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 Commentaries
* * *
the Art of Poetry
from an Interview
with Elizabeth Cho
I was peeling back the old
surfaces of my house at 818 Piety Street. Much had to be
dismantled, and the dust from the horsehair plaster was flying
everywhere. The old house, I remember, had high twelve-foot
ceilings, and during the process of working and going up and
down the ladder, I began to compose a poem inside my head
entitled "Somewhere Near Phu Bai."
When I'm doing such things, it's
my method to have a pad of paper close by, so I'd periodically
descend the ladder and write down a line or an image or an idea.
So it wasn't a clearly thought-out process; it was just
something that happened, and perhaps it had a lot to do with the
fact that it was summertime, and there was a kind of familiar
tropic heat that day. So it was the heat, and the dust, and the
dismantling of things--and that's how it happened. If I hadn't
written that particular poem on that particular day, perhaps I
wouldn't have written about the Vietnam experience at all.
I don't think I was aware of it
["resisting those memories"] at the time, but in
retrospect I think that was the case: resisting those memories,
yet also moving on to other things that I thought were a more
appropriate subject matter for poetry. Early on, my poetry was
informed by classical surrealism, especially Breton and some of
the other surrealist/dadaist poets.
I think surrealism informed the
psychological and emotional underpinnings of that experience.
Actually, "Facing It"
was the second poem that I wrote, and it was a real surprise to
me. It was a poem that just ended itself, and I couldn't go any
Tonally, I believe, it informed
the other poems. I wanted to deal with images instead of
outright statements. That's pretty much how I remember the
war--imagery that we sort of . . .
[E]arly on, I'd always wanted to
be a photographer, and I'd also wanted to be a painter, but I
never really committed myself in those directions. Nevertheless,
for me, poetry works best when it's aware of music and formed
from a composite of meaningful images.
is a military term for reporter. For my first six months in
Vietnam, I was pretty much out in the field every day. Whenever
there was any kind of conflict or engagement, I'd be ferried out
on a helicopter to the action--to the middle of it--and I had to
report, I had to witness.
I pretty much reported things as I
experienced them or saw them. I also had a column, "Viet
Style," which was about the culture of the Vietnamese. So I
was doing both side by side.
I'd started reading about Vietnam
and the Vietnamese culture even before I went over there. And
when I arrived, I was especially struck by the land itself, the
terrain. It was such a vibrant landscape, especially during the
rainy season. There's vegetation everywhere, and I'd grown up
with that in Louisiana. When you drop a seed on the ground,
something automatically grows, so that kind of vibrancy in the
landscape didn't frighten me.
[I ]remember that I had a certain
feeling about it at the time, and I suppose that if I'd come
from an urban environment I would have been frightened,
definitely frightened, of that terrain.
|Let's face it, we internalize everything
and that which is internalized informs the future and
how we actually experience and see things later on.
I was quite aware of Vietnam's history, and I think
that fact had a lot to do with my feelings. A crucial
bond was the concept of the Vietnamese
"peasant." I myself came from a peasant
society of mostly field workers, and my father always
believed if one worked hard enough, he or she could rise
to a certain plateau--a black Calvinism. So I saw the
Vietnamese as familiar peasants because that's what they
are, and, consequently, I could have easily placed many
of the individuals I'd grown up with in that same
situation--especially the sharecroppers.
in the bush at Dak To
Khe Sanh, we fought
brothers of these women
now run to hold in our arms.
more than a nation
us, as black & white
touch the same lovers
knowing these rooms
into each other like tunnels
to the underworld.
It was one of those endings which,
once I'd written it down, just stopped where it was. There were
many symbolic underworlds in Vietnam--the underground tunnel
systems, some of the bars, and the whole psychic space of the
GI--a kind of underworld populated by ghosts and indefinable
It was a place of emotional and
psychological flux where one was trying to make sense out of the
world and one's place in that world. And there was,
relentlessly, a going back and forth between that internal space
and the external world. It was an effort to deal with oneself,
and with the other GIs, the Vietnamese, and even the ghosts that
we'd managed to create of ourselves. So, for me, this is a very
complex picture of the situation of the GI--going back and
forth, condemned in a way to trek back and forth between those
emotional demarcations while trying to make sense out of things.
[A]t the same time, the civil
rights movement was going forward back home, along with the
antiwar movement. So the problem was very much alive for black
GIs, and there was always a discourse going on.
