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Yusef Komunyakaa

Believing In Iron

The hills my brothers & I created 
never balanced, & it took years 
To discover how the world worked. 
We could look at a tree of blackbirds 
& tell you how many were there, 
But with the scrap dealer 
Our math was always off. 
Weeks of lifting & grunting 
Never added up to much, 
But we couldn't stop 
Believing in iron. 
Abandoned trucks & cars 
Were held to the ground 
By thick, nostalgic fingers of vines 
Strong as a dozen sharecroppers. 
We'd return with our wheelbarrow 
Groaning under a new load, 
Yet tiger lilies lived better 
In their languid, August domain. 
Among paper & Coke bottles 
Foundry smoke erased sunsets, 
& we couldn't believe iron 
Left men bent so close to the earth 
As if the ore under their breath 
Weighed down the gray sky. 
Sometimes I dreamt how our hills 
Washed into a sea of metal, 
How it all became an anchor 
For a warship or bomber 
Out over trees with blooms 
Too red to look at.


-from Magic City 


Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury's 
Insignia on our sneakers, 
We outmaneuvered the footwork 
Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot 
Swish of strings like silk 
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse 
Labyrinth our bodies 
Created, we could almost 
Last forever, poised in midair 
Like storybook sea monsters. 
A high note hung there 
A long second. Off 
The rim. We'd corkscrew 
Up & dunk balls that exploded 
The skullcap of hope & good 
Intention. Bug-eyed, lanky, 
All hands & feet . . . sprung rhythm. 
We were metaphysical when girls 
Cheered on the sidelines. 
Tangled up in a falling, 
Muscles were a bright motor 
Double-flashing to the metal hoop 
Nailed to our oak. 
When Sonny Boy's mama died 
He played nonstop all day, so hard 
Our backboard splintered. 
Glistening with sweat, we jibed 
& rolled the ball off our 
Fingertips. Trouble 
Was there slapping a blackjack 
Against an open palm. 
Dribble, drive to the inside, feint, 
& glide like a sparrow hawk. 
Lay ups. Fast breaks. 
We had moves we didn't know 
We had. Our bodies spun 
On swivels of bone & faith, 
Through a lyric slipknot 
Of joy, & we knew we were 
Beautiful & dangerous.


-from Slam, Dunk, & Hook

BIO: Yusef Komunyakaa was born on 29 April 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Louisiana. He is the eldest of five children. Komunyakaa uses his childhood experiences to inform many of his works: his familial relationships, his maturation in a rural Southern community, and the musical environment afforded by the close proximity of the jazz and blues center of New Orleans provide fundamental themes for several of his volumes.


Military service during young adulthood also proved formative to the budding poet. After graduating from Bogalusa’s Central High School in 1965, Komunyakaa enlisted in the United States Army to begin a tour of duty in Vietnam. While there, he started writing, sometime between 1969 and 1970. As a correspondent for and later editor of the military newspaper, The Southern Cross, Komunyakaa mastered a journalistic style that he would use later to write poems about his time in war. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his work with the paper.

After leaving the army in the early 1970s, Komunyakaa enrolled at the University of Colorado, receiving a B.A. in 1975. While at Colorado, he discovered his nascent abilities as a poet in a creative writing workshop. The workshop, notes the author, was the first chance he had to write for himself. Even though he had long been an avid reader of poetry and a lover of literature, his attempts to write creatively--mainly short stories--had been unsuccessful.

Inspired by his newfound love and talent, Komunyakaa went on to earn an M.A. from Colorado State University in 1978, studying with poet Bill Tremblay in the graduate writing program. Meanwhile, he continued to practice his art, self-publishing two limited editions, Dedications and Other Darkhorses (1977) and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979).

He left Colorado State State to earn an M.F.A. from the University of California of California at Irvine in 1980. That same year, he joined the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, a closely knit community of artists geared toward encouraging the self-conscious, individualistic writer. Being in residence at the work center, the author felt, gave him an opportunity to develop his own voice. There he gained a deeper understanding of himself as a writer and as a human being, an acute awareness that he strives to express in his poetry. Komunyakaa says this of a poet’s quest--a search fulfilled for him by his unique workshop experience: "a sort of unearthing has to take place; sometimes one has to remove layers of facades and superficialities. The writer has to get down to the guts of the thing and rediscover the basic timbre of his or her existence."

