A Man of His Words : In His Poems, 1994 Pulitzer Prize Winner Writes of Those Using Strength and Spiritual Tenacity to Survive--Like Himself
Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
--From “Thanks,” by Yusef Komunyakaa
Yusef Komunyakaa, who won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for poetry on Tuesday for his collection “Neon Vernacular,” has much to say about survival.
His autobiographical poems are rooted in his struggles with racial tensions and Vietnam horrors.
“I see myself coming from a community of strong survivors who refuse to be victims,” he says, “because victims are defeated before the fight begins.”
That refusal to play the victim is where he believes he differs with many of the higher-profile “poets” of today: top-selling rap stars.
“I originally wanted to embrace the imagery and forthrightness of rap music,” he says. “There are some interesting, dynamic voices in rap. But I find most of it irresponsible in its overt violence and commercialization of anger.
“As artists, we believe we can will action through language. If that’s the case, we have to take responsibility for what we say.”
Last week, Komunyakaa was at Claremont Graduate School to receive the second annual Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, at $50,000 the largest prize bestowed for a single work, also for “Neon Vernacular.”
“The work had great vitality. It was almost electrically compelling,” says judging panelist Sandra Gilbert, a poet, critic and professor of English at UC Davis. “I was excited by the way he combines colloquial language with poetic language and uses images and themes from jazz music.”
Back in his tidy cinder-block office at Indiana University, where he is a professor of English and Afro-American studies, Komunyakaa shrugs. “I really should have a copy.”
But no, the prize-winning collection of new poems and selections from his earlier works is not yet on either of the two orderly bookcases that are the room’s only personalizing touches.
Like his surroundings, the poet is subdued--black and white checked shirt, dark trousers, wire-rim glasses, short hair beginning to gray. He speaks in a deliberate, quiet voice that hints more of Australia, where he has traveled extensively, than of rural Louisiana where he grew up.
On Tuesday, Komunyakaa said he didn’t even know he had been nominated for the Pulitzer.
“I was very surprised, but in a sense, it sort of tells me that I’m going in the right direction in my work. That’s my gut-level reaction,” he told the Associated Press, noting that his plans for the rest of the day included teaching his 4 p.m. workshop of “young, bright writers.”
“After that, I’m going to sit down and think about it,” he says.
Much of Komunyakaa’s work flows from the struggle to define his status as a black male and a Vietnam veteran. His poetry, he says, attempts to emphasize the strength and spiritual tenacity of his generation.
“For the black male, most people see this as a negative time,” he says. “In these troubling moments, more people are attempting to define themselves with violence as a background.”
Komunyakaa’s experiences in Vietnam help him put these visions into some perspective.
“Vietnam helped me to look at the horror and terror in the hearts of people and realize how we can’t aim guns and set booby traps for people we have never spoken a word to. That kind of impersonal violence mystifies me.”
Komunyakaa realizes that this same sort of haphazard anger is still powerful in American inner cities.
“I see many black males grasping for some thread of hope. There are so many destructive practices, glimpses into a psychic abyss. That must be very frightening.”
Komunyakaa lives in Bloomington with his wife, Mandy, and has a daughter from a previous relationship. Although he concedes that he adopted his name for cultural and religious reasons, he prefers to keep his private life private.
He grew up in Bogalusa, La., a continuing source of inspiration.
“My father always believed if you worked hard, you could make it in America, which now seems an almost insidious idea. He worked 12 to 14 hours a day and saw others who were hard workers yet weren’t paid that much. I questioned those contradictions from early on.”
Like so many of his generation, Komunyakaa left the rural South for the military. He spent some time stateside before being sent to Vietnam. In time, he became a correspondent and editor of the Southern Cross, a military newspaper.
“Being from the South, I didn’t fear the vegetation and climate of Vietnam nearly as much as if I had been from an urban environment. I could identify with the landscape and with the Vietnamese people as a whole. That made it very hard to hate them as the enemy.”
When he returned from Vietnam, Komunyakaa felt disengaged from U.S. society, feeling kinship both with his fellow vets and with those protesting the war. His experiences and emotions found their voice in poems.
“In 1973, I was in a creative writing workshop taught by Dr. Alex Blackburn (at the University of Colorado). He gave me some wonderful criticism and made me believe that I could write poetry.”
Thinking back to his earliest poem, written in high school, Komunyakaa concedes that he had a lot to learn. “It was 100 lines in rhymed quatrains, very traditional and very verbose. It was influenced by the poetry I had read in school--mostly British.”
Later, he drew inspiration from such black poets as Frances Harper, Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Melvin Tolson and Gwendolyn Brooks.
“Black poets were voices I could hear inside my own head.”
After earning degrees from Colorado, Colorado State and UC Irvine, he published the collections “Copacetic,” “I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, “Dien Cai Dau” and “Magic City.”
His honors include two National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowships, the 1991 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence and the San Francisco Poetry Center Award.
“Neon Vernacular” was selected from 247 works to win the Tufts award, established in 1992 through an endowment grant of more than $1.25 million given to Claremont Graduate School by Kate Tufts to honor her late husband, poet and writer Kingsley Tufts, says Peter Harris, Claremont assistant director for publications.
Its $50,000 prize will help give Komunyakaa space to work on his three current projects--and a bit of celebrity for a solitary artist.
When a university colleague shouts congratulations from the hallway, Komunyakaa humbly waves. But he admits that recognition makes it easier to approach his works in progress.
“It underlines the fact that maybe you’re going in the right direction as a poet,” he says.
“When you operate in an intense vacuum, it’s nice to take a moment to step outside and look at your work.”