A Certain Kind of Freedom: A Conversation with Yusef Komunyakaa


Black Guy White Guy Talking is a podcast where good friends Elwyn Laud-Hammond and Zachary Watterson talk about gun ownership, reparations, and housing, among other things. They speak with award-winning authors and thinkers, such as CNN and MSNBC commentator David Love, the American historian and author Nell Irvin Painter, MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship recipient Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and others. Elwyn is an activist and a Philadelphia native. Zachary is a writer and stonemason. On June 24th, 2021, they interviewed Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa about his life and work, including the comic book series Jupiter Invincible, for which Komunyakaa wrote the story. An excerpt from the first issue appears in the Spring 2024 issue of The Georgia Review.

The full BGWGT episode with Komunyakaa aired March 14, 2024—you can listen at Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.  





Zachary Watterson (ZW): Yusef Komunyakaa is from Bogalusa, Louisiana. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for Neon Vernacular. He served in the U.S. Army and the war in Vietnam. His new book is Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001–2021. Welcome, Yusef.

YK: Thanks a lot for the invite.

ZW: I wanted to start out because I’m aware—I read the first installment and really liked it—of this new comic book series, Jupiter Invincible, that has just been launched. And I wonder if you could say something about that project and how it came to be.

YK: Well, it came to be by me saying “yes” to an idea that Ram Devineni had a year and a half ago. So I wrote the story and Ashley A. Woods provided the artwork, and it came to life. So I was really surprised by just how easy it was, and the fact that we engaged such a severe topic as slavery.

ZW: Will new issues continue to be released?

YK: This is the first installment. Yes, there are going to be other issues as well. This is just the beginning. This is the first door that’s been opened to Jupiter’s life. Which is unusual, really, because I see it as an element of magical realism as well.

ZW: Hmm.

YK: First of all, he’s born as an albino, so automatically he’s definitely outcast within the context of many societies—not just African American society or American society, but African societies as well. This story has a double meaning, and I just went with it. I think that’s what happens when one is a creative artist; sometimes we are given gifts. I thought of it as a moment where I was given a gift. I could go many directions with it. A matter of fact, the story is—his mother dies in childbirth, and I don’t want to give the whole story away . . .

Elwyn Laud-Hammond (ELH): Right.

YK: Because he ventures back to the netherworld, that world-between-worlds, a kind of psychological limbo. But in the final analysis: how is he accepted as a human being? And I sort of surprised myself. And sometimes when I write poetry, I come to a line and I say, well, “where did that come from?” And I laugh about it. So, those moments are gifts, when I’m surprised.

ZW: Talking about how you know a poem is finished, you called the process an intense negotiation. Could you say more about that?

YK: I think it has a lot to do with my method of writing. Initially, the poem is more of an improvisation. So I’m just going with what some people may call “the flow,” but I don’t necessarily call it “the flow,” I call it improvisation. And often, I have written past the essence from the poem. Sometimes the poem has gone on for—a good example—for ninety-nine lines. When in fact, when I cut it back, it’s probably forty-five lines or even shorter. So that’s my method of generating the energy, the images, and all, because in some sense, they have to surprise me. I don’t see myself as a journalist, you know. Journalism, which I embrace and love, but I think creative writing is something entirely different. There is a process of negotiation, yes.

ELH: What was the birth of that gift? What started you on this journey?

YK: I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I was born in Louisiana, and I had a certain kind of freedom. To venture out anywhere in that very interesting space, not realizing that also I was connecting myself to the imagination. For instance, even at five years old, I would venture out into the woods, you know, I felt safe, even if I was alone, or with other boys. And it was a way of discovering where you’re observing, but, also, you’re beginning to see into things. And it’s that whole thing about seeing into things that interests me more than just your typical observation that’s kind of clinical. I wanted to know how things are put together and how they exist and how they’re made. So nature is constantly surprising us. I think maybe that’s where it really began.

ELH: From there to where you are now, did you have, like, this conventional path? A goal in mind of where you wanted to be? Or what did you want to share?

