Born in Bogalusa, La., the 58-year-old poet truly has led a varied life.
"He writes about jazz," Nelson says, "he's a black guy from the South, he writes about Vietnam and Vietnam veterans because he was in the war, he writes about the black experience and now he's a professor at Princeton.
One of the headliners at Get Lit! 2006, Eastern Washington University Press' annual literary arts festival, Komunyakaa is one of two Pulitzer Prize-winners scheduled to speak (the other being Marilynne Robinson, author of the novel "Gilead").
Komunyakaa won his prize for his 1994 collection "Neon Vernacular." And as Nelson indicates, Komunyakaa's topics comprise this life's experience. His most poignant poems, though, deal with his childhood and the war of his generation: Vietnam.
In a half-hour phone interview, Komunyakaa talked, among other things, about Vietnam and the literature of war, about the use of language to capture the writer's internal terrain and a number of other topics.
Dan Webster: It's a pleasure to talk to you. You and I are contemporaries. We were born in the same year, and I served in Vietnam from October of 1968 to December of 1969. So we have a few things in common, and I wanted you to know that right off.
Yusef Komunyakaa: Yes, thank you.
DW: It's hard to read your poetry collection "Dien Cai Dau." On a Friday morning, I'm trying to read about you being at the (Vietnam) Memorial, and I can't sit here without my eyes tearing up. I have to tell you, I love the way your poetry is structured, but it's the way it hits my in my heart that truly affects me. So, I guess I'd like to start by asking you about the relationship about constructing a poem on the page, the beautiful academic structuring of it, and the emotional effect. Do you see difference there, do you see a disaffect there? What is paramount to you when you sit down to write?
YK: Well, the image is so important to me. Of course, the music of the language is the thing that I listen for. … So there's a kind of compression in the psyche. I never planned on writing about Vietnam, for instance. I often find myself doing physical work and I'm writing at the same time. That is what happened when I began working on the poems associated with my experience in Vietnam. I was renovating this house in New Orleans. With the poems that address my childhood, I think I had to write the poems about Vietnam before I could go back in time and write about my observations and experiences in Bogalusa, La. I do think that we internalize the terrain. I know that this is true with Louisiana, and I'm thinking in terms of experience there's a kind of internalization that even … at least be dealt with in my analysis about Vietnam.
DW: I know a little bit about Vietnam myself, so those poems had a particular effect on me. But the first poem that I read of your was "Venus'-Flytraps," and I have to tell you: I've been through Louisiana but never lived there, I don't know what your childhood was like, and I don't know how autobiographical the poem is. It doesn't really make any difference. That poem flat kicked my ass. I saw that little boy, I felt that little boy's life, and that line at the bottom where his mother says you basically were my problem, my god, that is the story of every abused child in the history of the world. But it was so beautifully put on the page, as well.
YK: What's interesting about that poem is if I hadn't written "Venus'-Flytraps," I probably wouldn't have written "Magic city," the collection. That was an image, the Venus Flytrap, an image I took around with me in my psyche, you know. That image was the image that brought me back to all the other experiences.
DW: I certainly know well enough to mix the writer up with the work …
YK: That's right, that's right.
DW: Because it's all blend of fiction and memory. But it seems to me that your work is so vital and so representative of life itself and of a life lived in a certain way that you have to have drawn a lot from your experiences, at least your memories of them, your feelings and your reactions to them to give your work the power that it has.
YK: The speaker in the poem is always willing to discover something. It's not so much what the speaker knows as much as what the speaker, he or she, is willing to discover. This is what I feel.
DW: Do you find yourself really having to delve deeply into parts of yourself that you otherwise might not want to go to, to get there?
YK: I think that's part of the process, but it is not constructed in that way. It just happens. We're facing the page, and one image creates another image, and there's momentum. And this momentum defies logic and defies structure, sometimes. It has a kind of velocity that happens. And then the way I write, I write everything down and then I come back to the poem to revise, to shape it as … as art.
