Laura Swearingen-Steadwell with Tyehimba Jess

Tyehimba Jess
Tyehimba Jess

This is the first installment of “Composing the World,” an ongoing series of conversations with authors whose work has broken significant ground in literary communities, opening doors for their peers and the writers who’ve followed them.—Laura Swearingen-Steadwell

Laura Swearingen-Steadwell: What is it about persona that pulls you in so much? Most of your body of work is from other people’s perspectives.

Tyehimba Jess: The first-person narrative is a really effective way to engage a reader. And I think for me it’s a challenge to understand where a person is coming from. It’s a challenge in that you don’t see the character from the outside, you only see the character from the inside. There are a lot of limitations about that. You’re in that person’s head, so to speak.

LSS: Limitations? For historical accuracy?

TJ: Well, the person doesn’t see himself from another person’s perspective. It’s hard to say things about that speaker unless you get out of that speaker—unless you devise some way to do that.

LSS: In leadbelly, you have a main speaker, then other characters come in and offer their perspectives.

TJ: I have to do that in order to get another angle on what’s going on, so I did that in leadbelly; I do that to a certain degree in this project I’m working on. I guess I’ve latched onto persona because I see it as a challenge. I see it as the most effective way for someone to get engaged in a story.

LSS: How do you know whom you’re going to write about? Because you do undertake these serious commitments to single characters for the most part. When you talk about Scott Joplin’s life—is that what you’re working on right now?

TJ: Actually, with Scott Joplin, everything about him is third-person. Those are short stories. They’re interviews. But with every character your writing involves a commitment to trying to figure out as much as you can about that person, researching that person. I do that as much as I can. In some cases, there’s more information than in others.

But deciding who to write about? Depends on how interesting I think they are, frankly. What are the conflicts in their lives, and how did they deal with those conflicts? All of the people I’m dealing with had pretty huge obstacles, or pretty huge issues to deal with in terms of fulfilling their lives. And some of them were more successful than others. Some stories are more tragic, some stories are more uplifting, but in the process of talking about all these people, what I like is the idea of exploring the depths and the heights. So I choose people who just have fascinating lives.

Every one of the people that I’m interested in lived in very interesting times. Many of them lived to see through the Civil War, and they saw through the period of Reconstruction, up until the turn of the twentieth century, and…that was a very interesting time.

When we think about African-American music, we tend to think of the music that has been recorded. Almost none of the people I’m writing about were ever recorded. So what does that mean? What were they doing? How did they work? How did they make a living? What were the issues they had to deal with? How similar were they to the issues that musicians and artists in the twentieth century had to deal with? So that’s what’s interesting to me.

LSS: I’ve seen you perform poetry with a harmonica. And you used to work as a DJ in Chicago?

TJ: Yeah, WHPK FM 88.5.

LSS: To what extent is your work ars poetica? How strongly do you associate yourself with the musicians you write about?

TJ: I see myself in their continuum, as someone who is interested in the flow of that reverie, and is interested in going back to the headwaters of that river and trying to figure out how that river is flowing. What are the eddies, what are the currents? And these currents that started X amount of years ago, how are they relevant to the streams that we see ourselves in now?

One of the best things I did was be a DJ at WHPK: They had a 7,000-record jazz collection. I was broke, I didn’t have much way of getting jazz records at the time, and I really didn’t know very much about jazz when I started.

But I knew that the jazz musicians had the pulse, that they were connected in a different way. So I was fascinated with the idea that they were so—they were so hip! They carried the story in music. They were reinventing the story, and analyzing it, and working with traditions that had been passed down generation upon generation. In the same way that literary traditions are passed down. So they were very intriguing to me, especially the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), all those cats.

So I think that working there was an informal education for me, and it helped me understand how the river flows a little bit. It was my first introduction into seeing all of the connections between all of the musics—blues and jazz and R&B on the scene, how they all connect. It helped me understand why Baraka would refer to it as capital “T” capital “M,” The Music.

