By KYLER SUMTER
To Tyehimba Jess, Rhythm and Blues are the genetic material that make up America’s DNA.
The Detroit-born poet’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Olio, published in 2016, focuses on African-American artists from 1865 until WWI and their blues, work songs, and church hymns.
“African-American music is at the center of the American sound. So when you’re listening to the music you’re listening to the soundtrack of America, you’re listening to the heartbeat, the pulse of American history,” Jess said. “You are listening to the sonic signal that generated from all of the personal and historical events that are happening around a musician or a set of musicians at a particular time and when I write about those musicians or when I write about the art that they produce I’m also talking about their history’s, the history of the people they rolled with, and the history of the country that they’re in, they’re all pretty much inseparable.”
The book is about the first generation of Olio, which is defined as “a variety act or show.” Jess zeroes in on the first generation of free African-American artists in the year the 13th amendment was ratified and slavery officially ended.
Jess will read from the book and engage youth in an open conversation during The Woodlawn Community Summit’s Poetry and Writers’ Workshop for students this Saturday, June 17, from 8:30 a.m. to noon at the University of Chicago, Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St.
Following the reading, youth will participate in a one hour, hands on, writers’ workshop entitled “Phone Book” and facilitated by Asadah Kirkland of the Soulful Chicago Book Fair.
In addition to focusing on African-American musicians Olio is also about comedians, visual artists and the differently abled.
“It’s about the challenges of African-American artists, performing their art with dignity against the backdrop of the minstrel show,” Jess said.
Jess discovered his knack for poetry when he was 15; by the time he was a senior in high school he’d found his footing and won second place in a poetry contest.
He went on to earn his BA from the University of Chicago and his MFA from New York University. The two-time member of the Chicago Green Mill Slam team, and Chicago Poetry Ambassador to Accra, Ghana wrote his first book of poems leadbelly, a biography of blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s life in poems, in 2005 and it was voted a top poetry book of the year by Black Issues Book Review.
He reached the acclaim he has today by studying his favorite poets and writers, including Rev. James Lowery who Jess dedicated a blog post to for speaking out against the Bush administration with a note of protest during Coretta Scott King’s funeral.
Ahead of his student workshop this Saturday, hosted by The Woodlawn Community Summit for 6th- 12th grade students, Jess’ advice for aspiring poets is simple.
“Read, read, read and then write,” Jess said. “Read as much as you can, read people that you like, read people that influence the people that you like, and go out to poetry readings and listen to the work that’s being delivered out there and then set yourself down and set some goals for yourself and read and write.”
Jess compares being a poet to being a musician in that, “you have to hear the music before you can play the music, you have to read what’s out there in order to develop your own voice in poetry.”
The Poetry and Writers’ Workshop is free and has several sponsors including The University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement, the South East Chicago Commission (SECC), and Robust Coffee.
“This event gives youth that have an interest in writing and poetry an opportunity to meet a new role model,” Woodlawn Community Summit Co-Founder Deidre McGraw said in the press release, “who is from an urban city (Detroit), that has professionally succeeded as a writer and poet.”
To register for the event visit http://www.secc-chicago.org/primary-news/the-woodlawn-summit-presents-tyehimba-jess.
For more information contact Deidre McGraw 312-342-7176 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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