Deconstruct the History in Your Hands: An Interview with Tyehimba Jess

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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Black folks — their history, their dreams and struggles — are the central concern of Tyehimba Jess’s poetry. Built with a solid spine of research and lyric muscle, and always speaking with authentic voice, his poems reconstruct the forgotten or mistold stories of Black Americans with an eye to making visible the hardships they endure(d) in white supremacist American society, as well as their full engagement in their humanity in spite of it.

Jess’s first book, Leadbelly, journeys through the blues musician’s life, giving insight into what it meant and what it cost to be an imperfect Black man of talent in an unforgiving culture. The poems do not flinch from the harshness of Leadbelly’s experience nor his rough and sometimes violent character; however, the poems also insist on giving him dimension and, most important, portraying him as a whole and worthy human being. The poem, “martha promise receives leadbelly, 1935,” for example, offers a moment of love and ritual between Leadbelly and his wife Martha Promise upon his return from jail:

you got to have the wildweed and treebark boiled
and calmed, waiting for his skin like a shining baptism
back into what he was before gun barrels and bars
chewed their claim in his hide and spit him
stumbling backwards into screaming sunlight.

The language of the stanza itself, with its assonance and alliteration, its imagery and internal rhyme, creates a soft and soothing atmosphere, which enacts the balming with which Martha prepares to receive Leadbelly. Moreover, as she preps the elixir that will bring him back to “what he was before,” she also refuses to have him defined by his worst moments and actions. In (re)claiming him from “gun barrels and bars” she anoints him as someone worth fighting for, someone deserving of love and of the work it takes to bring him back to the person she knows is below the roughened exterior.

It is, perhaps, this sense of being known that best encapsulates what Tyehimba Jess accomplishes in a poem and in a collection: the subject is always held close, examined with care and compassion. It is always clear that the poet has left no stone unturned in either the archives or the imagination, and Jess’s second collection, Olio, even more than his first exemplifies this. Rich with footnotes, end notes, and documentary poems, Olio is a testament to the value of research. The persona poems that make up the collection come from an array of voices of several Black entertainers in the early 1900s, and for each, Jess creates a narrative that compels the reader to learn the character in a variety of ways. Including materially. Olio leaps off the page, putting the poem into the reader’s hands via tear-off sheets, literally adding another dimension to both the poem and its subject.

On the page, too, a multitude of rich dichotomies mark the poetry of Tyehimba Jess. His poems hold within their lines both the past and the future, recorded history and imagination, the public and the intimate. Though the poems in his two books take public figures as their subject, Jess brings the reader up close as well, and insists that we hold both the interior and exterior worlds in our minds. Here is a prose poem in the voice of the first Black opera singer in Carnegie Hall, Sissieretta Jones:

I sing this body ad libitum, Europe scraped raw between my teeth until, presto, “Ave Maria” floats to the surface from a Tituba tributary of “Swanee.” Until I’m a legato darkling whole note, my voice shimmering up from the Atlantic’s hold; until I’m a coda of sail song whipped in salted wind; until my chorus swells like a lynched tongue; until the nocturnes boiling beneath the roof of my mouth extinguish each burning cross.

In true Jess style, the poem relinquishes neither the ugliness of history, nor the miracle of Jones’ talent. We are large enough, these poems argue, and we are duty bound to hold them both.

I spoke to Tyehimba at the James Madison University studio, where he was on campus as a presenter at the 2018 Furious Flower Collegiate Summit. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

You just read your poem “An Interview with a Blind Boone,” (see audio on the homepage) and it feels almost like a statement on poetics. Is that a fair description?

Well, you know, the book Olio, which that [poem] comes from, is about an exploration of the lives of 19th century, early 20th century African American folks who were trying to make a living through the creative arts against the groove and with the backdrop of the minstrel show. And I also think that it’s relevant today because none of us wants to be claimed by the minstrelsy that surrounds us and the minstrelsy that so many forces try to conscript us into.

