Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note....

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.... by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka


Tap corner or arrow to turn page

Enter a page number
Current page is cover / front matter


  • Chapbook
    Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note....

    Poets House presents this first collection by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka—a founder of the Black Arts Movement; innovative poet, playwright, fiction writer, and essayist; activist and community organizer. Released by Totem Press, one of two publishing ventures he started with his first wife Hettie Jones, the chapbook reveals Baraka’s poetics during the time that he was a force within the Mimeo Revolution and “a principal member of the post-World War II American poetry avant-garde,” as scholar and poet William J. Harris writes in the introductory essay below.

    Baraka’s larger legacy is vast and complex. Some work that followed this chapbook, especially during the mid-1960s, has been controversialcriticized for anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny. Baraka later repudiated some of these elements, among other ideologies; New Yorker critic Jelani Cobb says, this was “characteristic of the trajectory of his thinking—he didn’t so much evolve from his old positions as ricochet into new ones.

    In his reflection on the life and work of Baraka (Author tab), Haki R. Madhubuti says,“he created poems, plays, and essays with hurricane-like force that took few prisoners during his many years of artistic and political production. Baraka was a true generational artist-activist whose work often transcended traditional canonization. He danced, thought, and created in multiple genres, all in tune with the best and worst of our culture. Much like his literary predecessors Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker, Dudley Randall, and Gwendolyn Brooks, Baraka’s art and thinking were combative, instructive, healing, and highly political.”

    This chapbook provides a vital glimpse into the germinal period of his career, and we invite you to explore the chapbook and related materials, including an interview with Hettie Jones (Publisher tab) and videos that feature a conversation between E. Ethelbert Miller and Amiri Baraka, as well as a portrait of Baraka's connections to Newark (Audio/Video tab). This chapbook is presented with the permission of Grove Atlantic and the Amiri Baraka Estate. Permission for use of the chapbooks cover image was granted by the artist, Basil King.

    An Introduction

    by William J. Harris

    I am so delighted that Poets House’s online series Chapbooks of the Mimeo Revolution is making Amiri Baraka’s first book, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note …., available again in its totality. This splendid small volume loses so much by being selected. It isn’t so much that it is a unified whole but all of its parts together create a complex portrait of a young Black bohemian trying to find his way and himself.

    The book was published in 1961 by Baraka’s own Totem Press in association with the maverick book dealer Ted Wilentz’s Corinth Books. At the time of publication Baraka was still LeRoi Jones. Almost twenty-seven, editor of the influential avant-garde magazine Yugen, married to his co-editor Hettie Jones, a white Jewish woman, and living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was a central figure of the New York branch of the New American Poetry—that is, he was a principal member of the post-World War II American poetry avant-garde, which was immortalized in the pages of Donald Allen’s groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry: 1945 – 1960.

    In a note at the front of Preface Baraka states, “For the most part, these poems cover a period from 1957 until 1960, with the last few poems having been written this year (1961). I have arranged the book in as strict a chronological order as I could manage . . . for reasons best known to other young (?) poets.” His 1966 essay collection, Home, is also arranged chronologically. I think both are put together that way to show the poet confronting his conflicts and contradictions in real time, before the readers’ eyes, and not to be later “recollected in tranquility.” Baraka is an autobiographical poet. In his 1959 poetics note from The New American Poetry, he observes, “I make a poetry with what I feel is useful & can be saved out of all the garbage of our lives. What I see, am touched by (CAN HEAR) . . . wives, gardens, jobs, cement yards where cats pee, all my interminable artifacts . . . ALL are a poetry, & nothing moves (with any grace) pried apart from these things.” In Black Magic, in a 1964 poetic statement, he says: “I write poetry to investigate my self, my meaning and meanings.”

    Let us look at poems in groups to suggest the worlds this burgeoning poet inhabited. The first cluster consists of three poems found early in the book; I call it playing with the abyss. That is, even though he feels anxiety, he is not totally overwhelmed by it. These poems reflect Baraka’s most unambiguous and relaxed relationships with the Beats and other white bohemians. The title poem, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” most fully characterizes his situation in these poems. It begins:

    Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
    The ground opens up and envelops me
    Each time I go out to walk the dog.

    In his playful way, he suggests that there are no moral grounds to base judgements on; he undercuts the high drama of his statement by the bourgeois and mundane act of walking the dog. Therefore, unlike Sartre or Camus, he is no brave existential hero. The poem concludes:

    And then last night, I tiptoed up
    To my daughter’s room and heard her
    Talking to someone, and when I opened
    The door, there was no one there . . .
    Only she on her knees, peeking into

    Her own clasped hands.