Komunyakaa has been very prolific since his time at Irvine, writing nine additional volumes of poetry, co-editing two anthologies, and producing a couple of works of prose. His third collection, Copacetic (1984), is his first commercially published book, featuring some of the earliest poems he wrote. Komunyakaa completed Copacetic in 1981 after returning to Louisiana to reconsider how the music of his home town reflected racial issues of the time. He discovered that jazz music was being used both as a forum in which to express racial iniquity and as a catharsis to heal the wounds which resulted from hatred and bigotry. It is no coincidence, then, that in this volume, Komunyakaa focuses on childhood and folk experiences that are startling and pleasurable, gripping and appealing: he invokes jazz and blues forms, themes, and idioms, as noted by critic Kirkland Jones, to soothe the pain of his community, to create poetry "where everything is alright." In fact, the pieces in the collection are closely tied to the meaning of the word "copacetic," a term originally coined by the African American tap dancer, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, to refer to situations where everything is, as scholar Constance Valis Hill notes, "fine or tip-top." The expression was later adopted by jazz musicians to describe musical pieces that are particularly melodious, smooth, mellow, and entirely pleasing. 

Despite its racially-charged content, Copacetic is framed by an overarching theme of contentment. It is as if Komunyakaa is ultimately rendering the hope of a people who, despite a long history of racism, have persevered and ultimately triumphed.

Quickly becoming an accomplished poet, Komunyakaa also took on the role of educator, teaching poetry in the public school system of New Orleans and then creative writing at the University of New Orleans. At the University he met Mandy Sayer, an Australian fiction writer, whom he married in 1985. Also in 1985, he became an associate professor at Indiana UniversityUniversity at Bloomington, where he held the Ruth Lily Professorship from 1989 to 1990.


In 1986 the author's fourth volume, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, was published. This work is an attempt to coalesce otherwise disparate events, to mesh and extract meaning from what Aimé Césaire terms "all lived experiences." Despite the title's obvious proclamation, the book is not, as the author states, an apology. Rather it is a satirical analysis of the definitions that we often use to identify who we are to others and to ourselves. As a whole, it rejects status, class, and "Uncle Tom-ism." It embraces, instead, ordinary yet mythic images like those of old women, babies, prostitutes, and ghosts. For this volume, Komunyakaa won the San Francisco Poetry Center Award honoring the best book of poetry published in 1986. 

Fourteen years after leaving Vietnam, Komunyakaa began recording his war experiences in verse. The two collections that specifically chronicle those experiences, Toys in a Field (1987) and Dien Cai Dau (1988), place him among the most notable of the soldier-poets. The latter volume made the 1988 Young Adults/American Library Association "Best Books for Young Adults" list. Several of the poems have been translated into a number of languages, and, in 1989, many were included in W. D. Ehrharts's anthology, Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War.

February in Sydney (1989), the poet's next work, reflects his interest both in jazz composition and in Australian culture, particularly that of the Aborigine people. The Jazz Poetry Anthology, which followed in 1991, features more jazz- and blues-influenced poetry. Komunyakaa co-edited the collection with poet and jazz saxophonist Sascha Feinstein.

In Magic City (1992), the author details his childhood in Louisiana. He brilliantly portrays the imagination of a young child, drawing on such images as a Venus fly-trap plant, a love-torn and abusive father, a neighborhood street prophet, the trials of an immigrant grandfather, and the juvenile rivalry of siblings.

Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993) features pieces that further exemplify the author's ability to elevate single images. In addition, some of his best work from earlier volumes is included. For this book Komunyakaa was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He also received the Kingsley Tufts Award and the William Faulkner Prize from the Université de Rennesin 1994.  In 1996, Komunyakaa teamed up with Feinstein again to publish a sequel to their first anthology, The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Volume 2. Komunyakaa’s Thieves of Paradise (1998), which was short listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, includes poems about his stay in Australia.

