The Complexity of Being Human: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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Without question, Yusef Komunyakaa is one of the luminaries of contemporary American poetry. His impressive career spans well over 40 years, during which he has deeply affected the literary landscape. Komunyakaa’s work is musical, muscular, and finely crafted. His is a poetics of witness — of clear-sighted, unflinching seeing — that compels readers to locate themselves solidly in the moment of the poem, whether it is detailing the ordinary movements of daily life, reentering the otherworld of mythology, or recounting the harrowing details of life in combat. In “Seeing and Re-seeing,” published in the 2005 special issue of Callaloo, poet Toi Derricotte writes of Komunyakaa’s work, “The most permanent thing about the voice is the language it leaves behind—images so real they are like ripe fruit in the mouth” (513).

The confluence of rhythm, form, and sensory detail in Komunyakaa’s poems works to pull the reader along a journey from which she returns transformed. Consider Komunyakaa’s most famous poem, “Facing It,” which opens thus:

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.

The consonance, assonance, and alliteration of the poem’s first line begin its music — the reader fading into the sonic allure of the poem, as squarely inside it as the speaker is inside the monument. The poem’s sounds pull us even deeper in, even as it expresses resistance; the subtle rhymes of “granite,” “wouldn’t,” and “dammit,” and the domino of “t” sounds end abruptly in the word “stone,” at which point the poem surrenders — “I’m flesh.” The poem’s formal and sonic maneuvers work to completely immerse the reader into its world of doubling: we, too, are both “stone” and “flesh”; we are both the “I” and ourselves.

Komunyakaa’s “Heavy Metal Soliloquy” begins with a rapid sequence of images, the poem quickly overwhelming the reader with visual, tactile, and sonic sensations, which work in a similar fashion:

After a nightlong white-hot hellfire
Of blue steel, we rolled into Baghdad,
Plugged into government-issued earphones
Hearing hard rock. The drum machines
& revved-up guitars roared in our heads.
All their gods were crawling on all fours.

Here, we see another key characteristic of Komunyakaa’s — the poem’s turn from one reality and way of seeing to another. The first five lines of this excerpt work within the register of the literal, even in their more poetic moments (e.g., “white-hot hellfire”) but the use of the word “gods” in the sixth line changes the scope and reach of those previous lines, hinging the immediate to the eternal, the mortal to the divine. It is in moments like these that Komunyakaa’s writing brings to light myriad possibilities, offering us new ways of seeing and being ourselves in the order of things.

Yusef Komunyakaa was the subject of Furious Flower’s 2017 Summer Legacy Seminar. He spent a week among the participants — scholars, poets, educators — as they engaged with his work in a variety of ways. What follows is a transcript of the public conversation we had at that event, which has been organized and edited for clarity.

I’m very excited to be having this conversation with you, Yusef. I wanted to do it publicly because we all are scholars, we’re fans, we’re all very excited to be here [at Furious Flower’s 2017 Summer Legacy Seminar], but tell me about your experience here this week: What’s it been like to be the subject instead of the writer?

Especially the shy poet! (Laughs.) It has been really informative because one sits in a place doing what one has to do, but at the same time it’s interesting to see all these in- depth analyses, hear these in-depth analyses and realize what one does is also public. So it’s been great.

We’ve been talking a lot about your form and taking apart really meticulously form in books like Taboo and Talking Dirty to the Gods. But I’ve also read places where you say you write on fragments of envelopes and snatches of things — small spaces. Walk us through that making that you do, which comes from these snatches to the worlds within those poems. What’s that movement like from the fragment to the completed, formal, structured whole?

Well, usually the fragment is really a distilled moment, and it has to do with the music in the phrase or an image — usually image, because I think I probably wanted to be a painter earlier on. The image works for me in a unique way because the mind functions almost as if a hidden camera is in the psyche. What I mean by that is that I want to be able to almost dance to the images I create, because languages are the first music, and the body is a great amplifier: I feel the poem. And these moments, these fragments, when I actually sit down, those pieces converge and flow together to make or create a more complete, whole reality. So it’s not like painting with numbers or anything like that, you know. (Laughs.) But the poem is a symbol; it’s “a made thing,” to go back to Williams. But also going back even farther in my own time or reality, because my father was a carpenter — a finishing carpenter — and I’d be really excited early on when he would cut a board and it would just slide into place. It was perfect symmetry: it made perfect sense even though he had to measure it a number of times. So that’s been my process.

