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An Interview with Tyehimba Jess

“IN AFRICAN AMERICAN TRADITIONS, IF YOU’RE FOLLOWING THE MUSIC, YOU’RE FOLLOWING THE VEHICLE FOR LITERATURE WHEN AN ENTIRE POPULATION WAS FORBIDDEN FROM WRITING. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO SEPARATE THE MUSIC FROM THE LITERATURE, AND THE LITERATURE FROM THE MUSIC.”

Lessons learned from slam poetry:
Patricia Smith is inspiring on both the page and the stage
There is a small percentage of people who make their living as slam poets
You must have the audience’s attention in the first twenty to thirty seconds or you are done

by Jessica Lanay
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Tyehimba Jess

“IN AFRICAN AMERICAN TRADITIONS, IF YOU’RE FOLLOWING THE MUSIC, YOU’RE FOLLOWING THE VEHICLE FOR LITERATURE WHEN AN ENTIRE POPULATION WAS FORBIDDEN FROM WRITING. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO SEPARATE THE MUSIC FROM THE LITERATURE, AND THE LITERATURE FROM THE MUSIC.”

Lessons learned from slam poetry:
Patricia Smith is inspiring on both the page and the stage
There is a small percentage of people who make their living as slam poets
You must have the audience’s attention in the first twenty to thirty seconds or you are done

by Jessica Lanay
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Tyehimba Jess

Jessica Lanay
15 Snaps

If anyone were to ask me how I met Tyehimba Jess, I would blush and regretfully say I don’t remember. How I met Tyehimba is not as important as the fact that I did. My first memory of a real conversation with him was at a café in Dumbo, Brooklyn, where he had agreed to meet up with me, an unprofessed and unconfessed poet, to talk about poetry. By this time I had read leadbelly (2005), his first book, four times. I wanted to make a good impression; I, like many poets, was looking for a mentor. While Tyehimba did not become my mentor, so to speak, every single time I spoke to him, it happened to be in a moment when I needed a reminder, as a writer, to follow my intuition, do what I want to do, keep reading, and to do it for the writing and nothing else.

His latest poetry collection, Olio (2016), is a hybrid work in which the fictional protagonist, Julius Monroe Trotter, an injured World War I veteran, travels throughout the Reconstruction-era United States interviewing people to piece together a biography of the king of ragtime, Scott Joplin. In a precise mixture of experimental contrapuntal, sonnet, and prose poetry, the collective narrative of Olio reveals the history of world-renowned African American music acts in the late nineteenth century. In 2017, Tyehimba was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Olio. Both leadbelly and Olio are collections driven by persona poetry and research into African American musicology and politics.

I interviewed Tyehimba over the course of five years. We began over dinner at Junior’s in Brooklyn in 2014, when Olio was shaping up for publication. We followed up in an email interview in 2016, after Olio debuted, and concluded our years-long conversation in the spring of 2018. This is what I have found in my interactions with Tyehimba Jess: he shoots straight; he is aware; he is passionate; he rarely does not mean what he says; when it comes to the work of writing, he is matter-of-fact: you are either going to work or you’re out; he is determined to be more of himself every day; he listens. My second year at Cave Canem, the acclaimed workshop for Black poets founded by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, I left my copy of Olio at home. I bought another copy and took it to Tyehimba to sign. He wrote: “To Jessica! Here’s to the lovely journey! Thanks for traveling with me!” 

—Jessica Lanay 

 

I. “IF I AM GOING TO CALL MYSELF A POET, THEN I NEED TO WRITE A BOOK AND GET IT PUBLISHED BY SOMEBODY OTHER THAN MYSELF.” 

THE BELIEVER: What made you want to start writing?

TYEHIMBA JESS: I think when I really trace it back… One day, I don’t know, I was maybe twelve or thirteen, and I remember sitting in a chair in our basement and being really pent-up, really angry about something—I can’t remember what it was. I scribbled some words on a page that expressed all that pent-up rage and fear. I hadn’t thought of doing that kind of thing before. I’d never really thought about writing as a vehicle of expression before. When I finished writing and I held it up to look at it, it looked like it was a piece of me that I could finally see from a different angle. It was a portrait that could help me understand myself better. It was a revelatory moment. I still remember that day. I think when I am really in it, really writing well, that is where I go back to every time. I think that feeling is there. That feeling has to do with curiosity about what is going on in myself and in the world. I think that is what I was feeling. And anger is one way of expressing it—wanting to cry out and not being able to do it verbally.

