Thursday, September 23, 2010

Yusef Komunyakaa

Yet another perk of being a grad student at Butler is that not only does Butler bring in an astounding array of writers to give readings, but the writers also hold a separate Q & A session just for Butler students. This afternoon I sat in on Yusef Komunyakaa's Q & A session, amidst a couple of dozen undergrad and grad students.

Right away I could tell we were in for a treat. Mr. Komunyakaa has a distinctive demeanor: he was playful and thoughtful at the same time and had a warm, mischievous grin. He introduced himself by saying that his poetry carried a lot of insinuation and many possibilities of meaning. When he answered students questions, his answers were not straightforward, but open-ended, feeling as full of insinuation and possibility as his poetry.

Two aspects of the session warmed my heart. The first was that the students around me had a high level of attentiveness and preparedness; they were no slouches, and brought with them a plethora of intriguing and insight-drawing questions. Second, Komunyakaa was up and open to the challenge. Much later in the day when I saw him again, and I mentioned that the Q & A session had gone well, and K. agreed, saying it had developed into a good dialogue. And that was exactly right. Komunyakaa was clearly not an author going through the motions to sell books; he was utterly engaged in the mutuality of discussion -- reflecting on our questions, speaking his thoughts, and even tossing a question or two back to the students.

Here are some gems from his part of this thoughtful dialogue: K. told us that poems take us back to the oral tradition, and are templates for extended possibility...we read them to bring us to a mystery. Poems invite the reader to bring his or her own meaning to the words, thereby making the text elastic. When K. was asked why people write poems, he answered that we do this in order to have a dialogue, to understand. Lastly, he told us that poems have to have tension.

I had a few questions for K. about music, especially since his poetry is said not only to be lyrical, but have rhythm and tonality. First I asked K what his relationship is to jazz, and he responded that he loved the freedom of expression embodied in jazz. In addition, he told me jazz informs his poetry by giving an example of a wandering away from and then returning to a central theme. K. related this to his poetry, and said when he writes he likes to add discursive elements that are outside the logical narrative perspective. When I asked K. what he held close to his heart about Charlie Parker, the jazz saxophonist who is the subject of some of K.'s work, he said he is still struck by the astonishing tonality of Parker's work, along with the duality of Parker's love for his art and the agony the demons within him caused.

When I ask how he became a poet, K. recalled that the seeds of his poetry-making were sown in his childhood, in his singing to the radio, and reading of Whitman as well as the poets of the Harlem renaissance. For Komunyakaa, language is music, and the best way to gain access to the notes is to read.

K. devoted a portion of the discussion to poems about his tour in Vietnam and how it took him 14 years to write about his experiences there.

Lastly, I asked him about the 11 years he lived Bloomington, IN. K. said those years stayed with him, in a positive way, noting that much innovation in this country happens between the coasts.

Mr. Komunyakka, it was a pleasure. Next visiting poet: Jean Valentine.

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