Komunyakaa, Yusef (Vol. 94)
Yusef Komunyakaa 1947–
American poet and editor.
The following entry provides an overview of Komunyakaa's career through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 86.
Best known for Neon Vernacular (1993), which won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1994, Komunyakaa is noted for verse in which he uses surrealistic imagery, montage techniques, and folk idiom to focus on his identity as an African American, his upbringing in the small community of Bogalusa, Louisiana, and his experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War. Incorporating violence, death, racism, and poverty, his poems are often infused with rage and exhibit a pessimistic outlook on life while invoking feelings of tenderness and hope. Toi Derricotte has observed: "Komunyakaa takes on the most complex moral issues, the most harrowing ugly subjects of our American life. His voice, whether it embodies the specific experiences of a black man, a soldier in Vietnam, or a child in Bogalusa, Louisiana, is universal. It shows us in ever deeper ways what it is to be human."
Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1969; he served in Vietnam as a front-lines correspondent and editor for the Southern Cross, eventually earning a Bronze Star. Komunyakaa attended the University of Colorado, graduating with a B.A. in 1975, and began writing poetry and publishing in small presses. He later earned an M.A. at Colorado State University and an M.F.A. in 1980 at the University of California at Irvine. After his early poems appeared in such journals as Black American Literature Forum and Beloit Poetry Journal, Komunyakaa published his first collection, Dedications and Other Darkhorses, in 1977. Komunyakaa has held fellowships and teaching positions in New England and New Orleans and has been a professor of English at Indiana University at Bloomington. He has been the winner of many awards for poetic achievement, including Creative Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1981 and 1987, and—in addition to the Pulitzer—the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for Neon Vernacular.
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979), Komunyakaa's second collection of verse, is comprised of six sequences addressing a wide variety of themes, including beauty, pathos, and moral degradation. Copacetic (1984), the first of his works to gain the attention of reviewers, is a collection of blues and jazz poems in which Komunyakaa focuses on his childhood and youth. In "Jumping Bad Blues," for example, Komunyakaa writes: "I've played cool, / hung out with the hardest / bargains, but never copped a plea." In I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), Komunyakaa examines the effect of the past on the present, invoking lost loves, scenes of Bogalusa, his experiences in the Vietnam War, and past generations. In "Go Down Death," considered one of the most powerful poems in the collection, Komunyakaa states: "The dead / stumble home like the swamp fog, / our lost uncles and granddaddies / come back to us almost healed." The poems about Vietnam in Dien cai dau (1988) were not started until 1983–fourteen years after his tour of duty—but as Komunyakaa told critic Bruce Weber in a 1994 interview, beginning them "was as if I had uncapped some hidden place in me…. Poem after poem came spilling out." Focusing on the mental horrors of the war, Komunyakaa uses surrealistic imagery, a variety of personas, and the present tense to describe his experiences. Komunyakaa followed Dien cai dau with February in Sydney (1989) and Magic City (1992)—the latter a highly autobiographical examination of childhood and rites of passage. Neon Vernacular reflects Komunyakaa's penchant for travel and his passion for jazz, blues, and classical European music. Komunyakaa has also edited The Jazz Poetry Anthology (1991) with Sascha Feinstein.
Komunyakaa's reputation as a poet has grown steadily over the years, with original charges of obscurity or superficial treatment of subjects and themes giving way to praise for both surrealistic juxtaposition of images and compelling storytelling. Critics especially laud Komunyakaa's examination of such complex themes as identity, war, and the paradoxes of art; his ability to transcend moral, social, and mental boundaries; and what Vince F. Gotera has called Komunyakaa's "counterbalancing of seeming oppositions and incongruities." As Kirkland C. Jones has stated, "Komunyakaa has come of age, not only as a Southern-American or African-American bard, but as a world-class poet who is careful to restrain the emotions and moods he creates, without overdoing ethnicity of any kind."
Dedications and Other Darkhorses (poetry) 1977
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (poetry) 1979
Copacetic (poetry) 1984
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (poetry) 1986
Toys in a Field (poetry) 1986
Dien cai dau (poetry) 1988
February in Sydney (poetry) 1989
The Jazz Poetry Anthology [editor, with Sascha Feinstein] (poetry) 1991
Magic City (poetry) 1992
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1993
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SOURCE: A review of Copacetic, in Booklist, Vol. 80, No. 14, March 15, 1984, p. 1024.
[Below, Parisi offers a mixed assessment of Copacetic.]
Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, but bred all over the place, Komunyakaa once edited a magazine called Gumbo. His own verse is rather a spicy concoction, too, mixing the scents, sights, and sounds of "cottonmouth country" with the patois of the bayous and the blues joints of Bourbon Street. Sometimes this heady brew [in Copacetic] conjures up authentic images of those southern climes and eccentricities, especially in several vignettes of jazz stars (among them Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus) and lesser known New Orleans "characters." When the poet's transcripts drift further from these deeply felt, personal experiences, the results are less satisfying. Perhaps it's the sophistication of his further education (especially those advanced arts degrees) that puts the somewhat off-putting "processed" and professionally jived up tone into others of these verses. Still, in the bluesy lyrics and elegies, there's a good deal of the steamy high spirits, as well as the sadness, of real life.
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SOURCE: A review of Copacetic, in Choice, Vol. 22, No. 3, November, 1984, p. 425.
[In the following review, Miller highly recommends Copacetic, stating that the work reflects a "wry, hard-won wisdom."]
Copacetic, Yusef Komunyakaa's first collection of poetry, signals the emergence of a fresh and distinctive Afro-American voice. Like that of many of his contemporaries, Komunyakaa's work is deeply influenced by the blues, but his poetry draws upon both the idiom and the philosophical core of the blues with a facility that is striking for a young poet. Komunyakaa associates the term "copacetic" with "… jazz musicians and street philosophers who have been educated by some real hard falls," and the voices he creates in his poetry often reflect this wry, hard-won wisdom. Komunyakaa has a fine command of language and rhythm. He is definitely a poet worth watching—and reading.
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SOURCE: "'Lines of Tempered Steel': An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa," in Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 215-29.
[In the following interview, which took place on February 21, 1986, in Bloomington, Indiana, Komunyakaa discusses such subjects as his upbringing, his poetic influences, and the nature of poetry.]
[Gotera]: Why don't we start with your background, biographical stuff, books you've written, and so on?
[Komunyakaa]: Okay. I grew up in a place called Bogalusa. That's in Louisiana, about 70 miles out of New Orleans. It's a rural kind of environment, and I think a great deal of the bucolic feeling gets into my work. If not directly, then indirectly so.
I started writing in the military. It was a different kind of writing, of course—it was journalism. That was in Vietnam, between '69 and '70. I started writing poetry in '73 in Colorado, where I lived for seven and a half years—in Boulder, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins.
Actually, I had been reading poetry for many years; in fact, that's one of the things that kept me in contact with my innermost feelings when I was in Vietnam, because I would very systematically go through anthologies such as Donald Hall's Contemporary American Poetry, Dudley Randall's Broadside Press editions, and the New Directions annuals. But I didn't attempt to write poetry...
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SOURCE: A review of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, in Library Journal, Vol. 111, No. 20, December, 1986, pp. 115-16.
[Below, Muratori notes that I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head "showcases a talented surrealist."]
Komunyakaa's poems [in I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head] create and populate a world in which the linchpins of common sense and everyday appearances come loose, "where simple / answers fall like ashes / through an iron grate." Photographers airbrush the truth, Cinderella wakes up in a California pleasure dome. Even individual poems take on phantasmagoric dimensions akin to Bosch's busy but fascinating paintings as the poet reels off catalogs of apocalyptic events: "A white goat / is staring into windows again. / Bats clog the chimney like rags. / An angel in the attic / mends a torn wing." The invention is considerable, and though the accretion of wild images and preposterous characters eventually wears thin, this volume showcases a talented surrealist whose future work will warrant close attention.
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SOURCE: A review of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, in Choice, Vol. 25, No. 1, September, 1987, p. 125.
[In the following positive review of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, Miller calls Komunyakaa "one of the important poets of his generation."]
[I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head extends] and deepens the terrain Yusef Komunyakaa explored so effectively in his first collection of poems, Copacetic. Komunyakaa is a poet of the night and of the streets, and in this collection his narrator roams through the dark alleys and side streets of the American landscape—a world populated by hustlers, prostitutes, angels, and ghosts—witnessing and participating in the world he records. Ordinary experience is often transformed into allegory and everyday people appear as mythic figures: The Thorn Merchant, Mr. Magnifico, The Thorn Merchant's Wife. And the "I" that records these poems is also the eye that perceives them, seeking in the process to restore the vital connection between the heart and the brain, the mind and the senses. Komunyakaa's poems are works of impressive verbal dexterity and striking images and rhythms, and this collection should consolidate his place as one of the important poets of his generation.
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SOURCE: "Facing Up to the Deadly Ordinary," in The New York Times Book Review, October 4, 1987, p. 24.
[Flamm is an American journalist. In the following excerpt, he characterizes I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head as "fierce yet mysterious," though he also notes some "poetic posturing."]
