by Jessica Moll & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & eading the poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winner Yusef Komunyakaa, it's hard to believe there was ever a time he didn't know he was a poet. Look at the poem "Venus's-flytraps":
& lockquote & I am five, & r & & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp;Wading out into deep & r & & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp;Sunny grass, & r & Unmindful of snakes & r & & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp; yellowjackets, out & r & & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp;To the yellow flowers & r & Quivering in sluggish heat. & lockquote &
Even at 5, the boy knows about the dangers buzzing at the edge of his sunny world. He dreams about people-eating flowers "with mouths like where / Babies come from." And he already possesses a poet's inner ear:
& lockquote & & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp;I wish I knew why & r & The music in my head & r & & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp;Makes me scared. & r & & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp; & amp;nbsp;But I know things & r & I don't supposed to know. & lockquote &
"I believe reading is connected to writing, so I suppose when I fell in love with language, I started to become a poet," Komunyakaa says. "The first poems I memorized were Edgar Allan Poe's 'Annabel Lee,' and after that, James Weldon Johnson's 'The Creation.' I was very small -- probably 8 or 9."
But even though the music was in his head early on, he didn't think he would write poetry. At 14, he wanted to write essays like the ones he found in James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. It wasn't until he was in his twenties, as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, that he began writing poetry. He had just returned from the Vietnam War, where he had earned a Bronze Star as a journalist for the Southern Cross; he was studying psychology when in 1973 he got waylaid by a creative writing class.
Many of Komunyakaa's poems recount his experiences in Vietnam. "Facing It," about a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is one of Komunyakaa's best-known poems.
& lockquote & My black face fades, & r & hiding inside the black granite. & r & I said I wouldn't, & r & dammit: No tears. & r & I'm stone. I'm flesh. & lockquote &
Coming of age as a black man in the South, Komunyakaa had already survived a kind of war zone before he ever reached Vietnam. Bogalusa, La., where he was born in 1947, is described in his poems as beautiful, lush and dangerous. This is a place where a boy who is dazzled by the taste of wild muscadine grapes also notices the fruit's vines are "Strong & amp; thick / Enough to hang a man." A place where slingshots are called "niggershooters," and where "books, as if flesh, were locked / in a glass case behind the check-out desk." Where "if I'd stayed home / I would've killed / Someone I love."
Once Komunyakaa turned to poetry, it didn't take long for the jazz riffs of his language to catch the ear of those around him. In 1976, he entered the graduate creative writing program at Colorado State University. There he studied with Christopher Howell, who now teaches in the creative writing program at EWU.
"Everyone realized this was a new voice," Howell recalls. "It had a sex-and-death darkness to it. And there was a lot of play, but it was never frivolous. That's something you rarely find in a student. But in many ways he was not a student -- he already had a voice that was mature."
Seeing the importance of getting this new voice in print, Howell asked Komunyakaa for a manuscript. Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, Komunyakaa's first book, was published in 1979 by Lynx House Press, which Howell was operating out of his basement. (It's now an imprint of EWU Press.) Komunyakaa went on to publish numerous books of poems -- including Neon Vernacular, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize -- and to become a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He has also collaborated with musicians in recordings of poetry and jazz.
Howell predicts that Komunyakaa, who currently teaches creative writing at Princeton University, is due up for U.S. Poet Laureate soon. "He's tremendously prominent. He's restless, and he keeps going. He keeps creating new containers for his work."
Recently, that new container has been playwriting. A verse play of Gilgamesh will be published in October. "I usually work on more than one piece at a time, side by side," Komunyakaa says. "Right now I'm working on a long poem, Autobiography of My Alter Ego; a quasi-sonnet series, Love in the Time of War; and another play, The Deacons." He's also working with artist Rachel Bliss on Night Animals, a collection of poems and images. "There's a spirit of collaboration -- one embracing the other -- the same as jazz would do," he explains.
At EWU on April 21, Komunyakaa plans to read a combination of old and new work. "He's a very powerful reader," Howell says. "He's got a lot of presence. He's got an odd accent that's about two-thirds Louisiana and one-third something else."
What is that "something else"? Howell speculates that it's related to Komunyakaa's Caribbean roots. Or is it the mysterious "something else" that marks an artist of genius who will have lasting importance for generations to come? Howell nods. "That's what I think. Yes."