    In this world without shared religious rituals, the poet cannot understand what his daughter is doing; he can only trivialize prayer into “peeking into [h]er … hands.” The world Baraka creates is a bleak place where God is dead to everyone except children, where “Nobody sings anymore,” where men are riddled with anxious insecurity; Baraka intimates, everything, including love and self-knowledge, is in doubt.    

    “In Memory of Radio” celebrates the glories of popular culture in the form of childhood radio superheroes but at the same time diminishes the power of the poet as hero. The poet does not have “the healing powers of Oral Roberts”—the televangelist—and wouldn’t go out on a limb for love. “Saturday morning we listened to Red Lantern & his undersea folk. / At 11, Let’s Pretend & we did/& I, the poet, still do.” Hence, Baraka is not left with power but only fantasy, a word which haunts his entire oeuvre.

    At the beginning of the book, Baraka visibly shouts “THIS BOOK IS HETTIE’S” and indeed this book was an affirmation of his first wife but for personal relational reasons he later wanted to eliminate her from it. He would not let editors, including me, reprint the Hettie poems. The one purely celebratory poem in Preface is the wonderful “For Hettie.” In her left-handedness she represents the rebelliousness of the Beat Generation. “The way some folks / are always trying to be / different. . . . & now her belly droops over the seat. / They say it’s a child. But / I ain’t quite so sure.” That is, she possesses the ultimate free spirit of the unpredictable hipster.

    The second group of poems are darker, are poems of a spiritual winter, poems of moral disorder. They include “The Turncoat” and “Vice.” In “The Turncoat” he confesses: “. . . I am alone & brooding, locked in / with dull memories & self hate, & the terrible disorder / of a young man” and in “Vice” he further discloses: “All the things I can talk about / mean nothing to me. / This is not rage. (I am not that beautiful!) . . . Mosaic of disorder I own but cannot recognize.” These poems paint a person not happy with himself and his world. The brilliant “The Bridge” is a way out. In Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a Populist Modernism, the critic Werner Sollors observed, “‘The Bridge’ leads to a strong affirmation of Blackness through music.” Black music is the main way he reembraces his tradition. In this poem the bridge is not a physical one of steel or concrete but a musical one. In popular music and jazz, the bridge provides a change of pace, a variation, in a song. He hears the blues in this bridge, that is, the Black music of his tradition, a counter to white music and ideas that the white avant-garde has been forcing on him.

    The bridge will be behind you, that music you know, that place
    You feel when you look up to say, it is me, & I have forgotten,
    All the things, you told me to love . . .

    At this moment, Baraka acknowledges Black music and feels freed from an alien tradition.

    Preface is not just another New American Poetry book, it is also a Black one. Race as such is the explicit subject of only three poems in the collection: “Hymn for Lanie Poo,” “The New Sheriff,” and “Notes for a Speech.” Lanie Poo is a nickname for his sister, and the poem is a satirical one, lambasting both the Black middle class (“generation of ficticious / Ofays”) and the Black bohemian who doesn’t have time to go “uptown for Bar B Cue.” In “The New Sheriff” Baraka reveals his instinctive distaste for white women, admitting, “There is something / in me so cruel, so / silent. It hesitates / to sit on the grass / with the young white / virgins . . .” Yet it seems the ground gained toward ethnic identity in “The Bridge” has been lost in the last poem in the collection, “Notes for a Speech.” The poem begins, “African blues / does not know me.” This is like Countee Cullen’s “Heritage” in reverse; that is, Africa is not the source of his heritage. The poem ends, “My color / is not theirs. Lighter, white man / talk . . .  Africa / is a foreign place. You are / as any other sad man here / american.” That is, at this point he denies his African heritage and moreover, his African American difference. This is a surprising and disturbing end to the book.

    But the story does not end here. Baraka continues to struggle with the hegemony of the white tradition. His struggle darkens in his second 1964 poetry volume, The Dead Lecturer, where he is totally aliened from his self and lives among his enemies and in the 1965 experimental novel The System of Dante’s Hell, where he fights to reject the influence of his “white friends,” the white avant-garde, in particular—Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Allen Ginsberg. He felt trapped by them. He does not escape their apparent influence before the 1969 collection Black Magic.  

