In memory: Steve Baratta (1953 – 2014)
Poet, radio host and activist Steve Baratta was honored this past Sunday, July 6, at a memorial where friends and family celebrated his life and mourned the silencing of what for many was a voice of inspiration. He was 61.
Held at the Blu Elephant Cafe in Los Angeles, roughly 40 to 50 people crammed into the small cafe, spilling out onto the sidewalk, to hear readings of Baratta’s poetry and to say publicly how this profoundly empathetic man had enriched their lives. Phrases, such as “the embodiment of love,” “proof that there is goodness” and “genuine kindness” were used to describe Baratta, as well as “revolutionary optimist” and “poet warrior.”
Baratta was born in Brooklyn in 1953 and raised on Long Island. When addressing crowds at political gatherings in Los Angeles he was known to jokingly say, “I’m from New York, so I’ll need an interpreter.” He was drafted into the Navy in the early ‘70s and served on a supply ship. After being discharged in San Diego, he made California his home.
Unable to recollect many of Baratta’s artistic influences, Robert Baratta figured that after his brother left the Navy, Bob Dylan inspired him to become a poet.
“He always loved Bob Dylan. He loved him from the get-go,” he said. “He was always walking around with a Bob Dylan album. [The song] ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ I think changed his life.”
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’
— Bob Dylan
As if answering Dylan’s call, Steve Baratta began to “prophesize with his pen,” and keep his “eyes wide.” Like a drifting troubadour, he kept his life free of entanglements and marched to his own iambic pentameter. He lived homeless, sleeping in a church’s courtyard in east Hollywood, determined to be true to himself. Some say it was by choice, others say it was his only choice.
And he wrote.
I write because poetry is inspiration,
the breath that keeps me alive.
— Steve Baratta, excerpt from “Why I Write”
“I wasn’t really happy about it,” said Baratta’s sister, Kathy Baratta-Brown, about her brother’s homelessness. “But I knew he was looking to make something out of himself. That was the path he thought was the right way to do it, for him. He just wanted to write poetry. He just put himself out there, started looking for people and making friends. He was not shy by any means. He was very friendly and always had a smile for everybody.”
In the 1990s, Steve Baratta began working with the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, two socialist-feminist organizations of the same coin. He took the side of the oppressed, railed against capitalism, racism, sexism, war and police brutality, to name a few. To the groups he supported, he offered his labor, his love and his poetry.
“He was such a positive and giving person,” said Christine Browning, a member of the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women. “We met Steve several years ago when he came to Radical Women’s Women’s Rights Day celebration and read a couple of his poems in support of women’s rights. After that, he would appear occasionally at meetings, study groups or events, always offering his opinions or throwing out a wry joke, and always willing to help us clean up at the end of the evening. He would do just about anything for us.”
Yuisa Gimeno, an organizer with Radical Women, said Baratta “was a fixture” at their meeting hall. She said Baratta often honored women in his poetry and she held him up as an example.
“It’s an inspiration to me, and it’s an inspiration to other men, that men too can be feminists,” she said. “He was a walking, breathing, talking example of that.”
Never underestimate the strength of a woman
She doesn’t need to call security
and she doesn’t need to call the cops
she can grab you by the collar with the right hand
and throw your ass out on the pavement
while drinking a cup of coffee with her left
And she’ll take your order
and pay for it
Then give it to the starving poet
who is sitting at the other end of the counter
True democracy at work!
And in a situation like this
the only role for security
is to open the door for the waitress
— Steve Baratta, excerpt from “Woman”
In 2010, Baratta took his passion for social justice and poetry, as well as his nasally New York accent, and applied it to the radio. For years he hosted a show called “Open Windows” on Kill Radio with the skill of a professional. He would often joke about his program’s hours, which were from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m., and say, “Today never ends, because it’s always tomorrow.”
It was at Kill Radio that Baratta would further inspire others – like Tim Morris, an associate of his at the station, who described Baratta as his mentor and friend.
“Even though he taught me a lot of things, I don’t think he considered himself a teacher,” said Morris. “I don’t think he was aware he was teaching me anything, other than him doing his thing. He was being himself, and that was what he was really showing me to do, was to be myself. The identity that he carried was much more than that; he was a real individual. … If it weren’t for him being who he was, and being in my life as he was, and the role he played, the series of serendipitous events that led me to him, and him being in my life by pure chance, then I wouldn’t believe in myself.”
Baratta had a similar effect on another Kill Radio cohort, James Gautier, who hosts his own show, “Jimmy’s Potpourri.”
“Every time I lost track of myself, trying to be who I am,” he said, “I would bump into Steve on the train or on the bus or at a cafe on Hollywood Boulevard or Sunset Boulevard, and Sexy Steve — Sexy-goddamn-Steve — would always fucking remind me that it’s OK for me to be as weird as I want to be. That was his thing for me. He’d say it’s OK to be a jackass, because that’s who you are. And I thought that was wonderful to hear that from someone who cared about you.”
But on Sunday, June 15, the poetry stopped. Steve Baratta died of an aortic aneurysm.
Baratta is survived by his parents, his brother and his sister. He never married, nor fathered any children. And while many of those who didn’t know Baratta well had suddenly wished they had, many of those who knew him better than anyone suddenly wished they knew more.
“Steve is not leaving this world unloved; that I know for sure,” said Robert Baratta, after hearing an evening’s worth of endless praise for his brother.
Tara Villanueva, Steve Baratta’s niece, emceed the event. She read one of her uncle’s poems, one that he wrote upon turning 60, called “Sixty, What Does It Mean?” It went something like this …
let it be not
a sad, dark, solemn occasion
So don’t mourn for me when I’m gone,
Or grieve over my clean white shirt,
Because it’s the only one I’ve got