Komunyakaa at the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Awards in March 2012; his book The Chameleon Couch was nominated for the poetry award.
|Born||James William Brown
(1941-04-29) April 29, 1941 (according to U.S. Army discharge papers of 14 Dec. 1966 and other evidence as cited by his former wife Mandy Sayer, although passport supposedly says 1947)
|Alma mater||Colorado State University|
|Notable awards||Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award;
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry;
Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
We have to embrace the good over the bad. That has to be one’s personal project.
It wasn’t a deliberate decision to become a poet. It was something I found myself doing – and loving. Language became an addiction.
Poetry helps me understand who I am. It helps me understand the world around me. But above all, what poetry has taught me is the fact that I need to embrace mystery in order to be completely human.
I originally wanted to embrace the imagery and forthrightness of rap music. 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.
I excavate history. I look at lives buried under too much silence. Periods of time, like slavery, have to be revisited, reimagined, so we can move through them.
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.
Through the years I have seen myself as a peaceful person, but the awareness of the anger is part of that process.
I define poetry as celebration and confrontation. When we witness something, are we responsible for what we witness? That’s an on-going existential question. Perhaps we are and perhaps there’s a kind of daring, a kind of necessary energetic questioning. Because often I say it’s not what we know, it’s what we can risk discovering.
My great-grandfather Melvin had been a carpenter – so was my father – and they taught me the value of tools: saws, hammers, chisels, files and rulers. It all dealt with conciseness and precision. It eliminated guesswork. One has to know his tools, so he doesn’t work against himself.
It took me 14 years to write poems about Vietnam. I had never thought about writing about it, and in a way I had been systematically writing around it.
I like connecting the abstract to the concrete. There’s a tension in that. I believe the reader or listener should be able to enter the poem as a participant. So I try to get past resolving poems.
Students often have such a lofty idea of what a poem is, and I want them to realize that their own lives are where the poetry comes from. The most important things are to respect the language; to know the classical rules, even if only to break them; and to be prepared to edit, to revise, to shape.
I like what Oliver Lakes does on the saxophone. The saxophone comes pretty close to the sound of the human voice and when Oliver plays with other sax players, it’s like a dialogue.
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.
I think of my poems as personal and public at the same time. You could say they serve as psychological overlays. One fits on top of the other, and hopefully there’s an ongoing evolution of clarity.
Poets are seen as the caretakers of language, so working with words no matter what the form is what we do.