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This interview is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.

Shapeshifting: A Conversation with Yusef Komunyakaa Laren McClung

Early this year I met Yusef at the Blue Note in New York City. Cuban percussionist Candido Camero was performing in celebration of his 89th birthday. Candido moved very, very slowly to the stage – he used a beautiful wooden walking stick to aid him. But when he stood in front of the congas he transformed entirely, body and soul. He suddenly had such agility and it seemed he conjured a tremendous and vibrant spirit as I had never seen at the congas. His hands moved so fast they literally appeared transparent. By manoeuvring from his right to left elbow on the drum-skins he would create enough tension to shift the pitch while he’d use his free hand to slap the drum. Yusef was so engaged with him. Before the show started, I was able to talk a little with Yusef about his experiences with jazz and with poetry. Though the interview began at the Blue Note, it is the culmination of conversations that have happened on many occasions over a period of several months. Our discussions seemed to take and change shape on their own. This interview became another place of discovery for me, and perhaps for Yusef as well.

LAREN MCCLUNG: Where did you first discover jazz?

YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: I grew up listening to blues and gospel. I had to leave Louisiana in order to discover jazz. I think I was in Puerto Rico and a friend was listening to Thelonious Monk, Coltrane, Parker, Miles, Pres. Once I’d heard it I understood everything about it. I supposed what I understood was the need to create the music. The essence of the blues took me back to Louisiana in a sense. I embraced progressive jazz that had embraced the blues. When Coltrane played, it was really an extension of the blues. It was an extension of black. King Oliver. Sidney Bechet. In a way jazz is the soul of certain Americans. I was about to say all Americans – perhaps even if they don’t realise it. Because jazz was created out of an aggressive respect for freedom. That’s one of the things we have given the world. But I don’t even know if Americans embrace freedom that way. If we think about the essence of jazz, we know that it comes from at least two sources; it comes from the European tradition of harmonic scales and the African tradition of polyrhythms. So from the onset there’s a merger of cultures that created something new, something modern. The State Department has been aware of this, especially through Radio Free Europe. We can say Louis Armstrong in many ways was a more successful ambassador than professional diplomats. The State Department utilised Armstrong in this capacity. When he went abroad to perform in eastern Europe and parts of Africa. Perhaps jazz has a sense of freedom parallel to that of a poet as Walt Whitman, though of course much of Whitman’s music is shaped by Italian opera reaching for a crescendo that parallels a tonal concept of passion. The idea of jazz is having a melody, something that establishes a structure, and the jazz musician, he or she is there to bend that structure – to make it his or her own. To go out there, to journey, and then return to that melody. So the melody in a way serves as a tonal bridge to get somewhere else, and often that somewhere else is within.

Photograph of Yusef Komunyakaa, 1976
Photograph by Floyd D. Tunson, 1976.

Journeying makes me think the word improvisation, which I’ve also heard you use in talking about poetry.

For the jazz musician, one cannot improvise without knowing one’s instrument so well, it’s a part of one’s personality. The musician can trust the instrument to deliver based on one’s feelings. For the poet he or she trusts language to initiate a voyage. We can risk travelling somewhere we haven’t been before. And all of that is connected to freedom – freedom of expression and perhaps even transcendence. One has to go through something in order to transcend.

How do you see your poems in relation to music?

My poetry doesn’t entertain the illusion of an approximation to music. But I have a respect for music. Jazz musicians are so articulate with their instruments – a poet cannot create jazz. The music is whole. It’s a different language. But the poet can create an impression of jazz because the poem assumes a certain freedom. It breaks out of the straitjacket of formalistic conformity. Miles’s trumpet had a certain cool audacity and perhaps that taught me something about insinuation in poetry. Poems are in a way a glance and blow – a way of beckoning to the reader. I think that’s important – trying to bring the reader into a dialogue instead of pushing him or her away. That’s what an image can do. In a way, imagery is subversive because the image returns again and again; a statement evaporates. And perhaps that’s why we’re attracted to movies – we’re part of a visual culture.

In a way, memory is very visual. What’s your first memory?

My first memory is standing in my maternal grandmother’s bedroom gazing out the window at my great-grandfather and three of my great-uncles tearing down the house next door, which was the house that my grandmother had given my mother and father. Through the weeks and months I witnessed the new house take shape. It’s my first memory. And associated with that memory is a teenaged boy named Pete Burrell who was standing on a cart pulled by a billy goat. He was singing a song and playing a guitar. And my grandmother gave me a quarter to give to him. That’s the time we were staying with my grandmother until the new house was built. I was probably three.

My grandmother’s house was often a place of strange rituals. My great-uncle Jesse was in World War I. He was always interesting because he had rituals. For instance, he wore overalls with a suit jacket, and under his jacket he carried a pistol – a .38 Special Smith and Wesson. And when he came to see my grandmother she would take out a white handkerchief and he would place the gun on it and she would wrap it up and lock it in the chifferobe. But the thing is, he would talk in his sleep. And no one ever asked him what he was dreaming about, but I asked him once. And what I remember most vividly from that conversation is him saying in war soldiers wear two dog tags. If a soldier dies, one goes in his mouth, the other in the body bag. I was seven or eight years old. This really left an impression. He fought under the French flag because American units were segregated. He was with the ambulance corps, and his job was to bury and exhume bodies in the trenches. He referred to his job in World War I as a burial detail. Strange that I remember that.

The southern landscape is so vivid and present in your poetry. In ‘Venus’s-Flytraps’, it’s understood that the five-year-old speaker already finds a refuge in the landscape. Was that true for you as you were growing up?

Probably. I had already begun to lay claim to my surroundings – to the woods, to the beauty and the terror of the landscape. There was a place that I discovered the rituals embedded in the landscape – the animals, the vegetation, everything contributed to a necessary illusion of safety. I grew up hearing stories about the KKK, about the white citizen council, about the brutal past and present of the south. So I had internalised some of those cultural fears, but I also created a sanctuary for myself. I felt like I could lose anyone in the woods. I had the audacity to believe no one knew my sanctuary as thoroughly as I did. And it was the first place that I could truly test my imagination.

