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I stepped in gum on my way to a poetry reading this weekend. I was baffled and infuriated: First, who chews gum? Where are these ditzy blonde secretaries or sleazy agents in wraparound shades that, to my knowledge, are the only people left on the planet who get a kick out of gnawing Juicy Fruit? I’ve never seen anyone like that in New Orleans.

Second, who does not know the obvious result of discarding gum on the ground, the prolonged aggravation some innocent walker-by will undergo while having to scrape something impossibly both rock-hard and grossly gooey from the bottom of his shoe? Whoever spat it: Let him be hanged.

My aggravation was not totally a result of the gum. The poetry reading I went to intended to recognize the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which was Sunday, and among those featured was Yusef Komunyakaa—a Louisiana native now living in New York and a poet recently of great interest to me. Of course, in a gesture that affirms the robust humility that seethes from his work, Komunyakaa volunteered to read among the first poets instead of in the “headlining” spot at the end, where he belonged. And, of course, me—I’m always late for everything. He had finished by the time we got there.

I retreated to the bathroom after the event in search of some privacy in which I could attempt to chisel the remainder of the gum off my shoe—that which I hadn’t already rubbed into the fine fibers of Tulane’s auditorium’s carpet. I was leaning on a sink, making good progress, when I realized someone was in the bathroom with me, in a stall.

I began to daydream that it was Komunyakaa, and that after all I had gone through—the long wait at the sandwich shop which made us late in the first place; the drive across town during which I listened intently (obsessively?) to the noises my car made that increasingly suggest I’m going to need new struts; the rain; the gum on my shoe; missing Komunyakaa; Brenda Marie Osbey’s over-zealous expositing of mediocre verse; the bored, pompous look on Peter Cooley’s face throughout—this journey would have an extraordinary element after all. Komunyakaa would emerge from the stall while my foot was still in the air, my sole toward my face, gum in plain sight. I would glance up and recognize him, and he would see that I recognized him but that I was not overly awed or nervous in his intimate presence. He would gather that I’d read his work and appreciated it, and then he would look at the gray gum on my shoe and back up at me, and there would be a knowing connection between us.

In his effortless baritone he would tell me a story of how, once in Bogalusa when he was a boy, he too had memorably stepped on a piece of gum. The story would take place on a hot, muggy day, and would likely involve his father. It would illuminate the way in which we often learn one thing from a person who’s trying to teach us something completely different—or, how the lessons we receive from our well-meaning elders take on new shapes and proportions as they grow inside us during our path to adulthood. It would end with some line that would make me long for home, because I, like Komunyakaa, grew up in a small, crappy town and spent a good part of my life struggling to put it behind me, only to realize that this was impossible. He would only take a few sentences to achieve all this, and then he would wash his hands and walk out.

A college student in sandals and a white t-shirt was awkwardly maneuvering around me. I was blocking the paper towels. I put my foot back on the floor and returned to the lobby, where I ate a plate of complimentary salad.


This biographical sketch exists as the result of an assignment I received in my Louisiana Literature class. At the beginning of the course each student picked a Louisiana writer to have as a subject for several assignments throughout the semester. I picked Yusef Komunyakaa for reasons that should become apparent to you shortly.

Yusef Komunyakaa first learned to play music—that is, to speak, since oral language is our first music—as a small black boy in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where a paper mill dominated the town and the public library did not admit blacks. His father was a carpenter and a Calvinist. Yusef partook in carpentry years later in New Orleans, renovating a house in the Bywater. He wrote his first poems about Vietnam in that house, in intermittent trips down the ladder from the ceiling he was tearing out.

Yusef was born in 1947 and he is not nearly dead. He teaches poetry at New York University. In between this and that he has lived in Arizona, Colorado, California, Louisiana (again), New Jersey and Indiana, at least. He has mostly been a poet and a writer and a teacher. He daydreams about making sculptures and has recently begun to write plays. His grandfather stowed away on a boat from Trinidad. His grandmothers taught him to half-boil the wildness out of raccoons before roasting them.

Yusef walked with Robert Hayden in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado and they talked about how it paralleled a moonscape. Hayden wrote a poem about this later that taught Yusef how language and imagination can transform a physical landscape into a spiritual one—the poem was not a realistic recreation of the day as they gazed out at the rocky formations called Kissing Camels and Balanced Rock, as myriads of birds flashed in the high reddish crevices, but a fantastic tale from a poet who after a long journey arrives in America, and considers the country as an alien.

Yusef earned degrees from the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and the University of California, Irvine. He has taught at the University of New Orleans, the University of Indiana, Princeton, and NYU. Wesleyan University Press has published most of his books, some of the more notable of which are Copacetic (1984), Dien Cai Dau (1988), I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), Magic City (1992), Thieves of Paradise (1998), Pleasure Dome (2001), and Neon Vernacular, a collection for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Lately, he’s been publishing with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Yusef refuses to define himself as a jazz poet, although he sometimes writes jazz poetry. Occasionally he will write a poem with a refrain and then remove the refrain before he finishes the poem. The refrain is a false engine, but an engine nevertheless. “Yusef” is the refrain for this jazz biography.

Garcia Lorca invoked duende to help him write poetry. Yusef invokes the blues. No five hundred dollar suit will keep him out of Robert Johnson’s shoes.

Yusef had one more child in 2002 than he had in 2004. What happened was his son’s poet mother killed herself and their son in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She cut her son’s wrists with a kitchen knife and then cut her own throat. The son was two years old. Someone found them in a pool of blood in their dining room, along with a note that mentioned Yusef.

Yusef has at least one other daughter, who at the time of an old interview lived in Arizona, where Yusef’s mother also lived. Arizona is where Yusef went after the war. He was an air conditioning mechanic and a police officer. He thought he would be able to fight crime with a gun on his hip, but he ended up mostly behind a desk.

Yusef ingested a lot of images in Vietnam—violent ones, funny ones, enraging ones, pitiful ones, surreal ones. His poems often move from one image to the other, with space in between that creates tension. While he was in Vietnam he rode helicopters into combat zones to get the story, to get the picture. He brought along volumes of poetry with him and read them to calm down. The men he saw killing in Vietnam were men he saw loving the next day. The first Vietnam poem he wrote was “Instructions for Building Straw Huts,” in that house in the Bywater, at 818 Piety Street, a few blocks down from my own.

At one point in time Yusef dreamed of returning to New Orleans, and then came Katrina. He has this to say in 2006:

I hate to think of that tragedy being parlayed into a real estate project, but given that it’s in the United States, most likely the Ninth Ward is going to become a boom area for developers. However, we have to keep the horror of Katrina in our conscience, in our psyche, and we have to make decisions based on that awareness. For years, whenever I went back to New Orleans, I thought, “I’m going to move back here. I’m going to have an apartment here.” That’s the furthest thing from my mind at this moment, because I don’t want to participate in that evil at all.