An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa
Dana Isokawa, Issue 33
Yusef Komunyakaa has referred to his poems as “word paintings,” as music, and as acts of conjuring. His work, which includes seventeen books of poetry and numerous plays and operas, possesses traits of all three: vivid imagery, jazziness, and a power to summon a wide range of feelings and landscapes. Born in 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and a Vietnam War veteran, Komunyakaa frequently addresses deeply troubling topics like war and the black experience in the South, as well as more discrete mysteries like the life of a maggot. In his work, mysteries are not addressed one-dimensionally; instead, he riffs, insinuates, illustrates, and talks around the idea to create a poem. As a teacher, Komunyakaa combines this leaping, associative approach with precise craftsmanship. In workshop he carefully reads through student poems line by line, while in office hours he improvises poem prompts, pulling in ideas from literature, music, science, history, and mythology from all over the world. He kindly agreed to speak with Washington Square Review over email about how his work has changed him over the years, the possibilities of scientific language combined with street language, and how a poem finds its shape.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How did you get started as a poet? What drew you to poetry, and is it what keeps you with poetry still?
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: I want to say that I’ve always been a poet, even at five when I would compose lyrics in my head and sing along with the radio. When I was fifteen, I didn’t exactly trust the words in my mouth, and that is when I began to read Yeats to my cousin, Beatrice. I felt the power of imagery through language. I still don’t know why I took Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, 1945–1960 to Vietnam with me, but I read the poems repeatedly. When I returned from the war I thought I would write essays with the urgent voice of James Baldwin, but I continued to read poetry. It seems that poetry had already entered my blood. I didn’t know that. But if one becomes a close reader, I believe that one is already a half step from grabbing up a pen and scribbling down those first lines. I had questions, and I think questions and observations are intrinsic in the metaphors we live by. As a freshman at the University of Colorado, I began writing short poems influenced by the French surrealists and Negritude poets. I read Breton and Aimé Césaire closely. One of those early poems I decided to keep is “Instructions for Building Straw Huts,” beginning with the following lines: “First you must have / unbelievable faith in water, / in women dancing like hands playing harps / for straw to grow stalks of fire.” The poem remained in my notes until I decided to include it in Copacetic in 1984.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In class, you once remarked that the most interesting languages right now are street language and scientific language. Could you speak more to that?
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: I was actually thinking about the surprise that exists when the tonal register of street language nudges up against scientific language—the push and pull of action-reaction that occurs to create meaningful tension—one in concert with the other. Off the top of my head, perhaps something such as “tagging the noggin box’s neocortex” could be a small example. I’m thinking here about the register of sound as well as distilled insinuation. Both avenues are inventive, and when the two converge they could be even more palpable in the mouth of the poet. Of course, the conceits of form could add doubly to this mixture of sound and meaning—a tableau of playful signifying.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Your poems appear in many different forms and shape—everything from prose poems to the staggered three line stanzas of Taboo to two-column poems (as in “A Quality of Light” in February in Sydney)—how do your poems find their shape?
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: I feel that often the form or shape of a poem parallels an improvised moment. And one finds oneself relating to the white space of the page as if it were a canvas. We are indeed sensitive to and thoughtful of a poem’s visual attitude. And a poem’s shape has much to do with its rhythm. Sometimes the shaped intension reflects a poem’s tone and oral signature, its music. And to have those gestures inform the emotional architecture of a collection can be rewarding for the writer and the reader. I like to feel some dips and turns in the visual narrative of presentation.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In class, you assigned us to write a work poem. In many of your own poems, you write very vividly and precisely about physical work, like ploughing a field or building a wagon. What drives your interest in the subject matter of work? Do you see any connections between the language or rituals of work and poetry?
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: For me, physical work has often formed a time and place of meditation. When one discovers the movement and rhythm of a job, one exacts an elongated moment where he or she can venture almost anywhere. This isn’t about sleeping or dreaming upright, but it is about traveling inside one’s head. Work can often bring the body and the mind together in such an intricate dimension, whether one is laboring under a hot Louisiana sun or against a cold New Jersey wind. Physical work is almost an innate expression. Perhaps that is the first place the impulse for poetry comes from, or I’m merely thinking about “The Poet” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, when he says, “In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: If you could invite three people to dinner (living or deceased), whom would you ask?
