Yusef Komunyakaa and Paul Muldoon

by Suzan Sherman

Paul Muldoon’s poetry is wholeheartedly original, rich in its rhythms and ever-expanding subject matter. His witty and ambitious word plays chart his Irish upbringing and history and move beyond it towards his present life, and then back again to his past. Considered to be the leading Irish poet of his generation, his first book was published when he was twenty-two, and since moving to the United States his poetry has achieved a greater recognition with American audiences. His books include: New Weather, Mules, Why Brownlee Left, Quoof, Meeting the British, Selected Poems 1968-1986, Madoc: A Mystery, The Annals of Chile and, most recently, Hay.

Yusef Komunyakaa is a poet whose voice is reminiscent of jazz riffs resonating in the blues tradition. His narrative poems explore the identities of the black male in American culture, his own experiences in Vietnam and the effects of the war, as well as his childhood growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana. His poems are steeped in memories which expand beyond the self to the universals of hardship, passion and forgiveness. His books include Copacetic, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, Dien Cai Dau, Magic City, Neon Vernacular and, most recently, Thieves of Paradise.

Although their styles and subject matter appear to be quite different, Paul and Yusef have numerous crossovers of concerns, experiences and influences—both teach creative writing at Princeton University, had fathers unable to read or write, were highly influenced by T. S. Eliot, have explored the struggles of Native Americans in their poetry, and at times paralleled those experiences to that of the Irish and the African American. In their writing both attempt to let go of the self—through its release each finds the unexpected, and the higher truth of the poem then emerges.

Suzan Sherman Paul, Tim Kendall recently wrote a book, Paul Muldoon, defining the Irish vocabulary and bits of Irish lore in your poetry. Do you feel a reader needs this kind of preparation to fully grasp your poetry?

Paul Muldoon Some uses of language are quite specific to a place, to the language I was brought up speaking and which to some extent I still write in, Hiberno-English—usages I hope the context of the poem would clarify. I read Tim Kendall’s book, I confess, very fleetingly. I tend not to pay too much attention to what people write about my poems. Not that I disdain it, not that I’m above it, but basically I don’t want to be too conscious of what people say.

Yusef Komunyakaa I’m wondering if immediate understanding is within an American readership’s grasp, or if they are transported by the music of the narrative, if the listener isn’t carried along by the sound of your Irish accent.

PM I am interested in the musicality of language. Anyone who writes verse has some notion of the rhythm of the line. There’s always an oral or aural aspect. I’ve lived here for ten years, and I don’t speak the same language I did twenty years ago. Mind you, I was thirty-five when I left Ireland so a lot of it was ingrained, but things have changed. The poems now reflect the variety of language to which I’ve been exposed, and also to which many readers have been exposed. We’re now operating, despite our insistence on the claims of the local and parochial, in a global context, where one can try to make sense of what’s happening in contemporary Chinese poetry. That’s not to say that there aren’t complications. Yusef, do you find yourself thinking about a notional or ideal reader?

YK I don’t, but I realize that my work is immersed in Southern idiom, along with an acquired literary language. I’m trying to make both function tonally side by side to create music that doesn’t have to achieve an absolute scale of meaning, but more or less to induce a certain feeling, because that’s what literature is. How I like reading poems is to return, going to the bottom of a poem and finding myself again at the top reading down. It’s a cumulative feeling.

PM That makes me think of T. S. Eliot’s remark about poetry being able to communicate before it’s entirely understood. Each year a group of about fifty judges comes to Princeton for a weekend to talk to the faculty about their various subjects. Their questions are quite probing, as you might imagine. One of them asked me: “In what part of your body do you know that your poem is finished?” It’s a pretty good question.

YK Yes, the physicality of language. The tongue married to the heart, and emotions defined by flesh.

PM Supposedly there’s a chord called the Devil’s Chord that evokes an extraordinary visceral effect, it makes the hair stand on the back of one’s neck. That’s the answer I gave; that there’s some logic of the body, some disturbance that registers at a physical level in poetry.

