by Jessica Kinnison
American poet Tyehimba Jess entered the MFA program at New York University in 2002 with half of his poetry book leadbelly written. His colleagues knew what he was going to bring to every workshop—another leadbelly poem.
leadbelly (2005) follows the story of Louisiana-born folk singer Huddie William Ledbetter, born in 1885, from Shreveport, LA to Texas to Angola Prison to New York City. leadbelly was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and was voted one of the top three books of the year by Black Issues Book Review.
A two-time winner of the Chicago Green Mill Slam team, Jess was Chicago’s ambassador to Accra, Ghana. He is the author of African American Pride: Celebrating our Achievements, Contributions and Enduring Legacy (2003), and his work has been featured in numerous anthologies. A Cave Canem Alumni, he 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. Currently, he is Assistant Professor of English at College of Staten Island.
I interviewed Jess immediately following his reading at the Allegheny County Jail as part of Chatham University’s Words Without Walls Black Writers Series. He visited to tell the story of how Leadbelly’s music lives in each of us as Americans. He says, “At least people are saying his name. They are saying his name.”
The Fourth River: Why do you write and for whom?
Tyehimba Jess: I used to write for political purposes strictly. I was interested in writing poems that would inspire people to take political action. That’s what “when niggas love Revolution like they love the bulls” is all about. Those poems were for black people. But you know you can’t control who reads your work.
So, after a while, I came to accept the idea that I was writing for everybody. Even when I thought I was writing for black people, not all black people agreed with what I was writing. It is difficult to say that you are writing for one particular group of people. It can limit your imagination. After a while, I was like, “OK, I am writing for the entire world.” I think that later on, it became about writing for me.
The more I write, the more I realize it is about conveying a message. My poetry is pretty clear. Generally, you know what I am writing about by the end of a poem. I try to write that way. But it is working internally, as well.
When I am doing these poems, these syncopated sonnets and all that, I think I am trying to find a way to tell two different stories in one breath. I am looking for metaphors beyond the rhetorical that link into the shape of the poem and [into] the way the poem is read on the page.
FR: What do you think of the academic world as a space for writers?
TJ: I am part of a few different streams of poetry phenomena that are having an effect on the way poetry is being perceived in academia. One is slam: slam was started because of a man named Mark Smith in Chicago who was really disenchanted with the way poetry in academia was presenting itself as a kind of boutique, elite pastime that was not interested in connecting with the ordinary Joe Schmo on the street.
I think that the brilliant thing about Mark is that he was able to start this institution that’s very simple, very organic and really, in a way, doesn’t get the kind of credit in academia that it deserves for its impact on American poetry.
He’s one of those people who deserves a MacArthur grant because he saw a need and he filled it in a very simple way, in a way that answered the call of so many people who were interested. He helped throngs and throngs of people to understand that poetry doesn’t have to be outside of their grasp. It doesn’t have to be something that is performed by other people. They can perform it.
Whatever complaints people may have about slam, it brought poetry to the people and the same with Cave Canem. It’s an institution for black poets started by Toi Dericotte and Cornelius Eady that really eliminated the isolation that so many black poets felt on a fundamental level. The thing about Cave Canem is that it created a connection for black poets nationally and internationally that enabled us to grow at a rate we would not have been able to obtain without that community.
FR: Why did you choose poetry as your form for leadbelly? It reads like a novel.
TJ: First off, I am not as good at fiction as I am at poetry. I seem to be more geared toward saying a certain thing in a certain amount of time. leadbelly is almost all prose poems when he is speaking. Partly because I thought of him in terms of prose, really simply and not all enjambed. You know, it is prosaic and it follows a particular arc. It is linear in that respect. I think those are reasons it seems like a novel, in a way.
FR: Philip Larkin once wrote, “the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.” In your case, what are you preserving in your poems?
TJ: Yes, I guess I am in the business of historical preservation. There were a few things I was trying to preserve. One was Leadbelly’s legacy but also the idea of the work that the old music has done for us. When I say “us,” I mean nationally what that work has done.
That legacy continues. The thing I think about a lot is the roots of the music, particularly in regard to the African community and the African-American contribution. With this new work I am doing, it is beyond the music. It is about theater and literature as well. When you look at the intellectual property, so much of that property has been generated from the black community.
Paying homage to Leadbelly, trying to present a portrait of his life, to me, meant recalling the pain and the joy that went into making that music. It lies at the bottom of American music. So I guess I’m back where Philip Larkin was: at the bottom of his preservation.
FR: So under everything is the need to preserve?
TJ: Yes, I would say that. Continue that story forward. Just having people say the word “Leadbelly” today in 2013, I am glad to be a part of that. And it’s not just him; it is the story and everything that the story entails, that idea, that aesthetic.
