Five Poets That Yusef Komunyakaa Returns to Again and Again

“I’ve read Neruda, Walcott, Brooks, Lorca and Hayden multiple times — everything they have written,” says the poet, whose collection “Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth” will be released in March. “Over and over, and yet I continue to discover something new.”

What books do you have on your night stand?

I don’t have books on my night stands, but I have a few books on an upholstered bench at the foot of my bed: “Tough Love,” by Susan Rice; “Year of the Dog,” by Deborah Paredez; “Fugitive Atlas,” by Khaled Mattawa; “I,” by Toi Derricotte; “A Promised Land,” by Barack Obama; “Act V Scene I,” by Stanley Moss; “Deacon King Kong,” by James McBride; “Arias,” by Sharon Olds; “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” by Adrienne Kennedy.

Who is your favorite novelist of all time?

I have gone back and forth, stranded between numerous books and authors, but keep returning to the moment Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” first shook me fully awake. Now I know it was the robust poetry doing its job inside the prose — that natural convergence of sacred and profane. Melville never attempted to disguise or deny that he was indeed a poet. Yes, poetry held its place on the hill, though one may argue with the diction of a line such as “(Weird John Brown)” in the poem “The Portent” published in 1859 after “Moby-Dick.” Clearly, Melville had inherited the occidental language of his time, as one may say of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain); however, when one thinks about the languages in some of our contemporary fiction and a writer’s responsibility to the future, we must also hear the resounding adage about casting the first stone. Matter-of-fact, when I first read “Moby-Dick” decades ago, I was surprised the author attempted to capture Queequeg and Tashtego and Daggoo and Pip (these four sentinel-witnesses) given the complexes of race. One may question if their spoken rhythms parallel the heaving of the Pequod as it sinks. Melville takes on the concept of evil; he shows us that whiteness is a map of obsession, something to hold one’s heart up against, begging mercy of a soul — and at the end of “Moby-Dick,” it is all there, somewhere near a Transit of Venus, naked and true in epic poetry:

“Soon they, through dim bewildering mediums, saw her sidelong fading phantom as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of water, while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooners still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea.”

Did you read poetry as a child?

I was born into primarily an oral culture in semi-rural Bogalusa, La., and was surrounded with storytellers and gifted with a four-foot-tall mahogany radio with speakers covered in dark-red fabric. It sat in the living room like a shrine. My mother began to purchase a small encyclopedia from the A&P grocery store. Also, she would pull my brothers and me together any rainy afternoon, and we would eye images in a Viewfinder that seemed priceless. A few small nearby fields and woods became my boyhood laboratory. That’s where I began naming things. In third grade, during “Negro History Week,” my teacher introduced the class to the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. However, the first poem I memorized was James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation.” I think these five lines forced the poem into my psyche: “This Great God, / Like a mammy bending over her baby, / Kneeled down in the dust / Toiling over a lump of clay / Till he shaped it in his own image.” Though it connects to what I was being taught in Sunday school, perhaps the act of creating, or the idea of making is what held my imagination.

If you were to write something beside poetry, what would it be?

