Callaloo 28.3 (2005) 505-512
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Mentor and Friend
Yusef Komunyakaa as Teacher
I can pin down a precise moment when the arc of my life was nudged into a different trajectory—a deflection that leads inexorably to who I am now: poet, professor of poetry writing, coordinator of a creative writing program, editor at the North American Review. That precise moment was when Yusef Komunyakaa said to me, in his university office, as we looked over some of my early verse, "These poems are fine, but why don't you write about being Filipino?"
Before Yusef said that, I had been a Ph.D. student at Indiana University who wanted to write a scholarly critical dissertation on the fiction of John Gardner or else Faulkner. After Yusef said that, I bluffed my way into David Wojahn's graduate poetry workshop, entered IU's MFA program (on my third try), and after finishing the MFA, eventually completed the Ph.D., writing my dissertation on Vietnam-veteran poetry. (I'm a Vietnam-era veteran, and Yusef is a Vietnam veteran.)
Let me rewind the story a bit. I was an associate instructor (read "TA") in one of those research-university first-year literature classes, with a professor lecturing to the entire group and grad students running small discussion sections. Our supervising professor had invited a visiting professor to read and discuss his poems in our "big lecture." That poet was Yusef Komunyakaa.
The poems Professor Komunyakaa read that day concerned the Vietnam War. I was drawn in by the surrealist quality of the verse and also by his understated style of reading, but most strongly by his themes. Not only am I a US Army veteran, I am the brother, son, and grandson of combat vets (two of them career soldiers). What this poet was presenting so intimately was the heritage of my own family: three generations of US Army vets during two world wars and the Vietnam War.
I approached Professor Komunyakaa at the end of that class and blurted out something about how touched I was and that—I cringe a little at the thought of it now—I also wrote poems. He was very generous in that conversation and asked me to drop some of my work in his department mailbox, then come and see him during his office hours in a week or so.
The poems I slipped into his box were years old, dating back to a Yeats class I had taken, in which I had been inspired to write poems about Troy and Greek mythology. I don't recall now exactly which poems I showed Professor Komunyakaa, but perhaps the batch also included one or two written to try to impress young women when I was single. (Alas, misspent youth.) [End Page 505]
A week later, I'm in Professor Komunyakaa's office. We're looking at my poems, where he's circled unnecessary words and perhaps written a phrase or two below one poem or another. And then he speaks and changes my life.
Another vivid memory I have of Yusef Komunyakaa is blue. Intense electric blue. Blue right out of deep sky on a cloudless summer day. But that blue wasn't in the sky. And Yusef wasn't in that scene. He was halfway around the world, Down Under. The blue I'm talking about was in a Romare Bearden collage Yusef left with me while he traveled in Australia. The real thing. A signed work of art.
What I didn't know at the time, but which I intimately understand now, is that by asking me to be the caretaker of this irreplaceable art piece, Yusef was teaching me. I was learning something about how visual art can convey racial and ethnic memory and history (learning how to answer Yusef's question, "Why don't you write about being Filipino?").
Yusef could easily have put that Bearden into storage, perhaps in a facility that could have given it archival-level security. Instead he gave it to me to keep, and by looking...