Smile Politely

Tyehimba Jess brings his blend of poetry, history, and slam to town

It’s not every day that I wait at my desk for a call from a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. The chance to talk with Tyehimba Jess ahead of his virtual residency at the University of Illinois was likely the brightest of bright spots in my pandemic work life. And yes, I was nervous, and why shouldn’t I be? Jess’ resume is seriously impressive. 

BA from the University of Chicago and his MFA from New York University. Author of leadbelly and Olio, which earned the previously mentioned Pulitzer. Chosen for the National Poetry Series by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and was voted one of the top three poetry books of the year by Black Issues Book Review. A two-time member of the Chicago Green Mill Slam team, Jess was also Chicago’s Poetry Ambassador to Accra, Ghana. Recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award. A former artist-in-residence with Cave Canem, Jess has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown, as well as a Lannan Writing Residency.

His essays about poetry include have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Soulfires: Young Black Men in Love and Violence (1996), Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry (2000), and Dark Matter 2: Reading the Bones (2004). He is also the author of African American Pride: Celebrating Our Achievements, Contributions, and Enduring Legacy (2003).

In a review for leadbelly, “an exploration of the blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s life,” a reviewer for Publishers Weekly observed that “the collection’s strength lies in its contradictory forms; from biography to lyric to hard-driving prose poem, boast to song, all are soaked in the rhythm and dialect of Southern Blues and the demands of honoring one’s talent.”

We spoke about the stress of the pandemic and the virtual classroom, his plans for his two-day virtual residency, and about poetry’s continuous evolution and the power of poetry in our communities. [And yes, I bragged a little about the vibrancy of our local poetry scene, our fierce Poet Laureate, Ashanti Files and the Writers of Oya. And this time, he was impressed).  I sought wisdom on craft and what I received will make me a better writer. And while his stay in Urbana, where he once taught, will be brief and virtual, his impact will, no doubt, be deep.

Smile Politely: Welcome back to Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois, so to speak. We’re so excited to have you here. What are your goals for your poet-in-residence experience? These brief residences are a rare opportunity, since they’re constructed not only for the university, but are open to the arts community as well. What are your goals for the events? What do you have in store for students and and local poets?

Tyehimba Jess: Well, I wish I could be there in person to walk the streets of Urbana once again, but I’m glad to be coming through virtually. I supposed to happen last year. I think this is supposed to happen last year. But it crashed and burned [due to the pandemic]. But essentially, what I’m going to be doing is talking about poetry and talking about the mix of it. Music, tradition and poetry, and talking about the craft of poetry, meeting with various classrooms and reading poems and meeting with students and really exploring. The world of poetry and how it intersects with history, music, present day and our current political issues, all of that.

SP: Your work represents a powerful intersection of music, new poetic forms, culture, and history. For me, your work, which is both inspired by music and inhabited by it, feels almost interdisciplinary. How did that start? What inspired the interplay between the two?

Jess: Well, for me, it started with a poet in Chicago named Sterling Plumpp, who I took a class with at University of Illinois, Chicago, who introduced me. I was already moving to Chicago. You know, Chicago’s a kind of a Blues city. It’s in the bloodline of the railroad track. Lots of Blues coming from the Deep South. And the Blues moved up to Chicago. They got electrified and took on a whole ‘nother kind of persona. And I was lucky enough to see so many musicians up close and and get entranced with the Blues and also to take a class with him where he was able to connect the political and the Blues sensibility together in his work. And he kinda just opened my eyes in the sense of understanding the Black poetic tradition and its connection to music. And so that is how I got started, understanding the essential nature of the Music capital M and the Word capital W. 

SP: Have you been teaching during this time? What’s that’s been like for you and your students? 

Jess: Well, I have been teaching I’ve been to continuing my teaching duties at CSI (The College of Staten Island). I mean, there are a lot of stresses. Yeah, they’re all my classes have been remote. The interface called Blackboard. You know, I think it’s a time when, because of the tremendous amount of change and stress that we have been seeing in multiple areas, no absolute time when one has to shift one’s pedagogy in order to fit the times, in order to fit the interface. So, yes, that’s true. Yeah, that’s definitely been my experience. So, you know, I think the thing about a college poetry class, so to speak, is that it’s an opportunity. What I tell my students is that the textbook is themselves one of the few classes where the textbook is really themselves. Their personal experiences, their observations and their challenges is to do the best by those experiences, in their articulation of that experience onto the page and into the air. So it’s been it’s been a very, very interesting experience.

SP:  That’s one of the most powerful descriptions of a writing class, I’m going to hold on to that next time I sit down to write. Thank you.  As a poet and teacher of poetry, you walk between both worlds in the Academy and the live poetry slam stage, and that tension could be full of opportunity.

Do you think that poetry is moving away from the academy? Especially with the economic divide at work. What are do you see happening? Is it democratizing poetry or not?  

