On Willis Barnstone

I first met Willis in Bloomington, Indiana. I came to Bloomington in 1985, and of course, what I discovered was that Willis was a one-man institution. He was a bright energy and intellect. And, I must admit this man possessed an authentic soul, something more than just surface existence. A student told me that he was taking a translation class from Willis. I said, “Well, what is it like?” He says, “The man dances when he lectures.” This was before I met Willis. I said to myself, I have to meet him. Because I had just come from New Orleans and thought no one possessed that kind of energy in Bloomington. I had to meet this guy, right?

I think when we first actually met was at a reading by Yehuda Amichai and Stanley Moss; there were these three grand poets in the same room. So finally, I got the nerve to knock on Willis’ office door. I think I heard a voice say, “Come in.” I opened the door, and I couldn’t find the voice. There were stacks and stacks of books on the floor. So, I had to weave through—had to walk to the right, weave myself through these tall piles and there was Willis. And what did we talk about? We talked about Latin American literature—especially Neruda and Borges.  We talked world history, and I kept noticing on Willis’ wall, a number of African sculptures, masks. And I said, “Willis, where did you get those?” He said, “You have to go to a certain pawnshop.” I said, “What? A pawnshop? You bought them in a pawnshop?” He said, “The guy doesn’t really know what he has.” Now, I’d passed that pawnshop a number of times and all I could see were Confederate flags and rebel uniforms. So, I didn’t even wish go close to the shop. But finally, after two months, I went in and sure enough, on the top floor was tons of African artwork. And I have to thank Willis for that info.

Another time, Willis and I had walked around Bloomington one afternoon and we finally ended up again at the Uptown Cafe. And Willis kept telling me stories. Yes, this man is a walking reservoir of stories. But these are lived stories, not imagined stories. And this was more than interesting to me. In fact, it sounded like life-blood. I had grown up an hour from New Orleans, in Bogalusa. Willis had grown up in New York City. I’ll admit I was envious of Willis because as a boy he had seen one of my heroes, Paul Robeson, and he told me the story. After about 20 stories in a row…really surprising…I said Willis, “You have to write it. Ok? Write it down.” Already, I had read Willis’ sonnets, his translations, but the stories he was telling me were totally different, and I dared him. And within eighteen days Willis handed me a sheaf of papers. He had written this book here: We Jews and Blacks. I’m just going to read a short passage:

My first encounter with deception and corruption occurred when I applied for admission to The George School, one of the most enlightened schools in the country. There were a few Jews there, and it was probably not necessary to lie on one’s application blank, but we didn’t know this or couldn’t be sure. In having not only a few Jews as students but a Japanese teacher, George School was truly unique. As for Blacks, not yet. In 1942, nowhere in the United States were Blacks admitted to a private school.

Corruption of the spirit is complex and diverse. It begins when one is forced to make a choice in an evil situation.

Willis knows how to get to the truth of things. And, I think his whole bright energy, his whole spirit, has been to harvest images that don’t shock us, but lead us to a certain kind of need for the truth. Thank you.

Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa’s books of poetry include Taboo, Dien Cai Dau, Neon Vernacular, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize, Thieves of Paradise, Pleasure Dome, Talking Dirty to the Gods,Warhorses, The Chameleon Couch, Testimony, The Emperor of Water Clocks, and most recently Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth. His honors include the William Faulkner Prize (Université Rennes, France), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the 2011 Wallace Stevens Award.His plays, performance art and libretti have been performed internationally and include Saturnalia, Testimony,Gilgamesh, and Wakonka’s Dream.Komunyakaa served as New York State Poet 2016-2018; and he retired December 2020 as Senior Poet and Global Professor at New York University. (Photo credit: Arthur Elgort.)
Yusef Komunyakaa

Latest posts by Yusef Komunyakaa (see all)

Author: Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa’s books of poetry include Taboo, Dien Cai Dau, Neon Vernacular, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize, Thieves of Paradise, Pleasure Dome, Talking Dirty to the Gods,Warhorses, The Chameleon Couch, Testimony, The Emperor of Water Clocks, and most recently Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth. His honors include the William Faulkner Prize (Université Rennes, France), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the 2011 Wallace Stevens Award.His plays, performance art and libretti have been performed internationally and include Saturnalia, Testimony,Gilgamesh, and Wakonka’s Dream.Komunyakaa served as New York State Poet 2016-2018; and he retired December 2020 as Senior Poet and Global Professor at New York University. (Photo credit: Arthur Elgort.)