Books by Yusef Komunyakaa
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head
Dien Cai Dau
Magic City /
in a Field
Thieves of Paradise /
Talking Dirty to
the Gods / Pleasure
Jazz Poetry Anthology /
The Second Set /
Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy
Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and
* * *
with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet
Orleans, May 1985
below is seventeen years old, nine years before Yusef received
his Pulitzer (the first African-American male to be so honored).
I recently dug it out of boxes I have been lugging around from
one residence to the next. It was written in long hand on lined
yellow legal-sized sheets. At the time of the interview Yusef
was a mentor and a friend. I am not sure what I had intended
doing with the interview at the time. It was an
intellectual exercise, an exploration of his methods
and his thinking. As much play as anything. We worked then on a number of
projects, including building a stage and a bar for a community
center, Copacetic-Piety, dreamt up by Ahmose Zu-Bolton.
We spent also a lot of time in Lee Grue's Poetry Forum
and riding about town in my orange VW bug discussing writing, culture, and politics.
We also spent a considerable amount of time at the archives at
the University of New Orleans going through the papers, and
especially the poems, of Marcus Bruce Christian. That exercise
was intended to pull out the best ones. That projected endly up
finally fourteen years later as a book of fifty poems, titled
I AM NEW
ORLEANS & OTHER POEMS By Marcus
B. Christian. One might even say all those New Orleans
activities with Yusef eventually led to the creation of
ChickenBones: A Journal, as a means of fulfilling a
commitment of making Christian more public and accessible.
When the community center fell and our
relationship with Ahmose went sour and his relationship with
Mandy had fully developed, Yusef left town with his new wife,
leaving me in his house on Piety Street, which is where I think
I first got to know the poet Mona Lisa Saloy, who was then
staying on the West Coast. I have not seen Yusef since his
marriage and his first trip to Australia, though I spoke to him
on the phone, and communicated to him by post when he reviewed
my poetry manuscript and made suggestions. This interview was
conducted in his house on Piety Street, probably soon after I
met him in New Orleans.
Note: In the photo above I am sitting on the
pool table and Yusef is leaning on the bar that we built for the
community center. The fellow in the yellow Tee-Shirt is the
photographer (I foget his name.) They were heady days when I
thought everything was still possible. I was still young enough
then to be very naive.
* * * *
You’re working in the Poetry-in-the-School program now? Is
this work you want to do.
It’s work I like doing. Had some doubts about it—teaching
grades 3 to 6. It’s, however, been exceptionally rewarding. You can see
the discoveries they make—by the way they state things, by how
their faces light up. They can be very brutal; in their assessment of life., and at the same time
humane. At the same time you have innocence and keen
observation. They don’t bite their tongues. The system
hasn’t yet instilled the editing machines inside their heads.
They are lucky that way.
say sometimes the kids can be “brutal.” What do you mean?
Sometimes I am forced to tell them not to use the name of fellow
So you have been working with this program how long? How long do
you tend to stick with this program?
Since October ’84. I’m playing it by ear as long as it is a
reservoir of surprises.
How has this teaching affected your work and life?
It’s help to lead me back to an assessment of my own childhood
and I hope to cover that in a book called Magic
City. It will deal with my childhood in Bogalusa with the
Knights of the Camelias—to rediscover that psychological
terrain that I tried to forget, to help me to piece together all
aspects of my background. Many times in the faces of some of
these children I feel as if I’m looking into a mirror.
I’m in the process of writing a children’s book.
It’s about the observations of a little boy and it’s and
it’s to be called Blues
Boy. It’s about a little boy who happens to be a blues
singer—nine or ten years old—and how he deals with the
existential aspect of what he sings.
Does he know? Yes, he does. Like Lightening Hopkins,
he climbed up on the wagon with Blind lemon Jefferson. We think
of him as a grown man. But he was nine years old when he began.
Born in Centreville, Texas. Our observations sort of bleed into
each other. That’s what poetry is about.
These are some of your future projects. What’s going on now,
or what are some things that have happened recently?
A few months ago, I finished writing poems about Vietnam—an
attempt to reassess, to look at things in retrospect.
This “going back in the head,” what real use does it serve
you as a person? I understand that it offers a source of
It’s a cleansing process. You’re finally able to deal with
that whole stockpile of images—brutal, bloody images. It helps
you take a look at the American soldier, at the Vietnamese—to
look at the people as the enemy. They were “gooks” and
“dinks.” It helps you to
take apart all the things you observed and ask why. And try to
answer some of those whys in the writing. In a sense it helps to
release oneself from the war, which I think is necessary.