    How do you evaluate a first book? Some critics want to know what it forecasts: how does it show in embryo the genius to come? I am less interested in what this volume leads to than with what it is. Even Baraka is hard on his early work; he observes in the invaluable Conversations with Amiri Baraka, edited by Charlie Reilly, it “should be looked at as an attempt of a young writer trying to be a poet. I was borrowing from other writers whom I was influenced by at the time.” And, more self-critically he says in 1965 in Home, “Having read all of white’s books, I wanted to be an authority on them. Having been taught that art was ‘what white men did,’ I almost became one, to have a go at it.” 

    However, I disagree with Baraka, this book is not a pale imitation of the white avant-garde. I do not deny Baraka’s brutal brainwashing by the avant-garde—it was an unconscious form of white colonial hegemony—but I do think that they provided the tools to help him depict his experience. Their radical techniques—in particular, free verse and American speech-based verse—allowed him to capture his life and times. He did not merely ape his Beat and bohemian elders but learned to make his own individual poems from them. These poems, as he said earlier, could not be “pried apart” from his daily life. It may be true at one point that Baraka was overly influenced by the white avant-garde but this first book is written out of his personal experience which he made into many original, funny, sad, and beautiful poems. When I was a young man in my late teens, I came on them and was delighted: I had found a world I wanted to know, a world which spoke to me.  And I think most of the poems have endured the test of time. Take a look and see what you think.

    William J. Harris lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic, the editor of The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Readerand a contributor of articles to numerous journals, including Jacket2, African American Review, Callaloo, Artforum, and The Boston Review. Beyond Baraka, he writes about the American avant-garde, the arts, and, Black literature, in particular, poetry.






    LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka
    In Memoriam
    Amiri Baraka (1934 – 2014): Missed Melody, Magic, and Revolutionary Song
    by Haki R. Madhubuti

    This tribute was first published in the Chicago Review in 2014. It is reprinted with the permission of the author and Third World Press Foundation

    It’s difficult to be talented
    & genius
    yet, often called crazy to your face
    in a place that rewards moneymakers
    who build and worship skyscrapers as monuments
    to the individuality of dollar
    bill collecting and preemptive war making
    & whose poets and artists are viewed
    as handicapped, a bit mad with water colored hands & ideas.

    Gathered amid contemplative late-night talks with myself while Monk ­quietly played in the background, this highly personal reflection is my response to the numerous calls which had been coming in from across the nation in January of this year [2014] regarding the transition of Amiri Baraka—our friend, brother, and colleague.

    Amiri Baraka was a poet, playwright, fiction writer, essayist, and editor; a musical, cultural, and political critic; and a family man, activist, and iconic artist of many layers and persuasions who radically altered our literature. He created poems, plays, and essays with hurricane-like force that took few prisoners during his many years of artistic and political production. Baraka was a true generational artist-activist whose work often transcended traditional canonization. He danced, thought, and created in multiple genres, all in tune with the best and worst of our culture. Much like his literary predecessors Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker, Dudley Randall, and Gwendolyn Brooks, Baraka’s art and thinking were combative, instructive, healing, and highly political.

    Though Baraka committed his work to the battlements of “Black Art,” he occupied many worlds. He was born LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey in 1934. After a brief stay at Rutgers University and a little more than three years’ matriculation at Howard University, he joined the Air Force from which he was discharged for reading material that was considered “subversive.” He moved to New York and settled in Greenwich Village where he co-founded the literary magazine Yugen (1958 – 1962). Later with the poet Diane di Prima he co-founded and edited The Floating Bear magazine (1961 – 63); Baraka documents this era of his life, and the early work of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and others that The Floating Bear regularly published, in his Autobiography of LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka (1984). In this same era he issued his first collection of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), through Totem Press, where he was publisher and editor.

    I came across Preface in a used bookstore in Chicago in 1962 while I was serving in the United States Army and using my time, as we were then luckily in between wars, to read and write. I quickly read it and realized that here was a poet of unusual talent, living in a world so unlike mine. At the time, I felt little connection to the book’s content or its author, except that he was a Black man (we were called Negroes then) writing white. I had been reading Richard Wright, Sterling Brown, Claude McKay, and W. E. B. Du Bois from the age of fourteen. This early assessment of Baraka gradually changed as I read more: The Dead Lecturer (1964), a second collection of poems; Blues People (1963), his masterwork on Black music; and Home (1966), his book of political and cultural essays, which was published after his visit to Cuba in 1960. The lead essay, “Cuba Libre,” was highly controversial: it supplied me with another perspective on Cuba that media in this country failed to report. It also displayed to me Baraka’s independent, flexible, inquisitive mind, his long quest for final answers.