FR: You were a DJ at the University of Chicago for 10 years. Who were some of the people you played most?
TJ: Man, I played so many people: Alice Coltrane, Sonny Sharrock, Art Ensemble of Chicago. I think the beautiful thing about Chicago is that they have something called AACM. It is really sort of an avant-garde arts organization. I was very privileged to see these guys walking around the neighborhood. Overseas, they were superstars. You know, they were just phenomenal musicians. So I got the opportunity to see them on a regular basis. Lester Boyd, Malichi Favors, I got to see Sun Ra a couple times, Fred Anderson.
There was a little bar called the Velvet Lounge. It’s still there. It was the best music in Chicago. It was very cheap. The musical legacy in Chicago was wonderful. Then you also had the blues musicians. So my show started out as all jazz. Then it started to include blues, too. Like I played Muddy Waters, then I’d play John Coltrane, then I’d play some Sun Ra, then I’d go all the way back in the shed to get some Robert Johnson. I’d go back and forth and back and forth. I was playing with what Amiri Baraka would call “The Music,” the idea of the genres of music just drifting together into a continuum, especially with jazz and blues. I loved it. Then I would do interviews with political prisoners, prisoners of war and activists.
FR: I noticed that you use variations on blues phrases in leadbelly like “black snake moan.” Did you put them in while you were writing or did you go back and texturize the piece with common blues phrases?
TJ: It was probably a combination of the two. It’s kind of like the first pass: I go through a poem and have these weak words and stronger words. I take out words that are not contributing to the energy of the poem, and I think about words that could make the poem more active or add to the texture, and I go back and throw in a lot of other allusions. I try to reach in as many directions as I can. Some of them come naturally and those are the ones that I am actually more weary of because they are more likely to be cliché. If they are clichés, I try to come back and change them up a little.
FR: Do you think people who don’t listen to blues would notice blues phrases?
TJ: It’s hard for me to say what people’s perception of blues is. I think partly because I have been listening to it for so long. It is hard for me to detach myself from the lack of understanding regarding blues. If you were to say the word “blues” to most people, maybe one of the words that would come to their minds is “Eric Clapton” or “B.B. King” or “guitar” or the opening of the Dave Chapelle show. So there are a lot of standard images that people come up with. I am trying to write either against that or to deepen that understanding. I think that is true with anybody. If you were to say “polka music,” I probably wouldn’t know that much. I should. I think “accordion.” That is part of my charge to understand how all those musics can relate.
FR: How did your perspective on the book change after you went to Shreveport for the first time?
The most important thing I did there was visit his grave. I also met his grandniece. He is buried in this churchyard that is off of a dirt path that is off a dirt path that is off of a one-lane road. It’s way the fuck out. He died in New York but he was buried down there. It gave me an impression of where he walked. Of course, I was seeing Shreveport past its heyday. I could still see the streets and soak in the atmosphere. It was good to see the places I had written about.
I always felt guilty about the ability to claim that territory. I wanted to treat it with the respect it deserves. I wanted to treat him and the place that he came from with respect. I felt like it was incumbent upon me to give it a visit and say “Hello.” So, in a way, it gave me a kind of permission to continue on that journey of seeking out the details of his legacy.
FR: Is it true your immediate family would not exist without the Great Migration?
TJ: You could say the same thing for probably at least half of black people in America today. The South was repressive. The North was repressive but in a different way.
FR: Michele Norris said that her parents didn’t talk about the South because they didn’t want to put rocks in their children’s pockets. If they put that anger in their pockets, it would weigh them down. Your parents were active in the community and also in race relations. How did that affect you and your writing?
TJ: It affected me in several ways. One is my dad is an avid, avid reader. He probably had 30 magazine subscriptions and books all around the house all the time. Both of them were very intent on having us read. I have an older brother and an older sister. My brother went to Michigan. My sister went to MIT. I think that my parents’ support and insistence upon college and that exposure to the necessity of reading at a very young age affected me.
As far as their relationships with their hometowns: I went down to visit my grandmother in Greenville, South Carolina when I was a kid. It was like visiting another planet. This was in the 1970s. Greenville at that time was not the Greenville it is now. It is really a big, bustling city now. Back then, it was not a big place. There was a dirt road in front of my grandma’s house.
My dad didn’t talk very much about (well he didn’t talk that much at all) about South Carolina and his life down there. And my mother would talk about Oklahoma to a certain degree; she still does.
I think that their attitude was similar to what you are talking about. When you look at it, it really was like going from one country to another country. I mean, my dad was in the Confederate state—South Carolina. He still has his high school diploma. The signature on it is Strom Thurmond’s. My dad is 80 years old. It was like an entirely different land of opportunity. There is no way my father would have been able to work for the Department of Public Health in South Carolina at that time. There is just no way; it would not have been possible.
