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Callaloo 28.3 (2005) 620-634

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Komunyakaa, Collaboration, and the Wishbone

An Interview

The following interview consists of Komunyakaa's responses to questions faxed to him on July 14, 2004.

Part I: On Collaboration

MICHAEL COLLINS: You have been involved in many collaborations. You have collaborated with musicians and with visual artists. The results have included stage and radio performances and CDs. In general, what attracts you to collaborations with artists working in different media?

YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: The ideal collaboration is a dialogue and negotiation. Of course, one has to carefully select his or her partner in crime; one has to select someone whose sense of aesthetics is interwoven into the character of each endeavor. But also, most importantly, someone who can grow with you, so that the two of you are like two or more dancers entangled in a tango of the heart and brain. However, the moves are not agreed upon in advance; the collaborators must be able to negotiate the sway of the imagination. That is what interests me the most: how one's vision expands into a collaborative action. Ideas speak to each other; they sing and fight together until they make each other whole.

Natural or unnatural, they belong together, and they create a fluid insinuation, a tension that speaks to us. Life itself is such a dialogue.

Of course, each collaboration is different. Like friends or lovers, each has wandered into my life uniquely, each bearing inherent differences and similarities. Testimony came to me out of nowhere, after I presented a reading of my poetry on radio in Sydney at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Christopher Williams, a radio producer there, asked me in 1995, "Do you think you can write a libretto on jazz for radio?" There was an immense moment of silence. Finally, I said yes. But what would the libretto address? Within the hour, I committed myself to writing a libretto on the infamous Charlie Parker. I would work with a wonderful saxophonist and composer, Sandy Evans, whom I had heard playing at local gigs around Sydney. At the time, I think, she was performing and traveling with three of her ensembles, each configured [End Page 620] to produce a unique sound. I knew she would write some striking music. But how could I shape Parker's life into a libretto? Why had I said yes? Instead of plunging into Testimony, I began to pen some lyrics for an American jazz singer, Pamela Knowles, which grew into the CD Thirteen Kinds of Desire. When I returned to Bloomington to teach at Indiana University, Testimony was still on hold.

How could an opera assume the shape of Parker's chaotic life?

In thoughtful desperation, I wrote a series of poems that possess an illusion of symmetry. Christopher said, "I thought we agreed on a libretto?" But he forwarded the series of linked poems to Sandy Evans and she said, "Thank God. This is what I'd been hoping for." It seems that the words had given her the space in which to write her music. Testimony was broadcast in 1999 on ABC Classic FM. This radio airing created a buzz about it in Sydney that did not go away until, finally, the official world premiere of this performance piece was sponsored by the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Festival in association with the Melbourne Festival. The premiere itself took place in early 2002 and featured the Australian Art Orchestra.

Meanwhile, in 2000, Pamela Knowles had recorded and produced Thirteen Kinds of Desire, and the CD had gone on to generate something of an underground following.

With me, there's always a beckoning, and if I keep my heart and mind open, as I suppose is true with all of us, one thing leads to another. For instance, after I presented an April, 1998, reading at the George Moses Horton Society Conference, hosted by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the marvelous composer T. J. Anderson walked up and introduced himself. In retrospect, it seems I immediately found myself nodding my head...