Pulitzer winner Tyehimba Jess talks about the importance of representation and culture in his poetry

Pulitzer winner Tyehimba Jess talks about the importance of representation and culture in his poetry

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Photo: Courtesy of Tyehimba Jess

For American poet Tyehimba Jess, poetry is a way of understanding someone else’s experience.

“Poetry can transport people to other places and into other times; that’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.

The Detroit-born Jess received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry last year for his book, Olio a collection of poems recounting the stories of some of the first freed slaves in 19th- and 20th-century America. The works combine different voices and experiences to form pieces that sound more like rhythmic dialogue than actual verses.

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“It’s such a huge honour to have people hear stories from more than 100 years ago about black musicians and artists that had as much pride, and as much humanity, as anyone could bear,” Jess, who will be bringing his collection to Hong Kong later this month, told Young Post during a phone interview ahead of the trip.

Before he devoted himself to writing poetry full-time, Jess studied public policies at the University of Chicago. He worked various jobs, but said he always found time to hone his writing skills at home.

After a while, Jess began teaching poetry to school students. After getting a Masters in fine arts at New York University, he started teaching at a university level.

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Now 53, Jess said he believes he understands a little more about poetry every time he writes.

“I think I’ve been on this big learning curve, and I can see that it’s still curving.”

Poetry has, he added, helped him tie together his other interests – from public policy, to history.

“The act of creating poetry has been a pathway through my mind to connect all the dots. So, for me, it is about policies, it’s about creating new odds so we can see and understand things from a new perspective,” Jess said. “Poetry is a way of life.”

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The journey to this realisation has had its obstacles, though. As a black American writer, there were times when Jess felt the need to hide or alter his identity, to be accepted by both his peers and society in general. But eventually, he found he could better serve his community by embracing his gifts. “One thing I strive to do is to bring as much of my culture and people into my work as I can,” he said. “They protect me, and make me who I am.”

“Black folks in the States have to deal with all of that on a daily basis,” Jess continued. “Dealing with the police, being pulled over, and the corporate structures that we operate in.” And yet, his response to this has always been to remain in control of his own narrative through his writing.

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When asked what the hardest thing about being a poet was, Jess responded with one word: starting. He advised aspiring poets to take the time to get to know their country’s history and culture, because this will help them understand the context in which their work will be written and read. Learning about poets and musicians from the past will also help new emerging poets figure out what they want their own contribution to be. Jess said the poets who helped shape his writing include Yusef Komunyakaa, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Toni Morrison.

Jess said he is excited to meet local poets in Hong Kong when he attends the Distinguished Writers Series 2018, an annual international writers’ workshop, next week. During his stop in the 852, he will perform readings from Olio at Baptist University on November 15, and will also discuss the book at Tai Kwun in Central on November 17. But he’s hoping he’ll have time to be a tourist, too. “I’m very much interested in seeing and exploring Hong Kong!”

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Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
History paid forward

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