    Baraka’s two plays, Dutchman and The Slave (1964), had been produced off-Broadway to much acclaim; and Blues People received great reviews. However, Home was a true eye-opener for me. Just as Richard Wright’s White Man, Listen (1957), had introduced me as a teenager to Black literature with the essay “The Literature of the Negro in the United States,” Baraka’s essays in Home were revolutionary. Whereas Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and Native Son (1940) awakened me to a fighting “Negro” political-left literature, Baraka (then Jones) was searching outside the American or Western paradigm. Through his work I discovered a kindred spirit. We both felt the weight of white nationalism and white supremacy in all that we came in contact with outside the Black community. We were taught that all serious art was white and Western. In his essay “The Myth of a ‘Negro Literature,’” the centerpiece of Home, Baraka was moving with the speed of new thought in an open mind:

    If there is ever a Negro literature, it must disengage itself from the weak, heinous elements of the culture that spawned it, and use its very existence as evidence of a more profound America. But as long as the Negro writer contents himself with the imitation of the useless ugly inelegance of the stunted middle-class mind, academic or popular, and refuses to look around him and “tell it like it is”—preferring the false prestige of the black bourgeoisie or the deceitful “acceptance” of buy and sell America, something never included in the legitimate cultural tradition of “his people”—he will be a failure, and what is worse, not even a significant failure. Just another dead American.

    Baraka’s argument that African-American literature could become not only the distinct literary tradition of our people but also the voice of an America recommitted to its own revolutionary ideals spurred the decisive shift in his own career and even today remains a powerful challenge to Black writers.


    artists who work at beauty, wear words 
    bathed in nature & music,
    talk in complex sentences, odd metaphors & swinging 
    feet are confusing to themselves and others.
    they also think too much about 
    the nature of flags and forests,
    the truth of institutions & religions
    of language and lawyers, bankers & brokers; 
    the why & who of homelessness,
    the question of collateral damage and
    the battle between cultures, races & classes out of school.

    It was the assassination of Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, on February 21,1965, that lit a fire that started a movement. Just as the murder of Emmett Till years earlier helped initiate the modern Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X, especially after he had left the Nation of Islam, was understood by many artists and political young Blacks as a figure who spoke truth to power and to us. His assassination forced most of us to fundamentally question our relationship to America and everything white and Western.

    After the death of Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones left his multiracial family and artistic community in the Village and moved to Harlem. The move to Harlem was prefigured by his trip to Cuba five years earlier, where his consciousness had been radically altered after listening to and meeting Fidel Castro and interacting with writers and artists from other third world countries. The enthusiastic reception by Black people for his art and his close interaction with Black musicians, especially the early innovators of free jazz, helped to focus his thoughts and art in a revolutionary direction. Despite the reputation he had won as a major new playwright with the production of Dutchman—winner of the Obie Award for best off-Broadway play—he turned his back on the possibility of becoming the new Negro writer of the sixties.

    All across America, Black artists of all disciplines began almost overnight to create “Blackly” out of a new sense of urgency. Poets, writers, visual artists, actors, playwrights, photographers, dancers, theater people, and musicians began to form artist collectives and take their art to the streets of Black communities in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and all Black communities in between. The Black Arts Movement was born, and at its center was the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS), which Baraka (still Jones) had founded in Harlem in 1965. BARTS under his direction had five large trucks that would convey artists and poets all over the Harlem community to perform and display the artwork, drama and music of the new consciousness. All across America, similar revolutionary works were being created, performed, published, displayed, and debated.

    In 1966, after the dissolution of BARTS, LeRoi Jones returned to his hometown of Newark and a year later renamed himself Amiri Baraka. He married the poet Sylvia Robinson, who changed her name to Amina Baraka. Together they started Spirit House and Spirit House Movers. They quickly moved into elective politics by founding the Committee for Unified Newark (CFUN) and the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP), which led to the election of Newark’s first Black mayor, Kenneth A. Gibson.

    In 1967 I had founded Third World Press; and in 1969, with other Black artists and educators in Chicago, I founded the Institute of Positive Education. Later in 1969 we became an extension of Baraka’s political organization, the Chicago Chapter of the Congress of Afrikan People, and we helped with the organization of the first Pan-African Congress in Atlanta in 1970, spearheaded by CAP. In 1972 Baraka and CAP took the lead in the organization and expansion of the first modern-day Black political convention in Gary, Indiana.