In many ways, your poems all center on performance — Leadbelly and, certainly, Olio. What’s that fascination with the performer?

That’s a good point. You know, I think that what it has to do with is finding a true path to oneself through one’s art, and that’s definitely what Leadbelly was doing. He was struggling with inner demons and trying to wrestle with those demons to try and excavate his art from underneath all of the turmoil of emotions that he felt. And with the folks in Olio, I think that they were — and Leadbelly was also dealing with the backdrop of the minstrel show — but these folks were also dealing with performance, with legitimacy and authority and dignity and trying to salvage that dignity in a morass of racial division and animosity that surrounded the performances.

You are drawn very clearly to the persona and to inhabiting those different voices — this is a double question — why persona? And how do you distinguish your own poetic voice or how do you think about your own poetic voice as it manifests or works in concert with persona?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I guess I chose persona because I just got really fascinated with these historical figures. I’ll tell you a story: When I was writing Leadbelly and went to my MFA, one of the instructors there said, “You know, you should just change it all to third person.” And this is someone I respect very much. Actually, it was Philip Levine. And I really-really-really-really-really had to think about it really hard and determine whether or not I thought that was the right way to go. He had a point, in that it makes an assumption to claim the “I,” you know? It claims that you have the kind of knowledge to their psyche that you wouldn’t ordinarily.

It’s audacious.

Yeah, you know it takes a little nerve to do that. I considered making [the poems] third person but lost so much energy in that translation between third and first person — that kind of immediacy was lost. I just couldn’t do it. So I stayed with first person. And I think it also puts me, puts the author, in a position of trying to really empathize with the character; there’s a challenge to see all their greatness as well as their flaws, and to portray all of them as equally or as artistically as one possibly can.

I love the idea of empathy as a requirement of the persona. Were there characters that you found hard to empathize with? Where was that empathic inclination or demand of the form challenging for you?

Yeah, that does happen, and I think that challenge remains. For instance, there’s Ernest Hogan, who’s really the developer of the coon song, and really I use his own words when I approach him in this text because I want to get his real thoughts exactly: you know, what he thought about developing or being responsible for the coon song genre, right? There’s other times, you know, with John Lomax, where as much as I have critique for the way John Lomax dealt with the way that he tried to use Leadbelly’s talent … . Long story short, John Lomax and Leadbelly met while Leadbelly was in prison, and after Leadbelly got out of prison he went to work with Lomax to kind of get to help him coax songs out of Black folks on plantations and in penitentiaries. Then they went to New York, and Lomax tried to keep Leadbelly as a kind of an artifact of sound rather than an artist who is continually growing in their own sound, and Leadbelly resented that. There was some racial resentment in that, as well, but I think (to get back to your question) he [Lomax] was not a sympathetic character, and so how do I empathize with that? And I did my best to do that while also maintaining an eye toward the fact that, quite honestly, I wouldn’t know who Leadbelly was if John Lomax hadn’t come around, but at the same time recognizing the kind of stresses and the kind of problems that relationship had.

You’re not doing a single persona — you really sort of inhabit a universe! Was it hard to shift in between those voices, especially in Olio? Leadbelly was more contained, but Olio is so expansive in scope. What was it like to go into the consciousness and minds and circumstances and to do that emotional interior work around so many characters?

I tended to stay on one character at a time, ’cause it would be very hard to move back and forth so often. So I would tend to write one character, finish a series, and then set it down and walk away and then come back and do revisions as I was doing other characters. I think now [that] one of the ways I’ve managed was through the use of form and each character kind of inhabiting a particular form and letting that be part of the definition of the voice. And also, I just tried to do as much research as I could about the folks before, you know, I went in to write about them and imagine sitting around the table with them.

Shots with Leadbelly?

Right! (Laughs)

I know there was good whiskey; I read the interviews.

There was some whiskey involved. (Laughs.) Why shouldn’t there be?

Indeed, why shouldn’t there be?

