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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Yusef Komunyakaa
(b. 1947)

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.

From 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Linda Wagner-Martin
University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
Facing It (1988)
Prisoners (1988)
Thanks (1988)
Tu Do Street (1988)
Fog Galleon (1993)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
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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).

Yusef Komunyakaa
Provides a biography, bibliography, and many of his poems (all in audio format).

Secondary Sources