Tyehimba Jess’ first book of poetry, leadbelly, was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.” Jess received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and was a 2004-5 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Jess is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, and won a 2000 – 2001 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry, the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. Jess is an Assistant Professor of English at College of Staten Island. Jess' fiction and poetry have appeared in American Poetry Review, Beyond The Frontier: African American Poetry for the Twenty-First Century, Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Power Lines: Ten Years of Poetry from Chicago's Guild Complex, Slam: The Art of Performance Poetry, Brilliant Corners, Ploughshares, Obsidian III: Literature in the African Diaspora, Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas, Mosaic, Blu Magazine, American Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Nashville Review and 580 Split.
Tyehimba Jess interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Tyehimba, you frequently write in received forms, especially the sonnet. What is it that draws you to the sonnet?
Until fairly recently, I've actually been pretty reluctant to engage form in most of my writing. I started writing sonnets with leadbelly, and that was when I realized how flexible and malleable they are as a form. In that book, I thought that the King of the Twelve String needed a crown—and so I wrote a crown of sonnets for him to end the book. I believe I was partly inspired by Marilyn Nelson's Wreath for Emmet Till, a fantastic double crown that engages history and biography. That was my first time writing a crown, and the form struck me as familiar but tricky; an elegant way to create a series of poems within a larger series of poems and tell a smaller story.
The only sonnets I have written are in series. I've written syncopated sonnets as a series, the crown that you have published, and a double crown about the original troupe of Fisk Jubilee Singers which appeared in Callaloo. I think I indulge in the extended form of sonnets because it allows me to tell a longer story.
Your first book, leadbelly, is a collection that imagines the life of the blues legend. Publishers Weeklypoints out that the poems in that book “are soaked in the rhythm and dialect of Southern blues and the demands of honoring one’s talent.” The sonnet crown represented in this month’s Congeries would certainly fall under this description. As one who has always loved the blues, has seen live folks like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, John Lee Hooker, and others, I’ve lately felt that the blues is a dying form as black music continues to move in other directions and as white practitioners—from the Rolling Stones to Clapton to the Allman Brothers to Stevie Ray Vaughan—are either dead or at the ends of their careers. These poems are certainly, in some sense, homage and paean; are they also elegiac? That is, do they mourn for a form diminished?
The poems about Blind Tom contain the essence of the blues - a story of lament, a story where music is a means (almost) of escape. At the same time, however, Tom is playing renditions of European classical and traditional American compositions that existed before the full realization of what we now know as 'blues.' He was also a composer in his own right, as is apparent with his composition "What the Wind, Rain and Thunder Said to Tom." As such, he inhabited a musical space that lasted from before emancipation until just before the dawn of recorded blues.
The blues was the quintessential music of the 20th century. It was born from the cotton/cane fields and manufactured with the work song in the breath, agony and joy of black folks working one day to the next trying to survive. Then, it migrated into the cities to tell the stories of migration, industrial America and the sweet, woeful temptations of big city life. It was vibrant and nascent at the dawn of the recording industry and carved its mark indelibly across America's soul and tongue. As such, it is sealed within the American vernacular in a fundamental way that will never be shaken, stripped, extruded, or faded. There will be attempts to do so, but the black ink of the blues will always be sealed within the notes of America's songbook.
I'd also add that there are still a lot of fantastic musicians, black and other, that carry the blues tradition forward. Corey Harris, Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell, Melvin Taylor, Keb Mo, John Primer, Fruteland Jackson, Buddy Guy, Carl Weathersby, Kenny Neal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Sugar Blue, Marvin Sewell, Taj Mahal, Cassandra Wilson, Shemekia Copeland, Joan Armatrading (last album was Into the Blues) Deborah Coleman, Bettye Lavette, Karma Mayet Johnson... I could go on.
I think the blues will never die. Folk will be playing and listening to Robert Johnson in the 26th century and beyond. There's a recording of Blind Willie Johnson's Dark Was the Night on the Voyager spacecraft, 11 billion miles from Earth, ready to rock and haunt some alien civilization. So, I wouldn't say that my efforts in poetry are elegiacal as much as they are a celebration and rendition of the continuum of black expression that has moved through many genres, including the essential blues.
