He has done it all, from being manager editor of the Southern Cross to serving as a correspondent in the United States Army from 1969 to 1970. But nothing compares to the impact the world of poetry has had on his life. This American poet is Yusef Komunyakaa, and we have the honor to witness his presence at Reedley College's Literary Arts Event on September 23rd at 7:00 pm via Zoom.
Born in the rural South of Bogalusa, Louisiana, Yusef Komunyakaa (original name James William Brown, Jr.) entered the world during the peak of the civil rights movement in 1947. Growing up, Komunyakaa had very little to no literature to choose from. The only books he had lying around his house was: The Bible, encyclopedias, and James Baldwin's Nobody Knows My Name—a novel he repeatedly borrowed from a local church library since the local library in his hometown of Bogalusa did not admit African Americans.
To tribute his grandfather, Yusef legally changed his name to Komunyakaa in respect of the family legend that his grandfather arrived in America as a stowaway on a ship from the West Indies.
In 1969, Komunyakaa enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving in Vietnam as a war correspondent. Also, his time as an editor for The Southern Cross, a military newspaper, he was awarded a Bronze Star for his service. When he returned from the war, Komunyakaa attended the University of Colorado and began his poetry journey in a creative writing course. After earning his Bachelor's degree in 1975, he went on to pursue his Master's at Colorado State University (1978) and a master's in fine arts from UC Irvine (1980). Komunyakaa's first book of poetry was published in 1984, titled Copacetic. This collection of poems consisted of his childhood experiences living in the rural South and the traditions of jazz & blues that are deeply embedded in New Orleans. Following that success, Komunyakaa began teaching English at Indiana University Bloomington until 1996.
Komunyakaa's success began rolling in with the publication of Dien Cai Dau in 1988. He chose this title because it translates to "crazy" in Vietnamese, which was how Vietnam citizens viewed American soldiers during the war. This collection of poems encompasses Komunyakaa's experiences in Vietnam, which was the first time he ever addressed the heavy topic in his work. In these poems, you can find Komunyakaa bringing forward the challenges that black and white soldiers experienced fighting alongside each other. He also touches upon the sexual conduct between Vietnamese women and American soldiers.
In 2001, Komunyakaa received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which is the most prestigious award that can be won by an American poet while living. Throughout his career as a poet, Komunyakaa has won many awards and recognitions for his surrealism and jazz poetry that highlights topics people are afraid to bring to the table.
"ANGER" by Yusef Komunyakaa
We can cut out Nemesis's tongue
By omission or simple analysis.
Doesn't this sin have to marry
Another, like a wishbone
Worked into meat, to grow
Deadly? Snared within
The blood's quick night,
Our old gods made of sex
& wit, of nitrate & titanium,
Hurl midnight thunderbolts
& lightning. Are we here
Because they must question
Every death in an alley,
Every meltdown? We know
We wouldn't be much, if thorns
Didn't drive light into wet blooms.
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Poets.” Poets.org, 2015, poets.org/poet/yusef-komunyakaa.
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