Growing up in Louisiana, what kind of work did you do? What are some of the jobs you’ve had?

The first job I had was to help my father maintain his huge three-acre vegetable garden. I was six years old. I would help him plant the seeds, pull the weeds. He planted greens, mustard and turn-up greens, okra, tomatoes, sweet corn, bell peppers, lettuce, string beans, butter beans, melons, strawberries. When I was about five my father let me plant pumpkins. He asked me to choose a space to plant pumpkins. I chose where a hog pen had been and the pumpkin grew so big because of the soil. It grew too big for them to move. That was my first successful hand at gardening. I don’t know how I knew instinctively to choose where the hog pen had been. When I was about eight, I mowed the lawn. It was a push-mower. When I was about nine my father worked at a sawmill. At nighttime he would return to the sawmill as a night-watchman. I would help him make his rounds. Each station had a big brass key that we’d insert into the clock and turn. This was a way of the sawmill knowing the night-watchmen were making their rounds. When I was about eleven I had a job at a small airport across the tracks from our house because I had been fascinated all my life with the Piper Cub planes landing and taking off. I had a job as a janitor. I would work after school and on Saturdays. When I was about fifteen, I had a summer job cutting pulpwood with my cousin and uncle. And that entailed going into the woods at daybreak and leaving at sunset. I learned how to bed a tree by cutting a wedge of wood out of the tree to make it fall in a certain position. With my cousin, I would pull a crosscut saw. That summer, also, I began reading Yeats and I learned I could daydream and work at the same time. The animal and birdlife around me fuelled an extended meditation. Perhaps this is when I began to write lines of poems inside my head, but never really felt brave enough to commit them to paper.

Was Yeats your first experience reading poetry?

I was first reading Tennyson in school.

What did you connect to in Tennyson’s work?

I connected to the music, and then the meaning. Music was primary and meaning was secondary. And sometimes I felt like they were separate from each other – they didn’t really inform each other. Some of the poems seemed to exist in a tonal schizophrenia. One reason may be that the music of the poems clashed with my own world. But there was something intriguing about Tennyson and Longfellow. And then I discovered Poe. Poe’s poem ‘Annabel Lee’ was the first poem I fully connected to, and it had everything to do with Annabel Lee – such a southern name, isn’t it? I could picture her. I didn’t realise it had political significance – the phrase ‘her high-born kinsmen’ has to do with chess. And then I went on to James Weldon Johnson’s ‘The Creation’, Phillis Wheatley, Paul L. Dunbar. And then to the Harlem Renaissance poets – Mackey, Spenser, Arna Bontemps, and finally Hughes. In Hughes I heard blues. I heard something natural to my ear. I hadn’t heard it in Dunbar with the dialect. I was in a small town in Bogalusa, but Dunbar took me to rural communities, farm communities. One reason is that he internalised the language from his mother and father who had been slaves. He agonised over the way white and black Americans embraced his dialect poems.

When did you begin writing poetry?

At five years old I created songs and would sing them. I wrote my first poem for my high school graduating class – 100 lines long, quatrains, clearly influenced by Tennyson. I was too shy to read it. It was read by the president of the drumming club.

Before I ever really started writing poetry, I tore two pages out of an issue of Newsweek or Time – a few poems by Amiri Baraka. I folded the pages and put them in my wallet. I hadn’t met anyone on the page like him before. He was so different. This was during the 1960s before the Black Arts Movement and the anthology he co-edited with Larry Neal, Black Fire. Those poems seemed influenced by the Black Mountain School, which I had just begun to discover. He dealt with emotional space differently – there was a lot of innuendo and shaped insinuation. He seemed to be having fun. The poems were tonally different, but they didn’t seem arched. I believed them even when I didn’t understand them. Later, he first brought me to the Black Arts Movement.

When did you begin to see poetry as an everyday part of your life?

I took three books to Vietnam: Ann Fairbairn’s novel Five Smooth Stones, Hayden Carruth’s anthology The Voice that is Great Within Us, and Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry. I don’t know why. It was impasse probably because I had already discovered love for language – what words could do, how a phrase could take one so far into the exterior and distance and at the same time force one to journey deeply inside oneself. All this was in my subconscious. I suppose that’s why I took those two poetry anthologies to Vietnam. I was better equipped for Vietnam than many. The landscape was familiar in a way. The south, the woods. Silence.

Were you writing any poems while you were in Vietnam?

No. I thought of writing essays, but I hadn’t attempted it. My first attempt at formal writing was a long philosophical piece on Jesus and socialism. Systematically I had taken his teachings and parables and analysed them through a Marxist perspective. I typed most of it. When I returned from Vietnam I had a Pentax camera and a canvas bag along with my twenty-odd page treatise on Jesus and socialism, and the bag disappeared. The manuscript was probably extremely amateurish and idealistic. I kept reading poetry. It was sort of natural for me to pursue writing at University of Colorado.

After you returned from Vietnam in 1970, how did things start to come together for you as a young writer? I mean, how did you find yourself falling into the life of a writer?

I was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado where I edited Harambee, a newsletter for the Racial Harmony Council. The word Harambee means ‘let’s pull together’. I hadn’t planned on going to college. I hadn’t realised that it was a possibility. But one day I found myself filling out an application for the University of Colorado. My first semester I took nine semester hours. My second semester, eighteen semester hours. I had to test the waters first. Also, I think my whole body and mind was charged unconsciously with a residual energy, perhaps linked to my experience in Vietnam. In retrospect, if I had been unfortunate and entered the typical situation I don’t think I would have survived. Initially I had a triple major – psychology, sociology, and English. But in 1976, I graduated with a double major – sociology and English. Until fifteen years ago, I always thought I would return to psychology.

Perhaps, in a way, you have through your writing.

Perhaps there’s an element of psychology in everyone’s writing, because essentially there’s an imagistic inquiry into the stuff we are indeed made of.

