The Art of Reconstruction: Cyrus Cassells in Conversation with Tyehimba Jess
Dec 09 ● BY Emily Ellison
In this interview, Tyehimba Jess analyzes the poetics which crafted both his book, Olio, and himself through its revelatory process. Conducted by Cyrus Cassells, a former mentor of Jess, these essential poets discuss the true gospel of late 19th century African Americans, the toil of these people to esteem themselves above White attempts to mythologize them, and the necessity of unburying the historical significance and relevance of an often glimpsed-over era. As a storyteller, Jess focuses on enlivening the narratives of historical figures, particularly how they wielded art for self-preservation in the post-Civil War, pre-Harlem period—a period, Jess believes, which contains untapped potential for unraveling the “monochromatic, monolithic vision” of an expressive and perseverant people.
Tyehimba Jess, born in Detroit, is the author of two poetry books: leadbelly, chosen for the National Poetry Series, and Olio, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Jess’s other honors include a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award, as well as numerous anthologizations and fellowships. He currently teaches English at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York.
Cassells: Welcome to Texas, to the beautiful part of Texas—the Hill Country. We’re chatting today to help inaugurate the first issue of our new Porter House Review.
First of all, how did you sustain yourself as a poet and a person during the eleven years it took to write and publish this book?
Jess: It was a combination of lucky breaks and a bit of being stubborn. I had a hard time latching on to something new to write, after leadbelly was done. I was mentally exhausted from writing that book. It took five years to write. I was kind of out of it.
Cassells: What was exhausting about it?
Jess: There were all kinds of decisions that happened in the construction of the book. I made a decision to apply to an MFA, went to NYU, did the MFA, finished it there. That was all new territory, eventually landing at the first job I’d had in years—and that became that, my first teaching job. And, I was learning my process at the same time.
Cassells: Why did you opt for such an experimental and open-ended form and structure? Were you bored with conventional form and structure?
Jess: I think there’s a number of circumstances that led me in that direction. One of them was that I had done contrapuntal poems in leadbelly, so I had some experience with them and they were intriguing to me. The other one was, I was interested in form getting me away from the voice of leadbelly.
But, I was also looking for something more, and when I decided to try to do contrapuntal sonnets, I was led in the direction that influenced a lot of the book. As a matter of fact, yeah, that was kind of critical. The Blind Tom syncopated sonnets really just pushed me in that direction.
Cassells: What is it about the sonnet form that seems so pertinent to the world of Olio?
Jess: First off, for me, sonnets are great for telling stories. A crown of sonnets can tell a great story. And I’m pretty much a storyteller. Secondly, folks in the 19th century loved sonnets. They dug Shakespeare, it was a familiar form. So, in a psychological or spiritual way for connecting with the people in the book, they were an avenue for making that happen.
Also, sonnets are really malleable. I think that they’re the most accessible of the forms. There’s enough room to do pretty much whatever you need to do. In late 20th and 21st century poetics, you really don’t even need to rhyme in a sonnet, necessarily. There’s a lot of room to make things happen.
Cassells: What about this business of allowing the reader to be a co-creator and a co-dreamer, in terms of deciding how they want to approach the labyrinthine world of the book?
Jess: That’s a product partially of the way that I read books, especially poetry books. I don’t generally start at the beginning of a poetry book. I usually jump in the middle, or I just pick a page and I go. Usually, my theory is “you should be able to hit me wherever I go”—not just at the beginning, not just at the end—wherever I am in the book. When I’m starting a book, I flip around—then, I’ll come back.
Cassells: So as a reader, you’re a roamer?
Jess: Yeah, I am. So, that speaks to the book as a whole, with the invitation to come in and start wherever you want—and, also, with the contrapuntal poems that allow the reader to read in multiple directions.
That was really a discovery that happened in the midst of making the Blind Tom syncopated sonnets, that I could allow them to do that—and once I realized that I could do that, then it opened the door to those possibilities, thereby allowing the reader to have a sense of adventure and exploration inside these poems that would make them explore the lives of the subjects more.
And that was really attractive to me, because I want people to walk away thinking about the McCoy twins and the way they encounter them in this particular poem. I want people to walk away thinking about Bert Williams in the circular approach and double-talk which is really an element of the act—to walk away with an understanding of the conundrum they found themselves in and how they worked themselves in and out of it.
Cassells: Through the minstrelsy, through the masking.
Jess: Right, through the attempt to make them caricatures and into the place where they could make their own fully-developed characters.
