Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Wynne Kontos, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Tyehimba Jess about his book Olio (Wave Books), which is among the final five selections in the category of Poetry for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Poet Tyehimba Jess’s work transcends the solitary act of reading. To consume Jess’s work is to take an active role in a performance, to find a place in history and to engage with a new type of creative experience.
Jess’s 2005 collection, leadbelly, is a chronicle of the blues musician Huddie Ledbetter using history, biography and poetry to explore a life. In Olio, Jess moves even further into the vibrant historical figures who made up the landscape of Black voices at a time when the oppressive nature of American society denied them a voice at all. Olio’s characters are a vast array of artists from musicians, singers and a sculptor, vital figures whose stories remain largely untold.
From his home in Chicago, Jess spoke to Wynne Kontos about bringing second life to these forgotten pioneers, the ways we absorb poetry today and how he believes artists can best impact their world.
Wynne Kontos: Olio is comprised of characters who played an important part of musical and theater history. Your previous work leadbelly also chronicles the life and work of a famous musician. What it is about musicians that pull you in, why do you like to explore their lives and work so closely? How did you choose the cast of Olio?
Tyehimba Jess: Generally I think that when you’re talking about the music of a country you’re talking more or less about the soundtrack of a country, the soundtrack by which people’s lives are lived. What’s interesting to me is to hear about the lives of the people who have created that soundtrack, and to investigate the ways that they innovated in order to create that soundtrack.
American music is critically and fundamentally tied to the African American experience, the experience of a people who were denied access to literacy for most of our time in this country through slavery. They were forced to forge another kind of literacy through the music. We’re able to chronicle the real heart and soul and the underside of the real American experience through that musical literacy and that continues throughout our poetry and our literature today.
When I’m looking at following the course of these issues, particularly African American musicians, I’m following the course of American history and looking at folks who were tuned in to the pulse of the real America. I’m trying to trace that lineage and figure out what our origins are as a country and as a people. I’m trying to look at that history in order to see where we are right now and the possibilities in the future.
The cast of Olio is not limited to musicians. There’s a pair of comedians, there’s a pair of twins who are conjoined, there’s a sculptor. But musicians do make up the bulk. The people chosen for the book were chosen particularly because they had fascinating stories and because they persevered [to become the] first generation to embrace and create a career of creativity in the first generation after slavery. Part of the question became for me how did they make those decisions against the backdrop of the minstrel show? How did they exercise their craft in a way that they were able to surmount the challenges of the minstrel show?
I was also interested in discovering the history of African American music before it was being physically recorded. Most of the people in the book were never recorded. There are no physical recordings except for one, Bert Williams. I became intrigued by their stories. There are a lot of people I wanted to write about but couldn’t write about because they couldn’t fit in the book.
WK: Going along the idea of people forging their way when their wasn’t a traditional route to follow, Scott Joplin’s wife Lottie says she’s been taught fear her whole life but it’s really by abandoning fear that she has been able to succeed. Lottie’s advice is to “tame fear like a woman tames fear.” There are a lot of strong women in Olio. What makes your female character’s experiences taming fear unique?
TJ: I think that particularly when you’re talking women, the women in the Fisk Jubilee Choir, the McKoy twins, Sissieretta Jones, Edmonia Lewis, all of them are stunning examples of women who had to overcome the societal obstacles of race and gender.
Edmonia Lewis had to leave the country at a pretty young age, twenty-odd years old, in order to create her own career as a sculptor. She went to Rome to really claim provenance over her own work so people couldn’t claim that other people were sculpting the work or choosing the stones for her. She went directly to Rome and picked out the best marble you could access at the time in order to prove that this is her own work by her own hand. That kind of remarkable will and determination to me is extraordinary. It struck me that her name wasn’t very well known, but she is by far the most successful Black artist of the 19th century. She was getting a fifty thousand dollar commission, I don’t know that any other Black artist was dong that kind of thing. She was also extremely popular in Rome, Frederick Douglass was hanging out with her, she was kind of a mini-celebrity.
We were talking about Sissieretta Jones, she traveled around the world and sang for kings and queens. She was highly lauded and engineered her own career. Unfortunately she died broke after trying to take care of her mother for the last part of her career. But she did her best to serve her craft with integrity. I guess you could say that her show was one of the most famous traveling troubadour shows of its time, of which there were many.
When it comes to the McKoy twins, they had the foresight to save the money and buy back the farm upon which their parents were enslaved.
WK: Right, they really became business women.
TJ: Yes, they really did. I mean the story with the McKoy twins is at one point they were made an offer by Barnum and Bailey to roll with the circus. They didn’t really want to do it so they offered what they thought was a ridiculous price and Barnum and Bailey agreed to pay it. So they ended up rolling with Barnum and Bailey for a minute. But they did it in a way that was for them, commensurate with their value. Matter of fact, they had their own railroad car dedicated to them when they traveled with Barnum and Bailey. They came up with the best possible resolution to their particular circumstance.
WK: They found a way to mold the system to sort of showcase their abilities.
TJ: That’s what helped them get that land. The McKoy twins were kind of other than other than other. They were Black, they were women and they were differently abled. Their community really was more the freak show community that they traveled with, almost more than anybody else. They were very, very tight with the community they traveled with which is understandable given their circumstances.
Nevertheless they had the foresight to [purchase that land]. I’m in touch right now with one of their family’s descendants. They still have some of that land, they didn’t sell it for five generations. I knew that it would be critical to feature women in the manuscript. Plus, their stories are just outstanding.
WK: The McKoy sisters may be the best example of the strong contrast between the lyrical beauty of your poetry and the harsh reality of the historical facts that are presented.