At the University of Colorado you studied with Alex Blackburn.

I identified with the passion and necessity underlying Alex’s commentary. And reading and discussing the canon was very important. He founded the Writers Forum in Colorado Springs and I submitted some poems. I was surprised. The judge as I remember was John Weidman. Fragments of those poems now appear in Blue Notes. They taught me something about surprise and the ability to embrace mystery embedded in language.

Where did you go when you graduated from the University of Colorado?

I didn’t really travel that far because the beauty of Colorado was still in my blood. The Garden of the Gods was in my head. I went into a Master’s programme in Creative Writing at Colorado State University to study with Bill Tremblay who had written an important book entitled Crying in the Cheap Seats. I had some fascinating colleagues and friends there, such as Dominic Stansbury, Adam Hammer, John Bradley, to name a few. It was also a place where I began to read a lot of poetry in translation, so the world of poetry expanded for me. It was during this time I published the chapbook Dedications and Other Dark Horses; however, before I left Colorado, Chris Howe, who had also been one of my teachers at CSU, who edited poetry for Lynxhouse Press asked me for the manuscript for Lost in the Bonewheel Factory. Before graduating from CSU in 1978, I realised I wanted more time to write so I forwarded one application to the University of California, Irvine, mainly because I had begun to read closely Charles Wright’s work – The Grave of the Right Hand and Bloodlines, and I was truly excited by this unique, one-of-a-kind voice that also came from the South. The first semester there I studied with C.K. Williams, which was another informative experience.

What is one thing you took away from the workshop with C.K. Williams?

To not be afraid of taking a chance, and to also realise the value of one’s own music. Before I graduated from Irvine I realised that I hadn’t applied for a job, so I hurriedly forwarded an application to Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. And luckily I received an affirmation. So I was at Provincetown for seven months. I mainly worked with Alan Dugan, who I would show my work weekly. He’s a wonderful poet. Someone we should return to again and again. Dugan would show up smoking a cigarette with a beer in each pocket. His commentary on the poems would cut to the quick – very precise.

What happened after Provincetown?

I ran back to Louisiana to seek refuge from grandmother without a penny in my pocket. But right before heading back to Louisiana, I did place an application to the NEA. In many ways, in May of 1981 when I returned to Bogalusa, two master’s degrees, a handful of published poems, I was almost too ashamed to show my face. Those six months there I only visited my maternal and paternal grandmothers where I began to realise the importance of having grown up in Louisiana, the folklore, the poetry of everyday rituals. And that is when I began to work on the idea of three collections side by side. I was working on collections with the titles Copacetic, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, and Premonitions of the Breadline.

In early December I received a call from the NEA that I had received an NEA grant. Of course I was jumping up inside. And a few days later I received a call from the chair of the English department at the University of New Orleans offering me an instructorship teaching four sections of advanced composition – 27 students in each section per semester. I taught there for three years. I would wake up at three a.m. and grade papers for a few hours before the activities of the world started on Royal Street in the heart of the Big Easy. Eventually I left the position at UNO to teach poetry in the schools, third-graders through twelfth-graders.

When would you write?

I wrote poems and read whenever I could steal time and attempted to avoid the perpetual, unending, relentless party. However, I couldn’t always avoid the party and it was on one of these occasions (on Mardi Gras day) at a friend’s wedding reception at Snug Harbor that I first encountered Mandy Sayers.

Mandy was a street performer.

I didn’t know that when I first encountered her, but I remember discussing Australian writers such as Patrick White, Judith Wright, Christina Stead, Thomas Keneally and John Tranter. She gave me her phone number but I didn’t call her. She seemed too young and perhaps even a little flighty. I think I was intimidated by her exuberance and presence. But a few weeks later she roller-skated into Copacetic Coffeehouse, which was probably my first collaboration with Ahmos Zu-Bolton and Rudolph Lewis. The coffeehouse had a stage, a pool table, and it was a couple houses down from where I lived in the by-water area at 18 Piety Street. We owned the coffeehouse, Copacetic. We had live music, we had a play there, and then we had a huge disagreement on aesthetics and principals of work. So Mandy skated in and we got into a discussion about jazz. She seemed to know almost everything about jazz because her father had been a jazz drummer and had performed at the Trocadero Club during World War II in Sydney. She performed with her father – she’d tap danced to recorded jazz with father playing live drums. Of course, Mandy possessed a certain charisma. But also, very alive intellect and had a great fascination for Alice in Wonderland.

We met during the time that I had already decided to stop teaching and become a cabinet maker. I had already talked to someone to facilitate an apprenticeship. Because it was this moment I realised that I wanted more time to write my poetry, and I thought if I had a shop where I could build cabinets and had some control over my own time I had in me a lot of poems I wanted to write. It wasn’t long before I received a call from Roger Mitchell at Indiana University offering me a position as a visiting professor to teach in the graduate programme there. And I said let me think about it. I thought about it for the night. I called him back and said yes because I felt that – what is a cabinet-maker without tools? I said to myself, I can go anywhere for a year and then return to New Orleans. Mandy and I started dating and she and her father decided to go to Boulder, Colorado to perform for the summer and they would come to Bloom ington Indiana to see what I was up to. It was there that Mandy and I decided to get married. She invited her god mother, Josephine from England who had introduced her to the infamous Auntie Mame here in New York City. Then I had decided, with some sweet coercion from Mandy, to consider venturing off to Sydney. I kept saying let me think about it. Finally I said, yes. I’ll try anything once. [Laughs]

How long were you in Australia?

I was offered a full-time position at Indiana but I said we had planned a trip to Australia, and Mandy encouraged me to accept the position, especially if we could take a year of leave. So I was there a year and then she had promised me that she would attend school.

And during her time in school she wrote her first novel.

I think Mandy had actually been writing since she was five and she had maintained a journal throughout her years. She would make her own journals – quite elaborate.

Was creative collaboration a part of your relationship?

