Yusef Komunyakaa (born April 29, 1941) is an American poet who teaches at New York University and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Komunyakaa is a recipient of the 1994 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, for Neon Vernacular and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He also received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Komunyakaa received the 2007 Louisiana Writer Award for his enduring contribution to the poetry world.
His subject matter ranges from the black general experience through rural Southern life before the Civil Rights era and his experience as a soldier during the Vietnam War.
Komunyakaa was probably born in 1941 (formerly cited as 1947) and given the name James William Brown, the eldest of five children of James William Brown, a carpenter. He later reclaimed the name Komunyakaa that his grandfather, a stowaway in a ship from Trinidad, had lost. He grew up in the small town of Bogalusa, Louisiana, before and during the Civil Rights era.
He served in the U.S. Army, serving one tour of duty in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and according to his former wife Mandy Sayer he was discharged on 14 December 1966. He worked as a specialist for the military paper, Southern Cross, covering actions and stories, interviewing fellow soldiers, and publishing articles on Vietnamese history, which earned him a Bronze Star.
He began writing poetry in 1973 at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where he was an editor for and a contributor to the campus arts and literature publication, riverrun. He earned his M.A. on Writing from Colorado State University in 1978, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine, in 1980.
Komunyakaa married Australian novelist Mandy Sayer in 1985, and in the same year, became an associate professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. He also held the Ruth Lilly Professorship for two years from 1989 to 1990. He and Sayer were married for ten years. He was the partner of poet Reetika Vazirani, who took her life and that of their child, in 2003.
He taught at Indiana University until the fall of 1997, when he became an English professor at Princeton University. Yusef Komunyakaa is currently a professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.
His collection Copacetic fuses jazz rhythms and syncopation with hip colloquialism and the unique, arresting poetic imagery that has since become his trademark. It also outlines an abiding desire in his work to articulate cultural truths that remain unspoken in daily discourse, in the hope that they will bring a sort of redemption: "How can love heal/ the mouth shut this way.../ Say something that resuscitates/ us, behind the masks."
He wrote I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, published in 1986, which won the San Francisco Poetry Prize. More attention came with the publication of Dien Cai Dau (Vietnamese for "crazy in the head"), published in 1988, which focused on his experiences in Vietnam and won the Dark Room Poetry Prize. Included was the poem "Facing It", in which the speaker of the poems visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Section from "Facing It":
- He's lost his right arm
- inside the stone. In the black mirror
- a woman's trying to erase names
- No, she's brushing a boy's hair."
- - poem "Facing It"
Komunyakaa has published many other collections of poetry, including Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy, Part I (2004), Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, 1975-1999 (2001), Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000), Thieves of Paradise (1998), Neon Vernacular (1994), Magic City (1992) and "Pleasure Dome (2001).
After receiving his M.F.A., Komunyakaa began teaching poetry in the New Orleans public school system and creative writing at the University of New Orleans.
In 2004, Komunyakaa began a collaboration with dramaturge and theater producer Chad Gracia on a dramatic adaptation of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The play was published in October 2006 by Wesleyan University Press. In spring 2008, New York's 92nd Street Y staged a one-night performance by director Robert Scanlon. In May 2013 it received a full production by the Constellation Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.
Komunyakaa's work has been influential for a wide swath of current American poets. He views his own work as an indirectness, an "insinuation":
- Poetry is a kind of distilled insinuation. Itâs a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question. Sometimes, more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault.
- Dedications and Other Darkhorses, R.M.C.A.J. Books, 1977,
- Lost in the Bone Wheel Factory, Lynx House, 1979, ISBN 0-89924-018-6
- Copacetic, Wesleyan University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-8195-1117-X
- I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, Wesleyan University Press, 1986, ISBN 0-8195-5144-9
- Toys in a Field, Black River Press, 1986,
- Dien Cai Dau, Wesleyan University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-8195-1164-1
- Magic City, Wesleyan University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-8195-1208-7
- Neon Vernacular, Wesleyan University Press, 1993 ISBN 0-8195-1211-7 (received the Pulitzer Prize)
- Thieves of Paradise, Wesleyan University Press, 1998 ISBN 0-8195-6422-2
- Pleasure Dome, Wesleyan University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8195-6425-7
- Talking Dirty to the Gods, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, ISBN 0-374-52793-8 ()
- Taboo, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, ISBN 0-374-29148-9
- Gilgamesh, Wesleyan University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8195-6824-4
- Warhorses, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, ISBN 978-0-374-53191-1
- The Chameleon Couch, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, ISBN 978-0-374-12038-2 (shortlisted for the 2012 International Griffin Poetry Prize)
-  The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa (2011)
- Profile and poems of Yusef Komunyakaa, including audio files, at the Poetry Foundation.
- Biography at ibiblio
- Views on Poetry
- Video of Yusef's reading, 3/09/09, at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena, CA, as featured on Poetry.LA