Yusef Komunyakaa was born on 29 April 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He is the eldest of five children. Komunyakaa uses his childhood experiences to inform many of his works: his familial relationships, his maturation in a rural Southern community, and the musical environment afforded by the close proximity of the jazz and blues center of New Orleans provide fundamental themes for several of his volumes.
Military service during young adulthood also proved formative to the budding poet. After graduating from Bogalusa's Central High School in 1965, Komunyakaa enlisted in the United States Army to begin a tour of duty in Vietnam. While there, he started writing, sometime between 1969 and 1970. As a correspondent for and later editor of the military newspaper, The Southern Cross, Komunyakaa mastered a journalistic style that he would use later to write poems about his time in war. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his work with the paper.
After leaving the army in the early 1970s, Komunyakaa enrolled at the University of Colorado, receiving a B.A. in 1975. While at Colorado, he discovered his nascent abilities as a poet in a creative writing workshop. The workshop, notes the author, was the first chance he had to write for himself. Even though he had long been an avid reader of poetry and a lover of literature, his attempts to write creatively--mainly short stories--had been unsuccessful.
Inspired by his newfound love and talent, Komunyakaa went on to earn an M.A. from Colorado State University in 1978, studying with poet Bill Tremblay in the graduate writing program. Meanwhile, he continued to practice his art, self-publishing two limited editions, Dedications and Other Darkhorses (1977) and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979).
He left Colorado State to earn an M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine in 1980. That same year, he joined the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, a closely knit community of artists geared toward encouraging the self-conscious, individualistic writer. Being in residence at the work center, the author felt, gave him an opportunity to develop his own voice. There he gained a deeper understanding of himself as a writer and as a human being, an acute awareness that he strives to express in his poetry. Komunyakaa says this of a poet’s quest--a search fulfilled for him by his unique workshop experience: "a sort of unearthing has to take place; sometimes one has to remove layers of facades and superficialities. The writer has to get down to the guts of the thing and rediscover the basic timbre of his or her existence."
Komunyakaa has been very prolific since his time at Irvine, writing nine additional volumes of poetry, co-editing two anthologies, and producing a couple of works of prose. His third collection, Copacetic (1984), is his first commercially published book, featuring some of the earliest poems he wrote. Komunyakaa completed Copacetic in 1981 after returning to Louisiana to reconsider how the music of his home town reflected racial issues of the time. He discovered that jazz music was being used both as a forum in which to express racial iniquity and as a catharsis to heal the wounds which resulted from hatred and bigotry. It is no coincidence, then, that in this volume, Komunyakaa focuses on childhood and folk experiences that are startling and pleasurable, gripping and appealing: he invokes jazz and blues forms, themes, and idioms, as noted by critic Kirkland Jones, to soothe the pain of his community, to create poetry "where everything is alright." In fact, the pieces in the collection are closely tied to the meaning of the word "copacetic," a term originally coined by the African American tap dancer, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, to refer to situations where everything is, as scholar Constance Valis Hill notes, "fine or tip-top." The expression was later adopted by jazz musicians to describe musical pieces that are particularly melodious, smooth, mellow, and entirely pleasing.
Despite its racially-charged content, Copacetic is framed by an overarching theme of contentment. It is as if Komunyakaa is ultimately rendering the hope of a people who, despite a long history of racism, have persevered and ultimately triumphed.
Quickly becoming an accomplished poet, Komunyakaa also took on the role of educator, teaching poetry in the public school system of New Orleans and then creative writing at the University of New Orleans. At the University he met Mandy Sayer, an Australian fiction writer, whom he married in 1985. Also in 1985, he became an associate professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, where he held the Ruth Lily Professorship from 1989 to 1990.
In 1986 the author's fourth volume, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, was published. This work is an attempt to coalesce otherwise disparate events, to mesh and extract meaning from what Aimé Césaire terms "all lived experiences." Despite the title's obvious proclamation, the book is not, as the author states, an apology. Rather it is a satirical analysis of the definitions that we often use to identify who we are to others and to ourselves. As a whole, it rejects status, class, and "Uncle Tom-ism." It embraces, instead, ordinary yet mythic images like those of old women, babies, prostitutes, and ghosts. For this volume, Komunyakaa won the San Francisco Poetry Center Award honoring the best book of poetry published in 1986.