Komunyakaa’s latest works of poetry include: Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000), a mixture of classical and modern themes where Greek mythology and deadly sins meet sensuality and jazz musicians; and Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems, 1975-1999 (2001), both a collection of some of Komunyakaa’s premier poems from over the span of his twenty-five-year career and the debut of many more new poems.  Komunyakaa’s works of prose include: 1) the co-translation, with Martha Collins, of Nguyen Quang Thieu’s The Insomnia of FireBlues Notes: Essays, Interviews & Commentaries (1995); and 2) the contribution of essays, ruminations, and inspirations to (2000), an exploration of the development of Komunyakaa’s blues aesthetic.

Critics have compared Komunyakaa to Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Amiri Baraka, and William Carlos Williams. The author has acknowledged that his work has been influenced by these poets as well as by Melvin Tolson, Sterling Brown, Helen Johnson, Margaret Walker, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Komunyakaa boasts numerous prestigious awards and titles, including two Creative Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1981, 1987), the Thomas Forcade Award (1991), the Hanes Poetry Prize (1997), Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets (1999), and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1998). Komunyakaa's critical acclaim, particularly as a "Southern writer," has garnered him biographical and critical inclusion in such collections as the Norton Anthology of Southern Literature, The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. He is currently Distinguished Senior Poet and Professor in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University.


An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa by Dan Webster

Dan Webster: It's a pleasure to talk to you. You and I are contemporaries. We were born in the same year, and I served in Vietnam from October of 1968 to December of 1969. So we have a few things in common, and I wanted you to know that right off.

Yusef Komunyakaa: Yes, thank you.

DW: It's hard to read your poetry collection Dien Cai Dau. On a Friday morning, I'm trying to read about you being at the ( Vietnam ) Memorial, and I can't sit here without my eyes tearing up. I have to tell you, I love the way your poetry is structured, but it's the way it hits my in my heart that truly affects me. So, I guess I'd like to start by asking you about the relationship about constructing a poem on the page, the beautiful academic structuring of it, and the emotional effect. Do you see difference there, do you see a disaffect there? What is paramount to you when you sit down to write?

YK: Well, the image is so important to me. Of course, the music of the language is the thing that I listen for. … So there's a kind of compression in the psyche. I never planned on writing about Vietnam , for instance. I often find myself doing physical work and I'm writing at the same time. That is what happened when I began working on the poems associated with my experience in Vietnam . I was renovating this house in New Orleans . With the poems that address my childhood, I think I had to write the poems about Vietnam before I could go back in time and write about my observations and experiences in Bogalusa , La. , La. I do think that we internalize the terrain. I know that this is true with Louisiana, and I'm thinking in terms of experience there's a kind of internalization that even … at least be dealt with in my analysis about Vietnam.

DW: I know a little bit about Vietnam myself, so those poems had a particular effect on me. But the first poem that I read of your was "Venus'-Flytraps," and I have to tell you: I've been through Louisiana but never lived there, I don't know what your childhood was like, and I don't know how autobiographical the poem is. It doesn't really make any difference. That poem flat kicked my ass. I saw that little boy, I felt that little boy's life, and that line at the bottom where his mother says you basically were my problem, my god, that is the story of every abused child in the history of the world. But it was so beautifully put on the page, as well.

YK: What's interesting about that poem is if I hadn't written "Venus'-Flytraps," I probably wouldn't have written "Magic city," the collection. That was an image, the Venus Flytrap, an image I took around with me in my psyche, you know. That image was the image that brought me back to all the other experiences.

DW: I certainly know well enough to mix the writer up with the work …

YK: That's right, that's right.

DW: Because it's all blend of fiction and memory. But it seems to me that your work is so vital and so representative of life itself and of a life lived in a certain way that you have to have drawn a lot from your experiences, at least your memories of them, your feelings and your reactions to them to give your work the power that it has.

YK: The speaker in the poem is always willing to discover something. It's not so much what the speaker knows as much as what the speaker, he or she, is willing to discover. This is what I feel.

DW: Do you find yourself really having to delve deeply into parts of yourself that you otherwise might not want to go to, to get there?