There’s also Henry “Box” Brown’s reflections on his escape from slavery being printed right next to the slave catcher’s words. But in the poem “Love Story,” the McKoy sisters are really expressing self-acceptance, even related to the medical experiments they were forced to endure. Their is a strong sense of ownership over their lives and their talents and then we read the freak show advertisement afterwards. Why this juxtaposition?
TJ: There is a kind of dualism that goes through out the book, which allows the reader to go back and forth between dueling or complimentary viewpoints. I think that is necessary to show multiple perspectives simultaneously. For instance, you’re talking about the back of the syncopated sonnets where you can tear the page out. It’s critical to have that kind of juxtaposition to highlight a struggle for self-expression and dignity versus condemnation and destruction of the soul. It’s about a duel between these competing impulses—that is the story of Black creativity in the United States. It is a quest for dignity and self-expression against the forces of really, a denial of humanity. A force that wants to deny you your own humanity.
That’s what that kind of self-expression is about, it’s about saying I’m more than just a tool for someone to exploit. It’s about self-expression for my own gratification, coincidentally for the gratification of others in order to support myself in my own ventures, versus that exploitation of the minstrel show which is about self-debasement for the gratification of others. The minstrel show is about the debasement of the other for the gratification of self. Really the minstrel show was started by white folks making a caricature of Blackness in order to profit from that caricature, in multiple ways, psychologically and financially.
WK: We touched briefly just now on the syncopated sonnets, during your Ted Talk we see you read the poetry aloud and we see the pages being physically manipulated.
In a discussion with Adam Fitzgerald for Lit Hub you talked about the reader becoming a part of the performance. The reader can consume your poetry in a variety of ways, literally and figuratively. Why was it important to give the reader a multi-dimensional, even physical, reading experience?
TJ: A lot of Olio is an experiment in the syncopated, or I should say in the contrapuntal, poem. Those experiments when I got into them revealed the possibilities for a poem to give the reader agency. A kind of agency to read any particular direction that they decided to go. When I started to realize that this a part of the process, it’s an attempt to mirror a type of experience by the speaker to go in any direction that they want to go, instead of being confined in one direction or in one mold, which is a kind of freedom versus the confinement of slavery. That’s one kind of metaphor I’m searching for.
Also to put it plainly and simply, it’s fun. It provided in the context of an olio, the olio being the middle part of the minstrel show, an entertainment show...the idea is amusement to some degree. While we’re dealing with very, very serious subjects, I have the desire to provide a different kind of amusement in the form of mental exercise for the reader. It becomes a puzzle, it becomes a kind of exercise, it becomes a liberation, and it requires your engagement. It provides you the opportunity to deconstruct the actual text so that you can reconstruct the history of the people in the book in a way that is different from or in conversation with the way history is usually constructed.
It’s really trying to stretch the borders of what does it mean to ingest a narrative? What does it mean to be part of a narrative? To challenge our ideas of what it means to really interact with a text. It’s also a celebration of the physicality of a book, in an age of the 21st century when we’re so invested in electronic devices. It’s also a celebration of the physical text, something of a technology of a book, something we were attached to for so long. In what ways is that technology still relevant to us?
Poetry generally does not do well in these Kindles, and e-readers. There’s a reason for that, and what is that? The way we’ve been trained to ingest our books has really changed.
So there’s multiple reasons why I chose this form. It was a challenge for me to explore the contrapuntal poem in form, to see what permutations arise from that exploration.
WK: The concept of what it means to ingest a narrative brings me to my last question. The poet David Lehman proposed the concept of “art for art’s sake” whether the poet or artist is obligated to participate in or create social change or if it is enough for the art to simply exist. Olio is such an expansive, detailed and passionate work it stands on its own. It’s an interactive experience, it’s a historical experience, it speaks to the passion and the legacy of the African American experience, yet it’s hard to ignore the social commentary it makes, especially from where we function as a society. What is your personal opinion on the question of “art for art’s sake?” Is it enough for art to exist on its own? Is there an obligation for it to interact with social and cultural parts of the world?
TJ: I can only really answer that question for myself. I think the closest I come to that statement is art for my own gratification. My gratification in the work that I do and the two particular books that I’ve written have to do with the gratification of telling stories that have not been told. In this case, in telling stories that have been lost and obfuscated and twisted and turned around in our national narrative and taking those stories and trying to find new ways to tell them.
I think “art for humanity’s sake” is more along the lines of what I believe. Optimally art should be the soul of the artist and the souls of those it touches in a positive way, that create positive transformation in the world. That’s definitely where I see the art that I create, and that’s the kind of art I like to engage with. Art that makes me think, art that makes me appreciate the world in a different way, art that tells me something new that I did not know before, art that challenges me, that’s the kind of art that I’m interested in. Art that hopefully moves the world closer to an understanding of itself. In the end Olio is a collection of real stories, of real people (for the most part, there is one fictional character), but it’s about the heart and soul of people who did real things and that celebrated a tradition of resistance and resilience under extraordinary circumstances, and extraordinary pressures. They should be remembered.
Detroit native Tyehimba Jess’ first book of poetry, leadbelly, was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. Library Journal and Black Issues Book Reviewboth named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.” Olio, his second collection, was published by Wave Books in April 2016 and was named a finalist for the National Books Critics Circle Award, PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, and Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Jess, a Cave Canem and NYU alumnus, 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.
Wynne Kontos is Licensed Masters Social Worker in New York and currently a candidate in fiction at the New School's MFA-creative writing program. She has performed her written work at the Brooklyn Lit Crawl and with the writing collective, Lost Lit. Her non-fiction is currently on display at Parson's 25 East Fine Arts Gallery and her poetry can be found in the collection, "Love Sick: Growing Up With A Parent Who Has Cancer." Find her online at shampainpoppy.tumblr.com.