|Professor Komunyakaa reciting one of his poems.|
AGS: First off, can you tell our listeners out there a little bit about what you do as an educator and poet?
Currently, I teach poetry (craft and workshops) in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University. I’m always working on at least three collections of poetry simultaneously (my latest collection The Chameleon Couch was released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this week). I also write and publish plays, verse plays, and essays.
AGS: What is your background? How long have you been an educator and a poet?
I grew up in Bogalusa, Louisiana. I believe that one internalizes a landscape, and Bogalusa still influences my perspective on the world and my work. My great-grandfather and my father were carpenters, and my first dream was centered on becoming a horticulturist. I had drawn plans for greenhouses and I learned a few things about grafting plants. As a teenager I had numerous jobs (which perhaps, in retrospect, facilitated my writing), but the most defining experience was a summer job where I cut pulpwood with my uncle and cousin, whereby we would enter the woods at daybreak and exit after sunset. I thought nature was magical even though sweat was running into my eyes and every muscle in my body was aching.
When I was 21 years old, I was drafted into the army and eventually sent to Vietnam. Some time after I returned, I entered college with a triple major psychology, sociology, and English. After graduating, I went on to earn two graduate degrees in Creative Writing. In 1982, the University of New Orleans invited me to teach composition. After a few years there, I thought I’d return to working with my hands as a cabinet-maker, but I received a call from Indiana University inviting me to teach creative writing in a one-year visiting position. I ended up teaching there for ten years. Since then I’ve taught full-time at Princeton University and New York University.
AGS: Which poets influenced your work?
Early on in grade school I was introduced to the work of Edgar Allen Poe and the poets of the Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes, Claude Mackay, Countee Cullen, Anne Spencer, etc), along with Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. I was amazed by Wheatley’s work: this girl who was brought to Boston on a slave ship (called the Phillis) when she was seven or eight years old had written many of her poems as a teenager between scrubbing floors and working in the Wheatley household. Her work and her indomitable spirit spoke to me.
My influences are numerous and include writers, artists, and musicians such as Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Roebeson, Romare Bearden, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and many others.
AGS: Did you face any challenges in becoming an educator and a poet? If so, how did you overcome those challenges?
I feel that one’s biggest challenge is oneself. I was taught by my great-grandfather to believe in myself because he believed there wasn’t anything one couldn’t do with hard work and perseverance. I think one can’t be afraid to dare life to inform oneself, but one has to be humbled by the reality of one’s dreams and prepared to venture beyond the safe, overly familiar world. For me, listening became instructive as a poet and as a teacher.
AGS: Being that you're an educator and poet yourself, what advice, if any, would you give an up and coming poet that wants to succeed as well?
For the true poet, the poetry itself is the only success. Writing comes out of a need and most of the peripheral activity is no more than a distraction from the work that has to be done.
It is hard to be a poet and not love language or embrace the mechanics of revision. Attempt to read everything, and don’t be afraid to let time become a component of the equation. Have patience with the poem and actively engage it. Poetry is instructive on how life is a process of negotiation. Each day changes us, so when we return to a poem changed, our perception of the poem changes, and perhaps we are less afraid of confronting ourselves.
AGS is an acronym for the author and founder of Anwar's Reflections, Anwar G. Salandy.
Poet Name: Yusef Komunyakaa
Poet's Latest Book: The Chameleon Couch