I’m thinking, too, when I read these poems about something Natasha Trethewey has said, that “so much of history and what gets remembered is about who has that documentary power, who’s actually writing it down. . . . Whoever erects the monuments makes history.” After the Civil War, many slaves who had been “freed” found themselves working at the same job in the same fields at the whims of the same masters. Is the story of Tom Wiggins a re-inscription of this underhistoricized fact, an attempt to document and memorialize a submerged or erased history?
I love Trethewey's work, and the way she has added a voice to unsung histories. I feel very fortunate to have access to so many stories that have been obscure for generations, and to be able to retell them in different ways. Part of my personal motivation is to be able to talk about histories that have been erased, crossed out, disremembered, white-washed, and black-faced for so many years. I think Tom Wiggins' story is one that we need to remember in order to explore the complexities of slavery and the humanity of everyone in the slavery equation. What does it mean to be differently-abled, to be autistic, to be a savant and a slave and an international phenomena? These are some of the questions I'm interested in exploring.
For a poet with only one book to his credit, it’s remarkable how many honors have, rightfully, come your way. leadbellywas chosen by Brigit Kelly for the National Poetry Series; you’ve received a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Chicago Sun-TimesPoetry Award, and a Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award. You’ve also received a Lannan Writing Residency and additional fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown. Aside from being jealous, I’m also curious about how you take all of this acclaim. Does it energize you? Does it fill you with dread? Do you feel pressured by it?
I feel very blessed and damn lucky to have gained that recognition for my work. It was somewhat intimidating to sit down and write again after that book. I was intimidated by trying to write what I thought would be just as good as Leadbelly. But the fact is that I was tripping myself up by thinking that way. I was stopping myself; defeating myself before I even hit the page. I slowly realized that the thing I have to do is to write the thing that seems honest and right for me, and not to try to live up to the expectations of the last book or poem. I might not ever write anything as 'successful' as Leadbelly again, but the most important thing is that I take Toni Morrison's advice and write the book that I most want to see in the world, and that I write it the best way I know how. That I take the risk to make to tell that story or paint that picture in the most interesting and personally challenging way I can imagine.
It also took a while to get rid of Leadbelly's voice in my head. For a while it was impossible to write without channeling him in everything I wrote. That is one of the reasons I turned to form. Form allows me a structure within which to reexamine the way I tell a story. Form allowed me a space to adopt a more formal voice and to work against and within that space.
You have served as Chicago’s Poetry Ambassador to Accra, Ghana. Can you tell us about that experience and how it came about?
I won the Sister City Poetry Contest back in 1994 in the city of Chicago. They sent me to Accra, Ghana and I got a chance to travel all around the country and read for the mayor of Accra. Visiting Cape Coast Castle was a profound experience; I got to stand literally in the doorway of the Atlantic slave holocaust, the Maafa. I was shaken to the core.
I also got to visit the final resting places of Kwame Nkrumah and W.E.B. Dubois. The people there were so warm and generous - I was fortunate enough to return in 2008 for the Pan African Literary Festival engineered by a great friend and fantastic writer, Jeffrey Renard Allen. It was like another homecoming. I hope to go back again soon.
You are a well-respected performance poet as well as one who has gained the great respect of theacademic community. Can you tell us about this marriage of page and stage?
I spent a lot of time at open mics and slams in my early years in Chicago. I learned a lot from poets like Patricia Smith, Regie Gibson, and one of the most under-appreciated forces in poetry today, Marc Smith, founder of the National Poetry Slam. Without Marc's genius vision of bringing poetry to ordinary people in a way they could appreciate, participate in, and be moved by, the movement of Slam poetry and the work of all those who have risen from and through it might never have happened. Or at least it would have happened in a very different way.
From watching slams, I learned about marrying page and stage in effective ways - particularly from Pat Smith, who I am very glad to call a colleague at College of Staten Island. I took the lessons from slam and applied them as best I could to persona poems, trying to weed out as much excess as possible.
When can we expect your next volume? I know that a lot of folks can’t wait.
I'm hoping to get it out in the next year or so. It's tentatively entitled Olio.
Sonnet Crown for Blind Tom
Tom Wiggins, (1849-1908) was an autistic savant born into slavery. Possessing formidable skill on the piano, he became an international attraction, traveling under the lifelong “management” of his pre-Civil War masters, the Bethunes. He earned approximately $800,000 to 1 million dollars for the family until his death in 1908.
