Yusef Kominyakaa was born James William Brown in Bogalusa, Louisiana, the son of a carpenter and the eldest of five children. As an adult he changed his surname to his grandfather’s African name who reputedly reached the US as a stowaway on a ship from Trinidad. Yusef was first alerted to the power of language by his grandparents and obtained books from the local church library, his local library being shamefully off limits to African Americans.
In 1969 he served in the US army as a war correspondent for the Southern Cross newspaper, earning the Bronze Star for his work. After his military service he attended the University of colorado Springs where he was the editor of the campus arts and literary magazine, Riverrun. He obtained his BA in 1975, his MA in Writing from Colorado State University in 1978 and his Masters Degree in Fine Arts from the University of California in 1980.
On leaving university he taught poetry at a school in New Orleans and later at the University of New Orleans. He then taught at Indiana University until 1997 before becoming professor English at Princeton University. He was Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999-2005 and is now a professor in the creative writing department of New York University. Yusef Kuminyakaa started to write poetry whilst at university but first came to public attention when he won the San Francisco Poetry Prize in 1986 for I Apologise for the Eyes in My Head. His second collection, Dien Cai Dau (Vietnamese - Crazy in the Head), based on his experiences in Vietnam, won the Dark Room Poetry Prize and was received with great acclaim. However, it was his Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems which cemented his celebrity when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1995.
Since then he has published several more volumes of poetry and also wrote a verse play The Epic of Gilgamesh in 2006. In 1985 he married the Australian novelist Mandy Sayer, a marriage which ended ten years later. She describes their relationship in her autobiographical work, The Poet’s Wife. He later had a relationship with the Indian-born poet Reetika Vazirani which ended tragically when Reetika killed their two year-old son and committed suicide.
Yusef Kuminyakaa’s poetry was influenced by poets such as Pablo Neruda, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman as well as the Bible and his personal experiences in childhood and in the Vietnam War. He is not afraid to take on complex moral issues of race, religion and war. In addition to being a Pulitzer Prizewinner, he has received numerous other awards and has had a strong influence on the works of up and coming poets.