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Experiencing Tyehimba Jess read his verse at the Blackbird Poetry Festival in April 2017 was like watching Cirque de Soleil with words.
Jess, who had won the Pulitzer Prize a few weeks before he arrived to read for HoCoPoLitSo, stood at the front of Smith Theatre and flashed on-screen his poems and pictures of the minstrel musicians that were the subjects of his compositions. In a demonstration of poetic acrobatics, Jess then proceeded to read his works forwards, backwards, diagonally, and circularly.
His collection, Olio, speaks in the voices of the Black musicians from the minstrel tradition, the main form of theater in America from 1830 until 1910. White actors and singers put on blackface and performed degrading caricatures of Black people.
But some Black artists made their creative living in minstrel shows. In Olio, Jess writes their stories: Henry Box Brown, Edmonia Lewis, Sissieretta Jones, Scott Joplin, Williams and Walker, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the McCoy twins–talented performers who worked in the only venues available to them.
Jess seeks to give full voice to the artists’ stories, instead of making insulting, two-dimensional representations of the performers, as the shows did. The pages in his book Olio can be ripped out, Jess explained.
“The reader is invited to deconstruct the book,” Jess told E. Ethelbert Miller in the edition of The Writing Life they filmed together. “The pages are perforated so the pages easily tear out of the books. So you can use the poems in their form to manipulate them. You’re going from a two-dimensional form to a three-dimensional composition, in much the same way that many of the performers were working in a two-dimensional strata and had to take the received instrument and bend it.”
In this week’s HoCoPoLitSo Poetry Moment, Jess reads “Blind Tom Plays On,” the last in a sonnet series about Tom Wiggins, born blind, a slave, and autistic. By age 4, he had become a savant piano player. With uncanny talent, Wiggins could imitate sounds, repeat reams of speech, and compose and play music. One of his “tricks” was to perform three pieces of music–playing one song with one hand, another with his second hand, and singing a third song. James Bethune and his family owned Tom most of his life, and profited to the tune of nearly a million dollars from his talents, with Tom receiving only subsistence from them.
Jess’s poems pay tribute to Wiggins’ strange genius, and to the mother that protected him as much as she could, from slavery, and from the people that sought to exploit him. One of Jess’s other sonnets in the series ends with the following lines, starting with the metaphor of teeth as piano keys:
Jangle up its teeth until it can tell
our story the way you would tell your own:
the way you take darkness and make it moan.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
By Laura Yoo
April is National Poetry Month, and Saturday, April 22nd is Earth Day. And I have a book recommendation that can help celebrate both: Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature edited by Camille T. Dungy.
Black Nature offers a different perspective through which we might read, understand, and talk about the 93 black poets and their 180 poems included in this anthology. Dungy writes a compelling introduction in which she describes the noticeable absence of black writers from anthologies and discussions in ecocriticism and ecopoetics. She reminds us of the complex and unique connection that African Americans have to “land, animal, and vegetation in American culture”.
Despite all these connections to America’s soil, we don’t see much African American poetry in nature-related anthologies because, regardless of their presence, blacks have not been recognized in their poetic attempts to affix themselves to the landscape. They haven’t been seen, or when they have it is not as people who are rightful stewards of the land. They are accidentally or invisibly or dangerously or temporarily or inappropriately on/in the landscape. The majority of the works in this collection incorporate treatments of the natural world that are historicized or politicized and are expressed through the African American perspective, which inclines readers to consider these texts as political poems, historical poems, protest poems, socioeconomic commentary, anything but nature poems.
I want to test this new perspective, and with this in mind I turn to the poetry of Tyehimba Jess, the newly minted 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry winner, who is coming to headline HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College’s annual Blackbird Poetry Festival on Thursday, April 27th. He will be reading and speaking with E. Ethelbert Miller during the Sunbird Reading. Notably, Miller’s “I am Black and the Trees are Green” is included in Dungy’s anthology.
Much of Jess’s acclaimed body of work illuminates on the African American experience. About Olio, Wave Books says, “Part fact, part fiction, Jess’s much anticipated second book weaves sonnet, song, and narrative to examine the lives of mostly unrecorded African American performers directly before and after the Civil War up to World War I.”