But talking to him and saying, Look, I hear your story. I know it as best as I can. I’m trying to do it justice. I hope we can have a nice conversation and walk away with something that we can both know, we can both treasure. And sometimes it worked, but there were a lot of people that couldn’t, like, really get in the book — [I] couldn’t quite figure it out how to do it. The people you see in the book are the people I worked for. That survived.

You mentioned form, and there’s no way we can have this interview without talking about your relationship to form and your conceptualization of form. I always teach Leadbelly, or rather, poems from Leadbelly, as the pinnacle of line break.

Thank you.

Well you use all the tensions of the line, right? White space and text, sense and sentence, sound and silence. You take all of those things and put them on crack in Olio, but they’re also clear in Leadbelly. So talk to me a little bit about that precision of form that you clearly work within.

Well, one of my first teachers was Sterling Plumb, and Sterling Plumb writes about music; he writes about living musicians. He’s really kind of created in his books a community biography of the blues and jazz musicians of Chicago. But when you look at his line breaks, he’s able to achieve so much in just the way he pays attention to the way the line breaks — the ability to start over, for the reader to change direction after every line break. And I learned a lot from reading a lot of Sterling and coming away from that with the idea that the line should be a poem and should come as close to being a poem as it can be. And then the stanza should come as close to being a poem, and then the poem is a poem, then the section is a poem, then the sections make the book, which is a poem, you know? And I try my best to follow that.

… the line should be a poem and should come as close to being a poem as it can be …

The line is a poem. That is as good a mantra as any: the line is a poem. So thinking about, again, forms: You have the ghazal in here; you have the sonnets. Do you have a favorite form?

(Laughs.) Well, the form I favor the most is the sonnet.

Why?

Well you know I really only write crowns of sonnets … (Laughs.)

And I only ever run marathons. Not. (Laughs.)

But you know in the crown of sonnets you can tell a great story. Seven, or fourteen to fifteen, you know, you have a lot of space to tell a good story. The other thing about the sonnet is, you know, if you can’t get it done in fourteen lines, then you really need to check again — you know what I’m saying? Sonnets is where I’ve been leaning towards right now. There’s a lot of room to move around in them; there’s just enough room to get what you need done, but there’s also enough to make you not ramble. (Laughs.)

You mentioned readers earlier, and particularly with Olio, but, again, in general, one of the things about how you maneuver form is that readers have a lot of agency, a lot of control, over their experience in reading the poem. Why is that so important to you?

In some ways, it happened by accident, in that I was experimenting with contrapuntal form and it occurred to me during the Blind Tom poem where he’s one body, two graves; it was the first poem that I wrote that looked like that. In the middle of writing that, I realized that it could read up as well as down, and thus you could get a down-up and also horizontal reading through it, and go in multiple directions if I just altered a few things in it. So I did that, and then that made me think about elasticity, you know? You have that elasticity to go in multiple directions, then that opens up a whole, whole cornucopia of possibilities where you can join poems together, and they can read up and down, and they could do all kinds of other things, and that’s what started to intrigue me.

Also, I think it adds another metaphor. In the case of “Blind Tom: One Body, Two Graves,” there’s the metaphor of resurrection, and the case of the McCoy twins. You have the concrete structure of the poems that stands out as metaphor for the bodies of Christine and Millie McCoy. It also engages the reader in a kind of play. And it is a bit of a contrast to think of these very serious historical subjects and think of the wordplay involved in that, but I think that when the reader is able to select the way that they go through the poem — going down, up, whichever — they get engrossed in the different way but at the same time, they’re learning this person’s story, in a way that will stick with them, and that they might not have under other circumstances.

I feel like some of the poems in Leadbelly perform in that way a little bit, but not on purpose?

In Leadbelly there’s a few contrapuntal poems, which is where the contrapuntal journey really starts in Leadbelly, but they’re not in form. They read left to right and down, and they read down once, one side of the caesura then down the other side of the caesura and then across the caesura, and that is a different agency, in that you do get to choose. Well, first I’m gonna read this one, then I’m gonna read that one, and then I’m gonna read them together. I guess there is some degree of agency in that.

