An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa, author of The Chameleon Couch
Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa's fourteenth collection of poems, The Chameleon Couch, has been called "an intricately magnificent collection," (Booklist) and "an essential volume by one of the most important poets of our day" (Library Journal). It was praised by the Dallas Morning News for the way that it “confronts the dark places of both national and personal history,” and explores “the possibility of healing” through music and love. In these pages, Komunyakaa effortlessly moves across various moments in time, across different cities, and explores myths and history while remaining rooted in the present. Komunyakaa was kind enough to answer some of our questions about his career, what's inspiring him, and other poets that influence him these days.
How do you feel your writing has evolved from your first collection, Dedications and Other Dark Horses, to the collection published this month, The Chameleon Couch?
I think over time—day to day, poem-to-poem—as I have grown, the subject matter in my poetry has become more inclusive. In the beginning, often I knew the emotional symmetry of a poem, where it would begin and where it would end, before it even began on the page. It wasn’t as much of a process of discovery. Perhaps there was too much constructed control. I feel that, perhaps, the poems in The Chameleon Couch embrace a more expansive canvas. In many ways, the 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. And I hope that The Chameleon Couch veers in this direction as well.
One of my most immediate reactions to your book is to notice the theme and influence of music. Can you speak to this a bit? Are there any specific musicians that influence you most? Is listening to music a part of your writing process?
I very seldom listen to music while I’m writing. If there’s a moment where I’m listening to music while putting down words on the page, it’s always instrumental. However, I do think that my creative psyche has been tooled by music, especially the blues and progressive jazz. I think of early blues voices—Robert Johnson, Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Son House, and Nina Simone. In regards to instrumental jazz, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins. The role call goes on and on. Early on I was taken with Robert Johnson’s accidental surrealism with a line such as “Well, the blue light was my blues / and the red light was my mind.” This becomes a psychological measurement for time. For the poet, the music one is immersed in can influence the natural music of a poem. However, the poet cannot mimic the musician because it isn’t that intentional. The music becomes a part of the emotional environment. It’s organic.
Time is personal and in that sense it is emotionally malleable, because it’s not linear but maybe circular or even fractured. I think the past can often register in the body as emotional experience. In this way, time can be thought of as psychological rather than physical. I think of music, those hunters singing before venturing out into the forest to confront their prey, which is often deadly. For me, it is not difficult to travel there, to actually be in that memory cave. That is the power of the imagination. For me, the present relates to the past and possibly tothe future—perhaps because a sense of history is important to me. It allows me to engage the present with a certain kind of tangible reality, and in that sense, life for me is a matrix of convergences.
Reviewers have compared you to Walt Whitman. What do you think of this comparison, and has he ever been a strong influence?
I think the comparison is an easy—less than critical—gesture, although I love Walt Whitman’s music, his ability to force language to reach for a grounded crescendo (influenced by his love of Italian opera). I admire his ability for inclusion. However I do question moments where he “exoticizes” the black American. But I realize his voice is centered in that time, which was, for the most part, a turbulent moment in American history. He’s a great citizen, especially that moment in the Civil War when he’s caring for both Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers. That is a moment of questioning expressed through an empathy that’s heroic. I agree with C.K. Williams that “he really believed his poetry was an efficient implement for creating the America of his vision.”
Is there a contemporary poet who is influencing your work these days?
For me Pablo Neruda is still contemporary—though I am immensely engaged by voices such as Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Rita Dove, and others, Neruda still resides in my private pantheon.
Lately I’ve been reading about physical work and how it relates to creative impulse and intellectual inquiry, for instance in work songs which take us back to early hunters and gatherers, or in philosophies that reflect on how body and mind merge through physical labor and emphasize the importance of honoring the hands.
What was the big break in your career that took you from emerging poet to the poet on his way to winning the Pulitzer Prize?
What happened was that I decided I was going to apprentice myself to a cabinetmaker so I could continue to write. I knew thinking through writing had gripped my psyche. I decided to do work that would relieve me from grading a hundred composition essays each weekend. At that moment I believed, as a poet, my language could become more tangible doing work that anchored me in this world. And that took me back to when I was a teenager cutting pulpwood from daybreak to sunset. In the woods, with birds singing and animal life around me, with sweat dripping in my eyes and the smell of pine in the air, I could travel great distances in my imagination. Though I had drawn blueprints for greenhouses and read some poetry for the first time, in those moments of meditation, I understood the true power of the imagination. That’s the moment I realized there was great beauty in the world. When I finally decided to return to that world of physical labor, in this moment of retrospection I realized I had a world that I already knew with my body and soul, and for the first time this deep knowing paralleled my thoughts, my concerns, and who I am.
Yusef Komunyakaa’s thirteen previous books of poems include Warhorses (FSG, 2008), Taboo (FSG, 2004), and Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches at New York University.