We were always, from the very beginning, from that night in New Orleans at Snug Harbor, we had been able to talk about everything. And I think a certain kind of trust evolves out of such in-depth conversations. So, I’m not the greatest typist in the world, but I do remember, Mandy was even a worse typist. And I had actually transcribed her first novel, Mood Indigo. By the second novel she was doing her own typing.

Did you work on any projects together?

We did work on a musical set in New Orleans with an ensemble of street performers. A pianist and composer named Luke Gillespie, who was a graduate student at Indiana University, wrote the music. It involved the politics and hard realities surrounding street performers. And I realise as we talk I should go and dust off this piece. Because I remember loving the music.

I’d like to go back for a moment and ask you more about this time period when you had decided to become a cabinet-maker. You had already published three books – Copacetic had just come out in 1984. It had been fourteen years and you hadn’t yet written about the Vietnam War. I’ve heard you say that carpentry is connected with the emergence of those first poems about Vietnam. Can you talk more about that?

Actually, I had been renovating a house in New Orleans. Perhaps, much has to do with the debris, the dust, the humid summer, psychic chaos, that led me back to images of Vietnam. Whenever I do physical labour I also keep a pad of paper close by. That’s when the images of Vietnam began to flow forth and I realised I hadn’t forgotten anything. It was not intellectual memory, it was more of a body memory. I think it’s all connected there, and the writing of those poems led me to the decision to become a cabinet-maker. It’s also the moment I felt that there was something within compelling me to go beyond the conceits of surrealism.

You said you weren’t going to write about Vietnam anymore. In 2008, FSG published Warhorses. What brought you back to war in your poetry?

It started off at Stanford. I was teaching at Stanford in 2001 and I promised myself not to write about Vietnam anymore. People wanted to see me as a jazz-related poet, or a Vietnam-related poet, and I thought it was a restriction. It seems that I consciously and instinctively veered away from the topics. So I was supposed to give a noon presentation at Stanford and I got up that morning thinking about how I would start the discussion. And I wrote a prose poem titled ‘Grenade’. And from that poem I was able to talk about the responsibility of surviving. It all centred around fourteen or fifteen young black Americans who threw themselves on grenades to protect their squads or platoons and I was trying to understand, how does one programme one’s psyche to respond in such a heroic way and I realised one cannot consciously programme one’s self for a response or reaction. So I’m still trying to make some sense out of the question.

There’s a little park in Chicago. I think it’s dedicated to Milton Olive. A friend of mine, Richard Hunt, the celebrated Chicago sculptor, first took me to the park. I think Olive was maybe eighteen years old. There’s a photograph of him. He was a paratrooper and he threw himself on a grenade. So that has to do with a few of the lines in the poem. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor. I think all of these men who threw themselves on grenades were posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I keep thinking, if Milton Olive hadn’t done that act, if he hadn’t thrown himself on the grenade, and he was walking down a typical American street instead, what would the reality of his life be? There was one Congressional Medal of Honor winner from some little place in Texas and they refused to inter him in a white cemetery. This is the Vietnam War – we’re talking recent history. How do we go there? [Yusef reads the poem ‘Grenade’ aloud.]

After writing the poem I spoke impromptu at Stanford about the responsibility in surviving. I think for some survivors there’s an immense guilt for having been lucky – they constantly test the boundaries of normality. And for other survivors, there seems to be a need to underscore the good in us and live out a silent credo.

So after writing ‘Grenade’ did the rest of the manuscript follow easily?

No, I put the poem aside. Then I thought of ‘Love in the Time of War’ and thought that would be a whole book of poems. I had already been working on ‘Autobiography of my Alter Ego’ and I had put it aside, because images from Wishbone Trilogy had invaded my psyche.

Wishbone Trilogy began while I was teaching at Indiana. I used to have a line of students outside the hallway for office hours and often we would talk through ideas, but we would talk about history and historical allusions in literature as well, and sometimes there were no certain things and other times I would be stunned by what they didn’t know. How I had come to education, I think, had something to do with a continuous, intense Socratic inquiry. And in that sense, for me, life has always been a search. I’m quite enthused with the world. I suppose I embody romantic egotism – I think I matter because other people matter. So there’s a dialogue and sometimes the dialogue is no more than a series of questions. In a sense it is informed by Socratic inspiration. Life itself is informed by Socratic inspiration and inquiry about any and everything. This is something I believe about poetry – it can incorporate multiple worlds. Perhaps that’s also why there’s a part of me that mistrusts technology, because searching and researching bits and pieces of information requires a meditative journey. I just like the idea of looking through old books and feeling the weight and heft of a volume even though I may only take away a few ideas and images here and there and that my eyes have landed on some gems. I do think there’s a certain kind of inquiry that makes us human. That’s why the brain has evolved. If it were just static without any stimuli it would be anything but spectacular in its questions. An active life has everything to do with questions as opposed to answers. I think technology is undermining the process of arriving at self-made conclusions, because some of us can only pose and pursue questions if the answers are contained by the machine. How about when we attempt to go outside of that? Is this a fear that perhaps could make us intellectually lazy and consequently undermine even biological and psychological progress, since most organisms are still evolving? Or is it possible that somewhere along the line the human being could evolve into a moment of extended grace?

Wishbone Trilogy first had to do with just history. It started with just black Americans. And then it ventured out and went into blacks in the world, what their achievements are, how many borders they have crossed and how we are condemned to think of the restrictions imposed on blacks when in fact many times they have been great citizens of the world. Perhaps at one time we were more adventurous and perhaps even less racist than we are now.

Will you talk a little about the next two books of the trilogy? What is the idea behind them? When are they coming out?

I have titles: Lust and Bread. I have ideas. I have images that are a fine tussle inside my brain. I do have lines here and there written on scraps of paper and in dog-eared notebooks. But the moment isn’t right. It seems like my mind is an archive of impressions, emotions, ideas, and possibilities. The Taboo volume has a certain jagged music in the tercets. And I don’t yet know if Lust and Bread will contain a similar music. So in a certain sense I haven’t discovered the music for those two volumes. Or perhaps those two volumes will also contain a jagged lyricism, a kind of push and pull that creates a visual and musical tension.

