There remains some discrepancy as to when Yusef Komunyakaa was born. Some documents suggests it was 1941, while others list 1947. It is known with certainty that he was raised in Louisiana with a family of Trinidadian descent. Living in the American South during the push for Civil Rights would have a profound effect on Komunyakaa's development. During the Vietnam War, Komunyakaa served a tour of duty. He honed his writing skills while employed by the military to document the action in Vietnam. He interviewed other service members and conducting research into the history of Vietnam. He was discharged in 1966.
After his military duty, Komunyakaa enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he began to write poetry. In the 1970s he earned both a Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts degree at Colorado State University, and later the University of California. His first poetry collection, Dedications and Other Darkhorses, was published in 1977. He has since published 15 collections, with the most recent being, The Emperor of Water Clocks, released in 2015. In 1994 Komunyakaa was awarded both the Kingsley Tuft Poetry Prize and the Pulitzer Prize. Alongside writing, Komunyakaa has also held teaching positions at numerous schools, including Princeton and New York University.
Komunyakaa's poetry combines many aspects of his lived experience, including his religious upbringing, his service in Vietnam, and his African-American racial identity. His work is heavily influenced by jazz and blues music, and often displays a pronounced meter. He also relies upon colloquial speech to impart a message that is relatable to readers. His work has been featured in such prestigious publications as The New Yorker.