By Colby Smith
“I’m trying to surprise myself a little,” said poet Yusef Komunyakaa with a smile as he flipped through the pages of his most recent book of poetry, appearing to select poems at random, to a packed audience in Ulrich Recital Hall Wednesday.
The event began with a small Q-and-A session in the basement of Dorchester Hall, where Writers’ House students asked Komunyakaa questions about his extensive body of work, which includes mainly poetry, but also plays, short stories and essays.
“I always thought I’d be an essayist,” he admitted, citing his great admiration for the work of James Baldwin. “Baldwin’s essays taught me so much about the world.”
But Komunyakaa visibly enjoyed writing and answering questions about poetry.
“The poem is always posing a question,” he said to students. “The poem is set up to really beckon to the readers, inviting them in for active participation.”
Komunyakaa was asked questions ranging from his influences, which include Pablo Neruda and William Matthews, to the process of sharing his work with audiences.
“The poem is sort of a dialogue with myself,” he said. “I certainly hope that every poem I’ve written is for myself first. Writers are just like that, aren’t we?”
After the Q-and-A and a short reception at Dorchester Hall, students gathered in Tawes Hall. Fiction writer Jaimy Gordon was the first to read.
Gordon, a Baltimore native, has been publishing novels since the early 1970s but has gained great notoriety in recent years after winning the 2010 National Book Award for her popular novel, “Lord of Misrule”.
“You have a great program here,” Gordon said as she took the stage. “You’re all very lucky.”
Gordon read excerpts from the book and summarized plot points in between passages.
Komunyakaa headlined the event and read several poems from various points in his long career.
He dedicated his poem “Unnatural State of the Unicorn” to a platoon of black soldiers in the Vietnam War and concluded with the first 40 lines of “Requiem,” a work that he described as still in progress.
The reading was reminiscent of a comment Komunyakaa made during the earlier Q-and-A session.
“Attempt to become a part of a small community of artists,” he said. “There is so much energy for the arts.”
View more photos from Writers’ Here and Now here.