LSS: I’m glad you brought up Amiri Baraka. You’ve been around longer than I have, and you have a different set of voices and a different set of peers than I do. I’m curious about what black poetry was like, say, 20 years ago, versus what it is now. I mean, Baraka is not someone I would consider to be one of my primary influences. I think about the Black Arts Movement as being one step too far away from me. Could you speak to how things were when you were coming up? And how you think things have changed?

TJ: There were nowhere near as many black books of poetry being published. Nowhere even close. There might have been five or six in a good year in the early 1990s, early 1980s. I guess my introduction deeper into black poetry came at a time when this explosion into spoken word happened in the early 1990s.

LSS: You were on the Green Mill slam team in Chicago.

TJ: Yeah, I was on the Green Mill team, but that was actually in 2000-2001. In the early 1990s, I would go to these open mics at Spices Lounge. It was the place that that movie Love Jones had been based off of. The director of Love Jones used to go to this joint, and we’d all be up there, doing our thing. Regie Gibson was the author of the poems in that movie. He would do them better than Larenz Tate, by far.

There was one critical person that would help me out—Sterling Plumpp—who took me for a class in ’90 or ’91, called “The Black Aesthetic.” He helped make that connection between blues and literature. He’s one of the most underestimated poets. His body of work influenced me tremendously, because he writes about black musicians that are contemporary. And I write about black musicians that are mostly dead. [Laughs] But I had never seen somebody write like that before. He introduced me to Larry Neal, and kind of gave me a road map into the Black Arts Movement, and served as a translator for me. So he was my connection to that.

You know, I was born in 1965, so I missed all of that. But if you were rolling up at that time, I don’t know if you could not be influenced by Amiri or June Jordan or Nikki Giovanni or Sonia Sanchez. They were primary influences, because they were some of the primary voices coming out of the Black Arts Movement.

The Black Arts Movement was connected in form and function to the Black Power Movement. The two are not really divisible. When you’re talking about the relevance or the currency that came out of the Black Arts Movement, you’re always, to a certain degree, talking about the poets. I was always very interested in those movements, such as the Black Panther Party, and the history after Martin Luther King’s death.

LSS: Was this mostly in Chicago? Because you were born in Detroit, right?

TJ: Yeah, I moved to Chicago in ’84. Man, that was 30 years ago. [Laughs] And I became interested in what happened to the Civil Rights Movement, and who were the people that took up after it. In a similar way to what happened to black music after Coltrane.

History often isn’t formally written until about 20 years after it happens. So at that time, a lot of the stuff that I was looking for from the ’60s, people were just starting to recollect on it, to see it in a different perspective. It’s one thing to be in the moment of time and to analyze it as such, and it’s another to look back 10, 15, 20 years from then and say, “These were the things that were happening and here are the reasons why.” And there was a lot of movement happening. Baraka was a critical part of it. Frankly, you can’t talk about black poetry in the twentieth century without having his name come up—it’s just not going to happen. And Sonia Sanchez, and Lucille Clifton and others. Etheridge Knight.

Back in the day, the way I remember it, there were very few black poetry books being published yearly. I remember even in the late 1990s you’d be like, “Oh man, six whole poetry books got published!” And now? I would estimate it’s at least 15 or so. Maybe more. Not to mention the influence of the internet.

LS: I’m not trying to romanticize a time when there were fewer black poets being published, but I wonder whether there was more of a cohesive feel to the community of black writers.

TJ: No. It was much more lonely for black writers. Much more lonely. There were so many obstacles, so many deterrents, even from your own community, that quite a few people just said, “Fuck it. I can’t do this.” Back then, the only time you might connect with other authors was if you went to another city and chilled with them and met with them. Finding them was just much more difficult.

One of the big deals for Black Poetry in the late ’80s/early ’90s was the Dark Room collective. Dark Room had its impact. I only heard about them meeting. But the real big deal for me was Cave Canem. Dark Room was East Coast universities, relatively elite universities. But Cave Canem was the first time I was part of an extremely organized group of poets that were not beholden to any kind of political or aesthetic theory. That was a critical issue.

