ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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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.



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

Part 2


Rudy: 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?

Yusef: 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.

Rudy: But you also have a criticism of other poets or poetic methods—“quick draw artist/crouches among chrysanthemums.”

Yusef: 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.

Rudy: “Sunbather” seems to be a statement of what the imagination is capable and your response to what the “Poetics” poem seems to suggest.

Yusef: 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.

Rudy: Would you consider it true to say that your poems are complete with violence and terror? Is that what you see beneath the flowers?

Yusef: 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.

Rudy: So your assessment is that we are full of violence and terror?

Yusef: 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 without recognition.

Rudy: “High on Sadness”—a paradoxical title. Imagination transforms memory.

Yusef: 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.

Rudy: “Light on the Subject”—wondering whether ther’s an allusion to Robert Johnson’s  song.

Yusef: 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.

Rudy: “Punchdrunk”—there is an allusion to Randell Jarrell who “know how to take a solid left jab.”

Yusef: 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.

Rudy: Yeah, I suppose you are right on that point. Surely, flesh will not win that argument. What is corrigenda?

Yusef: It’s the taking back. You retreat, change your mind.

Rudy: 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.

Rudy: 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 manner?

Yusef: 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.

Rudy: “Reconstruction of a Crime,” “Stepfather,” “Stepmother,” and “S & M” seem to be of the same tenor. What’s that all about?

Yusef: 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.

Rudy: Who is Weldon Kees?

Yusef: 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.

Rudy: The section “Passions”—how did you come to include this as part of the overall work?

Yusef: 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.

Rudy: Do you think your characters have an inordinate difficulty with their sexual lives?

Yusef: 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 (poetry Manuscript)

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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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Negro Digest / Black World

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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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update 3 March 2012




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Related files: César Vallejo  C K Williams   John Crow Ransom   Randall Jarrell   Weldon Kees   Clarence Major