Contemporary American poet Yusef Komunyakaa begins his 2005 poem “No-Good Blues” in a revealing way: “I try to hide in Proust/Mallarme, & Camus, but the no-good blues come looking for me.”
The author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry books smiles in his Trenton home when he is asked about those “no-good blues” — and its American cultural counterpoint to the three intellectually influential French authors — and says, “The blues has always been close to me. It has been in the background of my emotional existence. I grew up in a small place in Louisiana, Bogalusa. I think that growing in a small town that the blues was behind everything.”
The blues will be more than background when the 1994 Pulitzer Prize Poetry Award recipient (for the volume “Neon Vernacular”) steps on stage to debut “Big Apple Blues” — a musical set created with Brooklyn-based guitarist Tomas Doncker — at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Featuring more than 70 award-winning poets in 100 sessions, it is the largest festival of its kind in North American and runs Thursday through Sunday, October 23 through 26, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The blues segment is set for Friday, October 24, at 2:50 p.m.
Komunyakaa will also read and participate in several other festival sessions, including the program “Another Kind of Courage — War Veterans-Turned-Poets,” one of the only prominent cultural events this season that actually stands as a reminder that the United States is still engaged in a war and that veterans have needs. That event is set for Saturday, October 25, at 8:15 p.m.
The poet’s presence is fitting: Komunyakaa served in Vietnam, received a Bronze Star, and has written poems that capture the individual in combat and the unquiet peace of returning home.
Yet it is writing that brings Komunyakaa to the event, and his poetry combines fluid images, visual and aural rhythms and pulses, and references that fuse ancient voices and modern jazz to explore human longings. There is also the connection to the blues and the souls that birthed it: African slaves whose vocal music traditions enabled them to harness their passions, affirm, and endure. The color assignation is connected to a British expression referring to sadness and depression.
The blues, however, runs deeper than a hue. “The blues is political. We don’t think about the blues as political, but the blues musician could talk about things that were universal or public. And if not directly, through innuendo or signifying [a form of wordplay], which takes us back to the heart of folk lore,” he says carefully, his voice a deep and mellow instrument.
“(My) whole thing with the blues goes back to when I was five years old,” says the 67-year-old man with graying hair as he leans back into the shadows of a Trenton Saturday afternoon. “I was listening to the music, but I was making up the words. I would make up the lyrics. It may have been my initiation to poetry. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved the musicality of language.
“My very first memory of music was actually listening to a folk musician. We called him Pete. He was blind. He would sell peanuts and play the guitar and sing. And he knew hundreds of songs. The voice was very soulful, uneducated, but searching . . . a voice that was searching for a place that would accept him, a place that he would feel safe, a place that he felt grounded. Just imagine being blind and being open to whatever came in your direction. This is one of my first memories. I was about three.”
Komunyakaa defines the blues as a feeling communicated in sound and tone. “It may be even akin to the Spanish concept of ‘deuende’ — that which is informed by the earth. (The 20th-century Spanish poet) Garcia Lorca talks about his poetry being informed by an element of deuende. I think that place is located in the body.”
Energy and passion are also important. “I think that passion is related to the land. People had gotten their hands in the dirt and learned how to raise their own food and learned all the rituals. Not farm work, but work that took care of the body and psyche. So the fingers had already been in the dirt before they touched a guitar.”
Komunyakaa continues reflecting on his early influences and says, “I mainly listened to a number of the gospel musicians as well Mahalia Jackson, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Jordanaires, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who may also be the queen of rock ’n’ roll in the way that she approached the guitar and the way she created the bridge between the so-called sacred and profane. Those voices! Diana Washington! She was my mother’s favorite singer.”
He then shows visible enjoyment as he recalls sounds that now exist only in memory. “Sometimes late at night one could key-in radio stations that were distant, coming out of Jackson, Mississippi, or farther away, but it was dependent on the time of night. I like the power and the universality of music. It can travel across so many borders, and often it is beyond geography and beyond biography.”
Komunyakaa then singles out an early “king” of soul music whose music reached both mainstream and minority audiences. “Sam Cooke was such an important voice for me. I heard him as a bridge. ‘You Send Me,’ a record like that created a certain elation. I knew exactly what he was talking about with (the song and phrase) ‘A Change is Gonna Come,’” the poet says of the singer/songwriter whose satiny pop hit “Chain Gang” slyly evokes images of enslavement and incorporates call and response blues techniques.