I consider CC a kind of manifestation of the Black Arts Movement, in that there’s the knowledge of the fact that black poets, black artists, need to work collectively in order to sharpen each other. That’s an idea that comes directly out of the Black Arts Movement. But it is not beholden to any political or aesthetic viewpoint. So that is a liberating thing.

And that was politically necessary, because there were a lot of fucked up things about the Black Arts Movement. The sexism, the homophobia… So Cave Canem is a beautiful, beautiful thing. That was what really contributed to the furious flowering of Black poetry we see today. That was what got people from many different corners of the United States and the entire world to have a place of their own to exercise this collective impulse and ask, “Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? What’s new?” That was a big deal.

You know, I think there are black poets coming up today that are not that much older than Cave Canem. [Laughs] So ever since they knew what black poetry was, potentially, there has always been a Cave Canem. That was not true before. If you wanted to hunt down some black authors, you’d have to go through a bookstore or reading and hunt them down. So if you met somebody who had read the same people, well, that really would have been a connection, because you would’ve been searching, [Laughs] and you had collectively been through that together.

So that is my experience, how I evolved. I don’t think there was more of a collective sense. I guess the closest thing that came to that would probably be the spoken word movement. When you talk about slam, which was started by an Irish construction worker, who didn’t realize that (and I have a lot of respect for Marc Smith)…

LSS: I do too.

TJ: I think he really deserves a MacArthur Grant for having developed this ingenious simple process to get tons of Americans re-interested in poetry. But I don’t think he expected the black vernacular, the black oral tradition to just sweep like a tidal wave into slam and run it the way it did. I mean, that’s our tradition, that’s what we do! We come from an oral tradition. Patricia Smith, Regie Gibson, Roger Bonair-Agard, I could go on, you know, was just wrecking shop. I think slam did provide a lot of black poets…it probably approximated the best sense of black poetry community. And at the same time collectives developed like CC, and now there’s Callaloo and The Watering Hole as well, and I’m probably missing some other ones.

LSS: Earlier, you were talking about issues in the Black Arts community. It made me think of the idea of black masculinity, or masculinity in general. Your subjects tend to be male, but you invest a lot of energy in the women that were around these male figures. Why are you drawn to that?

TJ: It’s really hard to write women, because clearly it’s not my experience, and it’s risky in a way, trying to be conscious of what are all the issues (the women I write are black) that black women have to work with. I try to deliver it in a responsible, sensitive way that, at the same time, doesn’t imagine women solely as victims or one-dimensional characters. I think it’s critical to make that effort. I guess this goes back to the idea of looking at one’s place in the historical flow. We’re all part of this tradition, we put our work out there, so I would like to be conscious of the ways in which black men have written about women, to try to write that in a way that adds something to that idea.

How many women are in my new manuscript? I think three? There’s three—really four. Because of the twins.

LSS: Twins?

TJ: I don’t want to say three and a half, but… [Laughs] I hope they would laugh at that joke. But there’s the McCoy twins, Sissiereta Jones and Edmonia Lewis, who nobody ever talks about. Also there’s a few women in the Fisk Jubilee singers. There are also women being interviewed in terms of Scott Joplin. I think it’s critical to try and involve them in our understanding of history, because otherwise it’s just not an accurate picture.

leadbelly was a scenario where Lead’s wife really wasn’t going to be in the manuscript at all, but she became such an important part of his story. Plus she had this really poetic name, “Martha Promise.” I started to understand more about her, and her role, and it made his story much more human.

LSS: Was she what opened the door for you?

TJ: Definitely. She definitely helped me understand more about Lead. I would not really understand Lead without her, I don’t think.

LSS: Could you talk a bit more about the book that’s coming out?

