Few people I’ve ever met speak with the gravitas of Yusef Komunyakaa. A conversation with him can be a meditative experience. The words wrap themselves around ideas rather than simply standing in for them. Rhythmically, he speaks in spacious jazz solos, allowing pauses to be as significant as the words themselves and letting the meaning of what he’s saying float between new questions and hints of possible answers. It is mesmerizing.
We were lucky enough to interview Mr. Komunyakaa for our free course “A Conversation with the Blues” taught by Princeton University’s Vince di Mura. For those who don’t know him, Mr. Komunyakaa is one of America’s most accomplished poets. He’s written countless award-winning works of poetry, often in an American vernacular, calling upon jazz and blues influences, African American experiences, imagery of the rural South, and other cultural traditions to weave stories that are at once dreamy and chilling. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award in 1994 for his book Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977-1989, which draws heavily upon his time spent as a soldier during the Vietnam War.
We talked to Yusef about the blues, the artists who make it, the traditions it draws upon, and the many meanings that can be found within it. You can watch the edited video from our blues course in the video above, watch all of our blues videos on our Youtube channel, and listen to the entire unedited conversation at the bottom of this article.
Here are just a few of my favorite pieces of wisdom that Yusef shared on the topic of the poetry of the blues…
Mystery and Surprise in the Blues
“We think we can get to the truth by the total erasure of mystery, and consequently we erase the deep questioning… I’ve been writing poems for a long time, and I refuse to have a straightforward narrative because I have to surprise myself. Otherwise I don’t think I would write. And that’s the same thing about the blues singer. I don’t think the blues singer would be singing if he or she is overly controlled.”
The Blues as a Feeling
“Often the blues singer was a storyteller as well. For the storyteller, the individual comes up with the words, possibly the refrain, BUT the feeling is discovered. And that is what propels the individual. The blues is a feeling.”
The Sacred and the Profane
“We talk about the sacred and the profane within the context of the blues as well, because often on the weekday and Sunday some of these blues singers were very connected to the church. Saturday night was a different thing. It was a place of revision, but also it was a place of confrontation.”
The Blues as a Tool for Survival
“We have to think about signifying, how saying one thing means another. And I think it has something to do with, we can say, survival, when you can talk to elements of authority without being so direct, and yet you’re talking to everyone around that symbol as well. It has to do with surviving, code-switching. Language is political. Language is music. The body is an amplifier. So we feel the sound. The blues is the poetry of the soul.”