My mother left Oklahoma because she could not attend the nursing schools there. My mom also lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. She graduated before those nine students marched up the steps to that high school. Their attitude was the one of most black folks at that time: they wanted to get out.
FR: You changed your name legally in 1999. What did your parents think about that?
TJ: They were reluctantly accepting of it. I was living as Jesse Goodwin before I changed it, formally, in 1999, but [informally, starting in 1992], everybody called me Tyehimba Jess. You will be surprised how quickly you find yourself around nobody who knows your original name. It caught on within a couple years. By the time it became legal, it had pretty much already happened anyway.
FR: Tyehimba means “we stand as a nation.” What does that mean to you?
TJ: I got it from a book in college. I took a lot of time trying to find a word that would be appropriate. This word, to me, infused the idea of black self-determination. You know, working together to achieve various and sundry goals. On the other hand, I didn’t want to completely abandon my family in that process. I was disturbed by our name being Goodwin because it was passed down from a slave owner. So I decided to keep my first name and make it my last name. My first name was Jesse, and that is my father’s name and his father’s name.
FR: Did your writing change once you changed your name?
TJ: My name came slowly.
FR: The name was your public persona and slowly became your private persona?
TJ: I think I was part of the last generation to change our names to African names. I mean, I don’t know what 20 year-olds are doing now, but I don’t think they are changing their names to African names. Many of the artists at that time were changing their names if not legally, informally. So it was not a unique thing.
The good thing about it is that I did not change my name more than once and I really carefully considered it before [the change]. I waited for seven years before I made it legal. So I had a long time to live with it. The decision to make it legal, to me, meant that I could stop leading a double life. Stop being Tyehimba Jess until I needed a check signed. It seemed inauthentic. I didn’t consider the name inauthentic. I considered the state’s right to claim what my name was illegitimate. One of my questions was whether or not to give the state that legitimacy, but after a while, I knew that, practically, it was the thing to do.
FR: Where did you start on the page when writing the syncopated sonnet about the twins?
TJ: I started with the middle. I finished the middle because really the middle is based off of another poem I did called “Blind Tom.” It was the first one I made that went down and back. It was about Blind Tom being buried in two different locations. So, when it came to the McCoy Twins, I was wracking my brain as to how to approach talking about them.
I guess the form and the subject matter came simultaneously. I thought, well, I will mimic the shape of their bodies. So how can I do that? I already had the Blind Tom thing, so I thought I could reverse the polarity to have two heads and one middle. Then I can come up and have one head and two middles. So I did one and I did another one and another one. Those things are like a puzzle.
FR: You said that you don’t write in forms, but there are many forms in leadbelly.
TJ: I guess the counterpointes I’m doing are forms. I also call them double-jointed. That crown of sonnets in the book was the first set of poems in form I ever wrote. The thing about sonnets is that they are long enough to say something and short enough to get to the point. At this point in our history, sonnets can be unrhymed and all kinds of stuff. Fourteen lines, oh, it’s a sonnet. It’s got this kind of elasticity to it. And the rhyme scheme can be as strict as you want it to be and as loose as you want it to be. I am going for the story, in particular.
FR: Which professors did you study with at NYU?
TJ: Philip Levine, Marie Howe, and Sharon Olds.
FR: Did any of those teachers give you a major suggestion for leadbelly that you rejected?
TJ: Yes, Phil Levine told me to put the book in third person. I seriously considered that for a long time. And I couldn’t do it. It was difficult. In that class, I agreed with 99 percent of the things he said. He is a very, very sharp guy. It was hard to do that when I first rolled up in there. I couldn’t do it. It was not a physical thing. It was a mental thing. For me, that is the trope of the book. It would have lost immediacy. I love Phil, though. We are both from Detroit.
FR: Do you feel you have any secret or conspicuous flaws as a writer?
TJ: I don’t think I do personal poems very well. I think there are some things in my aesthetic that may not be in other people’s aesthetic, such as alliteration. Sometimes I just wallow in it, just roll around in it. I have to check myself.
FR: What was the first poem you wrote in leadbelly?
TJ: It was the one where he is in Red River. He’s run away and they send a dog after him. And he drowns the dog. That was the first poem. It kind of came out of nowhere in a way.
FR: What was the last poem?
TJ: After I finished the book, they wanted me to chop off the last section. My publishers did. The very last poem I had written a year or so ahead of time, then I decided [it] was going to be at the end.
TJ: Because it is positioned at his christening. I think it is interesting to hear him talk about how he got his name at the end of the book. It is about being broken in a lot of ways. It is a story about coming into one’s identity.
Jessica Kinnison lives in New Orleans, LA. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Juked, Cossack Review, Pif Magazine Anthology 2013, and The Southern Humanities Review, among others. Her story “Bone on Bone” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012.