And When I Die, I Won't Stay Dead - Bob Kaufman, poet

From introductory remarks I wrote for the Los Angeles Filmforum at MOCA screening of Billy Woodberry's: And When I Die, I Won't Stay Dead, Thursday, November 10, 2016.

Thank you for joining us. There is a lot going on right now, and it means a lot that you choose to be here for tonight’s screening.


Tonight, it is a great privilege to be able to share with you one not only what I think is one of the best films of the past year, but perhaps one of the most important as well. And over the past two days, its beauty, timeliness, and import have only grown in my estimation.

In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin writes “Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins… And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”

That is to say, history is not fixed, it is in flux. And power has a way of reshaping history to its own ends, such that even our memories of the struggle are not secure.

Therefore, remembering is a political necessity. As Thom Andersen says, remembering becomes a crucial, necessary operation. When we write history, especially when we write it in a new way, such as Woodberry has done, we are not reshaping the past; we are forging a new world and the consciousness it takes to bring that world about.

As Carrie Mae Weems said to Mickalene Thomas, “It is not about reclaiming; it is about claiming.”

In the end, that’s why I think this film is important. Even though by some accounts Bob Kaufman is the person who coined the term “Beat”, he has been all but excluded from its history. And this is not just a loss for literature; we are all poorer for it.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes that a successful work has the power to teach its own lesson. And for me, Woodberry’s film is a work of that order. And When I Die I Won’t Stay Dead is about the poetry of Bob Kaufman, but it also teaches us how to live. It is about one man’s life and art, but it is also about resistance to political oppression and racial discrimination; it is about imagination as a powerful weapon, creativity as a liberatory force, and the necessity of organization.

The dead are not safe, but they won’t stay dead. We cannot let them.

Or as Kaufman himself wrote, “Let the voices of dead poets/Ring louder in your ears… Listen to the music of centuries/Rising above the mushroom time.”

So tonight, we learn from one poet of the past and another of the present how to make a better future.