There are other poems, though, that are complete when I start writing them, especially in Talking Dirty to the Gods. I think it had a lot to do with the form, the illusion of symmetry, the four quatrains. Sometimes I would walk to work and assemble the poem in my head — with the line breaks and all of that — and when I got to the office I just wrote it down. But I think it had something to do with the form. Other poems that that are longer, more … not fragmented, but … Hmm, let’s say this: it’s almost like the musician assembling a song. I would like to think of it that way; perhaps it’s an illusion on my part (laughs), but I would like to think of it that way.

What I mean by that is that I want to be able to almost dance to the images I create, because languages are the first music, and the body is a great amplifier: I feel the poem.

You’ve talked a lot about the image, and you’ve written a lot about the image: it’s really essential and it’s central. You’ve also given us, over the years, amazing images of war and some really difficult and violent moments. I’m curious: Can the image do violence? Is there a line or a negotiation you have to wrestle with as a writer who’s creating a precise image of violence? Is there a risk of also enacting that violence or is that the goal? Is there a struggle of the ethics and the aesthetics of that?

The poet is not a journalist, a reporter. What has penetrated one’s psyche one delivers to the page. It’s a process, a negotiation, and if it’s a violent image, it’s a violent image. What’s interesting as I go through the poems and look at the poems is this: since I’ve internalized elements of violence (let’s face it we all do), there’s also the other side of that. There’s the opposite of that [violence] and those things can live side by side. I think that’s what’s happening. If I look at the poems, there are images of nature, there are images that come out of the composite of what one has taken in, and some of those things are beautiful and some of those things are outrageously violent. But I think it has a lot to do with where I grew up and how I grew up. I was very close to nature from the onset. It’s interesting to look at, say for instance, a jewel wasp. Just the idea of the jewel wasp: how it can sting a cockroach and plant an egg, and the roach is eaten from inside? There’s something very violent about that. Nature is that way, isn’t it? It’s not just the human. Nature itself is violent, so it’s not that we celebrate that, but that we respect it.

You wrote, too, that the making of art changes the creator, and I love that. How has writing and art-making changed you? What have you seen in yourself differently?

I suppose growing up in Louisiana, going out into the environment when I [was] six, you know, discovering things I didn’t know, that in a way was a rehearsal for becoming a poet. I think that’s what’s happening. I didn’t know it at the time, you know, looking at things, discovering things, what have you. I realize that in doing that — this is much later — in retrospect, I realized that in taking this venture out into nature, trying to understand things, not purposely but just accidentally, perhaps I was being changed. And much later writing on the page — I write everything in long hand — just the motion of the pen across the paper, that is an action, and it has everything to do with the whole evolution of the human brain, and the dexterity of the hand and what have you. So in doing that I realize that, yes, I’m being changed by the motion of the instrument. We are very complex organisms and we are changed by stimuli: what we come in contact with, what we do, how we see, the spirit of the moment, but also something deeper than that — the complexity of being human.

And that comes a little bit more alive in the act of writing.

Yes.

I’m curious now about the poem as a finished thing. You’ve talked about the making, the inspiration, the changing. But as one changes and goes back to the poem, it’s a different interaction: how do you know when a poem is done?

It’s a rather intense negotiation. One reason I say this is I haven’t always been totally aware of this. (Laughs.) But, when I was in graduate school I took a class with Howard Moss, who was editor of The New Yorker at the time. And I said, “How many poems do you receive?” He said, “Oh, maybe, oh, 2,000 a week.” And I said, “How do you get through all of those?” and he said, “Oh, well, we don’t.” So I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, sometimes it’s just reading the first few lines.” So the entry of the poem is important. But I took one step farther; I said, how does a poem end? And that is also a process of negotiation. Initially, I write everything down. In revising, I never add, okay? Sometimes, I edit from the bottom of the poem. And the reason for that is that often we have just who we are; we want to make sure the reader receives everything, gets the poem, when in fact the most provocative, truest essence of the poem, we have written past. So that’s what happening — it’s that process of negotiation. But even I’ve written poems that have been published, and I’ve gone back and circled phrases, words, you know? It’s an ongoing process.

We are very complex organisms, and we are changed by stimuli: what we come in contact with, what we do, how we see, the spirit of the moment, but also something deeper than that — the complexity of being human.

You mentioned your teacher, and you’ve written and talked about [Robert] Hayden, [James] Baldwin, [Gwendolyn] Brooks — lots of masters who have really influenced you. Are younger and contemporary writers influencing your work? Are they changing or influencing how you see poetry or write poetry? Who’s exciting you?

Well, I think that’s always present, being in the world. Just being in the world — who we are — we’re taking everything in. And yes, there are voices out there: some of my students, you know, some of their images, they’re rather instructive. The musicality of certain poets doing something different than I’m doing: that is instructive as well. It’s how we live in the world. The spirit of living is important. I’ve been teaching for a very long time now, and there are people doing all kinds of things out there; there are some examples right here, right? Right, Ed? (Laughs, gesturing to poet and former student Ed Pavlic.)

