My father could only sign/His name, but he'd look at blueprints/& say how many bricks/ Formed each wall - My Father's Letters, Yusef Komunyakaa
About Yusef Komunyakaa
Yusef Komunyakaa was born in 1947 in the quiet mill town of Bogalusa, Louisiana. Son of a carpenter he was raised in a house of few books at the beginning of the civil rights movement. His grandparents were church people and he has said in interview “the Old Testament informed the cadences of their speech. It was my first introduction to poetry.” During his youth, he read the bible all the way through, twice, and also borrowed James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name, from Bogalusa’s black library a total of 25 times. In other respects, the town offered him very limited opportunities so in 1969, he joined the army. He was shipped to Vietnam, where he became a combat reporter and managing editor for the Army newspaper Southern Cross; he was awarded a Bronze Star for his work.
Komunyakaa began writing poetry in 1973, and received a BA from the University of Colorado Springs in 1975 which he attended on the GI Bill. His first collection Dedications & Other Darkhorses, was published in 1977 was followed two years later by Lost in the Bonewheel Factory. During this time, he gained an M.A. and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Colorado State University and the University of California, Irvine, respectively.
In 1984, Komunyakaa began teaching on the Creative Writing programme at Indianna University and also first received wide recognition following the publication of Copacetic, a collection of poems which typically employs colloquial speech and shows the influence of jazz rhythms. He followed the book with I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), which won 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 the late 1980’s Komunyakaa has published several more collections, including Thieves of Paradise (1998), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977-1989 (1994), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.
The poet Toi Derricotte has written in the Kenyon Review that Komunyakaa “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’s advice to his students at Princeton University, where he is Professor of Creative Writing, strikes a less exalted note: “The most important thing is” he says, “to respect the language; to know the classical rules, even if only to break them; and to be prepared to edit, to revise, to shape.”: He says the process reminds him of something he learned from his carpenter father: “Before he cut a board he’d measure it seven times, up and down, up and down. And then when he cut, it would slip right into place. Perfect. No light, left or right.”
Yusef Komunyakaa’s voice on this recording is rich yet airy, as if the language is not contained by the spoken words, but is released by them into the space between speaker and listener.
This recording was produced by the Poetry Foundation on 5th April, 2007, New York, NY.
Books by Yusef Komunyakaa
Dedications and other dark horses
R.M.C.A.J. Books, 1977
Toys in a Field
Black River Press, 1986
San Francisco Poetry Center Award for I Apologize for the Eyes in My HeadPrize website
The Dark Room Poetry Prize for Dien Cai DauPrize website
Pulitzer Prize for Neon Vernacular: New and Selected PoemsPrize website
Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for Neon Vernacular: New and Selected PoemsPrize website
Finalist National Book Critics Circle Award for Thieves of ParadisePrize website
shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize for The Chameleon CouchPrize website