BLVR: How did you become interested in slam poetry?

TJ: Slam came much later in my life. I didn’t start slamming until I was thirty-two, I guess. What happened was that I left Chicago and had a family emergency I had to take care of in West Virginia for about a year and a half. When I came back, it was like having to start all over again. I came back and I started asking myself whether or not I was serious about being a poet. I wanted to reestablish myself, and one of the ways I did that was through slam. I had never tried to do it, and I thought I would give it a shot. I was not on the first slam team that I tried to get on—that was at the Mad Bar in Wicker Park. I got onto the Green Mill slam team in 1999 and 2000. It was a good exercise in seeing what I could do, and I started using it as a measuring stick for what I was going to do.

BLVR: Do you remember your first time slamming?

TJ: No, I don’t think I do. I remember the first time I read onstage in Chicago was at the Guild [Literary] Complex, and that was because I was a bookseller. Around ’93 or ’94, I was working for Freedom Found Books in Hyde Park. I went to sell some books at this Guild event and I saw people reading their poetry onstage. That was when I first met people like Michael Warr.

BLVR: Were you scared? What did you think?

TJ: I guess I felt confident, but I had everything sounding the same: I basically just screamed at the audience the whole time. I still get nervous.

BLVR: Can you talk about your transition from being a slam poet to the kind of poet you are today? How does one inform the other?

TJ: What I learned from slam is this: if you are going to slam, you have to have the audience’s attention in the first twenty to thirty seconds, and if you don’t have it, you’re done. I discovered that is a useful skill to have when you are writing a poem for the page. I tried to adapt it into my writing. I would watch Patricia Smith and see that she is so amazing on the page and on the stage, and that was an inspiration.

I think what happened was that I wanted to compete in slam and I tried on numerous occasions. I got on a couple of teams and a couple things happened. The first year I went was really interesting, but the next year I felt like I had seen it all before—there was only so much poetry I could listen to in a day before everything started to sound the same. And it was just going on for days. I got it and I loved the people, but I was also trying to think about how poetry was going to work for me. How was slam freeing me and confining me? I was starting to write, around that time, the first poems for leadbelly. I started writing them definitely by 2001, but I had made up my mind: I need to finish this book. I had already written one chapbook back in the day, back in ’93 or ’92. I was thinking, If I am going to call myself a poet, then I need to write a book and get it published by somebody other than myself. 

The first poems for leadbelly were actually workshopped at Cave Canem, and the feedback was positive. I thought to myself that this might have some potential. I started concentrating on those poems and they grew. Then the idea of getting an MFA was growing in my head. I was getting worn down doing the work I was doing in Chicago, teaching in schools in every part of the city. I was getting to the point where I felt I needed to get a book out, and in 2001, when I started talking about getting an MFA, Elizabeth Alexander said I should think about it. I applied to NYU, got in, and finished writing leadbelly. 

I decided to stop slamming, because it took too much energy. I was traveling a lot to slam and it was on my own dime. I also realized that I was not going to be that successful in slam—there is a small percentage of people who make their living as slam poets. I realized I wasn’t going to be a part of that percentage. All of these things pointed me toward working harder on the page and writing a book that spoke through history and into the present—and that was leadbelly.

 

II. LEAD BELLY’S RESPONSIBILITY

BLVR: Poets spend a lot of time finding their own voice, and a lifetime struggling with their own shit: what they are and are not allowed to say. Then here you are, and so far the core of your career has been the exhumation of voices from history. How do you deal with these voices? 

TJ: I think with Lead Belly in particular, we had a lot of things in common. He was a Black artist; I am a Black artist. He had frustrations; I have frustrations. He was trying to deal with self-control; I am trying to deal with self-control. I really love the blues and he loved and practiced the music. So really, the thing I was doing with Lead was looking at his problems and channeling my voice through him and his circumstances, trying to have an extreme ear toward what exactly this guy was thinking after he got out of prison, when he was about to go to prison, when he was escaping prison, when he was playing his songs. I was trying to get as much information about him as possible. And I would try and think, To what degree are those issues still relevant today? 