    We were so young, and we were exuberant in seeing a part of this country as ours, not as owners but as creators and developers on the artistic and cultural fronts. We were forced into political and economic struggles out of necessity and common sense. Our major thought, then as now, was that Black people are not going anywhere: we are rooted here in the U.S., for better or worse, but are not part of its touted progress and prosperity. We knew that we had to make the country work for us, and if we succeeded it would work for all others: First Nation people, women, brown people, yellow people, and Blacks were all together, since we were all on the bottom. Baraka, almost ten years my senior, knew by study and experience the awesome responsibility of the committed artist. As a poet, playwright, essayist, and cultural critic, he understood the nuance and difficulty of combining art and activism toward the goal of making the country work.

    Throughout his life Baraka remained at the center of politics and art in Newark and America, an artist/activist of international proportion who brought his talent and knowledge to students and colleagues across the nation. His teaching career included professorships at Yale University, Rutgers University, George Washington University, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he spent twenty years on the faculty. During my twenty-six years at Chicago State University, which for twenty years hosted the only yearly African-American Writers Conference, we honored him and brought him to our campus several times. Our personal friendship lasted through hills and valleys, hurricanes and volcanoes. We stayed in touch reading poetry together at venues around the nation. His influence on me as a poet is only eclipsed by the influence of Dudley Randall and Gwendolyn Brooks.


    actually, being a complete artist
    in a place that worships skyscrapers, money, war, 
    misconceived thought and hummers over children 
    requires a bit of madness.

    I surveyed the auditorium as I read at his celebration at Symphony Hall in Newark on January 18, 2014, and I was profoundly moved by the thousands of people gathered to pay tribute and say goodbye to this man—this poet. We just lost our John Coltrane. Amiri Baraka created an avalanche of melodies, volcanoes, harmonies, screams, and earthquakes. We just lost our Romare Bearden. Baraka’s mixed metaphors, unrhymed couplets, complete similes, nuanced messaging, and colorful mixed-media creations distinguished him as Griot in a class of his own. We just lost our Katherine Dunham. Few could forget the way he danced to the music of his own poetry, plays, essays, and fiction—lifting the populace out of their seats to confirm an idea, a phrase, a finely tuned “da da doo.” We have lost our Melvin B. Tolson, Sterling A. Brown, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Much like those voices, Baraka saved many of us from complete negroness, political backwardness, and the ultimate embarrassment of remaining imitation ghosts and institutionalized devils.

    Photo credits: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka with Allen Ginsberg, 1959, photo by Dave Heath; Amina Baraka (holding her son, Obalaji) and Amiri Baraka, photo by Neal Boenzi/NY Times; Amiri Baraka dancing with Maya Angelou at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, photo by Chester Higgins, Jr./NY Times.​

    Haki R. Madhubuti—publisher, editor and educator—has published more than 30 books, and founded such important, independent Black institutions as Third World Press (1967) and Third World Press Foundation (2002), among others. His many honors include the first Lifetime Achievement Award given to a poet at the Juneteenth Book Festival Symposium at the Library of Congress in 2015; a Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (2015); and the Illinois Human Rights Commission (IHRC) Activism in the Arts Award during the celebration of Juneteenth in 2019. His recent books include Taking Bullets: Terrorism and Black Life in Twenty-First Century America (2016) and Taught By Women: Poems as Resistance Language, New and Selected (2020).

    Totem Press
    A Conversation with Hettie Jones

    Totem Press, as well as the literary magazine Yugen, was founded by Amiri Baraka (who wrote under the name LeRoi Jones through the mid-1960s) and his first wife Hettie Jones (nee Hettie Cohen) in 1958. Through 1962, they published major writers associated with the Beat Movement, the New York School, and Black Mountain College, including Barbara Guest, William S. Burroughs, Robert Creeley, Philip Whalen, and other emerging talents, like Diane Wakoski and Rochelle Owens. Early issues of Yugen also showcased the work of young Black poets, such as Allen Polite and Tom Postell. The covers for the books and magazine featured artwork by Basil King (his drawing graces the cover of Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note. . . .), Matsumi Kanemitsu, Fielding Dawson, Norman Bluhm, and other artists.

    In late 1960, Totem forged an alliance with Corinth Books, a small press run by Elias and Ted Wilentz, the brothers who owned the Eighth Street Bookshop, a locus of young literary life. With Corinth Books, Totem Press published Baraka’s own first collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. . . ., as well as books by Frank O’Hara, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Jack Kerouac, among others.

    Baraka’s role at Totem and Yugen was generally to solicit and develop submissions, and Hettie Jones handled aspects of production—from typing to design—distribution, and financing. During this period, the two were active in other influential small press ventures, and their home was often a gathering place for musicians, writers, and artists. Their interracial relationship evolved and their family grew—they had two children, Kellie Jones and Lisa Jones—amid the explosive civil rights struggles of the ‘60s. After the assassination of Malcom X in 1965, Baraka moved to Harlem and the marriage dissolved.