DW: Can I ask you specifically about your Vietnam experience?
DW: Can you tell me a little more about where you were and who you served with?
YK: I was stationed in Chu Lai. I served with the Americal Division. At that particular time I think it was the largest division, around 24,000-25,000 troops. The first six months I was pretty much out in the field every day, and the last six months I was able to spend a little more time in the rear.
DW: What were the dates of your tour?
YK: I went there in '69 and was there until '70.
DW: So you predated Tim O'Brien (author of "The Things They Carried") a bit? He was with the Americal, too, wasn't he?
YK: I think so. That's right.
DW: Have you ever met him?
YK: I met him just briefly. I think it was a reading or something of that sort. Maybe it was associated with the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences. I used to do summer workshops there for veterans, and a number of veteran writers have been involved with that workshop. Perhaps that's where I met Tim O'Brien.
DW: Did you talk about the war?
YK: No, not really (laughs).
DW: That's a question I had to ask, but I kind of knew what the answer would be. And I know your work is wide-ranging, but, given my personal experience, I'm really curious about the Vietnam poems. How well do you think that Vietnam has been written about? How honestly, maybe compared to other wars.
YK: Um … (pause) I think it's still going. I think it's ongoing. I would hope that it has been written about, especially by veterans, with care and understanding. Sometimes with almost shocking truth of experience. But I think in general, wars as history, as lived, experienced history, there's a constant excavation. And sometimes there's a kind of excavation that happens within the context of the psyche, because there's needful forgetting. At times.
DW: Have you read anything that's come out of the Gulf War or the war that's going on right now?
YK: You know, I really haven't. I've only read news accounts, but I haven't read the literature. I'm waiting to visit that work.
DW: I haven't seen any poetry or fiction. But I have read a fair amount of what passes for journalism or memoir. There's on particularly affecting book titled "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell" (by John Crawford) that is a pretty amazing book. But here's the funny thing, and maybe you can relate to this, too. I got back in early December of '69, and I remember how - not that we were spit on, though I do remember being treated rudely more than once - our fathers reacted to us. My father was a World War II and Korean War veteran. They had less than full respect for us because we had a war in which we were only there a year and we had Medivac helicopters that came in right away, blah-blah-blah. And I remember thinking how I resented that. And now I find myself listening to people who had a four-day war in the Gulf and who basically do nothing more in Baghdad than police security, and I find myself being resentful. And I have to pull back and say, "Buddy, war is war."
YK: That's right. War is war. Matter of fact, it is really a composite of death and destruction. And very few beautiful moments. And what I mean by that is that if one is able to pull back from the everyday experience of war, just for a moment, just a glimpse of that which hasn't been touched by war stimulates feeling for life and beauty.
DW: I teach a class in beginning journalism, and whenever the kids here ask about war, the first thing I assign them to read is Mark Twain's "War Prayer."
YK: Yes, yes. Isn't that amazing?
DW: It is amazing, and it blows their minds every time.
YK: The fact that he didn't publish it is even more, um, devastating in a way.
DW: Absolutely. And if certain powers had their way, it would never be in print right now.
YK: Right, right.
DW: Because it just too much let's us know that there are real, live human beings on both sides. And there's not necessarily a good or bad there. At least not for the foot soldiers.
YK: That's right.
DW: I really have appreciated the chance to talk to you, and I don't want to take up a lot of your time, but I did want to ask you one last question: How much trouble have you had with people mispronouncing the title to "Dien Cai Dau" (deenk-ee-dow). That's how we pronounced it. "You numba 10 G.I. deenk-ee-dow."
YK: That's right. I haven't had much problem with that. Initially, the publisher thought it would be a problem. However, most of the veterans carry that phrase around in their psyche, because they heard it so much.
DW: In fact when I saw the book and I tried to pronounce it, I had to work out the spelling with the phrase as I knew it. No one who speaks Vietnamese has come up to you and told you the proper way?
YK: No, no (laughs).