Music, Literature, and the Struggle of Consciousness

A Conversation with Tyehimba Jess about poetry, the past, and the process of writing about history

Tyehimba Jess is the author of Leadbelly and OlioLeadbelly was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.” Olio, published in 2016, has been called "Encyclopedic, ingenious, and abundant..." by Publisher's Weekly's starred review, and was selected as one of the  five best poetry books of 2016. Library Journal calls Olio a "daring collection, which blends forthright, musically acute language with portraiture.

On April 14, 2016, poet Tyehimba Jess visited the Writing House (just after winning the Pulitzer!) to give a master class and reading for Interlochen creative writing students. During his visit, Interlochen Review editors Olivia Algier and Annalise Lozier, along with Miracle Thornton and Allegra Negro, sat down with him to discuss his award-winning book of poetry, Olio, the history of African American literature, finding one’s audience, and publishing a book of poetry.

Annalise Lozier: And today we are interviewing poet and author Tyehimba Jess. And, so, our first question for you is: how do you feel after winning the Pulitzer prize for poetry? And how has it changed the way you view yourself as an artist?

Tyehimba Jess: Uh, wow. So, I guess it’s been roughly somewhere around ninety hours since I found out, and, uh, still in shock, to a certain degree, still adjusting to that reality. I think the unique thing about it was that I was in Chicago, and I knew Gwendolyn Brooks, I got to meet her, personally, and this is the hundredth anniversary of her birth, 2017, so I felt a kind of kinship in that particular way. I felt very honored to be on a list that has her name on it, as well as several other folks that I’ve been keen about: one of my major influences, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Natasha Tretheway and Rita Dove, Greg Pardlo and Tracy K. Smith, all these folks, they really—you know, I feel like it’s a real adjustment being a part of the history of American literature in this particular way. I never really had any presumptions to this, so, I’m getting used to it.

As far as changing my perspective, I think the only thing it’s done is made me—well, it’s made me feel like I need to keep the heat up and try and live up to it. That’s where I’m at right now.

Miracle Thornton: Alright. Who do you consider to be the audience for your work? Does your work need to be viewed through a specific lens? How attainable do you want your book to be? Do you consider accessibility important?

TJ: Okay, that’s four questions. The audience?

MT: Yes.

TJ: You know, I’ll just go into that a little bit, picking that apart. I used to write, or think I wrote, specifically for black people, and—thank you—the thing about that, is anyone can pick something up and read it, so, I kind of adjusted my idea to thinking about, that I’m writing for, you know, the world, and for truth, and that’s true too. But I’m also writing for my own self-edification, and to have achieved the act of capturing something in writing. It’s edifying to me. So, I write for everyone, but I write specifically for myself to write the thing that I want to see in the world. That’s kind of stealing the idea or adhering to the idea, I think Toni Morrison said, you know, you need to write the book that you want to see in the world. As far as, uh, what was the rest of those questions?

MT: How attainable do you want your book to be, or do you feel like your book is?

TJ: You know, I think that’s a real question for poetry in particular. You know, I try to write with trying to create in the vein of experimentation, but also with an ear and an eye towards those that do not like, really like poetry. And I think that’s because I have been witness to poetry or poetry occasions where I felt like unengaged or alienated, or uninvited to the work, and I don’t want to pander—there’s a difference between pandering to one’s audience and approaching an audience where you think they are, where you understand they are, and also having a kind of, trying to have some integrity in terms of the language and diction that you use, and I try to do all of that to appeal both to people who really dig poetry, and also to people who are really not that into poetry. Most people, when you say the word poetry, they tend to start to fall asleep. And I want to kind of move them beyond that.

Allegra Negro: Cool. How do you think your book is interacting with the past and the present views of social and racial movements?