It’s interesting that form has become such a presence in some of your recent collections. It seems in much of your earlier work that the reader is driven straight down the page by both the voice of poems and the block form. In both Talking Dirty to the Gods and Wishbone Trilogy you’ve used form as an instruction on how to read the poem, or perhaps as a way to contain it. Even in Warhorses many of those poems are sonnets. Can you talk a bit more about working in a form?

For me often the idea of form is a container. Many of my poems are improvisation. I see them as improvisations. The form places a shape around the poem and the idea. It contains the energy, the motion and the emotion. Talking Dirty to the Gods began with sixteen lines, four quatrains per poem. I wanted a form to contain a music embedded in my ideas. I needed to underscore the illusion of control. I wanted poems with a certain visual shape, poems that would defy their shape, a form where I could address any of my obsessions and observations. Of course Taboo is different with a cascade of tercets – a music that may at first visually appear as controlled chaos. When I came to Warhorses, I initially thought ‘Love in a Time of War’ would be a book-length series of quasi-sonnets.

Do you find that certain subjects lead the poems to their shapes?

It seems that way. And yet I wanted to attempt to fracture that conceit. Or redefine that conceit. Because there can only be so many sonnets about nature and human variable.

And yet often the sonnet has been used to insinuate trauma.

Not necessarily trauma. Maybe the complexities of life. When the dark lady tiptoes into Shakespeare’s psyche, perhaps a slightly different sonnet is created. One that is primarily psychological. I had hoped the ‘Love in a Time of War’ series would cohere as an imagistic comment on the history of warfare. So it became incorporated into the idea of Warhorses, and each of the three sections is different. Essentially, Warhorses is a merger. So there’s a tonal and visual movement in the book. The ‘Autobiography of My Alter Ego’ also has a fractured design whereby the speaker stops and starts – hesitation and momentary meditations. The character in the poem is speaking to someone at the Chimera Club, but at times he seems to be talking to himself.

It seems the dialogue creates a colloquial energy, despite the shape, or formal aspect of the poem, which makes this poem feel accessible and conversational. The reader becomes the spoken-to here, which creates an interesting relationship between the reader and the character. And the title also has an interesting psychology in the use of the word ‘autobiography’. The poem is about war, and I think a general reader is waiting to hear something true, especially about an experience of war. The illusion of truth can really call the reader in. Using the word ‘autobiography’ in the title suggests that the poet is going to tell the reader something personal – something true. And then you immediately counter that possibility by using the mask of the alter ego. Can you talk about how this section came together?

The poem is about extending possibility. It’s not about questions and answers. It’s about an accidental illumination. It’s about war externally but also it’s about war internally. If we want to talk about masks, first of all the speaker tells about his father who’s a cover artist. So in a certain sense he is the son of a mask. He was born questioning culture as an extended mask. He is searching. He’s a character that represents some part of us all and seems determined to get to the truth, or perhaps, rather, a truth, revealing something that is probably truer than that proverbial, abstracted truth – the one with a capital T.

Since this poem is published in wartime maybe it’s necessary to discuss the writing that returning veterans are producing. As soldiers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many are seeking out writing workshops and MFA programmes. As a poet who’s been in war, can you talk about the complexities of writing one’s experience of war?

Perhaps it is too early and too easy. I think it’s not a ritual where demons are exorcised. For that to happen one needs solitude, aloneness, without an ensemble of yeses and no’s. It’s important to confront oneself, not necessarily that a soldier has to wrestle himself or herself on a bed of nails. But there is an owning-up-to, because some horrific things can happen in the company of comrades in arms. We all know this. I do think it is important to attempt to educate one’s psyche, to read literature, history, philosophy, etcetera. I think also outside this everything has been sped up – there seems to be a need for an immediate closure to everything. Maybe the journey is at least one of Dante’s nine circles and not a turn around the corner. Experience should not be a casual commodity. Everyone has an eye to the peephole. But often we as individuals have some hard-earned debts to pay to ourselves. And perhaps in our attempt to do good, we shouldn’t institutionalise the responsibility of private questioning through a guise of creating art.

In writing a poem about something as personal as war there is power and safety in creating a character. Where are the boundaries of writing the personal and writing from the imagination?

The poet isn’t a confessor. The artist is no different than the everyday human being, who is really a composite of a lived life, observations, experiences, and a deep kind of dreaming. But at times, he or she may be a shapeshifter. Perhaps this is part of what defines us as conscious beings. And sometimes one aspect cannot be cleaved from another. The poet poses questions through images. And the reader or the listener is a co-creator. Because when the poet sets out to tell us the truth we receive anything but the truth, because, if we think about it, truth is really a heightened abstraction. The capacity of imagination is what makes us human. If we don’t use the imagination, as artists, we are no more than reporters pontificating on the observed or assaying the condition of the soul. But I do think experience softly colliding with the imaginative is where true poetry comes from.

And yet I heard you say recently that in a way all poetry is confessional.

Confession as an action. But if there’s a confessor inside the head saying, ‘I’m going to give you the truth’, or ‘this is the way it happened’, that’s another story. Since we deal with language, language is composed of symbols.

And it’s intended to tell something.

Well, not so much telling, but recreating sensation.

So in a way the confessor is a character.

Yeah. But the poet is not a confessor.

I wanted to talk a little more about the complexity of this poem. It’s a long poem about a Vietnam vet, the draft, and his experience, but it’s told through a white vet’s perspective. And equally as important as the Vietnam War here is the experience of the speaker having grown up in a place that seems like the South during segregation. Then the war was happening and the Civil Rights movement, a significant time in American history. It seems young people today almost forget to imagine what life was like in the US before the civil rights movement. You deal with this in your poetry; in a way, poetry becomes a place for this to be remembered.