YK It’s an emotional logic. The way the body operates makes me think of the blue note. That impossible note the jazz musician attempts to reach for, and it consequently becomes the engine that drives creative improvisation.

PM When you sit down to write a poem, do you have a notion of a blue note?

YK My process is to write everything down and not worry about the shape. Then I impose a structural frame. Since one is working with tools that one loves, he or she knows them well and can trust them. Rhythm extends the possibilities within the shape of language—it’s reaching for that surprise, the blue note.

PM The unexpected.

YK The unexpected becomes the challenge, to achieve that and have the possibility of duplicating it, expanding it even further.

PM The root of the word “poet” is "maker"—you’ve made wonderful analogies to your father’s work as a carpenter, a man using tools—but that analogy breaks down for me. It’s as if each time one has to make the tools for the task.

YK Yes. Redefine the tool and test it against possibility, with slightly different adjustments and emotional calibration. We can achieve music and meaning simultaneously by trusting language.

PM But that’s the knowledge, surely, that you give yourself over to—whatever it will bring and whatever it will want to make through you.

YK That’s what I mean by improvisation. To the extent that there is not a complete frame around a poem, we’re not forcing it into a preconceived mold. We are willing to be surprised and consequently, that mold is elastic.

PM Do you do any work with your hands? Do you do carpentry yourself?

YK I used to do quite a bit, too much as a matter of fact. Renovating houses—painting, scraping—there’s exciting material underneath. I renovated a hundred-year-old house in New Orleans and was surprised to find that under the horsehair plaster the wood looked new, preserved. I often try to move back to the original because we tend to paint over things. Americans, for the most part, do not appreciate things that look old.

PM Am I right in thinking that you were working on a house while writing some of the Vietnam poems?

YK The poem “Somewhere Near Phu Bai.” I had a pad of paper at the bottom of the ladder and I kept going up and down, writing phrases, words, images, and soon I had a poem. I hadn’t thought about writing about Vietnam. My influences were Surrealism, especially Breton, and the Negritude poets: Aimé Césaire, Leopold Sédar Senghor, René Depestre, David Diop, Flavien Ranaivo and Léon Damas. I was interested in the merging of different tones—where one can have the colloquial, the urgency of street language, along with a very technical and academic language. It has to do with switching codes—being able to talk with my father, who was not educated as such, and at the same time being able to talk to students and colleagues. One has to negotiate those different territories and realize that we’re essentially cut from the same cloth. Because we’re talking about communication, trying to be as concise as possible, and at the same time be provocative and surprising.

PM Was your father able to read and write?

YK No.

PM The same with me. My experience is not unlike your own, in that I come from a culture where there were lots of horses knocking around, yet the tractor was taking over. I was born in 1951, and my extended family lived at the ends of lanes in houses that have not changed for a couple of hundred years, living in ways that have not changed for several hundred years. Forty-five years later and Ireland is one of the computer centers of the universe. It’s quite an extraordinary leap.

SS Yusef, you hadn’t considered your experiences in Vietnam to be a proper subject for poetry before you began writing about it. I was wondering how your views in this regard have changed.

YK Well, I came to poetry reading Shakespeare out loud, Tennyson, the protest sonnets of the Harlem Renaissance: Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Jean Toomer and Anne Spencer. Those are very formal voices, and I thought that was what poetry was about. And finally I got to Eliot, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, modern and contemporary voices, and my whole perspective about poetry changed. When I first came to poetry I definitely would not have said that you can put any and everything within the context of poetic expression. But now I say, Yes, that’s the challenge, to challenge the music in oneself.

PM Consider some of the great 17th-century poets who dealt with a vast information explosion. John Donne had to find a way of dealing with the high and the low. We can still learn from him.

YK Even Eliot, the shape of his imagination was informed not only by that which educated the psyche, but also by that which may be termed pedestrian.

PM And he learned a huge amount from John Donne, he re-invented Donne to some extent. So, Eliot was big for you early on?

YK Yes. “Journey of the Magi” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” along with The Wasteland.

PM Same here. In many ways, he was the person when I was a teenager.

