Salaam: When you wrote A System of Dante's Hell, at one point you decided just to start with memory. You sat down and just started to write your first memories--without trying to make any sense of them or to order them, but rather just to write whatever your first memories were. Is that correct?
Baraka: Yeah. That's essentially what it is. I was writing to try to get away from emulating Black Mountain, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, that whole thing. It struck me as interesting because somebody else who had done the same thing was Aime Cesaire. Cesaire said that he vowed one time that he was not going to write any more poetry because it was too imitative of the French symbolists, and he wanted to get rid of the French symbolists. So he said he was only going to write prose, but by trying to do that he wrote A Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. It's incredible when you think about that. For me it was the same thing. I was trying to get away from a certain kind of thing. I kept writing like Creeley and Olson, and what came to me was: "I don't even think this." What became clear to me is that, if you adopt a certain form, that form is going to push you into certain content because the form is not just the form, the form itself is content. There is content in form and in your choice of form.
Salaam: Is there content or is there the shaping of content?
Baraka: I'm saying this: The shaping itself is a choice, and that choice is ideological. In other words, it's not just form. The form itself carries ...
Salaam: If you choose a certain form, then the question is why did you choose that form.
Baraka: Exactly--Why did you choose that form?--that's what I'm saying. That's the ideological portent, or the ideological coloring of form. Why did you choose that? Why does that appeal to you? Why this one and not that one?
Salaam: You said you were consciously trying to get away from the form?
Salaam: So, why call it A System of Dante's Hell?
Baraka: Because, I thought, in my own kind of contradictory thinking, that it was "hell." You see the Dante--which escaped me at the time ... it shows you how you can be somewhere else and even begin to take on other people's concerns--I wasn't talking about Dante Aligheri. See? I "thought" I was, but I was really talking about Edmund Dante, The Count of Monte Cristo. I had read The Count of Monte Cristo when I was a child, and I loved The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmund Dante, that's who I was talking about, but I had forgotten that. Forgotten that actually it was Dante Aligheri, although I had read that. There was a professor of mine at Howard, Nathan Scott, who went on to become the Chairman of the Chicago Institute of Theology. Nathan Scott was a heavy man. When he used to lecture on Dante, he was so interested in that, that he interested me and A.B. [Spelman] in it. He would start running it down and we would say, Damn, this must be some interesting shit here if he's that into it. So we read it and we got into it. It was like Sterling Brown teaching us Shakespeare.
Salaam: So The Count of Monte Cristo is what you were remembering?
Baraka: Right. Absolutely.
Salaam: But you were saying A System of Dante's Hell. Explain the title.
Baraka: I had come up on a kind of graphic which showed the system of Dante's hell. You know, hell laid out in graphic terms, showing what each circle was. First circle, second circle, etc.
Salaam: That was Dante Aligheri.
Baraka: Right. But seeing that, I wanted to make a statement about that, but the memory itself was not about that. See what I'm saying? I was fascinated by Dante's hell because of the graphic, but when I started reaching into Dante, I wasn't talking about that Dante. I was talking about Edmund Dante. Remember, Edmund Dante, like all those Dumas characters--you know all of Dumas' characters get thrown down, get whipped, somebody steal their stuff and they come back. …