Well, the artist attempts to articulate his or her own time. However, one’s time shapes the psyche and imagination. I feel it would be cowardly and irresponsible not to at least glimpse in our work that which has shaped us as human beings. Segregation shaped me. Social and cultural apartheid in America shaped me. But I refuse to be a victim because a victim is often defeated before the fight begins. I think surviving with grace is one of the most important things. And maybe it’s important to realise that social oppression wasn’t only happening in the South. Josephine Baker returned to the States from Paris in the 1950s. She attempted to go to the Stork Club here in New York City and was refused service. Growing up in Bogalusa prepared me for the immense stage where social inequities are rehearsed with brutal perfection. The character in ‘Autobiography of My Alter Ego’ is really a composite of a few people I’ve known coupled with my imagination. He knows a lot about the American psyche. But I believe that many of us, white and black, Asian, Latino, all of us know a lot more about racism and cultural collisions than we’re willing to admit. Perhaps that silence defines the national sickness.

You have a forthcoming collection from FSG, The Chameleon Couch. Congratulations. In a way, the voice in this new collection resembles a voice in some of your earlier poems, like those in Magic City or I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head. How did you begin the project?

It began with a poem called ‘Rendition’, which is now not even in the collection. It was a surrender, a monologue. It had a different feel to it. What is one’s responsibility in a situation? This poem led to the title The Chameleon Couch. The chameleon is always changing. It’s influenced by what’s around it.

So you saw this character as a chameleon?

Yes. The speaker in the poem is perhaps a psychologist speaking to another psychologist about the responsibility of what one knows. I hope ‘Rendition’ will appear in a new, in-progress collection of poems.

The title of the collection suggests another kind of mask, or many masks as the chameleon is adapting, changing. In The Chameleon Couch, I see the reappearance of familiar characters from your earlier work, like the Thorn Merchant and Eddie the Immune. And there’s the appearance of historical figures and places, such as in your poem ‘Cape Coast Castle’. Perhaps sometimes even history can be a kind of mask where the imagination steps into the persona of a character. Do you see many of the characters in these new poems as masks?

Perhaps it is more of an unmasking. Literature is woven from masks. It involves a conjuring and acceptance of mystery. It’s almost like dealing with a series of overlays. One overlay is placed over another, and perhaps only the fifth overlay becomes the moment of clarity whereas the third give us only a blurred illusion. Simplicity can be the most outrageous, damaging mask because it embodies denial. I think often in language and in characterisation we are taught to make it simple. But that doesn’t necessarily get us closer to the complexity of reality. However, I do think that the masks that are composed in everyday life, outside of literature, often devour those who wear them. The speaker in the poem ‘Cape Coast Castle’ has been momentarily affected by the imperatives of history where the monolithic image of the castle travels with him in his psyche, and perhaps he realises that those slaves, his forebears, also travelled across the ocean in the belly of a ship with the same frightening image, and that, essentially, all their traditional gods had been defeated by a glimpse of this Cape Coast Castle. So there’s a ritual in the speaker’s head all the way back to America. If we think for a moment about architecture being art, then art is more than powerful.

Your poem ‘Memory of the Murdered Professors at the Jagiellonian’ is about Nazis invading the Jagiellonian University and arresting, I read, 200 professors there, many of whom died in the concentration camps. The poem is written after Hasior’s sculpture with almost the same title.

I’ve gone to the museum in Zakopane twice and I’m quite taken with Hasior’s work. There’s a classical understanding of the power of the image. I see all his pieces as political, without a capital P. And it seems as if he’s an artist who was actually having fun with his work, constantly surprising himself, the way a poet should be shaping himself or herself. And the pieces make us pose questions. So in that way the work of art doesn’t remain static. It beckons to us – challenges us. It facilitates a dialogue.

Because they had the ability to question, even if the questions weren’t posed, these professors were shot or imprisoned. Just for the fact that they had the ability to question. Mature citizens almost have the responsibility to question, even if it’s dangerous. Not just as professional doubting Thomases, but as citizens. As human beings, but especially as poets, it’s paramount to question – not just for the sake of questioning or for emotional anarchy, but for the sake of establishing a dialogue. And that dialogue is with the past, present, and future. Every scientific or philosophical advancement first comes as a question. From a question comes action, sometimes even compassionate action. I think Hasior’s sculpture is a question.

The poem ‘The Hedonist’ begins with the line ‘I pull on my crow’s mask.’ Can you talk about this character in relationship to the society we live in?

Do you think we’ve come to a place in this world where – um – certain people have to have everything? Hedonism has to do with the attempt to defy the reality of loneliness. Often the hedonist offers himself or herself up as an object because he believes – perhaps unconsciously – that he doesn’t exist except through objectification by another. Does that make sense? And perhaps the hedonist is also egotistical. Life is ultimate theatre for the hedonist. Solitude is the hedonist’s greatest fear, because solitude forces one to momentarily be alone. I’m not talking about the solitude of a monk. But I think the hedonist also needs others to participate in his hedonistic behaviours or rituals. It becomes a group action in order to feel human. The speaker who pulls on the crow’s mask is doing so to enliven his depth of perception. One only has to think about Ted Hughes’s great epic Crow because his crow is capable of seeing a moment before its own conception and even forecasts its death. It deals with that which is beautiful and horrifying. So in that sense it may be a statement about modernity.

You’ve said that you feel politics should not be on the surface of a poem, but somewhere under the surface, perhaps buried in the image.

I believe language is political, so we’re working with tools that have been shaped by history. At one time poetry was really class conscious. It seemed only the wealthy or individuals who had leisure time or who had been educated wrote poetry. I don’t think that’s the case now and hasn’t been the case for some time. And of course there’s folk poetry, which has a sense of directness. If we can say that directness is political, I don’t mind being political, as long as the politics are not on the surface of the poems, but beneath beckoning to us. And this happens through insinuation and layered language. We can travel great distances in a single phrase or image. I have ideas. Sometimes my ideas are out there too, but I check them.

You check them with other people?

