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Staten Island Professor and Poet in 'Awe' Over Pulitzer Win

By Nicholas Rizzi | April 19, 2017 3:52pm
 College of Staten Island professor Tyehmiba Jess won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry book,
College of Staten Island professor Tyehmiba Jess won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry book, "Olio."
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WILLOWBROOK — A week after College of Staten Island professor Tyehimba Jess won a Pulitzer Prize in poetry, he's still overwhelmed and trying to come to terms with the impact of the win.

Jess, who lives in Sunset Park but has been on sabbatical in Chicago, got a text message from a friend the day of the announcement to let him know the awards were being live-streamed. He got on his computer, found the site and was watching when he heard the name of his book, "Olio."

"I was just kind of in shock and in awe," said Jess. "It's really been kind of amazing. I've just been taking time to think about the consequences and opportunities to spring from this recgonition."

Jess won the prize last week for his 2016 collection, "Olio," about the lives of musicians such as Scott Joplin, Henry "Box" Brown and others who were critical to the development of blues and ragtime in the country.

"African-American creatives in the years before the Civil War and up until World War I, who were trying to apply their craft as entertainers as artists with the background of the minstrel show," said Jess. "All those folks were people in the book whose lives were kind of personified in various poems."

The winning book weaves together poetry, drawings, photos, interviews and more to showcase the stories of these musicians like John "Blind" Boone, "Blind Tom" Wiggins, Edmonia Lewis and more.

"The Death of Cleopatra: Edmonia Lewis, Marble, 1876" from Olio. Copyright 2016 by Tyehmiba Jess. Reprinted with permission of the author and Wave Books.

The name "Olio" means a mix of ingredients to make a meal and also is the name for the middle-part of ministerial shows that featured jugglers, actors and dancers that formed the basis for vaudeville.

Jess mixed together fact and fiction, including interviews with fictional people, to examine the musicians lives, including the true story of performer Henry "Box" Brown who shipped himself from Virginia in a wooden crate to Philadelphia to escape slavery at 33.

"He came out of the box literally singing when he was uncrated," said Jess.

The series of poems about Brown — who fled the country after people kept trying to kidnap him back into slavery — calls back to another Pulitzer Prize winning poet, John Berryman.

"Those poems in particular are vamping the literary voice of John Berrymen," said Jess. "It was kind of call and response happening between Berryman, Henry 'Box' Brown, myself and [Berrymen's] use of the ministerial trope throughout his execution of his 'Dream Songs.'"

"Olio" is Jess' second book `of poetry after his acclaimed 2005 "leadbelly," which is about the life of folk-musician Huddie William "Leadbelly" Ledbetter. Jess said he's always been interested in using his work to explore the history of African-American music and its relation to literature.

"I think that when you follow the soundtrack of a nation, you find pathways to their inner demons and angels and the psychology of the people," said Jess. "The history of African-American music is central or critical to the development of African-American literature, and thus to American literature in many, many different kind of ways."

While he only focused on one musician for his book, he decided to undertake a bigger range of people in "Olio" who, unlike Leadbelly, never were recorded.

He spent about seven years writing the book and said he didn't think about it's reception when working on it. He just wanted to make a book he wanted to read.

"I put everything that I knew how to do into the book and then pretty much just hoped for the best," he said. "I did my best to put out the book that I thought would express my interpretation of these folks in the best ways that I knew how."

Jess was born in Detroit and got his bachelor's from the University of Chicago. While he was interested in writing during his teenage years, he said he decided to focus on it full-time toward the end of his college career.

"I took a little while," he said. "I went through a few jobs, got fired and also quit a few jobs."

He got his master's of fine arts from New York University and taught at several universities before becoming a professor at CSI, where he has worked for seven years.

"Tyehimba is a great colleague and teacher, too, and we are absolutely thrilled for him,” Lee Papa, chair of CSI's English Department, said in a statement.