Cover

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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv

Contents

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pp. v-vi

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Language in Our Blood

Radiclani Clytus

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pp. vi-xvi

Of the hues that make up the chromatic spectrum, the color red is perhaps unrivaled in its metaphorical range and symbolic resonance. In many of our sacred myths, it either implies the presence of life or augurs a certain death. Throughout the Abrahamic faiths, it colors the etymological roots of Adam as a ruddy progenitor, but it is also the complexion of war and apocalypse. For billions, it represents good fortune and prosperity...

I. Essays

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pp. 1-2

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Red

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p. 3

The insides of something. An answer inside a question. An unholy thing turned inside out, left quivering in the last hour of Saturnalia. The juicy, blood-red heart of a watermelon placed on the altar for the dead. This I know because Uncle Jesse took out his pearl-handled pocketknife, cut into the green rind, and plucked out a square of red meat to show me. Red is always its own proof. Rage feels red because it is the first definition of...

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Erasure

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pp. 4-15

In John Hawkes’s novel Travesty, the narrator speaks to his daughter’s lover as he drives the three of them toward death:

Murder, Henri? Well, that is precisely the trouble with you poets. In your pessimism you ape the articulation you achieve in written words, you are able to recite your poems as an actor his lines, you consider yourselves quite exempt from all those rules of behavior that constrict us lesser-privileged men...

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An Ode to Raccoon

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pp. 16-18

In early May 1981, I returned to Bogalusa, Louisiana, embarrassed by my lack of “meaningful employment,” living on next to nothing, and again depending on the love and kindness of my maternal grandmother, Mama Mary. I had served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, attended colleges in Colorado and California, spent seven months as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and also had written a handful of poems I...

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Sorrow Songs and Flying Away: Religious Influence on Black Poetry

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pp. 19-28

When blacks first encountered Europeans and their religion, a strange and complex bond was forged. Newly encased in the manacles of slavery, they had their first taste of Christianity. Usually, there was a chapel at the center of each holding pen. It was a symbol of conquest and power. In my recent visit to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle, the presence of the chapel hit me harder than the small cells for slaves, harder than that stone path that slanted down to where the ships would have been anchored,...

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A Needful Thing

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pp. 29-31

I have been greatly influenced by Robert Hayden, the man and his poetry, but recently I argued with myself for days, wondering if I have been perhaps more profoundly influenced by Frederick Douglass. I arm-wrestled myself, going back and forth, and, of course, Douglass finally overpowered Hayden. When I return to the pages Douglass amassed, his spirit prevails. Here is a man born a slave; his mother dies when he is only seven; he confronts...

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Crossroads

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pp. 32-33

The crossroads is a real place between imaginary places—points of departure and arrival. It is also a place where negotiations and deals are made with higher powers. In the West African and Haitian traditions of Legba, it is a sanctified place of reflection (mirrors are used in symbolic travel). The crossroads is a junction between the individual and the world....

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A Supreme Signifier: Etheridge Knight

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pp. 34-36

Etheridge Knight is hard to pin down, but Jean Anaporte-Easton’s lucid, revealing introduction captures the elusive toastmaster—the man, the poet. What she knows rises out of the personal—because she knew the poet—and softly collides within her scholarship to reveal to us, the readers, Etheridge in all of his complexity. Her criticism honors the man and his work. But Etheridge would have been the first among us to have stood...

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The Devil’s Secretary

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pp. 37-51

A year ago, someone broke into my apartment. He left greasy handprints on the door and its metal frames; great effort and violence had been used, which left the frame bent—a template of desperation.
Mentioning the incident to three people, each asked in their own way, “Don’t you feel violated?”
“Yes,” I said.
The thief had emptied out a small inlaid box that held cuff links I’d collected through the years; a pocket watch, silver...

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The Blue Machinery of Summer

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pp. 52-60

“I feel like I’m part of this damn thing,” Frank said. He carried himself like a large man even though he was short. A dead cigarette dangled from his half-grin. “I’ve worked on this machine for twenty-odd years, and now it’s almost me.”
It was my first day on a summer job at ITT Cannon in Phoenix in 1979. This factory manufactured parts for electronic systems—units that fit into larger, more complex ones. My job...

