Poet’s work explores new worlds through his words
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN Jazz and the war in Vietnam live largely in America’s past. Jazz music had its heyday more than half a century ago, and its sound has been pushed to the margins of popularity ever since. The Vietnam era ended three decades ago, with the evacuation of the last troops and staff.But neither jazz nor Vietnam has ever really gone away. Jazz, morphed in a million different ways, lives on in niche festivals and clubs; Vietnam is revisited on screen, in print. Both are vast worlds, worth revisiting to see what they look, sound and feel like today.Just ask Yusef Komunyakaa. A poet born in Bogalusa, La., nearly 60 years ago, Komunyakaa insists on consistently exploring new worlds in his work. “I don’t want to revisit these things I know again and again,” he said by phone. But with jazz and the Vietnam War – two of the many topics he addresses – the process of revisiting can be illuminating, and yield the unexpected that Komunyakaa seeks.”I think it has to unfold for me,” said Komunyakaa, who opens the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series with an appearance at 5:30 p.m. today at the Sky Hotel. “For me, writing is a process of discovery. But even things one has revisited again and again can be seen in a new way.”Komunyakaa’s 12 books – including “Neon Vernacular,” his poetry collection that earned the 1994 Pulitzer Prize – explore subjects from sex to the African-American experience, an include internal monologues about memory and conscience. A particularly powerful selection from “Neon Vernacular” is “Songs for My Father,” depicting a complex, uneasy, parent-son relationship. But music and war seem deeply embedded inside Komunyakaa: He is an avid fan of the former, listening to Bob Dylan and early blues and jazz icons Miles Davis and John Coltrane; and a critic of the latter, having served in the military from 1969-70. And they yield some of his most inspired writings, including the final line from “Neon Vernacular,” from the jazz reminiscence, “February in Sydney”: “A loneliness lingers like a silver needle under my black skin, as I try to feel how it is to scream for help through a horn.””These are things I can experience in a new way, from a new perspective,” said Komunyakaa. “Music challenges me to listen very closely, and hopefully to learn something about myself. Jazz has always been an integral part of who I am; it has always been there.”Komunyakaa’s relationship to Vietnam is a far different one. He never intended to write about his experiences there, certainly not in poetry, he says. The words, however, have flowed, as if of their own volition. Komunyakaa said he would stop writing about Vietnam – and very recently found himself writing “The Autobiography of My Alter Ego,” a piece in the voice of a white war veteran.”I was quite surprised by it,” he said. “Those are great moments for me. These are two places where I can still surprise myself.”One has to have a faith in impossibility.”
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