Blind Tom plays for Confederate Troops, 1863
The slave’s hands dance free, unfettered, flying
across ivory, feet stomping toward
a crescendo that fills the forest pine,
reminding the Rebs what they’re fighting for -
black, captive labor. Tom, slick with sweat, shows
a new trick: Back turned to his piano,
he leans like a runner about to throw
himself to freedom through forest bramble-
until he spreads his hands behind him. He
hitches fingertips to keys, hauls Dixie
slowly out of the battered upright’s teeth
like a worksong dragged across cotton fields,
like a plow, weighted and dirty, ringing
with a slaver’s song at master’s bidding.
What marked Tom?
Did a slave song at a master’s bidding
mark Tom while asleep in Charity’s womb?
The whole plantation would be called to sing
and dance in Master Epp’s large parlor room—
after work sprung from dawn and kept past dusk,
after children auctioned to parts unknown,
after funerals and whippings. Thus
was the whim of the patriarch. No groans
allowed, just high steppin’ celebration,
grins all around, gritted or sincere.
Charity threw feet, hips, arms into motion
to please the tyrant piano. Was it here
Tom learned how music can prove the master?
While he spun in a womb of slavish laughter?
Blind Tom plays for a packed house, 1873
Tom spun wild round the room. Nervous laughter
rose from the crowd. They’d come to see a freak
of nature, one clearly gripped by the after-
world. A blind, black vessel of spiritspeak.
General Bethune, his master, took his hand
and led him to the piano. When Tom
sat down, the Wonder overtook him and
bore him down upon the keys. His song
swallowed up sunlight, spat up hurricanes,
was a rainwater baptism under
a slave’s psychic hands. Was it a sound past pain,
or a hurting that knew no surrender?
The music’s title seemed to beg the question:
What the Wind, Rain and Thunder Said to Tom.
What the Wind, Rain and Thunder Said to Tom
Hear how sky opens its maw to swallow
Earth? To claim each blade and being and rock
with its spit? Become your own full sky. Own
every damn sound that struts through your ears.
Shove notes in your head till they bust out where
your eyes supposed to shine. Cast your lean
brightness across the world and folk will stare
when your hands touch piano. Bend our breath
through each fingertip uncurled and spread
upon the upright’s eighty-eight pegs.
Jangle up its teeth until it can tell
our story the way you would tell your own:
the way you take darkness and make it moan.
Charity on Blind Tom
They say Tom takes darkness and makes it moan.
I was his darkness. And Lawd, did I moan
when he came out to light. And moaned some more
when his eyes wouldn’t catch sight. Don’t
no plantation need no stumble-blind slave—
I hid him much as I could, but no way
could I keep his body’s ‘fliction away
from Master Epps. Blind, slow niggas don’t pay
nothin on auction block or in the field.
More trouble than they worth -better off dead,
said most white folk. I tell you—I had to kneel
deep in the dirt for that music in his head—
for General Bethune to buy us like gifts—
I had no idea Tom would make him rich.
General Bethune on Blind Tom
I had no idea Tom would make me rich.
Blind and crazed, like a blessed up idiot,
he’d sing bluebird songs in perfect pitch,
then bash his head against the wooden box
crib whenever his mother went to chores
in the field. He’d hop around on one leg,
bent over like a giant, pecking bird for
hours, then rattle out tunes on tin cups. I let
him stay out of compassion. Then, one day,
he heard my daughter playing piano—
Haydn, I believe. It was like a weight
fell upon him—a labor to make him whole.
My charity finally got its reward
Who am I to deny this gift to the world?
Blind Tom plays on…
Who am I to deny this world? This gift
of music storming through me? It howls out
my fingers when I reach into God’s mouth
of piano, grabbin’ fistfuls of sun with
each song. It spins me in circles, surrounds
me in starshine, mounts my head, hands and heart
till I tell it what it wants, tell it how
we are all one wave of notes in the dark
gospel of the universe. Can’t you hear
the chorus of moonlight? Can’t you see
the way each note shines? It’s all right here
just beneath the skin, like something I seem
to remember - the sound of my mother crying
while her hands danced across me—free, flying…