BLVR: How much did you have to time-travel to get what you needed to write that story? 

TJ: The time is different, but the issues are still the same. Incarceration, exploitation, gender issues, migration, masculinity, self-control, art—all that’s still relevant. And I think that was what I was trying to impart through that book…

BLVR: What is it about that era? Why was Lead Belly’s time interesting? 

TJ: Lead was born in 1885 or so, so he was really from the second generation out of slavery. Think of these millions of Black people getting out of slavery, like the very first fifty years—1865 to, say, 1915 or so. Those very first fifty years were such an explosion of freedom happening for Black people. They were also a realization of the limitations of Jim Crow and the renewal of the slavery system through sharecropping, the penal system, et cetera. So it was, on one hand, a population rediscovering itself as being free. On the other hand, it was this population up against all the mechanisms that were trying to enslave them again. 

BLVR: Did his music free him? In “John Lomax’s Recording Machine, 1933” from leadbelly, you describe the recorder of Lomax, the ethnomusicologist, and it seems as if it is a beast of its own. It seems like a living mechanism that is mitigating the relationship between Lomax and Lead. I kept thinking about the relationship between white ownership and Black product. How much of that is still the same today? 

TJ: Stepping back a little bit, with Lomax and the machine: that was during a period of time when Lead Belly was dealing with academia. He was struggling against the kind of restrictions that Lomax was trying to put upon him. And probably more than anybody would have expected, he was able to free himself. He came back to New York; he was successful. He was not as successful as he wanted to be, but he was extremely successful for someone who had come from the circumstances he had come from. And he made a tremendous contribution to American arts. 

The question of how our art is being confined by the vehicles it encounters is a question that is still relevant. For one, we do have more Black presses today. And there are more Black writers in academia who are able to influence the mechanisms to a certain degree. Whenever any of us ventures into our everyday lives, one of the questions that anybody who has any degree of consciousness asks is: To what degree am I performing in the minstrel trope? Or to what degree am I performing against the minstrel trope? Or to what degree am I escaping the minstrel trope? You can pose that problem in many different ways. And it is up to every individual artist, and really every individual person of color, to make a decision as to how they are going to manage that question. 

BLVR: Do you think Lead felt a responsibility to tell the stories told in his music? 

TJ: Lead was in a difficult position, because the ability for him to actively fight against the constraints of minstrelsy were much more confined. He engaged in a minstrel act in order to get an early release from prison. He did engage in it, but he used it as a foil to get the things he wanted and what he needed. Then, when he felt like it wasn’t serving him anymore, he abandoned it, and I think that speaks to his ability to mask. Look at Paul Laurence Dunbar: “We wear the mask.” So I can’t look back on Lead and say that his decisions were invalid; I can’t really judge those decisions harshly, because the man was able to feed himself and make a career for himself. He was facing some of the same issues we are facing today, but he was under much harsher circumstances. 

I think there are times when we look at people in the entertainment industry who are making decisions to engage the minstrel mask and not put it down. And the only excuse they have is that they are making money for their family, when there is more to it than that. It is never just as simple as: so-and-so got paid and so it is all good. And I will say this one other thing about Lead: he was a bridge between many songs and many sounds that were really about to be lost. We can talk about Lomax and his responsibility in making his recordings available, and his sons, John Jr. and Alan. They were very instrumental in doing that. They regarded Lead Belly as a treasure trove, and he carried all that information with him. So to a certain degree I think he did feel a responsibility or an opportunity to bring all of these stories into the twentieth century. They could have been lost without his contribution. 

 

III. “THERE IS NO PERFECT MOMENT FOR A MOVEMENT.”

BLVR: Do you think that Black artists today should have the kind of responsibility and consciousness that Lead Belly had? 

