An Interview with Tyehimba Jess

The scope of Olio, the latest poetry collection from Tyehimba Jess (Wave Books) is sweeping, excavating the stories of Black performers and musicians from the last decades of slavery, through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and up through the First World War and its aftermath.

Jess resurrects the voices of these artistic pioneers, creating conversations, stories, and call-and-response sonnets which reach across boundaries of time, class, and geographic distance, and into the headlines of the present day. In this Late Night Interview, Jess discusses the research, music and stories that led to his ambitious, compassionate and genre-defying collection.

ANNE RASMUSSEN: What drew you the era of performers and artists depicted in Olio, and was there a particular character or historical figure whose story called out to you first?

TYEHIMBA JESS: I was drawn to this era of performers out of a curiosity about the state of black artistic production before the age of recording. I was and still am curious about Black artists who were active from around the time of the Civil War until WW1. This was the first generation to pursue their crafts in a USA where chattel slavery had been outlawed – they were pioneers in personal freedom – the freedom to play any instrument they could get their hands on, to perform in an way that satisfied themselves alone as well as any audience they might seek. The first performer that stood out to me from that era was Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime. Lots of people are familiar with his name, but I was curious as to how he weathered being at the forefront of this new musical revolution that catapulted him into fame but failed to fill his pockets when he was destitute at the end of his life. The fact that he was able to foster this predecessor to Jazz, to master syncopation through the keyboard as deftly as he did seemed to me to be an irresistible story.

AR: Throughout Olio, the reader is invited to consider questions of expression and exhibitionism, artistry and self-preservation, ownership, invention and survival, questions like: Who profits from these displays? What is your take?

TJ: Ideally, the performer or artist would benefit from the display of their craft as much as or more than their audience. Of course our history lets us know that this rarely occurred, especially in the field of minstrelsy. The performer would, hopefully, receive some pecuniary remuneration for their efforts – they may also have received some self-satisfaction from having performed to the utmost of their abilities and above the common standards for their craft. The audience, of course, received the satisfaction of having witnessed the entertainment and sharing in its wonders, terrors and humor. In the case of minstrelsy, America’s primary entertainment throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the white audience has its vast sense of superiority reinforced – at the expense of any black members of the audience that were offended or denigrated by that same performance.

Throughout Olio, I have endeavored to create a performance mainly for my own edification, for my own unique satisfaction that comes from expressing ideas previously locked in my own head. Also, it is a performance in the memory of and in conversation with those depicted throughout the manuscript. I would hope that their memory profits in the sense that their accomplishments are brought to a larger audience. I would also hope that readers would benefit from being informed about the histories in Olio, and that their imaginations are intrigued by the many performances of form and the storytelling throughout the book.

AR: What possibilities for defiance and sly self-expression were contained within the broad, stereotypical humor of the minstrel show?

TJ: This is a great question that depends greatly on context and the subtleties of performance. When one looks at the careers of Bert Williams and George Walker, it seems that there was some room for self-expression that winked at the notion of minstrelsy through charcoal of the minstrel mask. They were able to craft a performance that brought audiences to tears as well as laughter –and they did so by creating three-dimensional characters with depth out of two-dimensional caricatures that were designed to be flat. While they were limited to one mode of expression –the minstrel show – they strove to master their craft and repurpose minstrelsy into stories of fully realized human beings rather than mere comedies of the simple minded and oafish.

AR: Can you talk about your research process? In particular, I was drawn to your use of original sources, and the way you blend quoted material with fictional voices to create these hybrid conversations. And the stories themselves: some of the tallest-seeming tales (like the “Crash at Crush” – itself a staged performance) are documented historical events. How did you approach finding that balance between imagination and documentation as you excavated these voices?

TJ: The research process was very head-on. I either bought books essential to my interests, or I visited such institutions as The Schomburg Library (where I was able to find a lot of material on Sissieretta Jones) or the Center for Black Music Research. There is a bibliography at the back of the book that allows readers to go into depth regarding the histories under discussion in Olio, but I’d like to share some of them that were extraordinarily useful.

Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans: A History is an indispensible guide to the many historical ebbs and flows of Black Music. The legend is that when Ms. Southern was interested in studying Black music, a colleague asked, “Black music? Besides jazz, what is there?” And thus she was compelled to produce her encyclopedic tome, which continues to serve as a most thorough and accessible example of black ethnomusicology.

I’d also recommend Music and Some Highly Musical People, by James Monroe Trotter, one of the first examples of American ethnomusicology ever published. This book gives many interesting biographical studies from the latter half of the 1900’s and was authored by an extraordinary former slave who later became, among other things, the first Black person hired by the US Postal Service and eventually Recorder of Deeds in Washington DC.

Two indispensible and highly enjoyable books that were essential to Olio: Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz and Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895. These books, both edited by Lynn Abbott and Doug Serloff, provide a cornucopia of illustrations, articles, and accounts of Black performance in the late 19th century.
Also, I’d shout out to Kisten Pai Buick’s Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject and Harry Henderson’s The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis. A Narrative Biography, both of which gave me great insight into the most successful Native/African American visual artist of her time, Edmonia Lewis.