In an interview with LitHub about Olio, Jess spoke about the power and the politics of song: “To be able to sing under that kind of oppression I think, in a lot of ways, is the very essence of survival, of a people, of the ability to have to the hope to make something beautiful amongst so much wretchedness. That’s critical to the concept of human survival. And in this particular context, of African Americans working through slavery… that’s what we had.”
But in the context of Dungy’s Black Nature, I turn to Jess’s leadbelly with a different ear.
In “john wesley ledbetter,” Jess writes,
singing a crusade of axe and machete i take virgin texas territory by force, clear it of timber and trouble. each eastern twilight, i till top soil ’til sun plants itself back into that western horizon. i keep struggling against a brooding moon’s skyline until dark sleep is my friend again, a place where i can dream drought into rain, pray storm could out of spotless sky.
The poem goes on with, “there’s only one way out of slave time dues: hump this land down till it shrieks up a crop of cancelled debt into your wagon.” In this poem, we see an illustration of what Dungy describes as African Americans’ “complex relationship to land, animals, and vegetation.” She says, “African Americans are tied up in the toil and soil involved in working the land into the country we know today,” and she reminds us how they were “viewed once as chattel, part of a farm’s livestock or asset in a bank’s ledger.”
In “leadbelly: runagate,” Jess writes,
where water and land meet is shore, and on shore is iron in fists of jailers in sun of texas swamp. i wade into bubble and blue ink of red river, my head is shaven, bobbing, brown island of shine. […]
i want to let the water take me, i want to surrender to this river’s rock and swirl, come up clean and white as death itself, but the black in me breaks into blues, and i feel the coffle of their claws. i am stepping toward dry land, the dance of ankle chains, where i scream history into song that works itself into blood, sweat, memory.
The water in this poem reminds me of Dungy’s description of the “river” in Rita Dove’s “Three Days of forest, a River, Free”: it is “more than a moving body of water. It is a biblical allusion, a historical reality, a geographical boundary, a legal boundary, a decoy, the center of emotional and personal change, an aspiration, a metaphor: all these things at once.”
As I re-see the poems in leadbelly with a different framework, I am reminded how the way we group, categorize, thematically arrange, and shelf literature can limit or expand our experiences of literature. We put the poems under one category or another, and it’s hard to imagine what else it can be.
Dungy’s Black Nature is important, because it acknowledges the African American perspective these 93 poets highlight while introducing what else their work is – and how that “what else” amplifies our understanding of their works. As Dungy says, Black Nature “encourage[s] readers to divert their gaze into new directions, demanding they notice new aspects of the world and accept alternative modes of description.”
To put it another way, a book like Black Nature is like a hearing aid. It can give us that extra power to hear poetry in an even more powerful way. It can help us turn up the volume on that work – perhaps turn up the bass or the treble and experience the poem in a myriad of ways.
HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its ninth annual Blackbird Poetry Festival is award winning writer and slam poet Tyehimba Jess. The Blackbird Poetry Festival, to be held April 27, 2017, on the campus of Howard Community College, is a day devoted to verse, with student workshops, book sales, readings and patrols by the poetry police. The Sunbird poetry reading, featuring Mr. Jess, as well as Washington, D.C., writer and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller and Howard Community College students, will start at 2:30 p.m. Mr. Jess will read from and discuss his most recent work, Olio, as well as leadbelly, winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series, during the Nightbird Poetry Reading, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts. Nightbird admission tickets are $15 each (students and seniors are $10) available on-line at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2551545 or by sending a self-addressed envelope and check payable to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.
Tyehimba Jess, Associate Professor of English at College of Staten Island, a Cave Canem and NYU alumnus, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team. With rare skill, Jess welds the immediacy of slam poetry with the craft of poetry on the page.
Jess is the author of two poetry collections: leadbelly (2004), a biography in poems of the legendary blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, and Olio (2016), about African American performers from before the Civil War up to World War I. About Olio, 2011 National Book award winner Nikky Finney said: “Tyehimba Jess is inventive, prophetic, wondrous. He writes unflinchingly into the historical clefs of blackface, black sound, human sensibility.” Jess’ fiction and poetry have appeared in many journals and anthologies including Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Beyond The Frontier: African American Poetry for the Twenty-First Century, Slam: The Art of Performance Poetry, American Poetry Review, and Ploughshares.
Ethelbert Miller, editor of poetry anthologies, author of two memoirs and numerous books of poetry, including his latest, The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller (2016), will read and offer workshops.