What: Tyehimba Jess poetry reading
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: AJ 175
Event is free and open to the public.
Poet Tyehimba Jess can add the title of “Pulitzer Prize winner” to his résumé, having won the prize for poetry last week. Jess will be reading from the winning book “Olio” on campus this week.
The reading will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Art and Journalism Building Room 175. After the reading, Jess will be taking questions from the audience. The reading is part of the Marilyn K. Cory speaker series.
The poems in "Olio" explore the history of America’s blues, work songs and church hymns through the legacy of African-American performers from before and after the Civil War up to World War I.
The book deals heavily with minstrelsy, a type of performance show in which white people would paint their faces black to act as black people. Black people were also portrayed often as lazy, unintelligent, superstitious or happy-go-lucky. Jess’ poems shed light on how the African-American community responded to this practice of blackface and its portrayals of black people.
Emily R. Rutter, an associate professor of English, finds that Jess' exploration of minstrelsy has crucial resonance.
“[Minstrelsy] is a history that a lot of people aren’t very familiar with, but has enormous ramifications for contemporary media images of African American,” she said. “Getting readers interested in learning about that history allows us to think about the ways in which history continues to impact the present.”
The book is a fusion of a classical poetic form, the sonnet, with song and storytelling. It draws on music and archival research to cast a new lens on interpreting history.
For Rutter, Jess’ strength lies in his ability to encourage readers to make their own meaning out of his poetry, rather than impose a specific point of view.
“I think that kind of multiple truth that can come out of poetry is very accessible, that there is not one right answer, or one interpretation,” she said. “He’s showing us the many kinds of truth that poetry opens up for readers.”
Known for his ability to weave performance or slam poetry with written poetry, Jess started writing poems when he was 16. Two years later, he won second place in an NAACP academic competition for his poe. Now, he teaches poetry and fiction at the City University of New York.
His poems have been included in various anthologies. He has also won several awards and fellowships such as the Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award and the National Endowment for the Arts.