Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana in April of 1941. He is the oldest among five siblings and bore the name, James William Brown until he reclaimed the name, Komunyakaa. A surname belonging to his grandfather who had been a stowaway on a ship.
He was raised during the age of Civil Rights and was first introduced to the possibilities of language by his grandparents who were staunch Christians. Komunyakaa’s love for poetry came from his readings of the Old Testament.
In his early career Komunyakaa served in the US Army in South Vietnam. It was here that he worked for a military paper titled, Southern Cross, and was exposed to the traumas that would inspire him to write “Facing It.” He was honoured with a Bronze Star after some reporting he completed, interviewing fellow soldiers and publishing articles about the history of Vietnam.
After leaving the military Komunyakaa began writing poetry at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. It was here that he worked as an editor to the campus publication, riverrun, which concerned itself with arts and literature. He graduated from university in 1975 and his first volume of poems, Dedications & Other Darkhorses was published two years later. It was soon followed by another book, Lost in the Bonewheel Factory in 1979. The intervening time saw him receive his MA from Colorado State, and his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine.
It was in 1984, with the publication of his popular volume, Copacetic, that he gained real acclaim. It was a collection based in colloquial speech patterns and deeply influenced by his love for jazz music. The following year he married novelist Mandy Sayer and became an associate professor at Indiana University. He released the volumes I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, and Dien Cai Dau, which won The Dark Room Poetry Prize and is considered to contain some of the greatest writings on the Vietnam War.
In 1994 his work, New & Selected Poems 1977-1989, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tuts Poetry Award. In 1998, he published another particularly noteworthy collection, Thieves of Paradise, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Unfortunately, Komunyakaa’s marriage did not last, (breaking up in 1995) and tragedy struck when his later partner, Reetika Vazirani, took her own life and that of their child in 2003.
Komunyakaa is currently the Distinguished Senior Poet at New York University’s graduate creative writing program.