Never mind the laurels, let's chat

True to his vision: poet Yusef Komunyakaa

Gemini Ink brings Pulitzer Prize-winner Yusef Komunyakaa to town for a dialogue

To offer Yusef Komunyakaa a proper introduction would be to defy the wishes of the poet himself. "Introduce me first as a man," he tells us in "Unnatural State of the Unicorn." "Don't mention superficial laurels / the dead heap up on the living."

Komunyakaa, then, is a man. His glories as a poet are many: so many that to name them all here would indeed result in a formidable heap, enough to bury the human semblance of anyone. For now, it is enough to know him simply as a man: a black man who has endured the vagaries of racist America, a former war-time journalist who once dodged snipers in Vietnam, a lover of jazz still entranced by the genre's possibilities, and a poet who will share his time and words this month as a guest of Gemini Ink.

As one man, Komunyakaa nevertheless recognizes the role the rest of the world plays in his life and his work. In a recent phone interview, Komunyakaa discussed how embracing this interconnection helps him to generate poetry, and how poetry itself actually strengthens the nexus between solitary human and universe at-large.

"What I attempt for is a dialogue," he says of his aim in writing. Chuckling, he adds, "One can only dialogue with oneself for so long."

Komunyakaa, who believes poetry is firmly entrenched in an oral tradition, speaks with great concentration, like a man constantly sifting through sediment for bits of gold. He is always searching. Komunyakaa believes that the willingness to search is the paramount quality of a writer. He defines insight not as intrinsic knowledge, but as "the process of discovery."

"It's not what one knows," he tells me, "but what one is willing to discover about the world, about oneself, and about others."

Komunyakaa seems engaged in discovery even as we speak: After listening to a quote from American writer Henry Miller, he suspends the conversation momentarily to jot something onto a piece of paper. "Sorry," he says, "I had to get that down."

Miller's idea, with which Komunyakaa agrees, concerns the power of art to transcend the rational mind. "Sometimes the meaning of a poem is beyond words," says Komunyakaa, echoing Miller's thoughts. "It informs through feeling and sensation."

The hallucinogenic world that Komunyakaa sometimes conjures in his poetry can indeed startle on an intuitive level, a world in which "Waves / of locusts fall like black snow / in our sleep" and where "electric eyes / hum on 18-carat key chains." But his poems also astonish in their candor: "Sweet Mercy, I worship / the curvature of your ass. / I build an altar in my head. / I kiss your breasts & forget my name."

"If it doesn't surprise me, it wouldn't surprise others," says Komunyakaa of his standards for crafting imagery.

Although Komunyakaa does consider his readers when he writes, his art is never obsequious. "The first objective is to be true to one's own vision," he says. "Then, one is also true to others." Still, he says, a poem's meaning remains in flux until it is read and assimilated by someone else: "The reader or listener is co-creator in its meaning."

   Reading: Yusef Komunyakaa

7pm Thu, Feb 10
Charline McCombs Empire Theatre
226 N. St. Mary's

As a writer, Komunyakaa does not intend to offer instruction or advice on how others should live their lives. "I don't think art in general should be didactic," he says. "If there's instruction there, it has to do with letting the reader know that we are connected, as well as other species in the universe. And sometimes that's a revelation."

Komunyakaa will emphasize this connection on February 10 when he gives a free public reading at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, followed by a question-and-answer session. The following day, a colloquium luncheon honoring the poet will be held at the Bright Shawl. Attendees will hear an introduction to Komunyakaa's work, an interview with the poet, and a reading of selected poems by local actors. That evening, Komunyakaa will teach a master class, in which he will look at students' manuscripts and offer a critique and suggestions for revision.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Rosemary Catacalos, executive director of Gemini Ink. "He is one of the most important poets and voices in the country."

As one laurel has now been offered, perhaps a few more are appropriate: Komunyakaa has received numerous awards for his work, among them the San Francisco Poetry Center Award, The Dark Room Poetry Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize.

But let us spare the poet a cumbersome wreath of achievements and instead allow such honors to fall at his feet. After all, Komunyakaa's highest aim does not seem to center on accumulating accolades, but rather on reaching out and affirming the most basic truths that bind us all together.

"The sharing process," he says, "makes us human beings."

By Brian Chasnoff

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