JESS TURNS UGLY HISTORY INTO POETRY
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess was guest speaker for the Lawrence Clayton Poets and Writers Speaker Series April 6 at Hardin-Simmons University. Photos courtesy of Larry Fink
By LORETTA FULTON
A Pulitzer Prize winning poet didn’t experience the discrimination against African-Americans that his parents did and can only imagine what freed slaves experienced at the end of the Civil War.
But what an imagination. Tyehimba Jess, who won the Pulitzer for poetry in 2017, was guest speaker April 6 for the Lawrence Clayton Poets and Writers Speaker Series, presented by the McIntyre-West Endowment of the Hardin-Simmons University Academic Foundation. More appropriately, he was guest artist, performer, and “preacher,” as several people said they felt like they had been to church after hearing him.
Jess would appreciate that comment because he said his poetry has a spiritual theme and the voices of people he wrote about came from spiritual, blues, and gospel music.
“That is where the American soundtrack comes from,” he said.
Tyehimba Jess recites his poetry at Hardin-Simmons University for the Lawrence Clayton Poets & Writers Speaker Series. At bottom right, he visits with HSU Assistant Professor of Theology Kelvin Kelley. Photos courtesy of Larry Fink
During the days of slavery, families would gather in their cabins and sing. Music was a gift from God that no one could take away. And, their voice was the only thing they owned, Jess said. Everything else, including family members, was owned by the slave owner. But not their music.
“It was the only real literature they owned,” Jess said.
Jess, a Detroit native, lives in New York, where he is an associate professor of English at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the City University of New York system. His award-winning collection is titled, “Olio,” which means a hodge-podge collection. But it also refers to the middle part of a minstrel show, which is the setting for many of the historical figures that Jess brought to life in Olio.
White people wearing blackface demeaned blacks through their cartoonish, oafish portrayals. Some all-black groups also performed under the direction of white people.
After slaves were freed, some of them continued to perform because they could make money that way, and Jess sympathetically portrayed them in his poetry.
While the minstrel shows lampooned black people, Jess sought to develop their character through his ingenious poetry. He used the “weapon” of his words to defend the people who were demeaned.
“Poetry is the martial art of literature,” Jess said. “You’re doing the most with the least.”
Besides the beauty of the words in Jess’ Olio poems, the unusual style of some of them creates an added dimension. Some are written in a form called crown of sonnets. The sonnets are linked to each other by repeating the final line of one as the first line of the next. The last line of the last poem is the same as the first line of the first poem, creating a circle or “crown.”
Hearing Jess perform those was magical. He accelerated, decelerated, raised and lower his voice as he read, almost singing the lines. His performance created spontaneous applause from the large gathering of students, faculty and community guests who almost filled the multipurpose room of the Johnson Building during Jess’ evening presentation.
Jess earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago and a master of fine arts degree from New York University. He got the first degree in a field that he believed would pay the bills, unlike poetry.
“I went without paying bills for a long time,” he said.
The poet in Jess went dormant while he earned his bachelor’s degree, but it awoke again. Humanity is the better for that reawakening. His poetry adds a face and a soul to the people who were dehumanized in their time. Thankfully, Jess realized he wasn’t cut out for public policy. Instead, after earning that degree, he realized exactly what he was.
“I am an artist,” he said, “and that’s what I’m going to live for.”