The overall situation was
extremely overwhelming. When you were out in the field in an
ambush situation, you didn't have time to think about such
things. You were keenly sensitive to surviving, and you knew
that you had to connect to the other American soldiers. But when
you saw friends getting killed or wounded, all kinds of anger
would flare up, but let's face it, if you're placed in that kind
of situation--and you've been trained--you're going to fire your
weapons. You are going to try to stay alive. You're going to try
to protect your fellow soldiers, black or white. But at the same
time, there were those vicious arguments with one's self. One
would feel divided.
[Vietnam] wasn't the first time
that black Americans have encountered such dilemmas. Black
American participation in combat goes back to the Revolutionary
War. I think there were at least twenty-five hundred who served.
During the Civil War, there was the participation of several
black regiments, and, afterwards, there were those four black
regiments in the West which escorted the wagon trains westward.
I believe the Tenth Cavalry was responsible for the capture of
And then there was the peculiar
case of James Beckwourth, who was war chief of the Crows, had
dealings with the Cheyenne, and was also implicated in the Sand
Creek Massacre. Then there was World War I. As a matter of fact,
my first connection with war happened through my great uncle,
Uncle Jessie, who'd served in World War I at the age of
seventeen with the ambulance corps.
When he came back home, he used to
have these horrific dreams, and the other grown-ups refused to
talk about it. I must have been about six years old when I
realized that his experiences in World War I informed his whole
personality. He'd become a professional gambler, and I'm talking
about in the rural South! He'd come back from the war, visited
the turpentine camps, and gambled.
They were camps where groups of
blacks collected the rosin from the distilled turpentine. I can
still remember my uncle wearing a suit coat, overalls, and
carrying his .38 Smith & Wesson. But when he came to my
grandmother's door, he would take out the gun, wrap it in a
handkerchief, and then give it to her. It was a very strange
I also remember that he always had
a pocket full of dimes, bright silver dimes, which he gave away
to the neighborhood children. But he would still have those
terrible dreams, so one morning I cornered him and said,
"Why do you have those nightmares?" and he told me a
haunting war story.
He said that so many soldiers were
getting killed during the war that they had to bury the bodies
in trenches. As they did so, they'd take the dead soldier's two
dog tags, and one was placed in a collection bag, and the other
was placed in the mouth of the corpse--so they could identify
the soldiers when they came back to dig them up. It was a
horrific story to tell a young boy, but I think, in a way, he
was trying to tell me about war. It was a story that was
supposed to teach me something about how to look at war.
I went with five other veterans
[back to Vietnam in 1990], fellow Americans, and when we landed
in Hanoi, I was quite shaken. I'd never before considered the
possibility of actually being in Hanoi, and, for a while, I
realized that I didn't feel safe. But, eventually, when I began
to talk with the people and make friends, I felt more relaxed.
[I was conscious of] the knowledge
of what had been done to the Vietnamese people and trying to
place myself inside their collective skin. It was quite
difficult, and I felt that if it had happened to me, I'd be very
angry. So I was very affected by how forgiving the typical
Vietnamese happens to be towards Americans--especially towards
the American veterans for some reason. It's still difficult for
me to fully understand that special connection, but I think it
has to do with the idea of the "shared experience,"
even if that experience was horrific and negative. It makes me
think of that statement of Baldwin's where he says that, in the
South, whites and blacks are closely connected--almost like
I'd very much like to go back, and
I was supposed to return last year, but I didn't make it.
I think I'm still negotiating with
those images. I'm still dealing with them. I don't know if I'm
going to write any more Vietnam-related poems. I feel that I
won't be writing very many, if any at all, especially since I
have a section in my forthcoming book, Thieves
of Paradise, about Vietnam. The section is called
"Debriefing Ghosts," and they're prose poems about
returning to Vietnam--but there are a few other kinds of ghosts
go down the 58,022 names,
own in letters like smoke.
touch the name Andrew Johnson;
see the booby trap's white flash.
shimmer on a woman's blouse
when she walks away
names stay on the wall.
flash, a red bird's
cutting across my stare.
sky. A plane in the sky.
white vet's image floats
to me, then his pale eyes
through mine. I am a window.
lost his right arm
the stone. In the black mirror
woman's trying to erase names:
she's brushing a boy's hair.
