Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet Visits Smith

Olivia Goodman ’14
News Editor

On Tuesday, September 17, distinguished poet Yusef Komunyakaa presented a reading in the Weinstein Auditorium as this year’s kick off event for the Poetry Center’s reading series.  Komunyakaa is the recipient of the 1994 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award as well as the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Komunyakaa, who has published 17 acclaimed poetry collections, was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana and began his career as a correspondent in Vietnam as managing editor for the military newspaper Southern Cross.  Komunyakaa currently teaches at New York University’s graduate creative writing program as the Distinguished Senior Poet and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Komunyakaa’s work has also reached over into theater.  In 2004, he collaborated with theater producer Chad Garcia on a dramatic adaptation of The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was published and later performed in New York City and Washington D.Cin 2008.

Ellen Doré Watson, director of the Poetry Center, discussed narrowing down the final choice for speaker to Komunyakaa as the Center begins its reading series.  “In choosing poets to come to Smith, we strive to make each semester reflect the range and diversity of poetry being written—in English and otherwise—by poets of various styles, genders, ethnicities, etcetera,” she said.

“We like to feature a particularly noteworthy and exciting poet to kick off the year.  Komunyakaa is one of the most important and necessary voices of our time, and hasn’t visited Smith for 15 years, so it struck me as a perfect way to begin the semester.”

Komunyakaa’s work ranges widely in terms of material, and his reading at Smith reflected this, including poems about family, race, his childhood in the south, the Vietnam War, and Hurricane Katrina.  The turnout was strong as Weinstein was filled to capacity with an audience that included President McCartney and her husband.

Amber Rounds ‘14J attended the reading and is an intern at the Poetry Center.  She commented on the experience of seeing Komunyakaa’s poetry performed by the author himself in person. “While his poetry is stunning and vivid on the page, his accent and manner of speaking transform his poems, lending a musicality that is unique to him.  He read several well-known poems about the Vietnam War as well as an assortment of other both old and new works.  I enjoyed it immensely.”

The Poetry Center’s reading series will continue throughout the semester.  “We usually present about five poetry events each semester,” said Watson.  “This year we’re thrilled to follow Komunyakaa with Galway Kinnell and Ellen Bryant Voigt, two very distinguished American poets.  We will also be featuring a bilingual event with Brazilian poet Adélia Prado, and to close the season we will have two Ada Comstock alumnae, both authors of prize-winning books, Carolyn Creedown and Laurie Ann Guerrero.

Speaking about what the Poetry Center adds to the Smith community and beyond, Watson commented, “We mean to bring the world of contemporary poetry to campus and the surrounding community, creating a vibrant culture of poetry throughout Smith College that radiates out into the wider world.”

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