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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 (R. M. C. A. J. Books), was published in 1977, followed by Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (Lynx House Press) 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 (Wesleyan University Press), 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 (Wesleyan University Press, 1986), winner of the San Francisco Poetry Center Award; and Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan University Press, 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 Emperor of Water Clocks (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011); Warhorses (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008); Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy, Part 1 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006); Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems, 1975-1999 (Wesleyan University Press, 2001); Talking Dirty to the Gods (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000); Thieves of Paradise (Wesleyan University Press, 1998), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977-1989 (Wesleyan University Press, 1994), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; and Magic City (Wesleyan University Press, 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.


Selected Bibliography
The Emperor of Water Clocks (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
Warhorses (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy, Part 1 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)
Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems, 1975-1999 (Wesleyan University Press, 2001)
Talking Dirty to the Gods (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000)
Thieves of Paradise (Wesleyan University Press, 1998)
Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977-1989 (Wesleyan University Press, 1993)
Magic City (Wesleyan University Press, 1992)
Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan University Press, 1988)
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (Wesleyan University Press, 1986)
Copacetic (Wesleyan University Press, 1984)
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (Lynx House Press, 1979)
Dedications & Other Darkhorses (R. M. C. A. J. Books, 1977)

Thanks

Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper's bullet.
I don't know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman's wild colors,
causing some dark bird's love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer's gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I'm still
falling through its silence.
I don't know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.

Copyright © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa. From Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan University Press, 1988). Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database

Copyright © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa. From Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan University Press, 1988). Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database

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.

by this poet

poem

The round, hanging lanterns,
lit faces in a window of the Marble Palace
Catherine the Great built for a lover, 
with the Field of Mars below,
snow falling inside two minds. 
One translated Babylonian folktales
so the other could stand in line early morning 
for bread at
poem

1

The seven o'clock whistle
Made the morning air fulvous
With a metallic syncopation,
A key to a door in the sky---opening
& closing flesh.  The melody
Men & women built lives around,
Sonorous as the queen bee's fat
Hum drawing workers from flowers,
Back to the colonized heart.
A titanous