TJ: Let me start off by saying that I don’t see it as an obligation; I see it as an opportunity and a privilege to plumb the history and find out what is there and excavate it. I think that the more any artist is able to really understand the connections between what they are doing right now and what their predecessors were doing—the more they are able to understand and link to that—the deeper their art will go. Because if you follow the music, you follow the history. They are just inseparable. And particularly, I would say, in African American traditions, if you’re following the music, you’re following the vehicle for literature when an entire population was forbidden from writing. It is impossible to separate the music from the literature, and the literature from the music. I am wary of telling people that they have the responsibility to do x, y, and z. I think it is probably better to say that we have the opportunity to do these things, because when I say we have the responsibility, it sounds like a burden. Whereas when you say you have the opportunity, it sounds like a door that is opening. Not just a door you open under duress, but a door you will open and discover brand-new things that will enhance your art and your being. 

I think poets have the privilege, the opportunity, and the skill set to make the news not just news, but make it vivid in front of people’s faces in a way they have not experienced before. And that is a part of what Black Poets Speak Out does. It digs into the treasure trove of Black poetry historically. The poem I did was Paul Laurence Dunbar talking about a lynching; the poem was written in 1900. Witness was part of the idea behind protest, behind civil rights protest and nonviolent protest: you force the public to witness the barbarity of the state. And that is supposed to play upon the conscience of the populace. And in the civil rights movement, in terms of achieving the ends they wanted to achieve, we’re still in that fight now, but they did have some success. We can’t say they were completely unsuccessful, and that is part of the whole point: we can’t act unless you can see, and that is what witness is about.

There is no perfect moment for a movement. There are no perfect advocates for a movement. The issues are always larger than any one incident or person. The police shootings and murders that are happening across the country have been happening for generations—I mean generations—of this country. The thing that is different now, however, is that everyone is walking around with a camera and everybody is able to see it. Like when Rodney King happened, it was a fluke; video cameras were relatively new. Now everybody has a camera and media is not controlled by two or three or four entities, which was the case back when Rodney was hit. We’re talking twenty-odd years later, media has been dispersed; there is [little] control over what goes on YouTube. Although I will say that now there is a struggle over the future of the internet, which is a really critical issue: what kind of access will the average person have to the internet? At this point it’s not that there are more incidents happening; it is just that we are aware of so many more incidents, and people are able to visually record. I could go on, case after case after case after case. You know the ones I would bring up. It’s just visible and it has made people enraged. 

BLVR: What do you think of race relations in the United States today? Perhaps the relationship between Lead and Lomax is an example of the state of that relationship, where there is good intent but perhaps a degrading or sickening mechanism for conveying that intent?

TJ: What I think is that if white folks stand around with their hands in their pockets while this is happening to Black people, the smart ones will realize it won’t be long before it is happening to them. Anyone will realize it is just like Martin Luther King said: a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [sic]. And if it is that easy to do that to a community in Ferguson, well, why isn’t it easy to do that to another community? If they are really concerned about it, if any citizen of this country is concerned about their own selfish interests, then they need to be interested in the kind of injustices that are happening in their own streets. In the poem “Mercy,” I was trying to point out that just as we are dealing with random violence from police officers in the United States and other parts of the globe, people are also worried about drones, which are police in the sky. Just rolling around, or flying around, and taking out groups of people and then sorting out the innocent later. So I am just trying to make a connection between being in the United States and being a world citizen. That is a roundabout way to come at your questions. 

 

IV. “FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION AND FUNCTION ENHANCES FORM.”

BLVR: Olio is a highly hybrid work. There are reproduced documents, poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, visual art. What was your process when interacting with the hybrid structure of the book? 

TJ: Basically, I was trying to do whatever would work according to the subjects being addressed. I had some inspirations, such as [Jean] Toomer’s Cane, [Michael] Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, [Kurt] Vonnegut’s works, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen … anything I could use to move each story or picture forward. Essentially, I am a storyteller who uses history, poetry, prose, and whatever I can lay my hands on to tell the tale. 

BLVR: Almost all of the speakers in Olio live with some sort of disability: the McCoy sisters are conjoined twins, Blind Boone, Blind Tom, Scott Joplin’s battle with syphilis, and Trotter’s facial prosthetic. How do these physical realities abut the idea of race as a sort of social “disfigurement”? Was your selection of these speakers based in part on this shared experience? 