What would you point out as one of your significant encounters with a poem or a poet that transformed you? Is there a moment you can point to?

Phew. Wow. There’s a few of those! I saw Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” on a Chicago city bus, and I remember reading it and thinking, I kinda get it, but not exactly. I think this was the year he won the Pulitzer, and so when he won I remember going to see him, I think it was at Columbia College, just off of State Street or maybe it was Wabash. I can’t remember. And I went there with a lot of question marks, ’cause I got the book Neon Vernacular by that time, and I had read it, and I was like, Uh, okay, you know, but then when I heard him read it, it completely transformed my understanding of the book, and it just deepened in such an incredible kind of way, and that was a transformative moment for me. Definitely.

I feel as though my students had a similar experience when they heard you read, and I’m always interested in the relationship between the poem on the page and the poem in the body, or the poem conveyed on the vehicle of the voice. Certainly, especially with this text but also with Leadbelly, the way you embody those poems, it’s a completely different experience than reading them. How do you try to get the reader into that possibility? How do you negotiate that difference between the page life and the embodied life of the poem?

Ideally, I’d like the reader to walk away from the poem having read it in the same way that I would read it, and having them read it in their mind the same way I envision seeing it. And I have no control over that, so all I can do is work with white space, line breaks, and the functions of punctuation the best way I can to inform the reader and give them clues as to how this poem is to be heard. But I also think that you know I was very fortunate. I was on two slam teams — Green Mill Chicago: mmhm yup, what’s up?!— and I learned a lot about the power of using the voice to join the poem to, to take the poem from the page and make it really live in the audience, you know? Patricia Smith, who is my colleague at College of Staten island, and was also you know [part of that scene], hearing her read her work and then seeing how vivid it was also on the page was the argument that made me say, Okay, it really is possible to work in both directions. I’d say the same for Yusef and I could say same for a few other folks, but the idea is that the poem is not just on the page; it’s in you, and when you bring it to other people, you’re publishing it in their ears, and to treat it as such.

… the poem is not just on the page; it’s in you, and when you bring it to other people, you’re publishing it in their ears …

So with Olio, it’s not just that idea of the poem being outside the poet, but outside the page. There’s a way in which this book is really concerned with materiality — in addition to vision, the inner ear, and in a live reading, the voice, it also brings the hands into play. It’s really engaged in tactile encounters, and so tell me about that with this particular project, and do you think it’s something that’s going to stay?

Well, to put it briefly, there four fold-out pages. And each of those fold-out pages contains a poem that can be torn out of the book. And I’m just going to demonstrate here. (Tears a page from Olio.) What I want people to do for the book is to disassemble, to deconstruct various parts of the book in order to reconstruct the narratives inside the book. And so it becomes a very tactile experience for the reader because they get to take these poems out, and they’re written in such a way that, two of them — well, actually, three of them — are constructed so that they go from a two-dimensional plane into a three-dimensional plane, such as a cylinder. It goes this way (makes a long-edge cylinder of the torn out page), a cylinder going the other way (makes a short-edge cylinder of the torn page), and then finally a torus — which looks as such when you fold it down the middle and then bring the two ends together — that can be read around and around on the inside going both ways, around and around on the outside going both ways, and then from the inside to the outside going multiple directions.

I feel like my brain just exploded.

(Laughs.) And then finally it becomes a mobius strip when you take one side and you give it a half twist — I’m not doing the best job right here with this — you combine them as such and that becomes a mobius strip. And that’s representative of the kind of conundrums. In this case, this is a poem between Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Booker T. Washington, where they’re talking about lying, they’re talking about masks, you know? And using masks in order to achieve various ends.

What do you feel or hope that engaging this poem with my hands will tell me more about what the poem is trying to say?