YK: I had come across James Baldwin’s essays, the book Nobody Knows My Name. I came across that collection of essays, and I have to admit, I was fourteen and I had never read anything like that. So, for a long time, I thought I would write essays, um, looking at things that I took for granted. But I started reading poems as well. It was during what was called Negro History Week; that’s when I was introduced to Phyllis Wheatley, Dunbar, to Langston Hughes, to some of the protest writers, who were writing sonnets, really. Some of the people such as Claude McKay, who wrote “If We Must Die,” which is such a powerful poem. It was so powerful that that poem was read to the English by Churchill in World War II. “If We Must Die.” So, I think I related to the rhythms in language. I think of language as of the first music in the body that is amplified, if that makes sense. That you feel when you are speaking, you feel the rhythms. Especially, I think, when you are small, when you are just experiencing the glory of the world, you know? I think maybe that’s where the impulse to actually put the pencil to the paper, and to write a line. I loved listening to the radio early on, when I was four and five, but I would never—I would sing along, okay, but I would never sing the lyrics that came out of the radio. I was making my lyrics up. I don’t know if, in retrospect, it made any sense, but I was just having fun, I suppose.

ZW: In Blue Notes, you wrote about improvisation and revision. You wrote that “for me, it’s always a cutting back, a honing that compresses energy . . .”

YK: Yep. Yeah, I feel that still.

ZW: Resisting resolution.

YK: Yes, because the reason I’m resisting resolution, most times, is the fact that I want to invite the reader in as co-creator of meaning. When a reader’s participating in place of just, you know, responding to something that’s been told, then a poem can have more than one meaning.

ZW: You wrote that Langston Hughes, alongside Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Helene Johnson, was one of the most innovative voices of the Harlem Renaissance, and that, like Walt Whitman, the pulse and throb of Hughes’ vision is driven by an acute sense of beauty and tragedy in America’s history. I wonder whether the same is true for you, and whether you would expand on that.

YK: Oh gosh, yes. It’s interesting where things converge. I think those poets, they witnessed but they also celebrated. I started saying that poetry has to—for myself—has to be confrontation and celebration. Let’s face it: that’s the interesting, I think, an interesting way of facing the world, and it’s—how complex it is, you know. I said that early on and I still believe that. There’s an intense seeing, but also there’s an intense listening. I think that’s what those poets were doing as well. They were listening to everything happening around them. Consequently, they knew what was happening to them. I trust that. I trust the spirit of the individual.

ZW: You once said that after reading the Bible a second time through, you began to see Christ as a socialist. I wonder if you could talk about that.

YK: [chuckles] That was so long ago, when I think about it. It was after I had read, really, Baldwin, and I knew Baldwin had, even his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, you know, it’s about that early experience of coming to—in his own, as a very youthful preacher, and he had a gift for it. And I said “well—” I found myself, just growing up in the South especially, reading the Bible with intent, with minds and ears open, you know? [chuckles] I read it through, and then I said, “let me try it again,” because I began to question things. It’s an amazing creative document, you know? Its history is there as well, poetry is there—I want to underline that, poetry is there, because I have a friend, Willis Barnstone, who has translated the Bible, and he definitely has found so many poems just in the language, and just the flow of language, the rhythm, metaphor, and what have you. I feel that I came to a place where I began to write down notes and, I suppose, stepped away from the text, because I have this belief that the Christ figure was definitely a socialist. But I think that was his grace. But I had other arguments with myself more than anything else. I thought the fact that he was thinking about his fellow human beings in such an intense revolutionary way, where he was—the one thing that he does that gets him nailed to the cross is when he thrashes the money lenders from the temple.

ZW: As I understand it, your grandfather’s name was Komunyakaa.

YK: There’s all kinds of stories centered around that, a variation of that, coming from the West Indies, probably Trinidad. But also, you know, time is a part of loss as well, so I never really wanted to take everything down, but I used it as a place that I could embrace and jump off from.