    Hettie Jones remained with their daughters in the East Village apartment at Cooper Square that had been the final home of Yugen and Totem Press. She continues to live there—in the fourth-floor walk-up of a former 1845 rooming house—where she has authored over twenty books, including the poetry collection Drive, recipient of the Norma Farber First Book Award, judged by Naomi Shihab Nye; the memoir How I Became Hettie Jones; and more recently Love H: The Letters of Helen Dorn and and Hettie Jones. She spoke by phone to Suzanne Wise of Poets House on March 17, 2020.

    Suzanne: It’s good to be speaking with you on March 17, 2020, Saint Patrick’s Day, during the great global pandemic. How are you doing? What’s it like there?

    Hettie: Well you know it's fine. I'm just in my nice house where I have lived since 19… Oh dear me, 58, was it? No, no, it was 1961 when we found this place. And we rented it. My husband [LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka] was so excited when he came to bed that night, he said: ‘wait till you see, it’s a real house, a real house.’ It used to be one in a row of two- or three-story houses. This was one of the tallest of them all at four stories. Then came The Standard, East Village hotel. Now they're looking down on me. But as things go, they are really pretty good neighbors. 

    Suzanne: Can you tell me about how Totem Press came to be? I have read that Amiri Baraka started the magazine Yugen with you first and it got a lot of the visibility—people really paid attention—and then the Totem Press books came later. Is that right?

    Hettie: That’s right. I’d been hanging around in my early twenties with a bunch of musicians—this is all prefatory—I’d been working at a division of Columbia University Press where they did little, not real magazines, but little handouts. And this guy Richard Hadlock who published a jazz magazine called The Record Changer said, ‘Why don't you come work for me. You don’t want to go all the way uptown’—because I was living on Morton street in the Village and I certainly didn’t want to be taking the subway every day to go up to Columbia University Press. He said, ‘I’ll pay you a dollar an hour, and you can help me put together my magazine,’ and I did.

    Then we needed a guy to be the shipping manager, so we put an ad in the just-then-being-published Village Voice and who should arrive but this young man called LeRoi Jones. So he became the shipping manager and pretty soon we were sitting on the steps; The Record Changer magazine was on Sullivan Street so you could sometimes sit in the sunshine on the steps, it was a little storefront. We got to know each other and liked each other.

    Both of us had experience putting together a magazine, and we had access. We had a friend who had a mimeograph machine. I did a lot of the designing and typing for it. And then we put it together with staples at the spine, and he [Baraka] just walked around getting people to give us a quarter or 50 cents or whatever, and it just grew from there. It was really a labor of love. We began living together on Morton Street in the Village—and all of our friends lived there or on the Lower East Side, so we were able to connect with people and publish people who had yet to be published. 

    After we had published the magazine a little bit—you know you had people who needed books [published]—so Totum Press came into being.

    Suzanne: I love descriptions I’ve read of you typing and retyping the poems for Yugen. I think you all rented a typewriter?

    Hettie: Because all I had was a little portable; when you pushed the roller back it would slide off the table. So, we rented a real typewriter. Was it electric? No, they called them office typewriters. You had to bang on those keys, boy, to make that baby work. Oh, computers are so easy.

    Suzanne: How did your roles, in terms of the hands-on material labor, evolve over the course of Totem and Yugen?

    Hettie: Well, I guess I just did it myself because it was easier than getting someone and correcting whatever they had done and making sure that it was done. And I didn't mind because once you type and retype and retype things, you begin to understand …  this gave me a chance to educate myself and to improve what I did myself before I would publish. It was really like getting a master’s degree. That’s the only comparison I can make. In my own personal development, it was a background for whatever I eventually did. I credit Yugen and Totem for teaching me things.

    I was so interested in learning about and reading what my contemporaries had to say. It was a very exciting time because we were really still recovering from the Second World War and that made us feel that we were reinventing the world. Everyone was letting loose. I just taught a class—at the New School in their graduate writing program—I was trying to explain that we were finally free to be artists and to develop our interests, our intellectual interests, without worrying that we were going to be the next family that walked around grieving. The Second World War had an impact on a lot of people. My very favorite uncle was killed in the Second World War, and he was the first man I was ever in love with and then he wasn’t there anymore.

    We all felt that. It was only about five or six years later after the war was over that I went away to college. So I was still full of that, my whole generation was full of that, because we grew up during the war and to suddenly be free to make what were significant, but what was thought of, as almost idle choices. Artists were not given the credence that they’re given today. There’s a difference.

