Yusef Komunyakaa, whose surname he took from his grandfather, a West Indian refugee of West African ancestry, was born in 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Growing up in a rural southern town, Komunyakaa was the eldest son of five children whose father was an illiterate carpenter who drove his wife from the household as a result of his abuse. Komunyakaa’s childhood memories of segregated Bogalusa, including his family’s intimate customs and frequent tensions played out against a social backdrop of sharply demarcated color lines, became the subject matter of many of Komunyakaa’s later poems.
The town’s close proximity to New Orleans, only about seventy miles to the north, also instilled in the young Komunyakaa what was to be a lifelong passion for jazz and blues. The poet remembers that in the family home, the radio was always playing, and this music had a great influence on his subsequent work.
A graduate of the city’s Central High School, Komunyakaa joined the army in 1965 and served a tour of duty in Vietnam, where he earned the Bronze Star for his frontline reporting for the military newspaper The Southern Cross. In some ways, this foreign land reminded Komunyakaa of home: Like the sharecroppers of southern Louisiana, the peasants of Vietnam struggled to make a living in a landscape smothered in vegetation. The poems that came out of Komunyakaa’s Vietnam experience are noteworthy for their insight into both warring factions—the Americans and the Vietnamese.
After his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, Komunyakaa became a student at the University of Colorado, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and sociology in 1975, and at Colorado State University, where he earned a master’s degree in 1978. During these years in Colorado, he began to experiment with poetry, and he self-published two volumes of his own poems before moving to California, where he earned an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine in 1980. In addition to the years devoted to formal education, Komunyakaa credits his interaction with other artists at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center in 1980 with helping him develop his poetic identity.
The 1984 publication of his first commercially published collection of poems, Copacetic, coincided with his relocation to New Orleans, where he taught in the public schools and later at the university level. It was while teaching creative writing at the University of New Orleans that he met Mandy Sayer, an Australian fiction writer, whom he married in 1985. That same year, he and his new wife moved to Indiana, where Komunyakaa accepted a position at Indiana University in Bloomington.
During his years in Indiana, Komunyakaa completed volumes of poetry that explored the subject matter with which he is most closely associated: his war experiences, the Aboriginal culture of his wife’s native country, his childhood in Louisiana, and the musical influences of his youth. The best of these poems were collected in Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993), which won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1994.
In addition to his celebrated experimentation with the printed word, Komunyakaa has branched out to collaborate with jazz musicians on spoken word recordings and vocal music. In 1998, he read poems to the accompaniment of jazz musician John Tchicai and his ensemble on a compact disk (CD) titled Love Notes from the Madhouse, and he provided lyrics for jazz vocalist Pamela Knowles, whose musical settings of these pieces were recorded in 2000 on a CD titled Thirteen Kinds of Desire. That same year, Komunyakaa was named a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and he became a professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.
As an African American poet, Yusef Komunyakaa has made significant...
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