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Yusef Komunyakaa Table

Bios, Poems, and Reviews



Books by Yusef Komunyakaa

I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head / Dien Cai Dau / Magic City / Neon Vernacular / Toys in a Field

Thieves of Paradise / Talking Dirty to the Gods  /  Pleasure Dome Jazz Poetry Anthology  /  The Second Set  /  Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy

Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries / The Chameleon Couch: Poems

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Yusef Komunyakaa--born 1947 and raised in Bogalusa, Louisiana--served in Vietnam as an information specialist, saw combat, and received the Bronze Star. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he also received master's degrees from the University of California, Irvine, and Colorado State University. After teaching at the University of New Orleans, Komunyakaa was a professor at Indiana University for over ten years, and, in the fall of 1997, he began teaching at Princeton University.  more bio

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Yusef Komunyakaa is a musical poet . . . . In Blue Notes, a collection of his interviews and occasional prose, there is a short statement about Komunyakaa's relationship to jazz music, with the instructive title "Shape and Tonal Equilibrium." He insists, fairly enough, that "As an African American poet . . . I resist being conveniently stereotyped as a jazz poet." But jazz is nonetheless a primary inspiration for his technique: "Jazz . . .  has been the one thing that gives symmetryshape and tonal equilibriumto my poetry." It provides a way to unify the eclectic references and "tonal insinuations" that crowd his poems. In other words, what Komunyakaa takes from jazz is improvisation: "I learned from jazz that I could write anything into a poem."  Talking Dirty Blue Notes Reviews

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There's a synthesizing erudition at work in Komunyakaa's poems that makes for some surprising linkages: a poem about the convict-Blues man Leadbelly morphs into a poem about that other famed convict artist, Villon; in another effort the ghosts of Whitman, Billie Holiday, and Crazy Horse commune and harmonize on a New Orleans street corner. It's as though the associational play at work in Komunyakaa's metaphors--which have the oddball but exact quality of surrealism at its best, as when a young crack dealer approaches "walking on air / solid as the Memnon Colossi"--can also be found in the way he makes use of literary and musical allusions.

Komunyakaa's prosody gives a montage-like pacing to these effects: he favors short lines, few of them longer than three-beats, and surprising enjambments. He has an aversion to articles and his unexpected verb choices often have a jarring resonance. Even when he is working in forms such as the prose poem, his writing has a jittery and hyper-kinetic quality. As with Merwin and Creeley, those two other masters of the short line, he's found a prosody so characteristic that it's hard to mistake one of his stanzas for anyone else's.  PLEASURE DOME

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"Facing It" by Yusef Komunyakaa  / Yusef Komunyakaa: Anodyne

Yusef Komunyakaa Receives Major Poetry Award—New York, 12 September 2011—Yusef Komunyakaa has been selected as the recipient of the 2011 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. The $100,000 prize recognizes outstanding and proven mastery About writing, Yusef Komunyakaa has said: ". . . my work is informed by the imagination, and that is more than merely autobiographical. I think it all connects to an image. I rely heavily on an image. And I suppose if it's autobiographical because it comes from within one, then everything is autobiographical in that sense. There are certain things that beckon to each of us. The whole of the human experience, I'm interested in. I want to be surprised by everyday things, such as the maggot or the scorpion, or what have you."

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Death of a Poet & a Son



     Blues Chant Hoodoo Revival

     Copacetic Mingus

     Elegy for Thelonious

     Facing It

     Instructions for Building Straw Huts

     Jumping Bad Blues

     Letter to Bob Kaufman

     Untitled Blues

     The Vicious

     Villon / Leadbelly

     Woman, I Got the Blues


Source: Yusef Komunyakaa. Copacetic. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.  


Book Review (Excerpts)

     Talking Dirty/Blue Notes Review

     Dome/Dirty Review

Rudy Interviews Yusef  Yusef Speaks 1   Yusef Speaks 2  Yusef Speak 3

Other Yusef Poems

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Related files

Beachhead Preachment  

Bob Kaufman Bio

Candelight Vigil   

César Vallejo

C K Williams  

Clarence Major

John Crow Ransom  

Literature & Arts


Randall Jarrell 

Weldon Kees     

Would You Wear My Eyes

ZuBolton Channels Ancestors   

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For me, it was different. I was a combat correspondent for the AMERICAL-PIO. Anytime boys were pinned down, such as Hamburger Hill, you were expected to get in the chopper to get the story, to get the picture and to come back and time to digest the information. As a writer, you were sensitive to the images. So you internalize the image.