Well, a couple things. One, books are still valuable technology, you know? We don’t think of them as technology, but that’s what they are.

Absolutely.

They’re a tool; they’re an instrument that delivers a voice from one person to another, and we have a long intimate relationship with the book that will not be supplanted by purely electronic means, you know? That’s one. Two is really the idea that you are deconstructing the history, deconstructing the text, in order to reexamine and reconstruct actual histories the way they’ve been experienced and interpreted by the livers of that history, which is what we have to do all the time. As Black folks we always have to take the history that we’ve been given that has been presented to us and say, “Wait a minute, what’s the real curve in there,” right? And deconstruct that and then re-understand that narrative in such a way that gives us agency, you know? And that lets us fully understand the capabilities of our agency and so that is what, that’s what this deconstruction and manipulation is all about.

Also, you know, it is about play. It’s about having fun, you know, rediscovering the text and rediscovering ways in which the text can go — having the ability to go up and down and diagonal, etc., you know? I think that there is that element of fun, which is reminiscent of the idea of actually attending an olio. ’Cause the olio was the middle part of the minstrel show in which there was a variety of acts — juggler, dancer, a singer, you know, a contortionist, right? And so that becomes reminiscent of the idea of actually attending the olio, but in this case its attending an olio filled with folks that were struggling against the idea of the debasement of themselves through the minstrel show and trying to achieve a kind of higher purpose through their art.

Is that what poetry is for you?

Definitely. Now, poetry, you know … When I went to college I was gonna be a social worker, and I think I was I was gonna get a degree in public policy. I’d been kind of convinced that literature was not gonna be the way, and I also thought that it was gonna serve my community more, but, you know, that [social work] takes a certain level of patience I just don’t have, to be 100%. I wish I did, but it takes that special kind of person and a special kind of skill set to really do that work well and effectively. And I found that it was not making me happy; I was not serving the jobs that I had. So after a few attempts I turned back to poetry, and what I found was that, you know, I took a step towards writing, it took two steps towards me. And essentially, that helped me make up my mind. I felt like, well, if this is what I’m here to do, then that’s what I’m here to do.

I love that the man who figures out how to write a poem so that it can move in five different directions thinks he doesn’t have patience, because I know you didn’t do that in one try. (Laughs.)

No, that’s obsession. (Laughs). That’s just straight, complete, obsession.

So, you did your MFA at NYU. What was the experience of the MFA like? What was the positive? The negative? Do you tell your students to get an MFA?

Okay, a couple things on that. Number one, before I went to my MFA I went to Cave Canem. And I did not realize how much I needed Cave Canem until I was actually there, and I discovered a whole ocean of voices that were speaking back to me and telling me new ways to encounter being about the craft, new ways to encounter, really, just some bare-bone things about making a living, straight up, you know, being a poet, and about navigating academia. I would not have been able to do NYU if I had not done Cave Canem, ’cause Cave Canem introduced me to the workshop method and the correct attitude towards the workshop situation, and it got me ready for that experience. And so, then I went to NYU.

But I’d also come out of slam, too. So, when I went to NYU, it was definitely a great move ’cause I finished writing Leadbelly at NYU, but one thing that I did know that at the same time was I would go to Bar Thirteen, where Lynne Procope and Roger Bonair-Agard were putting on this weekly slam, and it was fire. Very few of my compadres in the MFA would wanna go, and that just baffled me because what they were missing out on was one of the most vital contributions to American literature, I think. I’m lucky I come from two things that were vital contributions to American literature: the slam and Cave Canem. Slam: Mark Smith, Chicago Green Mill. You know, look at all the slam poets that are coming out of slam, entering MFAs, maintaining their voice, and then forging fantastic work after that that’s changing the canon. The same with Cave Canem, you know, people coming in Cave Canem like me, and then gettin’ schooled and then going into these MFAs and, you know, doing their thing. And what I saw was people, the majority of people, at that time were not interested in it, they looked down on it, and I thought that was very unfortunate. It’s their loss, really.

