Tyehimba Jess

September 22, 2016

JESS FINAL“I believe I have the ownership to write about anything that I want.  However, I also have the obligation to write about it with compassion, nuance, intelligence, and to try my best to write at the highest standards of those who practice the craft.”

Tyehimba Jess is the author of Leadbelly and OlioLeadbelly was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.” Olio, published in 2016, has been called “Encyclopedic, ingenious, and abundant…” by Publisher’s Weekly‘s starred review, and a “daring collection, which blends forthright, musically acute language with portraiture” by Library Journal.

Jess, a Cave Canem and NYU Alumni, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a 2004-2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Jess is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, and won a 2000 – 2001 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry, the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He exhibited his poetry at the 2011 TedX Nashville Conference. Jess is Poetry and Fiction Editor of African American Review, faculty at Pacific University MFA program, and Associate Professor of English at College of Staten Island.

bulbOlio is such a structurally and formally ambitious collection.  Can you describe how the formal experimentation in the book advanced or complicated your exploration of your subjects?

There are several contrapuntal poems in the book that explore dualities of perspective.  Writing in this fashion, using the sonnet, ghazal and Terrance Hayes’ “Golden Shovel” form provided a way for historical voices to talk back to each other using the same amount of breath.   This forced me to consider opposing and complimentary points of view in ways that I could not anticipate until I had written each complimentary line.  For instance, I would have a vague idea of the ideas a syncopated sonnet might want to tackle, but because each line was written in response to a preceding line and had to follow certain strictures of rhyme and syllable count those ideas would change in diction and tenor from the way I would write a straight sonnet.  It is a little like writing with a target that shapeshifts and moves from line to line to line.   It’s my hope that this technique allowed me to offer the reader a more nuanced understanding of all the historical subjects.

bulbSome of the poems in Olio can be read in multiple ways, in various directions. In poems such as “Mark Twain vs. Blind Tom,” are those various possibilities for reading meant to complicate the historical threads you are pulling from? Carry through the ghost imprint of multiple forms, texts, and lineages? Cause us, the reader, to sit with competing dialogues?

The Mark Twain v. Blind Tom poem uses a quote by Twain, and is meant to be read in the traditional fashion, from left to right and down the page.   I wanted to explore what Tom would say in reaction to Twain, how he would define himself in opposition to the bestial way Twain describes him.

All of the poems that can be torn out of the book (the pages they appear upon are perforated and tear out quite easily) may be read line by line (as opposed to word-by-word), backwards, forwards, diagonally and interstitially.  The lines of the Bert Williams/George Walker Ghazal connect to each surrounding line – thus to all the lines above, below, to the side, and diagonally.   They tear out of the book so the reader can explore the poems and fold them to explore the transformation from a two-dimensional form into a three dimensional structure. These poems form cylinders, tori, and mobius strips that maintain their textual integrity but demonstrate a plasticity of form.   In this way, I hope to demonstrate in a concrete fashion the ways that Black artists have tried to stretch form beyond its intended use.  This is true in music, where saxophones and harmonicas, guitars and even record players were never meant to be played in the way innovative Black musicians have played them.  It’s also true in sports, where the structure of some games have changed to accommodate (or challenge) the athletic abilities of Black athletes.

bulbYou often incorporate other non-poetic material, such as the documentary evidence from the archive of African American musical history into your poem.  Do you see your poems as documentaries? As musicological texts? As cultural history?

I see my poetic projects (Leadbelly and Olio) as explorations of documentary, fiction, verse, musicological research, Euclidian space, theater and song.   It’s my hope that the reader walks away intrigued by the fascinating histories of Black artistic endeavor from a time that doesn’t get much attention – that period from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of World War 1. I want folks to be compelled to look up more histories from this time period and explore similarities with our current political and social landscape.

bulbCan you describe the role of research in your writing process?  A poem like “Sissieretta Jones,” for instance, merges a dramatic monologue with historical details and musical markings. How do you balance these sources in the process of writing a poem?

In the case of Sissieretta Jones – the character in Olio on whom there is the least amount of published research – I had to make an effort to research her world without much to go on.   I was stumped for quite a while on how to approach her – but I was confident that she needed to have a voice in the book.   Aside from researching her life via the Schomburg Institute, I made an effort to understand the music vocabulary which she had mastered and the history of her era of opera.

I was also compelled to step outside of her voice in order to give her context in the form of Works Progress Administration interviews with a retired contortionist-come-medicine show woman, Eva Shoe.  The back and forth between voices made it possible to step in and out of her life and opened a door to other possibilities that occur in the book.