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The Blood Work of Language

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pp. 61-64

There are few voices as urgent as Thomas Glave’s. In Among the Bloodpeople, he neither hesitates nor attempts to prepare us for the unsayable “that” which divorces some men and women from their Jamaican families. No sooner than a quick leap, we are wound in the bloody, necessary realities of Politics and Flesh. We learn the cold, hard, naked facts up front, and Glave’s profound dialectical relationship to these subjects. He writes:...

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Son of Pop: Floyd D. Tunson’s Neo-blues

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pp. 65-71

I have known Floyd Tunson since Colorado Springs, 1975. Even then as young artists we must have seen something in each other, in our work, something that may have sounded like “Yeah, man, I understand where you’re coming from.” And, for me, this reintroduction to Floyd’s work is a roundabout. Now, sitting here in New York City almost forty years later, what has seemed like several lifetimes ago suddenly feels very present. I rejoice in...

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Conundrum

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pp. 72-78

For some reason, when I think of Africa, I think of the matador in the bull ring planting feathered lances into the creature to wound, infuriate, and corrupt its spirit. Perhaps this is a metaphor for colonization. Yet if one compares Africa to India or a number of other places that have been colonized, one might see that it wasn’t Africa’s heart colonized, but its spirit. And one may argue back and forth, asking, What is the more brutal or complete colonization, the heart or the spirit?...

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Clarence Major’s Cosmopolitan Vision

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pp. 79-82

There’s no other voice in American poetry that sings quite like Clarence Major’s, and his new collection, From Now On: New and Selected Poems 1970–2013, elucidates ample proof. Of course, some poets and critics have attempted to trace the lineage of Major’s voice and vision to the objectivists (because of his unembellished language), especially to Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen, and even to Denise Levertov; others associate him with...

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Dark Waters

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pp. 83-95

I grew up in the Green Empire. Magic City. The place was there, brimming in its mossy quietude, before the axes began to swing—cutting down the virgin pine forest on July 4, 1914, when the town was incorporated. The name comes from the Native American–named creek, “Boge Lusa,” where smoke-dark waters flow through the city....

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The Method of Ai

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pp. 96-104

I remember sitting in that Greystone apartment in Colorado Springs, gazing out over Monument Park, Pikes Peak looming there, as I turned from Ai on the cover of the American Poetry Review (July–August 1973, vol. 2, no. 4), back to the poems printed in those pages, poems that would appear in her first book, Cruelty. Ai’s poetry found me when I was repeatedly reading Ted Hughes’s Crow, momentarily taken by the poetic strangeness of...

II. Interviews

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pp. 105-106

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Collaboration and the Wishbone: Interview by Michael Collins

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pp. 107-125

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?...

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Three Shades of Past: Interview by G. F. Mitrano

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pp. 126-137

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...

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Excursions: A Conversation with Kyle G. Dargan

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pp. 138-147

Kyle G. Dargan: I was talking to Jericho Brown yesterday and he told me you two had already gotten started on this conversation.
Yusef Komunyakaa: [Laughing] Oh really?
KGD: He was telling me about how you saw hip-hop, and the negative effects it has, as linked to a larger structure—what seemed like possibly a larger plan, which was implemented on...

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Getting a Shape: Interview by Divya Ayyala and Rob Rosencrans

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pp. 148-156

Divya Ayyala: What was your first experience with poetry?
Yusef Komunyakaa: Okay, the first two poems I memorized were Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation.” That encouraged me to read Paul Laurence Dunbar, and I ventured from his “Ode to Ethiopia” and “An Antebellum Sermon” to voices from the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Anne Spencer,...

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The Wolf/Interview: Interview by Ishion Hutchinson

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pp. 157-163

Ishion Hutchinson: You have written verse plays and have collaborated with other artists for staged performances in the past, but your Gilgamesh: A Verse Play is the first time you have adapted an existing work for both the page and the stage. Can you speak a little at how you arrived at your own dramatic language that reimagines the old narrative?...

