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Tyehimba Jess

Olio

Wave Books

2017 Poetry

Olio
Tyehimba Jess grew up in Detroit, the son of a nurse educator and a director of laboratories for the city public health department. He thanks both Della Mae McGraw and Jesse F. Goodwin on the final page of his groundbreaking Olio “for giving me the start to be able to finish this book.”

It didn’t come easily. After the auspicious 2005 debut of leadbelly, a biography in poems of the legendary blues guitarist Huddie Ledbetter, it took Jess many years in “a long series of stagger and stumble and getting up off the ground again” to write and construct his ingenious Olio.

Jess graduated from the University of Chicago and New York University. He is an alumni of Chicago’s Green Mill Slam Team. He defines his title on the first page:

Olio \ o-le-,o\
a: a miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements; hodgepodge
b: a miscellaneous collection (as of literary or musical selections)
also: the second part of a minstrel show which featured a variety of performance acts and later evolved into vaudeville.

The book, observes the Oxford American, “rests in the hand like a thick catalog of sheet music.” It reclaims and reimagines the narratives of 12 black American performers or acts stretching from the Civil War-era until World War I. The work excavates work songs, blues, history and hymn. So the Fisk Jubilee Singers are memorialized, braided through a running chronology of black churches burned down. Sonnets sit with letters; photographs mix with centerfold-style foldout poems.

Former Poet Laureate Rita Dove, an Anisfield-Wolf juror, declared herself wowed: “This roller-coaster mélange of poetry, anecdote, songs, interviews and transcripts is thoroughly entertaining yet requires every ounce of your concentration as he doubles back, bolts ahead or code-switches his way through the briar patch.”

Questions of authored performance command Olio. Orator Henry “Box” Brown takes back his narrative—a man who mailed himself out of slavery in a box to Philadelphia—from the minstrelsy canonized in John Berryman’s “Dream Songs.” And Jess awes readers with Sissieretta Jones, billed as “Black Patti,” who sang at Carnegie Hall in 1902 and delivers here an exquisite anthem that Jess calls “O patria mia.”

“To be able to sing under that kind of oppression,” Jess told Adam Fitzgerald of LitHub, “I think, in a lot of ways, is the very essence of survival, of a people, of the ability to have the hope to make something beautiful amongst so much wretchedness.”

Jess is a professor of English at College of Staten Island in New York.

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Blog Posts about Tyehimba Jess

Latest Inter|Urban Mural Celebrates Tyehimba Jess' "Olio"

Tyehimba Jess is a strikingly architectural poet. It makes sense that his 14-line poem, “Blind Tom Plays for Confederate Troops, 1863” inspired the new Anisfield-Wolf InterIUrban mural from the artist Mike Perry. The new work braids along the right angle of two walls at Ford Drive and Hessler Road in Cleveland, Perry’s first project in this city. He created the 2015 wraparound mural at the Facebook offices in New York City and is probably best known for his colorful animation on “Broad City,” the Comedy Central series. ... Read More →

Cleveland Book Week Highlights: Tyehimba Jess At Karamu House For A Poetry "Clapback"

Tyehimba Jess came home to Karamu House to lift up “Olio,” his magnificently engineered collection of poems that explore black voices in the decades from Civil War times to the start of World War I. Many of the poems can be read from back to front, at a slant and via every other line, in a welter of sense-making and sensibility. A sold-out crowd flocked to the historic theater during Cleveland Book Week to hear Jess showcase the historic voices that flow through every page of "Olio,"  which won both an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a... Read More →

That's A Wrap! Cleveland Book Week 2017, From Cover To Cover

From left to right: Cleveland Foundation President Ronn Richard, Peter Ho Davies, Tyehimba Jess, Isabel Allende, Ansfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove, Margot Lee Shetterly, Karan Mahajan, Anisfield-Wolf Jury chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. Photo by Robert Muller. Last week we celebrated Cleveland Book Week, a series of book and literacy-themed events surrounding the 82nd annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. From September 5-9, community events across Greater Cleveland honored this year’s Anisfield-Wolf winners and celebrated all things literary in our... Read More →

REVIEW: Tyehimba Jess' "Olio" Puts Him In A Genre Of His Own

by Charles Ellenbogen Every once in a while, someone comes along – think Garrison Keillor, Richard Pryor, Spalding Gray – who defies any of our conventional notions of genre, so something has to be invented for them. Meet the newest member of the group – Tyehimba Jess. Jess, who this spring won both an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a Pulitzer for poetry, has definitely written a book that contains pieces that seem like poetry, but even that term, as expansive as it is, seems limiting here. This book also contains artwork, posters... Read More →

Introducing Our Class Of 2017

The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of its 82nd Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2017 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are: • Isabel Allende, Lifetime Achievement • Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes, Fiction • Tyehimba Jess, Olio, Poetry • Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs, Fiction • Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures, Nonfiction “The new Anisfield-Wolf winners broaden our insights on race and diversity,” said... Read More →
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