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History as Muse: A Review of Tyehimba Jess’ Master Class

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On the evening of Thursday, February 1st, Cave Canem’s DUMBO office was filled with ragtime and jazz as participants in “Poetry’s Musical Bloodline: A Sociohistorical Soundtrack,” settled into their seats. Once the music died down, Tyehimba Jess played a short, electrifying tune on his harmonica. “The harmonica is a lot like poetry,” Jess explained, “it doesn’t take a lot to be able to play a little, but it takes years and years to achieve mastery.” The master class, taught by the Pulitzer prize-winning poet and Cave Canem alum, focused on the relationship between poetry and music of the African diaspora. With sixteen in attendance, the class attracted an audience both culturally diverse and cross-generational.

Jess emphasized the importance of historical research and critical inquiry. Throughout, he drew from his vast knowledge of jazz, blues, hip hop, and minstrelsy, with respect to Olio (Wave Books, 2016),  his critically acclaimed, Pulitzer prize-winning second collection. During the latter half of the class, Jess showcased individual poetry collections, explaining how each had been crucial to his writing process. Participants posed thoughtful questions that ranged from the topic of conducting research and the politics of agency, to tensions between jazz poets and jazz musicians and what makes our musical heroes heroic.

Ultimately, the tools participants walked away with that night were indispensable: a plethora of questions to guide their learning and writing processes, as well as a number of titles to add to their reading lists. “Tyehimba is exceptionally knowledgeable and I felt he was able to engage everyone at the table,” said one participant. There could not have been a better way to launch Cave Canem’s 2018 programs!

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This program is part of Cave Canem’s 2018 Lecture Series. The Series is made possible by generous contributions from Con Edison, the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Poetry Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts and Two Trees Cultural Space Subsidy Program.


Photo credit: Jeyhoun Allebaugh, @jeyhoun