Surprising the Poet

Indiana University English Professor Yusef Komunyakaa defines his love of poetry writing as "a healthy obsession." A prolific writer, in 1994 alone Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection Neon Vernacular, the Kingsley Tufts Award for Poetry, the William Faulkner Prize for Poetry from Université Rennes, and the Alumni and Friends Award from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Komunyakaa's other published poetry collections include Magic City (1992), Dien Cai Dau (1988), I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), Copacetic (1984), and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979).

In addition to teaching a graduate poetry writing workshop, Komunyakaa also teaches African American contemporary poetry as an adjunct associate professor in the department of Afro-American Studies at IU Bloomington. Citing history, philosophy, psychology, and science, Komunyakaa remarks that everything influences his writing and that he tries to communicate this to his students so they can experience "a whole percolating reservoir of imagery." Komunyakaa recalls, "I was a close observer of things around me early on. That has a lot to do with poetry . . . trying to make sense of the world in all of its beauty and flux." Komunyakaa likes to talk about the surprises inherent in poetry; he wants his students to be "surprised by the musicality of the language, . . . by the imagery, and surprised that literature is not removed from their daily lives and the scope of their imaginations." He defines successful poems as those of "celebration as well as of deliberate analysis."

In his own writing, Komunyakaa constantly tries to surprise himself by working on three projects simultaneously, a process that allows the imagery of one poem to influence that of another and often leads his poetry in new directions. Among his current projects is Pleasure Dome, a collection of lyrical narratives about modern historical lives, that is informed by world history and the African American experience. Komunyakaa's inspiration to write the work, which he anticipates will be a trilogy incorporatated into a single volume, stemmed from his reading years ago about characters like St. George, Pushki, Zenobia, Terrence, and Moshesh. "I had never seen poems about them, [and] I felt like they were well-kept secrets," he says. He chose to write Pleasure Dome in three-line, indented, staggered stanzas, a form that he feels offers structure and allows the inclusion of large amounts of information. Komunyakaa also plans to publish a poetry collection in 1997 titled Thieves of Paradise, an ongoing work in seven sections about the concept of paradise and the ways in which it has been undermined. Komunyakaa is also working on a third collection of shorter, sixteen-line poems in four-line stanzas; he has written about 50 poems for what is likely to to be a 150-poem collection.

Komunyakaa says he is constantly challenged, stimulated, often even surprised when writing poetry. "I write everything down and then go back to the poem with the idea of cutting it." He adds, "Even when [my] poems are published, very often I'm still editing . . . . So it is an ongoing process."

--Mary Cox Barclay