Books by Yusef Komunyakaa
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head
Dien Cai Dau
Magic City /
in a Field
Thieves of Paradise /
Talking Dirty to
the Gods / Pleasure
Jazz Poetry Anthology /
The Second Set /
Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy
Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and
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with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet
Orleans, May 1985
You’ve touched on accidentally a point that concerns a poem in
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory. “Poetics” seems somewhat at the
heart of the book. Could you give us a sense of what’s behind
the writing of this poem?
The poem is about the two sides of everything. Behind beauty
lies the ugliness of things. Ugliness can be a kind of Beauty,
the old Janus head, reflecting the reality of things.
But you also have a criticism of other poets or poetic
methods—“quick draw artist/crouches among chrysanthemums.”
In the midst of the garden of lovers can lurk death, or, at
least, perpetrators of death, violence, and evil. Disguises. The
gift of the poet is to see behind things, to look at things in
many ways and create an emotional overlay. The overlay helps to
surface that which is, helps us to ask what’s necessary, helps
us to deal with the horror of our existence. The factory is the
U.S. We’re great producers. Many of the poems were written
while the Vietnam War was new inside me. I hear someone crying,
“Man, everything isn’t a laugh, a good time.” I’m not
against these things.
“Sunbather” seems to be a statement of what the imagination
is capable and your response to what the “Poetics” poem
seems to suggest.
One’s poems come from a personal experience. One day when I
was in Colorado Springs a nude bather, this woman lying on a
white towel. My response was to wave at her and keep going.
Later on the image helped me to write this poem. The poet’s
imagination is no different from any others. The poet takes time
to put it on paper. The mid is capable of conjuring up good and
bad, tangible and intangible.
Would you consider it true to say that your poems are complete
with violence and terror? Is that what you see beneath the
I see violence and terror. I see the paths to the underworld.
Once we realize that they are there, they can plot the course of
the action. We come to the realism of that situation, a way of
getting down to everything that humans are about. We could put
together the worlds of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Coleridge’s
world is just as valid as Worthsworth’s. When Coleridge saw
the slave ships—gray spectral ships, the ghost ships.
“Daffodils” of Wordsworth, less grounded in reality.
So your assessment is that we are full of violence and terror?
Violence and terror can help define what America is all about.
Once we realize that the healing can begin. To recognize the
errors of history and not to repeat them. No cleaning can begin
“High on Sadness”—a paradoxical title. Imagination
The imagination can lead one to the edge of terror. This surreal
world is made out of some things as dream. Reality is put beside
the imaginative world and bleed into each other. And thus
becomes more real than we would like to believe. The terror is
within us. A condition of the flesh. We’re programmed not to
deal with the terror. Only by dealing with the terror can this
facing up come about. A kind of revelation.
“Light on the Subject”—wondering whether ther’s an
allusion to Robert Johnson’s
Yes, we know each other. It’s as if I’m as bad as you. His
history is no different from ours, when it comes to bloody
hands. Pontius Pilate washes his hands. We as a people—as a
collective conscious—are guilt as Jack, with just as much a
sense of justice. We the silent majority. We glorify our
henchmen. We make them into our heroes. Look at our heroes: Wild
Bill Hickok , Kit Carson—the Indian killers.
“Punchdrunk”—there is an allusion to Randell Jarrell who
“know how to take a solid left jab.”
Jarrell walked into the traffic and was killed. Some suggest it
was suicide. He was not all here at the moment. His mind was
divided, distracted. Something was wrong. He wasn’t completely
in the world. No way that flesh can argue with metal.
Yeah, I suppose you are right on that point. Surely, flesh will
not win that argument. What is corrigenda?
It’s the taking back. You retreat, change your mind.
Vallejo. What is his importance to you?
Yusef: His poetry opened up possibilities for me. I saw what he was
doing. There was an emotional connection. It was a different
world. But it was familiar to me. That’s the power of the
imagination. It can create bridges across cultural barriers. It
helps us to get into the hearts of each other.
Do you think your work is similar to Tolson’s in that your
poetry draw upon, in a very conscious manner, European and
Afro-American allusions, images folk manners while
simultaneously yoking things together in a sort of metaphysical
I love Tolson’s “Libretto” and I admire his facility with
language. We’re doing things differently. He seems to
conscious of the Yoking of European and Afro-American
sensibilities. Most of my writing is improvisational and it just
happens that those images come. Part of a total experience.
“Reconstruction of a Crime,” “Stepfather,”
“Stepmother,” and “S & M” seem to be of the same
tenor. What’s that all about?
When I was in the military, I saw too many officers were hurting
for combat because it aided in their promotions. I know that
many justify their activity in war to their wives and
girlfriends. It’s putting bread on the table. Sex, war,
economics, and violence—all connect and create the overlay
that helps to define what America is all about. I’ll go on the
range and kill Indians. I’ll go to Vietnam and make the little
lady comfortable. I wonder whether women want to be connected to
violence this way—to make bombs so I can vacation in Hawaii.
More than the active participants should be implicated. That’s
part of owning up.
Who is Weldon Kees?
His car was found on the Golden Gate Bridge. Some assumed that
he drown, others that he went to Central America or Mexico.
He’s a poet, painter, jazz musician.
The section “Passions”—how did you come to include this as
part of the overall work?
The whole section was written in a single sitting. Each of these
titles was given to the poems later. Each section was a
stanza. Yet there is a thematic thread, tied to the pathos of
lost and violence, love and sexuality and greed.
Do you think your characters have an inordinate difficulty with
their sexual lives?
Those who are around us we visit violence upon them quick. Maybe
that is the place the healing should begin. It starts with the
personal first. I know that people are sexually violent with
each other. Not that it should be. Sexual violence is akin to
other kinds of violence.
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Mockingbirds at Jerusalem
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Incognegro: A Memoir of
Exile and Apartheid
B. Wilderson III
Wilderson, a professor,
writer and filmmaker from
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,
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.
portrait of Nelson Mandela
as a petulant elder eager to
accommodate his white
countrymen will jolt readers
who've accepted the
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
about love within and across
the color line and cultural
divides are as provocative
as his politics; despite
digressions, this is a
riveting memoir of
apartheid's last days.—Publishers
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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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