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There is writing taking place inside the head before it is put to the page,

shaped in more or less unconscious way. I have had time now work

 those poems through without undermining the urgency.



Books by Yusef Komunyakaa

Copacetic / I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head / Dien Cai Dau / Magic City / Neon Vernacular / Toys in a Field

Thieves of Paradise / Talking Dirty to the Gods  /  Pleasure Dome Jazz Poetry Anthology  /  The Second Set  /  Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy

Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries

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Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet

Yusef Komunyakaa

New Orleans, May 1985

Part 3


Rudy: From the acknowledgments in Copacetic and I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head you’ve published in a considerable number of literary magazines. At first did you expect such a ready response?

Yusef: No. Initially, I didn’t think too much of it. Just an effort to get out on the page. I got initial help from Alex Blackburn. Mainly, encouragement. I could trust his hard criticism. There’s been a multi-cultural response.

I usually feel that certain journals will be responsive to my work. Journals that will take a chance. Journals that are not concerned with safe poetry because there is a political edge to most of the poems. We don’t have to worry about the censorship that Ginsburg and Burroughs had to concern themselves with. Books like Howl and Naked Lunch. If we were to write like Tropic of Capricorn or Black Spring, we don’t have to go off to Europe.

Rudy: You now have little difficulty getting your poems published in journals—that is, do you still get rejection slips?

Yusef: Yes, I still get them. We all still get enough rejection slips to plaster a wall. Sometimes it makes me feel I’m doing something right.

Rudy: Do you think with I Apologize, you have reached your mature poetic style?

Yusef: I think that book is different. There are still poems to write. Other styles to explore. I still need to surprise myself. If I couldn’t I’d stop writing. There are more controversial subjects to touch upon, which I hope to do in other books.

Rudy: At this point in your writing do you think your poems are identifiable, I mean your style.

Yusef: I would hope so. The reason I say that because I hope my voice is different, not that it has to be. But that it has a different edge to it. Maybe the whole of one’s work defines one’s voice.

Rudy: Okay, let’s explore a little bit of your poetic process, of what you try to get into a poem. What do you think are the technical virtues of a good poem?

Yusef: The top of my list is that I have to be surprised by the language, the images in the process of writing the poem. The poem has a certain amount of energy. It has to sound contemporary. Within the context of a poem you can have a lot of things going on side by side. You can have different senses of language. You can have the street along side the more sophisticated colloquial. All those things that help define our individual lives. No subject is taboo.  Samuel Johnson in talking about diction wants to substitute rat for its Latin equivalent. Poetic diction is the language we speak. Otherwise it is an attempt to remove the poem from the people.

I have to have sometimes a certain tension going on in my poem. [John Crowe] Ransom emphasizes tension, and I am in agreement. What he meant may be entirely different from what I mean. I mean all those things that push and pull against the individual, helps to create a natural tension in the poem. I’m not talking about an artificial tension through technique. The tension that makes the common individual’s life worth living.

Rudy: Some of your poems are improvisations on a line or theme. Did you have this ability early on.

Yusef: I Think that ability was there in the early poems, but not as developed. Perhaps I didn’t trust that method to the extent that I trust it now. Perhaps early on I didn’t allow the poem enough freedom to exist. The early poems seem to seek a resolution, whereas the later poems are more grounded. There is breathing space inside the poem. The print could mean many things depending on what the reader brings to it.

Rudy: Would you say that you have a more relaxed self-assured voice in I Apologize than you have in Lost and Copacetic?

Yusef: I think maybe so. I worked on that book a long time. I started on it in ’79. There are topics that I’ve thought about a lot. There is writing taking place inside the head before it is put to the page, shaped in more or less unconscious way. I have had time now work those poems through without undermining the urgency.

Rudy: So many of the poems have gone through revisions in I Apologize?

Yusef: Many of the poems were written off top of my head, and with some they have been cut to clarify, to boost the emotional connection.

Rudy: At this point, do you think you have to use a network of words and images, or are there types of words you tend to use.

Yusef: Yeah. Especially for a certain book, certain words tend to recur. There is a sort of repetition that holds things together. Phrases that you might not use ever again. But there are certain words that I could never use again, unless in an entirely different context.

Rudy: How did the writing of Copacetic come about? It seems to pay homage to Afro-American history and culture.

Yusef: These poems were written through the years. And it was only when I got back to Bogalusa that I realized they should be in a book. Some of them were in I Apologize manuscript. It was sort of natural for me. I will deal with that topic again and again. I’m working in the back of my mind on a book called Magic City. The whole landscape that I grew up in and of course that is Afro-American.

Rudy: The most unusual of the poems in Copacetic, in a way, is “Instruction for Building Straw Huts.” Different from the others, it lacks the dark images of the underworld. Do you also find this poem different in its texture?

Yusef: The poem might have started when I was in Okinawa. They built many of the buildings flimsy. And they were supposed to withstand storms more easily. In the back of the mind, I thought of African straw huts. Maybe behind this very primitive architecture is a philosophy. In the context of this poem there is a celebration. It is anti-technology in an unspoken way. Here is an attempt to acknowledge wisdom in simplicity.