Yusef Komunyakaa's first book of poems was called Copacetic, a description it lived up to with its street-rhythmic, impromptu style. His new collection, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (the book is better than the title), continues his explorations of local history, private experience and the charged, semi-surreal language that can dig out the difficult truths in either one. Mr. Komunyakaa works intuitively, with an intense distrust of any sort of conventional knowledge. "The audacity of the lower gods—/ whatever we name we own," he says.
I'd rather let the flowers
keep doing what they do best.
Unblessing each petal,
letting go a year's worth of white
death notes, busily unnaming themselves.
Born and raised in Bogalusa, La., Mr. Komunyakaa in his poems is pain's constant witness, often speaking for the historically dispossessed, but with the assumption that he does so only on his own idiosyncratic terms. Truthfulness is...
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SOURCE: "Distortions in the Glass," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. XCIV, No. 39, September 24, 1989, pp. 50-1.
[Koestenbaum is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he examines Komunyakaa's use of literary conventions in Dien cai dau.]
Yusef Komunyakaa's third volume, Dien Cai Dau (Vietnamese for "crazy" and "American soldier"), renders a kind of experience so extreme it seems to forbid a merely esthetic response. These poems record Mr. Komunyakaa's service in the Vietnam War, for which he received a Bronze Star. Though his tersely-phrased chronicles, like documentary photographs, give us the illusion that we are facing unmediated reality, they rely on a predictable though powerful set of literary conventions.
First, the poems depend on orchestrated, theatrical juxta-positions—in particular, between scarifying war and succoring nature. Sometimes the vegetation or planets that frame the combat are amoral or demonic: "The moon cuts through / night trees like a circular saw / white hot." At other moments, nature offers camouflage, and soldiers blur into what surrounds them: "The five men breathe like a wave / of cicadas." When he portrays war as a part of nature, he makes it seem natural—foretold, justified. In such images as "Smoke-colored / Viet Cong / move under our eyelids," Mr. Komunyakaa turns combat into art; and yet he also describes...
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SOURCE: "Rare Instances of Reconciliation," in Epoch, Vol. 38, No. 1, 1989, pp. 67-72.
[Aubert is an American educator, critic, and writer who specializes in African-American studies. In the following review, he discusses the major themes in Dien cai dau, including war, nature, and home.]
Yusef Komunyakaa, a Black American poet and Vietnam vet, achieves striking surrealistic effects in his poetic renditions of the horrors of Vietnam. He is careful, however, not to overdo it. We find him equally cautious in dealing with his ethnicity, apparently apprehensive of some of the aesthetic risks involved on both counts. In incorporating his African-Americaness into his poems he maintains a balanced general European- and African-American perspective of Vietnam combat experiences while keeping his readers sufficiently aware of the extent to which the Black American soldier still has to contend with the differential burden of racial, oftime racist, inequities.
Thus, ironically, Komunyakaa's Vietnam experiences and perceptions and the poems in which he so aptly inscribes them are simultaneously distressed and relieved, both in their ideological or socio-political concerns, by the strain of Vietnam wartime conditions, relief stemming from the peculiar camaraderie and ceremonies of survival the two groups of GIs—Blacks and whites—must devise for confronting a relentless foe in a...
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SOURCE: A review of Dien Cai Dau, in Poetry, Vol. CLVI, No. 2, May, 1990, pp. 102-05.
[In the following positive review, Cramer examines Komunyakaa's depiction of the Vietnam War in Dien cai dau.]
Dien Cai Dau (the title, meaning "crazy," is Vietnamese slang for "American soldier") strives for total immersion in the visceral horrors of America's most unpopular war, the book's forty-four poems assembled without the intervention of section dividers or the mediation of an epigraph. It's as if Komunyakaa wanted nothing to palliate the blinding immediacy of combat.
Komunyakaa served in Vietnam as a correspondent, and as a number of his titles signal—"Camouflaging the Chimera," "Somewhere Near Phu Bai," "Starlight Scope Myopia," "We Never Know"—he seeks to depict the sheer confusion of war, the infantryman's chronic sense of dislocation. Sometimes the soldier's survival depends upon this absence of distinct outlines: "when will we learn / to move like trees move?" asks a GI who has unwittingly crossed paths with the Viet Cong; elsewhere the image of camouflage epitomizes how quickly the landscape can swallow its infiltrators, who "move like a platoon of silhouettes / balancing sledge hammers on our heads, / unaware our shadows have united / from us, wandered off / & gotten lost."
