Readers write in on the Amiri Baraka controversy and why people treat waitresses badly.

By Salon Staff

Published October 18, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

[Read "Amiri Baraka Stands By His Words."]

Amiri Baraka has the right to compose and recite poetry about anything he wishes. He also has the right to wrap his head in tinfoil and rant about government radio waves issuing commands through his dental fillings, extraterrestrials slowly draining his pituitary gland at night, the Israeli government having advance warning of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and any other nonsense his twisted mind can concoct. However, the taxpayers of New Jersey are under no obligation to support his foolishness. Stripping Baraka of his title of poet laureate is not censorship. Baraka will still be free to write his garbage, just not on the taxpayers' dime.

Don't fret about Baraka. There are plenty of other places his stuff can get published. The Arab newspapers that regularly run exposés of how Jews kill Arab children and use their blood to bake Passover matzo will trip over themselves in their rush to print Baraka's tripe. Amiri, if you're reading this, let me be the first to encourage you to emigrate to Cairo where you will no doubt be named that enlightened city's poet laureate (just don't criticize the government, otherwise you'll end up doing poetry slams in one of their miserable jails).

-- Michael Gurwitz

As a fairly literate black American who no longer bothers being exasperated with the ludicrous state of "Black American Literature," I can't help feeling that New Jersey got the poet laureate it deserves in Amiri Baraka, who can't have gotten the job on the strength of his work. He's a hold-over from a fad-ridden hiccup in North American Letters; there was a time, I guess, when liberal white readers (and publishers) thought that Baraka was bringing them some kind of news from "the streets," and the less literate this news was, the more authentic it must have seemed. Making him the Laureate must have felt like the right, or nice, thing to do ... but don't blame Baraka for the insult of his artless polemic on "9/11" (which is, by the way, not even disciplined enough to be truly anti-Semitic ... it's more anti-poetic than anything else). Blame whoever it is who always gives a pulpit to the loudest, least prepared and most entertaining blacks. Against the odds (lack of role models, or support from the publishing industry, etc), there are some gifted "minorities" out there who can write as well as any Dead White Male, but they're just too boring, aren't they? Or threatening.

-- Steven Augustine

I read Amiri Baraka's poem "Somebody Blew Up America" and you know what -- I laughed. I think the poem was funny, suggestive and refreshing.

I guess the poem was made to be read aloud. It's clearly a part of oral tradition of American poetry. A lot of A. Ginsberg's poetry is really stupid when read from the book.

Plus I'm really surprised that such a culturally smart publication as Salon.com reads poems as they were press releases. You are beginning look like conservatives complaining on the immorality of Beat poetry.

-- Kyosti Niemela

In the interests of good journalism, did it occur to anyone to ask what grounds Mr. Baraka had for his belief that 4,000 Israelis stayed home from the WTC on Sept. 11? Such a remarkable statement requires more than simply asking him if he "really believed" it. He should have been pressed to defend it: Who did he hear it from? What evidence did he have that it was true? Did he make any effort at all to actually verify this, or did he simply believe whomever it was that told him?

You do a disservice when, in confronting idiots, you don't press them harder to defend themselves, such as the basic requirement of showing some evidence to support their arguments.

-- Carl Wernicke

Suzy Hansen's piece on the Baraka controversey comes as close as anything I've read to getting right what matters in the story. It's what I expect from Salon.

I have one issue to raise that she didn't. It seems to me that Baraka is more than a controverialist. His anti-Semitism is not in dispute. I wonder what it means that a group of notable poets were willing to dismiss it as merely an extreme view among others he holds. If, for example, they had a writer whose controversial views included white supremacy, would that have knocked her or him off the list with Alicia Ostriker and the others? I submit that it would (and should) have; and I am troubled by the willingness of persons who should know better to count anti-Semitism as merely a controversial view that is covered by some benign conception of free speech.

I think it is fair to expect that the hateful views Baraka holds, whatever his merits as a poet and polemicist, should eliminate him from consideration for public laurels (and funds).

-- Howard Green

[Read "Sunnyside Down."]

I found Suzy Hansen's analysis of waitresses and their "clients" to be lucid, but incomplete. Specifically, I feel that bad customers act abusively to wait staff for the same reason they might take two newspapers from a vending machine when they've only paid for one -- they feel entitled.

There is a breed of diner that doesn't want to get screwed over, that will try to get more than he or she deserves for their money. These people, when visiting restaurants, feel they are not only paying for the food and service, but have actually "rented" (herein the prostitution parallels might be appropriate) the server body and soul for the duration of their visit. Dehumanization, abusive verbiage and all-around bad manners -- in the rude diner's mind -- are an implicit, God-given part of the package.

And where are the restaurant managers? A good boss will always stand behind his or her wait staff. One acquaintance's manager actually stopped a hellish, no-tipping couple as they left the restaurant and said, "You're stiffing my best waitress. Give her a tip or never come back."

What waitresses need is a little support from the powers that be.

-- Jeb Gleason-Allured

Thanks so much for presenting this book, and the viewpoints of those featured in it, in such an engaging manner. Though I've never waitressed, I was once a restaurant hostess/coat-check girl at an establishment on a Manhattan street well-trafficked by recent college grads with drinking and cocaine problems, ridiculously expensive handbags, and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. Whether I'm working or am a customer being served, the lack of patience and of manners of many customers (including some of my friends, unfortunately) has never ceased to infuriate me. You don't suppose the publisher could offer a discount to restaurants wanting to sell this book? Better yet, along with etiquette books or those "birds and the bees" tomes that parents give their preteen sons and daughters, Mom and Dad should also buy Junior a copy of "Hey Waitress."

-- Elaine Heinzman

I smiled at Suzy Hansen's piece on semi-voluntary servitude.

Every one of my siblings, as well as my grandmother and her sister, earned their bread as wait staff. I resolved at age 7 that I would never work in that capacity because I lack verbal restraint. If someone is rude, I reflexively scorch their hide.

Seeing so many of my loved ones wearing the apron and carrying the pad, I can't help but see the human being behind the hovering pen. Whomever it may be, I try to ease his or her task.

On tipping, however, it's 15 percent for adequate service, 20 at least for extra effort, anticipation and good cheer, but nothing less than 10 even for bad service. Service only, note. The server is not the cook. Don't punish her for someone else's screw-up. That's why complaints to the manager were invented.

As children, all my brothers and sisters would cringe when our mother would leave a single penny to signal her dissatisfaction if the meal service failed any of her rigorous criteria.

Every working Jane and Joe scrambling to make a buck deserves better than that.

-- J.J. Brannon

Salon Staff

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