On June 5, 1950, John Yau, was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. His father, a Chinese-American bookkeeper, met his mother, who was descended from a prestigious Shanghai family, while living in China. Yau's parents settled in Boston after emigrating from China in 1949. Yau studied at Boston University and received his BA from Bard College. He received his MFA from Brooklyn College.
In 1976, he published his first collection of poetry, Crossing Canal Street (Bellevue Press, 1976). Since then, he has published many books of poetry, including Bijoux in the Dark (Letter Machine Editions, 2018); Exhibits (Letter Machine Editions, 2010); Borrowed Love Poems (Penguin, 2002); Forbidden Entries (Black Sparrow Press, 1996); Berlin Diptychon (Timken, 1995); Edificio Sayonara (Black Sparrow Press, 1992); and Corpse and Mirror (Holt Rinehart, 1983); which was a National Poetry Series book selected by John Ashbery.
Yau is also an art critic whose books of criticism include In the Realm of Appearances: The Art of Andy Warhol (Ecco, 1993), A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns (D.A.P., 1997), and The Passionate Spectator: Essays on Art and Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2006). He has also published a novel and edited Fetish (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998), a fiction anthology.
Yau has received numerous awards including the Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the 2018 Jackson Poetry Prize, the American Poetry Review Jerome Shestack Award, and a 1988 New York Foundation for the Arts Award. He is also the recipient of a 1977 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, two Ingram-Merrill Foundation Fellowships, and grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.
He was a distinguished visiting critic at the Pratt Institute Graduate School of Art, Maryland Institute College of Art and School of Visual Arts in the late 1980s. In 1992, he was a visiting poet at Brown University and in 1994 and 1995, was a visiting professor at University of California, Berkeley. He was also the Ahmanson Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Yau was the arts editor of The Brooklyn Rail from 2006-2011. He is a professor of critical studies in the visual arts department at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He resides in New York City.