Interview: Tyehimba Jess
By Bob Sykora and Brooke Schifano
Tyehimba Jess' Olio, recently named a finalist of the 2017 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, was described by Nikky Finney as "This 21st century hymnal of black evolutionary poetry, this almanac, this theatrical melange of miraculous meta-memory." Jess experiments with traditional form to give voice to African American performers from a time before they could be recorded. Olio is as remarkable a look at American history as it is an ambitious approach to poetic form, and Breakwater Review was excited to speak with Jess about his work.
Breakwater Review: Can you talk about the impetus behind Olio?
Tyehimba Jess: Yeah, I would say there were several. One was an exploration into Black sound before the era of commercial recording, and that evolved into a study of historical figures and Black creativity after the Civil War up until World War I. Another impetus would be an exploration of the contrapuntal poem; an exploration of form through the contrapuntal, an exploration of double consciousness, historical narrative, the circularity of that narrative, and the multiplicity of form. Those were some of the main factors.
BR: Regarding the multiplicity and layered quality of Olio, it sounds like you had to have this sort of double vision between yourself as a writer and yourself as a historian. Can you talk about the experience of research when you were researching subjects that didn’t have much historical documentation? How did you fill in the blanks as a writer while still staying true to the history?
TJ: I think that we never know the entire history of any particular figure, but I was interested in determining, as best as I could, what were some of the major events in the subjects' lives, what would be the range of reactions they would have towards those events, and the decisions they’d have to make. So, trying to determine what those events were meant taking into account how I would feel under similar circumstances and applying that, as a sort of filter, onto what they might feel and the way they might express themselves.
BR: To bounce off that: one thing that comes up when talking about research leading into writing is that there’s a certain responsibility when you’re taking on somebody’s voice. Can you talk about navigating that?
TJ: Yeah, and I think that has a lot to do with trying to respect, as much as one knows how to, the other. With this particular project, all of these people are dead, but that does not deliver one from the responsibility of at least knowing what happened to them. First, that involves a certain level of historical research; and second, to be sensitive to and open to understanding the different factors that may have determined their output. For instance, you know, writing from a woman’s perspective is going to involve a different kind of lens for a male writer to adopt. Or, for example, writing outside of one’s race. I think whenever you engage in that kind of speculation, you’re opening yourself up to a conversation with the other. And after doing the best one can on the page, I think it’s critical to maintain an open ear towards those who the other represents; those who are represented by your subject. I guess I see each poem as part of a dialogue in a long dialogue that’s happening now in American and world poetry. When you release a book of poetry you’re entering that dialogue in a certain kind of way and I think you have to be willing to accept the call and response and engage with it in such a way that you’ll be able to grow personally, aesthetically, and creatively.
BR: When you were in a dialogue with a character, writing into their voice and conversing with them, how did you go about keeping those voices separate in Olio? Or did you allow a certain amount of bleed-through?
TJ: Well, I think there’s going to be a certain amount of bleed-through because I’m the factor that holds them all together, but one way to distinguish them is form. Using form to distinguish the voices means that one is going to be speaking in sonnets while the other is speaking in a Ghazal and the other is speaking in some version of golden shovel. And beyond that, it’s about thinking about how to be creative and avoiding some tropes one might get enmeshed in.
For instance, the question is: how to engage dialect but not get trapped in dialect. And that’s a hard one—it’s hard to judge except on a case by case basis. It depends on who’s talking to who, what they’re supposed education level may be, their self-perception, whether or not they’re engaging in a kind of accent as a mask, etc. All of these things come into play and one has to decide how it’s going to play out on the page. You know, even if you’re doing an accent and engaging in a kind of accent, that doesn’t necessarily mean someone is engaged in that accent at all times. Then there’s the question of whether it’s even necessary to employ the kind of spellings that would indicate accent. Because sometimes it’s just not. So, I think the way I look at it, for myself, is I’m a student in that area and I’m trying my best to get as good as I can at it. I look at people like Gayl Jones or Toni Morrison—people who just really inhabit other people’s ways of speech. And that takes a lot of listening. So I consider myself a student and I’m just trying to do the best I can.
BR: Yeah, and it seems to be working! And the book is all about paying attention to voice and dialect, and then you have this musical element running through it. There’s so much music and rhyme. How does music function into your writing process?