No, I check them with myself. [Yusef is distracted by the music playing in the background.] That’s a good title, ‘When Love Came to Town’. Maybe that’s the title of a short story. You think I can steal that?

I’ll talk to B.B. about it. I’ve read that you work on three projects at a time. But I’ve known you for some time now and I know that you are actually working on many more projects than that and in many genres – short fiction, a novel, plays, music collaborations. I know you write in your head and have a whole collection of stories almost ready to be put on the page. You’ve been writing poetry for over thirty years, but prose, in a way, is new for you. Can you talk about working in prose?

I love reading short stories and consequently I found myself attempting to write short stories. In a way I’ve written many prose poems. Perhaps for me the prose poem has been practice for the short story. The idea of the novel, Confessions of a Minotaur, began with two recurring characters, and I understood something about their dynamic. I see where it becomes a tapestry of interactions and often they are visual. I also knew that each of them would teach the other something about himself or herself.

The characters can say something about the world that you might not want the responsibility of saying through the invention of an argument or a conversation. The reader accepts this.

Perhaps there’s more space for emotional and psychological deliberation in a prose piece. The character is often a totally disguised mask – a mask made of emotional cheesecloth. But at the same time, because the character is layered, the character behind the mask is often contradictory; it often attempts to defy definition. He or she exemplifies a complexity that we, the writer and the reader, are willing to embrace, even though we may hate the character and what he or she represents.

What I’m interested in within your stories and plays isn’t just the complexity of one character, but the interaction between characters. I’m thinking of Weather Wars, which is being read in September at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh. You have these three very different graduate students having a personal and political discussion. It’s amazing, as a writer, how you can articulate so many drastically opposing points of views and wear all of those masks to create believable, complex, and very real characters.

I’m not wearing the masks. The characters are wearing the masks because their masks define them. The momentum of Weather Wars, I think, has everything to do with the interaction of the three characters and what they are willing to learn and question about each other and also about themselves as real flesh and blood proxies.

Through the play, each character gives the impression of something true about the world for the reader.

Sometimes an idea in a play is taken over quite rapidly by the characters. The characters become the movement. They become instruments of an undiscovered action or anti-action. Because I do think sometimes action equals lyricism embedded in language. It’s not where one character is acting against another, but it’s where language takes over and becomes a character. I think perhaps this happens in Beckett sometimes. Even where silence is an integral component of the character. One of my favourite plays by Beckett is Krapp’s Last Tape where the character attempts to play God, to reinvent time by revising an earlier self that has been captured electronically.

I’ve heard you say that more poets should be writing plays. Do you feel a sense of freedom working in a different form?

A reason I think more poets should be writing plays is that the poet is always in service to language. And I think plays can often exist more in language than in mechanics of plot. In fiction, often young writers are told that there are seven possible plots and a thousand variations on those plots. Being aware of that, language is more interesting to me. Sometimes it’s not what the characters are saying to each other, but how they are saying what they need to say.

And also what’s not said, or what’s implied.

Yes, levels of insinuation. Playful innuendo. For the poem, even when it’s clearly a moment of forged personification, I see it as a direct extension of myself. Not my everyday experiences and observations, but my imagination. In plays, sometimes the characters intervene and take over. Often I feel as if I have at least an illusion of control when I’m writing a poem. In writing a play I’m willing to follow the character wherever he or she wishes to journey, so I can momentarily find myself in a dimly lit alley in the Big Apple or two steps from Gilgamesh’s throne.

In the spring of 2008 there was a reading of Gilgamesh at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Will this piece be produced for the stage?

When Gilgamesh was presented at the 92nd Street Y, I felt that people were surprised. And consequently Chad Gracia and I have been working towards seeing it produced. The Classical Theater of Harlem expressed an interest and we have our fingers crossed that they will be brave enough to take on the challenge. If so, they’re open to collaborating with other theatres to stage it elsewhere. I’m waiting to see it.

I had a chance to read your play Somewhere Near Here (Bright Darkness). The characters are different and really engaging. I was hooked from the opening with Dolores nearly singing ‘I know you…I’d know you anywhere.’

She’s real.

Really real?

No, I dreamt her up, but she’s real.

I was completely engaged by the immense psychological intensity of these characters – the way the two women, Dolores and Anise, keep changing their roles. What starts off as an almost childish dialogue turns and turns until an overwhelming danger, even violence really, is present in the characters and in the situation they’ve created there. The play demonstrates how identity can be more of a construction than a state of being. By the end of the play I felt completely fooled by Dolores. Can you talk about the psychology of creating your characters and the worlds they exist in?

A picture of innocence is also deceptive and vice versa; individuals we think of as being shaped by hardened, practised elements of society are often pushovers – big-eyed puppy dogs. In that sense life itself is a stage. I think Shakespeare was very much aware of this, and I can see why Professor Bloom called Shakespeare a psychologist. And often we are placed in the midst of characters who are evolving, changing, redefining, or accidentally discovering who they are. We get glimpses of these complex characters, and at the same time we also receive glimpses of ourselves. So life is also a rehearsal of becoming. Dolores insinuates herself into Anise’s moment of active solitude. She comes in with her façade of girlish innocence, talkative. And perhaps she doesn’t even know why she activates this dialogue with Anise. Perhaps it has everything to do with Hector (Anise’s dead husband), or absolutely nothing to do with him.

Along with writing fiction and plays, you’ve worked on many performance pieces or musical collaborations. In a short essay published in Teachers & Writers Magazine you say, ‘the ideal collaboration is a dialogue and negotiation’. Can you talk a little about your collaborative work?

I think it makes good sense to stand by one’s guns when it comes to content and aesthetics. But also, one has to be willing to negotiate with a collaborator. If one is considering collaborating with another artist, he or she has to enter an attitude of negotiation. Because often there’s limitation in what one first envisions a piece as. But essentially a work of art is always becoming because of what another brings to it. Even when we see art on the museum wall, the viewer may walk around it, squint at it, stand up close, take a step back. And the piece is alive. One doesn’t just accept the point of view of the collaborator, but one has to be receptive to the idea that sometimes two or three minds are indeed better than one. An example for me was working with Tomas Donker and a host of other singers and musicians on The Mercy Suite. We were searching for a seamless groove. The piece seemed to open up through surprising differences. I felt that this was a successful negotiation because of multiple talents and aesthetics. Of course this isn’t a dictum cut into stone.