For me, there is research, research, reading, reading, hoping, praying, dreaming, fretting, research, reading…. and then, after reaching a certain level of exhaustion, I decide that the research has turned into a kind of procrastination, so it’s time to put all that aside and jump into the page, writing revision, revision, and more revision.

bulbWhat does it mean to be a poet who is documenting instances of language, current and historical events, and other cultural materials? Do you see one of the functions of your poetry as recording some piece of ours or other times?

I go back to a quote from Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”   I happen to be intrigued by the flow of history and how it informs our present. I happen to also be lucky enough to live in a time when hidden histories are more accessible than ever before due to advancements in information technology and intrepid research from so many new historians.  (Yet still, there are so many histories that lay unheard of, awaiting our rediscovery.)  I thrill in being able to bring these extraordinary histories to many folks for the first time, in a book that I had to imagine because it didn’t exist.

bulbHow do you decide what it means to treat source materials ethically as an artist? What constitutes your words? What do you have ownership over to write about in your poems?

I believe I have the ownership to write about anything that I want.  However, I also have the obligation to write about it with compassion, nuance, intelligence, and to try my best to write at the highest standards of those who practice the craft.   I also have the responsibility to take into account any critique of that writing, and to listen respectfully to the perspective of those it may represent.

As far as source material, I believe I have an obligation to present them accurately, in a fair and just context, to credit the sources, and to be creative in the presentation of said material.   In some cases, I mix my words with the words of a source material, as in Mark Twain’s quote bonded with Blind Tom’s imaginary response.    I also use the words of a Black newspaper editorial that condemns ‘coon songs’ in order to get a peep at the view of those who sang ‘coon songs’ for their livelihood.

The best thing about using source material is that it is clear proof of a subject’s perspective or agenda – a quote from their very own mouth.  Many readers simply will not be convinced of these perspectives without the direct quotes from the source – such as the introductory notes on how to make a minstrel show taken verbatim from The Witmark Amateur Minstrel Guide And Burnt Cork Encyclopedia, a friendly little 1905 guide on how to put together a minstrel show, complete with blackface instructions.  Yeah, that’s right… such a thing existed.  But it’s hard to imagine how pervasive minstrelsy was as a form at the turn of the 19-20th century without source materials like that to drive home the point.

bulb

In every interview, we ask the following standard questions:

 How did you come to poetry?

I came to poetry in the city of Detroit, in the era of Ronald Reagan and R&B. I had a great boost from a NAACP Academic Olympics that featured Dudley Randall as a judge – my poem about the city streets won second place.  It took me a while, but I eventually found out that when I took one step toward writing, it seemed to take two steps toward me.  I eventually caught up with that notion after several attempts at social work, deciding that my contribution would be performed on the page.

Can creative writing be taught? How?

Yes, creative writing can be taught – but my experience is that I am most effective when I don’t consider myself to be teaching it, but sharing it with a student, talking about pieces of good writing, and discussing how the work makes us react and grow.  I recently read that the ideal situation is when the students learn to teach themselves and the teacher learns more about their craft and teaching.  I seek that kind of exchange when I approach a classroom.

What’s your required reading list? Which five books should everyone reading and writing poetry today know?

Tough question.  I will answer with the caveat that my list may change if you were to ask me the same question next week.  Also, I have to extend my reach outside of the poetry world to embrace the lessons on tone and plot that I’ve learned from other genres.

Neon Vernacular. Komunyakaa’s exquisite, vibrant imagery is a tour de force.  I carried that book around like a bible for quite a few years, proselytizing mostly to my inner sense of sound and color.

Beloved. Toni Morrison writes so poetically, it would be hard not to learn from her mastery of dialogue, nuanced characters, close attention to historical consequence, and depth of imagination.

Coming Through Slaughter.  Michael Ondaatje’s searing biography of Buddy Bolden, the legendary horn player, was a vital influence to Leadbelly.  Reads like poetry, acts like prose, bleeds like music.

Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda.  Almost anything by Neruda, whose political and sensual antennae were always crossed and vibrant and overflowing with lush humanity.   There’s a reason that folks in Chile, from miners to managers, have memorized his poems for generations.

Blacks. Gwendolyn Brooks had an ear finely attuned to a city I love, Chicago; to the living and loving and lacking and laughter and lewdness of a generation just up from down South and crowded into the kitchenette corners of the capital of the Midwest.  She captured these voices so vividly, with craft that is resonant, unique, and indelible.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received or your favorite writing quote? What’s your advice for working young writers?

