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About this poet

On April 29, 1947, Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where he was raised during the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. He served in the United States Army from 1969 to 1970 as a correspondent, and as managing editor of the Southern Cross during the Vietnam war, earning him a Bronze Star.

He began writing poetry in 1973, and received his bachelor's degree from the University of Colorado Springs in 1975. His first book of poems, Dedications & Other Darkhorses, was published in 1977, followed by Lost in the Bonewheel Factory in 1979. During this time, he earned his MA and MFA in creative writing from Colorado State University and the University of California, Irvine, respectively.

Komunyakaa first received wide recognition following the 1984 publication of Copacetic, a collection of poems built from colloquial speech which demonstrated his incorporation of jazz influences. He followed the book with two others: I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), winner of the San Francisco Poetry Center Award; and Dien Cai Dau (1988), which won The Dark Room Poetry Prize and has been cited by poets such as William Matthews and Robert Hass as being among the best writing on the war in Vietnam.

Since then, he has published several books of poems, including The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011); Warhorses (2008); Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy, Part 1; Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems, 1975-1999 (2001); Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000); Thieves of Paradise (1998), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977-1989 (1994), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; and Magic City (1992).

Komunyakaa's prose is collected in Blues Notes: Essays, Interviews & Commentaries (University of Michigan Press, 2000). He also co-edited The Jazz Poetry Anthology (with J. A. Sascha Feinstein, 1991), co-translated The Insomnia of Fire by Nguyen Quang Thieu (with Martha Collins, 1995), and served as guest editor for The Best of American Poetry 2003.

He has also written dramatic works, including Gilgamesh: A Verse Play (Wesleyan University Press, 2006), and Slip Knot, a libretto in collaboration with Composer T. J. Anderson and commissioned by Northwestern University.

About his work, the poet Toi Derricotte wrote for the Kenyon Review, "He 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 is the recipient of the 2011 Wallace Stevens Award. His other honors include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the William Faulkner Prize from the Université de Rennes, the Thomas Forcade Award, the Hanes Poetry Prize, fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Louisiana Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1999. He has taught at University of New Orleans, Indiana University, as a professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative Writing Program at Princeton University. He lives in New York City where he is currently Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University's graduate creative writing program.


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From the Image Archive

 

Jasmine

Yusef Komunyakaa, 1947
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 
South, how I'd cross the street
if a woman like these two walked 
towards me, as if a cat traversed 
my path beneath the evening star. 
Which one is wearing jasmine? 
If my grandmothers saw me now 
they'd say, Boy, the devil never sleeps. 
My mind is lost among November 
cotton flowers, a soft rain on my face 
as Richard Davis plucks the fat notes 
of chance on his upright
leaning into the future. 
The blonde, the brunette—
which one is scented with jasmine? 
I can hear Duke in the right hand 
& Basie in the left
as the young piano player 
nudges us into the past. 
The trumpet's almost kissed
by enough pain. Give him a few more years, 
a few more ghosts to embrace—Clifford's 
shadow on the edge of the stage.
The sign says, No Talking. 
Elvin's guardian angel lingers 
at the top of the stairs, 
counting each drop of sweat 
paid in tribute. The blonde 
has her eyes closed, & the brunette 
is looking at me. Our bodies 
sway to each riff, the jasmine 
rising from a valley somewhere 
in Egypt, a white moon 
opening countless false mouths 
of laughter. The midnight 
gatherers are boys & girls 
with the headlights of trucks 
aimed at their backs, because 
their small hands refuse to wound 
the knowing scent hidden in each bloom.

From Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa, published by Wesleyan University Press. Copyright © 2001 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

From Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa, published by Wesleyan University Press. Copyright © 2001 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa

Poet Yusef Komunyakaa first received wide recognition following the 1984 publication of Copacetic, a collection of poems built from colloquial speech which demonstrated his incorporation of jazz influences

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Was he looking for St. Lucia's light
to touch his face those first days 
in the official November snow & sleet 
falling on the granite pose of Lincoln?
 
If he were searching for property lines
drawn in the blood, or for a hint
of resolve crisscrossing a border,
maybe he'd find clues in the taste of