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.
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
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
Usually at the helipad
I see them stumble-dance
across the hot asphalt
with crokersacks over their heads,
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