ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Poetry tries to work the problems—one’s attitude towards oneself, the world.

You’re able to journey through the subterranean corridors of the head.

Some call them headtrips



Books by Yusef Komunyakaa

Copacetic / I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head / Dien Cai Dau / Magic City / Neon Vernacular / Toys in a Field

Thieves of Paradise / Talking Dirty to the Gods  /  Pleasure Dome Jazz Poetry Anthology  /  The Second Set  /  Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy

Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries

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Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet

Yusef Komunyakaa

New Orleans, May 1985


The interview below is seventeen years old, nine years before Yusef received his Pulitzer (the first African-American male to be so honored). I recently dug it out of boxes I have been lugging around from one residence to the next. It was written in long hand on lined yellow legal-sized sheets. At the time of the interview Yusef was a mentor and a friend. I am not sure what I had intended doing with the interview at the time. It was an intellectual exercise, an exploration of his methods and his thinking. As much play as anything. We worked then on a number of projects, including building a stage and a bar for a community center, Copacetic-Piety, dreamt up by Ahmose Zu-Bolton.

We spent also a lot of time in Lee Grue's Poetry Forum and riding about town in my orange VW bug discussing writing, culture, and politics. We also spent a considerable amount of time at the archives at the University of New Orleans going through the papers, and especially the poems, of Marcus Bruce Christian. That exercise was intended to pull out the best ones. That projected endly up finally fourteen years later as a book of fifty poems, titled I AM NEW ORLEANS & OTHER POEMS By Marcus B. Christian. One might even say all those New Orleans activities with Yusef eventually led to the creation of ChickenBones: A Journal, as a means of fulfilling a commitment of making Christian more public and accessible.

When the community center fell and our relationship with Ahmose went sour and his relationship with Mandy had fully developed, Yusef left town with his new wife, leaving me in his house on Piety Street, which is where I think I first got to know the poet Mona Lisa Saloy, who was then staying on the West Coast. I have not seen Yusef since his marriage and his first trip to Australia, though I spoke to him on the phone, and communicated to him by post when he reviewed my poetry manuscript and made suggestions. This interview was conducted in his house on Piety Street, probably soon after I met him in New Orleans.

Note: In the photo above I am sitting on the pool table and Yusef is leaning on the bar that we built for the community center. The fellow in the yellow Tee-Shirt is the photographer (I foget his name.) They were heady days when I thought everything was still possible. I was still young enough then to be very naive.

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Part 1

Rudy: You’re working in the Poetry-in-the-School program now? Is this work you want to do.

Yusef: It’s work I like doing. Had some doubts about it—teaching grades 3 to 6. It’s, however, been exceptionally rewarding. You can see the discoveries they make—by the way they state things, by how their faces light up. They can be very brutal; in their assessment of life., and at the same time humane. At the same time you have innocence and keen observation. They don’t bite their tongues. The system hasn’t yet instilled the editing machines inside their heads. They are lucky that way.

Rudy: You say sometimes the kids can be “brutal.” What do you mean?

Yusef: Sometimes I am forced to tell them not to use the name of fellow students.

Rudy: So you have been working with this program how long? How long do you tend to stick with this program?

Yusef: Since October ’84. I’m playing it by ear as long as it is a reservoir of surprises.

Rudy: How has this teaching affected your work and life?

Yusef: It’s help to lead me back to an assessment of my own childhood and I hope to cover that in a book called Magic City. It will deal with my childhood in Bogalusa with the Knights of the Camelias—to rediscover that psychological terrain that I tried to forget, to help me to piece together all aspects of my background. Many times in the faces of some of these children I feel as if I’m looking into a mirror.

I’m in the process of writing a children’s book. It’s about the observations of a little boy and it’s and it’s to be called Blues Boy. It’s about a little boy who happens to be a blues singer—nine or ten years old—and how he deals with the existential aspect of what he sings.

Does he know? Yes, he does. Like Lightening Hopkins, he climbed up on the wagon with Blind lemon Jefferson. We think of him as a grown man. But he was nine years old when he began. Born in Centreville, Texas. Our observations sort of bleed into each other. That’s what poetry is about.

Rudy: These are some of your future projects. What’s going on now, or what are some things that have happened recently?

Yusef: A few months ago, I finished writing poems about Vietnam—an attempt to reassess, to look at things in retrospect.

Rudy: This “going back in the head,” what real use does it serve you as a person? I understand that it offers a source of material.