Lately, I’ve been drawn to plays as much as poetry. I’ve always loved reading plays. Amiri Baraka said that every poet should be a playwright; I don’t really believe that’s true. Of course, holding that idea in my mind I could start with William Shakespeare, and then go down the line of playwrights I’m drawn to. To my thinking, it seems poetry has long struck a deal with playwrights and novelists. When I was in the sixth grade, Ms. A. L. Hannibal taught us to memorize passages of “Julius Caesar.” We would march up to a big tape recorder and speak our lines into the machine. I didn’t realize then that this was indeed a rehearsal for the future — even if my mind was also on baseball. I am still beckoned by playwrights who in their hearts are poets. I am taken by Adrienne Kennedy, who was influenced by Tennessee Williams, both poet-playwrights. And consider the story of a young Edward Albee slipping W. H. Auden a sheaf of poems, and the poet later saying to him, “Have you thought about becoming a playwright?” Perhaps poetry sharpens the tongues of characters in amazing ways, and at times achieves rather experimental dimensions, shattering conventional dialogue, plot and structure. In some cases the would-be poet becomes a better playwright or novelist, and this seems especially true in the case of William Faulkner. One hears the influence of poetry in all the works of August Wilson and Toni Morrison (it is difficult for me to stop believing Toni didn’t write poetry — always approaching the sacred and profane, both willfully entangled with each other through the art of insinuation). When I first read Richard Wright’s novel “Black Boy” I felt poetry in his description of the land, and I wasn’t surprised to later read his prose poem “Between the World and Me” and the 800 haiku poems written in places including a hospital in Paris. Or consider how Jean Toomer’s “Cane” is interwoven with poetry, that the book’s inventive structure is shaped out of the author’s allegiance to the work of lyrical poetry — how each trope comes so close to song. If a phrase sparks the gest of song memory endures longer — like the hum of a taut string in the dark. And in this sense, such an action, even if it’s merely generated by a feeling, is political. So, yes, I find myself at this juncture where poetry has actually taken me down numerous mysterious roads and avenues, especially when I think about my present work. In fact, I’m not surprised to find myself writing lyrics because it brings me to a bond forged decades ago. When I was 4 I would hug the tall mahogany radio in the living room, with an ear against a speaker. I loved singing my own words in the damp woods of Louisiana, but never thought I’d find myself writing lyrics for Susie Ibarra, Tomás Doncker, Hermine Pinson and Vince di Mura. Nor did I ever dream of writing for large ensembles. But here I am writing libretti and performance pieces where composed music embraces my words and feelings, to moments of ascension: Sandy Evans’s “Testimony”; Susie Ibarra’s “Saturnalia”; T. J. Anderson’s “Slip Knot” (adapted and arranged for production at Northwestern University by Rachael Gates, Noel Koran and Rhoda Levine); Bill Banfield’s “Ish-Scoodah” at Princeton Atelier (directed by June Ballinger); Anthony Davis’s “Wakonda’s Dream” (directed by Rhoda Levine). It was also the cadence of the line and the underlying subject of friendship that led me to create “Gilgamesh: A Verse Play” with the dramaturge Chad Gracia. And here I am now in the middle of two in-progress performance pieces: “Endangered,” with music by the Tomás Doncker Band and paintings by Floyd Tunson, videoed by William Murray; and “Echoes of the Great Migration,” composed by Vince di Mura. Because sometimes I create phrases seeking rhythm, a few composers and musicians have sought out my poems. This began when the composer Elliot Goldenthal chose two poems for “Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio.” The sounds of language converge or there’s counterpoint to the instruments as in what the Norwegian choral group Trondheim Voices achieves in the performances of “On Anodyne” and “A World of Daughters” (the poem that begins “Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth”). I feel that it is in my nature to seek meaning that then somehow sings itself true.

Do you see where your poetry has evolved over a course of your career? In what way?

I have long said that there isn’t any topic that’s taboo, but a system of aesthetics is important. Now, I feel that more recently my work has gotten closer to that concept. The jazz musician — such as Coltrane blowing 14 hours — speaks about honing one’s chops. But it isn’t only about technique or chance; most likely there’s sweat on the page before the surprise lives. And one may laugh, and say, Damn! Where did that come from? Yet, the spark isn’t accidental. I think my subject matter — my idea of what a poem is — has finally grown because I believe I am able to embrace what “mental optics” meant to Phillis Wheatley. I feel that she was talking about freedom without compromise. Everything humans have invented worked their way through the imagination — for good or evil. Now, I trust my imagination to deliver me to truth. A poem isn’t the beginning or conclusion of a research paper; it must seek the light of a deeper place. Although there’s much rehearsal and practice, such journeys are not scripted. And, at times, the poet must be willing to be struck dumb — momentarily blinded before the gift.

