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This story by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on April 22, 1998. All rights reserved.
A Poet’s Amazing Journey
He’s been called a world-class poet. Once considered
obscure, his work is now part of the modern canon. A professor of
creative writing at Princeton University, he won the Pulitzer Prize
for poetry in 1994 for his collection, "Neon Vernacular,"
and also won the $50,000 Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award. His poems are
included in "The Norton Anthology of Poetry" and in successive
issues of "Best American Poetry." His 500-page volume of "Collected
Poems" is due out in 1999.
He was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in 1947, the son of a carpenter.
His name then was James Willie Brown Jr. His name now is Yusef Komunyakaa.
Komunyakaa will be the highlight afternoon speaker, reading at 4:30
p.m. on Thursday, April 23, at the College of New Jersey’s Writers
Conference in Brower Student Center. He will also lead a poetry workshop
from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Another poet and Princeton University luminary,
Paul Muldoon, the award-winning author of seven books, will lead one
of the conference poetry workshops from 9 to 11 a.m. Both workshops
are by preregistration. A third prominent poet and playwright, Nobel
Prize winner Derek Walcott, will be the featured evening speaker,
appearing at 8 p.m. at Kendall Hall.
Komunyakaa, an African American, acknowledges that his name is not
yet a household word. You may stumble over its pronunciation —
until you get to know the poet and his work. He changed his name for
personal and religious reasons. His new name was probably of West
African derivation, although he is uncertain. According to family
legend, his grandfather brought the name to America. "He slipped
into this country from the West Indies, most likely Trinidad. He was
a stowaway," Komunyakaa says.
While it’s not far from his office at 185 Nassau Street,
Princeton, to the College of New Jersey in Ewing, it may be the shortest
of Komunyakaa’s remarkable journeys. Although he draws on the lush,
semi-tropical vegetation around his childhood home in his poetry —
"There was a chemistry going on in the landscape, and I identified
with it" — he says that Bogulusa, a town on the Pearl River
in the boot part of Louisiana, "was a terrible place to grow up,
really." It was the segregated south, with Bogalusa at one time
the heart of the Ku Klux Klan. He describes Bogalusa as "a typical
Southern town: one paper mill that dominated the place, and a public
library that did not admit blacks." And "culturally it was
Later he would write:
I press against the taxicab
Window. I’m back here, interfaced
With a dead phosphorescence;
The whole town smells
Like the world’s oldest anger.
read through twice as a young teenager. "The hypnotic biblical
cadence brought me close to the texture of language, to the importance
of music and metaphor," he says. And he heard the Old Testament
speech cadences of his church-going grandmothers in Bogalusa. He read
through encyclopedias that his mother brought home, a volume a week,
from the A&P. He began to love poetry in elementary school, where
he was introduced to the verse classics of English literature. After
Poe, Tennyson, Shakespeare, the Harlem Renaissance writers, and Gwendolyn
Brooks, Komunyakaa discovered James Baldwin’s essays, "Nobody
Knows My Name," in his church library in Bogalusa when he was
16. He read it 25 times, and was inspired to write. He wrote his first
poem, for his high school graduation, in the style of Tennyson, with
paeans to the future. He also wrote some short fiction, but didn’t
stay with it long.
Although he had two after-school jobs, he spent most of his hours
"in far-off mental landscapes" trying to "daydream myself
away from the place." If he hadn’t gotten out of Bogalusa, "I’d
be the same person I am today," he says, "but . . . "
In that "but" is his whole ascent to fame. While Komunyakaa
left Bogalusa briefly for Phoenix and then Puerto Rico, he finally
got out of Bogalusa the time-honored way: he joined the U.S. Army,
enlisting in 1969. After OCS, he was flown to Vietnam, taking along
two books of poetry. He became a combat reporter and later an editor
for the military newspaper, "The Southern Cross." "Whenever
anything happened on the field, I was there in a chopper, out to the
action," he says. Politically opposed to the war and its senseless
violence, he thought of going AWOL but instead resolved to bear witness.
Komunyakaa went on to the University of Colorado where he discovered
writing workshops and began writing seriously. His early poems were
short, jazzy pieces about Bogalusa. He earned his M.A. from Colorado
State University and an M.F.A. from the University of California at
Irvine. It took him 14 years before he could bear witness back in
America by writing about Vietnam. When he did, the work brought him
"Attempting to deal with the specter underneath things can be
frightening," he says. "It was as if I had uncapped some hidden
place in me." His book "Dien Cai Dau" (Vietnamese for
crazy; as in, "crazy American soldier") has been described
as "infused with rage." He was standing on a ladder, renovating
his house in New Orleans in 1983, he says, when poems about Vietnam
started spilling out; he came down the ladder each time he had a line
to write down in a notebook.
Komunyakaa’s poems grapple with the stunning violence of the war and
with the frustrations of black soldiers in predominantly white platoons.
He also expresses empathy with the enemy. In "Starlight Scope
Myopia," the speaker of the poem looks to the other side:
Caught in the infrared
what are they saying?
Are they talking about women
or calling the Americans
beaucoup dien cai dau?
One of them is laughing.
You want to place a finger
to his lips & say `Shhhh.’
book since he won the Pulitzer, again treats the disorienting experiences
of a soldier returning from Vietnam. The section "Debriefing Ghosts"
is unusual in the way its words are strung across the page in lines
and paragraphs that resemble prose. The subjects are varied, and Komunyakaa
also uses his characteristic short lines.