I'm always rethinking my youthful
rituals in Bogalusa. Recently, I was shocked by the realization
that growing up in Louisiana there wasn't any place that I
couldn't walk in the middle of the night--and I'm talking about
two or three o'clock in the morning. But at the same time, there
was an unspoken fear lurking underneath that youthful sense of
freedom that greatly affected us all, especially the adults. I
think that I personally connected with my environment because,
early on, there was a youthful investigation going on. I would
investigate pretty much everything, especially the terrain, and
the social demarcations as well--even though I never crossed
those boundaries. There was so much to look at, to query, within
the context of my own environment that it kept my imaginative
life very much alive. I was also, constantly, projecting myself
somewhere else in the world. I would easily daydream about
Mexico, Africa, or somewhere in Europe, and I later realized
that those daydreams were actually connected to where I was
growing up--that there was a unique space, an eminent silence,
from where I could project myself to other possibilities.
I think it had mostly to do with
the quality of invention because I always could come back to
that temporal space, that physical territory as such, and deal
with it. I didn't have any problem about wandering for miles out
into the woods, or things of that sort.
I've realized that growing up was
intimately involved with the broad significance of
"work." I started working very early on, physical
labor. I had definite responsibilities, and, as a teenager, I
realized that it had somehow become a competition between my
father and me--probably because he respected physical labor so
He [my father] wanted a poem for
his birthday, and it's strange to think about it now because
within less than a year he was dead. So even if he hadn't
received proper medical attention, he surely knew that something
serious was happening. So I tried. It was probably the most
difficult assignment I'd ever been given, and I couldn't write
the poem. But I tried, and I can still remember reciting certain
lines to him, although I'm not sure if any of those lines
actually ended up in "Songs for My Father."
I think that what my father really
hated wasn't the writing so much--it was the disconnection we
felt when I left home. Early on, there'd been a very deep trust
between the two of us. I remember, at about twelve years old,
that he came to me around Christmas-time, and he asked me to
hold all of his money--and for me it was a lot of money, a
couple thousand dollars. He could always trust me in that way;
so there was a special kind of connection that I still don't
[I have] four brothers and one
sister, and I'm the oldest.
[I]t bothered my dad a whole lot,
even though the rest of my family embraced me and dealt with it.
In my youth, the very name itself was like a family secret, and
I'm still trying to understand it. My great-grandparents had
come to Louisiana as stowaways and slipped into the country. I
can still remember visiting my great-grandmother, and there's a
kind of pleasant mystery associated with it. I was probably
about three or four years old, and I can still remember her and
her house, which was raised on stilts above the water.
But that's the only real-life
image I have of her, and neither the name "Komunyakaa"
nor my great-grandparents themselves were discussed very much in
the family. So one day I cornered my grandmother about it, and
she began to tell me a bit about my great-grandfather. But
mostly, I remember my great-grandparents from a very large,
framed photograph of them in my grandmother's bedroom. Often, as
a child, I'd sort of meditate on that photograph because they
were such grand-looking people.
The large one [photograph] got
damp, and since it was so old, it deteriorated. As far as I know
that was the only photograph of my great-grandparents, but I've
been told that smaller versions of it were given to the older
members of my family, so maybe there's still one in existence.
I'm not sure. But I still have this mental picture of them
together, just married, in that oval photograph.
KKK in Bogalusa
I saw some of the conflict; the
Klan activity was very much above ground. Yet, as I mentioned
earlier, I'm still amazed by the fact that I could walk anywhere
I wanted on my own. Maybe that had a lot to do with the
direction that I would generally walk because I liked to head
straight down the track, the railroad tracks, at any time of
When I think about it, it probably
has a lot to do with the ritual of one of my great aunts, my
maternal grandmother's sister, who lived to be about
ninety-five. Up until her death, she would rise daily and walk
to the post office, which was about five miles away. She lived
in a very wooded area, a very closed-off area, and when she went
to the post office, she would always walk straight down the
track. [Read "The Whistle," "Knights of the
Camelias & Deacons of Defense."]
The railroad tracks were the
demarcation in the South between different sides of town. But it
represented another kind of "safety" as well because
when we thought of trains, we thought of Pullman porters, and
individuals who were able to move freely from North to South. So
maybe that's all part of it too--and related to the fact that I
would meditate on the passing trains. Often I'd count the
boxcars and think about where they might be going.
Given the complexity of human
social interactions, I see these realities as products of the
whole social fabric of the society. I grew up seeing all kinds
of things happening within the context of that society--unspoken
things--things that were not talked about, just accepted, and
that's how I began to understand the adult world--by examining
the things that weren't talked about. [Read "Boy Wearing a
Dead Man's Clothes" and "The Heart's Graveyard
Imagination & the Word
I grew up with the Bible. As a
matter of fact, it was probably the first complex book that I
read from beginning to end. Several times, in fact. I was quite
taken with the Old Testament, and I think I've said somewhere
that perhaps the Old Testament, in a way, brought me to a
clearer understanding of surrealism because, within surrealism,
I could fire up my imagination again--as I'd done with some of
the biblical images that are frightening, rather horrific--like
visualizing mythic animals with nine heads.
