Smile Politely

Pygmalion and Tyehimba Jess are Lit up

Some writers draw purely from their own experiences to influence their work. Tyehimba Jess draws not only from his life, but also from history. His first book of poetry entitled leadbelly is a series of biographical poems that illustrate the life of a blues musician. For his hard work and passion, Jess received the award for The National Poetry Series in 2004 for leadbelly. Jess has received a number of other awards and has been published in journals such as American Poetry Review and Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas in his career so far. His newest poetry book entitled Olio is available now. 

When I learned that I was going to have the opportunity to interview Jess for his upcoming appearance at The Pygmalion Festival, I was incredibly excited at the prospect of being able to find out not only what influences a writer who has achieved incredible success with his first book, but also learn more about his background and what he is passionate about. It was clear from the very first question that Jess is a very passionate person and clearly had aspirations for how his work would translate to his audience.

Jess talks about the inspiration behind his work as well as what he hopes the audience at The Pygmalion Festival will gain from hearing his work.

Smile Politely: Why did you choose to be a part of the Pygmalion festival?

Jess: I’m looking forward to returning to UIUC where I began my career as a Professor of English — I’m intrigued by the other writers I will meet there. I also am eager to read with a former student, Matthe Minicucci — it’s thrilling to have an opportunity to share a stage with him and see how much he’s developed as a poet and human being! As an added treat, I hope to visit my favorite diner, Sam’s Cafe* — I loved going to that place for coffee and breakfast!

*(Editor’s Note — solid choice. I like this guy already)

SP: What do you hope the audience will get from hearing your work at this festival?

Jess: My work is about the history of African American performers and artists from the end of the 19th century into the early 20th. My recent book, Olio, is about folks such as Blind Tom, Blind Boone, Scott Joplin, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, The McKoy Twins, Henry Box Brown, and others. I want my audience to get to know them in a way that employs poetry in an interesting, interactive, and unique way.

SP: Do you have any influences on your work? Are you inspired or influenced by any other writers?

Jess: I have many influences as far as writers: Yusef Komunyakaa, Sterlinhg Plumpp, Toni Morrison, Charles Chesnutt, Gwendolyn Brooks… the list can go on. I am also heavily influenced by the flow of African American music – from Blues to Jazz to Gospel to Funk and Hip Hop and R&B. I believe the music and the literature are inseparable.

SP: Do you have any aspirations for your work in the future? Are their goals or desires that you are working towards?

Jess: Every poem and project is a stretch toward growth and a new discovery of self – My major goal is to keep writing both historical and personal works that challenge me and my readers to come to a better understanding of ourselves – though history and personal experience. The main thing for me is to keep on writing and learning and challenging myself through each page and stanza and poem, and to convey that growth and learning to my readers.

Speaking with Jess was an absolute privilege. I was greatly inspired by hearing about what he hoped people would gain from his work. I was also glad to hear how big of a part music had in influencing what he writes. Music is certainly a big part of my life and I know it is for others as well. Just from our brief chat, I can honestly say Jess is now a huge inspiration for me and my work. I hope that everyone gets a chance to read his work and hear him preform it at the festival. If you would like to attend his free reading, it is on Friday, September 23 at 6:45 p.m. at The Accord on 51 E. Main Street in Champaign.

Jordan Kreie is a recent college graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in English. When he isn’t writing articles for the Arts section of Smile Politely, he is watching movies and writing film criticism. You can find him on twitter @jordankreie or read more of his work on his blog

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