By 1981 Komunyakaa had already received fellowships from the Fine
Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the National Endowment for the
Arts. In 1984 his third book, "Copacetic," a collection of
jazz-inspired poems examining his childhood, won high praise from
reviewers. His fourth volume, "I Apologize for the Eyes in My
Head," began to tap into the violence and horror of Vietnam. That
1986 book not only gained national attention but won the San Francisco
Poetry Center Award. Yet it was not until "Dien Cai Dau,"
of 1988, that Komunyakaa really began to bear witness in America to
his Vietnam experiences.
In "Magic City," 1992, Komunyakaa looks back to his youth.
Take "The Whistle" from this collection for a look at his
style, his use of language, and his sometime admiration for his father:
The seven o’clock whistle
Made the morning air fulvous
With a metallic syncopation, a key to a door in the sky — opening
and closing flesh. The melody
Men & women built lives around,
Sonorous as the queen bee’s fat
Hum drawing workers from flowers, . . .
When my father was kicked by the foreman,
He booted him back,
& his dreams slouched into an aftershock
Of dark women whispering
To each other. Like petals of a black rose
In one of Busby Berkeley’s
Oscillating dances in a broken room . . .
Pulitzer Prize. It brings out Komunyakaa’s major themes of his rural
Southern childhood and his struggle to define himself as an African
American and a Vietnam veteran.
Komunyakaa is shy man, of serene exterior, yet many of his poems "are
built on fiercely autobiographical details," writes the New York
Times. He is "pleased by ambiguity, complexity, resonance without
clarity." Yet some lines are startlingly and all too clear: "You
can hug flags into triangles,/ But can’t hide the blood/ By tucking
in the corners."
Komunyakaa says that "my definition of poetry is,
I suppose, grounded in everyday speech patterns. I really think the
poem begins with a central image." Place, history, memory, love,
sex and sexuality, black manhood and masculinity, loss and grief,
the blues, jazz: all are themes of his poetry. For Komunyakaa, the
dynamic interaction of history and personal experience, of the abstract
and the concrete, creates the necessary tension for poetry.
Komunyakaa’s lines are short and unrhymed, strung together with consonance
and unique syncopation. The jazz and blues he heard as a child often
inform his poetry. His language is stunning, jarring, electric, vernacular,
peppered with ampersands, and vivid with images, some of them surreal.
"We are walking reservoirs of images," he says.
Komunyakaa has described the experience of writing poetry as "trying
to throw myself back into the emotional situation of the time, and
at the same time bring a psychological overlay that juxtaposes new
experiences alongside. I never really approached it from the perspective
of making a living. It was simply a need." Yet making a living
was another need. Komunyakaa received fellowships and held teaching
positions in New England and New Orleans. In 1982 Komunyakaa began
teaching at the University of New Orleans. (In New Orleans he met
his future wife, Mandy Jane Sayer, an Australian fiction writer. They
have a daughter, Kimberly.) He moved in 1985 to Bloomington, where
he was a professor of English at Indiana University, rising from visiting
professor to associate professor of Afro-American Studies and English.
He began teaching courses at Princeton this spring.
Komunyakaa is the eldest of five children. Through his poetry, it
seems his relations with his father were ambiguous. Digging a pump
with his father, he has written in "Song for my Father," "The
sweat/ Gleamed on our shirtless bodies, father/ & son tied to each
other until we hit water." But his father, who died in 1986, was
also an angry and abusive philanderer. In "My Father’s Love Letters,"
the speaker transcribes letters to his mother, who had moved to Phoenix,
for his illiterate father:
On Fridays he’d open a can of Jax
After coming home from the mill,
& ask me to write a letter to my mother
Who sends postcards of desert flowers
Taller than men. He would beg,
Promising to never beat her
writes all the time, and jots down notes on a pad beside his bed.
He composes lines of poetry on his 45-minute walk to work at Princeton.
"The work is driven by a certain cadence," he says. "The
whole shaping of the poem becomes important later on — going back
and cutting, and thinking about each line as an increment of the whole,
and each word as an increment within the line."
Currently Komunyakaa is working on poems about the African diaspora
titled "Pleasure Dome." Dismayed that so few people recognize
famous black figures or are aware of their roles in history, Komunyakaa
says he hopes to fill in "the larger canvas" of history and
race. Komunyakaa remarks on the violence that he finds endemic in
American cities but even more deeply grounded in the rural south.
"I grew up with guns around me," he told the New York Times.
"The rituals of violence. People hunting. Now I question it. In
our culture we celebrate violence. All of our heroes have blood on
their hands." A section of a Komunyakaa poem in "Neon Vernacular"
is prescient. It’s called "Children and Guns."
Komunyakaa mines his own life for his poetry. And his own early life
gives insights. "Students often have such a lofty idea of what
a poem is. I want them to realize that their own lives are where the
poetry comes from. The most important things are to respect the language,
to know the classical rules, even if only to break them; and to be
prepared to edit, to revise, to shape." As his carpenter father
told him, "If you know the tools, you can do the job."
— Joan Crespi
Student Center, Ewing, 609-771-3254. $40 registration. Thursday,
April 23, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Panels on publishing fiction and nonfiction, writing, screenwriting,
and poetry workshops, and readings. Participants include Paul Muldoon,
Sharon Friedman, Mark Mirsky, Eric Lerna, Flora Davis, Sidney Stebel,
Charles Swansea, A.J. Verdelle, Lyn Lifshin, Paul Gray, and Denise
Yusef Komunyakaa reads his work at 4:30 p.m. in the Brower Student
An Evening with Derek Walcott, Kendall Hall, College of New
Jersey, is at 8 p.m. $8.
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