Fourteen years after leaving Vietnam, Komunyakaa began recording his war experiences in verse. The two collections that specifically chronicle those experiences, Toys in a Field (1987) and Dien Cai Dau (1988), place him among the most notable of the soldier-poets. The latter volume made the 1988 Young Adults/American Library Association "Best Books for Young Adults" list. Several of the poems have been translated into a number of languages, and, in 1989, many were included in W. D. Ehrharts's anthology, Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War.
February in Sydney (1989), the poet's next work, reflects his interest both in jazz composition and in Australian culture, particularly that of the Aborigine people. The Jazz Poetry Anthology, which followed in 1991, features more jazz- and blues-influenced poetry. Komunyakaa co-edited the collection with poet and jazz saxophonist Sascha Feinstein.
In Magic City (1992), the author details his childhood in Louisiana. He brilliantly portrays the imagination of a young child, drawing on such images as a Venus fly-trap plant, a love-torn and abusive father, a neighborhood street prophet, the trials of an immigrant grandfather, and the juvenile rivalry of siblings.
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993) features pieces that further exemplify the author's ability to elevate single images. In addition, some of his best work from earlier volumes is included. For this book Komunyakaa was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He also received the Kingsley Tufts Award and the William Faulkner Prize from the Université de Rennes in 1994.
In 1996, Komunyakaa teamed up with Feinstein again to publish a sequel to their first anthology, The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Volume 2. Komunyakaa’s Thieves of Paradise (1998), which was short listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, includes poems about his stay in Australia.
Komunyakaa’s latest works of poetry include: Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000), a mixture of classical and modern themes where Greek mythology and deadly sins meet sensuality and jazz musicians; and Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems, 1975-1999 (2001), both a collection of some of Komunyakaa’s premier poems from over the span of his twenty-five-year career and the debut of many more new poems.
Komunyakaa’s works of prose include: 1) the co-translation, with Martha Collins, of Nguyen Quang Thieu’s The Insomnia of Fire (1995); and 2) the contribution of essays, ruminations, and inspirations to Blues Notes: Essays, Interviews & Commentaries (2000), an exploration of the development of Komunyakaa’s blues aesthetic.
Critics have compared Komunyakaa to Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Amiri Baraka, and William Carlos Williams. The author has acknowledged that his work has been influenced by these poets as well as by Melvin Tolson, Sterling Brown, Helen Johnson, Margaret Walker, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Komunyakaa boasts numerous prestigious awards and titles, including two Creative Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1981, 1987), the Thomas Forcade Award (1991), the Hanes Poetry Prize (1997), Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets (1999), and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1998). Komunyakaa's critical acclaim, particularly as a "Southern writer," has garnered him biographical and critical inclusion in such collections as the Norton Anthology of Southern Literature, The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. He is currently Distinguished Senior Poet and Professor in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University.
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"Venus's-flytraps," the first poem in Komunyakaa's Magic City, exemplifies the author's focus on his childhood experiences. Like most of the poems in the collection, this piece presents larger images through the simplicity and clarity of youthful eyes. Here, a five-year-old Komunyakaa, "unmindful of snakes & yellowjackets," ventures deep into the field of "yellow flowers" because he is fascinated by their stately presence and seeming omnipotence. He extends the realm of their power, proclaiming them to be as "big as the First State Bank," and imagines that they not only eat insects but "all the people / Except the ones [he] love[s]."