YK: I think that's part of the process, but it is not constructed in that way. It just happens. We're facing the page, and one image creates another image, and there's momentum. And this momentum defies logic and defies structure, sometimes. It has a kind of velocity that happens. And then the way I write, I write everything down and then I come back to the poem to revise, to shape it as … as art.

DW: Can I ask you specifically about your Vietnam experience?

YK: Yes.

DW: Can you tell me a little more about where you were and who you served with?

YK: I was stationed in Chu Lai. I served with the Americal Division. At that particular time I think it was the largest division, around 24,000-25,000 troops. The first six months I was pretty much out in the field every day, and the last six months I was able to spend a little more time in the rear.

DW: What were the dates of your tour?

YK: I went there in '69 and was there until '70.

DW: So you predated Tim O'Brien (author of "The Things They Carried") a bit? He was with the Americal, too, wasn't he?

YK: I think so. That's right.

DW: Have you ever met him?

YK: I met him just briefly. I think it was a reading or something of that sort. Maybe it was associated with the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences. I used to do summer workshops there for veterans, and a number of veteran writers have been involved with that workshop. Perhaps that's where I met Tim O'Brien.

DW: Did you talk about the war?

YK: No, not really (laughs).

DW: That's a question I had to ask, but I kind of knew what the answer would be. And I know your work is wide-ranging, but, given my personal experience, I'm really curious about the Vietnam poems. How well do you think that Vietnam has been written about? How honestly, maybe compared to other wars.

YK: Um … (pause) I think it's still going. I think it's ongoing. I would hope that it has been written about, especially by veterans, with care and understanding. Sometimes with almost shocking truth of experience. But I think in general, wars as history, as lived, experienced history, there's a constant excavation. And sometimes there's a kind of excavation that happens within the context of the psyche, because there's needful forgetting. At times.

DW: Have you read anything that's come out of the Gulf War or the war that's going on right now?

YK: You know, I really haven't. I've only read news accounts, but I haven't read the literature. I'm waiting to visit that work.

DW: I haven't seen any poetry or fiction. But I have read a fair amount of what passes for journalism or memoir. There's on particularly affecting book titled "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell" (by John Crawford) that is a pretty amazing book. But here's the funny thing, and maybe you can relate to this, too. I got back in early December of '69, and I remember how - not that we were spit on, though I do remember being treated rudely more than once - our fathers reacted to us. My father was a World War II and Korean War veteran. They had less than full respect for us because we had a war in which we were only there a year and we had Medivac helicopters that came in right away, blah-blah-blah. And I remember thinking how I resented that. And now I find myself listening to people who had a four-day war in the Gulf and who basically do nothing more in Baghdad than police security, and I find myself being resentful. And I have to pull back and say, "Buddy, war is war."

YK: That's right. War is war. Matter of fact, it is really a composite of death and destruction. And very few beautiful moments. And what I mean by that is that if one is able to pull back from the everyday experience of war, just for a moment, just a glimpse of that which hasn't been touched by war stimulates feeling for life and beauty.

DW: I teach a class in beginning journalism, and whenever the kids here ask about war, the first thing I assign them to read is Mark Twain's "War Prayer."

YK: Yes, yes. Isn't that amazing?

DW: It is amazing, and it blows their minds every time.

YK: The fact that he didn't publish it is even more, um, devastating in a way.

DW: Absolutely. And if certain powers had their way, it would never be in print right now.

YK: Right, right.

DW: Because it just too much let's us know that there are real, live human beings on both sides. And there's not necessarily a good or bad there. At least not for the foot soldiers.

YK: That's right.

DW: I really have appreciated the chance to talk to you, and I don't want to take up a lot of your time, but I did want to ask you one last question: How much trouble have you had with people mispronouncing the title to "Dien Cai Dau" (deenk-ee-dow). That's how we pronounced it. "You numba 10 G.I. deenk-ee-dow."

YK: That's right. I haven't had much problem with that. Initially, the publisher thought it would be a problem. However, most of the veterans carry that phrase around in their psyche, because they heard it so much.

DW: In fact when I saw the book and I tried to pronounce it, I had to work out the spelling with the phrase as I knew it. No one who speaks Vietnamese has come up to you and told you the proper way?

YK: No, no (laughs).


Poems - Bio - Interview 

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