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: I would love to invite myself to a dinner where I’d meet Paul Robeson and Albert Einstein—two friends who never talked small talk. Also at the dinner would be Marguerite Duras, or James Baldwin, or Pablo Neruda, or Nina Simone. I don’t know why Duras continues to enter my dream world. Perhaps some of us have an audacious fantasy that we can save people from their history and/or themselves. At such a dinner, I would be an attentive listener, and would depart this séance with some bittersweet clues about our future.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Your first collection of poetry Dedications & Other Darkhorses was published in 1977 and your most recent collection The Chameleon Couch was published in 2011. How do you think your work or your approach has changed over those thirty-five odd years?
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: Well, I definitely have changed, or maybe my work has changed me. The process. The voyage. Maybe an imagistic enquiry changed me, prompting me to approach all those unasked questions. Maybe a psychic atmosphere rose out of the words, not unlike the dream that changes the dreamer. I think language has shaped my concerns about the world. In the past decade and a half, as I wrote Talking Dirty to the Gods, Taboo, Warhorses, and The Chameleon Couch, I now realize that my mind traversed numerous borders. Within this time span I also wrote an adaption of Gilgamesh for the stage, as well as other performance pieces and plays: Wakonda’s Dream for Opera Omaha, Ish-scoodah for the Princeton University’s Atelier, Slipknot for Northwestern University, and The Deacons for Passage Theater in Trenton, New Jersey. All these works are different from each other, but I believe they have evolved naturally. Most of us face a plethora of daily sensations; even when we are fully aware, we are still consciously and unconsciously changed ever so slightly.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Can you think of a moment where you felt you were taking a risk with your work or as a poet?
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: I don’t think I have ever planned or orchestrated a risk in my work, though the title of Gordon Parks’ memoir, A Choice of Weapons, still remains in my psyche like a distant echo from Plato’s Cave. Speaking of choice of weapons, the camera and the pen, Parks says, “They were all half hidden in obscure cubbyholes stretching along the labyrinthine corridors of my earlier life. But I found them.” For me, poems mainly sought me out through images. I know in one way or another everything’s political because of our inherited tool—language. The surrealists were very much aware of this bloody fact. And, now, thinking about risk embedded in subject matter, I realize that The Wishbone Trilogy has dogged me down a very long path. From the onset I’ve loved reading esoteric moments of history, and for me history still illuminates the present and future. I didn’t know I would write those historical poems until I was writing them. And I am still writing them—off and on—intermittently.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In other interviews you’ve mentioned that when one internalizes a landscape, everything subsequently filters through it. Can you speak more to that idea of filtration and how you see it playing out in your work?
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: You know, I wasn’t totally aware that the pastoral resides so deeply in my work until someone pointed it out. And I immediately said to myself, "Of course. Bogalusa." The place called The Green Empire has reigned underneath everything: its numerous birds and trees, sages and rabbit tobacco, water moccasins and tadpoles, mud puppies and spiders, its chasm between the rich and poor, and etcetera a thousand times over. What we have taken in shimmers up through extended possibility. In that sense, if we need a natural scapegoat, we can hold the human brain responsible. But also if we’re totally conscious of the pitfalls within the landscape reflecting and refracting how we see things, the brain is an acute tool of negotiation. Perhaps this is one place where philosophy and poetry emanate from, especially if we give any credence to reverie.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Frequently your poems seem to merge or intertwine different forms or genres, whether it be with drama, as in “The Glass Ark” section of Thieves of Paradise, or with blues or prose. What inspires you to blend forms?
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: As I said earlier, I’m very much a visual person, and I revel in moments when I feel the visual blueprint shaping the music of the poem. Also, I marvel at how poems reside visually beside each other to create emotional and psychological movement. The tension is within poems—word by word, line by line—but tension also exists within the silences and spaces between poems. We could say that a book is a compilation of shapes and sounds. The blend is natural. And one hopes that a collection isn’t a house of cards, that it is a place where surprises are negotiated.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What are you working on now?
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: Well, there are a few in-progress projects. I’m working on a libretto entitled The Three Astronauts. That is, I’m writing the dialog and arias for the American astronaut—Colonel Theodore Anderson— one of three characters that goes to Mars. I’m working alongside three other librettists: Sola Liu (Chinese astronaut), Dmitry Glukhovsky (Russian astronaut), and Daniel Everett (the Martian). The Three Astronauts is a new wave opera commissioned by Ardea Arts based on a children’s book by Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi, and it is scheduled to premiere at Santa Fe Opera in 2015. I’m also working on three collections of poetry: Emperor of the Water Clocks, Night Animals, and Blood which is the second book in The Wishbone Trilogy. And I’m writing a new play entitled Mrs. Wakoski and the Doorman.