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Celebration and Confrontation: Walt Whitman: A Conversation with Jacob Wilkenfeld

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pp. 164-176

Yusef Komunyakaa is the author of fourteen volumes of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1994 collection Neon Vernacular. His many other honors include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award. His most recent book, The Chameleon Couch (2011) was a finalist for the National Book Award. He is Global Distinguished Professor of English at New York University. The absorptive,...

III. Commentaries

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pp. 177-178

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Notes from a Lost Notebook

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pp. 179-189

For me, there has to be an absolute flexibility in maintaining a notebook. My notebooks are really scrapbooks—pieced together with fragments, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, long and short passages, magazine and newspaper clippings, postcards, etc. Thus, I attempt to avoid any kind of note structure. Sometimes the passages are logical and controlled, and other times they are abbreviated and somewhat improvisational sounding. Later, however, these items seem to dictate their own coherence. Some are like jump starts for the imagination; others function more like jump...

You Made Me

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pp. 190-192

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More Than a State of Mind

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pp. 193-194

I believe that each of us internalizes a landscape composite of myths and stories, and we carry that psychological terrain within us as we make our way through the world, whether we are facing that green divan that Anna Akhmatova slept on in Saint Petersburg or gazing out at Stone Mountain in Georgia, an overlay by which the future is often colored and through which it is often perceived. However, like Lillian Smith—“Miss Lil”—some of...

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Eros, Words

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p. 195

Words do not have to slide off the tongue like escargot or love to be sensual or erotic. To taste the godliness in language has little to do with nectar and ambrosia, but it seems to suggest that it is made of earth even when it isn’t earthy, that it is an emotional apparition of one’s feelings—an attempt to make it flesh, temporal. The birth cry is an act of creation; the gods are woven through breath, into words....

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A Letter to Poetry

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pp. 196-198

Dear Editor,

Operation Homecoming1 reminds me that we had our soldier-poets in Vietnam also; and for the most part, they penned what I call “the boondock doggerel of blood and guts” which was printed by the Stars and Stripes. Of course, this was aimed at boosting the morale of the troops. War means to kill or be killed. The more immediate soldiers are to their acts of violence, the less...

Small Illuminations

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pp. 199-211

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How Poetry Helps People to Live Their Lives

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pp. 212-213

Lately, I feel like I have been cornered by Robert Hayden’s infamous Devil’s Advocate, the Inquisitor, a shadow figure in the poet’s psyche who keeps one edgy and true to each word in his or her personal canon. Maybe this is the same force that prompts us to pick up the pen in the first place: A discourse which leads to discovery. Here, at this moment in our history, as we prepare for millennium parties around the world—big on commerce...

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Picking a Lock to the Mind-Jail in the City of Asylum

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pp. 214-218

“My poetry is not political,” I heard Huang Xiang say to the camera.
It was humbling to sleep two nights in the house at 408 Sampsonia Way, where Xiang’s “House Poem” has been painted on the front facade in white calligraphy. I felt psychically safe in this house; it seemed here I had permission to travel dangerously in my head, to plumb a place where the blues come from, to...

A Note from The Best American Erotic Poems

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p. 219

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The Mission of American Poets and Writers Visiting the 2008 Kolkata Book Fair

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p. 220

The United States is one of the most diverse nations in the world. Likewise, India is similarly diverse, and it is this shared sense of diversity that sparked the idea of selecting a small group of American poets and writers (twelve) to participate in the 2008 Kolkata Book Fair. In a worldwide climate of distrust and violence, we believe that art, especially literature, can still facilitate...

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Rewriting Dante

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pp. 221-222

In a certain sense, America is always attempting to reinvent itself. We have used world literature and culture as elements in that process of reinvention, as the engine through which our myth-making is driven. And, yes, Dante’s vision is one of many lenses through which we view aspects of our cultural history. But, of course, like each of us, Dante possessed his own flaws and shortcomings. Perhaps that’s what draws us to his enchanting vision...