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
From the acknowledgments in
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?
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
Naked Lunch. If we
were to write like
of Capricorn or
Spring, we don’t have to go off to Europe.
You now have little difficulty getting your poems published in
journals—that is, do you still get rejection slips?
Yes, I still get them. We all still get enough rejection slips
to plaster a wall. Sometimes it makes me feel I’m doing
Do you think with I Apologize, you have reached your mature
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.
At this point in your writing do you think your poems are
identifiable, I mean your style.
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
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?
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
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.
Some of your poems are improvisations on a line or theme. Did
you have this ability early on.
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.
Would you say that you have a more relaxed self-assured voice in
I Apologize than you
have in Lost and Copacetic?
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
So many of the poems have gone through revisions in I
Many of the poems were written off top of my head, and with some
they have been cut to clarify, to boost the emotional
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.
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
How did the writing of
come about? It seems to pay homage to Afro-American history and
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.
The most unusual of the poems in
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?
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.
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
Swallow the Lake
(1970) and his novel
and Bone Structure (1975). The sort of surreal quality that
majors has in many of his works is a connection.
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?
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.
So what about Kaufman?
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:
Crowded with Loneliness (1965) and
Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (1981). Three early
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.”
You have this strange combination of artists yoked together in
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
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?
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.
How did “Seven Improvisations” get its start.
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
The first poem in the book I Apologize, “Unnatural State,”
seems to be a statement of independence. Was it intended as
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
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
Some of the imagery of what seems
natural in speaking of Hitler and South Africa spill out
in poems that have an American landscape.
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.
The poem “Dreambook Bestiary” was that written all at once?
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.
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
* * *
* * *
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
* * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
3 March 2012