Poetic Encouragement: Yusef Komunyakaa & Paul Muldoon in Conversation

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Paul Muldoon
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2011
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From a conversation between Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Muldoon, and Suzan Sherman in the Fall 1998 issue of BOMB Magazine.


Although their styles and subject matter appear to be quite different, Paul Muldoon and Yusef Komunyakaa have numerous crossovers of concerns, experiences and influences—both teach creative writing at Princeton University, had fathers unable to read or write, were highly influenced by T.S. Eliot, have explored the struggles of Native Americans in their poetry, and at times paralleled those experiences to that of the Irish and the African American. In their writing both attempt to let go of the self—through its release each finds the unexpected, and the higher truth of the poem then emerges.

Paul Muldoon: The root of the word "poet" is "maker"—you've made wonderful analogies to your father's work as a carpenter, a man using tools—but that analogy breaks down for me. It's as if each time one has to make the tools for the task.

Yusef Komunyakaa: Yes. Redefine the tool and test it against possibility, with slightly different adjustments and emotional calibration. We can achieve music and meaning simultaneously by trusting language.

Suzan Sherman: Yusef, why did you become a poet, as opposed to some other form of expression for the self?

Komunyakaa: My sense of poetry has a lot to do with Louisiana where I grew up, my rituals. I was very tuned into the beauty and violence in the people and the landscape. It's a great, scary irony that the KKK call themselves the "Knights of the White Camellia"—as if language is used to pervert nature, to tinge the camellia with blood. I wanted a dialogue with the things around me, to understand them. Eels, mud puppies, cattails, Venus flytraps, fish-looking creatures with legs called Congo snakes, everything. I wanted to know the names of trees, plants, flowers. Naming became a type of inquiry. Poetry was also what I liked to read. The idea of coming back and forth to a poem became important. When a poem doesn't necessarily have a linear narrative, but invites one in to become a participant. Consequently, I found myself desiring to write poems. I volunteered to write a poem for my high-school graduating class, a hundred lines long, written with much agony. I still don't know why I raised my hand, because I had never written a poem before.

Muldoon: Really?

Komunyakaa: Well, songs had become important to me. Often I would hear songs, lyrics on the radio, and I remember making up my own words to the music. It was probably my first act of creation.

Muldoon: When you were a child, did your father encourage you?

Komunyakaa: My mother encouraged me, my father wanted me to work right beside him.

Muldoon: Encouragement is extremely important. My daughter and I were in a restaurant the other night and in the middle of the dinner my daughter says, "Okay, I have a poem. Have you got a piece of paper?" One of the few times I ever put pen to paper, actually (laughter)—I wrote down this four line poem. It's a natural impulse children have that needs little encouragement. Everyone else is trying to get back to something like that.

Komunyakaa: It took some time, really, for my father to suggest that I had gone in the right direction. Actually, in March of ‘86, he said, "Could you write me a poem?"

Muldoon: Did he?

Komunyakaa: And it was a difficult task. It took a very long time to come up with anything. But at least it was a kind of recognition. Finally, I wrote "Songs for My Father" after he died in 1986, in September.

Sherman: Paul, you had mentioned that you have your students write their poems line by line.

Muldoon: That's a small aspect of it. It's not the first thing I'd say about trying to write poems, because there are many ways of doing it. I find it effective because it makes my students think about the line as the unit of the poem. You get that line right and you move on to the next one. That establishes the cellular logic or progress of the poem.

Komunyakaa: I don't have them go line by line, but I do express the idea about getting everything down. And then I have them isolate lines as part of the revision process. I think about revision as re-seeing, revisiting, if possible, a place in time. Placing a white sheet of paper at the bottom of the poem and very systematically working up, realizing that there are possibly two or three, sometimes five or six endings. Negotiating what has already been placed on the page. Reading is also such an intricate part of writing. I can't see how one can write and not read.

Muldoon: As Yusef says, the two things are happening coincidentally, constantly. I think to be a decent writer, one has to be a decent reader. And to be an extremely good writer, one has to be an extremely good reader of oneself. Not that one ever, ever achieves the condition of not needing someone else to say, "You're missing something here. You can't get away with that."


Read the rest of this BOMB Magazine interview in The BOMB Digital Archive.

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