Finding a balance between research and imagination is a constant struggle. I try my best not to make the reader feel as if they are enduring a history lesson, but I feel the necessity to let the reader know the fascinating folds of our history that so often are left to obscurity. However, as is often said, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and the stories that are out there are compelling unto themselves – the question is how to relay my enthusiasm for these fascinating tales to the reader. I find myself trying to understand the circumstances of history and imagining the living, breathing reaction of each subject to those circumstances.

AR: Something that both delighted and drove me a little crazy while reading Olio was the structure of what you call the “syncopated sonnets” which are written in such a way that they can be read up and down, across and diagonally. Sometimes two speakers confront each other (as in Berlin v. Joplin over a musical theft, or Blind Tom’s mistress versus his mother over who profits from his talent). Elsewhere the voices are conjoined twins (Millie-Christine), or a single person torn between places (Blind Tom, buried in two graves). Each line is composed in a way that allows it to stand alone or join with other lines in a dizzying number of possible combinations, and in ways that subtly shift the meaning or perspective for the reader/listener—allowing one or both voices to hold the floor. I tried to imagine how these pieces would be performed out loud, and envisioned a sort of call-and-response within the poem. How did you tackle writing and revising these – can you talk a little about the process for you? And have you performed these solo?

TJ: The syncopated, contrapuntal poems were written with two basic purposes in mind, always focusing on critical events, decisions or themes in a subject’s life.

  1. To provide a voice for those who have been left out of the dialog of history. In some cases, a quote is provided from a public figure or outlet, and I have written an adjoining or complimentary voice that adds the subject’s point of view. In these cases, the objective is generally to create a syllabically symmetrical counterpoint to the quote, to inform the historical record in a way that is matched breath for breath with the original quote. Such is the case with Irving Berlin, John Berryman, and various newspaper quotes on the coon song craze of the early 20th century.
  2. To imagine a conversation between two historical figures that are otherwise silent. In this case, the two figures may be in accordance with each other (McKoy Twins, Williams/Walker) or in opposition with each other (Charity Wiggins v. Bethune). In these cases, the dialog opens up a host of issues that are germane both to the individuals and ourselves – issues of freedom, choice, morality, love, courage and cowardice.

I have tried my best to avoid using the contrapuntal poem as a mere gimmick, as a trick – but to focus on using the form as a tool to explore the dialectic of history, to demonstrate the ways that history is circular and revisits itself in multiple ways, the way that Williams and Walker transformed a two dimensional form into a three dimensional vehicle for their humanity, to allow the audience an illuminating examination of the McKoy Twins’ story that would mimic but not mirror the freakshow fetishization of their bodies, and to illustrate the twisted, yet self preserving nature of deceit in Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.”

I also have aimed to make the transitions between line breaks as smooth as possible, adhering in many ways to the proper rules of grammar or to preserve the poem’s coherence across multiple contiguous line breaks. However, I found that the Black vernacular, with its subject-verb disagreement and bending of phrase, afforded me maneuverability between line breaks that would be impossible within the strictures of proper English grammar. That allowed me to revel in the expansiveness of “broken” English even more, to push that brokenness as a healing for the poem.

The construction of the poems is plain to see for anyone willing to read them carefully. I will only add that they were written line by line, sometimes in reverse, and always with the historical circumstances and perspectives of each subject in mind. And with pencil. And a lot of erasers. And generally, a glass of good whiskey.

AR: One of the many striking aspects of the book is its distinctive design, which recalls the playbills, church programs, posters of the era. The use of white space, varied font sizes and styles, and the foregrounding and spacing of words on the page allows you to amplify and mute various elements of the stories, interviews and poems, while giving the book a distinctly period feel. As many of these pieces were previously published, I wonder if you can talk a little about the design process of bringing this collection together – how did you work with your publisher to achieve the overall look and feel of the book?

TJ: I was very fortunate to end up with Wave Books. The plain fact of the matter is that there are very, very few publishers that would even entertain the idea of an oversized, illustrated book with four fold outs, perforated pages and a length of over 230 pages. But the good thing is – that is just the kind of challenge that drives Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder. I think it proposed an interesting challenge to them that they didn’t want to pass up – they have an appreciation for the book as an object, as an irreplaceable tool in our human experience. We both started with that kind of respect for the book as a form back when they published Leadbelly, with which they were very patient regarding my design needs.

With Olio, there was a lot of back and forth about how the pages would look, how the illustrations would fit into the book, the font, everything. But I had a lot of trust in them, and in the end the book ended up looking better than I ever dreamed it would. There are little details they did which caught me off guard, like the centering of the copyright page and the acknowledgements – the way “Olio” appears on the page before Jessica Lynne Brown’s drawing of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and how you can see one ghosting the other when you hold it up to the light. The quality of the perforation and the choice of font. The paper quality, the boldness in the hardback blue. They put themselves into their books because they are deeply invested in the craftsmanship that goes into owning this tool that can open your mind in unexpected ways.