Best advice is from a sign I have on my wall:  1>0

In other words, it’s better to have something written down than nothing at all.  Get the writing out of your head and then you can edit as much as you want.  But the hardest part for me is getting it out.

What are you working on now?

I have a few ideas that address historical events, and some that may be rooted in my birthplace of Detroit.  To be honest, I’ve been somewhat dormant after finishing Olio, which was my major focus for about eight years. So, right now it’s about gathering ideas and maybe writing a haiku per day.

Can you give us a poetry prompt for our students?

Some of the best prompts have been made up on the spur of the moment. One prompt I use is to require students to research a person who was alive or an event that has occurred at least ten years before their birth, and to write a poem about that person during that time period or about that event. This prompt is more of an assignment than anything – something one might have to research alone for a while before settling on the subject – but it forces the poet out of their own headspace and forces them to think about historical consequence.   Because this exercise can be done with varying parameters (10 years back, 25 years back, 100, etc…) it can be useful to lead folks toward understanding more fully their place in the flow of history. I might add that this exercise can also be refined so that the poet researches exactly what was happening in the world on their date of birth – people are generally very curious about the state of the world they were born into, and such a poem could easily employ anaphora such as “Born into…. ”

Classroom Portfolio:

Poems

Discussion Questions

  • Many of Tyehimba Jess’s poems evoke the lives—even the imagined voices—of figures from history. Discuss how several of these poems take similar different approaches to writing about historical figures. What historical figures might you be inspired to write a poem about?
  • Describe the sonic and rhyming patterns you notice in “leadbelly’s lessons.” When is the pattern consistent? When does it defy your expectations? What affect does the sonic plane of the poem have on the unfolding narrative?
  • Read “Sissieretta Jones.” What do you make of the italicized words? How do their sounds and rhythms fit into Jones’ monologue? Now, look up the definitions of these phrases using the Internet or a dictionary. What do you make of their inclusion now?
  • Why do you think Tyehimba Jess chose to cast the poem, “Sissieretta Jones,” a poem about music and songmaking, not in verse but in prose?
  • What role do questions play in the poem, “What Marked Tom?”? How does the interrogative mode advance the formal and narrative movement of the poem? What role do you think questions and questioning might have more broadly in a project like Olio?

In-class Activities

Hidden Readings

Some of the poems in Tyehimba Jess’s collection of poems, Olio, are printed on perforated pages so that readers might tear them from the books to give them greater flexibility in folding and reading them in unexpected ways. In this in-class activity, students will experience for themselves this function of Jess’s poems and reflect on how this practice relates to intellectual and aesthetic elements of his project as a whole, as described in his Lightbox interview.

Hidden Readings Activity (PDF)

Prompts

Into Conversation

Read Tyehimba Jess’s “Mark Twain vs. Blind Tom” as well as the poet’s commentary on the poem in his Lightbox interview.  Write a poem of your own that puts two personal, cultural, or historical figures into conversation. These might be people you’ve encountered in your own life, characters from famous books or movies, or significant players from history.  Try using characters or figures from different contexts in order to explore or unveil new histories, contexts, and relationships between them. You might, as Jess does, use a quotation as a starting place, or you might create a dialogue between the figures solely from your imagination or from research at the library or on the Internet. What might these figures say to each other? How would one respond to the other?  As you craft the poem, think, too, about how you might arrange the poem to allow for multiple ways of reading it.  The in-class activity included with this classroom portfolio can suggest a starting point.

Lightbox Prompt (PDF)

Writing Prompt (courtesy of Tyehimba Jess)

Some of the best prompts have been made up on the spur of the moment. One prompt I use is to require students to research a person who was alive or an event that has occurred at least ten years before their birth, and to write a poem about that person during that time period or about that event. This prompt is more of an assignment than anything – something one might have to research alone for a while before settling on the subject – but it forces the poet out of their own headspace and forces them to think about historical consequence.   Because this exercise can be done with varying parameters (10 years back, 25 years back, 100, etc…) it can be useful to lead folks toward understanding more fully their place in the flow of history. I might add that this exercise can also be refined so that the poet researches exactly what was happening in the world on their date of birth – people are generally very curious about the state of the world they were born into, and such a poem could easily employ anaphora such as “Born into…. ”

Writing Prompt (PDF)

Tyehimba Jess Online

olioBuy Olio by Tyehimba Jess

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