Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess had a reading and discussion Sept. 18 at St. Joseph Catholic High School and visited Weber State University on Sept. 19.
Jess has two published books of poetry. “Leadbelly” was published in 2005 and “Olio” was published in 2016.
“Olio” includes themes of music, history and culture. The book discusses marginalized groups and addresses the topic of racism. To write his poetry, Jess learned about African Americans in history and uses his platform to illuminate their struggles.
“What we have in ‘Olio’ is African American creators who were busy trying to forge lives for themselves,” Jess said.
Poetry instructor Laura Stott assigned “Olio” to her students this semester. Stott explained how valuable it was to meet with authors when she was in college and said she wanted to create the same experiences for her students.
“It’s such an amazing opportunity for students to get to meet and speak with an author that they’re reading,” Stott said. “Especially somebody who is doing so much in the poetry conversation today.”
In Stott’s classroom, she leads conversations about cultural appropriation, structure and form. She uses these as a framework from which students can develop their poetry and voice.
Destinie Comeau, a student in Stott’s poetry course, explained how Jess’s work is something she has never seen before.
“He takes personal poems and mixes them in a way that can be read in about five different ways,” Comeau said.
Beyond Jess’ style with words, he’s also developed a unique talent for how he presents his poems and how readers can interpret them.
“Bert Williams/George Walker Paradox” is a poem structured with lines of poetry down the left and right sides of the page, with separate stanzas down the center separating them.
Jess explained his poems can be read like a conversation, where you read down each side, or it can be read straight across. You can read the left side, drop down a line to the center and then jump up back to the first line to end with the right side.
“It’s mathematical,” said graduate student Sherilyn Olsen. “It’s lyrical, and it just inspires me to try different forms with my own work.”
This combination of form and culture met when Jess held up a copy of his book and ripped out a page of his own work.
Jess rounded the page into a cylinder and read the poem differently when it was folded, showing students their work doesn’t need to be linear. They can take risks and reach the limits of their creativity.
“Now you’re no longer dealing with a two-dimensional representation,” Jess said. “You can turn it into a three-dimensional framework. Just like how our friends were trying to go from a two-dimensional caricature into a three-dimensional reality.”
Jess then compared his work to the ‘Say Their Name’ campaign from the Black Lives Matter movement.
His book contains a list of the 148 black churches that have been burned down in American history with each name placed at the top of sonnets throughout the book. Jess thought he completed the list complete in May of 2015. One month later, there was the shooting at the Emmanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston.
The Emmanuel AME church was originally at the top of Jess’ list, having been burned down in 1822. The church was rebuilt after the Civil War. After the shooting, Jess included the name of the church again at the end of the list.