Marian Miner Cook
Athenaeum

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Monday, March 22, 2021

Monday, March 22, 2021 - Evening Program
Yusef Komunyakaa: An Evening of Poetry and Reflections
Yusef Komunyakaa

First alerted to the power of language through his grandparents, who were church people, and for whom the "sound of the Old Testament informed the cadences of their speech,” award winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa's poetry weaves together personal narrative, jazz rhythms, and vernacular language to create complex images of life in peace and in war, in places near and far, and of experiences old and new.

Photo credit: Arthur Elgort

Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. The son of a carpenter, Komunyakaa has said that he was first alerted to the power of language through his grandparents, who were church people: “the sound of the Old Testament informed the cadences of their speech,” Komunyakaa has stated. “It was my first introduction to poetry.” Komunyakaa went on to serve in the Vietnam War as a correspondent; he was managing editor of the Southern Cross during the war, for which he received a Bronze Star. He earned a BA from the University of Colorado Springs on the GI Bill, an MA from Colorado State University, and an MFA from the University of California-Irvine.

In his poetry, Komunyakaa weaves together personal narrative, jazz rhythms, and vernacular language to create complex images of life in peace and in war. Komunyakaa’s early work includes the poetry collections "Dedications & Other Darkhorses" (1977) and "Lost in the Bonewheel Factory" (1979). Widespread recognition came with the publication of "Copacetic" (1984), which showcased what would become his distinctive style: vernacular speech layered with syncopated rhythms from jazz traditions. His next book "I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head" (1986) won the San Francisco Poetry Center Award; "Dien Cai Dau" (1988), a book that treated his experience in the Vietnam War in stark and personal terms, won the Dark Room Poetry Prize. It is regularly described as one of the best books of war poetry from the Vietnam War. The collection explores the experience of African American soldiers in the war as well as captures the embattled Southeast Asian landscape. Komunyakaa’s "Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems"(1994) won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

In 2011 Komunyakaa was awarded the Wallace Stevens Award. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the William Faulkner Prize from the Université de Rennes, the Thomas Forcade Award, the Hanes Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Louisiana Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999-2005. He has taught at numerous institutions including University of New Orleans, Indiana University, and Princeton University. Currently he serves as Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program.

Photo credit: Arthur Elgort