TJ: There are so many parallels between music and poetry, so to me it’s natural to think about poetry in a musical way. So I think, talking about using rhyme, I think it’s a dangerous kind of animal that can overwhelm the project you’re trying to complete. On the other hand, it can be the natural force that allows the poem to breathe and perform in ways that are full of the entire weight of the human voice and the glamour of song. But the decision to engage in so much rhyme was really germane to the subject matter of the time. The parlance, perhaps, of a carnival barker, or in this case an interlocutor, who was an integral part of a minstrel show whose responsibility it was to keep the show moving. So, in this way, it’s a rhyme that’s reminiscent of a kind of nineteenth century sensibility or early 20th century sensibility that serves as a platform for this. It was probably one of the more fretful decisions in the conception of the book because that doesn’t really fly in modern American poetry, so I did my best to balance the rhyme with the needs of the characters to express themselves outside of that structure.
BR: So, you mentioned before that you don’t like the label of experimental poetry, but that every poem is a sort of experiment, and surprises you along the way...
TJ: Well, I don’t want to get into any arguments, but what I will say is this: I think that every poem should be a kind of experiment into something that you don't know all the way. And maybe that spells itself out as a risk involved in the creation of a poem, one that’s a balance between what’s known and what’s unknown. In that respect, I think that, yea, at its best poetry is always an experiment. I’m not trying to take anyone's labels away, but that’s the way I feel. I think that when it’s really doing its job it’s an experiment; both within the poet and on the body of poetry, so to speak, as a whole. Because we all want to do something that hasn’t been done before. We all want to say something that hasn’t been said. But then again, everything’s already been said. So isn’t it kind of an experiment, in and of itself, to say this thing in a way that hasn’t been said before?
BR: Definitely. Something that was really interesting about Olio, for me, were the tear outs and the perforated pages—just the physical object of it. I’ve been taking it onto the bus and it’s big and has fold-outs and I’m always folding it into the person next to me. And I just think it’s so astounding that the book itself forces you to interact with this very physical object. I was wondering if you could talk about the conception of the book as an object?
TJ: You know, it’s not like I planned it for it to work out like that, but the first one I knew would be a fold out was the McKoy twins. I had the idea, but I realized that in order to make it happen, to fully realize the star of syncopated sonnets, it would probably have to bigger than an 8.5x11 inch page. But the question—I guess for me I felt like it was an experiment that would be worth that kind of space. As for the other two, it was pretty much the same thing. And once I had committed to the McKoys it was like, might as well go for it. And it’s eccentric in that you’re invited to tear out the pages and manipulate them. But, you know, on the other hand, to my knowledge nobody’s make a contrapuntal Ghazal that goes into a Mobius strip. So why not? I think the other thing about it is that I connected with Wave books. And the people there, they’re experimental, so to speak, but I think I’m more traditional than the average Wave poet. You know what I’m saying? But this work is traditional and experimental at the same time. And I had a certain amount of hope that they’d be down for it, and they were. I think that speaks towards the willingness of a publisher to do unexpected things; and hopefully the book is a testament to the art of the book, as well a testament to the publisher’s willingness to put their money where their mouth is.
BR: How was the art inside chosen?
TJ: Jessica Lynne Brown is a poet that I met through some friends and she has the unique ability to take dictation with two hands, with both hands going opposite directions. She can do it on a chalkboard and it’s fascinating to watch. But she’s really good at it! I mean, her brain just works in that way. And the thing I like about her art is that it’s really kind of spare, kind of raw. And the book needed space for the reader to rest and contemplate for just a minute. I think they’re beautiful images that speak to the content of Olio and provide a meditative space that’s simple in contrast to much of the busyness that’s happening outside of them. When I met her, I was like, this needs to happen. And it worked out. I’m really very happy to have her work gracing the pages of Olio. I think She’s got a really bright future ahead of her.
BR: Something as simple as a drawing of a box…
TJ: Yeah! Olio doesn’t need really intricate drawings, but she gets to the core, she gets to the soul of each of the entities in the book. Like what she did for the Fisk Jubilee singers—it’s like, that’s it. So, that was a very happy circumstance. I think it really let the book breathe in a different kind of way.
BR: Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts on how contemporary culture relates to history, after your experience writing Olio?
TJ: Well, I guess I would say that history is a circle. It’s very circular in many ways. So, we talk about minstrelsy in the 19th century and we’re still talking about minstrelsy, really, in the 21st. It manifests in different ways, but we still have conversations about blackface, whether it manifests itself on a movie screen or with somebody posting something on Facebook. We’re still talking about copyright and appropriation, as Scott Joplin experienced with Irving Berlin. We’re still talking about the value of Black art and the kind of hurdles that Black artists have to overcome in order to have their work appreciated and in order for them to receive remuneration for their efforts. So I think, that’s the thing: When you’re dealing with history, you’re dealing, for good and for bad, with an echo chamber—you’re talking about something that happened 100 years ago and you’re also talking about what happened before then, what’s happening now, and the possibilities of the future.