YK It was informative to spend time in St. Louis, because I began to think of Eliot in a different way. He must have been taking in all kinds of things growing up there: music, Scott Joplin, the riverboats, all of that. When he talks about pianos in the alley in Cambridge, I think he’s really talking about St. Louis. St. Louis pretty much created Eliot’s tongue even as he attempted to betray it. I especially see signals of that in Inventions of the March Hare where one also sees the misogynist, the racist.

PM All the good things? (laughter)

YK Yes, all those typical American tropes. Eliot’s is really an American voice, which he seems to have wanted to deny. He was trying to erase part of his psyche, to reinvent himself as British. He was interested in the illusion of what art is: the demarcation between so-called low and high cultures.

SS As readers, how do you negotiate a writer’s anti-Semitism or racism when it’s embedded within the work? I’m thinking of the book T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form by Anthony Julius.

YK It wasn’t until after I had read that line in The Wasteland, “The Jew squats in the windowsill . . .”—and put it together with "Geronton"—that the poem read entirely differently. There are other racist remarks in T. S. Eliot, that’s why I said he’s very American. He was an instrument of his time, as artists are often shaped by their society. The Southern Agrarians, for example, the fugitives: John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Lyle Lanier. I’ll Take My Stand is the title of their collection of essays, it’s a line from “Dixie.” Often intellectuals and artists have been the cornerstones of racist, regressive thinking.

PM One would like to think that poets have an inherent moral sense, but clearly they don’t. Bad men can write good poetry. Within the Irish context, you have people like Edmund Spenser and Walter Raleigh involved in violent—and I think inappropriate—action in Ireland. And yet I wouldn’t want to say that one shouldn’t read Spenser or Raleigh. This is a New Critical version of the world, but one has to try to read the work on its own terms. Eliot himself was a great proponent of the dissociation of the personality of the writer from what was on the page.

YK The real problem is when it’s also on the page. Hart Crane, in his letters from Cuba, made very racist remarks.

PM I don’t know if I agree with the use of the term, “We are the products of our times.” I possibly reflect some view of the world that is absolutely flawed, but I hope that’s not the case. I don’t think being a product of our time absolves us entirely. The real question is, how do you respond to someone who is guilty of these offenses?

YK I don’t think we stop reading Eliot.

PM Nor do I. But there are people who say that’s what should happen. I couldn’t go that far.

YK I think Eliot’s idea of dissociation was only an illusion. Perhaps it’s something he wished to achieve but didn’t. Those moments in his work are lived elements, not purely from his imagination.

PM That’s what’s so complicated. One can never make that dissociation. Most writers’ work reflects a small bunch of obsessions at the core of their personality. It may be presented in various ways, strategies may be developed for avoiding it, for making it seem different from the last time. That’s just one of the things writers do to keep going—devise different strategies and vary the shots, to move around what’s always there. The metaphor is perhaps inadequate—as all metaphors are finally—but there is a core, a core which is the self. I think that all writing is autobiographical at some level.

YK What about language poetry?

PM I’m not an expert on language poets. As I understand it, what they’re doing is not so different from what Eliot did.

YK That’s right.

PM The complete abnegation of the personality, as the language has its own logic and force. I believe in that to a great extent myself. I would argue with what I just said about autobiography, the personality shining through willy-nilly. I think it does, and yet ideally one tries to give oneself over when one writes, to have no sense of self. It’s a paradox that there must be no sense of self and a complete openness and humility before the language. Language poets take it to an extreme. I have some sense of a regard for what they’re up to, though I don’t quite understand their insistence on nonsense.

YK I suppose the influence is a Marxist principle. That essentially, the poet or the writer, the thinker, is seen as imperialistic, controlling meaning to the extreme. It is an attempt to untether language and meaning.

PM Well, both sense and nonsense are tyrannical.

YK But also, within that context, much of so-called language poetry has become grist for the theorists.

PM I’m surprised that they agreed to be described as belonging to a group. I distrust all groups. I’m talking about being associated with any kind of movement. It’s not about being special, it’s about wanting to be free. So that one has no ties, so the next thing coming down the road, one might be able to go with it for a few steps, and then retreat. So that one is not in anybody’s army.