Jess: Well, you know, I would say that. One thing that slam did was it provided a kind of structure for spoken word. A subdivision of spoken word, right? And it was is a competitive atmosphere in it brought it brought poetry into a recreational space for four people. And it really kind of. Brought torture in some ways back to the people. And so I’m thinking about a combination between the efforts of Marc Smith, who started the poetry slam scene, who actually wrote a book called Poetry for the People, and was it was doing exactly that kind of communal exercises. And I think that that’s one thing that that the that this manifestation of poetry really in the oral sense. In readings and the realities of poetry, has really been able to make poetry more accessible and more understandable for a lot of people. And also there’s a lot of poets that have drifted from the slam stage to the academic podium, so to speak. So there’s a lot of poets have come out of there like myself. I think that the reality of American poetry has rediscovered itself in the academic space. Due to the kind of elevation that slam was able to give it.

SP: Thank you for laying out such a clear picture of what brought us to this current moment in poetry history. I wasn’t aware that people were coming as many people were coming from the slam scene. That kind of collaboration is really significant.  

Jess:  Oh, yeah. Yes, I I think that what I will tell my students is this. If they win, they are reading their poems out loud to an audience. Publishing it in the air. And publish it on a piece of paper, or they can or they can publish it on the twenty dollar broadside and it’s up to their delivery to, you know, to make that difference.

SP: Yes, and now we’re all experiencing each other’s work and worlds through technology. That gives us a whole new platform and more access. 

Jess: Yes. 

SP: What inspires you in your work, in your teaching?

Jess:  One is the idea of exploding the myths of poetry that it belongs in the past to people who are no longer exist and may have been dead for two or three hundred years ago. Yes, another one would be the idea that there are a couple of classes of people and of students, and one of them are people that know they’re going to be poets and are extremely interested in. There’s other people with where they kind of they get infected a little with the poetry bug along the way. And they and they discover something that that catches the mind just in a particular way. And then they kind of find their way through that whole thing. That’s it. Into a deeper understanding of poetry. The next thing you know, they’re running around writing verses. And so that, I think, is where what what interests me in terms of writing. I’m still still interested in the many, many stories of of history that have been, particularly as it relates to black folks that have been lost in and obfuscated and deleted over this over the decades.

SP: Since you inhabit both roles, poet and and teacher, what’s your favorite piece of advice to give young and emerging poets?

Jess: Well, I would say there’s a couple of pieces of advice. Read, yes, other posts and try to dig what other people around you dig. And if you don’t dig it, then try to understand why you don’t. Don’t give up and revise, revise, revise, and have a decent understanding of American history or of the history of the country you’re living in and the country that your people came from.

SP: So what’s up next for you? 

Jess: Well, I’m writing some essays and I’m also trying to write on some more poems that address that late 19th, early 20th century history, which I think is rich for much education that has not really taken place. So that’s that’s where I’m at right now.

SP: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? 

Jess: The one thing I would share [is the importance of an] understanding of history. I think that I would put forth a hypothesis that the best way to have an understanding of history and bring that understanding into their world. To have an understanding that, doesn’t have to be that overtly addressed history, so to speak, but is but is couched in an understanding of one’s historical context. And if you don’t understand the historical context. Then you really don’t understand what’s going on around you and how it happened, and that is fuel for a kind of bedrock to you or to your to your work.

It seems only right to conclude this interview with an excerpt from Jess’ work. In terms of form, it is a riff on the interview. But at its thematic core, it illustrates the power of music and history.

An accomplished ragtime pianist himself, Sam Patterson was quite close to Joplin throughout his Missouri days and on until his death in 1917. I interviewed Mr. Patterson in Manhattan at the Harlem YMCA, during one of his travels to New York.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Patterson. I understand you were rather close to Mr. Joplin.

Yes, you could say that. Knocked around together for years. But I am curious . . . what is it got you so bent on knowing Joplin’s story?

Well sir, his tunes . . . they have given me great comfort in times of need. They saved me in times voracious grief. They help me remember who I am. Where I’m from. Who I was.

Yes. The music will do that—take pain and pour it someplace else for a while.

Tyehimba Jess, “Sam Patterson, Harlem, NY: Dec. 12, 1924” from OLIO.  Copyright © 2016 by Tyehimba Jess.  Reprinted by permission of the author and Wave Books. Quoted from

Tyehimba Jess’s virtual residence is a part of the A Year of Creative Writers initiative and is presented by Humanities Research Institute and the Department of English/Creative Writing Program (U of I), Cosponsored by the Institute for the Humanities (UIC), UIC Program for Writers, UIS Creative Writing, The Champaign Public Library, The Urbana Free Library, Illinois Public Radio, and the Illini Union Bookstore.

Poet in Residence Tyehimba Jess
Presented as part of the Humanities Research Institute at Illinois’ A Year of Creative Writers
April 7th, Craft Talk, 4:30 p.m., free, online and open to the public
April 8th, Poetry Reading, 7 p.m., free, online and open to the public
Learn more or register here.

Top photo by John Migley.  

Arts Editor

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