Biography of Yusef Komunyakaa
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 later had a relationship with India-born poet Reetika Vazirani, which ended when she took her own life and that of their 2-year old child Jehan 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.
Yusef Komunyakaa Poems
My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite. I said I wouldn't, dammit: No tears.
My Father's Love Letters
On Fridays he'd open a can of Jax After coming home from the mill, & ask me to write a letter to my mother Who sent postcards of desert flowers
I sit beside two women, kitty-corner to the stage, as Elvin's sticks blur the club into a blue fantasia. I thought my body had forgotten the Deep
Usually at the helipad I see them stumble-dance across the hot asphalt with crokersacks over their heads,
The old woman made mint Candy for the children Who'd bolt through her front door, Silhouettes of the great blue
Believing In Iron
The hills my brothers & I created Never balanced, & it took years To discover how the world worked. We could look at a tree of blackbirds
The seven o'clock whistle Made the morning air fulvous With a metallic syncopation, A key to a door in the sky---opening
Zeus always introduces himself As one who needs stitching Back together with kisses.
Someone says Tristan & Isolde, the shared cup & broken vows binding them,
Slam, Dunk, & Hook
Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury's Insignia on our sneakers, We outmaneuvered to footwork
When the plowblade struck An old stump hiding under The soil like a beggar's
The sun slides down behind brick dust, today's angle of life. Everything melts, even when backbones
Her eyelids were painted blue. When she closed her eyes the sea rolled in like ten thousand fiery chariots,
In the days when a man would hold a swarm of words inside his belly, nestled against his spleen, singing.
Usually at the helipad
I see them stumble-dance
across the hot asphalt
with crokersacks over their heads,
moving toward the interrogation huts,
thin-framed as box kites
of sticks & black silk
anticipating a hard wind
that'll tug & snatch them