SS But I see you in the context of other people, because of how people have painted you.

PM How do these people see me?

SS As a contemporary of Seamus Heaney within a post-colonial structure.

PM One really can’t afford to think about those things too much. Not because one’s an ostrich—circumspection is very important, having an intellectual grasp of things—but not on oneself.

YK You don’t want to be shaped by the terms of someone else’s critique. You want the freedom to at least have the illusion of being outside of that. Although I think we are touched by reviews, all kinds of things.

PM Have you done any writing for the theater?

YK I’ve been asked by Northwestern University’s School of Music to do a libretto on a historical individual named Arthur, no last name, born a slave in 1747, died 1768. Quite a provocative figure.

PM Is there some aspect of his life that is particularly dramatic?

YK His whole short life is dramatic. “I’m almost free,” that’s how he defines himself. That says a lot right there. But he was stealing horses, escaping with the American Indians. He lived short periods of time with the Mashpees, Nipmucks and Wampanoags in Massachusetts. His whole personality seems to have been shaped by ritual and caper around Taunton, Massachusetts. But he always returned home to his mother. Finally he was charged with rape and hanged. And most of the people questioned . . . It’s really about the drama of public opinion.

SS Paul, you’ve written a libretto too. Where does the title Shining Brow come from?

PM “Shining brow” is the translation of “Taliesin,” the Welsh bard, after whom Frank Lloyd Wright named a house he built for his lover, Mamah Cheney. There was a huge amount of drama in the writing of the libretto. I think there has to be some drama, some theatricality, in poetry as well. As a poet one sits around talking to oneself, and so it’s a lot of fun to do a project with other people. I’m a great believer in fun.

YK I think poets should be collaborating in theater, music, all types of projects. The Pacific Symphony Orchestra commissioned the composer Eliot Goldenthal to do Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio, and he incorporated two of my poems, “You and I Are Disappearing” and “Boat People.” Before I heard the poems sung and performed, I was prepared for failure. Hearing the performance started me thinking more about collaborations. Thus, I wasn’t as apprehensive when Tony Getsug called me to suggest that 8th Harmonic Breakdown record me with John Tchicai’s jazz compositions. Again, I was surprised by the outcome of the CD.

PM The great thing about writing poetry is that you don’t need much money. And if it fails, who cares? Nobody gives a hoot. Nothing has been lost if your new poem . . . (laughter) with a cast of thousands…

YK We don’t need a whole economic apparatus, do we? I still compose by pencil and paper, believe it or not. I do not, I can’t even think of anyone composing on the computer.

PM I compose on a computer.

YK You do?

PM When I started as a teenager, I always wrote straight onto a typewriter for the very simple reason that I wanted to know what it would look like published. The question of whether or not it would be published was completely irrelevant. I was interested, and still am, in the physical shape and the subliminal sense that shape conveys. We talked about the aural and oral traditions, which are extremely important, but then there’s also the operation between the page, the eye and the ear.

YK It’s the complete opposite for me. I love the idea of the pencil or pen pressed against the paper. The evolution of the brain has everything to do with the hand. I like the feel, the hand making, creating the letters.

SS Paul, what place do you feel an Irish writer holds being in the United States? Does the distance give you a stronger understanding of who you are, and what you’re writing of? Is being here like your poem “Wind and Tree,” is it “telling new weather?”

PM I am a citizen of both countries, insofar as one can be in two places at once, which I think one can. “Wind and Tree” is one of the first poems I wrote, a remake of Robert Frost’s “Tree In My Window,” although I was not conscious of it at the time. I’ve always been very influenced by American culture, not only literature, but films, music and television. So it’s not so strange that I came here, it’s very familiar. And looking back home is not strange either, because it’s not too far to look, even to go. I’m going to Ireland on Thursday and returning next Monday. It’s like getting on a bus. To answer another part of your question—distance, I think, does not necessarily lead to perspective any more than proximity gives one a real sense of what’s going on. When I lived in Belfast, which I did for many, many years, I don’t know if I had a clearer sense of what was going on around the corner.