At this time, I was reading everything—poetry, issues of DownBeat, Negro Digest, and Black World. I was reading short stories, poetry—Baraka, Baldwin; magazines like Dissent; some political analysis of the Vietnam situation. Constantly wrestling with the conflict. One fact saying, yes. The other, no. Questioning why I had not gone to Switzerland or jail. And also by being a combat correspondent, you see numerous firefights because that’s what you’re expected to do—cover those things. Consequently, it becomes volumes of images. Rudy Interviews Yusef

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When I was in the military, I saw too many officers were hurting for combat because it aided in their promotions. I know that many justify their activity in war to their wives and girlfriends. It’s putting bread on the table. Sex, war, economics, and violence—all connect and create the overlay that helps to define what America is all about. I’ll go on the range and kill Indians. I’ll go to Vietnam and make the little lady comfortable. I wonder whether women want to be connected to violence this way—to make bombs so I can vacation in Hawaii. More than the active participants should be implicated. That’s part of owning up.  Rudy Interviews Yusef2

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Let's face it, we internalize everything and that which is internalized informs the future and how we actually experience and see things later on.

I was quite aware of Vietnam's history, and I think that fact had a lot to do with my feelings. A crucial bond was the concept of the Vietnamese "peasant." I myself came from a peasant society of mostly field workers, and my father always believed if one worked hard enough, he or she could rise to a certain plateau--a black Calvinism. So I saw the Vietnamese as familiar peasants because that's what they are, and, consequently, I could have easily placed many of the individuals I'd grown up with in that same situation--especially the sharecroppers.  Yusef Speaks3

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Yusef Komunyakaa: 2011 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry

The latest collection from one of our preeminent poets, The Chameleon Couch is also one of Yusef Komunyakaa's most personal to date. Beginning with “Canticle,” this varied new collection often returns to the idea of poem as hymn, ethereal and haunting, as Komunyakaa reveals glimpses of memory, myth, and violence. With contemplations that spring up along walks or memories conjured by the rhythms of New York, Komunyakaa pays tribute more than ever before to those who came before him.

The book moves seamlessly across cultural and historical boundaries, evoking Komunyakaa’s capacity for cultural excavation, through artifact and place. The Chameleon Couch begins in and never fully leaves the present—an urban modernity framed, brilliantly, in pastoral-minded verse. The poems seek the cracks beneath the landscape, whether New York or Ghana or Poland, finding in each elements of wisdom or unexpected beauty. The collection is sensually, beautifully relaxed in rhetoric; in poems like “Cape Coast Castle,” Komunyakaa reminds us of his gift for combining the personal with the universal, one moment addressing a lover, the next moving the focus outward, until both poet and reader are implicated in the book's startling world.

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Conversations with Yusef Komunyakaa

Edited by Shirley A. James Hanshaw

Conversations with Yusef Komunyakaa brings together over two decades of interviews and profiles with one of America's most prolific and acclaimed contemporary poets. Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1947) describes his work alternately as "word paintings" and as "music," and his affinity with the visual and aural arts is amply displayed in these conversations. The volume also addresses the diversity and magnitude of Komunyakaa's literary output. His collaborations with artists in a variety of genres, including music, dance, drama, opera, and painting have produced groundbreaking performance pieces. Throughout the collection, Komunyakaa's interest in finding and creating poetry across the artistic spectrum is made manifest.

For his collection Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, 1977-1989, Komunyakaa became the first African American male to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Through his work he provides keen insight into life's mysteries from seemingly inconsequential and insignificant life forms ("Ode to the Maggot") to some of the most compelling historical and life-altering events of our time, such as the Vietnam War ("Facing It"). Influenced strongly by jazz, blues, and folklore, as well as the classical poetic tradition, his poetry comprises a riveting chronicle of the African American experience.

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The Last Holiday: A Memoir

By Gil Scott Heron

Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —Jamie Byng, Guardian / Gil_reads_"Deadline" (audio)

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 31 January 2012