Komunyakaa’s recollections turn to observations about the attraction of words. “I feel that language has to have a beckoning. It beckons us. And before we know it, we are facing it head on. If we are beckoning to imagery, we are also co-creators of meaning. We’re not told how to think, what to think, but arrive on our own. That’s the way I like to read poetry. I don’t want to be told how to feel. I arrive into a place, and I say, ‘Oh yeah’ and feel the gravity or the exuberance — sometimes both at once.”
As the discussion turns from hearing to writing, Komunyakaa talks about his path to poetry. “I volunteered to write a poem for my class (in high school). I had never written a poem before and was too shy to read it. But I kept reading poetry. And that is how one becomes a poet, more than one writing poems. One is taken over, and then he or she has a pencil and paper and will start writing images, lines, metaphors. And often he or she will say, ‘Where did that came from?’ One is alive in the act of writing. The young writer thing is temporary, but, before one knows it, time has taken one over, and one has been writing for a few plus years. If one steps out to declare it, sometimes it doesn’t happen. One finds oneself in the act of doing it. It’s already in motion. You’re in the middle of the process.”
Komunyakaa — born James William Brown but later taking his African-Caribbean grandfather’s name — says he had no thoughts of becoming a poet or receiving an M.F.A. from the University of Colorado in 1978 when growing up in 1950s and ’60s in the small paper-mill town also known by its nickname, “Klantown U.S.A.”
“I thought I would have a huge greenhouse and become a florist. Raise flowers. I don’t know why. It was like a teenage dream. There were a few people that pointed to the university. I did fairly well (in school), especially when I could make the honor roll — and that was whenever I wanted to. During that time when I was going to high school I had a number of jobs. So I knew how to do things and had built into my psyche that with hard work you can go anywhere. It was Calvinistic in the sense that hard work equals salvation,” says the Southern Baptist-raised son of a carpenter.
But first the future poet would have to find salvation after enlisting in the army in 1968 and finding himself in Vietnam in 1969. “I think (my enlistment) had to do with economics. But also indirectly it may have to do with how I was initiated: listening to my uncles. I had a great uncle who was in World War I. I had three or four uncles in World War II.”
He says that during his enlistment he decided to ask for training and move from infantry to information — a transfer into a military occupation specialty position that included writing for military news publication. However, it also required service obligations. “It was approved, and the next day or so I received my orders for Vietnam. It may have speed up my ‘Nam’ conflict. The first six months I was in the field every other day. I was in the Americal, the largest division in Vietnam at that particular time, about 24,000. I was stationed at Chu Lai. I was there for a year.”
His book “Dien Cai Dhu” (Vietnamese for crazy in the head) records the shrapnel of images of voices in a world where a “web of booby traps waits, ready/to spring into broken stars” and “ghosts share us with the past & future.”
The volume closes with several poems that deal with the personal wars that the veterans continue: “After Nam he lost himself, not trusting his hands with loved ones” (from the poem “Losses”). It is a theme that continues into subsequent books and appears brutally raw in the prose-poem “Nude Interrogation,” where during an intimate moment a woman presses her veteran male lover with the searing question, “Did you kill anyone over there?” The painful final lines follow: “‘Yes.’ I say. ‘I was scared of the silence. The night was too big. And afterwards, I couldn’t stop looking up at the sky.’”
That connection to war ghosts past and present shades his participation in the Dodge Poetry Festival panel that also includes members of Warrior Writers, an organization that provides veterans with opportunities to artistically express themselves and put experiences in words. “Vets sometimes try to medicate themselves, what they had witnessed, and what their dreams have become. My reason to be (at the session) is to listen. I’m interested in what others have to say,” he says.
While Komunyakaa’s works speak of the Vietnam War, his poems are more than one year’s experience and informed by the trials of daily existence and internal struggles — some shared by all, some understood more keenly by Americans of African ancestry, and others uniquely his own. And while he favors rhythmic juxtapositions of tones and images, his volumes reflect experimentation in form to create music-like sets that extend expression.
