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Poet memorizes famous works, creates own

Poet Yusef Komunyakaa spoke at convocation Thursday morning, reading several of his poems. Born in 1947 in Louisiana, Komunyakaa served in Vietnam in the late 1960s and went on to become a renowned poet and professor. He is currently a professor in the Creative Writing Program and New York University. Komunyakaa sat down with Eliza Honan before convocation on Thursday to discuss his poetry and process.

Poet and professor Yusef Komunyakaa read excerpts from his collections of poems during Convocation on Thursday in JRC 101. Photograph taken by Avery Rowlison.

How did you begin to write poetry? What are your earliest memories of writing or reading poetry?
You know, I’ve entertained that question so many times. But I first came to poetry by reading poetry, of course. I first memorized Edgar Allen Poe’s poem that sort of made me think about the South, “Anabelle Lee.” And then I memorized a poem entitled “The Creation,” by James Weldon Johnson. I was then exposed especially to poetry by Tennyson, long before I came to the Harlem Renaissance: Langston Hughes, Helen Johnson, Anne Spencer, Countee Cullen, Karl McKelly—all of those voices. I didn’t think I would write poetry. It wasn’t a planned thing. I just raised my hand one day and said I would write a poem for my graduating class and that poem is a well-kept secret. [Laughs] Then I continued to read poetry. I think that’s how all of us come to the writing of poetry, by reading. I still read a lot of poetry, especially in translation, as well as outside of poetry, I especially love short fiction, novels, history, psychology, whatever is there.

What inspired your first book of poems “Dedications & Other Darkhorses?”
Well by that time I had really gotten my hands into poetry—my hands and my head into poetry. I had taken a workshop at the University of Colorado, with the doctor Alex Blackburn and I thought I could write poetry. I was in graduate school I think, I was at Colorado State when that book came out. It was a very short book, just a compilation of a few poems that I thought worked. It sort of surprised me because I still think of it as this beautiful little book that’s been sort of informative for the rest of my work as well.

You wrote “Dien Cai Dau” based on your time in Vietnam. How did your time in Vietnam affect you in other ways and did it affect your writing on a larger scale?
I thought I would write essays on Vietnam, because I have been so inspired by the essays of James Baldwin. Of course Baldwin is doing different things altogether, but I really admire the passion underneath those essays and I thought I would write essays. I didn’t think I would [write] poetry, however I was reading poetry in Vietnam—I had taken with me Donald Allen’s “New American Poetry,” that anthology, as well as the anthology edited by Hayden Carruth, “The Voice That is Great Within Us.” So I had been, I didn’t think I would ever write about Vietnam in a poetic way. I had sort of aligned myself with some of the surrealists, especially Breton and also some of the negritude poets such as Aimé Césaire, San Juan. So I thought I would write very systematically around that experience, I just found myself writing about Vietnam and New Orleans, and I haven’t written essays yet. Perhaps I’ll write an essay on my experience associated with Vietnam, but I think it would probably be an essay about 1990, when I went back to Vietnam and that can capture even my very first experiences as well, in retrospect.

Why did you return to your ancestral name Komunyakaa?
You have to probably read the work to find out. I think it’s there, I think it’s there. I think it’s important to know where one comes from in order to know where one’s going.

You touched on this a little bit in the first question, but which poets have influenced you most throughout your life?
The poets I keep coming back to? Yes, there’s so many of them. There’s a whole list, but I’ll just give you an abbreviated list. Robert Hayden is important to me, Gwendolyn Brooks is important, Elizabeth Bishop. Neruda is important. I continuously go back to Neruda. There are so, so many voices, there are voices that I don’t necessarily align myself with, but I have a certain joy in reading them, in returning to them, arguing with them—even someone such as T.S. Elliot, who I continuously argue with about him—not so much his poetry as much as his ideas as a human being.

What is your writing process like?
My writing process is to write every day and to revise, because each day changes us. I’m not the same person I was two days ago, right? Because essentially we are always evolving by what touches us, by what we see and experience. We are very complex organisms. We focus on everything around us because of the human brain, such a gluttonous mechanism.

How do you know when a poem is finished?
How do I know? I am willing to let go of a poem and entrust it to the world. And even after poems are published, sometimes I may go back and remove a word. It’s always removing a phrase or a word, it’s never really adding anything to embellish the immediate intention of the poem or of the music of the poem, it’s always paring down. That’s the way I revise.

What are your other influences? For example, what inspires you and where do you like to write?
Oh gosh, I have all kinds of influences. I listen to music a lot, but I don’t listen to—I can have instrumental music in the background. I’m mostly interested in collaboration. Presently I’m working on a collaboration called “Night Animals.” I’m working with a visual artist and I envision this to be a collection of paintings and my poems will sort of spark some of the paintings and I think she has sent me a few images to spark certain poems. So I’m interested in collaboration a lot at the moment. My collaborations are varied. I wrote a series of lyrics, musician named Tomas Doncker, called, “The Mercy Suite” and I want to keep pursuing that. One reason is because I admire the lyrics of writers such as, well Bob Dylan comes to mind. Joni Mitchell comes to mind. Of course Robert Johnson is right there in foreground. Sun House, he was a blues musician.

What advice can you give to aspiring poets?
Read everything and write every day. That’s what I feel. And also I think one has to trust the imagination as well as—I go back to Baldwin. Baldwin says, “We have to know what’s happening around us to know what’s happening to us, because we are a poem of everything that’s happening around us.” That kind of scrutiny. I think there have to be moments of bravery that are completely outside of vibrato. I think that’s important to not test oneself against the world, at least to measure oneself against what’s there. I think that’s important.

In writing poetry how often do you stray from the traditional structures of poetry and how has that changed over your career?
Well I think one has to know what the traditional forms are in order to break the rules. I’m always aware of that. I’m always aware when I’m reading a villanelle or sestina, sonnet, but I do believe that one is destined to write in one’s own time and I’m alive now, so that is the music that’s important to me, although I love reading traditional poetry. I remember even in grad school having to memorize passages of Shakespeare, walking up to the tape recorder, reciting those passages, and just hearing one’s voice come back. That was rather informative about the musicality of the language. I’m particularly interested in those voices aligned with Anglo-Saxon, the kind of strict formed, less Latinate embellishment.

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