TJ: The speakers were not selected based on their physical disabilities—they all just happened to have fascinating lives. I never quite saw their physical properties as a metaphor for race, but I did come to consider the plight of the disabled slave and his or her viability on the plantation. The capitalist demands of chattel slavery would seem to require their immediate destruction if they did not produce wealth or hindered the economy of a plantation. It’s a subject worthy of much further scholarship.

BLVR: You did a TEDx about the McCoy sisters and what you wrote about them in Olio. And it became very intimate because you wrote a poem about them being examined. The fact that they were conjoined twins had to be authenticated throughout their lives. It is very similar to how gynecology was built as a science, very related to Sarah Baartman (a South African Khoikhoi woman, who, because of her bodily proportions, was exploited as a sideshow act and then dissected in death by the largely white medical industry). So as you are in negotiation with and living with these voices, how does that affect your relationship to the Black female body as a concept? 

TJ: I think I will talk about that in relation to how I was trying to go about making the poems. First off, those poems have certain confines themselves in that they are double-jointed; they are syncopated sonnets. There are certain limitations on how much you can do; however, what I did decide was that I did not want to go into the particulars of the McCoys’ physicality. I just wanted to say that they were examined and leave it to the reader’s imagination how those examinations happened. I think I was trying to go into that project wanting people to know that they had had to endure this, but not wanting to re-exploit the twins in the process. The way the poem ends up coming out is that the reader is invited to scan over the poem inch by inch, line by line, backward and forward and diagonally, and in the process they are examining their story. What I was looking for was the kind of contrast between the grotesque nature of the freak show and the idea of examining a life story instead of the body. I guess what I am saying is that I am trying to be conscious of the ways that Black women’s bodies have been exploited throughout our history, and do my best not to replicate that in my work.

BLVR: Who is the biggest female critic of your female voices? 

TJ: I got a very negative review of leadbelly from somebody at the Poetry Project. They said that what I was writing was patriarchal. And I didn’t keep up with the review. I remember reading it and thinking, Well, they are entitled to their opinion. I think it is always a challenge to speak in a female voice, and generally what I have done in the past and still do now is I have some female readers and I approach them and say, “What do you think?” And they give me their feedback. But in the writing process, I try to think of conversations I have had with women and the perspectives I have gleaned from those conversations.

BLVR: What was your reason for choosing certain poetic forms for certain voices in Olio? You explained how syncopated sonnets stood in for the corpus of the McCoy sisters to represent their interconnected but independent narratives. How did you choose the poetic structure of other voices? 

TJ: The rule I try to follow is: form follows function and function enhances form. I was forced to come up with solutions that were as complex and nuanced as the ways that the subjects had to deal with their various challenges. They took a received form and changed it into a solution for their unique voices and quandaries.

 

V. THE DVORÁK STATEMENT

BLVR: What has been the most difficult thing about winning the Pulitzer?

TJ: You know, I need to learn not to overpromise.

BLVR: Did winning the prize change your perspective on your work in any way?

TJ: No, I don’t think so. It is not worth doing unless I come 100 percent, and that is all I am trying to do: to give everything I can to what I am trying to do and have discovery along the way, and to search earnestly. I am still earnestly searching. I have things I am intimidated by now that I want to try. I don’t know how to make them happen, but I have to try somehow.

BLVR: Were the acts of writing leadbelly and Olio political for you?

TJ: Definitely. The music, the politics, and the histories of the people whom I write about are inseparable, like they are with us. The music we make is shaped by technological advances, history, politics. You know, the instrumentation, harmonization are all coming straight from the root—gospel, spirituals, blues, work songs, jazz. Those are the building blocks of American sound. Music was a way out of slavery—it is a real commodity that we’ve produced, though not always managed.

BLVR: So you have all these voices that are all singing and living with you, invading your life through your research. Are they all singing a story of appropriation? Are they all talking about their individual experiences? Where do their voices cross one another? What are their similarities and their stark differences? 