I would also say that there are dozens and dozens and dozens of dates and places in this book, and the proof reader, David Caliguri, was astonishing in his focus and accuracy – he really helped out tremendously, researching every nook and cranny of the stories and multiple timelines. Indispensably thorough in his craft.

AR: Each of the Fisk Jubilee sonnets is bracketed with a fine-print catalogue of church names, locations and dates. These are the names of black churches which have been targets of arson or other hate crimes. Each sonnet is framed, top and bottom, by 10 names, and the progression of names/violent events leads us through all regions of the United States, from 1882 to the present day. The final entry, Mother Emmanuel AME Church–site of the 2015 Charleston massacre, is also the first site named. These names are not foregrounded on the page – due to the size of the font they could be overlooked by a careless or incurious reader. I was fascinated and moved by this juxtaposition – it seems like we often see America’s racist history used as a prop/backdrop to frame current conversations about “progress.” That quiet, small-print litany of churches draws a straight, unbroken line of violence from 1822 to the present. How did you decide to incorporate contemporary events into the background of historical narrative in Olio, and did this tend to happen in writing or revision? Both?

TJ: The heroic crown of sonnets for the Fisk Jubilee Singers was started early in the life of the manuscript, and became one of the most challenging sections for me to conceptualize and finish. It was originally supposed to be a pop out poem with a physical structure far too complicated to successfully report here. It morphed into a double crown that would be laced throughout the book to serve as a kind of spine, a backdrop of the earliest music that represented Black American spirituality on a worldwide scale. I wanted to look into the real lives of those original singers who formed the first Jubilee troupe – to get beyond the abstraction of the Spiritual and to examine those who actually set foot upon foreign soil to spread its seed, those who were charged as missionary for their race, their religion, and their school. Andrew Ward’s wonderfully written Dark Midnight When I Rise and a visit to the Fisk archives was essential to the research. While going through draft after draft of the sonnets, I was haunted by the quality of hope I felt through them despite the many agonizing circumstances of each ex-slave’s tale. A good haunting, yes, but one uninformed by a body-felt level of tragedy.

Finally, in the year before publication, it occurred to me that the body of Black Church is subject to another very American tradition – arson. A tradition that, like the original members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, seems to exist mostly as an abstraction in our imagination – except for those who have seen it directly. This is another citizenry, like the Black men and women who have been shot in the street, that has had many of its names forgotten except for an oral history here and there, the small histories of county upon county in small towns the size of a few acres. It’s a citizenry of souls who gave worn out pennies to buy the coal and sweet potato pies to pay the pastor. A tradition whose victims still remain mostly been unlisted and unnamed. There had been some extensive documentation of church burnings that occurred in the 1990’s, (Burning Faith: Church Arson in the American South by C.B. Strain is a great resource) but before the 1980’s there is very little reliable documentation other than spare listings and various newspaper articles. I contacted as many agencies as I could to gather the names of the burned churches: the NAACP, CORE, Southern Poverty Law Center, SCLC, National Baptist Convention, even the FBI and the BATF. No one could get me names of burned churches.

Lexis/Nexis, JSTOR, and other references yielded many of the church names past 1970 or so. After a while, I was able to get documentation on over 140 burned churches – and those are the names you see in the book. I had actually finished the compilation of names before the massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church – and when I heard about it, after the shock and devastation wore itself to my bones, I knew that Emmanuel had to be in the book, on that list. And then I learned the church had originally been burned down in 1822 after a revolt led by Denmark Vesey. Until then, the oldest church I had documented in the little time I had to compile the list was Cross Ankle Church in Palmetto GA, 1899. So it ended up that Mother Emmanuel fell into one of the rules of a heroic crown of sonnets – it’s the first and last line of the series. I wrote my publisher – it was the last major line edit in the book. The churches give the sonnets a fire to wrestle through – the same fire they’ve been wrestling through all these generations.

That’s the way many of the people and places came into Olio. In the midst of all the reading I’d do for the artists, I’d find a storm here and a railroad wreck there – things like that which really happened – I couldn’t even make up something like the Crash at Crush, or a blind pianist playing people to tears by imitating a storm on the keyboard. There are so many good stories out there. So many overlooked episodes. And sometimes you get to fit them into what you’re working on and you just welcome them aboard and treat them the way they talk to you.

Tyehimba Jess is the author of Leadbelly and Olio. 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.” Olio, published in 2016, has been called “Encyclopedic, ingenious, and abundant…” by Publisher’s Weekly’s starred review, and a “daring collection, which blends forthright, musically acute language with portraiture” by Library Journal.

Anne Rasmussen has taught writing in jail, advised graduate students, and constructed giant bear costumes worn by Rockettes. Her fiction has appeared in Split Lip Magazine and was selected as a Longform Fiction Pick of the Week. She edits the Late Night Interview column and her interview with author Jim Grimsley was included in the paperback edition of How I Shed My Skin (Algonquin Books, 2016). She sympathizes with unreliable narrators.

This interview was first published by Late Night Library, August 1st, 2016. You can find it here.

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