Into a Light Both Brilliant and Unseen: Conversations with Contemporary Black Poets

By Malin Pereira | Go to book overview

YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA

Yusef Komunyakaa is perhaps the poet of greatest stature in this generation, with a substantial body of work and a highly acclaimed presence in several poetic arenas, including jazz poetry, Vietnam War poetry, and African American poetry. His fourteen books of poetry evidence a prolific poet whose writing continues unabated in his sixties; additionally, he has coedited two anthologies of jazz poetry, published a book of his interviews and essays, and collaborated on a verse play rendering of the epic tale Gilgamesh. He currently is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.

Komunyakaa was born James Willie Brown Jr. on April 29, 1947, in Bogalusa, Louisiana, a place that remains central to his imagination. He later took the name of his grandfather, who came to the U.S. from Trinidad as a stowaway. Komunyakaa served in Vietnam as a correspondent and managing editor of the military newspaper the Southern Cross. He was awarded the Bronze Star. Returning to the States, he earned a BA from the University of Colorado in 1975, an ma from Colorado State University in 1978, and an MFA from the University of California, Irvine in 1980. He has been on the faculties of the University of New Orleans, Indiana University at Bloomington, and Princeton University. He was married to Mandy Sayers, an Australian fiction writer, from 1985 to 1995, and was subsequently in a relationship with Reetika Vazirani, a poet, who killed herself and their son in the summer of 2003.

Komunyakaa’s poetry exposes brutal truths and poignant human weaknesses. The settings of his early poems are typically unforgiving and harsh. In this world, one fights for survival either directly and physically or as a trickster, manipulating situations. The rich, rhythmic voice of the poems and the use of archetypal imagery, combined with intense formal restraint, create an elegant beauty amid pain and trauma. Across his oeuvre, Komunyakaa draws upon personal meditations and family stories, racial issues and American civil rights history, vernacular and pop culture lore, jazz and blues, epic tales, and the history of Western civilization. His broad

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