restricted access Three Shades of Past: Interview by G. F. Mitrano
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126 Three Shades of Past Interview by G. F. Mitrano 1. Childhood and Apprenticeship Mena Mitrano: Memories of your childhood in Bogalusa, Louisiana, often crop up in your poetry. In your well-­ known “Venus’s-­ flytraps,” the child protagonist at one point wonders why “the music in [his] head” makes him scared. I wanted to ask you about the connection between that child and the poet you grew up to be. What is that “music in [the] head”? What made it so overwhelming for the child, and what makes the music—­ if this is still the case—­ overwhelming for you? Yusef Komunyakaa: Well, I think of the music as a point of departure, the moment of awareness. And perhaps music is also the sounds of life. If one thinks about laughter, how it can shift and drift into cries—­ cries of pain, of pleasure. So, I’m thinking about music played on instruments as well as the music of life. I did listen to music growing up. It was always through the radio, at a distance—­ the surprise happens inside this immense distance. So, there are different kinds of music I am addressing. GFM: In that poem, particularly, music is such a powerful metaphor because the child is trying to patch up and balance different sets of things, different worlds: the whispering of adults, which he cannot totally decipher, and the facts, the music of the natural world. Music as it returns, if I’m not mistaken, in “Rhythm Method”: the pulse, the basic throbbing of a natural law. YK: Right. A lyrical insistence. A music that defines itself, says what it is. From Callaloo 28, no. 3 (2005). 127 GFM: One of my favorite poems is “My Father’s Love Letters.” Your father comes back home from the mill; he is in his carpenter’s apron bulged with nails and he is transfigured, it seems to me, into a model for the writer. He is laboring over simple words, focusing on wooing back his reader—­ your mother. The poem strikes me as the masculine version of Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens or Paule Marshall’s “The Poets in the Kitchen.” In other words, it stages—­ in the best sense of the word—­ a scene of apprenticeship in which a parent or an ancestor who sometimes can only sign his name, nevertheless becomes the young writer’s mentor and first teacher. That seems to happen in your poem. As he stands there, “redeemed by what he tried to say,” the father transmits a core knowledge about language to the child. The achievement of the poem to me lies in its capacity to preserve the power of this transmission despite the violence of the father, which is very clear in the poem. Is your father—­ was he—­ a mentor to you? How much of his world of labor has made its way into your philosophy of composition? YK: Growing up, I don’t think I was actually conscious of that influence from my father. But in retrospect, as a matter of fact, years after writing the poem, I realized that yes, as an untutored mentor, his precise ways of looking at the world and his techniques as a carpenter were instructive. I think the first thing I remember him building was a birdhouse for me. It was a replica of a larger house, everything in place and so fine-­ tuned. I think he taught me something about revision: how to go back. If something didn’t work for him, he would dismember it and approach it again. Maybe that’s how I learned to return to a poem and look at it in a different way, to tear it apart. GFM: This is a wonderful way of talking about revision: this idea of taking the experience of labor and then making it work for the composition on the page. YK: Also, when I think about my father, though, I think he was ashamed of not having been educated, so he used physical labor to measure himself against the ones who, particularly, had been to college, for instance, and came back to Bogalusa as teachers. He built for himself three houses. I think he began to measure himself in material things, to at least make himself feel that he had achieved something in his life. 128 2. History GFM: You trust words. That is clear to me when in some poems you make words paint things. YK: Yes...