Yusef Komunyakaa and Ishion Hutchinson: What Is It to Be an American?
Yusef Komunyakaa was born in 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and raised during the beginning of the civil rights movement. He served in the United States Army from 1969 to 1970 as a correspondent, and as a managing editor of the Southern Cross during the Vietnam War, earning him a Bronze Star. Komunyakaa is one of America’s most prolific and important poets, having received the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his book Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, as well as the Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement from the Academy of American Poets. He is a Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program, where he’s taught since 2006, and where he met Ishion Hutchinson as a poetry student. Hutchinson’s second book of poems, House of Lords and Commons, was published in September by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, and is currently an assistant professor of English at Cornell University.
IH: The last time I saw you in New York City was at Caffe Reggio and that name happens to be one of the titles of a poem in the book. That poem celebrates friendship and poetry. There is a celebration in language throughout this collection but the poem itself, the Caffe Reggio poem, makes me want to ask if the poem was composed in the café, but there’s a broader question of where writing unfolds for you. Where do you write?
YK: I write all across the map. It’s just the way that I work. It’s not necessarily in an overly organized way. It’s not like the idiom of creating the illusion of momentary confusion that I can work my way through and impose a kind of time, even a severe order. So I write on scraps of paper, sometimes in a notebook. I probably wrote the beginning of that poem in my head, in the café.
IH: And what happens next? Do you work on a computer?
YK: I write everything in longhand first, and then I will go to the computer because I think of the computer as a tool in the same way a typewriter is. I always have written everything in longhand, then go to the instrument to create the illusion of something finished. It isn’t really finished until I draft many versions.
IH: At Caffe Reggio, do you remember how many versions that poem went through?
YK: It was probably a few versions. I think it was much longer. My process is always to cut back. Edit the poem back to what I think of as the essential register of images.
IH: Yeah. Similarly, I usually map my poems longer in the first draft. There is a process of restraint that happens. I remember when I was a student at NYU you insisted on tonal ranges—in one class in particular, you had us think about persona as a way to write in voices that are not just recognizably our own. So I am also interested in taking a form and doing something else with it.
YK: For sure.
IH: In particular, in my poem “The Orator,” the rhyme scheme is rhyming couplets throughout, but metrically it’s not iambic.
YK: Right, it’s a lot more tonally natural.
IH: But I want to say a little bit about rhyming. I absolutely love rhyme. It goes back to early poetry that I heard. It all rhymed, and I have a particular affinity for the mnemonic value of rhyme. It is—as you can see in the Shakespearean rhymed couplets, in the sonnets—it’s a way of undercutting. I guess you’re supposed to be surprised, but, particularly in English, it’s difficult to provide works that rhyme and provide a lot of surprise. It’s harder than in other languages. I like that challenge. What’s your thought on rhyme?
YK: The first poems I ever wrote were all in rhyme. But what I have begun to understand is that sometimes the rhyme becomes anything but natural. It becomes forced and it has something to do with that, I suppose, the possibilities within the context of a language that isn’t a Romance language: In Romance languages the rhymes are just more natural, even when translators translate free verse.
IH: Yeah, I was thinking about rhyme in American poetry, and there’s one American poet to bring into the mix. Robert Lowell. How do you think of Lowell? Because sometimes I detect…I wonder if there is a Lowellian pulse to your poems?
YK: I like Lowell a lot. I read him early on and I really like the music in his poetry—and also some of the subject matter he takes on.
IH: Me too. He’s a poet that I find myself going back to a lot.
YK: Well, one can feel the wrestling, the tussle inside of his verse. One can feel the man wrestling with himself. And that is so important, I think, for Lowell.
IH: It is. He rhymed earlier, in his sonnet sequences, and they were brilliant rhymes.
YK: Yes. And I think he had gone to Kenyon College, and also the tradition, and even [in his] family, having a poet in the family, must have influenced him a lot, right?
IH: He’s certainly one of those writers whose ancestral rhyme is very important. Were there writers back in your family line?
YK: No, no. There were farmers and carpenters. So carpentry is closest to poetry, perhaps. However, there may have been a few regional musicians.
IH: Let’s back up a little bit. I think the last time we spoke in Caffe Reggio we were touching a little bit on Robert Hayden’s cosmology. And there is a kind of release that Hayden gives you—the integrity of his poetry itself, but also of the man—that is important.
YK: The man is important, that’s right. Hayden revised everything probably far too much.
IH: Like Lowell.
YK: But he took on a variety of topics informed by his experience. And sometimes, an agonizing query that informed his whole psyche—as a human being, as a poet, as a dreamer—he was always conscious of supporting himself, looking over his shoulder. And I think it’s an American voice. He was born in Detroit. I know he would also visit his family in Tennessee, I think. I see him searching, and he’s searching for himself. Consequently, that search becomes universal.
IH: It’s the American search, particularly, and given the fact that he was an African American man, the self was even more obscured because of the history of this country. And so his search is intense.
YK: His search is intense. But also, he does realize that he’s a poet of the larger definition of an American. He’s saying, “I’m an American, and you better believe it.” Because he knows our history so well. Even growing up in Paradise Valley, Detroit, he puts the names of the kids he was growing up with, playing with, into his poetry. It is a way of realizing that it is a place of complicated community spirit.
