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Yusef Komunyakaa (born April 29, 1941)[1] is an American poet who teaches at New York University and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Komunyakaa is a recipient of the 1994 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, for Neon Vernacular[2] and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He also received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Komunyakaa received the 2007 Louisiana Writer Award for his enduring contribution to the poetry world.

Yusef Komunyakaa
Komunyakaa at the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Awards in March 2012; his book The Chameleon Couch was nominated for the poetry award.
Komunyakaa at the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Awards in March 2012; his book The Chameleon Couch was nominated for the poetry award.
BornJames William Brown
(1941-04-29) April 29, 1941 (age 78) (according to US Army discharge papers of 14 December 1966 and other evidence as cited by his former wife Mandy Sayer, although passport supposedly says 1947)[1]
Alma materColorado State University
Notable works"Facing It"
Notable awardsKingsley Tufts Poetry Award;
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry;
Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

His subject matter ranges from the black experience through rural Southern life before the Civil Rights era and his experience as a soldier during the Vietnam War.

Life and careerEdit

According to public records, Komunyakaa was born in 1947 and given the name James William Brown. (His former wife said in her memoir that he was born in 1941.)[1] He was the eldest of five children of James William Brown, a carpenter, and his wife.[3] He grew up in the small town of Bogalusa, Louisiana. As an adult, he reclaimed the name Komunyakaa, said to be his grandfather's African name. He said that his grandfather had reached the United States as a stowaway in a ship from Trinidad.[citation needed]

Brown served in the US Army, serving one tour of duty in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. According to his former wife, Mandy Sayer, he was discharged on 14 December 1966.[1] He worked as a specialist for the military paper, Southern Cross, covering actions and stories, interviewing fellow soldiers, and publishing articles on Vietnamese history, which earned him a Bronze Star.

After his service, he attended college at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where he was an editor for the campus arts and literature publication, riverrun, to which he also contributed. He began to write poetry in 1973 and took the name Yusef Komunyakaa. He earned his M.A. in Writing from Colorado State University in 1978, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine in 1980. After receiving his M.F.A., Komunyakaa began teaching poetry in the New Orleans public school system and creative writing at the University of New Orleans.

Komunyakaa taught at Indiana University until the fall of 1997, when he became an English professor at Princeton University. Yusef Komunyakaa is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.


Komunyakaa at the 2006 Brooklyn Book Festival.

Komunyakaa's collection Copacetic fuses jazz rhythms and syncopation with hip colloquialism and the unique, arresting poetic imagery that has since become his trademark. It also outlines an abiding desire in his work to articulate cultural truths that remain unspoken in daily discourse, in the hope that they will bring a sort of redemption: "How can love heal / the mouth shut this way... / Say something that resuscitates / us, behind the masks."

Komunyakaa's I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, published in 1986, won the San Francisco Poetry Prize. More attention came with the publication of Dien Cai Dau (Vietnamese for "crazy in the head"), published in 1988, which focused on his experiences in Vietnam and won the Dark Room Poetry Prize. Included was the poem "Facing It", in which the speaker of the poems visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.:

He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.
— from "Facing It"[4]

Komunyakaa many other published collections of poetry, include Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy, Part I (2004), Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, 1975-1999 (2001),[5] Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000), Thieves of Paradise (1998), Neon Vernacular (1994), and Magic City (1992).

In 2004, Komunyakaa began a collaboration with dramaturge and theater producer Chad Gracia on a dramatic adaptation of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The play was published in October 2006 by Wesleyan University Press. In spring 2008, New York's 92nd Street Y staged a one-night performance by director Robert Scanlon. In May 2013 it received a full production by the Constellation Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.

Komunyakaa's work has influenced many later American poets. He views his own work as an indirectness, an "insinuation":[6]

Poetry is a kind of distilled insinuation. It’s a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question. Sometimes, more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault.

Marriage and familyEdit

Komunyakaa married Australian novelist Mandy Sayer in 1985. That year, he was hired as an associate professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. He also held the Ruth Lilly Professorship for two years from 1989 to 1990. He and Sayer were married for ten years.

He later had a relationship with India-born poet Reetika Vazirani, and they had a son Jehan together. Vazirani killed the 2-year-old boy and committed suicide in 2003.[7]



  • Dedications and other darkhorses. R.M.C.A.J. Books. 1977.
  • Lost in the Bone Wheel Factory, Lynx House, 1979, ISBN 0-89924-018-6
  • Copacetic, Wesleyan University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-8195-1117-X
  • I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, Wesleyan University Press, 1986, ISBN 0-8195-5144-9
  • Toys in a Field, Black River Press, 1986
  • Dien Cai Dau, Wesleyan University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-8195-1164-1
  • Magic City, Wesleyan University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-8195-1208-7
  • Neon Vernacular, Wesleyan University Press, 1993 ISBN 0-8195-1211-7 (received the Pulitzer Prize)
  • Thieves of Paradise, Wesleyan University Press, 1998 ISBN 0-8195-6422-2
  • Pleasure Dome, Wesleyan University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8195-6425-7
  • Talking Dirty to the Gods, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, ISBN 0-374-52793-8 ([1])
  • Taboo, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, ISBN 0-374-29148-9
  • Gilgamesh, Wesleyan University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8195-6824-4
  • Warhorses, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, ISBN 978-0-374-53191-1
  • The Chameleon Couch, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, ISBN 978-0-374-12038-2 (shortlisted for the 2012 International Griffin Poetry Prize)
  • The Emperor of Water Clocks Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015 ISBN 978-0-374-14783-9
List of poems
Title Year First published Reprinted/collected
Fortress 2014 "Fortress". The New Yorker. 90 (12): 48–50. May 12, 2014.
Night gigging 2013 "Night gigging". The New Yorker. 89 (7): 47. April 1, 2013.
  • Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology, University of Georgia Press, 2018.


  • Condition Red: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries, edited by Radiclani Clytus (University of Michigan Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-472-07344-3).[8]
  • Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries, edited by Radiclani Clytus (Michigan, 2000, ISBN 978-0-472-09651-0).[9]


  1. ^ a b c d Mandy Sayer, The Poet's Wife, Allen & Unwin, Sydney-Melbourne-Auckland-London 2014, pp. 400-401
  2. ^ Neon Vernacular excerpts
  3. ^ "Yusef Komunyakaa",, Retrieved 28 March 2011
  4. ^ Yusef Komunyakaa: Facing It at The Internet Poetry Archive
  5. ^ Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems excerpts
  6. ^ What is poetry, from "Notations in Blue: Interview with Radiclani Clytus", in Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews and Commentaries, ed. Radiclani Clytus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000).
  7. ^ Span, Paula (February 15, 2004). "The Failing Light: Why did a rising young poet plunge into despair, taking her own life and the life of her 2-year-old son?". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 5, 2015.
  8. ^ Yusef,, Komunyakaa, (2015). Condition red essays, interviews, and commentaries. Clytus, Radiclani,, Project Muse., Project MUSE. xk14: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 9780472122745. OCLC 988859240.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  9. ^ Yusef., Komunyakaa, (2000). Blue notes : essays, interviews, and commentaries. Clytus, Radiclani. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472096516. OCLC 42912216.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)

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