You seemed to have been deeply affected by the War. Your
sensitivity as an ex-soldier seems to be somewhat unusual. How
do you account for it?
For me, it was different. I was a combat correspondent for the
AMERICAL-PIO. Anytime boys were pinned down, such as Hamburger
Hill, you were expected to get in the chopper to get the story,
to get the picture and to come back and time to digest the
information. As a writer, you were sensitive to the images. So
you internalize the image.
At this time, I was reading everything—poetry,
issues of DownBeat, Negro
Digest, and Black World. I was reading short stories, poetry—Baraka,
Baldwin; magazines like Dissent;
some political analysis of the Vietnam situation. Constantly
wrestling with the conflict. One fact saying, yes. The other,
no. Questioning why I had not gone to Switzerland or jail. And
also by being a combat correspondent, you see numerous
firefights because that’s what you’re expected to do—cover
those things. Consequently, it becomes volumes of images.
What did you do after the war? Were things really different for
you when you returned to the States?
My first day back I got a ticket for jaywalking. It was very
strange. I didn’t think about crosswalks. In a way I was still
back in Vietnam. I took a number of jobs that were pits—worked
as an air-conditioned mechanic in Arizona; six months as a
policeman in Arizona. It was difficult. If you think you going
to change people with a gun on your hip, you’re mistaken.
You’re end up behind a desk. So I decided to go to Colorado,
University of Colorado.
Did you know people in Arizona and Colorado before you left?
My mother lives in Arizona. And my daughter lives in Arizona.
Why did you choose Colorado?
I also worked for the Racial Harmony Council, an organization
that dealt with investigating racial incidents. We worked out of
Fort Carson, Colorado Springs. I edited HARAMBEE,
a race relations magazine. We had essays, artwork, literary
works—short stories, poems; but mainly a lot of articles on
race relations and some of prison writings. Some dealt with
political theory. We had a hundred-odd investigators.
So what year was this?
1971 to 1973. In 1973, I started University of Colorado.
You decide to go to the University because you were not
satisfied with your job?
My idea was to go into sociology. But my orientation became
English—creative writing. I took more English courses. It went
back to my concern in Vietnam. I was reading. At the University,
I had big blocks of time to do just that. It kept me busy. Busy
so you don’t have to think about what happened.
Was there anyone at University of Colorado who took you under
Dr. Alex Blackburn. He was teaching creative writing. He had
come back from living in England. He had a lenient view of
poetry. He was critical but allowed experimentation. He took an
interest in my work. Young writers need support from a critical
point of view. He would always read my work. Some of it was
published in the WRITERS FORUM, started in 1970. I took first
place in the contest. John Wideman was the judge that
year—1974. It was the fire I needed to help me to move on.
Did you like Colorado?
It was interesting. I stayed there seven years and one half
years. After University of Colorado I went to Colorado State.
It’s where I started GUMBO with Alan Hammer. GUMBO:
a Magazine for the Arts. We published short fiction, poems,
Do you consider GUMBO a
We printed a 1,000 copies. We got rid of most of them. Four
issues of the magazines and a chapbook came out of the venture.
We took money out of our pockets to publish those things. It
also served to show me exactly what people were writing
throughout the country. I was surprised by the sameness. What I
mean by that is if you cut the names off you’d have a single
collection that could be from one author. Homogenized voices in
contemporary poetry. Too often safe.
So the poets, the artists, you published with GUMBO were
I tried to introduce a variety. To show That everyone wasn’t
writing the same poems throughout the country. Some of these
were very young poets never been heard from before. We didn’t
have to publish a name. Many of them still do not fir into the
contemporary scene. Others are doing other things. But I think
these chances with literary ventures are chances worth taking.
Adam, the co-editor, was a good friend of yours?
Adam was a poet who died in Birmingham in a car accident last
year. We were both in the writing program at CSU. We were
different in styles of poetry. Adam had been influenced by
French Surrealists—Breton, Appolinaire. He wrote Deja
Vu Everything (1970), published by Lynx House press. That
book can be obtained from Small Press Distribution in Berkeley,
California. He was good, unusual. The playfulness in each line.
