Monday, February 1, 2016

Monday Muse: New York's New Poet Laureate

. . . I shall endeavor to cultivate this atmosphere where
poetry and the lives of working people intersect.*
~ Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa is New York State's recently named 11th Poet Laureate (the post is known as the New York State Walt Whitman Citation of Merit State Poet Award). His appointment was announced January 8 by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who also named Joseph Tusiani New York's State Poet Laureate Emeritus.

Information about the laureateship is included in my March 22, 2010, Monday Muse post about Jean Valentine, who was in the position from 2008 through 2010. Also see my post on the former state laureate Marie Howe (2012-2014).

* * * * *
I love the idea of the pencil or pen pressed
against the paper. The evolution of the brain
has everything to do with the hand. I like the feel,
the hand making, creating the letters.**

New York City resident Yusef Komunyakaa has published more than a dozen collections of poetry, most recently, The Emperor of Water Clocks (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2015), Testimony: A Tribute to Charlie Parker (Wesleyan University Press, 2013), and The Chameleon Couch (FSG, 2011; paper, 2012). The latter was a finalist for a 2011 National Book Award and for a 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award; it was also on the short list for the 2012 International Griffin Poetry Prize. The Boston Globe named the collection a 2011 Best Poetry Book.

Among Komunyakaa's other collections are Warhorses: Poems (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2009), Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems (Wesleyan, 2004), Talking Dirty to the Gods (FSG, 2000, 2001) and Thieves of Paradise (Wesleyan, 1998), which were finalists, respectively, for the 2000 and 1998 NBC Circle Award (see Past Awards page). Some other works are Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 1993), awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize and 1994 Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award (Claremont Graduate University); Dien Cai Dau ("Crazy") (Wesleyan, 1988), winner of The Dark Room Poetry Prize (Dark Room Collective); and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (Lynx House Press, 1979). His debut collection, published in 1977, was Dedications & Other Darkhorses (RMCAJ). Komunyakaa also is an essayist and librettist. He's written a verse play, as well: Gilgamesh (Wesleyan, 2006).

Running through Komunyakaa's narrative poetry are deep influences of jazz and blues, colloquial speech, poetry in The Bible; experiences of violence, both within and without, and of war (in Komunyakaa's case, Vietnam); experiences of being black in America, especially as a child and young man in the South, under Jim Crow laws and during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Themes of suffering, loss, and grief; of hardship and brokenness, of sinning and forgiveness, and of memory are pervasive.

[. . .] poems are still teaching me what it is to be human, 
because perhaps poems are born from a needful singing
alongside pathos and even grief, so there is a becoming. [. . .]***

Typically short in line length, allusive, erudite at times, autobiographical at times, marked by sharp, swiftly changing, sometimes surrealistic imagery, Komunyaaa's poems demonstrate careful attention to and mastery of structure, cadence, metaphor, and other poetic techniques.

Select any of his poems. . . the language is gorgeous, attuned to what Yomunyakaa describes as "visual attitude" and "dips and turns" of "tonal register", even as the words move us through harsh memories or toward some unexpected or unresolved emotional moment:

✦ I know a prison of sunlight on the skin. [. . .] ~ from "Envoy to Palestine"

✦ [. . .] From a lotus raised out of a half sleep, / A shiver goes through hand-painted silk. [. . .]  ~ from "Bonsai, Golden Lotus"

✦ To step from the naked / Fray, to be as tender / As meat imagined off // The bluegill's pearlish / Bones."  ~ from "Lust

✦ [. . .] He shivered, but not / The way women shook  their heads / Before mirrors at the five / & dime [. . . .] ~ from "Yellowjackets"

✦ [. . .] When I got to him, / a blue halo / of flies had already claimed him. / I pulled the crumpled photograph / from his fingers. / There's no other way / to say this: I fell in love. [. . .] ~ from "We Never Know".

Here, too, is an example of sensual language used to great effect:

Because I mistrust my head & hands, because I know salt 

    tinctures my songs, I tried hard not to touch you
even as I pulled you into my arms. Seasons sprouted

    went to seed as we circled the dance with silver cat bells
tied to our feet. Now, kissing you, I am the archheir of second
       chances.[. . .]
 ~ from "Canticle" in The Chameleon Couch

Komunyakaa has published poems in AGNIAmerican Life in Poetry, American Poetry ReviewThe Atlantic, The Beloit Poetry JournalCallaloo, The Cortland ReviewThe New Yorker, The Paris ReviewPlumePoetrySlateT Magazine (The New York Times), and many other literary periodicals. (A selection of poems found online is below.)

Some anthologies that include Komunyakaa's poems are The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology (Vol. 2) (Indiana University Press, 1996), of which Komunyakaa also is co-editor (he also co-edited The Jazz Poetry Anthology [Indiana University Press, 1991]); The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2005); The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, edited by Nikky Finney (University of Georgia Press/Cave Canem, 2007); I Go the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights (Lost Horse Press, 2009); and The New Anthology of American Poetry, Vol. III: Postmodernisms 1950-Present (Rutgers University Press, 2012). Some of his prose has been collected in Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries (University of Michigan Press, 2000).

