Celebrated African American Poet to Read at Yale

Pulitzer-prize recipient Yusef Komunyakaa, one of the most compelling voices of his generation, will meet with students and hold a poetry reading at Yale during a visit March 29-30.

Pulitzer-prize recipient Yusef Komunyakaa, one of the most compelling voices of his generation, will meet with students and hold a poetry reading at Yale during a visit March 29-30.

Komunyakaa has published 11 books of poems, including the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems 1977-1989” and the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, “Thieves of Paradise.” In addition to poetry, he has written essays, opera librettos, and song lyrics and has edited two anthologies of jazz poetry. He serves as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and is a professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative Writing Program at Princeton.

Komunyakaa was born in 1947 in the small, typically Southern town of Bogalusa, Louisiana. Bogalusa, dominated by a single Industry-a paper mill-had one public library, which was closed to blacks, and an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In this milieu, Komunyakaa early on found salvation in music.

“The radio was my shrine,” he says, recalling the hours he spent as a child listening to jazz and blues greats like Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson. Reflecting his baptismal immersion in music, his poetry is infused with references to jazz and frequently takes on the rhythms and cadences of typically African American musical forms.

He also credits the Bible, which he read twice in its entirety as a boy, as having a profound effect on his poetry. “The hypnotic biblical cadence brought me close to the texture of language, to the importance of music and metaphor,” he says.

After graduating from high school, and after living briefly in Phoenix and Puerto Rico, Komunyakaa joined the Army and went to Vietnam, serving as an information specialist and later editor for the military newspaper, The Southern Cross.

Although decorated with a Bronze Star for his duty in Vietnam, he opposed the war. He tapped his Vietnam experience for literary fodder in 1986 with his fourth volume of poetry, “I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head.” His bitterness to America’s involvement in the war found fullest expression in the critically acclaimed “Dien Cai Dau” (Vietnamese for “crazy”), which was published in 1988.

Komunyakaa’s collection of poems, “Magic City,” published in 1992, delves deeply into his personal life and particularly into his childhood, which was fraught with familial troubles. The poems from this collection have found their way into general poetry anthologies and are quickly becoming staples of high school and college English curricula.

Komunyakaa has a B.A. from the University of Colorado, an M.A. from Colorado State University and an M.F.A from the University of California, Irvine. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, he counts among his awards and honors two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowships; the San Francisco Poetry Award of 1986 for “I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head;” the American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults selection and the Dark Room Poetry Prize for “Dien Cai Dau;” and the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence in1991.

New and forthcoming works by Komunyakaa include: “Blue Notes: Essays Interviews & Commentaries” (University of Michigan Press, 2000); “Talking Dirty to the Gods” (poems, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000); and “Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, 1975-1999” (Wesleyan, 2001). Blue Notes was edited by Yale graduate student Radiclani Clytus.

Sponsored by the Yale Americanist Colloquium; The English and American Studies departments; the Beinecke Library; Calhoun College and the James Humphrey Hoyt Memorial Fellowship Fund, Komunyakaa’s visit will have two public venues. On Wednesday 4:30 p.m., he will be the featured guest at a Master’s Tea at Calhoun College. On Thursday at 4 p.m. he will be at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading from his latest book of poetry, “Thieves of Paradise,” and the forthcoming “Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, 1975-1999.”

A reception will follow the reading.

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Media Contact

Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345