Yusef Komunyakaa was born on April 29, 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He is the eldest of five children. Komunyakaa uses his childhood experiences to inform many of his works: his familial relationships, his maturation in a rural Southern community, and the musical environment afforded by the close proximity of the jazz and blues center of New Orleans provide fundamental themes for several of his volumes.
Military service during young adulthood also proved formative to the budding poet. After graduating from Bogalusa’s Central High School in 1965, Komunyakaa enlisted in the United States Army to begin a tour of duty in Vietnam. While there, he started writing, sometime between 1969 and 1970. As a correspondent for and later editor of the military newspaper, The Southern Cross, Komunyakaa mastered a journalistic style that he would use later to write poems about his time in war. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his work with the paper.
After leaving the army in the early 1970s, Komunyakaa enrolled at the University of Colorado, receiving a B.A. in 1975. While at Colorado, he discovered his nascent abilities as a poet in a creative writing workshop. The workshop, notes the author, was the first chance he had to write for himself. Even though he had long been an avid reader of poetry and a lover of literature, his attempts to write creatively–mainly short stories–had been unsuccessful.
Inspired by his newfound love and talent, Komunyakaa went on to earn an M.A. from Colorado State University in 1978, studying with poet Bill Tremblay in the graduate writing program. Meanwhile, he continued to practice his art, self-publishing two limited editions, Dedications and Other Darkhorses (1977) and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979).
He left Colorado State to earn an M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine in 1980. That same year, he joined the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, a closely knit community of artists geared toward encouraging the self-conscious, individualistic writer. Being in residence at the work center, the author felt, gave him an opportunity to develop his own voice. There he gained a deeper understanding of himself as a writer and as a human being, an acute awareness that he strives to express in his poetry. Komunyakaa says this of a poet’s quest–a search fulfilled for him by his unique workshop experience: “a sort of unearthing has to take place; sometimes one has to remove layers of facades and superficialities. The writer has to get down to the guts of the thing and rediscover the basic timbre of his or her existence.”
Komunyakaa has been very prolific since his time at Irvine, writing nine additional volumes of poetry, co-editing two anthologies, and producing a couple of works of prose. His third collection, Copacetic (1984), is his first commercially published book, featuring some of the earliest poems he wrote. Komunyakaa completed Copacetic in 1981 after returning to Louisiana to reconsider how the music of his home town reflected racial issues of the time. He discovered that jazz music was being used both as a forum in which to express racial iniquity and as a catharsis to heal the wounds which resulted from hatred and bigotry. It is no coincidence, then, that in this volume, Komunyakaa focuses on childhood and folk experiences that are startling and pleasurable, gripping and appealing: he invokes jazz and blues forms, themes, and idioms, as noted by critic Kirkland Jones, to soothe the pain of his community, to create poetry “where everything is alright.” In fact, the pieces in the collection are closely tied to the meaning of the word “copacetic,” a term originally coined by the African American tap dancer, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, to refer to situations where everything is, as scholar Constance Valis Hill notes, “fine or tip-top.” The expression was later adopted by jazz musicians to describe musical pieces that are particularly melodious, smooth, mellow, and entirely pleasing.
Despite its racially-charged content, Copacetic is framed by an overarching theme of contentment. It is as if Komunyakaa is ultimately rendering the hope of a people who, despite a long history of racism, have persevered and ultimately triumphed.
Quickly becoming an accomplished poet, Komunyakaa also took on the role of educator, teaching poetry in the public school system of New Orleans and then creative writing at the University of New Orleans. At the University he met Mandy Sayer, an Australian fiction writer, whom he married in 1985. Also in 1985, he became an associate professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, where he held the Ruth Lily Professorship from 1989 to 1990.
In 1986 the author’s fourth volume, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, was published. This work is an attempt to coalesce otherwise disparate events, to mesh and extract meaning from what Aimé Césaire terms “all lived experiences.” Despite the title’s obvious proclamation, the book is not, as the author states, an apology. Rather it is a satirical analysis of the definitions that we often use to identify who we are to others and to ourselves. As a whole, it rejects status, class, and “Uncle Tom-ism.” It embraces, instead, ordinary yet mythic images like those of old women, babies, prostitutes, and ghosts. For this volume, Komunyakaa won the San Francisco Poetry Center Award honoring the best book of poetry published in 1986.
Fourteen years after leaving Vietnam, Komunyakaa began recording his war experiences in verse. The two collections that specifically chronicle those experiences, Toys in a Field (1987) and Dien Cai Dau (1988), place him among the most notable of the soldier-poets. The latter volume made the 1988 Young Adults/American Library Association “Best Books for Young Adults” list. Several of the poems have been translated into a number of languages, and, in 1989, many were included in W. D. Ehrharts’s anthology, Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War.
February in Sydney (1989), the poet’s next work, reflects his interest both in jazz composition and in Australian culture, particularly that of the Aborigine people. The Jazz Poetry Anthology, which followed in 1991, features more jazz- and blues-influenced poetry. Komunyakaa co-edited the collection with poet and jazz saxophonist Sascha Feinstein.
In Magic City (1992), the author details his childhood in Louisiana. He brilliantly portrays the imagination of a young child, drawing on such images as a Venus fly-trap plant, a love-torn and abusive father, a neighborhood street prophet, the trials of an immigrant grandfather, and the juvenile rivalry of siblings.
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993) features pieces that further exemplify the author’s ability to elevate single images. In addition, some of his best work from earlier volumes is included. For this book Komunyakaa was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He also received the Kingsley Tufts Award and the William Faulkner Prize from the Université de Rennes in 1994.
In 1996, Komunyakaa teamed up with Feinstein again to publish a sequel to their first anthology, The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Volume 2. Komunyakaa’s Thieves of Paradise (1998), which was short listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, includes poems about his stay in Australia.
Komunyakaa’s latest works of poetry include: Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000), a mixture of classical and modern themes where Greek mythology and deadly sins meet sensuality and jazz musicians; and Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems, 1975-1999 (2001), both a collection of some of Komunyakaa’s premier poems from over the span of his twenty-five-year career and the debut of many more new poems.
Komunyakaa’s works of prose include: 1) the co-translation, with Martha Collins, of Nguyen Quang Thieu’s The Insomnia of Fire (1995); and 2) the contribution of essays, ruminations, and inspirations to Blues Notes: Essays, Interviews & Commentaries (2000), an exploration of the development of Komunyakaa’s blues aesthetic.
Critics have compared Komunyakaa to Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Amiri Baraka, and William Carlos Williams. The author has acknowledged that his work has been influenced by these poets as well as by Melvin Tolson, Sterling Brown, Helen Johnson, Margaret Walker, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Komunyakaa boasts numerous prestigious awards and titles, including two Creative Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1981, 1987), the Thomas Forcade Award (1991), the Hanes Poetry Prize (1997), Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets (1999), and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1998). Komunyakaa’s critical acclaim, particularly as a “Southern writer,” has garnered him biographical and critical inclusion in such collections as the Norton Anthology of Southern Literature, The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. He is currently Distinguished Senior Poet and Professor in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University.