First, a quick reminder that you can hear me reading poems on the radio (or online) Sunday morning at 11:45 AM: more info here. (hey, if you don't promote yourself, who will?)
The last night of public readings at the IU Writers' Conference drew the biggest audience, thanks in large part to Yusef Komunyakaa's presence -- he used to be on faculty here and he is quite well-liked in town.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni read first: a short excerpt from Sister of My Heart and then a bit from Queen of Dreams. I haven't read her, though I've heard of her and she's been recommended to me; after hearing her read, I do want to pick up her books. Good stuff. And she has a radiant presence.
Then Yusef Komunyakaa took the stage. Is there any other poet whose presence & performance is at once so unassuming and so completely commanding? He's just such a wonderful reader. He opened with "Anodyne" (a poem he said he usually closes with), and the audience was in the palm of his hand from then on. He read several recent poems, including "The Same Beat" which was written especially to be performed on Def Poetry Jam; he read "Praise Be," written for Galway Kinnell and in recognition of Kinnell's work within the civil rights movement; and "Ode to the Maggot" ("no one gets to heaven / Without going through you first" -- yow!). I'm skipping around here a bit, I think, and missing a few. He read a few Vietnam poems, including the well-known "Facing It" -- I think everyone in the audience knew this poem and just sat there soaking it in -- such stillness in the audience, and a collective release of breath after each poem. (By the way, if you click on the links for those poems, you can read the text and listen to him reading each one.)
There was a brief excerpt from a new long poem called, I think, "Love in a Time of War," marvelous of course, and he closed with a poem he wrote in honor of Neruda's 100th birthday last year (he was invited to Chile to take part in a celebration of same); the poem was "Nighttime Begins with a Line by Pablo Neruda" and apparently it's in The New Republic Online but it's available only to subscribers. Dang. (Neruda's 100th was last year -- one of my first thoughts -- Kunitz is only a year younger than Neruda?!)
The thing about listening to Yusef Komunyakaa read is that with his marvelous deep resonant melodic voice, his marvelous resonant musical language, and his deep sense of rhythm and meter, listening to him read would be mesmerizing even if you did not know the English language. I do believe that he is an important poet, and that he will be read fifty, a hundred years from now. His work is deepening, I think. And he's such a rockstar, captivating and riveting the audience's attention. Good good stuff, and definitely ended the conference readings on a high note.