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Arts & Culture

Yusef Komunyakaa Shares Poems From His New Collection

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When you interview a great poet, you don't wait too long to ask them to read a poem. Here's Yusef Komunyakaa reading from his poem "A Prayer For Workers."

YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: (Reading) Daybreak to sunset, as gritty stories of a people grow into an epic stitched down through the ages, the outsider artists going from twine and hue, cut and tag, an ironmonger's credo of steam rising from buckets and metal dust.

SIMON: Yusef Komunyakaa, winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, joins us now from Trenton, N.J. He has a collection of new and selected poems written over the past 20 years, "Everyday Mojo Songs Of The Earth" (ph). Thank you so much.

KOMUNYAKAA: Thank you.

SIMON: That poem was written before the pandemic, I assume, and all the talk about essential workers. Was it?

KOMUNYAKAA: Yes.

SIMON: I wonder if these most recent times have reminded you of some of the phrases you wrote yourself.

KOMUNYAKAA: For sure, because it's a time where we are left in a psychological limbo. And consequently, it takes a lot to work one's way out into plain daylight.

SIMON: You served as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam. Did you ever keep your head down and say, when I get out of this, I'm going to be a poet?

KOMUNYAKAA: I took with me (laughter) to Vietnam an anthology of poems and also a novel. I never really thought I would be a poet, but I loved reading poetry. I think maybe that's where it began, this obsession - reading poetry, hearing it aloud.

SIMON: Why didn't you think you'd be a poet?

KOMUNYAKAA: So I thought I would write essays, but poetry sort of took hold of me and demanded all of my attention and spirit.

SIMON: Explain to us what that feels like, could you?

KOMUNYAKAA: It feels like one has been chosen as a caretaker of observation. There's a certain reality, but also there's a certain kind of dreaming, and that place takes us someplace that we never dreamt of.

SIMON: I apologize for such an elemental question, but we have such an opportunity in speaking with a great poet. What makes two words go together?

KOMUNYAKAA: Well, an idea about musicology - how those two words fit into the mouth with a natural tonality. That goes for the heart and the mind.

SIMON: Jazz is a big inspiration for you, isn't it?

KOMUNYAKAA: Well, I like the idea of listening to jazz but never writing while the music is playing. So it's in the background, just the spirit, the emotion, the scar (ph) there in time and space for a moment. I want the music to not influence the rhythm of my own words. I want to choose words that come from a deep place in the psyche.

SIMON: I wonder if I could get you to read "A Night In Tunisia." How did it come to you? Is there any way of explaining that?

KOMUNYAKAA: Well, it started with Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia," which I had listened to long ago. I wrote it after Dizzy Gillespie died.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOMUNYAKAA: "A Night In Tunisia" - (reading) how long have I listened to this blues, and how long has Dizzy Gillespie been dead? I remember an old longing, a young man reaching for luck, a finger paused between pages of Baldwin's "Notes Of A Native Son," a clock stopped for a hard, crystal-clear moment. This was a lifetime before the night streets of Tunisia burned on cellphones in the clouds, tear gas and machine gun fire and my head in my hand an hour. I traveled there many times, humble side streets and sweetness of figs, hot seasons of meat on the bone, naked feeling, and Dizzy's horn still ablaze, a bleat of big, fat notes in the dark. Even if I'd never stepped above simple laws, my youth had betrayed me with years still to come and jasmine in bloom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Mr. Komunyakaa, are poets essential workers?

KOMUNYAKAA: I would think so because poetry has been with us for a very long time. Poets attempted to explain or define the mysteries of the world. So in that sense, poetry may be very close to philosophy or even prayer.

SIMON: Yusef Komunyakaa - his new collection, "Everyday Mojo Songs Of The Earth" (ph). Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

KOMUNYAKAA: Thank you much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.