TJ: Their stark similarities are that they are all artists—Black artists—who are dealing with trying to create their art in environments where they have to deal with race, gender, and the difficulties of the time periods in which they lived. And there are many, many different issues. You know the Fisk Jubilee Singers were dealing with being missionaries and maintaining a strong Christian faith while they were trying to raise money for their institution. Scott Joplin was dying of syphilis.

BLVR: I notice that in your work the conduits through which your characters find different degrees of freedom are these white characters who, in my read of them, seem to be very conflicted opportunists. What would be the role of those characters in a contemporary poem? They end up having this almost symbiotic relationship with the people whom they have some kind of contractual ownership of.

TJ: Symbiotic is not really the right term. It is really exploitative, in that the masters owned Blind Tom and the McCoy twins, and they were two or three years old when they were put on the circuit and were molested on a regular basis, you know, by doctors, groups of doctors. So then when they became free, they started to really claim their own story. That’s the way I see it. And there are other stories, like Blind Boone, who was really rescued by the Black entrepreneur of his town, and this guy sank a lot of money into him because everybody believed he was talented. I don’t really get to tell that story the way I want to tell it. 

There is this whole battle now between Azealia Banks and Iggy Azalea. Banks is talking about the cooptation of Black artistic production, but Scott Joplin was dealing with that back in the early 1900s. Who stole from him? Irving Berlin. Scott Joplin went to his grave with the earnest belief—which has been disputed—that Berlin did indeed steal from him, which resulted in his first major hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” 

BLVR: You just answered my next question too. 

TJ: Which was what? 

BLVR: It was about cultural appropriation. 

TJ: Well, you see that happening with Lead Belly. He was really trying to protect his means of production. And Scott Joplin was dealing with the same thing, and the McCoy sisters were dealing with the same thing. Blind Tom was dealing with the same thing. There is another woman, Edmonia Lewis—she had to leave the country to become a successful sculptor, and really she was the most successful Black artist of the nineteenth century, by far. Sister Etta Jones had an operatic voice and was constantly trying to claim her own name and not be called the Black version of a white opera singer.

There was a guy named Antonín Dvorák, a Czechoslovakian classical composer, who came over here in 1892, I think. Now, Dvorák was well-known in Europe for being an astounding composer. Even up until the 1890s, this country was really unclear about what its cultural contribution was. Especially in music. So there was this school, the National Conservatory of Music, that brought Dvorák over here because he was such a big deal and they wanted him to teach here, but they also wanted him to answer a question. The question was “What is it that defines American music?” He said that American music is Black people’s music and Native Americans’ music: that’s what it is. Of course, they hated him. Look it up; it is “The Dvorák Statement.” That’s the soundtrack of this country. It comes from its oppressed people, and that’s probably because we are able to see the country for what it really is and express that. And who is the saint who said, “Those who sing are praying twice”? Saint Augustine of Hippo. That’s what we were doing. Praying in the most sincere way. Those are the songs that helped us weather the storm. And when you look at the spirituals and the work songs, that’s, like, the bedrock that allowed these people to come out of slavery, and that is the fucking institution this nation was built on. So you’re looking at the work song, the soundtrack, the spiritual of the entire country. That has been the root of American music up until now. And so how do you not try to borrow from that stream? And, unfortunately, that is what you see happening all the way from Irving Berlin until now. 

BLVR: You’ve said that it takes about twenty years for things to become history. Let’s say you’re alive in 2100 and you’re still writing. What are some voices you think you would be reintroducing? 

TJ: That is a really good question. If I were writing in 2100… I think it’s tempting to choose somebody who has been around for a long, long time and has this story that arcs for most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. So in that case it would be someone like, you know, some old blues man like Buddy Guy, “Blind Boy” Paxton, Billy Branch, or… maybe Lurrie Bell. Or maybe Kanika Kress, an incredible blues guitarist who died in the ’90s, or Koko Taylor or Big Mama Thornton or Deitra Farr. There are a lot of untold stories out there… 

All the people I was writing about in Olio were never recorded, and for the most part people don’t know who they are, and that is where I like to roam. And right now social media is so deep, and our level of media is so thorough, that it is hard to track people who I couldn’t google and not know what they had for breakfast. It would be better to write about somebody who is kind of undercover. Somebody who is really good at what they do but underappreciated. Those are the people I am really interested in.

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