| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, the oldest of five
children, Komunyakaa is the son of a carpenter and of a mother who bought a set
of encyclopedias for her children. When he was sixteen, he discovered James
Baldwin’s essays and decided to become a writer.
1965 to 1968, Komunyakaa served a tour of duty in Vietnam as an information
specialist, editing a military newspaper called the Southern Cross. In Vietnam
he won the Bronze Star. After military service, he enrolled at the University
of Colorado (double major in English and sociology) and began writing poetry.
Upon graduation in 1980, he studied further at both Colorado State University
(where he received an M.A. in creative writing) and the University of
California, Irvine (where he received an M.F.A.) and taught at various
universities before moving to New Orleans. While teaching at the University of
New Orleans, in 1985, he married Australian novelist Mandy Sayer. Only then,
nearly twenty years after his Vietnam experiences, did Komunyakaa write his
important war poems, published in 1988 as Dien Cai Dau.
violence of war, the pain of identifying with the Vietnamese, and the anguish
of returning to the States had seldom been so eloquently and hauntingly
expressed. By 1994, when these poems were included in Neon Vernacular: New and
Selected Poems, 1977–1989, Komunyakaa had won two creative writing fellowships
from the National Endowment for the Arts and the San Francisco Poetry Center
Award, and he had held the Lilly Professorship of Poetry at Indiana University.
Neon Vernacular received the Pulitizer Prize for Poetry, as well as the Kingsley-Tufts
Poetry Award from the Claremont Graduate School, and as a result his earlier
eight collections of work have been re-evaluated.
1998 his poetry collection Thieves of Paradise was a finalist for the 1999
National Book Critics Circle Award, and that same year saw the publication of
his recording, Love Notes from the Madhouse. In 2000, Radicloni Clytus edited a
book of Komunyakaa’s prose, Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries,
for the University of Michigan Press series. In an essay from that collection,
“Control Is the Mainspring,” the poet writes, “I learned that the body and the
mind are indeed connected: good writing is physical and mental. I welcomed the
knowledge of this because I am from a working-class people who believe that physical
labor is sacred and spiritual.” This combination of the realistic and the
spiritual runs throughout Komunyakaa’s poems, whether they are about his
childhood, the father-son relationship, the spiritual journey each of us
takes—alone, and in whatever circumstances life hands us—and the various
conflicts of war. He has become an important poet for our times.
University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill
In the Heath Anthology
Tu Do Street
Regret to Inform You
you like to add a Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
Conversation with Yusef Komunyakaa
Transcipts of an interview conducted by Alan Fox in November, 1997.
Modern American Poetry
Criticism, a biography, links, and more.
The Academy of American Poets
A biography and several works (some in text and audio format).
Provides a biography, bibliography, and many of his poems (all in audio format).