TJ: Yeah, it’s called Olio. “Olio” is the middle part of a minstrel show, and it means “a medley.” It was the acrobats, the singers, the actors, the comedians. Later on it evolved into vaudeville. So what I have is a selection of different artists: the Fisk Jubilee singers, Scott Joplin, Sissiereta Jones, Edmonia Lewis (the sculptor), Henry Box Brown, Bert Williams & George Walker, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Booker T. Washington. There’s Blind Boon and Blind Tom. And they all have something to say, in some way, shape or form. So really it ranges. Henry Box Brown, that’s the earliest one, 1815. The latest one would probably be Williams & Walker—they were around 1878. And I have a fictional character, too.

It involves a lot of contrapuntal poems that urge towards double consciousness, with a stichomythic approach to understanding these people’s histories. And it’s been a hell of a ride. [Laughs] It’s been a hell of a ride trying to figure out what the manuscript was about and how the manuscript was going to work. I had no real clue what was going to happen and how it was going to work as a circuit.

LSS: In leadbelly, I noticed an evolution in your use of form. In the beginning of the book, you have a lot of prose poems, and a lot of linear poems. As the book progresses, you start using more contrapuntals and more invented forms. What does form mean to you?

TJ: leadbelly was going to be all in Leadbelly’s voice, period. Then I realized that was going to get boring, quick. So I had to bring in other people. All of Lead’s poems for the first two-thirds of the book are prose poems, these little blocks, because he thinks in that way. [Growls for emphasis] He has this raw lack of form. Then later on he has these breakthroughs. He starts to work with Lomax, and that forms a kind of argument between the two that generates and evolves with these contrapuntal poems. Then he finds other ways of expression.

I think that mirrors his discovering new dimensions of himself. I think it was also me trying to discover new dimensions of myself. Because Lead’s story is the story of a black male artist, and dealing with a certain amount of rage, and that would be me. [Laughs] But it’s also about using that energy to help oneself instead of hurt oneself. He learns to change his form, so to speak.

LSS: Now that you’re dealing with all these various voices as more main characters, sharing the stage, does that affect the way you use form as well?

TJ: Yeah, it does. It’s hard trying to figure out what form will serve each person maximally. What is the statement being made behind a form and the use of a form? And if I’m going to work within the form, to what degree am I being constricted by the form? The great thing about a form is it tells you where to begin and where to stop. But you have the rules of the form, and you have how you’re going to deal with the rules of the form: Is it going to rhyme? How much is it going to rhyme? If it’s a crown of sonnets, how similar are the connecting lines going to be? How much liberty are you going to take with that?

All those things become questions that are reflective upon the forms we have to deal with in everyday life. How are we going to work these rules? Are we going to bend the rules of the institutions we work in, the institutions we find ourselves matriculating from.

That’s what we all have to deal with. And that’s also what black people do. We have these received forms. Even instruments! Saxophones were not meant to be the way that they’re played in jazz. Harmonicas were not meant to be played in the way that they’re played. They were actually one of the first instruments to be electronically or electrically distorted; that was not the way they were meant to be dealt with. Guitar was not really meant to be played the way Jimi Hendrix played that thing. Record players were not meant to be used for hip hop music, but that’s what we do! I really want to strive towards that aspect of creativity in a black tradition. And I also want to celebrate our history in that way. So I discovered if you lean on a form and just have patience, if you’re consistent and just a little bit obsessive-compulsive, then it will break away, and something will happen. And that’s what I was trying to do with the contrapuntals in this book.

LSS: I want to ask a little bit about how place affects you. I remember awhile ago you were focused on writing about Detroit.

TJ: Honestly, that’s one of the most difficult subjects I’d ever have to write about. Because I have a lot of rage. [Laughs] About Detroit. And loss about it, when it has to do with my mother, who’s still there…

I think it’s difficult to talk about Detroit. It lost half its population. People left because, generally, they saw other opportunities elsewhere, and they did not see opportunity in Detroit. And when you’re talking about that, you’re talking about not experiencing your twenties, your thirties, your forties, in the city you grew up in. So when I see people in Chicago and New York, and they’ve been able to continue their lives in a really productive way—I’m not saying that doesn’t happen in Detroit, but it was much harder to do that, clearly, because the city lost half its population.