IH: You’re making me remember that moment in “[American Journal]” where he’s curious about the Americans: “…the americans doubt i could exist among them for long…” There is a very pained relationship the speaker has to the American.
YK: Yes, that becomes a very interesting poem because it’s so different from his other poems. I met Hayden a handful of times, and we ventured out into the Garden of the Gods—this was in Colorado Springs, it was with Alex Blackburn, who was my first writing teacher at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. And it is where that poem comes from, the Garden of the Gods. It was a place that I would sort of go out to and meditate. I suppose you could call it meditation. I was aware of everything around me. And taking Hayden out there, in the middle of the day, the three of us, Hayden had difficulty. “[American Journal]” is Hayden’s last poem in his collected [works]. And it’s so interesting because its salient point of view is observing these Americans, in full conflict with each other. So it becomes an ontological study.
IH: Everything you said there makes me so curious about your own position as an American poet and as an American, with all the challenges that poses. How do you find the conflict of the American being within your own position as an American poet?
YK: It is a place of inquiry. I think it was Baldwin who felt condemned to be a writer. And, if that’s the case, the gravity of what Baldwin was able to give to us was so important. I came to Baldwin at age fourteen and I still continue to read Baldwin and am instructed by him. What is it to be an American? I think that we internalize regional attitudes and what-have-you. I think we internalize the landscape and that internalized landscape is how we see and face the world, that’s the lens we see through. Again, this idea of celebrating and confronting, that’s part of it as well.
IH: That celebration and confrontation, you do it simultaneously. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
YK: Yes. I’ve realized that as a young boy I was so enthused with the landscape around me because I was discovering something new every day. And maybe that’s why this whole journey with poetry still exists, this discovering of something new every day. Sometimes what we discover out there has to do with reflection that is internal, getting into that interior.
IH: Yeah, that motion in John Donne, “I am a little world made cunningly.” We have a universe within us.
YK: That’s right. A part of that, when we think about the light and refract it, is more than place. It is more than place.
IH: It’s interesting because, I think, you are part of the great tradition of modern American poets who have looked directly and unflinchingly at America. Even before I came to this country, I had the great opportunity to read some of your work, and when I became one of your students I couldn’t believe it. I thought that all poets were dead, and just half a year before coming into your classroom I was reading some of your poems that are now great American classics, or just classics. I think of the title of one of Yeats’s collections, Responsibilities, and I feel that you have taken a serious role in unveiling your experience as an African American. Do you feel that poets have a duty to respond to the world? How would you formulate the poet’s responsibility to the social order?
YK: Language itself is political. But we don’t necessarily have to have politics on the surface of each poem. I think there’s a whole wide range of subject matter in just being a human being. And some of it is staring us in the eyes, and at other moments we have to search. Sometimes that search is out there, but sometimes it’s in here. Each of us as an individual is so different. Each individual is writing as a person. That’s important. We’re talking about free will, right? Because we are formed by so many different things. Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night,” for example. I realized a year or so ago that I was never afraid of the night, growing up in Louisiana. And that realization was so important to me. And I know so many young people—they are definitely afraid of the night. At this point in my life I realize that I can’t just walk out in the middle of the night. And that realization can be a kind of tyranny.
IH: Yes. It is a form of tyranny and there seem to be reasons in our political landscape why certain people might fear the night.
YK: Oh, a lot of people fear the night out here! You know what I mean. I’m willing to bet if you ask more citizens now, there’s a fear of the night. And me, growing up in Louisiana . . .
IH: There were no ghost stories? Tales of the night?
YK: I heard the ghost stories but I was able to reckon with that to an extent. There are other realities out there that would make you a little fearful of the night.
IH: If we were to allegorize the night it would be a system, right? And the men who clothe themselves in that night go out and strike terror.
YK: That is a reality. And so I suppose time comes into that equation as well.
IH: Are you at work on another collection?
YK: I have been working on a collection entitled The Last Bohemian of Avenue A. It’s a monologue. The individual is a musician. And he’s been living on the Lower East Side for many decades. And he has seen, you know, changes and what have you, and he travels the world as well. That’s the way the music is, it travels all over. This is what is important about jazz. It brings people together. I’ve noticed that for a number of years. Candlelight Lounge in Trenton[, New Jersey]. Just so many people in there momentarily embracing the music. And I’m trying to grasp the speaker’s passionate pursuit of musical expression.
IH: That is also a pursuit of yours in terms of your drama and librettos. I also think of certain traditions in American literature, like the bluesman, the jazzman. Michael Harper is the best.
YK: Yes, what a loss. I remember reading Dear John, Dear Coltrane. I hadn’t read anything like that. And his voice. And also his connection to Robert Hayden. They wrote letters and talked.
IH: I didn’t know about that connection. But I could see that they often engage on a similar terrain. Well, Yusef, this has been truly enlightening for me. And I’m always giving thanks for you.
YK: It’s been so great having this discussion. And, I really admire what you’re doing. It’s so important for us.
IH: Thank you so much.
This interview originally appeared in American Poets, Fall–Winter 2016.