I attended a reading and performance of your collaborative work-in-progress Saturnalia produced by The Music-Theater Group in Brooklyn, New York this past April. You wrote the verse text and Susie Ibarra composed a beautiful, surprising, and ambitious musical score. The reading/performance was directed by Daniel Fish. I know you have worked with Susie for some time. It seems there is a great deal of trust and respect between you.

When we choose or accept another’s point of view or contribution, it is based on the trust we have with the collaborator. Susie’s astute flexibility and work ethic seem to inform everything she touches, and for the most part I’m willing to travel the path she travels. I think that we both look forward to discovering what others may bring to a project. I like to believe that my ego isn’t so fragile that I can’t listen to the input and genius of others. I love going to the theatre because I realise that each piece is a shared vision. Originally, Saturnalia was titled Shangri-La and performed as a work-in-progress. But the piece has evolved entirely, from the title to the last word and gesture. The experience in Brooklyn was truly beneficial because seeing Saturnalia come to life on the stage changed my vision of it and the direction the text. And now the original Act Two is a slightly different Act Two. Since seeing Act One take shape, the rewriting has been more surprising and productive.

You have also been working on another kind of collaboration, poems and paintings, with artist Rachel Bliss. Can you talk about working with Rachel?

Knowing Rachel’s non-traditional vision and paintings, I was ready for surprises. Actually, the collaboration began with the title Night Animals. And Rachel’s impulse towards the surreal was the glue for more than a journey. For a few years now I’ve been writing poems for Night Animals periodically. The subject of night animals became an open field for both of us. And images of night animals are still easing out of my psyche, and I hope out of hers as well. This collaboration defies any suggestion of a narrative and rests greatly on what the viewer and the reader bring to each night animal image. The poems and images respond to the real world through a surreal lens.

In addition to your creative work, which often is responding to the real world through lyricism and dialogue, I know you’ve also written essays. Can you talk a bit about that?

I’ve written a few here and there. I’m not much of an essayist, but I have essays to write. Baldwin was very important to me – his prose was influenced by Henry James. The long sentence. The metaphor. Lyrical tonality. Lyricism. Baldwin was one of the few people I wish I had met. There was a moment when I lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico and I used to go to a place owned by an individual from North Carolina named Chuck New, and he knew I was edging into writing. I said Baldwin was important to me, so they began calling me – not the next Baldwin – but Baldwin’s nephew. I almost met Baldwin back in the 1980s, but he had gotten sick and couldn’t travel. I think of that as one of the greatest losses. We were supposed to meet at the Contemporary Arts Performance Space. At the time, I was teaching at the University of New Orleans. I was just edging my way into that field of landmines really. I was just beginning to discover. And Baldwin talks about being condemned, and I was just beginning to understand what he meant by condemned. I think what he means is condemned to say what others deny. Baldwin was one of my heroes. Richard Wright was one of my heroes. Paul Robeson was one of my heroes. Lillian Smith was one of my heroes. A lot of people know her novel Strange Fruit, but I think she wrote a paramount book of essays entitled Killers of the Dream. She goes to China for a year or so and then back to Georgia. She’s such an important American. There was a moment when I was teaching at Indiana. I would always advise my students to read Killers of the Dream. It would force me to go back and re-read the essays. They were dense. She’s part of a movement called the New South. People usually think of the South as retrograde and intellectually anaemic. But at times there were individuals who were alone and lonely who challenged the elements of the culture. Perhaps I address some of these concerns in Condition Red, an in-progress companion to Blue Notes edited by Radiclani Clytus. Condition Red is a collection that focuses on poetry, politics, and the politics of literature and culture.

I recently read your essay in the inaugural issue of the Washington Post Magazine. It was a beautiful piece published in response to the recent, significant moment in American history when Obama was elected. The essay captured memories of your life growing up and glimpses of these real influences such as your great-grandfather, who you’ve said taught you that having the benefit of a doubt is worth its weight in gold. Reading the essay, I began to wonder if you might be considering writing a memoir. You’ve had such an interesting, and in many ways surreal path, it seems, growing up in the segregated South, serving in the Vietnam War, and your life as a poet. Is this something we can look forward to?

I can see myself writing a book of personal essays based on my life and experiences. If I were to write a memoir I think it would be more experimental. I don’t know where it would begin or end, but I would hope it would take me on a retrospective journey. The time has to be right. It wouldn’t be an easy journey, but a necessary one. And it would be informed by lyrical intent.

As a young writer I believe that it’s important to see your work as part of a body of work, I mean to understand that there are so many possibilities for your work to travel. I want to imagine what the body of my work will be thirty years from now and be able to see myself changing. I do this so I don’t get caught up in worrying about saying everything on a subject in a single poem, or in my first collection of poems. Writing is about the process. You have an impressive, and incredibly diverse, body of work that encompasses thirty years of writing behind you. And it’s very interesting to look at that body of work as a whole. What’s interesting to me is how each collection does something different – creates or portrays something that is necessary for the reader to understand about ourselves, or humanity, or the world. Your work moves in and out of myth and the colloquial – the real and the imagined. You’re working in poetry and prose, on the page and on the stage. What do you hope for and imagine in your future work?

Well, I hope to continue surprising myself. I still want to believe that there isn’t any topic that’s taboo, that aesthetics are important. I don’t want to ever restrict myself. I want to be able to facilitate a larger emotional, psychological canvas that include songwriting and even persuading myself that maybe I can sing the blues, which would take me back to my earliest memories. So in that sense I would love to find myself travelling two or more opposing directions at once. Perhaps for a restless mind such as mine that is one way of becoming whole.

This interview is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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