Yusef Komunyakaa was born on April 29, 1947, 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, then as managing editor of the Southern Cross during the Vietnam war, which earned him a Bronze Star.
Komunyakaa 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, Komunyakaa has published several books of poems, including The Emperor of Water Clocks (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); 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 coedited 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, commissioned by Northwestern University.
About Komunyakaa’s poetry, 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 Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Recognition Award, 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.
Komunyakaa 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 in the 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.