Yusef: It’s a cleansing process. You’re finally able to deal with that whole stockpile of images—brutal, bloody images. It helps you take a look at the American soldier, at the Vietnamese—to look at the people as the enemy. They were “gooks” and “dinks.” It helps you  to take apart all the things you observed and ask why. And try to answer some of those whys in the writing. In a sense it helps to release oneself from the war, which I think is necessary.

Rudy: You seemed to have been deeply affected by the War. Your sensitivity as an ex-soldier seems to be somewhat unusual. How do you account for it?

Yusef: For me, it was different. I was a combat correspondent for the AMERICAL-PIO. Anytime boys were pinned down, such as Hamburger Hill, you were expected to get in the chopper to get the story, to get the picture and to come back and time to digest the information. As a writer, you were sensitive to the images. So you internalize the image.

At this time, I was reading everything—poetry, issues of DownBeat, Negro Digest, and Black World. I was reading short stories, poetry—Baraka, Baldwin; magazines like Dissent; some political analysis of the Vietnam situation. Constantly wrestling with the conflict. One fact saying, yes. The other, no. Questioning why I had not gone to Switzerland or jail. And also by being a combat correspondent, you see numerous firefights because that’s what you’re expected to do—cover those things. Consequently, it becomes volumes of images.

Rudy: What did you do after the war? Were things really different for you when you returned to the States?

Yusef: My first day back I got a ticket for jaywalking. It was very strange. I didn’t think about crosswalks. In a way I was still back in Vietnam. I took a number of jobs that were pits—worked as an air-conditioned mechanic in Arizona; six months as a policeman in Arizona. It was difficult. If you think you going to change people with a gun on your hip, you’re mistaken. You’re end up behind a desk. So I decided to go to Colorado, University of Colorado.

Rudy: Did you know people in Arizona and Colorado before you left?

Yusef: My mother lives in Arizona. And my daughter lives in Arizona.

Rudy: Why did you choose Colorado?

Yusef: I also worked for the Racial Harmony Council, an organization that dealt with investigating racial incidents. We worked out of Fort Carson, Colorado Springs. I edited HARAMBEE, a race relations magazine. We had essays, artwork, literary works—short stories, poems; but mainly a lot of articles on race relations and some of prison writings. Some dealt with political theory. We had a hundred-odd investigators.

Rudy: So what year was this?

Yusef: 1971 to 1973. In 1973, I started University of Colorado.

Rudy: You decide to go to the University because you were not satisfied with your job?

Yusef: My idea was to go into sociology. But my orientation became English—creative writing. I took more English courses. It went back to my concern in Vietnam. I was reading. At the University, I had big blocks of time to do just that. It kept me busy. Busy so you don’t have to think about what happened.

Rudy: Was there anyone at University of Colorado who took you under his wing?

Yusef: Dr. Alex Blackburn. He was teaching creative writing. He had come back from living in England. He had a lenient view of poetry. He was critical but allowed experimentation. He took an interest in my work. Young writers need support from a critical point of view. He would always read my work. Some of it was published in the WRITERS FORUM, started in 1970. I took first place in the contest. John Wideman was the judge that year—1974. It was the fire I needed to help me to move on.

Rudy: Did you like Colorado?

Yusef: It was interesting. I stayed there seven years and one half years. After University of Colorado I went to Colorado State. It’s where I started GUMBO with Alan Hammer. GUMBO: a Magazine for the Arts. We published short fiction, poems, translations.

Rudy: Do you consider GUMBO  a success?

Yusef: We printed a 1,000 copies. We got rid of most of them. Four issues of the magazines and a chapbook came out of the venture. We took money out of our pockets to publish those things. It also served to show me exactly what people were writing throughout the country. I was surprised by the sameness. What I mean by that is if you cut the names off you’d have a single collection that could be from one author. Homogenized voices in contemporary poetry. Too often safe.

Rudy: So the poets, the artists, you published with GUMBO were different?

Yusef: I tried to introduce a variety. To show That everyone wasn’t writing the same poems throughout the country. Some of these were very young poets never been heard from before. We didn’t have to publish a name. Many of them still do not fir into the contemporary scene. Others are doing other things. But I think these chances with literary ventures are chances worth taking.

Rudy: Adam, the co-editor, was a good friend of yours?

