DOGBYTES Interview: Tyehimba Jess

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Detroit native Tyehimba Jess’ first book of poetry, leadbelly, was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.” Olio, his second collection, was published by Wave Books in April 2016. Jess, a Cave Canem and NYU alumnus, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a 2004-2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Jess is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, and won a 2000 – 2001 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry, the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He exhibited his poetry at the 2011 TEDxNashville Conference. Jess is an Associate Professor of English at College of Staten Island.


What was the most challenging aspect of finishing your most recent book, Olio?

Well, there were a lot of challenges. The hardest was trying to figure out the overall motifs in the book, and how to make them complement each other. The book has a circular motif, one that is expressed through a double crown of sonnets for the Fisk Jubilee Singers and a series of interviews about the life of Scott Joplin. That circular motion is echoed in the contrapuntal poems that employ stichomythia. The mixture of forms throughout the book mirrors the interchange between personas. The circular motion of history is also emphasized in the list of burned black churches that surround the Fisk sonnets. There are a lot of moving parts that are trying to work together throughout the book, and the challenge was to try to approach each one differently, with due respect and diligence, and to have them mesh together as one unit.

You wrote a poem in response to the video project and movement #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. What can poets do to promote social justice?

Well, I’d first say that we all have to find our own path towards fighting injustice. There are so many ways to do so through our writing, the petitions we sign, the marches we attend, the institutions we build, etc. For myself, I accept that I am a work in progress, one trying to recognize and work against the ways that disparities between race, gender, gender orientation and preference, and class create a world smaller and dimmer than our collective human potential. When I work collectively with a circle of humanity listening deeply to each other, when we have face-to-face, voice-to-voice conversations that take us beyond the Facebook or Twitter post, when we can strive to even agree to disagree in order to preserve a degree of mutual respect in order to achieve mutual goals, I believe we will be able to more effectively promote a justice that serves all of us.

This goes beyond writing the “politically correct” poem, or making the cogent analysis or blog post at the right moment. It means trying to listen deeply to each other in a real, human sense so that we see beyond the issues and into the place where we can respect each other’s humanity. These public, electronic forums often flatten out nuance and destroy subtleties that would otherwise encourage us to interact more humanely with each other—to really listen.

But then listening is an essential part of writing a good poem, isn’t it? So, that’s what this poet is trying to do right now—listen to those around me to understand their perspectives, listen to the many rivers of history, listen beyond rhetoric and try my best to think carefully before I speak in order to avoid simplistic and incomplete answers to complicated questions. And then to act according to what I have discovered through that listening—with care.

And I know I’ll stumble along the way and find new ways to be wrong; but I guess the challenge is to recognize this as a life struggle that don’t stop till we’re in the ground. And even then, if we’re doing our job as poets successfully, our words will continue to do their work in the world after we’re gone. So write for the ages.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

A book that immediately comes to mind is Vievee Francis’ stunning Forest Primeval. I believe this was a breakthrough book for Vievee. Her craft is so brilliantly tight and wild, the search into self so deliberate, brutal, tender and searing.

I’d also have to say that John Keene’s Counternarratives is so ambitious in its scope, so well executed, so historically thorough and full of surprises, that it really set the bar high for me.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

I have learned quite a bit from riding a motorcycle over the past eight years. I’ve learned about patience, the kind of patience you need when you’re being passed by semi trucks in a sudden thunderstorm; the importance of knowing one’s limitations; how to avoid overrunning the turn and going dangerously off course; overcoming fear, the kind of fear when you’re on a bridge, leaning into the crosswind that’s trying to push you across lanes; how to focus, concentrating on the place you want to go in order to get there safely. I’ve learned how to maintain the many parts of my 19-year-old Honda, learned more about the importance of proper preparation for the journey. I’ve learned more about anticipating the moves of those around me—to read the traffic around me, looking as far ahead as the eye can see for possible accidents and competing egos on the highway ahead. I’ve learned more about how to sacrifice ego when it comes to reaching a goal on the road, and how to never take smooth pavement and a sunny day for granted. I’ve learned to weave between the lines when necessary but to respect the lightness of my weight against the tons of metal I pass. I’ve learned how beautiful so many parts of the country are in the sunset. I’ve even learned how to camp out on my own and the wonders of a portable hammock and evening shade. I’ve learned a passion that’s brought me closer to my brother, who now rides almost more than me! I never thought I’d learn that much from being in that motorcycle seat for so long. But there it is. I guess we can learn from anything if we try.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Right now I’m spending a lot of time getting ready to be married! I’m lucky enough to have a lady that wants to spend the rest of her time on the planet with me, so I’m spending a lot of time getting ready for this next journey together.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets; to all emerging poets?

1. Don’t stop writing, even when you feel discouraged. My formula is 1>0: it’s always better to have at least something on the page rather than nothing. You can always revise, and revise, and revise…

2. Know your histories. Research the many histories of the country in which you were born, the country in which you live, and the people from which you come. Read beyond those histories to understand global context. History often repeats or rhymes with itself. By engaging and recognizing those patterns we have the opportunity to reference lessons that are continuously new, ancient and true to the human experience.

3. Read extensively. Set your standards for yourself as high as possible.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

Probably the fact that I grew up in a house full of books has influenced me the most as a writer. My father was constantly reading; he had lots of full bookshelves in the house and subscriptions to every magazine from Time to National Geographic to Ebony and two newspapers. And my mother was never tiring in her desire to see me read and write well. Without that early influence, I might have never dreamed of being a writer.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat?

I was at CC in 1997, 1999, and 2001. I served as a retreat administrator/aide for three years, 2002, 2003 and 2004.

What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

The first time I saw the CC reading during my first year. The talent in the room blew me away. I knew immediately that I had to step up my game. It was a real eye opener and the beginning of a kind of self-reconstruction—I had found a community of folks who were listening to hear each other and grow from what they heard. I’ll never forget feeling that I had finally found my crew.