Com­pressed in­quiries

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Yusef Ko­mun­yakaa is of­ten de­scribed ei­ther as a jazz poet or a war poet, but he would rather think of him­self as a poet who tran­scends la­bels. With a body of work span­ning 40 years and run­ning the gamut from po­etry to prose and back to song lyrics, Ko­mun­yakaa never flinches from rais­ing com­plex moral is­sues and launch­ing them into the cul­tural dis­course. OnWed­nes­day, Dec. 2, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet reads at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter as part of this sea­son’s Lan­nan Foun­da­tion Read­ings & Con­ver­sa­tions se­ries.

Ko­mun­yakaa has writ­ten more than a dozen books of po­etry. In his lat­est, Warhorses, he at­tempts to cap­ture the his­tory of war­fare on a global, myth­i­cal, and per­sonal scale in three sec­tions. The first part, “Love in the Time ofWar,” is a clev­erly num­bered col­lec­tion of son­nets— 14 po­ems for the 14-line for­mat. Ko­mun­yakaa calls them quasi-son­nets and ex­pands the son­net’s tra­di­tional form by di­vid­ing many of the po­ems into two sec­tions. Ko­mun­yakaa said this style al­lows el­e­ments of pub­lic his­tory to “col­lide softly” with per­sonal, pri­vate his­tory.

“I didn’t form the struc­ture of the po­ems; they sort of organized them­selves,” the poet said from his home in New York City. “I find there is a cer­tain amount of free­dom in that. They have the mu­sic and the emo­tional arc of a son­net and at the same time are grounded in con­tem­po­rary speech.” Ko­mun­yakaa is an ex­pert in cap­tur­ing everyday lan­guage. In his early col­lec­tion, Co­pacetic, the use of ver­nac­u­lar speech earned him wide recog­ni­tion as a jazz poet.

The eight-piece ti­tle poem in the sec­ond sec­tion of Warhorses, “Heavy Metal,” is an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the evo­lu­tion of the horse as a war ma­chine. “It’s al­most as if the horse is an ex­ten­sion of war­fare,” Ko­mun­yakaa said. “The horse re­lies heav­ily on speed— that swift action that war em­braces.” Horse im­agery of­ten crops up in Ko­mun­yakaa’s work. “I ad­mire the power of the horse, but I am also in­ter­ested by how the horse is op­pressed— how it can be dom­i­nated through re­hearsal, through train­ing.”

Ko­mun­yakaa served in the U.S. Army dur­ing the Viet­nam War as a writer and manag­ing ed­i­tor for a mil­i­tary pub­li­ca­tion called The South­ern Cross. He wrote about the war in his award-winning po­etry col­lec­tion Dien Cai Dau and had promised him­self that he would stop writ­ing about Viet­nam be­cause there were so many other sub­jects he was in­ter­ested in. Al­though nearly all the po­ems in Warhorses fo­cus on war, it is the prose poem “Gre­nade” that marks a re­turn to the plain, nar­ra­tive style of po­ems from Dien Cai Dau. “Gre­nade” is a snap­shot of a sol­dier who saves his pla­toon by throw­ing his body onto a primed en­emy gre­nade.

“I prob­a­bly had been writ­ing [the poem] in my head, in my soul re­ally, for a very long time,” he said. “There were 14 or 15 young black Amer­i­can sol­diers— Marines—[who] threw them­selves on grenades in Viet­nam. That’s a bit of in­for­ma­tion that had trou­bled me for some time be­cause I just couldn’t un­der­stand that kind of action.… I’m still in­ter­ested in the ques­tion: Why?”

In Dien Cai Dau, Ko­mun­yakaa cre­ated a chrono­log­i­cal poem-nar­ra­tive about his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence in Viet­nam shortly af­ter be­ing im­mersed in the con­flict. In Warhorses, he stands back and ob­serves war, es­pe­cially in Iraq and Afghanistan, which changes his re­la­tion­ship to the sub­ject mat­ter. “With Viet­nam, there was more of an ur­gency [in the po­ems],” he said. “With Warhorses, each im­age that came to me was in my psy­che al­ready. It was an ex­ten­sive state of med­i­ta­tion.”

Through­out his ex­ten­sive ca­reer, Ko­mun­yakaa has writ­ten li­bret­tos, plays, prose, and song lyrics. Ear­lier this year he col­lab­o­rated with mu­si­cian Tomás Don­cker on a CD called The Mercy Suite. Some­what sur­pris­ingly, The Mercy Suite is more folk than jazz. “I love folk mu­sic,” Ko­mun­yakaa said. “I think the words are of­ten so sim­ple and nec­es­sary. Cou­pled with mu­sic they are el­e­vated [be­cause] we re­turn to [them] again and again.”

Ko­mun­yakaa re­counts an early mem­ory as a 5-year-old singing his own made-up songs. “Maybe it’s a re­turn to that,” he said. “I find my­self singing a lot. It’s a very happy, cher­ished mo­ment for me, you know? I just hope that the voice isn’t go­ing through the walls!”

His li­bret­tos in­clude col­lab­o­ra­tions with com­posers T.J. An­der­son ( Slip Knot) and Sandy Evans ( Tes­ti­mony: The Leg­end of Char­lie Parker), as well as a jazz cham­ber opera, Shangri-la, with per­cus­sion­ist Susie Ibarra. Ko­mun­yakaa said he finds it dif­fi­cult to keep the in­te­gral com­plex­ity of a poem when it is sung, and he strug­gles with the lim­i­ta­tions of the op­er­atic form. “For me, the form can cal­cify the po­ten­tial of a piece. I don’t think the form should dom­i­nate the piece, but it’s an on­go­ing ar­gu­ment,” he said. “Many times com­posers can al­ready hear what the piece is sup­posed to sound like, and I like the idea of there be­ing more free­dom to ex­pe­ri­ence.”

In 2004, Ko­mun­yakaa brought new life to Gil­gamesh— be­lieved to be the old­est recorded story in the world— when he col­lab­o­rated with play­wright and dra­maturge Chad Gra­cia to re­fash­ion the epic as a verse play. “At the mo­ment there’s a re­turn of the poet to the stage — writ­ing plays for the stage,” Ko­mun­yakaa said. “[It works] be­cause the al­le­giance is to the muse as op­posed to the nar­ra­tive.”

Ko­mun­yakaa said it’s im­por­tant for poets to be­come part of the ex­panded di­a­logue, which is prob­a­bly the rea­son he works across medi­ums. “We need a di­a­logue that ques­tions ev­ery­thing,” he said. “I see the poem not only as a mo­ment of com­pressed in­quiry but also a cel­e­bra­tion. When you cel­e­brate those things that we think of as el­e­men­tal, it’s so im­por­tant.… We are re­spon­si­ble for what we say. We hope that lan­guage will keep us hon­est and will also move us to­ward deeper ob­ser­va­tion. Some­times it’s not the ob­ser­va­tion out there in space so much as the ob­ser­va­tion of things that are very sim­ple. The role of the poet is to trou­ble the wa­ters but not to pur­posely trou­ble the wa­ters.”

Yusef Ko­mun­yakaa

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