And the Bible and religion got me
very close to the language itself. I especially remember the
phrase, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was
with God, and the Word was God." That was a phrase that
really stuck with me and seemed relevant both to nature--the
rituals that I observed in nature--and the rituals between
I was also greatly affected by the
fact that through language, especially poetic language, we can
speak for others as well, others like the members of my family,
or members of the larger community. Not that one should speak
for them, but to share something that they have touched in a
certain way and that has also touched your own life--informed it
in some way.
Spending so much time in Australia
has taught me that my own rituals, my early rituals in
Louisiana--like going out and looking at the landscape--weren't
really chosen; they just happened to exist in the context of my
own personality. I've talked to my brothers and sister about
this, and even though we grew up in the same place, they always
say that their memories are entirely different from mine--even
though we were looking at the same things!
So my experience in the Australian
landscape, especially after talking to some of the aborigines,
has helped me to understand how they looked at the landscape,
and it's also taught me something about my own early experiences
in Bogalusa. For example, it seems that, as contemporary people,
we're very fearful of silence. But why? Why does every moment
have to be filled with some kind of external vibration coming
from the radio, or television, or some other technological
device? I don't know, but I now realize that silence is not an
endurance test for me, and it never was.
A Libretto for
Most recently, I was commissioned
by ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, to do a piece
on Bird, on Charlie Parker, and I thought that this was such a
strange request that I agreed to do it. When Chris Williams of
the ABC first suggested the project to me, we talked about the
traditional libretto--the conceits of the traditional
libretto--and I thought that I could negotiate those forms to
But once I started looking closely
at Parker, I decided not to do a traditional libretto but rather
fourteen symmetrical pieces under the title Testimony.
So I sent Chris Williams part of the text, seven of the fourteen
pieces, and he was initially concerned that it wasn't in the
form of the traditional libretto. But when he talked it over
with the composer Sandy Atkins, she said, "I don't see how
we can do it any other way!" So I finished Testimony
a few months ago, and they're going to use a thirteen-piece band
and four singers to actually perform it.
[They will do it] for radio, but I
believe that they're going to make a video as well, and I think
it might even come out as a CD.
A Libretto for
Just a few years earlier when I
was in Australia, they'd asked me to write something about
Vietnam to be set to music. But I was so busy at the time that I
couldn't do it.
Then a few months later, someone
sent me a news clipping announcing that a piece called Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio had been done by the Pacific
Symphony, commissioned by Carl St. Clair, and performed with
Yo-Yo Ma and some others. This past April, the recording was
released by Sony, and on April 13, I got to see it performed at
Kennedy Center by the Boston Symphony. It contains only two of
my poems, and it's really a collaborative text, set by the
composer Elliot Goldenthal, who often does movie scores.
The Glass Ark
I'm working on something that
began a few years ago when I visited the La Brea tar pits. At
the time, I thought it would be interesting to write a piece to
be performed in the enclosed glass space at the tar pits. So I'm
now writing it for "The Glass Ark" section in my next
book, Thieves of Paradise.
[I]t's spoken between two people,
a woman and a man, back and forth. They're paleontologists,
talking above all these ancient prehistoric bones, but actually
talking about something entirely different.
& Other Love Poems
That project is coming along very,
very slowly! It's one of those projects I want to savor--that I
really don't want to finish. I remember when I was a kid slowly
nibbling on a candy bar, for days it seemed, saving it,
prolonging it, so it's like that.
[It include sonnets, and ballads,
and couplets] all of those. That's how I first started. That was
the kind of poetry that I first started reading, poetry informed
by traditional forms and structures.
Recently I wrote a series of songs
for a jazz singer called Thirteen
Kinds of Desire, and I relied on traditional rhymes in the
twelve songs. In my youth, the other way that I came to poetry
was listening to the radio. My mother always had the radio tuned
to stations in New Orleans, and my impulse, as a child, was
never to sing the actual lyrics, but to make up my own. I can
remember, at eight or nine years of age, creating all these
rhyming lyrics; so it's very interesting at this late stage to
return to that impulse.
