Pulitizer Prize winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, feels that his work has been influenced by other New Jersey poets, William Carlos Williams and Amiri Barka, as well as by such poets as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Melvin Tolson, Sterling Brown, Helen Johnson, Margaret Walker, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Komunyakaa has won two Creative Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1981, 1987 and inclusion in such prestigious collections as the Norton Anthology of Southern Literature and The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. In 1999, he was named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Here, he is pictured with Galway Kinnell, fellow Pulitzer prize winning poet in 2001, at the Peoples Poetry Gathering in New York City where both poets were featured readers in Cooper Unions auditorium.
A resident poet of New Jersey, Yusef Komunyakaa was born on the 29th of April, 1947, in Bogalusa, Louisiana. The oldest of five childrenKomunyakaas childhood and family experiences are portrayed in many of his poems. His coming of age in the rural South has been a subject of his works. Living close to the New Orleans center of jazz and blues music informs the cadences of his writing and is a basic theme of, as well as influence on, his work. After being graduated from Bogalusas Central High School in 1965, Komunyakaas service in Viet Nam where he began to write prose during his tour of duty between 1969 and 1970. During that period, the poet-to-be also served as a journalist, and later, an editor for the military newspaper, The Southern Cross. Honorably discharged from the army with a Bronze Star, Komunyakaa began, in the early 1970s, to attend The University of Colorado from which he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1975. It was at that university, in a creative writing class, that he began to develop his talents in the direction of poetry and he went on to earn a Master of Arts there in 1978. There, he self-published two collections of poetry in limited editions, Dedications and Other Darkhorses, 1977, and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, 1979.
Komunyakaa went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts at the University of California at Irvine in 1980, and, in the same year, joined the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center where he met a community of artists. The poet felt that his stay at the center helped him to develop his own style and gain a deeper understanding of himself as a writer. He has said that " 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." Since 1980, Yusef Komunyakaa has published eight additional volumes of poetry and co-edited two anthologies. His third collection, Copacetic (1984), was his first commercially published book and it contained some of his earliest work. He completed Copacetic in 1981 after coming home to Louisiana to rediscover the roots of his lyricism in its jazz and blues rhythms. In Louisiana, too, he was able to contemplate the racial attitudes that impressed his formative years. The poet realized that jazz was used as a platform in which the African American artist could express iniquity as well as a transcendent healing and triumph over hatred and prejudice. Komunyakaas poetry highlighted his childhood experiences, utilizing the folk idioms of jazz and blues, to soothe the pain of his Southern peoples.
"Copacetic," was a word emblematic of the famed African American tap dancer, Bill Robinson, known as "Bojangles" who could dance up a storm in a relaxed and laid back style. "Mr. Bojangles" as he was called in the famous song sung by so many jazz vocalists from Sammy Davis, Jr. to Nina Simone--could make his complex dances look easy to please his audience with an effortless style. His emblem, "copacetic" was adopted by jazz musicians to mean "fine and good" --when jazz falls perfectly into place easing all the pain of a history of racism to signify triumph over adversity. Komunyakka, blossoming into a self-assured poet with the publication of his volume Copaceti,c was actualizing the survivalist triumph of his people by becoming an accomplished poet. At this juncture, he took on the job of teaching in the public school system of New Orleans, and later at the University of New Orleans. At the university where he taught Creative Writing, he met Many Sayer, an Austrailian fiction writer. They fell in love and were married in 1985, the same year that the poet became an associate professor at Indiana University in Bloomington where he held the Ruth Lily Professorship, 1989-90.
I Aplogize for the Eyes in my Head was Komunyakaas fourth volume of poetry in 1986, a collection which seems to satirize the the ways in which we define ourselves. The sardonic poetry therein decries the values of class status and Uncle Tomism while fully embracing the wisdom and value of ordinary folks in all their imperfections. The San Francisco Poetry Center Award was bestowed on this volume and that prize seemed, in some way, to encourage Komunyakaa to write about his war expeeriences. Toys in a Field, 1987 and Dien Cai Dau,1988, won acclaim as among the most eminent war poetry of Komunyakaas time. In 1989, W.D. Ehrhart included several of the poets war poems in his Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier Poers of the Vietnam War.
In his next book, February in Sydney, 1989, the poet explored not only the jazz composition style of his youth, but his wifes Austrailian cultureparticularly the Aboriginal civilization. With poet and jazz saxophonist, Sasha Feinstein, he next edited a collection of jazz and blues poetry published in 1991: The Jazz Poetry Anthology. In Magic City (1992), he returned to detailing his childhood in Louisiana and in Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993) included some of his best work from earlier volumes and crystallized his ability to create compelling imagery to full fruition in poetic form. The collection won him the coveted Pulitzer prize for Poetry in 1994, the year in which he also received the Kingsley Tufts Award and the William Faulkner Prize from the Université de Rennes. In 1996, Komunyakaa -again with Feinstein-- publish a second volume of their compendium: The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthologyy. Komunyakaa in 1998 published another collection about his stay in Australia, titled, Thieves of Paradise. was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was elected as a Chancellor to the Academy of American Poets in 1999. In 2000, he published Talking Dirty to the Gods (Farrar Strauss and Giroux: New York), as well as a collection of prose titled, Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries (University of Michigan Press.) In March 2001, Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, 1975-1999 was brought out by Wesleyan University Press. In an interview conducted by Fran Gordon, in Poets & Writers magazine, Nov/Dec 2000, in speaking on the subjects of education and poetry, Komunyakaa is quoted as saying, "Its the power of the questions more than anything elseand thats what I still believe is so important about education . For me, as well, horrors are named through imagery. Aesthetics keep us from forgetting. But, I dont think the writer or the artist can have the poliltics of the piece on the surface, Otherwise it becomes didactic, polemicalproblematic as art. I do believe that. And yet we cant forget."
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