“Every Tool Became a Weapon”

Talking with Yusef Komunyakaa about race and war.
Tod Marshall talks Yusef Komunyakaa to about his forthcoming book, Warhorses. The poet discusses the mishandling of the watery fire of Hurricane Katrina, America's silence on race and class, how self-hatred can lead to brutality, and the poet's role in documenting the history of violence and war.
Tod Marshall: You’re working on a series of “quasi-sonnets” called “Love in the Time of War.” The title implies that the poems might directly connect to our country’s present conflict.

Yusef Komunyakaa: “Love in the Time of War” is the first section of my forthcoming book, Warhorses. The first poem in this sequence is about weaponry, and the first phrase in it is “The jawbone of an ass,” echoing the biblical history of human warfare. And, yes, our involvement in Iraq is central; that was perhaps what initially triggered the need to write Warhorses, but I think this collection addresses multiple dimensions of the history of war.

By beginning with “the jawbone of an ass,” are you implying that the capacity for violence is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human, that we are tool-making and weapon-making animals?

I believe that, especially when considering the evolution of the species, almost every tool became a weapon. In that sense, our capacity for violence is perhaps biological or chemical. I believe that the torture chambers in Europe advanced the continent’s acute attention to mechanical devices. Not merely the rack and drawing and quartering, but other acts of imagined violence. But we humans are also blessed with a mechanism for disarming an aspect of that hair-trigger, instinctual violence. We do possess the powers of reasoning and reflection, and we’re also creatures capable of negotiation and diplomacy.

Do you think that poets have a keener responsibility during times of war to speak against violence?

I feel that the artist or poet—more than the politician or professional solider—is condemned to connect to what he or she observes and experiences. One thinks about Walt Whitman’s visceral Civil War poems; of Siegfried Sassoon and Georg Trakl and Wilfred Owen responding to the horrors of World War I; of Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem” and Osip Mandelstam’s “The Stalin Epigram” giving voice to an outcry against the repression in the Soviet Union; of Aleksander Wat and Wislawa Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert calling out from Eastern Europe; of Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish in the Middle East; of Federico García Lorca and Miguel Hernandez challenging the silence during the Spanish Civil War; of Max Jacob and Bertolt Brecht and Alan Dugan attempting to depict the ugliness of World War II; and the long list goes on and on. Plato was aware of the poet’s obligation as witness. If one is totally connected to his or her feelings, then one sees and hears and witnesses—fully engaged—and one will have to address what one has seen and heard and dreamt. We address the internal and external, and perhaps speaking of both terrains can almost make us whole.

The impulse to address internal and external forces is certainly an important part of your poem “Requiem,” which is addressed to the victims and survivors of Katrina. It explores the devastation of a place that was home for you, but also articulates emotions about the aftermath of that destruction.

“Requiem” is written to acknowledge those individuals who died and those who lived through Hurricane Katrina. Victims and survivors. Also, I wanted to recall the history of the Crescent City, the cultural and social histories, to underline the watery fire that has been pulsing underneath the place since the Spanish and French arrived, and even before, when Native Americans inhabited this swampy landscape. History helps us to understand what happened during Katrina; it helps us to decipher the psychological lethargy there in the Big Easy. I think “Requiem” speaks for itself. Here is the poem’s beginning:
when the strong unholy high winds
whiplashed over the sold-off marshlands
eaten back to a sigh of saltwater,
the Crescent City was already shook down to her pilings,
her floating ribs, her spleen & backbone,
left trembling in her Old World facades
& postmodern lethargy, lost to waterlogged
memories & quitclaim deeds
exposed for all eyes, damnable
gaze & lamentation—plumb line
& heartthrob, ballast & watertable—
already the last ghost song
of the Choctaw & the Chickasaw
was long gone, no more than a drunken curse
among the oak & sweet gum leaves, a tally
of broken treaties & absences echoing
cries of birds over the barrier islands
inherited by the remittance man, scalawag
& King Cotton . . .

In New Orleans, in the Deep South in the 1960s and 1970s, there was great consternation surrounding the civil rights movement. Members of the White Citizens’ Council were reactionary and violent. This is recent history, and the evidence is at our fingertips. The Katrina situation underlined a problem that we Americans attempt to deny or erase with silence: We talk about race and Du Bois’s infamous color line, but seldom do we discuss problems of class in America. I always felt that at least blacks and whites in the South live in close proximity to each other. I think of James Baldwin saying that “in the South, the Black man is always the topic of discussion, but in the North, never. Exaggerated in one sense, and denied in the other sense.” This dichotomy has facilitated an unhealthy suspicion between the various ethnic groups—especially blacks and whites, because they seem more culturally and socially connected through the history.

Certain blacks and whites during the 1960s and 1970s went into the streets and forced change here in the United States. We must accept this: numerous oppressive laws wouldn’t have changed in this country if some progressive-thinking people hadn’t put their lives on the line in the name of freedom and change. That’s recent history. I do know, however, that positive changes have happened within the last 30 or 40 years in this country—really, in the world. Consequently, it seems as if the soul of America has been given a second chance. The civil rights movement was the beginning of change—surface changes through the changes of existing laws and ordinances.