As the collection's inaugural poem, "Venus's-flytraps" announces the author's desire to revisit and finally resolve issues of his past through a more worldly and mature perspective. Perhaps the author's retrospective account of his boyhood limits the psychological reach of the poem, but his use of a juvenile mentality and linguistic style appropriately portrays the narrator's concerns. "I don't supposed to be / This close to the tracks," says the speaker in reference to adult admonitions for him not to play near the train tracks, adopting a child's diction. In the child's firsthand assessments, the author emphasizes not naiveté but rather a particular sophistication through which he sees and responds with absolute candor, objectivity, and insight. For instance, he "wonder[s] why Daddy / Calls Mama honey," yet he still recognizes the significance of their marriage. He does not merely make the obvious comparison to the mutual relationship of bees to flowers, but suggests instead that there are certain needs and demands that each partner requires. "I also know bees," he observes, "can't live without flowers." Likewise, there is no indication that he fully understands his mother's statement when he notes that "my mama says I'm a mistake." However, he knows that she views his birth as an event with negative consequences for her, grasping the connotation of her assertion "that [he] made her a bad girl."
"My Father's Love Letters," also from Magic City, depicts a somewhat older Komunyakaa acting as scribe for his illiterate father, who longs for the return of his estranged wife. "He would beg," says the author, "promising to never beat her / Again." Readers witness the poet's command of emotion when he expresses joy that his mother has freed herself from the abusive and oppressive marriage, though it seems that he misses her dearly: "Somehow I was happy / She had gone." In a style that has come to characterize his work, Komunyakaa portrays his father not through a laundry list of adjectives but through often opposing, incongruous images. Struggling to compose love letters in the "quiet brutality / Of voltage meters & pipe threaders" in their tool shed, the father is an uneducated man who, "lost between sentences" and "laboring over a simple word," is "almost redeemed" by his efforts. Realizing, finally, that his father has many complexities, the author says simply, yet effectively:
My father could only sign
His name, but he'd look at blueprints
& say how many bricks
Formed each wall.
"Camouflaging the Chimera," "You and I Are Disappearing," and "Tu Do Street" are works from Komunyakaa's second collection on the Vietnam War, Dien Cai Dau (Vietnamese for "crazy," a term that was often used in reference to American soldiers). "Camouflaging the Chimera" demonstrates the author's preoccupation with dual, often diametrically opposed, images. Recognizing that the horrific, absurd, and chaotic often lurk behind deceptive facades, he uncannily describes soldiers' efforts to blend in with the natural environment:
We tied branches to our helmets.
We painted our faces & rifles
with mud from a riverbank.
Acknowledging the anguish of mothers, wives, and lovers left behind, he brings to life images of "women left in doorways / reaching in from America." Though his language is often lyrical, his images of ambush are gripping, apparent, and very realistic. He likens the unsuccessful efforts of the Viet Cong to "black silk / wrestling iron through grass" and then reveals moments where violence and impending gunfire threaten the false exterior:
. . . we held our breath,
ready to spring the L-shaped
ambush, as a world revolved
under each man's eyelid.
"You and I Are Disappearing" broadens the function of a single image. A burning village girl becomes the pervasive metaphor for the author within the context of the gruesomeness of war:
. . . she burns like a piece of paper.
. . . . . . . . . . .
She burns like oil on water.
. . . . . . . . . . .
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
Over and over, the author reinforces the vision of a young girl ablaze, "a skirt of flames / danc[ing] around her." The ability to lend sight through literary description is a strength of the author and of the poem. However, he also enjoins us to feel his sense of guilt, hopelessness, impotence, and emotional turmoil. Note his tone of futility:
We stand with our hands
hanging at our sides,
while she burns
like a sack of dry ice.
Whether it be as a "burning bush," as "rising dragonsmoke," or as "a cattail torch dipped in gasoline," the girl's image is a ubiquitous part of the poet's psyche. She is like an eternal flame, and he can forget neither her nor the experience.