To convey the ordinary soldier's edgy watchfulness—the helpless...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Truth," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, May-June, 1990, p. 27.
[Maio is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from a comparative review of Dien cai dau and Lowell Jaeger's War on War (1988), he discusses Komunyakaa's examination of the psychological effects of the Vietnam War in Dien cai dau.]
Of the many recent books of poetry concerned with the Vietnam War, Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa and War on War by Lowell Jaeger share the most in common, each resembling the other in thematic focus: the mental anguish of this war, for combatants, observers, participants, and objectors, which Komunyakaa calls "the psychological terrain that makes us all victims." This peculiar aspect of Vietnam continues to rage "behind the eyes" (Komunyakaa's phrase) of all those affected by the war, those who fought in it, as did Komunyakaa, and those who refused, choosing instead to fight against it while remaining, then fleeing home, as did Jaeger.
Many of the opening poems in Komunyakaa's book (his third full-length collection, yet first taking his Vietnam experience as subject matter) allude to, if not address directly, the most singular aspect of this war: that American soldiers carried on mental battles as dangerous as the physical war surrounding them. The guerilla attacks, the booby traps, the lethal snipers, the unseen...
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SOURCE: "Depending on the Light: Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau," in America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr., and Lorrie Smith, Garland Publishing, 1990, pp. 282-300.
[In the following excerpt from a comparative study of Vietnam War poets, Gotera discusses Komunyakaa's use of surrealism, language, and imagery in Dien cai dau.]
Dien Cai Dau is Komunyakaa's fourth book of poems. In his earlier three books, he has not included a single poem on Vietnam, because he has been waiting for emotional distance—objective and journalistic—from his 1969–70 Army tour there. George Garrett, in his introduction to [D. C.] Berry's saigon cemetery, proposes that "ordinary judgment [of Berry's poems] must be suspended. We are too close, and the wounds and scars, literal and metaphorical, are too fresh." It is just such a suspension of judgment that Komunyakaa does not want; he wishes his work to be tested with the full rigor applied to all serious poetry.
The fact that Komunyakaa has waited almost two decades to publish poems on Vietnam differentiates his work significantly from that of other veteran poets, especially those who published in the early '70s. The difference is not so much that he has achieved a distance from his Vietnam experience but rather that the development of his craft has not been...
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SOURCE: "Lost City" in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, January 12, 1993, pp. 80-1.
[In the following review, Myles states that while Magic City "starts off a little sticky," its "information is unforgettable."]
Yusef Komunyakaa, an African American poet whose last book, Dien Cai Dau, drove a shaft of light into the inarticulate spectacle of the Vietnam War, has now taken on a story easy to mistell: childhood. Magic City is the name of this foray. It starts off a little sticky, in my opinion. I don't think Komunyakaa feels confident with the first person—certainly not a re-assembled first person, like that of the speaker in the first poem: "Venus's-flytraps":
The tall flowers in my dreams are
Big as the First State Bank,
& they eat all the people
Except the ones I love.
They have women's names,
With mouths like where
Babies come from. I am five.
Komunyakaa has said of this work that he was "trying to throw myself back into the emotional situation of the time, and at the same time bring a psychological overlay that juxtaposes new experiences alongside the ones forming the old landscape inside my head." This is an elaborate construction, but to...
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SOURCE: "Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision—Canonization and Humanity," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 119-23.
[In the following essay, Aubert discusses Komunyakaa's "quest for a unified vision, his bid for literary canonization, and his push for the completion of his humanity."]
In an interview in the journal Callaloo, Yusef Komunyakaa, author of seven collections of poems, expresses his admiration for poets whom he considers to have achieved a "unified vision" in their poetry, an achievement he apparently strives for in his own work. A closely associated, if not identical, goal and a source of tension in Komunyakaa's poetry is his desire to gain admittance into the American literary canon, but not at the expense of surrendering his African American cultural identity.
At the core of Komunyakaa's pursuit of a unified vision and literary canonization is his stern resistance, textualized formalistically as well as thematically in his poems, to those forces in the hegemonous counterculture aimed at excluding him as an African American from the ranks of humanity. Indeed, in the singularity of his perseverance and in both the high quality and quantity of his poetic output, Komunyakaa approaches the intensity of no less a figure than prototypical canonization quester Ralph Ellison in his bid for mainstream American literary status. Komunyakaa,...
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SOURCE: "The Gender of Grief," in The Southern Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 405-19.
[Waniek is an American educator, poet, and critic. In the following excerpt, she examines Magic City, stating Komunyakaa "makes a great contribution to one of the newest genres in the canon: the black male epic of self."]
