ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Poetry, I believe, has to be informed by a need. Otherwise, it becomes a kind

of artificial apparatus that the poet straps on  . . .

a poem is a moment of both confrontation and celebration.



Books by Yusef Komunyakaa

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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Yusef Komunyakaa Speaks 

on the Art of Poetry

Excerpts from an Interview

with Elizabeth Cho


Vietnam & Writing

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 further.

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.

"Information specialist" 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.

[Poem from Dien Cai Dau]

Tu Do Street

Back in the bush at Dak To

& Khe Sanh, we fought

the brothers of these women

we now run to hold in our arms.

There's more than a nation

inside us, as black & white

soldiers touch the same lovers

minutes apart, tasting

each other's breath,

without knowing these rooms

run into each other like tunnels

leading 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 images.

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 Geronimo.

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 ritual.

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 kissing cousins.

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 as well.

Facing It


I go down the 58,022 names,

half-expecting to find

my own in letters like smoke.

I touch the name Andrew Johnson;

I see the booby trap's white flash.

Names shimmer on a woman's blouse

but when she walks away

the names stay on the wall.

Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's

wing cutting across my stare.

The sky. A plane in the sky.

A white vet's image floats

closer to me, then his pale eyes

look through mine. I am a window.

He's lost his right arm

inside the stone. In the black mirror

a woman's trying to erase names:

No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

Bogalusa in 1981

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 much.

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 fully understand.

[I have] four brothers and one sister, and I'm the oldest.

Changing Names

[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 night.

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.

Betrayal & Meaningful Love

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 Shift."

The Bible, 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 individuals.

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.

Australia & Spiritual Landscape

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 Bird

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 the material.

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 Vietnam

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.

Black Orpheus & 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.

Mode of Creativity

[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 African-American history.

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.

Unearthing One’s 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.

Source: Kenyon Review, Summer/Fall98, Vol. 20 Issue 3/4, p5, 16p

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Mockingbirds at Jerusalem (poetry Manuscript)

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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The Black Arts Movement
Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s

By 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.

Taking a 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 arts.—Publisher, University of North Carolina Press

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Visions of a Liberated Future

Black Arts Movement Writings

By Larry Neal

"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 Weekly

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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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