What’s your favorite way or what’s a favorite entry for teaching poetry, and who are some poets you find yourself teaching often?

I try to go across the map. Okay, there are certain writers who seem to always be there. I’m just listing off a couple of those: Robert Hayden is usually there. A poet such as Elizabeth Bishop, she’s usually there. Muriel Rukeyser — and that’s a voice lots of us may not even be aware of, but she is always there, I think. We can go on and on talking about her, really, because I think she’s such an instrumental voice for American poetry. Gwendolyn Brooks is there, especially the first poems. [Amiri] Baraka, especially the first poems. And we can go across the map: translations. [Czeslaw] Milosz is so important. [George] Herbert is so important to me.

I teach a craft course, and it’s really a literature course, and throughout the semester we cover between 12 and 15 substantial books. I’m talking about books, like (gestures to imply thickness), okay? A good example is the last craft course I taught — spring — where the sacred and the profane converge, that was the idea of the course. Starting off with [Gaston] Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and The Psychoanalysis of Fire, coming up to contemporary voices. (I like to surprise myself. I don’t like teaching over and over again the same books, okay? That’s one thing. I don’t like teaching from yellow notepads, you know?) I used to teach the history of African American poetry; we start in 1746 — “Bars Fight” up to contemporary; usually in two semesters from 1746 up to the Harlem Renaissance, then the Harlem Renaissance up to contemporary, so two segments.

Speaking of the sacred and the profane, I know you were raised in a Christian household and have said the music of the South, the rhythms of that upbringing, affected you. God, or at least the idea of God, appears often in your work — overtly, elusively, indirectly, and so I’m really interested in what role the sacred/the divine/the holy — i.e., the idea of God — plays in your writing. How does God feature in your poetics?

God? Okay, okay, I suppose God does appear … (Laughs.) Well there’s a moment when I read as a teenager … I read the Bible through, came back to it again and read it through

Hold on. What version?

King James.

Phew! Okay!

Yes, King James! So I came back to it and since then I’ve read various translations. One of my close friends, Willis Barnstone, has translated the Bible a number of ways, even located the poetry within the context of the Bible. After reading the Bible the second time, I realized I had great questions. I had great questions, okay? (Laughs.) And those questions are still alive in my psyche. Because what was happening around me in the segregated South: it wasn’t lining up, you know? It didn’t make any sense, because I felt like, okay, if one risked walking into a certain kind of church on Sunday morning, there would have been great violence delivered. Okay? That did not work in my psyche. And the other thing I began to look at: wherever Christ appeared in the context of the Bible became an emotional and psychological equation for the socialism. So I saw Christ as a socialist. And that is something I held onto.

I want you to talk a little bit about your relationship to translations: You’ve been translated. Do you translate, and what value do you find in that process? Who are your favorite poets in translation?

One of the favorite poets for me of course is [Pablo] Neruda. Neruda is so important as a world poet. [Federico] Lorca is important. A poet such as Milosz is important. And it’s interesting with Milosz, because I’d come across an image — I think it’s “A Poor Christian [Looks at] the Ghetto,” that particular poem — and there’s an image of a mole with a lantern underground. I had never come across an image quite like that, so that was a very informative image for me. I think it colored a lot of … not necessarily images in my work, but permission — permission to let the brain do what it does best, and that is imagination, going back to Phillis Wheatley’s idea of — her poem “On Imagination” — mental optics. So a poet such as Herbert is so important because of his facility with philosophy. And there are other voices out there, of course, [François] Villon. In Galway Kinnell’s translation of Villon, there’s a line: “I will my bones to the dice-maker.” I said, “Where did that come from?” (Laughs.) So all these things become a composite within one’s psyche, and it is something to not work against but to beckon to. And it gave me permission not to over question the images that came out of my psyche, to embrace them.

It also makes me think of that phrase you say, “Language is first music,” because the music that will arise in another language is different than our music, but then it can influence our music and our images, as you say. Absolutely.

Yes. I was working with a young Vietnamese poet, and he’s a very interesting poet for a simple reason. This was in 1990, that I came in direct contact with him, in Hanoi. He had gone to school in Cuba, and my question to him was Who are the poets there who informed your work? And of course, you know, the first person he said actually wasn’t a Cuban poet: Neruda! And looking at his work — I began to work with him to translate passages of his work — he’s different from any of the other Vietnamese poets and I think it had to do with him spending time in Cuba. Vietnamese have rather interesting relationship to poetry and translation when I think about it because early on there were poetry battles between Chinese and Vietnamese poets! Duels going on with verse, which is a very informed way of dealing with chaos.

