2017 Pulitzer Resources: Olio by Tyehimba Jess

Olio, by Tyehimba Jess, has won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for a distinguished volume of original verse by an American author.

The depths Jess went to produce this 200+ page artifact of American History gives us critic’s vertigo—just so much to unpack from page to page. Jess doesn’t hide or hesitate: Olio’s cast of freed slaves is the first thing you encounter in this deliberately built piece of literary architecture, this monumental excavation of lives stolen, buried & forgotten. The book makes you hyperbolic just looking at it, makes you want to teach the thing for a semester. Here’s what Jess does: he stretches sonnets past their breaking point with precision and subtlety; he carries a larger vision in every detail; he uses variety of form not just to play, but to push themes and create satisfying pacing; he connects the work of language with the work of human beings, pushes poetry to be good; he creates an artifact of beauty, a physical object that lifts poetry beyond any usual confines of page; & more.

As the Pulitzer folks say, “a distinctive work that melds performance art with the deeper art of poetry to explore collective memory and challenge contemporary notions of race and identity.”

Here are a few good resources we’ve found to enhance your experience as a reader of Olio.

For some behind the scenes work, check out our previous post, “An Interview with Tyehimba Jess“—reprinted from Late Night Library. This is the best interview we could find. Anne Rasmussen digs right into the deep choices Jess had to make to produce such an immense work.

Jess: 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.

Confused about how exactly to read syncopated sonnets? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Fortunately, Jess took the stage at TEDx Nashville to read from his series about the McCoy twins. It’s an impressive performance, and useful, with a lot to gain from listening to his four-way reading.

Around this time last year, Olio was released, and the poet Kaveh Akbar—the mind behind Divedapper— got a chance to share his singular thoughts on the book. It’s an excellent write-up, and it serves as a good primer before your reading.

“Historical personae has long proven to be a useful protest tool against oppression, and is, for this reason, not new to African-American poetry. Olio, though, is so ambitious, so relentless in its pursuit of the antebellum realities that remade our country, with its entrance into the canon we are jolted awake by a hundred alarms, a century’s racket.”

Read Kaveh’s review here: The Work of Reclamation

Lightbox Poetry, those wonderful folks who create in depth teaching resources around poetry, have some excellent work on Olio, including a great interview, discussion questions, class activities, a writing prompt by Jess, & more.

“Read Tyehimba Jess’s “Mark Twain vs. Blind Tom” as well as the poet’s commentary on the poem in his Lightbox interview. Write a poem of your own that puts two personal, cultural, or historical figures into conversation. These might be people you’ve encountered in your own life, characters from famous books or movies, or significant players from history. Try using characters or figures from different contexts in order to explore or unveil new histories, contexts…”

You can find all of it here: Tyehimba Jess. Make sure to spend some time browsing their other poets as well, a lot of great stuff in there.

Useful Links:

And make sure to support your independent publishers by buying the book directly from Wave Books.

Buy it here: Olio by Tyehimba Jess.

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