Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa isn’t just an important author and relevant figure in the celebration of Black History month, he’s important to us personally — as he is an English department alumnus and beloved member of our “Ramily.”

Komunyakaa was born and grew up in the small town of Bogalusa, Louisiana, before and during the Civil Rights era. He served a tour of Army duty during the Vietnam War, when he acted as a journalist for the military paper, covering major actions, interviewing fellow soldiers and publishing articles on Vietnamese history and literature. Upon his return to the states he turned to poetry, eventually becoming one of the most popular and important American writers of his generation. Yusef obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs in 1975, an MA in creative writing from Colorado State University in 1978, and an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine in 1980.

Komunyakaa was selected as the 2015 CLA Honor Alumnus. He came to campus to give a reading and receive his award. Professor Emeritus Bill Tremblay has known Yusef since he was a student at CSU. In nominating him for the alumni award, Bill wrote:

Early on, Yusef was able to make his poetry out of a fusion between music and magic so that it would be a continuous revelation of the powers that spring from human desires and dreams. The intelligence of his poems reaches back into his formative years when as a child he played beneath the floorboards of his front porch and listened intently so that—as he says in one of his poems about his youth—”I knows things I ain’t suppose to know”—about the mysterious power of the adult world. The speakers of his poems are witnesses to the mystery and power of the spirit world—a world of hoodoo and juju—that is alive and working overtime to generate his extraordinary vision.

Yusef Komunyakaa’s books of poetry include Taboo, Dien Cai Dau, Neon Vernacular (for which he received the Pulitzer Prize), The Chameleon Couch, and the forthcoming The Emperor of Water Clocks (FSG). He has been the recipient of numerous awards including the William Faulkner Prize (Université Rennes, France), the Kingsley Tufts Award for Poetry, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, and the 2011 Wallace Stevens Award.  His plays, performance art and libretti have been performed internationally, and include Slipknot, Wakonda’s Dream, Nine BridgesBack, Saturnalia, Testimony, The Mercy Suite, and Gilgamesh (a verse play) with Chad Gracia. He is Global Distinguished Professor of English at New York University.

Komunyakaa’s been called both a “jazz poet” and a “soldier poet.” He rejects the “write what you know” model in favor of “write what you are willing to discover.” His advice to newcomers, readers and writers of poetry is “Be inquisitive, and not just for the sake of information … but because I do think that it keeps us connected to who we are. Life is celebration and confrontation, the same as poetry.” Read more about him and his visit here: Pulitzer Prize Winner Komunyakaa Returns to CSU for Poetry Reading.

Video: Yusef Komunyakaa reads w/ music by David Cieri + Mike Brown