TJ: Well, it deals specifically with the past, but when you are dealing with the past you are always looking at the past before that past, the present, and the future, so you’re talking about causality, and you’re talking about the idea that what happened in the past, and I think Mark Twain may have said this, “history, if it doesn’t repeat itself, it often rhymes with itself.” So I am talking about folks, nineteenth century African Americans generation, the last generation of slavery, and the couple generations past the emancipation, and what I’m doing is I’m looking at the construction of the minstrel show, and how it shaped and framed their creative output, and how they tried to wrestle with that framing in various ways. I think that’s still true today, is that the minstrel show was the primary form of American entertainment throughout the nineteenth century, which means it’s deeply embedded in the DNA of the formation of this country, and we still see remnants of it, or manifestations of it, today. And in that way it speaks toward the past but it also speaks toward the present. And I think that is one of the values of having some understanding of the history of the country or the region that you live in or that you are from, because you start to understand the rationale or the reasons behind things that are happening around you currently. It gives you a framework to understand the causality behind all those things.

Olivia Alger: Awesome. So how did you come across the people in this book, and what compelled you to write about them? Do you feel responsibility to these people in encompassing their voices—in particular, Millie and Christine? How did you manage to differentiate their voices while simultaneously bringing them together?

TJ: Okay, let me back that up. The first question was how did I find these folks? That was through a lot of reading, a lot of research. There’s a bibliography in the back of the book. I don’t know how many books are in it but I read all those books and many more in order to try and get an understanding of the historical context of each of the people involved, and their timelines. That was the main reason behind the construction of the timeline, which is that without the timeline, the reader’s a little bit lost, as to when did this happen, when did that happen, it just becomes a kind of a haze. With the timeline, it really adds a historical narrative that I can’t immediately interject. So there’s a lot of research that went into each one of the historical characters. I do feel, because African American history has been misconstrued, hidden, obscured, obfuscated, erased, manipulated, hidden in so many ways, that it is important to me to come as close as I could to a factual understanding of what happened in each of the characters lives and to try and work from that understanding to create a persona that could address the different trials and tribulations and triumphs of their lives. So I feel a great responsibility towards—when I’m writing them, about them, in a way I feel like I am in a kind of communication with them, or communication with their memories, and I want to do that memory some degree of honor, the best that I can do, and merely one of the ways to do that is to know what the hell went on in their lives, and what didn’t happen in their lives. Hence you have the intense study of historical research and then you also get to a point where you have to leave that research behind and enter into some way to engage their person or their voice.

As far as getting the voices distinct between Millie and Christine, Millie and Christine McCoy, that is a very difficult question, because they were conjoined, so part of the question becomes—they were different women, at the same time, they were always where the other person was, and they always had a perspective on what was going on in the other person’s life, and the question becomes, well, how, when you’re talking about the events that happened in their lives, for instance, they were kidnapped, they performed in freak shows, they were subjected to this long history of inspection, over and over again, when they were children, like toddlers, getting to those main events, which is what the poem does—I wanted to focus on those events particularly because they tend to feel more alike than apart, you see what I’m saying? In the construction of those syncopated sonnets, they are distinct, but they are also one. I did my best to convey that, given the parameters, given the constrictions of the form. Because there was all kinds of things to think about, like syllable count and the rhyme structure, and the historical facts, all that together.

AL: What did your research process look like—and you’ve already told us about this a bit—with wider historical context, as well as looking into the lives of specific people?

TJ: Yeah, I think that it’s important to point out two particular books in the bibliography. One is—they’re the first two that are mentioned—Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895; and Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. Those are two books that provided kind of a big picture in a very vivid way. They’re like coffee table books. They have actual illustrations from back in the day and articles, etc etc, and they just weave them together. Some of the other ones, like Edward Berlin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era; Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom was critical. I think it involved understanding or trying my best to understand each of the lives through their own biographies, but also to try and understand, like, for instance, the minstrel show was not—how should I say this—was so commonplace that that kind of denigration and degradation was so commonplace that it was not considered uncommon, it was expected, and it filtered through to every layer of American life. But at the same time, you’re talking about a population that was so utterly creative, and transformed American, no, really built American music, with that intellectual property of American music. I guess I’m saying that—I’m forgetting what your question was. What was it again?

AL: It was just “what did your research process look like?”