SS Both of you are concerned with the plight Native Americans have suffered in this country and have dealt with this in your poetry. Paul, on the cover of your book, Madoc, there is a painting of Native Americans partaking in a Bull Dance ceremony. Yusef, on the cover of your new book, Thieves of Paradise, is a painting . . .

YK By Benjamin West, of William Penn signing a peace treaty with the Indians. I suppose there is an ironic, satirical tone behind my title, Thieves of Paradise. Whether or not it makes us think of America as a stolen paradise, it responds to many kinds of thefts, small and big.

PM I loved your poem “Quatrains for Ishi.” Ishi, I must say, is one of my own great heroes. I dedicated a poem to him in my first book, “The Year of the Sloes—For Ishi.” He was the last member of a tribe found in California in the early 1900s. It’s a heartbreaking story of this man who spent his life in a museum where he made arrowheads as a kind of tourist attraction.

YK One of the strange things for me to think about is how, as the last known member of his tribe, he goes about the rituals of keeping alive, the rituals of entertaining himself. That was part of my imaginative work, to try to place myself in his situation. His living in the Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco, gazed at and misunderstood—it’s rather difficult to imagine.

PM He was described as a Stone Age man. This little love poem I wrote was a spin-off of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The Native American names for the months of the year are the names of trees, and each section of it began, “In the month of…” using the Native American names. But it was really about Northern Ireland, and it ended up with this image of bodies lying in the road. It was written at the time of Bloody Sunday, when the British Army opened fire on a crowd of marchers and killed thirteen people.

SS Did you see the connection between the Irish living under colonial domination and the Native Americans, before you came to the United States?

PM There are a few poems that, in perhaps too crude a way, draw parallels between the condition of the Native American experience and the native Irish experience. One in particular called “Meeting the British,” about Pontiac’s Rebellion. I shy away from the parallel a bit. It’s coming close to propaganda, which is something I’ve managed fairly successfully to avoid. On the other hand, it might be close to some aspect of the truth.

YK “Ishi” means “man,” and as I thought of Ishi, I kept thinking about growing up in Louisiana. My community has a kinship with many of the Southern Native Americans—especially Choctaw, Chickasaw—they are connected by culture and bloodlines to the African American. I have a poem, “Looking for Choctaw,” about seeing an Indian in my grandmother’s face. I must admit, as a child I was a bit confused by my community’s link to Indians, because one begins to wrestle with demarcations, psychological ones, especially in the cultural and social apartheid of the Deep South. I remember the ritual of playing cowboys and Indians. Often, no one wanted to be an Indian. I always found myself volunteering, because I liked the idea of having the bow and arrow.

PM Same here. I have photographs of myself as an Indian with the tepee in the backyard. I still have a bow and arrow in my house. But what does that represent? As I think about it right now, the experience of the Native Americans disturbs me. There are many, many people who have been mistreated, but frankly, that story in particular makes me want to cry. We were talking about poets and whether or not they had any morals—maybe it’s not a matter of whether or not I’m a poet, but I always associate myself with the person having a bad time.

YK Perhaps most poets do, in some ways.

SS Yusef, why did you become a poet, as opposed to some other form of expression for the self?

YK My sense of poetry has a lot to do with Louisiana where I grew up, my rituals. I was very tuned into the beauty and violence in the people and the landscape. It’s a great, scary irony that the KKK call themselves the “Knights of the White Camellia”—as if language is used to pervert nature, to tinge the camellia with blood. I wanted a dialogue with the things around me, to understand them. Eels, mud puppies, cattails, Venus flytraps, fish-looking creatures with legs called Congo snakes, everything. I wanted to know the names of trees, plants, flowers. Naming became a type of inquiry. Poetry was also what I liked to read. The idea of coming back and forth to a poem became important. When a poem doesn’t necessarily have a linear narrative, but invites one in to become a participant. Consequently, I found myself desiring to write poems. I volunteered to write a poem for my high-school graduating class, a hundred lines long, written with much agony. I still don’t know why I raised my hand, because I had never written a poem before.

PM Really?

YK Well, songs had become important to me. Often I would hear songs, lyrics on the radio, and I remember making up my own words to the music. It was probably my first act of creation.

