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Interview: Yusef Komunyakaa, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet

Arts & Culture | November 17, 2010

Overall, you’ve led a really interesting life: you were born in Louisiana, you fought in the Vietnam War, lived in Colorado and are now in New York. You’ve gone all over the country during your life. Was there ever a point when you really started to consider yourself a writer, or even a poet?

Well there was a moment where I thought I would go back and study psychology more closely. Up until the last fifteen years I entertained that idea, now I think I’ve given that up. Poetry has been more than just important to me, not in my writing so much as my reading. I love reading poetry. But recently I’ve been searching for the poetry in experimental modernist prose.

Who are those writers that you’re reading? Who do you think influenced you the most, either recently or in the past?
There are numerous. Off the top of my head, I’ll name some poets that have influenced me: Robert Hayden is very important to me; Bishop, especially her careful language and conciseness in imagery; Pablo Neruda is more than amazing, he is instructive from a great distance, I feel like he’s still alive; Whitman taught me something about exuberance, about a kind a lyrical crescendo in ordinary language. I’m still learning, I’m learning from people around me, I listen to the language of the streets; I also listen to the language informed by scientists and how they tonally relate to each other because they’re so inventive.

Going off of Whitman, because that’s a good example, your work has often been described as autobiographical. I was wondering, as the author, what would you take that to mean?
Well there are moments of autobiographical sketches, but also my work is informed by the imagination, and that is more than merely autobiographical. I think it all connects to an image. I rely heavily on an image. And I suppose if it’s autobiographical because it comes from within one, then everything is autobiographical in that sense. All work is. So, I think maybe I want to say some critics are lazy or perhaps limit themselves.

It does seem to be a superficial term. Going forward, you speak of your time you served in Vietnam, and war seems to be a prominent theme in your work. Dien Cai Dau dealt with your experiences there, in Vietnam, your recent book Warhorses refers to our situation in Iraq, and what you read today, “Requiem,” referred to Hurricane Katrina. As a poet, do you think you have a responsibility to respond to these topics of war and violence or do you think it’s more of a personal thematic choice that just happens?
There are certain things that beckon to each of us. The whole of the human experience, I’m interested in. I want to be surprised by every day things, such as the maggot or the scorpion, or what have you. But there are those… A good example is Katrina: “Requiem” came about when the editor of Oxford American called me and wanted to know if I would respond to the storm, the hurricane. I meditated on it for a moment and I said I’d try, and in a sense that poem is still in progress because it’s a single sentence. It moves along. It may be a very short book that is a single sentence. I was interested in that because of history. It attempts to deal with the storm but also the imperatives of history. I have to respond to those things otherwise I would be untrue to who I am. There’s a kind of inquiry… I was born in the deep South very close to nature and from the very beginning there was a certain kind of basic inquiry into the landscape, into the things around me. We internalize a landscape; I believe that. We are all complex organisms responding to stimuli. We are attracted to the elements within our surroundings like bees to pollen.

You’ve been talking about how the poem comes from within you, how you’re inspired by the landscape around you; describe your process: how you come about inspiration, how you construct your poetry.
That’s an interesting question because I guess it has a lot to do with meditation. I am always meditating on what’s around me and I care about what’s around me. I think its what singles us out, as humans. How can we not be engaged? So that influences my poetry. A single image… I improvise a lot, like the jazz musician who has a melody and improvises on that melody. He or she travels here and back to the nucleus, to that tonal moment that’s necessary, that creates the shape of the piece. That’s why I too… well … I don’t even try. I don’t even try. It’s just a part of who I am at this moment in my life.

A word that you keep mentioning over and over again, even at the reading, is insinuation. What do you mean by that?
I’m thinking about some of the Blues musicians, I’m thinking about how they were able to insinuate in their very simple verse. Sometimes political situations, sometimes social situations, a lot of it is through saying something that is imagistically minute but at the same time it expands. I like to think about poetry as a celebration in confrontation. Each of us brings something different to a poem. I like poems that I can revisit again and again. We’re constantly changing as complex organisms. We visit an image or a poem and it’s different each time. And it’s the levels of insinuation that keep the image or the poem alive. Innuendo. Language is elastic in its meaning; it isn’t static.

You’re leaving a lot up to the reader to interpret. Do you ever write with an audience in mind? Or is it purely you on a page?
When I was about four or five I would sing along with the radio, but I would create my own lyrics. That may have something to do with it. I suppose I’m always reaching for music that I can connect with. I read everything aloud. I suppose from the beginning I have entertained my psyche with questions and answers as well as images that surprise me and even baffled me momentarily.  When I write, there’s always a philosophical and psychological subtext that creates a dialog that’s personal, but also universal.

So you’re concerned with an oral tradition.
Yes, but the poem on the page, visually, is also very important to me. But there’s a kind of orality that informs everyday speech that someone such as Williams Carlos Williams was aware of. Hughes, in a different way, was also aware of this—the Blues idiom. I think the map that I was attempting to draw for myself early on, for instance in Copacetic, comes from that tradition. I think we internalize a terrain, and that terrain becomes a psychological overlay for how we perceive and experience the world; it’s the route of our lives. But we are also making necessary adjustments to that map, to that perception.

Music, sound, and assonance very much inform your work. Would you say, if you could define it, you have a style of your own?
It’s interesting to say style because there’s a book called Thinking in Jazz written by Paul Berliner and he interviews a number of musicians who each talk about style. Each musician has his or her own style. And perhaps this is true with all artists. It says something about individuality. I wouldn’t even know how to describe my style, but it’s informed by everything I’ve known, everything I’ve read, everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve dreamt. In that sense, perhaps one’s style is constantly evolving.