Israel, why are you anti-Semitic?’ Well, that’s a good defense, but it’s not real.”
Heather White, a documentarian from Manhattan who focuses on global labor issues, said, “I was really impressed with how the four poets were able to cover the breathe of human experience and history of the U.S. and global pressing issues: the emotional, spiritual and physical influence of the impact it has on culture when there are issues of oppression and greed and capitalism, and loss.”
When asked if she found anything offensive, White said, “My father was a civil rights activist, so I’ve heard everything in terms of the polemics around race in this country.” White, who was born to an African-American father and a Caucasian mother, added, “I think that I am more open to hearing critics than what mainstream America is willing to accept.”
The New Jersey Poet Laureate Family Reading marked a turnaround for Baraka. “It means that a lot of the hostilities that arose in 2002, where people tried to make my poem some kind of negative political event, we’ve dismissed that.” Does Baraka feel vindicated? “Absolutely, the people who were here can testify to that.”
When asked about his legacy, Baraka said, “My legacy will be poetry, I guess. I would imagine. We have a selection of poems coming out this year and about three years of collective poems, a huge volume. So they can judge by the value of that work, but a poet and a political activist, that is what I was and I want to be remembered as, I think. We will see.”