The poet says that his efforts include creating an active discussion within society and within one’s self. “It is a dialogue that gets us closer to the mechanics of questioning. It keeps us alive (if) we pose questions and not necessarily expect to come to a single answer. To realize that time is always part of the equation. Time knows how to deal with us. I think it’s a continuous search. I don’t think we become static. What was true was 25 years ago is no longer true now. Truth may be shifting and alive the same way that tectonic plates shifting underneath the earth itself. I’m thinking that the truth is always becoming. When we touch a reality until it fits into a little box then perhaps we have wounded ourselves.”
The word “searching” is also apt for Komunyakaa’s connection to Trenton, coming first to the city after he joined the faculty at Princeton University in 1997 (he now teaches at New York University). “Trenton became an anchor of the past for me. It seemed that there’s a southern enclave here. I think a lot has to do with the rituals and how people interact with one another. I started thinking about the great migration — and I felt slightly at home. The other reason that I ended up here in Trenton was that (novelist and Princeton University faculty member) Russell Banks told me that he wished her had purchased a place in Trenton, instead of Princeton. I think that says something of the artist in him. Here there are down-to-earth-people — which is the blues.”
From his West State Street home, the formerly married poet continues to share his thoughts on his adopted city. “Trenton is interesting. There is something. The history of the place fascinates me. The culture and the great potential fascinate me even more. I think there’s a little enclave that people are waiting to discover. One of the collections that I’m writing is called ‘The Country Across the River,’ and I think it’s about Trenton. I’m slowly discovering what the essence of that is. I think it’s going to take me a little while to write that collection.
“I think what happens is that we internalize a landscape, and that’s how we view the rest of the world, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. There’s something that seems as if I have been here before. I lived in a small town, and that’s one appeal. I wish I had I had known what (Trenton) was like earlier.”
Today he sees a small renaissance, especially with the arts movement, and brings it back to the power of the blues. “There’s also an element of the blues here. I hear it. I don’t know why, because the Delaware is not the Mississippi. I hear an element of the blues, this yearning for what is to become as well as for what was there. It’s that beckoning. The foundation exists, but also the dreaming. That’s what it is all about. I call it ‘extended possibility.’ It’s great when artists begin to see it.”
Audiences can hear what Komunyakaa means by the blues this week at the Dodge Poetry Festival, when he appears with guitarist and vocalist Tomas Doncker, whose True Grove label has been associated with the emerging No Wave movement and Global Soul, creating a sound with more sweat than polish, more yearning than self-satisfaction.
Komunyakaa says “Big Apple Blues” was “the right phrase. It encompasses so much,” adding that he and Doncker worked on a previous project, “Mercy Suite,” with the poet writing all the lyrics.
Though Komunyakaa has been writing blues songs in his thoughts for more than a half-a-century, his involvement with music — and the stage — is something that emerged more recently. “The first (musical) collaboration I did was (in 2000) with (New York based jazz vocalist) Pamela Knowles, a CD called ‘13 Kinds of Desire.’ I wrote all the lyrics for that. I also wrote ‘The City’ for the Youth Choir of New York City.” For that work he collaborated with Susie Ibarra, with whom he created “Shangri La,” which received a workshop performance at Passage Theater in Trenton in 2004.
Other projects include “Love Notes from Mad House,” with music by saxophonist John Tchicai (who played in bands led by John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor), and a stage work with dancers based on his poem “Warhorses,” again with music by Ibarra. He has also written a stage version of the ancient epic “Gilgamesh” and the play “The Deacons,” which premiered at Passage in 2008.
“Maybe I have been pulled beyond the page,” says Komunyakaa. “But the page is very important to me. The page is a place of graphic illumination. I write everything in long hand, and then I type. But this is the way that I relate to language. Tactile with the pen and pencil pressed against the paper.” He then writes on a page of air, his hand following the rhythm of those no-good blues.
Yusef Komunyakaa and Tomas Doncker at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, 1 Center Street, Newark. Thursday through Sunday, October 23 through 26, Thursday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Single day tickets $20 to $40, four-day passes range $88 to $100. For more information on the festival, poets participating, and other Komunyakaa readings and sessions, go to www.dodgepoetry.org or call 973-540-8442. www.njpac.org or 1-888-GO-NJPAC.
For more information on “Big Apple Blues” and Tomas Doncker, go to www.tomasdoncker.net.
To hear Yusef Komunyakaa read “Facing It,” go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=90yxqlVrLP8.