We’re informed by what we take in, and we’re also informed by what we push against. And I’m not about going out and using one’s body as a weapon; I’m talking about pushing against that which I think humans have always possessed, that question about mystery.

Speaking of chaos, we are in very chaotic times — nationally and globally, certainly — and we’re wrestling with the complexity of language in a time of language reduction. How can language function? What’s its role? And what’s a poet’s role in times such as these?

It’s interesting because I don’t think of the poem as an emotional ad. What I mean by that is I don’t think the poet can fear the complexity of the language — that’s what he or she is working with. So the poem is not an emotional ad for a moment: going back to something that Gwendolyn Brooks had said, “Art is that which endures.” The poet who’s writing the poem has to be surprised, and that individual is surprised through language, and sometimes it’s the density of the language; it becomes an experience. I don’t think the poet should write down to the reader. There’s a place where they meet. I know for myself, reading poetry, there weren’t really the simple poems, because I like going back to a poem again and again. And sometimes even in writing a poem, I like to be able to say, “Damn, where’d that come from?” I already know; that’s a problem.

So is there a tension between art being the thing that “endures” and art being able to speak to present moment?

The poet isn’t a journalist. In speaking to the present moment, sometimes we speak to the present but we also speak to history and the future. I would like to think of it that way, where it’s not just written in a single moment, dealing with that moment as if I’m a journalist.

I saw a video clip of you saying racism is a land of mental illness. Can you talk a little bit more about that? And do you think there’s a treatment or cure?

Okay, I know the clip you’re talking about. Have I revised that? No. I still believe, yes, it’s a mental illness. And the reason is that you need one factor that can change the personality — I’m talking about on, not just an emotional level, but on a biological level of an individual. That is a mental, I don’t want to say illness; I want to say mental deficiency. That’s what I believe.

Bowen talks about fear, says it’s fear that drives the lynch mob out into the streets. We may be talking about the same thing in different degrees. I think it’s a dialogue — well it’s more than just a dialogue, but — we need to face up to what this is about. And we have to move through something in order to come to the other side of it. This is what I believe. You can’t go around it; you move through it to the other side of it, and perhaps you’ll change. Move through it, and you’re changed. I think it’s also taught: racism is taught. I’m not talking about the fact that one is singled out and tutored, but body language is the first thing. That’s how small children are often taught elements of racism. Children are great readers — they are amazing. And they’re being taught when they’re not aware and even the parents or the adults around them are not aware, by body language.

Going back to the war for a minute. How did that experience inform your use of language, and what did it tell you about social identity?

Going to Vietnam was very instructive, but I suppose I came to war very early. I write about this: there’s a preface to an anthology entitled Inheriting the War where I write about the fact that I’m 6 or 7 and my great uncle, who had been to World War I. He defined it as “on a barrel detail,” which was a strange way of defining World War I and his experience. But then he told me in a graphic way what that meant. There is so much trench warfare, you know, in World War I, there were so many soldiers getting killed that the only thing they could do was bury them there, and then come back and exhume the bodies. And that’s what he was doing. It was a horrific description of war. You have two dog tags, right? Put one in the mouth of the corpse and one in a bag. That was very … well, to carry around that image, I think, was an anti-war statement. The other thing he said was that the only thing he had been taught was to kill, to drink, and gamble.

So bring that back to identity and to language.

Well, I know the history of Blacks fighting in wars. My uncle, I think, fought under the French flag. When I got to Vietnam, I had all this in my head, you know? I wasn’t afraid of the landscape, and consequently when I saw the people often working in the rice paddies and what have you, I said, “Oh, these are peasants.” This same people I’d come from in so many ways in rural Louisiana. And yet I knew — I wasn’t insane — I knew that they could kill you, you know? There was a lot of tension there. Okay, for example, I refused to use those derogatory terms for the Vietnamese. And I would question people about them because I thought it paralleled other similar terms for African Americans — that kind of … you know, degradation. You have to degrade before you can kill. So in a certain sense, I identified with the Vietnamese, and yet I knew that I could get killed by those same individuals. And that’s a real trick inside the head to think about it in that way.

I don’t think the poet should write down to the reader. There’s a place where they meet.