Internationally renowned, Komunyakaa is the recipient of the Sidney Lanier Prize (Mercer University Center for Southern Studies, 2015), the Corrington Award (Centenary College, which also awarded Komunyakaa an honorary doctorate in 2014); the Poetry Foundation's Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2001), for "extraordinary lifetime accomplishments"; the Wallace Stevens Award of the Academy of American Poets (2011), Hanes Poetry Prize (Southern Literary Association), William Faulkner Prize (University of Rennes 2), Louisiana Writer Award (Louisiana Book Festival, 2007), and Shelley Memorial Award (Poetry Society of America, 2004), among numerous other honors. A two-year fellowship in poetry at Indiana University is named after the poet.

Distinguished Senior Poet, New York University Creative Writing Program, Komunyakaa is a former chancellor of The Academy of American Poets; he was elected to the post in 1999 and a decade later, in 2009, was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 


Photo Credit: Tom Wallace via Academy of American Poets

All Poetry Excerpts © Yusef Komunyakaa

* Quoted from News Release, Office of the Governor (See link below.)

** Quoted from BOMB Magazine Interview (See link below.)

*** Quoted from Farrar, Strauss & Giroux Interview (See link below.)

Komunyakaa was born in Louisiana in 1947. His original name was James William Brown Jr.; he changed it in honor of his West Indies grandfather.

"Governor Cuomo Announces New York's Biennial State Author & Poet | Cuomo Appoints Edmund White 11th State Author; Yusef Komunyakaa 11th State Poet", Office of the Governor, January 8, 2016 (Profiles about all the appointees are included in the news release.)

Yusef Komunyakka Poems Online: "After Summer Fell Apart", "Avarice", "Blues Chant Hoodoo Revival", and 39 Other Poems, All at Poetry Foundation; 24 Poems at Internet Poetry Archive; 4 Poems at Poetry Archive (Audio Available); "Camouflaging the Chimera", "Kindness", and "Pride", All at Poetry Out Loud; "Elegy for Thelonious", "A Break from the Bush", "Facing It", and "Woebegone", All at Modern American Poetry; "When Eyes Are On Me" (Excerpt) at National Book Foundation Page (Audio Clip Available); "Memory of the Murdered Professors at the Jagiellonian" at Griffin Poetry Prize Page (Video Available); 13 Poems at PoemHunter; "Requiem", "Anodyne", "Little Man Around the House", All at Poetry Society of America; "Fortress" at The New Yorker; "Facing It" at YouTube (Text at Poetry Foundation); 10 Poems at afropoets; "Yellowjackets" at American Life in Poetry; "Toxic Waste" and "Potions", Both at BOMB Magazine; "We Never Know", "Please", "Praising Dark Places", and "Unnatural State of the Unicorn", All at UniVerse (United Nations of Poetry); "Ghazal, After Ferguson" at Plume; "Longitudes" at T Magazine, The New York Times; "The Chameleon Couch | Canticle" at Poets & Writers; "Safe Subjects" at The Atlantic; "Latitudes", "The Crying Hill", "Autobiography of My Alter Ego" (Excerpt), "The Whispering Gallery", and "Bonsai, Golden Lotus", All at Slate (Audio Available for Some Poems); "Night of the Armadillo" (Excerpt) at The Paris Review; "In Love with the Nightstalker" and "The White Hat", Both at AGNI Online; "My wide hips raised two warriors", "Daybreak", and "Testimony", All at The Poetry Center at Smith College; "Believing in Iron" and "Slamdunk", Both at Poem of the Week; "Requiem" at Mass Poetry's Poem of the Moment; "Captain Nobones' Threnody", "False Leads", and "Family Tree" (Excerpt), All at Beloit Poetry Journal (pp 36-39)

Also see the audio recordings at PennSound and interview and reading of 18 poems at The Cortland Review.

Elizabeth Hoover, "Songs of Rage and Tenderness: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa", Sampsonia Way, August 31, 2010

Dana Isoawa, "An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa", Washington Square Review, Issue 33

Erika Lutzner, "A Review of Yusef Komunyakaa's 'Magic City'", Web del Sol Review of Books

Philip Metres, "Poet Yusef Komunyakaa Brings His Keen Eye and Sense of Craft to a Reading Tuesday at John Carroll", The Plain Dealer, October 20, 2014

Alan Fox, "A Conversation with Yusef Komunyakaa", Rattle, Reposting of August 19, 2014 (Summer, 1998)

NPR, "On Newtown: Poet Yusef Komunyakaa", December 14, 2013 (Audio Available) (Included is a reading of "Rock Me Mercy".)

Suzan Sherman, "Yusef Komunyakaa and Paul Muldoon", BOMB - Artists in Conversation (This is an excellent piece.)

Benjamin Secher, "Hay Nairobi: Yusef Komunyakaa 'You have to embrace mystery'", The Telegraph, September 15, 2011

The Best Words in their Best Order, "An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa, author of 'The Chamelon Couch'", FSG Poetry Blog, April 19, 2011

Brett Strickland, "Love in a Time of War", Review of Warhorses, Jacket 2, 2009

Dien Cai Dau, Magic CityNeon Vernacular, Pleasure Dome, Thieves of Paradise, All on GoogleBooks

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