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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.

Among his early literary influences was the Bible, which he

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

national attention.

"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.’

"Thieves of Paradise," his latest collection and first

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 . . .

His next book of poetry, "Neon Vernacular," won the

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


Komunyakaa may work on three collections simultaneously. He

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

The College of New Jersey Writers’ Conference, Brower

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

Center $5.

An Evening with Derek Walcott, Kendall Hall, College of New

Jersey, is at 8 p.m. $8.

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