You know, when I was 18, I was like, “I’m gonna get the fuck out of here. Period. And there’s very little chance of me going back for any reason.” It was 1984, far enough into the crack wars to have the understanding that it was not going to get better anytime soon. So as a consequence, Chicago became the place that I grew up. I was born and raised in Detroit, but I grew up in Chicago. So I have a kind of understanding of Chicago that I do not really have with Detroit. It’s different, the place where you have your first drinks, and you’re first becoming a real adult, than the place where you were born and raised.

The thing with Detroit is that feeling of exile, or self-imposed exile, or really (a loaded political word) feeling like a refugee. A refugee from the economic catastrophe of a city slowly going bankrupt. I have an abiding respect for all the people who stayed and fought the good fight. Or who have returned to fight the good fight. It’s not something I could do. I just can’t find it in me to do that. And one does not want to speak ill, first off, of the place you were born in, and second of all, where people are ardently and seriously committed to making things better. So it’s a complicated situation.

Not to mention the racial issues involved in Detroit. Because it always has been Detroit versus the (white) suburbs, and now Detroit has become, in certain circles, a kind of a hipster password, where people see it as a free-for-all of good liberal intentions. On the other hand, it’s good to see investment in Detroit, I can’t deny that! But my mother’s house on the northwest side of Detroit, which she spent fifty years in, and is immaculate—basically, my sister’s car is worth more than my mother’s house at this point.

So seeing all these people flooding Detroit for the cheap property…it’s difficult to see that happening, to see my mother dealing with the way in which her beautifully kept house has depreciated so much. It’s worth essentially one-sixth of what it should be worth. What do you do with that? That’s a very complicated story. The most I can do is really hope that there will be some integrity left in the black population, that black folks will be able to hold onto something via property, which is really what we’re trying to do with my mother’s house.

New York is a whole different thing. The good thing about New York is it’s the cultural capital (still) of the country. No matter what people say about that. I know people get tired of New York and it’s too expensive, blah blah blah, but the fact of the matter is it still has that history and amazing energy, and probably for the foreseeable future, that’s the way it’s going to be. And the one thing about New York that’s different from both Detroit and Chicago is that New York understands fully that people come here for culture, and that culture is worth something.

The ironic thing about Chicago is it has such a rich literary tradition. But there are very very few MFA programs in the city of Chicago. The fact is that very few of those universities have invested in that literary tradition and allowed it to thrive through their institutions—I mean, there’s no reason why I should’ve had to come to New York to get into an MFA program of the quality that I had at NYU. There’s no real reason.

LSS: You were an undergrad at the University of Chicago. Did you study literature there?

TJ: No, I started off as an English major, but I ended up being a public policy major. I hated being an English major, because I wasn’t studying anything that I was really interested in, in my English classes. I wrote an English paper, I got a C-, rewrote it got a C, rewrote it got a C+. I was like, “No more!” [Laughs] So it was good I studied public policy, because what it taught me was research, understanding history, understanding why we are where we are.

LSS: You do a lot of research for your work.

TJ: Quite a bit. It would piss me off when people were writing about Leadbelly and they would get things wrong about his life. I felt that was irresponsible. It’s not that you can’t lie, but if you’re going to lie, lie knowing what the facts are. I was intent on getting the story straight, so I read as much as I could about Lead. And that’s what I’m doing with these other people. I’m trying to get as much right as I possibly can.

It’s their lives. The thing about black history in particular is it’s been distorted and whitewashed in so many different ways, and I do not want to be a part of that process. So to the best of my ability I try to get an accurate fix on what happened. Then I work between the lines: between what happened, and the idea of what happened.



Tyehimba Jess’s first book of poetry, leadbelly, was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. A Cave Canem Alumnus, Jess received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, was a 2004-2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and won a 2006 Whiting Award. He exhibited his poetry at the 2011 TedX Nashville Conference. Jess is Assistant Professor of English at the College of Staten Island.