PM When you were a child, did your father encourage you?

YK My mother encouraged me, my father wanted me to work right beside him.

PM Encouragement is extremely important. My daughter and I were in a restaurant the other night and in the middle of the dinner my daughter says, “Okay, I have a poem. Have you got a piece of paper?” One of the few times I ever put pen to paper, actually (laughter)—I wrote down this four line poem. It’s a natural impulse children have that needs little encouragement. Everyone else is trying to get back to something like that.

YK It took some time, really, for my father to suggest that I had gone in the right direction. Actually, in March of ’86, he said, “Could you write me a poem?”

PM Did he?

YK And it was a difficult task. It took a very long time to come up with anything. But at least it was a kind of recognition. Finally, I wrote “Songs for My Father” after he died in 1986, in September.

SS Paul, you had mentioned that you have your students write their poems line by line.

PM That’s a small aspect of it. It’s not the first thing I’d say about trying to write poems, because there are many ways of doing it. I find it effective because it makes my students think about the line as the unit of the poem. You get that line right and you move on to the next one. That establishes the cellular logic or progress of the poem.

YK I don’t have them go line by line, but I do express the idea about getting everything down. And then I have them isolate lines as part of the revision process. I think about revision as re-seeing, revisiting, if possible, a place in time. Placing a white sheet of paper at the bottom of the poem and very systematically working up, realizing that there are possibly two or three, sometimes five or six endings. Negotiating what has already been placed on the page. Reading is also such an intricate part of writing. I can’t see how one can write and not read.

PM As Yusef says, the two things are happening coincidentally, constantly. I think to be a decent writer, one has to be a decent reader. And to be an extremely good writer, one has to be an extremely good reader of oneself. Not that one ever, ever achieves the condition of not needing someone else to say, “You’re missing something here. You can’t get away with that.”

YK The workshop becomes an instant community. And that’s what writers need. Usually I start the very first day of class by plotting out a community, and we have a certain protocol, and straightforwardness, and share opinions.

PM Do you have particular friends that read your work and help you?

YK I might get on the phone and read a couple of lines or a poem to someone. I realize that often I want to place a poem aside, and I’m almost a different person when I come back to it.

PM I think one is. I just find that so difficult to do. I don’t trust myself. I’m very interested in your process of working on several books at once. I think that’s just wonderful.

YK It’s the idea of movement from one to another, about surprise. I don’t know what I want to write on a given day.

PM What are you working on at the moment, for example?

YK A book-length poem titled, Autobiography of My Alter Ego. I said I wouldn’t write about Vietnam anymore, but this is a monologue spoken by a bartender, a white American. He comes back from the war and starts riding buses across the country. He cannot stay in one place. He might ride to San Francisco or Los Angeles, find himself the very next week in Alabama, crisscrossing the country. It’s spoken many years after this obsession, and it starts off with this phrase: “If the President wants to know/ What’s happening/ He should come in here/ Order a Bloody Mary/ Sit down/ And I’ll tell him…” He’s talking to someone there at the bar, and he just goes on and on. He’s not conscious that he’s trying to square a certain record with his observations and experiences. Also, I’m working on the sixteen-line poem—a book called Talking Dirty to the Gods.

PM “Ode to a Maggot,” is that one?

YK Yes, that’s one of them. I have about one hundred of the sixteen-liners.

SS They’re all animals?

YK Animal insights, mythologies, histories, everyday rituals, and so forth.

SS Paul, what are you working on now?

PM Several things. I’ve been doing another opera, called Bandanna, set in Texas in 1969. It’s about relations between a husband and wife, and between the Mexican and the white communities in a little border town. And then I’m doing a translation with a Greek scholar here at Princeton, Richard Martin, of Aristophanes’ The Birds. And I’m giving some lectures in October and November, the Clarendon Lectures. They’re on various aspects of Irish literature. And I hope to try and write a few poems.

Tags:
Social classes
Race
Cultural identity
Vietnam War
Librettos
Native American culture
BOMB 65
Fall 1998
The cover of BOMB 65
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