In the rear, that’s where the problems exist between American soldiers. Not in the field, not on the LZs and what have you — you know, when they’re dependent on each other to fend off the enemy — but it was in the rear when they were drinking and trying to forget the war and elements of the war. But mainly when they’re drinking. Then the real American shows up again. That was real problematic. The Vietnamese knew that demarcation, they knew what was happening in the American psyche when it came to race, and sometimes they expertly played up on it. The idea of Hanoi Hannah is a good example of that, right? Her voice penetrated. You know, “Hello GIs. Guess what’s happening back home?” You know, that gets your attention when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. I suppose she saw the parallels. Ho Chi Minh was very interesting because he knew the American constitution, but he also knew all the problems with America, so the Vietnamese were very informed when it came to race. 

What do you read besides poetry? And what other areas of interest do you have? What other disciplines are you interested in?

I suppose since high school I’ve been intensely involved with history. One reason is because I had a superb history teacher, Mrs. Green. And so that’s been going on for a very long time. Philosophy is important to me; when we think of philosophy we think of abstract thinking, but when it converges with nature it becomes doubly interesting for me. Well, I used to assign for students Scientific American, and the reason for that is, well, I didn’t initially know but finally I came up with this: it is where terror and beauty converge, align, and that makes sense to me. But also I think it has something to do with the images; there are some surprising images in science and also [surprising] realities, I think. And questions; questions are so important. I read a little bit of everything, really.

What are some daily practices around your writing process?

It’s a daily practice. Okay, let’s start this way. Okay. I used to think I could remember everything. I had that foolish belief I could remember everything, but no that’s not the case, especially recently. So I keep a pad of paper beside the bed and often I write at least a few lines before my feet touch the floor. I’m not one for remembering every dream, and yet I know that I’m dreaming because we’re all dreaming in some way. So sometimes that first image that I write down seems almost as if it came out of a dream. And yet it is instructive. I’m not talking about where I’m writing for hours at a time; if I’m writing for 30 minutes that’s fine, not sitting there where you’re writing for hours at a time. You don’t have to. I think this is probably true for everyone out here: writing is taking place even when we’re not writing. But we don’t have to be overly conscious of that. You know?

That’s a good segue into advice for emerging writers. What do you tell young writers they need to do or think about? What advice do you have for them?

Okay, my advice is to write every day and to read everything. And don’t worry about getting published. That’s the other thing: don’t worry about getting published. My first collections were small books. A good example of that is that Lost in the Bonewheel Factory. I was reading from that and a publisher, Chris Howell of Lynx House, said, have you sent that out anywhere? And I said, no I haven’t. So I worked on it a couple more months and then I sent it to him, but the main thing is I was interested in hearing the poems come alive. I used to have this straight man that I used to work with (laughs), a poet by the name of Adam Hammer, we were in graduate school together at Colorado State. Adam was so unusual for a simple reason; because when his father had worked on the Oakridge project, the atom bomb, Adam as a teenager had translated Rimbaud. He had gone to University of Massachusetts without a college degree for the graduate program. So he was very unusual, and we used to do these poetry readings together. He was really the quintessential surrealist, an American surrealist; that’s how his mind worked. And we used to play off of each other, which was an interesting experience because I was writing poetry entirely different than his, and so within our poetry reading you would see huge ranges taking place, you know? That was instructive, where the mind could travel.

So you’d advise young poets to expand the range of what they’re exposed to?

Right, right. You don’t want to have 20 poets reading the same poem.

Looking back at this long illustrious career, what are you most proud of? What do you wish you’d known earlier? What do you know for sure? What are you still learning?

That’s a huge question! I suppose what I’m most proud of is that I realize that I have been informed by the place I grew up and it has given me a certain kind of tenacity. That’s what I’m most proud of.

For me, the poem — the new poem, the poem I’m working on — is the poem that I care the most about. Not that I work past poems or anything like that, because I’m constantly returning to poems, but I’ve been informed by the present. The way that I work is that I’m working on more than one collection of poems, side by side, and I move from those places and hopefully being surprised and sometimes fumbling on to something that I never thought I would write about. That’s very important to me — when I thought I would never write about something. When I didn’t even know I would write about it, you know? So one laughs and says, “What in the world? Where did that come from?” And sometimes when I’m working on a poem, I find myself working on another poem within the context of that poem, you know, so that’s important — to realize that sometimes we’re working on multiple things within the context of a given poem.

We’re informed by what we take in, and we’re also informed by what we push against. And I’m not about going out and using one’s body as a weapon; I’m talking about pushing against that which I think humans have always possessed, that question about mystery. That’s what makes us human I think, that we think of the world as mysterious, and consequently because we’re thinking about the world as mysterious it’s always beckoning to us.

That was, to use your favorite word, instructive! Thank you.

Thank you!


Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt


downloadLauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish, which won the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press and is forthcoming in April 2019.

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