Last week, celebrated author Toni Morrison offered us a few invaluable insights regarding the unspoken truths we derive from words written on a page. She called this idea “invisible ink.” On Friday, we will hear from another Pulitzer Prize-winning author who holds that the indirect insinuations of poetry can likewise offer explicit truths.
“Poetry is a kind of distilled insinuation. It’s a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question. Sometimes, more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault,” says Yusef Komunyakaa, Professor of Creative Writing at NYU and author of the famous poem “Facing It.”
Komunyakaa, the grandson of a Trinidadian stowaway, was born in Bogalusa, La. as James William Brown. He would later reclaim his ancestral surname.
In 1969 and 1970, he served in Vietnam as a writer and editor for the military magazine. After serving in the military he received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Chicago, an Master of Arts from Colorado State University, and an Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine. From 1985-1997 he taught at Indiana University before teaching at Princeton. In 1994 he won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and has published much work on black southern life.
Born at the dawn of the Civil Rights Era, much of Komunyakaa’s work, like Morrison’s, examines elements of American History that have remained hushed. “I excavate history. I look at lives buried under too much silence. Periods of time, like slavery, have to be revisited, reimagined, so we can move through them.” His Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems “Neon Vernacular” fuses blues and jazz rhythms to relate narratives of African-American community and the Vietnam War. Other famous works include “Dien Cai Dau” (Vietnamese for “crazy in the head”) and “I Apologize For the Eyes in my Head.
Komunyakaa calls each poem an action. Each one is a confrontation and celebration. He advises young poets not to write for others, not to write on the computer, and not to be afraid of surprising themselves.
“He or she comes to a piece again and again. And it’s not so much to perfect a voice, but to discover a voice,” says the Komunyakaa. The poet explains that many writers stifle their own voices through attempts to project a certain voice. This often leads to inauthenticity. “Only a few people are ever brave enough to say what has informed their psyche.” Komunyakaa did not write about Vietnam until 14 years after his tour. “I had never thought about writing about it, and in a way I had been systematically writing around it.”
In an interview, Komunyakaa explains why reading aloud is a valuable tool for the editing process. “For myself, I read everything aloud as I’m writing, because the ear is a great editor. I think listening is the most important thing in the creative arts but also in life. In a highly technological society it seems to me that instruments are there to steal bits of what we call information, but it isn’t knowledge, because [knowledge] takes a dialogue. Any interesting, complex dialogue comes out of the science of listening.”
Komunyakaa will give a reading in the Scheuer Room this Friday, April 18 at 4:30 p.m. For further information contact Professor Nathalie Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.