TJ: Oh, is that what the question was? Is that was we ended up all over here? But yeah, the question was about getting things in context, right? And I think that it was important to read all these things and take them all together in order to get some kind of overall context. There’s all kinds of stuff that I couldn’t—that period, I’ll have to say, Civil War to World War I, was really the time when America was gearing up to be a superpower. So World War I was basically that’s it, that’s the lock, right there, but up until that time, you’re seeing the Industrial Revolution, you’re seeing the Spanish-American War, you’re seeing migrations of African Americans, you’re seeing unleashing of a labor force that for the first time is able to determine how they will entertain themselves, what instruments they will actually play. They will be able to pursue artistic interests of their own volition, and make a profit off it, for the first time in the history of that race in this country. And I think that all kinds of other questions come up, how am I going to do this, what am I going to do this this instrument, how am I going to take it and really re-mold it so that it carries my particular voice and energy, and the energy of my people? That was a roundabout way to answer a lot of your question.

MT: So, it seems to be within the novel, there’s—the interviews are placed in chronological order, and I guess the question is how did you acquire these interviews, and so—  

TJ: I wrote them. I wrote them. I made them up.

OA: What?


MT: That’s so cool!

TJ: Yeah, I wrote them. But I wrote them—I will say this: many of the historical details are accurate. Many, many, many of them are accurate. The only one that’s wildly inaccurate is the fictional character, the person who actually performed the interview. And I’ll say, I’ll say—who are the interviews? Let me look who they are. Okay, Julius Monroe Trotter did not exist. However, W.E.B. Dubois did exist—he was the editor of the Crisis magazine, and the Crisis magazine is still being published today. Leadbelly Jenkins did not exist, but he did die in the Manhattan state mental hospital, I can’t remember the name of it, off the top of my head, but he did die in a mental hospital, because of syphilis. Who else...Sam Patterson did exist, and he was a very good friend of Scott Joplin. He had a very interesting history, very accomplished piano player himself, etc, but that interview was pretty much constructed. He did know him towards the end of his life. Blind Boone did exist. All the events in that interview—well I’ll say not all, but the train crash happened, the story happened—I don’t know to what degree they met but they were friends. His wife, she did exist. The brothel did not exist, but he and his wife did own a building, and there was a what one might call a house of ill repute, to some degree. So, it’s like historical fiction.

MT: I guess my question would be then, how did you go about constructing these interviews?

TJ: I wanted to find—well, I guess they pretty much started with the idea of what was Scott Joplin like, particularly towards the end of his life. And really kind of a question of—they say his playing was impaired because of the constrictions of syphilis itself, but what if he was not impaired, but he was able to construct music that we would be familiar with jazz-wise today, but would sound more like noise in 1915, do you know what I’m saying? So I wanted to have a kind of avenue for him, or a dream for him, to accomplish beyond his physical abilities, and to be able to see somewhat into the future. The guy, Julius Monroe Trotter, is really based off of two people in the Trotter family, really the first one—I think his name was James Monroe Trotter—and he wrote one of the books that’s in the bibliography. You’ll see in the bibliography, he wrote Music and Some Highly Musical People. Now that was the really—it was considered one of the first if not the first ethnomusicological studies done in this country. It’s a book full of African American musicians, from the nineteenth century. Amazing guy, James Trotter, who was an ex-slave, who had a position of some repute and power under the Booker T. Washington regime, so to speak. He was a very esteemed person, and he had a son, who was an activist in Boston—I think his name was William Trotter. But anyway, I constructed him because he’s involved in ethnomusicological research, he’s studying, in a way, he’s studying the history of Scott Joplin, because he’s obsessed. He has this obsession, that springs to a certain degree from his mother and also the kind of destruction of his identity, his self. His face is gone. In a way he’s trying to find himself, by tracing the history of Scott. I don’t know if that answers your question.

MT: No, it did.

TJ: They were all made, and then at the very end, I have that note—I wrote a note about where the interviews came from. I really wanted to get the audience to think that the interviews were real, as close as I could get them.

AN: Stylistically, what went into the format of the book, and how do you see the illustrations and the music notes interacting with the text?