ZW: And I think I remember you saying there’s a freedom in names.

YK: There’s a freedom, for sure. I think so.

ZW: I often come back to your poem “Facing It,” and you’ve talked about how it took you fourteen years, um, to be able to write about your experiences in Vietnam. The final image of that poem, “In the black mirror a woman’s trying to erase names: No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.” I find the tenderness of that final image, against the background of war and death, stunning. I wonder if you could talk about that poem, or about the fourteen years it took you to write about those experiences.

YK: I thought I would write essays about the war. I had taken with me to Vietnam an anthology of poems, New American Poetry, I think, edited by Donald Allen. And I had also taken with me a novel, titled Five Smooth Stones. So I was reading poetry in Vietnam, but I thought “I don’t even know why I took those books with me.” It was just impulse. I don’t know how many soldiers actually took books with them, but I’m surmising that a few did. At least, I hope so. I was teaching composition at the University of New Orleans, at the time, and it was summertime as well. I didn’t plan to write about Vietnam, but I was renovating a house. They had what they called the horse plaster walls. Horse hair in the walls, and trying to refinish that, those walls, journeying up a high ladder and what have you. And I had a pad of paper down on the floor, and I would write an image down. The first poem I started writing related to Vietnam, somewhere near Phu Bai. And the second poem I wrote was “Facing It.” That poem is so different from some of the other poems I’ve written, because when I got to that last line, I could not go any farther. I felt it was finished. It’s strange. That’s one of the few poems I’ve written that way. Maybe that’s a gift, I hope, too.

ELH: I wonder, does poetry release you from trauma when you write it? Or when it’s received by a listener? Or both, or neither?

YK: I think it’s an interesting moment of communication. It’s not an outward motion. It is a motion where it comes towards us, and enters us to a certain extent, because images are very, um, interesting in that—the fact that—those images are taken in. And one may be asleep, but the image is still doing its work. It is still there, because the mind, the brain, is trying to make some sense out of it. And sometimes, a single image—it can take us so many different places—and that’s why there’s a kind of active negotiation going on as well. There’s a back and forth. Finally, one arrives at a place where one fully understands a moment. Not necessarily a whole emotional-psychological landscape, but one understands a moment in one’s complex existence.

ZW: I won’t read the whole quote, but you ended Blue Notes by saying “I don’t know, but I now realize silence is not an endurance test for me, and it never was.”

YK: That has a lot to do with the fact that I could walk out into nature and be at home, [chuckles] you know? Even though nature’s not totally silent, of course, with the singing of birds, the singing of insects, and whatever. And also, the mind is fully at work, taking in everything, you know?

ZW: Mmm.

YK: It’s a dialogue.

ELH: Mmm.

YK: I think that’s what we are always reaching towards—let’s hope we are—a dialogue. Sometimes that dialogue is with oneself, but also others, and life is an intense moment and a negotiation. We have to be able to open our arms and say “yes, here it is, [chuckles] deal with it” right?


Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Komunyakaa’s Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1994) won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Komunyakaa is the recipient of the 2011 Wallace Stevens Award and the co-creator of the “Jupiter Invincible” comic book series.

Elwyn Laud-Hammond is an activist and Philadelphia native, dedicated to the upliftment of Black people and to having cross racial dialogue about race relations. His hope and aspiration for this world is that we try to honestly and openly work on our differences so that we can collectively find ways to create progress for our children and the next generations. His audio documentary with Zachary Watterson, “The History of Policing Black People in America—with David A. Love—BGWGTalking #10,” was a finalist for The Missouri Review’s 2021 Miller Audio Prize.

Zachary Watterson’s writing has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, The Paris Review Daily, Massachusetts Review, Post Road, and the anthology Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees (Norton). His work has been honored in the Best American Essays series. His audio documentary with Elwyn Laud-Hammond, “The History of Policing Black People in America—with David A. Love—BGWGTalking #10,” was a finalist for The Missouri Review’s 2021 Miller Audio Prize.