A blog post by Tara Hart, Co-Chair of HoCoPoLitso Board of Directors
Especially at this time, when the arts are so clearly at risk of losing national support, we are so grateful to live in a community composed of people who value what poet Marilyn Nelson calls “communal pondering” of meaning, who value spacious perspectives.
At the ninth annual Blackbird Poetry Festival, we were dazzled all day by the presence of two important master poets, E. Ethelbert Miller and Tyehimba Jess, who conducted student poetry workshops in the morning, charmed us over lunch, inspired a variety of eager new poets and poetry lovers in a free open reading of many voices, taped a TV interview for our show The Writing Life, and finally, after we squeezed them up into balls and rolled them towards overwhelming questions, we let them have a dinner break and catch their breath before Mr. Jess took the stage for the last time for the Nightbird Reading.
It was my honor to introduce Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tyehimba Jess to the Howard County community. Years ago, at one of the wonderful Dodge Poetry Festivals held bi-annually in New Jersey, Tim Singleton and I and several other HoCoPoLitSo board members did our usual reconnaissance to see who we thought we should invite for you. During one debriefing, I remember Tim saying, “Tyehimba Jess, Tyehimba Jess!” and I said “Yes! I saw him too, he’s amazing. And his name sounds like a song, or a prayer.” And then when we finally did connect with Mr. Jess and he accepted our invitation to come, he said, “HoCoPoLitSo! It sounds like a dance!” So I think this music Jess and HoCoPoLitSo made that evening at Nightbird Reading was meant to be.
Tyehimba Jess is the author of two award-winning books Leadbelly and Olio, and their significance and groundbreaking nature are difficult to convey sufficiently. Olio, the collection of first generation freed voices from the post-Civil War era to World War I does, as those at Found Poetry Review said, “distract you from your preconceived notions about what poetry can be, what it can do, and, ultimately, what you think you know. More than a book (and many reviewers have commented at length about what a fantastic object the book is), Olio is an extended performance, a musical score, and an epic libretto…”
Olio is made up of poems that Mr. Jess directly invites us to read in our own way and in any order (you can read the lines straight across the page, or up one side and down the other). “Weave your own chosen way among these voices,” Jess invites. There are even instructions for turning some of the pages into a sort origami that allow you to make the poems and their meanings three-dimensional. You’ll find interviews, historical documents, lists, and hymns. He faces the chaos of truth, and of our own fickle, diverse, various ways of seeing and not-seeing, and makes it all sing. Truly it is both deconstructive, giving voices back to the silenced, the misunderstood, the invisible, the abducted and it is creative – weaving them back together into patterns and inviting the reader to weave them back in ways that they choose.
There are even other ways to read the poems – I think they also tell the story of what the poet himself is achieving. Even as the poet breathes life into these people from the past, his words illuminate the impact of his own art. I’m using his words now: They “show the world the gut meaning of grace.” They are “a hurricane of back and forth notes.” They are “the sound of one mallet against history’s pale fist.” They say, “listen to how we’re bound in unison, this is our story I want you to hear.”
In his poems, boxes and trunks packed long ago are opened up, and what we find makes us question everything we thought we knew.
In the collection Leadbelly, the poems ask, “how to weed graveyard from his garden of tongue? What rainbow of prayer to pull between teeth?” They ask how we might find “a place where I can dream drought into rain, pray storm cloud out of spotless sky” or find the hope that “our wondrous oneness exists”? They speak in the voices of women as well as men, and in the voices of the objects we tie our meaning to, like guitars, or streets.
Overall, I agree with Brigit Pegeen Kelly that “It is exhilarating to be invited into a world so large and muscular, so rooted in history, a world where so much is at stake.”
And, finally I must say that the work of Mr. Jess, as well as the Poetry Out Loud program itself, are the two best arguments I know of for sustaining the National Endowment of the Arts, if these tremendous artists and their work are the result of that small investment.