[T]he way I work is that I
simultaneously compose several collections side by side, so
presently, along with Black
Orpheus & Other Love Poems, I'm working on Thieves
of Paradise, which will probably come out next; Talking
Dirty to the Gods, which is a longish book composed of
sixteen-line poems, each with four four-line stanzas; and Pleasure
Dome, which really started out as an excavation of
Over the years, I'd read a great
deal on African-American history, but also on black history
throughout the world. So the project began as an excavation of
specific historical individuals such as Ira Aldridge, who played
Othello--there's a bust of him at the Royal Shakespeare
Theatre--and James Beckwourth, and other individuals whom I'd
never, in the past, really thought about writing poems about.
But once I started writing them, it made perfect sense to me.
I do love reading about all these
characters. Characters like Saint George, whom The Three
Musketeers was actually based on and who became the bodyguard
for the Duke of Orleans' wife and was a classical composer as
well! Or like Pushkin. It was very interesting being in Saint
Petersburg and looking at the statue of Pushkin, thinking of his
link to Africa.
Another approach I'm currently
exploring in my poetry comes from literature, not history. In
the past, for example, when teaching Faulkner's "A Rose for
Emily," I was always taken with the character Tobe, who
never really gets a single line of dialogue. So as an
assignment, I would instruct my students to write a poem in the
voice of Tobe, asking them, "What do you think he
witnessed?" But I never did the exercise myself, so,
finally, I wrote a poem from Tobe's perspective.
[I compose in my head.] I do. I
see this as a kind of meditation, for the most part, so, in the
beginning, I try not to impose a shape on the poem. For example,
I know that I want to write a poem entitled "Quatrains for
Ishi." Ishi, a Native American, was the last member of his
tribe around Oroville, California, which is close to Paradise,
California. Ishi ended up as a kind of museum piece in a way,
and I've been meditating on what it would be like to be the last
living member of one's tribe. I know I'll write it as a section
of Thieves of Paradise.
I usually keep a pad of paper
beside my bed, and I often wake up early and write for fifteen
or twenty minutes before the busy day starts. That's when some
of the images are most surprising to me for some reason. Over
the years, I've realized that I can't rely on my memory to
duplicate those images accurately--I would remember only a close
approximation and it wouldn't feel right to me--so I write
everything down now.
Ones True Voice
Well, the first things I want to
know about my students are the things they really care
about--things that might not have a direct link to poetry, but
which they're really passionate about. They have to have a need.
Poetry, I believe, has to be informed by a need. Otherwise, it
becomes a kind of artificial apparatus that the poet straps on,
and it becomes more of a burden than a kind of telling moment--a
poem is a moment of both confrontation and celebration.
Review, Summer/Fall98, Vol. 20 Issue 3/4, p5, 16p
* * *
Mockingbirds at Jerusalem
* * *
* * *
The Black Arts Movement
Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s
James Edward Smethurst
Emerging from a matrix of Old Left, black nationalist,
and bohemian ideologies and institutions, African
American artists and intellectuals in the 1960s
coalesced to form the Black Arts Movement, the cultural
wing of the Black Power Movement. In this comprehensive
analysis, James Smethurst examines the formation of the
Black Arts Movement and demonstrates how it deeply
influenced the production and reception of literature
and art in the United States through its negotiations of
the ideological climate of the Cold War, decolonization,
and the civil rights movement.
regional approach, Smethurst examines local expressions
of the nascent Black Arts Movement, a movement
distinctive in its geographical reach and diversity,
while always keeping the frame of the larger movement in
view. The Black Arts Movement, he argues, fundamentally
changed American attitudes about the relationship
between popular culture and "high" art and dramatically
transformed the landscape of public funding for the
University of North Carolina Press
* * *
Visions of a Liberated Future
Black Arts Movement Writings
"What we have been
trying to arrive at is some kind of
synthesis of the writer's function as an
oppressed individual and a creative
artist," states Neal (1937-1981), a
writer, editor, educator and activist
prominent in the Black Arts movement of
the 1960s and '70s. Articulate, highly
charged essays about the black
experience examine the views of his
predecessors--musicians and political
theorists as well as
writers--continually weighing artistic
achievement against political efficacy.
While the essays do not exclude any
readers, Neal's drama, poetry and
fiction are more limited in their form
of address, more explicitly directed to
the oppressed. The poems are
particularly intense in their protest:
"How many of them / . . . have been made
to /prostitute their blood / to the
merchants of war." Rhythmic and adopting
the repetitive structure of music, they
capture the "blues in our mothers'
voices / which warned us / blues people
bursting out." Commentaries by Neal's
peers, Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch,
Charles Fuller and Jayne Cortez,
introduce the various sections.Publishers
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music)
3 February 2012