    Suzanne: So artists were thought of as idle?

    Hettie: Yeah, people who live off other people, in a way. Because if you told your parents that you were going to be an artist they would say—ick!

    Suzanne: But the sense I got from reading your memoir was how you were working all the time. It just seems like a chronicle of a life of work. You had a day job and you were trying to write, you were also creating a magazine, you were publishing books….

    Hettie: But I’ve always been like that. I guess ever since I went to college and that’s what I like most to do. I mean other people like to play basketball. I’m just a worker bee.

    Suzanne: I was really fascinated by the various apartments that were featured in your memoir [How I Became Hettie Jones] as headquarters for family life but also for publishing the magazine and the Totem books. It seemed like there was a lot of work that you were doing that often took place on a kitchen table.

    Hettie: Oh yeah!

    Suzanne: Where was Totem born? I think Yugen was born on Morton Street?

    Hettie: That’s right. Yugen was born on Morton Street. We didn’t live there very long because it was just really one and a half rooms. One room plus the kitchen and a bathroom is what it was. It just got to be too crowded. So, we moved from there to 402 West 20th Street. And that’s where we began having really big parties. And that’s no doubt where Totem was born. Because we did have a big table there. And we also had collating parties. Someone gave us a couch. Whenever anyone moved, they said, ‘we’ll just give the furniture to Hettie and Roi.’ We would have parties and everyone sat in a row and they passed the pages along. The last person got to be the stapler!

    Suzanne: I see! A very crucial role.

    Hettie: Right. It was fun and obviously we were drinking a lot of beer and whatever we could afford. I remember we all cooked together because that was a large apartment and had a decent enough sized kitchen, so that two or three people could work in the kitchen. In my memory we ate spaghetti every weekend….We had the best parties. We always lived in a place that was large so that at least 200 people could fit in the place.

    Suzanne: Oh my god, that’s how big your parties were?

    Hettie: Oh, well at least a 100, I would say. We [later] got a place on East 14th Street. It was what they called the parlor floor of an old Victorian—the building is still there—very high ceilinged and enormous rooms, and everybody who lived in the nascent East Village could just walk in the door. That’s what we were all about. It worked. And then, of course, people found out, and they would come from far places and camp out on the floor.

    Suzanne: You were a writer, and you worked in publishing. Did you run into other women writers in the publishing arena?

    Hettie: Oh yeah. My friend Joyce Johnson worked at Dial Press. She and I met as I was standing at the north end of Cooper Union at the big brown building on the corner of 8th Street and Third Avenue. I was selling copies of LeRoi’s poetry book. And she came walking along. What I remember was that she was so proper. She had on these little heels, shoes with pointed toes. But she stopped, and she got a copy. We both remember being delighted to meet someone of reasonably the same age and of just about the same height! And so we knew each other from then on. I just talked to her this morning. I need to call her later because she was worried that I went outdoors. We’re still friends. Isn’t that nice?

    Also, when I went to work at The Partisan Review, there was Barbara Guest, the poet. She had been working there and was leaving to go to Europe, I think. She was absolutely so welcoming and so dear and so encouraging.

    Suzanne: That’s amazing. At a certain point, Yugen and Totem had support from the Eighth Street Bookshop brothers in the Village, right?

    Hettie: Yeah, Eli and Ted Wilentz. They had a little bookstore on Eighth Street. And they were the neighborhood bookstore.

    I had worked for them. I seem to have worked for everybody and that’s how I got to know them. I think they put an ad in the Village Voice—they wanted somebody to do typing and whatever, and I wanted it. I was so tired of commuting uptown from the Village. I got to know Ted, Ted more than Elias, because Elias lived in New Jersey or something. They were so willing to be part of what was new and to be the destination bookstore for the young people because, one hand washes the other; in that sense we brought them stuff that we knew they could sell, and they were happy to sell it.

    We became friends with them and one day I brought them copies—it was probably Yugen—and they said, Oh we’ll stock it, because they did that. I think they felt their role was not only to sell books but to encourage writers. And because that they were in the Village, to encourage young writers. Eventually they had an imprint of their own called Corinth Books.

    Suzanne: But they decided at a certain point that they wanted to put their money behind what you were doing?

    Hettie: Yes, they did. I had almost forgotten that. That was so dear. And such an amount of belief, I wasn't used to anything like that. Being funded. I was used to singing for my supper. Such as it was.

    Suzanne: It seems like back in the day that literary life was really emanating out of the poetry that was being printed versus going to a reading and hearing somebody read their poems.