Bert Williams was at the heart of minstrelsy. I try to put myself in his mind, to think about his ability to not just make the audience laugh but also make the audience cry, as W.C. Fields would say, and how that is taking the instrument of psychological warfare, which is the minstrel show, and twisting it into a tool of self-expression that goes beyond that monochromic idea of stereotype—and then using the profits from those depictions to invest in something beyond white control.
I think we’re still wrestling with that idea today—the idea of stereotype, of being put into paradigms that try to dehumanize us—a challenge of realizing the fullness of our humanity despite those paradigms.
Cassells: A sacred space there.
I was wondering what drew you to focus so intently on the music and the performers of the late 19th and early 20th century. We tend to hear a lot about the Harlem Renaissance back in the 20s. Reading your book reminded me that we don’t often hear about post-Reconstruction, early Jim Crow times, and I feel like your book has done us a tremendous service in terms of African American history, reminding us there was something between the Reconstruction and the 1920s. So, what was is it about those performers and that period that made you dive into its history?
Jess: One of the things is pretty much exactly what you said, that we don’t talk a lot about that place, that space between the Civil War and the beginning of the Jazz Age. It doesn’t get a lot of literary attention. And still, there’s acres and acres of stuff. When I was researching the book, I felt mad that I didn’t know the things that were in the book.
Also, it was triggered by the idea of researching Leadbelly, and then thinking about Leadbelly and the people who came before him but were never recorded. He came within a hair’s breadth of never being recorded, and then we would have never known about him. He met Lomax, though, and they started recording.
But what about all the other people who were developing the music? Leadbelly took the music and he pinned it down for us, he let us know what was going on, that archive of song in his head. He was able to share it with us—without which, some of those tunes would have been lost. But what about all the people before him, who were busy creating those works and all the works we really don’t talk about today?
That intrigued me. I felt like I knew about Black music—then I realized that I just didn’t know about anything. Yes, the minstrelsy of the time was very painful, but it wasn’t the only thing that was happening. I think we tend to forget that.
That’s what I’m trying to do—work past a monochromatic, monolithic vision of what was going on in that era. If you were to talk to someone in 1920 who was our age, they would know about these people, and they would be familiar with them and they would tell stories about them, etcetera. Just because of our distance, though, those same people aren’t in our vocabulary.
I really saw it as an effort at reclamation and recollection, to get those voices back, and to remind us of how we were doing amazing things in the late 19th century right after the Civil War. We were doing some amazing, amazing things. We were invested in more than just self-preservation—we were invested in self-articulation, self-realization, through the arts. Despite the many, many efforts to dehumanize us, we were humanizing ourselves through the practice of these arts—from the music to the comedy to the visual. It was, and still is, fascinating.
Cassells: How are things since winning the Pulitzer Prize? How has it affected you, as a person and a writer?
Jess: It’s financially more comfortable [laughs]. More confidence, though I think the stakes are a little higher. There are all kinds of different directions I want to go, but I know I have to settle down and do one. I know that I’m about to really dig in and do something.
There are a bunch of directions, but they generally have to do with that same era. Part of me doesn’t want to give up the secret, but nobody’s writing about that time period! Nobody touches it. Nobody really wants to go back there.
Cassells: But don’t you think we have to, with the legacy of Jim Crow finally being discussed publicly? And we’re finally talking about lynching in public.
Jess: I think that’s true, yet most of the conversation still happens around the 20th century. But the 70s, 80s, 90s…? I feel there’s a lot of work that can be done there. There’s enough for everybody.
And it is always scary doing something when you don’t know exactly how it’s going to turn out. But that’s a good thing to have, to hold on to. You’re going to try things and you’re going to fail. You’re going to have to go over the line to figure out where the line is. You don’t know what’s going to happen.
Cassells: The blank page.
Jess: Yeah, that’s some scary shit. For me, it’s like looking at three flights of concrete stairs and saying, “Okay, I’m going to throw myself down these stairs.” But I know that somewhere down around the second or third flight, I’m going to find my balance, and then grab a rail, and then start walking again.
One is greater than zero; it’s better to have something than nothing. We can always revise.
We talk very bluntly about failure, asking, “Well, why are you in it? Why are you doing it? What does it mean? What is success?” At the end of the day, the common denominator is that we don’t know what’s going to happen to the work we put out, or how it’s going to be received. We have to accept the idea that it may not be well-received, and the only thing we can really hold on to is that we did it for ourselves in the best possible way we knew how to do it. At the end of the day, that’s all we really have.