For each protester during the civil rights movement, there were hundreds—thousands—resisting change, still embracing the status quo. Thus, until our country’s psyche, until its heart, has been really changed, we’ll always have slow, clumsy responses to disasters that involve so-called minorities—descendants of slaves. Even with civil right laws in place, there are individuals and institutions that violate those laws daily. And I’m not merely talking about the extreme, about some rednecks dragging a black man behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas.

You said that “Requiem” was a work in progress. What other issues will the poem explore?

I wish I knew. I hope that “Requiem” embraces a multiplicity of moments in the overall history of New Orleans. For instance, it is important for me to address the social realities of the Native American in that region. Let’s face it: It’s embarrassing to walk upon the soil and not realize that this is stolen property. I’m always interested in what the poem can risk discovering. The writing helps me to get to what I need to say. Perhaps I still write to surprise myself. At least, I hope so.

Can you discuss your vision of the audience for poetry? To whom do you hope to speak?

I would hope my audience includes anyone who cares about language and humanity. If I thought about demographics when writing a poem or play, I wouldn’t write anything. If the imagery and music of a poem surprise me, it has my attention, and that’s all it takes to speak to others. No topic is taboo, as long as a system of aesthetics informs the poem or play. Anything that triggers a meaningful dialogue. The ideal reader responds to the poem, whereby an internal dialogue exists in the reader. That is, at least, how I like to read poetry. When I get to the ending of a poem that truly moves me, I’m automatically propelled back to its beginning. I like to read poems again and again, because I view each successful poem as something more than an ad for a momentary emotion. Discovery is important to me.

What’s the first poem that led to such a moment of discovery for you?

Robert Hayden’s “The Whipping” is a poem that forced me to discover how love and self-hatred can couple to form brutality. I felt that the grandmother in that short poem is striking herself each time she strikes the boy, as she struggles not to kneel beneath the weight of a heart attack. She’s also striking at the boy’s mother, at some unsayable curse or sin. That poem pointed me to Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” I admire how this poem is stripped down, how it presents such austerity, and at the same time how it engaged me, beckoned to me. At first, I didn’t know what it was that drew me to “Those Winter Sundays,” but finally I realized that the immense silence beckoned me again and again to the poem. It was a moment of beautiful insinuation. What wasn’t said underlined everything, and that realization taught me a lot about writing, how silence is always an integral part of music.

In response to a discussion of rap music, you said that “Pain is the last possession that a person has.” Those poems that you mention by Hayden are both emotionally powerful, and yet your phrase suggests to me that it’s important to keep that emotion from becoming co-opted, especially through the commoditization of rap music.

Yes. I think so. Pain is often a place that centers us and connects us to a larger world. When I said that, I was responding to the fact that for many contemporary—I won’t say artists—entertainers, pain becomes a commodity. I don’t have to give names and dates, because most of us know that rap and hip-hop dominate the streets of certain communities. I can’t say that there’s been a conspiracy against the inroads that the civil rights movement spearheaded, that entertainment has been used as a psychological weapon against black Americans, but it is troublesome to realize that numerous buyers of rap and hip-hop are young white males.

Most of us are aware how stereotypes were used to create and maintain a system of racism in this country. Also, internationally, black Americans possessed an immense moral currency during the heyday of the civil rights movement. Much of that moral presence has been undermined. I do see much of rap and hip-hop as troubling in other aspects as well, such as the misogyny, the abusive language. I think that there are phrases that dehumanize the individual who expresses them and the individual who hears them—not just the N-word.

Homepage photo by Tom Wallace.
Originally Published: April 2nd, 2008

Tod Marshall grew up in Kansas. His books of poetry include Bugle (Canarium Press, 2014), The Tangled Line (Canarium Press, 2009), and Dare Say (University of Georgia Press, 2002). He has also published a collection of his interviews with contemporary poets, Range of the Possible (Eastern Washington University Press, 2002) and an attendant...

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  1. April 15, 2008
     Majid Naficy

    I would like Yusef to read this poem, "On the Booksellers' Street of Baghdad":

  2. April 18, 2008
     Laine Cote'

    What Wasn't Said

    A good poem peels back the layers

    isn't afraid to speak horror

    in soft tones---

    We expect the politically motivated

    to keep the jaw bone polished.

    The artist turns it into art.

    That's the gift of alchemy---

    Which is what moves me

    most about YK's

    poetry. It takes you places you don't

    want to go but it takes

    you so beautifully.

    You can't resist.

    Laine Cote'

    Cocoa Beach, FL

  3. August 8, 2008
     Shirley Hanshaw

    I am a great admirer of Komunyakaa's poetry, especially his "visual" approach. For me, his poems in Dien Cai Dau paint word pictures. One can almost paint the images he describes as he reads. Thanks for this poignant interview.

    By the way, I have a question: On what date and where was this interview conducted?


    S. Hanshaw