    Hettie: Yes, you’ve got that exactly right. Because there weren’t any venues. Eventually, it seems to me that it could even have been ten years later, people started to read in coffee shops and places like that. It was very nice when you could read, but you only got to read because people had read your stuff in a magazine.

    Suzanne: I read that mostly men were published in Yugen and Totem and part of that was related to contributions coming out of socializing at the Cedar Bar, which was more of a guys’ hangout.

    Hettie: But you know life was like that then, if you had children, which seems to me, I always had children. Because we were married in, I guess, 1958, and my first daughter was born in 1959, and then the second one in 1961—so I always had kids….And you know I’m not anybody who’s ever enjoyed going out and hanging in bars and drinking.

    Suzanne: So, what do you think some of the benefits were of having that moment in time as a writer in which connections to other writers solely involved reading their work on the page?

    Hettie: I was so delighted by the work being done because it was writing about now without any formality. They didn’t have to rhyme they didn’t have to use iambic pentameter. Maybe it was because we felt so free after the war and the war had tied people’s tongues and you know during the Second World War there were posters that said, ‘loose lips sink ships.’ Did you ever hear about that?

    Suzanne: I heard about that from my dad.

    Hettie: No one was encouraged to stand up and shout about anything. And you couldn’t criticize the United States of America because we were the great heroes of the world. We had saved Europe. So coming up, there was no such thing as personal glory. It was the glory of the country. And also people thought of bohemians as not being responsible people.

    Suzanne: I guess I was thinking about the fact that you were reading The Partisan Review in college—where you would later work—as was your future husband while he was in the Air Force, I think.

    Hettie: That’s right.

    Suzanne: And you both end up meeting at this magazine about music and that it’s this kind of experience of reading that was bringing people together.

    Hettie: Also, it was about the music. I was supposed to be a musician. I played the piano and had lessons from the time we got a piano when I lived in Brooklyn and I was four. I studied piano until I was 15 and got bored with it because I was bored with classical music….I had started listening to jazz! So it was about knowing the history of music in the United States and working for this magazine The Record Changer and knowing a little bit about jazz.

    Suzanne: Speaking of jazz, in your memoir you talk about walking around the neighborhood and seeing people like Ornette Coleman on the street. In reading your memoir, it felt like there was a star-studded cast in every scene. But I guess that’s the thing about distance. Perhaps back in the day everybody’s still kind of becoming….

    Hettie: Yeah. And that’s such a good word, you know. That's why I called it [my memoir] How I Became Hettie Jones because I was just still little Hettie Cohen when all of this started.

    Suzanne: Final question. Is there a Totem Press moment that comes to mind that was exciting at the time, or looking back now sticks with you?

    Hettie:  I remember receiving a call from somebody very important in literary shenanigans. A call from Chicago. I cannot remember the name of the person but he wanted copies. It was either Yugen or Totem. And I thought ‘it's going to Chicago.’ It seemed to me the end of the world. I’d never been to Chicago. But it was so exciting that someone so far away knew about it.

    Yugen and Totem Press cover artwork credits: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note...., cover drawing by Basil King; Yugen 7, cover drawing by Norman Bluhm; Allen Ginsberg’s Empty Mirror, cover drawing by Jesse Sorrentino; Yugen 1, cover drawing by Peter Schwartzburg, calligraphy by Rachel Spitzer; Charles Olson’s Projective Verse by Matsumi Kanemitsu. Photo credits: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka photo by Burt Glinn; Eighth Street Bookshop exterior, photo by Robert Otter; Eighth Street Bookshop interior, photo by Katherine Knowles.


    E. Ethelbert Miller Interviews Amiri Baraka 

    Recorded in 1998, this episode of The Writing Life features Amiri Baraka at the height of his powers. The Writing Life is a series of half-hour literary television talk shows, produced for three decades by HoCoPoLitSo, featuring more than 100 of the most illustrious names in contemporary literature. Founded in 1974, HoCoPoLitSo (the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society) is a community-based not-for-profit arts organization that produces readings and other literary events for an inclusive audience, both live and on-line. E. Ethelbert Miller is the author of numerous collections of poetry and served as a longtime Director of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University.


    A Look Back at the Art and Life of Amiri Baraka

    This video focuses on the poet’s life with a particular emphasis on his connections to Newark, New Jersey, including his role in the 1967 protests against police brutality and controversy over his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” during his brief tenure as New Jersey State Poet Laureate. It includes footage from a 1983 interview and one of the last readings of his life, given at a gallery in Newark. Produced by Christopher Benincasa for State of the Arts of New Jersey. 11 min.