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The Unconventional Poetry Of Tyehimba Jess


Tyehimba Jess won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry this year. His book, "Olio," takes on one of the most uncomfortable American performance art, one that is at the center of race and culture at the turn of the 20th century. Interlochen Public Radio's Dan Wanschura has this profile of the Detroit writer and his unconventional book.

DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: Tyehimba Jess wrote "Olio" to mirror a minstrel show, a variety act with skits, dances, music comedy.

TYEHIMBA JESS: And it was based upon making caricatures of African Americans for the edification of mostly white audiences.

WANSCHURA: Performers were white and black and both would paint their faces black and act out routines that often denigrated African-Americans. Minstrel shows were popular in the 1800s and well into the 1900s.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) How would you like to go to work for me?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Yes, ma'am. How much you going to pay, I hope?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Well, let's see now. I'll pay you all you're worth.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) No, ma'am. I got to have some money.

WANSCHURA: Tyehimba Jess told students at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan that he wanted to find out who these people were.

JESS: Characters have depth. They have multiple dimensions, right? A caricature, you only show one side of a person. They're oafish. Or they're silly. Or they're dumb, etcetera. A character, you see multiple sides of their humanity.

WANSCHURA: Like Blind Tom Wiggins, a 19th century pianist who, Jess says, earned his master a million dollars through his musical talent. And the McKoy twins, Millie and Christine, who were conjoined - people who Jess had never heard of before he began his research.

JESS: It's not easy to find that history in the creative literature. You know what I'm saying? So that became a calling for me because it's territory that hasn't really been explored a whole lot.

WANSCHURA: So Jess tells the story of the McKoy twins in a series of poems - how they were rented out by their owner to traveling shows around the country, how they were kidnapped and shipped to England for a while, and how, once emancipated, they earned enough money performing to buy the land where they and their family had been slaves.

JESS: We make greenbacks with dimes hoarded by pinching francs and pounds for our folks. Thus, we buy liberation against servitude. We sing freedom bound. And we know the cost. We've overcome from the root of our guts. We give back with duets all mingled up to heaven. We've bought land that once enslaved our parents with duets all mingled up to heaven.

WANSCHURA: Jess says one of the goals of his book was to show that these people were empowered through their performances. And that caught the ear of Wesley McNair, a former Poet Laureate of Maine who also served on the Pulitzer jury and recommended "Olio."

WESLEY MCNAIR: There's another very important theme in "Olio," I think, that's hardly mentioned. And that is the unique freedom of art which allowed black performers like the McKoy's sisters to free themselves through artistic expression even in the face of their oppression.

WANSCHURA: "Olio" does that by combining poetry with historical documents, letters and song lyrics. And the book itself is meant to be recombined.


JESS: That simple.

WANSCHURA: The book has perforated fold-out pages.

JESS: Are there any tears here on the page? You're shaking your head. I need to hear you. It's the radio.

WANSCHURA: No, there isn't.

JESS: (Laughter) There you go.

WANSCHURA: On the back of one, there's a list of reasons why blacks were lynched and, on the front, a poem. Jess rips it out and folds it up. And the stories of the people obliterate the reasons for lynching.

JESS: That is what this enterprise is about. It's about deconstructing our received history and reconstructing it in a way through poems and through prose in a way that helps us better understand it.

WANSCHURA: Tyehimba Jess took the name for his Pulitzer Prize winning book from a variety act called the "Olio." And in his pages, these African-American performers finally take the stage as the full-fledged characters they were.

JESS: We ride the wake of each other's rhythm, beating our hearts' syncopated tempo with music all our own with our mouths seeped in the glow of hand-me-down courage, drenched in spiritual a cappellas, flowing soul from bone through skin. We pay debts from broken chattel to circus stars. We sing straight from this nation's barbed wired heart.

WANSCHURA: For NPR News, I'm Dan Wanschura in Interlochen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Wanschura