Yusef: Adam was a poet who died in Birmingham in a car accident last year. We were both in the writing program at CSU. We were different in styles of poetry. Adam had been influenced by French Surrealists—Breton, Appolinaire. He wrote Deja Vu Everything (1970), published by Lynx House press. That book can be obtained from Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California. He was good, unusual. The playfulness in each line. The lack of imagistic continuity. But still yet the poem would hold together by theme.

Rudy: Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, you consider your first book. Could you tell me how it came about?

Yusef: Consider it a chapbook. Copacetic was the first full-length book.

Rudy: So then you had two chapbooks published? How did they come about?

Yusef: Both Dedication and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, Chris Howe asked me to submit them to Lynx House for publication. Chris Howe is one of the editors of Lynx House. Bob Abel and Chris Howe started Lynx House Press, published out of Amherst.

Rudy:  So the publication was successful? I mean did the publication lead to something.

Yusef: Distributed by Small Press Distribution. Printed 500 copies. The problem is distribution. The small presses take more chances, print more innovative fiction and poetry. You don’t have to have published in the New Yorker and the Atlantic. The small press is the mainstay of contemporary literature. It probably has always been so. At one time the writer published himself.

Rudy: Did something special happen as a result of the publication?

Yusef: It encouraged me to continue to write. It gave me room to move away from that manuscript to something else. As far as pay, I think I received 50 copies. The only thing I received50 copies. The only thing received from the small press is inspiration. No dollars and cents. It’s important for the young poet that someone sees something in his work. I think there should be more memographed/xeroxed books, which I think they did in the 30s and 40s, so that you can get a book for a dollar or a couple of dollars—where publishing doesn’t seem like big business.

Rudy: So Dedication and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory were all of the same fabric?

Yusef: They are pretty much the same. It covers the psychological terrain associated with Colorado. This place helped me to see things anew. It’s somewhat of a multi-cultural experience. I began to read some Indian, Chicano, and the black literary experience. If I had to write the same poems today, I would write them differently. I’m in a different place.

In Colorado, I felt somewhat isolated. Maybe because of the geography of the place. I learned that I enjoyed to take long walks, walks of meditation in an attempt to work things out. Poetry tries to work the problems—one’s attitude towards oneself, the world. You’re able to journey through the subterranean corridors of the head. Some call them headtrips. Next--->>

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Mockingbirds at Jerusalem (poetry Manuscript)

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Conversations with Yusef Komunyakaa

Edited by Shirley A. James Hanshaw

Conversations with Yusef Komunyakaa brings together over two decades of interviews and profiles with one of America's most prolific and acclaimed contemporary poets. Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1947) describes his work alternately as "word paintings" and as "music," and his affinity with the visual and aural arts is amply displayed in these conversations. The volume also addresses the diversity and magnitude of Komunyakaa's literary output. His collaborations with artists in a variety of genres, including music, dance, drama, opera, and painting have produced groundbreaking performance pieces. Throughout the collection, Komunyakaa's interest in finding and creating poetry across the artistic spectrum is made manifest.

For his collection Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, 1977-1989, Komunyakaa became the first African American male to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Through his work he provides keen insight into life's mysteries from seemingly inconsequential and insignificant life forms ("Ode to the Maggot") to some of the most compelling historical and life-altering events of our time, such as the Vietnam War ("Facing It"). Influenced strongly by jazz, blues, and folklore, as well as the classical poetic tradition, his poetry comprises a riveting chronicle of the African American experience.

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Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid

By  Frank B. Wilderson III

Wilderson, a professor, writer and filmmaker from the Midwest, presents a gripping account of his role in the downfall of South African apartheid as one of only two black Americans in the African National Congress (ANC). After marrying a South African law student, Wilderson reluctantly returns with her to South Africa in the early 1990s, where he teaches Johannesburg and Soweto students, and soon joins the military wing of the ANC. Wilderson's stinging portrait of Nelson Mandela as a petulant elder eager to accommodate his white countrymen will jolt readers who've accepted the reverential treatment usually accorded him. After the assassination of Mandela's rival, South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, Mandela's regime deems Wilderson's public questions a threat to national security; soon, having lost his stomach for the cause, he returns to America. Wilderson has a distinct, powerful voice and a strong story that shuffles between the indignities of Johannesburg life and his early years in Minneapolis, the precocious child of academics who barely tolerate his emerging political consciousness. Wilderson's observations about love within and across the color line and cultural divides are as provocative as his politics; despite some distracting digressions, this is a riveting memoir of apartheid's last days.—Publishers Weekly

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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