Yusef Komunyakaa 2011 NBCC Awards 2012 Shankbone

Ysef Komunyakaa in 2012. Photo by David Shankbone. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Yusef Komunyakaa (born April 29, 1947) is an African-American poet and academic. He teaches at New York University, and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.


Youth and educationEdit

Komunyakaa was born James William Brown, the eldest of 6 children of James William Brown, a carpenter.[1] He later reclaimed the name Komunyakaa that his grandfather, a stowaway in a ship from Trinidad, had lost.

Yusef grew up in the small town of Bogalusa, Louisiana, before and during the Civil Rights era. He served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971, serving a tour of duty in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1969-1970). 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 Campus, where he was an editor for and a contributor to the campus arts and literature publication, riverrun. He earned an 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.


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.

Komunyakaa has published several collections of poetry, including Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy, Part I (2004), Pleasure Dome: New and collected poems, 1975-1999 (2001),[2] Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000), Thieves of Paradise (1998), Neon Vernacular (1994), and Magic City (1992).

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 1-night performance directed by Robert Scanlon.

Komunyakaa married Australian novelist Mandy Sayer in 1985 and, in the same year, became an associate professor at Indiana University, Bloomington. He also held the Ruth Lilly Professorship for 2 years in 1989-1990. He and Sayer were married for 10 years. He taught at Indiana University until the fall of 1997, when he became an English professor at Princeton University.

Komunyakaa is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.


Yusef Komunyakaa by David Shankbone

Komunyakaa reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, 2006. Photo by David Shankbone. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

His earliest poetry fused jazz rhythms and syncopation with hip colloquialism and the unique, arresting imagery which has since become his trademark. It also outlined 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.

His subject matter ranges from the general African American experience through rural Southern life before the Civil Rights time period, and includes his experience as a soldier during the Vietnam War.

Dien Cai Dau (Vietnamese for "crazy in the head"), published in 1988, focused on his experiences in Vietnam. Included was the poem "Facing It," in which the speaker of the poems visits the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington D.C.:

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"[3]

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. It’s 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.[4]


Komunyakaa won the San Franisco Portry Prise for I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, published in 1986, and the Dark Room Poetry Prize for Dien Cai Dau, published in 1988.

Komunyakaa received both the the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and the 1994 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for Neon Vernacular. He has also received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

In 2007, Komunyakaa was awarded both the Robert Creeley Poetry Award and the 2007 Louisiana Writer Award for his enduring contribution to the poetry world.



  • Dedications, and other darkhorses. RMCAJ, 1977.
  • Lost in the Bonewheel Factory. Amherst, MA: Lynx House Press, 1979.
  • Copacetic. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.
  • I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1986.
  • Toys in a Field. Black River Press, 1986.
  • Dien Cai Dau. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
  • February in Sydney (chapbook). Matchbooks, 1989.
  • Magic City. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press / Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1992.
  • Neon Vernacular: New and selected poems. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press / Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1993.
  • Thieves of Paradise. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press / Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998.
  • Talking Dirty to the Gods. New York: Farrar, Straus, 2000.
  • Pleasure Dome: New and collected poems. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
  • Taboo. New York: Farrar Straus, 2004.[5]
  • Gilgamesh. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press 2006..[5]
  • Warhorses. New York: Farrar Strauss, 2008..[5]
  • The Chameleon Couch. New York: Farrar Strauss, 2011.[5]




  • The Jazz Poetry Anthology. (edited with Sascha Feinstein). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • The Second Set: The jazz poetry anthology: Volume 2 (edited with Sascha Feinstein). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[6]

Audio / videoEdit

"Grenade" by Yusef Komunyakaa

"Grenade" by Yusef Komunyakaa

  • Yusef Komunyakaa (cassette). Kansas City, MO: University of Missouri, [1999?]
  • Yusef Komunyakaa / Sharon Olds (CD). New York: Academy of American Poets, 1993.
  • A Reading by Yusef Komunyakaa (CD). Cambridge, MA: Dept. of English and American Literature and Language, Harvard University, 2007.

Except where noted, discographical information courtesy WorldCat.[7]

See alsoEdit


  1. Retrieved 28 Mar. 2011
  2. Pleasure Dome: New and collected poems

  3. Yusef Komunyakaa: Facing It @ The Internet Poetry Archive
  4. What is poetry, from "Notations in Blue: Interview with Radiclani Clytus", in Blue Notes: Essays, interviews and commentaries, (edited by Radiclani Clytus). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Print?
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 "Yusef Komunyakaa," Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Web, Oct. 28, 2012.
  6. Ysef Komunyakaa b. 1947, Poetry Foundation, Web, Oct. 28, 2012.
  7. Search results = au:Yusef Komunyakaa, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Oct. 16, 2015.

External linksEdit

Audio / video
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia. (view article). (view authors).