I’m lucky I come from two things that were vital contributions to American literature: the slam and Cave Canem.

I say all that to say that there really does not have to be a difference between the two, you know? They’re the same thing. What moves people, moves people, that’s the bottom line. Whichever way you get there, that job has got to be done. By the time someone finishes reading the poem they have to be in a different place than where they were before. And this world got along fine without MFA programs for a long time, you know? And to your query about encouraging my students to go for MFAs, I encourage them more to write and to read and to write and to read. I didn’t go for my MFA ’til I was like 36, but I think if I’d gone earlier, it would not have served me quite as well.

So I want to think about you as a teacher for a while.

Uh oh. (Laughs.)

What are some things you try to give to your students in the class? Say you have somebody come saying either, “I don’t know anything about poetry” or “I want to be a poet when I grow up.” What do you try to give that student?

I think one job is to demystify a lot of poetry. People encounter poetry in elementary school, and somebody’s telling them something has to be iambic and blah blah blah. And you know I don’t fully dismiss the ideas of meter, etc. But I don’t emphasize it. I want to introduce people to contemporary poets that are doing what they do right now, so they can relate to it and then lead them back into the history of, well, who influenced them, ok, then who influenced that person, then who influenced that person, then you start to get into a historical understanding of poetry, of the literature, and really to have fun. My rule is if I’m having fun then you’re probably having fun. So you know, to have fun, crack a few jokes, share a few poems, and to have them enjoy the act of writing poems without fear of Oh, this an A poem, this is an F poem etc.

Is there a particular poem that you find is particularly handy for teaching?

Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Mother” ’cause, I mean, it becomes a contradiction in the very first line, and then she has a subtle use of rhyme throughout the entire poem. It can’t decide whether it’s an anti- or pro- poem, and it causes a certain level of debate, you know? Who else …? Yusef, you know, Dien Cai Dau. I could think of a number of poems from Dien Cai Dau that that are just stunning because of imagery, imagery, imagery. Those are the two I can think of off the top of my head.

What’s an unlikely inspiration for you — as in, we wouldn’t guess it, but you find it inspiring?

Okay, let me think about that: an unlikely inspiration, something that has inspired me that you wouldn’t really think would inspire me, right? Huh. Science fiction. I love science fiction.

This book is from the future so I believe that, I believe that. (Laughs.)

I’m a big science fiction fan. Star Trek, you know, Star Wars — not as much as Star Trek — I love science fiction. I just devoured science fiction when I was a kid.

What are you working on next?

We’ll see. I will say this. There’s a lot of things that happened post-World War I that people really have not talked about very much. So you have to think about that period as the time when this country was really recovering from a Civil War and trying to figure out who it really was. It wasn’t a major world power yet, but you have the beginning of, you know, colonization in all other parts of the world. Industrial Revolution. Urban migration. All kinds of stuff happened back then, and Black folks were doing incredible stuff back then, too, so that time, that period of history still intrigues me quite a bit.

Our readers are varied: they’re students, they’re educators, they’re other poets. What are three things you want to tell them about that you’ve learned from your journey that you would pass on.

Okay. One is you have to write for you. I’m not saying ignore what everybody else says about what you write, but what I’m saying is in the end it’s your work, it’s your poem. You can’t write something to please everybody else. That’s one thing. Two, you have to be willing to take a chance and do something that’s not necessarily popular, you know? Writing about 19th century African American performers is not necessarily the most popular choice, right? And three is learn your history. Learn the history of your country of origin; learn the history of the country that you’re living in. Listen to the music —  listen to the old music, and listen to the old, old music. Because the music and the literature, and the Black experience are absolutely combined. You really can’t separate them in our literary tradition. And when you follow the music, you’re following the literature, and you have all kinds of opportunities, not to mention the fact that there’s so many similarities between music and poetry. But you have so many opportunities. Explore that.


Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt


downloadLauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019) 

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