‘Poetry and art unearth moments of reckoning’

Poet Yusef Komunyakaa talks about the importance of imagining ourselves in another’s skin. His latest collection is “Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth.” 

Arthur Elgort/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“If one writes daily, it is difficult not to evolve,” says Yusef Komunyakaa regarding his highly anticipated collection, “Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021.” Critics have praised the work, which includes 12 new poems, as a stunning achievement that demonstrates why Komunyakaa, whose awards include the 1994 Pulitzer Prize, is one of America’s most celebrated poets. 

The 140 poems in this retrospective highlight Komunyakaa’s singular style of evocative opening lines, jazzy language, arresting images, and a masterful blending of various subjects, often within a few stanzas.

Komunyakaa, who teaches at New York University, grew up in rural Louisiana, and began writing poetry after serving as a journalist during the Vietnam War. His poems, which sometimes feel mystical in tone, reflect both raw experience and a deep intellectual curiosity as they turn from one way of seeing to another. 

“I hope this new collection surveys my journey over the past 20 years of travel and reflection, love and war, personal and public,” he says. “I feel my work is a place of freedom; I don’t wish to stay in one place spiritually or psychologically. For me, poetry renders what one knows but also what one may risk discovering. I love writing phrases and lines that prompt me to say, Where did that come from?” 

One surprise leads to another, until form and content converge. The poet’s job, says Komunyakaa, is to serve as a witness and evoke imaginative empathy while also confronting conflict. “We may think of a witness as someone going before a court of law seeking the balm of truth, but poetry as confrontation and celebration may arrive out of the east when we have our eyes set on the west.”

The opening poems in “Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth” balance praise, lament, and memory as Komunyakaa subtly celebrates his daughters and granddaughter, recalls childhood memories, and honors often-overlooked workers.

“If we think about the complex reality of this moment in our short history ... it’s important to imagine being in another person’s skin, experiencing the world through another’s senses. Such poems are necessary; they keep us human,” he says. “So, yes, there’s praise, lamentation, and memory in most of the new poems. At times, this work may nudge earlier poems slightly. I feel and hear the distance I must travel, as the music in language takes hold.”         

Throughout the collection, Komunyakaa addresses war and racism, which he has often described as a form of mental illness. The mind cannot be jailed, though “it can be violated by decrees or assumptions about pedigree,” he says. “But I refuse to embrace a tyranny of the mind and spirit, especially for the poet or scientist. As I have said before, and I still say, ‘No topic is taboo if a system of aesthetics works.’”       

A sense of mystery tinges many poems in “Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth.” “I have always been curious, even when I was a small boy, as I journeyed into shaded woods, pursuing a nameless grub worm or something that was no more than a feeling, a state of mind, or figure of speech,” he says. 

Over the years, mystery has entered his poetry more and more, though “true mystery seldom rises out of confusion, but more out of an active clarity. I love being surprised by language.”

While Komunyakaa’s writing is musical, imagery is often his catalyst. “For me, an image seems to frame the flow of time. Perhaps it takes me back to early moments of initiation. My daily treks into the woods taught me not only to see things, but also to see into things, to feel the unseen weaving, how the seasons come to be. I felt the insects, birds, and small animals beckoning,” he says. 

Komunyakaa’s poetry has progressed over time, as evidenced by the various approaches and lengths of pieces in the collection. Poetry has changed him as well. “I think poetry and art have encouraged me to delve deeper into life and possibility, and to return to moments that perhaps I should have taken to heart earlier. Let’s face it, I feel poetry and art unearth moments of reckoning – sometimes going back into time to step forward,” he says.

“I believe that each of us becomes a co-creator of meaning when he or she stands before a piece that fully engages and won’t let go. I love having a dialogue with art, especially when it isn’t attempting to tell me how to see and what to think. When it says freedom, and invites me in, it is truly working.”

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