The lack of imagistic continuity. But still yet the poem would
hold together by theme.
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, you consider your first book. Could
you tell me how it came about?
Consider it a chapbook. Copacetic
was the first full-length book.
So then you had two chapbooks published? How did they come
Both Dedication and Lost in the
Bonewheel Factory, Chris Howe asked me to submit them to
Lynx House for publication. Chris Howe is one of the editors of
Lynx House. Bob Abel and Chris Howe started Lynx House Press,
published out of Amherst.
Rudy: So the publication was successful? I mean did the publication
lead to something.
Distributed by Small Press Distribution. Printed 500 copies. The
problem is distribution. The small presses take more chances,
print more innovative fiction and poetry. You don’t have to
have published in the New
Yorker and the Atlantic.
The small press is the mainstay of contemporary literature. It
probably has always been so. At one time the writer published
Did something special happen as a result of the publication?
It encouraged me to continue to write. It gave me room to move
away from that manuscript to something else. As far as pay, I
think I received 50 copies. The only thing I received—50 copies.
The only thing received from the small press is inspiration. No
dollars and cents. It’s important for the young poet that
someone sees something in his work. I think there should be more memographed/xeroxed books, which I think they did in the 30s and
40s, so that you can get a book for a dollar or a couple of
dollars—where publishing doesn’t seem like big business.
Rudy: So Dedication
and Lost in the Bonewheel
Factory were all of the same fabric?
Yusef: They are pretty much the same. It
covers the psychological terrain associated with Colorado. This
place helped me to see things anew. It’s somewhat of a
multi-cultural experience. I began to read some Indian, Chicano,
and the black literary experience. If I had to write the same
poems today, I would write them differently. I’m in a
In Colorado, I felt somewhat isolated. Maybe because
of the geography of the place. I learned that I enjoyed to take
long walks, walks of meditation in an attempt to work things
out. Poetry tries to work the problems—one’s attitude
towards oneself, the world. You’re able to journey through the
subterranean corridors of the head. Some call them headtrips.
* * *
Mockingbirds at Jerusalem
* * *
* * *
Conversations with Yusef Komunyakaa
Shirley A. James Hanshaw
Conversations with Yusef Komunyakaa brings
together over two decades of interviews and profiles
with one of America's most prolific and acclaimed
contemporary poets. Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1947)
describes his work alternately as "word paintings"
and as "music," and his affinity with the visual and
aural arts is amply displayed in these
conversations. The volume also addresses the
diversity and magnitude of Komunyakaa's literary
output. His collaborations with artists in a variety
of genres, including music, dance, drama, opera, and
painting have produced groundbreaking performance
pieces. Throughout the collection, Komunyakaa's
interest in finding and creating poetry across the
artistic spectrum is made manifest.
For his collection
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, 1977-1989,
Komunyakaa became the first African American male to win the
Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Through his work he provides keen
insight into life's mysteries from seemingly inconsequential and
insignificant life forms ("Ode to the Maggot") to some of the
most compelling historical and life-altering events of our time,
such as the Vietnam War ("Facing It"). Influenced strongly by
jazz, blues, and folklore, as well as the classical poetic
tradition, his poetry comprises a riveting chronicle of the
African American experience.
* * *
Incognegro: A Memoir of
Exile and Apartheid
B. Wilderson III
Wilderson, a professor,
writer and filmmaker from
presents a gripping account
of his role in the downfall
of South African apartheid
as one of only two black
Americans in the African
National Congress (ANC).
After marrying a South
African law student,
returns with her to South
Africa in the early 1990s,
where he teaches
Johannesburg and Soweto
students, and soon joins the
military wing of the ANC.
portrait of Nelson Mandela
as a petulant elder eager to
accommodate his white
countrymen will jolt readers
who've accepted the
usually accorded him. After
the assassination of
Mandela's rival, South
African Communist Party
leader Chris Hani, Mandela's
regime deems Wilderson's
public questions a threat to
national security; soon,
having lost his stomach for
the cause, he returns to
America. Wilderson has a
distinct, powerful voice and
a strong story that shuffles
between the indignities of
Johannesburg life and his
early years in Minneapolis,
the precocious child of
academics who barely
tolerate his emerging
about love within and across
the color line and cultural
divides are as provocative
as his politics; despite
digressions, this is a
riveting memoir of
apartheid's last days.—Publishers
* * *
Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
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3 March 2012