Magic City, Yusef Komunyakaa's eighth book of poems, is punctuated by dramatic encounters, most of them racial. The thrust of the book is clearly autobiographical, yet its subject remains for the most part a point of view, clear-eyed and loving, yet rarely differentiated from the communal "we." Partly a Bildungsroman and partly an album of snapshots by which a neighborhood can remember its history, the book is rooted in family, community, and place. In "Glory," Komunyakaa remembers baseball games played by
… married teenagers
Working knockout shifts daybreak
To sunset six days a week—
Already old men playing ball
In a field between a row of shotgun houses
& the Magazine Lumber Company.
He remembers the cheering children and wives, the daring, impossible catches, how "The old deacons & raconteurs / Who umpired made an Out or Safe / Into a song...
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SOURCE: A review of Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, in VLS, No. 116, June, 1993, pp. 6-7.
[In the review below, Selman examines stylistic features of Komunyakaa's poetry, noting in particular his focus on music in Neon Vernacular.]
An old anger drips into my throat,
& I try thinking something good,
letting the precious bad
settle to the salty bottom.
Another scene keeps repeating itself:
I emerge from the dark theatre,
passing a woman who grabs her red purse
& hugs it to her like a heart attack.
Most of Yusef Komunyakaa's poems rise to a crescendo, like that moment in songs one or two beats before the bridge, when everything is hooked-up, full-blown. Over the course of Komunyakaa's seven books, much has been made of the recurring themes in his work: autobiography, African American experience in the South and in Vietnam. Much has also been said about the music in his poetry, the song lyrics and musicians' names.
Dexter Gordon's tenor sax
plays "April in Paris"
inside my head all the way back
on the bus from Double Bay.
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SOURCE: "The Tension between Memory and Forgetting in the Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XV, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 217-22.
[In the essay below, Derricotte surveys Komunyakaa's works, focusing on his major themes.]
The publication of Yusef Komunyakaa's Magic City and his new and selected poems, Neon Vernacular, provide an opportunity for a detailed examination of the body of his work. Nine collections have been published since his first, Dedications & Other Darkhorses, in 1977. All the poems discussed here can be found in Neon Vernacular, except those from Magic City. Quite simply, Komunyakaa is one of the most extraordinary poets writing today. This review will consider the characteristics of the voice in four of his books, its style, intent, and the possible reasons for changes in that voice.
"It's truth we're after," Komunyakaa says in "Safe Subjects," a poem from his third book, Copacetic. But it won't be an easy truth:
Redemptive as a straight razor
against the jugular vein—
unacknowledged & unforgiven.
It's truth we're after here,
hurting for, out in the streets
where my brothers kill each other …
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SOURCE: "Staying Human," in Parnassus, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1993–94, pp. 126-50.
[In the following essay, Collins provides an overview of Komunyakaa's career.]
"I went to Vietnam as a basic naive young man of eighteen. Before I reached my nineteenth birthday, I was an animal…. They prepared us for Vietnam as a group of individuals who worked together as a unit to annihilate whatever enemy we came upon … There was this saying: 'Yeah though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil, 'cause I'm the baddest motherfucker in the valley' … I collected about 14 ears and fingers. With them strung on a piece of leather around my neck, I would go downtown, and you would get free drugs, free booze, free pussy because they wouldn't wanna bother you 'cause this man's a killer. It symbolized that I'm a killer. And it was, so to speak, a symbol of combat-type manhood."
—Specialist 4 Arthur E. "Gene" Woodley, Jr. (aka Cyclops and Montagnard)
"… There seems to be always some human landscape that creates a Paul Celan…."
Reading the Vietnam poems of Yusef Komunyakaa, one is reminded that culture is made as often on battlefields as it is in the thinker's notebook, or in the schoolroom; that heroes, those...
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Collins, Michael. "The Metamorphoses: Jazz and Poetry." Parnassus: Poetry in Review 19, No. 2 (1994): 49-80.
Negative review of The Jazz Poetry Anthology in which Collins states Feinstein and Komunyakaa "lose the way to the bridge between poetry and jazz."
Ratner, Rochelle, Review of The Jazz Poetry Anthology, by Yusef Komunyakaa and Sascha Feinstein. Library Journal 116, No. 4 (1 March 1991): 94.
Brief mixed review of The Jazz Poetry Anthology.
Kelly, Robert; Matthews, William; and Komunyakaa, Yusef. "Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation." The Georgia Review XLVI, No. 4 (Winter 1992): 645-61.
Conversation in which Kelly, Matthews, and Komunyakaa discuss the roots of jazz and the effect of jazz on poetry.
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