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2021 – Yusef Komunyakaa

On June 23, Yusef Komunyakaa received our Lifetime Recognition Award. In this insightful interview with Griffin trustee Sarah Howe, Yusef Komunyakaa shares formative moments of his poetic journey.

Sarah Howe pays tribute to Yusef Komunyakaa

The winner of this year’s Lifetime Recognition Award, in honour of his extraordinary body of work spanning almost half a century, is Yusef Komunyakaa. Over that time, Komunyakaa’s poetic voice has evolved into something immediately recognisable and yet hard to pin down – something to do perhaps with the way his poems slip between different registers, tonalities and personae. Like the ‘chameleon poet’ described by Keats, Komunyakaa draws in his work on a deep well of empathetic imagination, peopling his poems with an array of characters for whom ‘truth’ takes on wildly different hues. His poems tell a story, too, about the synthesis of disparate influences: the Southern idiom of Bogalusa, Louisiana where he grew up harmonises in them with a literary language seasoned by a lifetime’s vast and attentive reading. Their habit of code-switching suggests the subtlety of Komunyakaa’s ear, but also the different worlds he has moved between. His imagination is restlessly cosmopolitan, forging off on journeys across continents and cultural differences, or against the current of time into personal and collective memory. And yet his writing keeps circling back to the people and earth of the American Deep South – by now an internal landscape as much as a physical place. ‘I want to write poems that don’t take us on epic journeys,’ he has said, ‘but on some journey that goes within that terrain that’s inside.’

Komunyakaa’s body of work offers us a formidable reckoning with American history – history which the poet has, in many cases, lived through first-hand – from the racially segregated South of his boyhood, through his years reporting on the war in Vietnam, to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Komunyakaa’s poems on Vietnam remain among the most significant and singular documents to have been produced by an American in the wake of that conflict. At the same time, his books chart a path through the evolving politics of race in the US from the mid-twentieth century, showing us in vivid and economical strokes how ugly legacies of racist violence continue to reverberate today. His forms combine a virtuosic control with an air of the effortlessly improvisatory – a quality traceable perhaps to Komunyakaa’s lifelong devotion to jazz, whose rhythms and riffs many have detected beneath his poems’ own music. Alongside his early love of the Surrealists, jazz is there too in his flair for crafting metaphors that swerve off in unexpected directions, or in the thought-movement of poems unafraid of intuitive leaps into the unknown.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Yusef in June 2021, to mark the occasion of his Lifetime Recognition Award. We spoke on Zoom – he in New Jersey, me in London – since the Coronavirus pandemic’s second summer had forced the Griffin Prizes’ customary celebrations in Toronto to migrate online. The date happened to coincide almost exactly with the release of his latest volume, Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021, which features twelve recent poems alongside work chosen from his last six books. It is the first retrospective of his poetry to appear since Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems appeared in 2013. We took the opportunity to look back as well as forward. I asked him what it felt like to revisit twenty years of work, to place old poems with new companions: were there any surprises on the way? Between one book and the next, what has sustained him through a lifetime of writing? And what are his hopes for the future of poetry? Already a legendary figure in American letters, Komunyakaa has created a body of poems that reach beyond purely national concerns to speak to an international audience, which is partly why his honouring with the Griffin Lifetime Recognition Award is so apt.

Despite the weightiness of some of his subjects, Komunyakaa’s poems are also playful, irreverent, sometimes satirical, and unafraid of breaking taboos.

Sarah Howe, Griffin trustee

Biography of Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa, a native of Bogalusa, Louisiana, served as a US Army correspondent in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. After his service he studied at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, and later received an MA from Colorado State University and an MFA from the University of California in Irvine, both in Creative Writing.

He is the author of numerous books, some of which are: CopaceticI Apologize for the Eyes in My HeadDien Cai DauMagic CityNeon Vernacular, which received the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Thieves of Paradise, a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award; Talking Dirty to the Gods, one of Voice Literary Supplement’s 25 Favorite Books of 2000; TabooPleasure Dome: New and Collected PoemsWarhorsesBlue NotesThe Chameleon Couch, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Emperor of Water ClocksGilgamesh: A Verse Play, performed at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan and the Constellation Theater in Washington, D.C.; Testimony: A Tribute to Charlie Parker, performed at the Sydney Opera House; Wakonda’s Dream, music by Anthony Davis, performed at Opera Omaha; and Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: 2001–2021, forthcoming on June 14th.

For his poetry he has also been awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the William Faulkner Prize (Université de Rennes), the Poetry Society of America’s 2004 Shelley Memorial Award, and the 2011 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.

From 1999 to 2005 he was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and he is presently a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He served as New York State Poet 2016-2018 and in December of 2020 he retired as Distinguished Senior Poet and Global Professor at New York University.

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