"Tu Do Street" provides an interesting mix of music, memory, and desire. Using music both as an introduction and as a backdrop, Komunyakaa eases us into this piece that shows how color lines are blurred through desire and warfare. "Music divides the evening," he declares, and then takes us back to a time when he remembers "White Only / signs & Hank Snow" as cultural indicators of the black community of Bogalusa, Louisiana. When country singer "Hank Williams / calls from the psychedelic jukebox" of the local Vietnamese bar, black and white soldiers are brought together by more than just "machine-gun fire," both seeking refuge in the native prostitutes. Komunyakaa's underlying suggestion seems to be that the resolution of racism is played out through sexuality, and possibly homosexuality. Men who once "played Judas," who "fought / the brothers of these women," now "touch the same lovers / minutes apart, tasting / each other's breath." Playing on the adage that love is a two-way street, the poet uses the black vernacular, as scholar Alvin Aubert asserts, claiming that desire is a "tu do street" (two-door street). The image of a swinging or revolving door suggests multiple points of entry as well as multiple lovers for the prostitutes. The obvious metaphor calls upon images of the vagina, relegating it to sinister terrain that must be conquered or overcome, "tunnels / leading to the underworld," to death, and to destruction. Yet Komunyakaa acknowledges that for him and the other soldiers, "there's more than a nation / inside us." This simple statement forsakes delineations of nationality, race, or ethnicity. The soldiers' union with the Vietnamese women marks the blurring of national identities and provides a point of commonality where race and ethnicity converge.
"Untitled Blues," found in the 1984 volume Copacetic, is a piece where the sounds of "a Buddy Bolden cornet" and "a honky-tonk piano" form the backdrop of the author's lament for a black boy photographed in white face. "Elegy for Thelonious" continues in the blues vein and summons the living-dead presence of the great jazz musician, Thelonious Monk. This presence allows for "notes to pour from [presumably Komunyakaa's] brain cup" and for the "alley cat / [to] wail . . . a muted dirge." Everything takes on a musical quality. Even the night becomes "a lazy rhapsody of shadows."
Thieves of Paradise includes such poems as "Ode to a Drum" and "Rhythm Method." "Ode to a Drum" reflects images of an African drum maker nailing a gazelle hide to wood. "I'm tightening lashes," he says, "shaping hide as if around / a ribcage." The cadence is reverberated in the author's lines as his words sound out the fervor of the drumbeat. "Trouble in the hills. / Trouble on the river / . . . Kadoom. Ka / doooom."
"Rhythm Method," a play on the phrase's sexual connotation, asserts sexual rhythm as life's first pulse, finding examples in heartbeats, oscillating beached fish, and "the Mantra / of spring rain." The poem captures the flow of all existence, the rhythm of life.
Among Komunyakaa’s new poems that he showcases in Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems, 1975-1999 are “Providence” and “Jasmine.”
Combining images of light and dark, good and evil, ancient and modern, sacred and secular in “Providence,” Komunyakaa declares God as the force guiding the sexual and spiritual coupling of him and his lover. Beginning as a “stolen…[face] from a crowded room,” the lover’s body and soul merge with the author “on [his] skin” and “in…[his] mouth & hair.” His lover is fashioned from his “rib,” like in the proverbial biblical creation story. The two finally form a new, separate entity, a “third voice,” created, in this instance, by the imaginative “riffs” from the tenor saxophone of Coleman “Hawk” Hawkins. The author renders the love story in such a melodic and fluid form that one wonders if his true mistress is jazz music; and, if the poem is to be read as an aubade where lovers separate at dawn, then the duo’s love is real only at “midnight,” in the shadow of Hawk’s musical tauntings. The “morning,” on the other hand, only reveals that they are among the “oldest” lovers of a time past.
In “Jasmine,” Komunyakaa again combines his love of jazz and blues with the scent of two women, one “blonde” the other “brunette.” Here the author fuses female sensuality with the ancient aroma of mysterious and seductive flowers. He calls on legendary singing greats like Duke Ellington and Count Basie to gently provoke the soft “blooms” of musical notes. Recalling his Southern roots and disregarding the mother-wit of his grandmothers, Komunyakaa succumbs to the romantic spell of club music.
Komunyakaa's poetry relies on often singular yet complex images, derived from his childhood, from his love of jazz and blues music, from the Vietnam War, and from his travels abroad. His desire to unify "composite influences" undergirds many of his works. Komunyakaa maintains that the whole of humanity is a conglomeration of differing--but not necessarily warring--parts. By juxtaposing his varied experiences, he attempts to form meaning and to lend insight where others find only chaos. When asked to define poetry, he says that it is "amorphous and cumulative until it forms a vision."
By Tomeiko Ashford