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Podcast #98: Yusef Komunyakaa on Politics, Imagery, and Memorizing Poetry


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In 1994, Yusef Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. An author of poetry, prose, and drama, his most recent work is The Emperor of Water Clocks. This week for the New York Public Library podcast, it is our pleasure to present Yusef Komunyakaa discussing political language, imagery, and memorizing poetry.

Yusef Komunyakaa
Yusef Komunyakaa

Komunyakaa served in the United States Army from 1969 to 1970. In response to a question about whether he views his poetry as political, the poet answered that language itself might be viewed as a site for political representation:

"I think language is political, and that's what I use as a tool. I think it was Richard Wright who said that he wanted to write sentences, language that function as a club. I don't necessarily believe that. For me, I don't think that the surface of the poem — the politics of the poem are not on the surface of the poem. But I think because I use language, the politics are underneath, moving into the emotional architecture of the poem."

In his childhood classroom curriculum, Komunyakaa was exposed not only to poetry but to the practice of memorization. He spoke of this act as a subconscious rehearsal of what would one day become his craft:

"My mother introduced me to books, small encyclopedias. So images were woven into those books as well. I also had very good teachers from the very beginning. We had to actually memorize a lot of traditional verse, so I sort of just spun off from there... I remember certain authors, especially Tennyson, Yeats. Yeats I would read to my cousin. Perhaps I was rehearsing to become a poet, wasn't fully aware of it. Maybe that's important."

Readers are often taken with the striking imagery in books like Neon Vernacular and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory. Komunyakaa describes his work as an absorption and relay of images encountered in his own experiences:

"Images are so important to me, and I realized that when it came to images, it was where I grew up. I grew up in a small town, Bogalusa, Louisiana. I would sort of lose myself in nature. I wanted to know the rituals things. So it was a keen kind of observation. And life is a rehearsal... I've always used images. I don't think I can write a poem without images."

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