Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Butler U. Visiting Writer's Series: Yusef Komunyakaa: "I'd Rather Die a Poet Than a Warrior"

"The blank space says, 'Wake up, you Knucklehead. It's right in front of you,' but I wonder if I had different skin, would you read me differently? Would you press your nude body against the pages and breathe new life into the speaker?" --from a reading by poet Yusef Komunyakaa at last night's Vivian S. Dellbrook Visiting Writer's Series at Butler University.
To hear even a handful of Yusef Komunyakaa's poems, you can picture him as a young boy, dreaming his destitute Louisiana street block into mythical battlegrounds where evil is vanquished. You can hear the pulse of his youth, syncopating with street corner Jazz rhythms. You can feel the sweat drenching his shirt as young man, as he crept through the jungles of Vietnam.
"It's good to be back in Indiana," were his only opening words before reading selections from his myriad volumes of poetry. Despite his somewhat podium-shy stage presence, the Bronze Star recipient and professor at New York University (prior to that Princeton and Indiana University) kept the audience riveted, and at the denouement of each poem, you could hear a pin drop. With accolades, such as the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the Louisiana Writer Award, it is no wonder he maintains such a loyal following, even in his 75th year. (There is some confusion as to the exact year of his birth, with his Army discharge papers citing 1941 and his passport citing 1947.)

Yusef Komunyakaa read from his works and shared insight on keeping a fresh voice with an audience rapt in gravitas.
Komunyakaa was born James William Brown, a carpenter's son and the eldest of five children. He later adopted the name Komunyakaa, which was the name his grandfather had before his stowaway voyage to the U.S. from Trinidad. Raised in Bogalusa, Louisiana, before and during the Civil Rights era, he states that it "was a terrible place to grow up, really, due to poverty and racism, and also due to the vocational limitations for black men." Despite having his literary aspirations discouraged, he spent many of his childhood waking hours in the local Negro library, reading all manner and style of literature.

His works reflect a distinct musical quality, most notably jazz, and as he read from his volumes, he kept one hand in has pocket, methodically pounding out the rhythm on his leg. He explained that "Poetry is the primary medium I have chosen because of the conciseness, the precision, the imagery, and the music in the lines. I think of language as our first music."

His service in Vietnam is another of Komunyakaa's important (if also "terrible") sources for poetic material. He says that it was not until after he had returned from the war and written the poem 'Instructions for Building Straw Huts' that he felt sure of his poetic calling. Like so many of his other pieces, Komunyakaa's Vietnam poems blend compassion and aggravation, and create vivid images with a minimum of detail, 'watching some as though prisoners of war.'" (Source: "Yusef Komunyakaa." Contemporary Southern Writers. Gale, 1999. Biography in Context. Web. 25 May 2016.)

After humbly reading selections from Copacetic, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, Thieves of Paradise, Magic City, Neon Vernacular, Warhorses, and others Komunyakaa took questions from the audience. Perhaps the audience picked up a bit of his stage reticence, because at first no one raised a hand. Soon questions began pouring in from freshman English majors hoping to be poets themselves, to faculty members, to longtime fans. With each question, he gave a thoughtful response, and with each response, he grew more relaxed, his smile brightening a shadowy stage.

Questions ranged from "How can I be a poet too?" to "How does jazz inform your words?" to "Can you explain your process for writing a poem?" When a timid woman stood and spoke in a barely audible voice, asking if he had ever thought of returning to Vietnam, you could almost see his heart melt as as if reliving a painful yet treasured memory. He explained that he went back in 1990, and for that singular silent moment when he gathered his thoughts, you could swear he was composing a poem on the spot.

One entusiastic audience member requested a reading of his most famous poem, "Facing It." You have to wonder if poets are like rock stars who resent singing their greatest hits in favor of deep album cuts. No matter--he seemed genuinely touched by the request and read the poem in its entirety. "Facing It," a haunting poem about the reflections he saw on his first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, (sometimes called "The Wall") might be the poem that put him on the map. "I'd still rather die a poet than a warrior," he mirthfully informed the audience at its conclusion.

(See poem and a link to audio of his reading at the end of this post.)

When asked how he finds inspiration to keep writing, decade after decade, he replied, "My definition of poetry is confrontation plus celebration, and it's better when it's a composite that contains more questions than answers. I like the idea of going between worlds. Sometimes, if we're lucky, those worlds can converge in a single place in the heart. Sometimes. If we're lucky.... I hope that by doing this, we are in a dialog to keep each other human. But as far as inspiration, sometimes you have to start without it. I'll quit writing when I can no longer surprise myself."

As the Q&A session wound down, someone asked for a recommended reading list, and he prescribed the poems of Robert Hayden whose work he claims made him the poet he is, and the one-act play Funnyhouse of a Negro by Adrienne Kennedy.

Now here are some terribly grainy photos of the evening. Please excuse my unwillingness to blind the speaker and annoy the people around me with an obnoxious flash.

The crowd eagerly  awaits he who "masters the the serpent quill."

Komunyakaa thoughtfully fields a question about the artist's process.

People of all walks line up to thank Komunyakaa for the influence his poems have had on their lives.

"Facing It" from his 1988 collection Dien Cai Dau (Vietnamese for "crazy in the head.") Hear Komunyakaa himself recite this beloved poem here. My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite. I said I wouldn't dammit: No tears. I'm stone. I'm flesh. My clouded reflection eyes me like a bird of prey, the profile of night slanted against morning. I turn this way—the stone lets me go. I turn that way—I'm inside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial again, depending on the light to make a difference. I go down the 58,022 names, half-expecting to find my own in letters like smoke. I touch the name Andrew Johnson; I see the booby trap's white flash. Names shimmer on a woman's blouse but when she walks away the names stay on the wall. Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's wings cutting across my stare. The sky. A plane in the sky. A white vet's image floats closer to me, then his pale eyes look through mine. I'm a window. He's lost his right arm inside the stone. In the black mirror a woman’s trying to erase names: No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

No comments:

Post a Comment