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Yusef Komunakaa photo by Tom Wallace
Yusef Komunyakaa


New York State Author and Poets Awards and Reading, February 11, 2016
8:00 p.m. — Page Hall, 135 Western, Avenue, Downtown Campus


Dien Cai DauFor me, I’m thinking about the ending of the poem as a little door left ajar…I think the reader, or the listener is a co-creator of meaning. — Yusef Komunyakaa, New York State Writers Institute reading, March 8, 2001

Yusef Komunyakaa is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, including Dien Cai Dau (1988), which won The Dark Room Poetry Prize, Thieves of Paradise (1998), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993), for which he received Thieves of Paradiseboth the Pulitzer Prize and the $50,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. He received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for “extraordinary lifetime accomplishments” from The Poetry Foundation in 2001 and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets in 2011. Komunyakaa has taught at a number of universities including the University of New Orleans, Indiana University, and Princeton University, and he is currently the Distinguished Senior Poet in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.

Neon VernacularKomunyakaa was born and raised in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and earned a Bronze Star for his work as editor and correspondent for the military newspaper Southern Cross. He received a B.A. from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs in 1975, an M.A. from Colorado State University in 1978, and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine in 1980. A resident of New York City since 2000, Komunyakaa is a faculty member and Honorary Director of Cave Canem, a foundation headquartered in Brooklyn that is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets.

Dedications & Other Dark HorsesHis first book of poems, Dedications & Other Darkhorses, was published in 1977, followed by Lost in the Bonewheel Factory in 1979. He first received wide recognition following the 1984 publication of Copacetic, a collection of poems built from colloquial speech which demonstrated his incorporation of jazz influences, and the 1986 publication of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), winner of the San Francisco Poetry Center Award. His 1988 collection Dien Cai Dau, (“crazy in the head” in Vietnamese), contains the widely-anthologized poem “Facing It,” about the VietnamVeterans Memorial in Washington D.C. The collection has been cited by poets such as William Matthews, Marilyn Hacker, andRobert Hass as among the best writing on the Vietnam War.

CopaceticIn 1993, Komunyakaa published the Pulitzer Prize-winning Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, which included twelve new poems in addition to poems from Dien Cai Dau, Copacetic, and I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head. Writing in the Kenyon Review, poet Toi Dericotte said: “He [Komunyakaa] takes on the most complex moral issues, the most harrowing ugly subjects of our American life. His voice, whether it embodies the specific experiences of a black man, a soldier in Vietnam, or a child in Bogalusa, Louisiana, is universal. It shows us in ever deeper ways what it is to be human.”

Talking Dirty to the GodsSince then, he has published several books of poems, including Thieves of Paradise (1998) and Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000), both of which were finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His 2011 collection The Chameleon Couch was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was shortlisted for the 2012 International Griffin Poetry Prize. It was named a Best Poetry Book of 2011 by the Boston Globe. In 2006, he published Gilgamesh: A Verse Play, a refashioning of the classic Sumerian legend, and his prose from various sources is collected in Blues Notes: Essays, Interviews & Commentaries (2000). His other honors include the William Faulkner Prize from the Université de Rennes, the Thomas Forcade Award, the Hanes Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in The Emperor of Water ClocksProvincetown, the Louisiana Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1999 and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2009.

His latest collection of poetry, The Emperor of Water Clocks, was published in October 2015. In a review for The New York Times Style Magazine, Ta-Nehisi Coates called Komunyakaa “probably my favorite living poet,” and said, “No one else taught me more about how important it was to think about how words make people feel. It’s not enough for people to know something is true. They have to feel it’s true.”

Previous Visit: October 7, 2001

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.