Yusef Komunyakaa (black and white portrait)

Born in 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Yusef Komunyakaa is a son of the South. He served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, an experience that infused his creative career. Since writing his first poem in 1975, Komunyakaa has published nearly 20 books, including fourteen collections of poetry, anthologies he’s edited, a collection of prose writing, a translated volume, and two dramatic works. He has been awarded many major prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1994), Kingsley Tufts Award (1994), William Faulkner Prize (1994), National Book Critics Circle Award (Shortlist, 1998), two Creative Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1981, 1987), The Thomas Forcade Award (1991), The Hanes Poetry Prize (1997), Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets (1999), The Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1998), The Wallace Stevens Award (2011), and others.

An educator himself, Komunyakaa has influenced a generation of young poets and scholars. In a piece entitled “Mentor and Friend: Yusef Komunyakaa as Teacher” published in a special issue of Callaloo in 2005, poet Vince Gotera writes, “We each learned through Yusef’s tutelage to give ourselves permission to become poets, to become better poets, to become the best poets we could be” (509). Komunyakaa has taught at several prestigious institutions, among them Princeton University (Council of Humanities and Creative Writing), and he is currently Distinguished Senior Poet at New York University’s Creative Writing program. He has also served as a faculty member at Cave Canem, the premier home for Black poets, at the Callaloo workshops, and the Key West Literary Seminars, among others.

“The most permanent thing about the voice is the language it leaves behind—images so real they are like ripe fruit in the mouth.” —Toi Derricotte on Komunyakaa’s work

Furious Flower’s seminar (June 18–24, 2017) for college professors, high school teachers, writers and other scholars in related fields takes its title from Komunyakaa’s most famous work, “Facing It.” Emblematic of Komunyakaa’s style, the poem is known for its musicality, muscularity, and fine attention to craft. He produces a poetics of witness—of clear-sighted, unflinching seeing—that compels readers to locate themselves solidly in the moment of the poem, whether it details the ordinary movements of daily life, reenters the otherworld of mythology, or recounts the harrowing details of life in combat.

Images in Komunyakaa’s work transcend the visual; the rhythms of jazz have been critical to the production of the poems. In an interview with his publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Komunyakaa stated, “I do think that my creative psyche has been tooled by music, especially the blues and progressive jazz. I think of early blues voices—Robert Johnson, Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Son House, and Nina Simone … This becomes a psychological measurement for time. For the poet, the music one is immersed in can influence the natural music of a poem.” The influence of jazz on the poet and its manifestation in his poetry have been documented by critics such as Michael S. Collins, Ed Pavlic, Angela Salas (all three of whom will serve as faculty members at “Facing It”), Sascha Feinstein, and Shirley Hanshaw.

Over four decades, Komunyakaa has created a robust, varied, and complex body of work. His poems have been the subject of numerous critical articles and essays, and his collections have been reviewed in illustrious publications such as the New York Times, Poetry Magazine, Village Voice, and The Bloomsbury Review. His poems have also been translated into several languages, including Italian, Czech, Portuguese, and Spanish. Thus, Komunyakaa is a poet of not only national but also international import, and he is truly an American poetic legacy.

Furious Flower presents a weeklong Legacy Seminar, “Facing It: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa,” in the summer of 2017 at James Madison University’s Festival Conference & Student Center.

This program is funded in part by generous support from 

Poetry Foundation

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


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