Yusef Komunyakaa was born in 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, a small industrial town 70 miles north of New Orleans, and grew up under Jim Crow in the conservative, rural American South. The bookish son of an illiterate carpenter, his access to literature was limited, but he read everything he could get his hands on. He recalls listening avidly to jazz and blues on the radio, reading encyclopedias and the Bible cover-to-cover, and checking out James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name from a Black church’s library 25 times. Absorbed by the power of language and music, as a child he wanted to be a preacher. His early exposure to music would have a lasting effect on the musicality of his poetry.
Memories from his early years proved to be good fodder for Komunyakaa’s poetry as well, with his childhood in Bogalusa a recurrent theme in his work. As a boy, he was tasked with writing his father’s apology letters to his mother, a memory he revisits in the poem “My Father’s Love Letters.” Despite their differences, looking back Komunyakaa describes his process of editing a poem as similar to his father’s carpentry: “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.” His attentiveness to his family history is evident from his early years: as a young man, he changed his name from James William Brown, Jr. to Yusef Komunyakaa in honor of his great-grandparents, who came to the United States as stowaways on a ship from Trinidad, and gave up their surname upon arrival.
Komunyakaa came of age in the heat of the civil rights movement, on the cusp of the Vietnam War, and both events had an indelible impact on the trajectory of his life. In spring of 1969, at the age of 22, he enlisted in the Army and served as a war correspondent and editor for The Southern Cross, the military newspaper of the Americal Division, through 1970 when he left Vietnam. He was stationed at the headquarters of the Americal Division in Chu Lai, which he has called "the head of the killing machine," and witnessed firsthand the horrors of war. He brought Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, 1945–1960 with him to Vietnam, and read the poems repeatedly. After the war, he attended the University of Colorado on the G.I. Bill, where he first began seriously writing poetry. He later earned a master’s degree at Colorado State University in 1978 and an MFA from the University of California, Irvine in 1980. While a student, he wrote his first two books of poetry, Dedications & Other Darkhorses (1977) and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979).
In 1984, he began teaching in the Creative Writing department at Indiana University Bloomington. He didn't write publicly about his experiences in Vietnam until the publication of Dien Cai Dau in 1988, which first brought him critical acclaim. Dien Cai Dau means “crazy” in Vietnamese, a word which was often used to describe American soldiers during the war. A few years later, his collection of poems Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977–1989 won the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. In the following decades, he has published numerous award-winning poetry collections. He has also collaborated with composers on librettos for three operas. His awards include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, the William Faulkner Prize from the Universite Rennes, the Thomas Forcade Award, and the Hanes Poetry Prize. He was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999-2005, and is a senior faculty member in the NYU Creative Writing Program, and Professor of the Council of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at Princeton.
Recurring subjects in Komunyakaa’s poetry and dramatic/musical compositions include the Vietnam War, Black American life in the South, music, nature, and history. The rhythms of vernacular language and the improvisational techniques of jazz often shape his writing. He is also known for his evocative imagery, and has spoken of his poems as “acts of conjuring.”