TJ: I just got off the phone with the publisher, and probably the hardest thing was the foldouts that tear out of the book. That was a hurdle, but not undoable, so they did it. Also, I think the illustrations, done by Jessica Lane Brown, out of St. Louis, that was a almost last-minute decision, that was one of the last things to happen in the book, but when I saw her work, I felt that the reader needed a place to rest and observe and come out of that thick blur of words that’s going on all over the place, in some cases, and be able to come back on an anchor and rooted visual depiction of the characters in the book. So, minimalist, didn’t need to be classically—didn’t have to look like classical portraits, so to speak. It served the energy of the book for them to be abstract, to leave some spaces for the reader to fill in, and also those line drawings and things. Their simplicity complements the complexity of the text, and they also provide places for the reader to just absorb. I don’t really think the book works as well without them, the drawings. I think one other thing connected to that is this press does not put illustrations on its covers. If you look at its catalog, they do not have illustrations on its covers. None of it. So that presented a bit of a challenge. They do have illustrations sometimes, inside, but generally they don’t do that. Another thing about this book is there’s no blurbs. They don’t believe in blurbs, which in a certain way is a relief on a number of different levels. One, blurbs are great, I write blurbs for people, but I think that to a certain degree they don’t necessarily sell anybody buying the book. They can, but they kinda don’t. And two, it relieves me of the pressure of having to ask a lot of people for blurbs. As far as the—talking about these types of book—the title, I designed this in order to create the idea of a face, looking out or singing into the public, but also to convey the idea of multidirectionality, being able to interpret the word from multiple directions, which introduces the reader to the concepts in the book.

OA: You touched on this briefly, I think, but, many of the people in this book have an attachment to music, so again, Millie and Christine, for example, but also, Scott Joplin and Blind Boone, so how did you intertwine music and language and how do you view the significance of that relationship? And then additionally, what is, for you, the connection between music and poetry?

TJ: Okay, that’s a lot, so let’s back that up. What was the first one?

OA: How did you intertwine music and language in this book?

TJ: I’ll say that you have to remember in African American literature that we were deprived the right of reading and writing for most of our history in this country. So, the song and the music became the literature. So, after emancipation, it’s impossible to really completely extract one from the other, because one was so instrumentally carrying so many stories for so long, for so many generations. It became impossible—not to mention the influence of the church, and spirituals and all that, and the cadence of the preacher, etc etc. Throughout all of African American literature, you see that thread over and over and over and over again, about the insistence of the music coming through the literature, in various and sundry ways. So I see them as inextricable. So that makes it easy to talk about the music. But another thing about music: music in any culture, in any nation, in any land, is going to be deeply tied to the struggle of, or the construction of the consciousness of that people. You don’t really think about it, to some degree, but the music you’re listening to now is the soundtrack of our country right now. And it reflects all kinds of issues that are happening, this and that, around. Everything from race to gender to class, etc. Our musicians start to embody, in a way, and they become an aural record of what’s happening in the country at a particular time. And when you trace the history of the musicians, you start to see all the crazy stuff they went through. Then, it becomes a whole different kind of exercise because you’re seeing—it’s like you’re in a sausage factory, and you’re seeing how the sausage is made, to make a very bad allegory. You’re seeing the emotional content and the cause and effect behind everything that’s created—Scott Joplin, Leadbelly, or Blind Boone, etc etc etc. So the thing about that is that generally, everybody listens to music, and generally—I don’t know as much about hip hop past a certain point because I just couldn’t do it. Some cats I like, I like Chance right now, I’m digging Chance, but for the most part I can’t do it anymore. But when you explore those histories you start to see all kinds of stories that are central to—like, for instance, your musical hero, whoever he or she may be, tends to carry part of your story, you identify with that person, because they’re doing something that you want to do. We tend to really identify with folks who are engaged in that struggle for that kind of self expression, and identify with it. I think that that’s part of the psychology behind researching these musical personas, like Scott Joplin. I think that he was a bit of a purist, in a kind of way. He was really really interested in being a real composer, and taking the art of ragtime and magnifying it as much as he possibly could. It became part of his life’s mission. Even when he was raggedy, it was still at the heart of his mission. There’s something to really be respected about that integrity. So I meandered around that question.