Rudy: There have been a few prominent writers—for instance, C.K. Williams and Clarence Majors— who have made very important statements about your work. Why these two in particular?

Yusef:  They were sent the manuscript by Wesleyan University Press. With C.K. Williams, there is a political edge in his poetry. Read his books. All of them political. Maybe the same kind, not to be pinned down in a category, I might relate to Clarence Major in Swallow the Lake (1970) and his novel Reflex and Bone Structure (1975). The sort of surreal quality that majors has in many of his works is a connection.

Rudy: Many of your poems are entitled “Blues” and you have poems dedicated to jazz figures and also to the jazz poet Bob Kaufman. How did this interest come about mixing several media?

Yusef: Jazz has influenced  the American cultural landscape. It has affected our speech patterns or rhythms. Even listening to cartoons as kids we were touched by jazz rhythms. Many of the movie scores are actually jazz, even though we don’t like to acknowledge Monk, Coltrane, Billie Holliday. The blues is something basic to those who grew up in rural America. Whether they are listening to Sleepy John Estes or Bill Munroe. They are being affected by he pathos of the blues, a very realistic music.

Rudy: So what about Kaufman?

Yusef: Kaufman is definitely the most brilliant jazz poet in America. He influenced the Beats. But you might not find him in a  case book on the Beats: Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965) and The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (1981). Three early broadsides, Abomunist Manifesto (1959), Second April (1959), and Does the Secret Mind Whisper? (1960). [ There is also now: Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems. The other two books un-hi-lighted are no longer in publication.]

Read those books and you know that Kaufman is important to the San Francisco Renaissance. Some might have stole the thunder. He comes from New Orleans. Most literary people here in New Orleans have not heard of Kaufman. It is said that Kaufman coined the term “Beat.”

Rudy: You have this strange combination of artists yoked together in “Villon/Leadbelly.”

Yusef. When I think of Villon, I think of Leadbelly. I think of two daring men born in different times. But both have pure energy at the base of their works.. When Villon says, I will my bones to the dice maker.” I can hear those words in Leadbelly’s mouth. It’s interesting if you look at their background. Both were jailed for murder. Both released  by government decrees

Rudy: you have a poem entitled “Vicious” in Copacetic which appears in part of “The Beast & Burden: Seven Improvisations” in I Apologize. What is the connection?

Yusef: Initially, all of the poems were written together in one setting. I thought that “Vicious” should go in Copacetic because of the subject of a group of poems there.

Rudy: How did “Seven Improvisations” get its start.

Yusef: One day I was thumbing through a copy of New American Review. And I saw seven drawings by Harold rube. They are about oppression in South Africa. Consequently he was tried for blasphemy and exiled. That was the only thing that they could try him for.

When I saw those drawings. I just began writing. I felt a connection to his artwork. I felt the gravity of his political statement.

Rudy: The first poem in the book I Apologize, “Unnatural State,” seems to be a statement of independence. Was it intended as such?

Yusef: The whole thing is that you’re first a person before you’re a poet, a writer, an artist. And that’s the most important. That human connection ties all your artistic endeavors together in some way. The imaginative world has to be linked to human experience.

Rudy: You have several “Thorn Merchant” poems. “What is the origin of this phrase?

Yusef:  Just one of those phrases that came out of my head. When I thought the phrase, I thought of the person who sells pain, violence. The dealers in human suffering is represented by the “thorn merchant.”

Rudy: Some of the imagery of what seems  natural in speaking of Hitler and South Africa spill out in poems that have an American landscape.

Yusef: There is a connection. The whole thing of the racial question can be connected. It doesn't matter whether we talk about South Africa militia, the KKK,, White Citizens Council, or the Nazis. Those groups can be thrown into one group. They deal with oppression and murder. Members of such groups are able to smile when others are suffering and crying out for help.

Rudy: The poem “Dreambook Bestiary” was that written all at once?

Yusef: No it was written at different parts and in different places. However, I do think that they together. They were not written in the order they appear.

Rudy: Your poem “1984” seems somewhat science fiction.

Yusef: When we think of 1984, we think of Orwell. We think of Orwell’s “Politics of Language.” That particular poem deals with the politics of language. I don’t think it’s as science fiction as it sounds. In the context of the poem is a realistic center. Some of these things are around in everyday life, such as missile silos—in too many places—in Russia, in Israel.

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Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid

By  Frank B. Wilderson III

Wilderson, a professor, writer and filmmaker from the Midwest, 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, Wilderson reluctantly 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. Wilderson's stinging portrait of Nelson Mandela as a petulant elder eager to accommodate his white countrymen will jolt readers who've accepted the reverential treatment 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 political consciousness. Wilderson's observations about love within and across the color line and cultural divides are as provocative as his politics; despite some distracting digressions, this is a riveting memoir of apartheid's last days.—Publishers Weekly

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Sex at the Margins

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The White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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