Yusef Komunyakaa knows the texture of sound and the multitude of instruments contained in a single voice. He first heard jazz on his wooden radio in 1950s Louisiana: Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, a Dinah Washington ballad. Then came the cadence of the Bible and gospel music, then Shakespeare, then the modernist poets. "Song lyrics brought me to the power of words," he explained in an interview with Poets.org, "the songs taught me to listen." Komunyakaa believes that we internalize the music and rhythms around us, and everything we say or write is "filtered" through that musical memory.
His poems are rich with musical imagery: songs sung in fields, jazz playing on jukeboxes, and wounded musicians struggling for redemption. And yet, there is also breathing room, a space for silence. In his poem "Rhythm Method," he writes about the process of discerning the rhythm of the heart from the variety of sounds in the natural world:
We know the whole weight
depends on small silences
we fit ourselves into.
Music provides Komunyakaa with a means to explore complex issues of race and human relationships, while never reducing it through an attempt to reproduce the sounds themselves. "I gave myself a line of instruction a few years ago: 'I am not a horn,'" he explained. "It troubles me when poetry tries to equal music through outlandish mimicry of musical instruments. It is not music or poetry."
Komunyakaa has long been inspired by the black musicians of the 1950s and 1960s who overcame obstacles of prejudice, crossed color lines in their choice of bandmates, and were embraced by the population as a whole, despite ongoing racism in the culture. To Komunyakaa, their careers demonstrate the ability of music to humanize and unite people, evidence of "democracy in action."
Like many poets, he is especially drawn to working with jazz artists. He explains, "Jazz has space, and space equals freedom, a place where the wheels of imagination can turn and a certain kind of meditation can take place. It offers a meditational opportunity."
What distinguishes jazz, for Komunyakaa, is improvisation and the remarkable potential it offers. "One can be trained to read sheet music and play what is written. But one cannot be easily trained to compose and play simultaneously, which is what occurs when someone improvises," he said, making the connection to writing. "There is an element of improvisation in poetry. Getting down the urgent energy of the piece is improvisation, then comes the shaping and revising. But the surprises happen in the moment of improvisation."
In 1998, Komunyakaa recorded Love Notes from the Madhouse, a collaboration with jazz musician Denis Gonzalez. On this seamless album, Komunyakaa's voice moves effortlessly among the other instruments, speaking its solo alongside the bass, the percussion, and the expressive trumpet of Gonzalez. The pair went on to record Herido in 2001, a live improvisational performance featuring Mark Deutsch on sitar, Susie Ibarra on percussion, and Sugar Blue on harmonica. The result is a lush, Southern landscape of sound and speech.
In addition to reading his poetry accompanied by musicians, Komunyakaa has also written song lyrics, including compositions for the album Thirteen Kinds of Desire by jazz vocalist Pamela Knowles. The songs are not simply poems set to music, nor are they traditional lyrics: "I wanted to write a different kind of lyric, with elements of imagery and surprise, the same as a poem," he explains. "I didn't want to have the lyric be cliché-driven, which is the situation with most songs. I also utilized rhyme and rhyme-approximations--that’s my other distinction between writing songs and poems."
In 1995, Chris Williams from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned Komunyakaa to write a libretto for an opera about Charlie Parker. He searched for a form that would combine his jazz sensibilities and Parker’s improvisational genius with the more formal constraints of opera. He settled on a long poem called "Testimony," composed as fourteen double sonnets for voice that retain internal freedom and rhythmic movement inside a more classical, symmetrical structure. The poem is a chronological sequence of "testimonies" voiced by different characters that pay homage to Parker’s life and work.
"I agonized about what it would be," he recalls. "I kept thinking about it as a traditional construct with an illusion of symmetry. Chris Williams responded, 'I thought we agreed on a libretto' but then he showed "Testimony" to Sandy Evans, the composer, and she said: 'This is what I hoped for.' It gave her the freedom to be inventive. The narrative is a guide for her, I wanted to show how complex and troubled Parker's life was." Evans transformed the poem first into a radio show and then a live performance with thirty-one musicians and a singer. Some poems are sung, and some are spoken, allowing them to retain the natural rhythms of Komunyakaa’s language.
Komunyakaa has continued his libretto work with Slip Knot, working with composer T. J. Anderson and historian T. H. Breen. The piece was first performed in 2003 at Northwestern University and based on the true story of a Massachusetts slave who was wrongly accused of raping a white woman and was finally executed. In 2003, he collaborated on a jazz chamber opera, Shangri-la, with percussionist Susie Ibarra, whom he had previously worked with on the album Herido. Shangri-la, which is about a fictional Chinese American detective named John Wong, allows its musicians improvisational freedom within the composition.
In his librettos, Komunyakaa applies many of the devices and fixtures of his poetry, while providing room for the composer and performers to make their contributions. As he explained, "I want to find an elastic structure, to pull it this way and that, the same way one does with a poem, to give the composer some freedom. Nothing should be ironclad." He often struggles with the limitations on the form: "The problem in a libretto is one has to make it simple, or that’s what they tell me. But I keep resisting this advice. There's an argument against simplicity and poetry has brought me to that argument. The human mind is always begging to be challenged. I wanted to stay close to poetry. "
The astounding variety of musical forms woven through Komunyakaa's work not only speaks to the power of art in culture, but also its redemptive ability for the individual. Instead of blithely accepting grim circumstances, he believes music and poetry can be used to undermine a stacked deck. "One can try to make some sense of things," he said, "and turn the stacked deck into a positive influence."