MACON – Mercer University's Center for Southern Studies will award the 2015 Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature to poet Yusef Komunyakaa. The prize honors significant career contributions to Southern writing in drama, fiction or poetry. The prize presentation will take place on Saturday, April 25, 1 p.m., in the Presidents Dining Room of the University Center on the Macon campus.
“Over the course of his career, Yusef Komunyakaa has asked us to look at ourselves and recognize the pain, loss, and occasional beauty that we often overlook. His poems describe Vietnam, the South, and America in ways that illuminate the obscure and complicate the obvious. We are delighted to present the Lanier Prize to him,” said Dr. David A. Davis, chair of the Lanier Prize Committee and associate professor of English at Mercer.
Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in 1947, where he was raised during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. He served in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1970 as a correspondent and as managing editor of the military newspaper the Southern Cross, for which he earned a Bronze Star.
Komunyakaa began writing poetry while a student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in 1973. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1975, and went on to earn a master's degree from Colorado State University and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine.
His first book of poems, Dedications & Other Darkhorses, was published in 1977. He first received widespread acclaim in 1984 for his collection of poems titled Copacetic, which featured colloquial speech and demonstrated his incorporation of jazz influences. His next two books, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986) and Dien Cai Dau (1988), won the San Francisco Poetry Center Award and The Dark Room Poetry Prize, respectively. The latter was hailed by poets such as William Matthews and Robert Hass as some of the best writing on the Vietnam War.
Over the next two decades, Komunyakaa published several other books of poetry, including Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977-1989, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award in 1994. He has also written dramatic works, published a collection of prose, titled Blues Notes: Essays, Interviews & Commentaries (2000), co-translated The Insomnia of Fire by Nguyen Quang Thieu and served as guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2003.
He has received the Wallace Stevens Award, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the William Faulkner Prize from the University of Rennes, the Thomas Forcade Award and the Hanes Poetry Prize, as well as fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, the Louisiana Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was elected and served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999 to 2005.
After receiving his M.F.A., Komunyakaa began teaching poetry in the New Orleans public school system and creative writing at the University of New Orleans. He has also taught at Indiana University and Princeton University. He currently lives in New York City, where he is Global Distinguished Professor of English at New York University.
“Many thanks to those who continue to have faith in my work,” said Komunyakaa. “It's a great honor to receive the Lanier Prize and to visit Mercer University.”
The Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature, first awarded in 2012, is named for the 19th-century Southern poet born in Macon. Lanier wrote “The Song of the Chattahoochee” and “The Marshes of Glynn.” Using his name recognizes Middle Georgia's literary heritage and long, often complicated, tradition of writing about the South. The prize is awarded to writers who have engaged and extended that tradition. Past winners include Ernest Gaines (2012), Lee Smith (2013) and Elizabeth Spencer (2014).
The selection committee for the Lanier Prize includes Mercer professors, eminent scholars of Southern literature and members of the Macon community. In addition to Dr. Davis, the committee includes Bob Brinkmeyer, Emily Brown Jefferies Professor of English at the University of South Carolina; Sharon Colley, associate professor of English at Middle Georgia State College; Sarah Gardner, professor of history and director of Southern studies at Mercer University; Minrose Gwin, Kenan Professor of English at the University of North Carolina; Trudier Harris, professor of English and African-American studies at the University of Alabama; Gordon Johnston, professor of creative writing at Mercer University; Michael Kreyling, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University; Matt Martin, Knox Professor of Humanities at Wesleyan College; and Pam Thomasson, past president of Historic Macon Foundation.
Mercer will also award Sidney Lanier Creative Writing Scholarships on April 25. High school juniors with high aptitude for writing may compete for the scholarships, and winners will receive up to $5,000 per year toward the cost of tuition at Mercer.