What do you plan to read next?

My friend June Ballinger loaned me a book that’s different from what I’ve been reading the past few years, titled “Jersey Justice: The Story of the Trenton Six,” written by Cathy D. Knepper. Being a poet from the South, I must admit, sometimes I’m conscious of signs and premonitions: Over a decade ago, after the first performance of my play “The Deacons,” a woman gave me a paper bag filled with newspaper clippings of the Trenton Six trials. And a week or two ago I opened a book on Charles White’s portraits of Black Americans to be confronted again by the Trenton Six.

You are throwing a literary dinner party. What three writers, living or dead, do you invite?

I would invite Marguerite Duras, Albert Camus and Chinua Achebe.

Do you organize your books?

No, I don’t organize my books anymore. After the Army I used to organize everything, but then came creative randomness. I have five spaces for bookshelves, and I still love walking over and taking a book up, not thinking about author or title. Sometimes there’s surprise.

Are there poets for whom you’ve gained greater appreciation over time?

One of the Black Arts poets said, “Phillis Wheatley didn’t know how to get down.” But by the fact she picked up a quill she was more than getting down; she stood up to those 18 Bostonians who questioned her. “On Imagination” engaged me deeply from the onset, especially this line: “From star to star the mental optics rove.” This young woman — born in the Senegambia region — speaks about more than poetry or science. She contemplates more than a lackadaisical presence in the world; in fact, the power of the imagination becomes an action, although certain borrowed philosophical pieties also exist in her poetry. (Oftentimes what’s borrowed is subverted in the very act of who claims ontological rights.) Of course, there are many poets for whom my appreciation has grown over the years, probably because I have also changed. Time is part of the equation. Here are a few: Allen Ginsberg (because I thought he may have on purpose wrote a poetry cladded in traditional poetic conceits and profanity aimed at his mother because he wished so desperately to display his love openly for her but couldn’t); some of Baraka’s later poems seemed, dare I say, unfriendly, especially since I had been drawn to his earlier more lyrical work (as a young poet I had even torn out pages of his poems printed in Newsweek and carried them in my wallet for two years); at first, perhaps I didn’t care to understand the personality of Emily Dickinson’s language, as I found myself comparing her work to Walt Whitman’s, and wishing she could have embraced the Irish workers employed in that yellow house in Amherst. Of course, at times, our likes and dislikes can undermine. I have admired for decades Gordon Parks’s photography, his memoir “A Choice of Weapons” and his novel “The Learning Tree.” But a few years before Gordon’s death, my friend Larry Hilton had taken me to visit this icon, and there I was standing in his apartment, facing a white baby-grand piano, thinking of “Shaft,” the first major film this legend directed, and Gordon says to me: “I can’t sleep at night. I can’t stop writing these poems.” For years now, I’ve chided myself for not being brave enough to say, “Man, please let the poems go and get some sleep.”

Which poets continue to inspire you?

I keep returning to Robert Hayden, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Philip Levine, Pablo Neruda and Derek Walcott. I still love to see how voices interplay. Sometimes I unconsciously pose questions that might wake me in the night. What did Walcott learn from Hayden? I admire the fun between Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds that emanates beyond Squaw Valley. I am inspired when I see how poets celebrate the heroics of everyday people. Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project showed me how poetry travels, how it finds its way into everyday lives, and I can still hear that young girl in a yellow dress at the Whitehouse reciting “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes. And, at this moment, I’m excited by what Joy Harjo brings to the national scene.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”

What books do you return to again and again?

For me, it isn’t what books — it’s more what poets. I’ve read Neruda, Walcott, Brooks, Lorca and Hayden multiple times — everything they have written. Over and over, and yet I continue to discover something new. Sometimes it is merely one word in a line that subverts the line and/or makes the music new. With Neruda, I like to be reminded how brilliant he was so young. And I read different translators to experience the slight differences of sound and cadences.

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