This is a poet’s introduction, not a news story, but it’s got a lede, and I don’t want to bury it. The lede is this: that actions in our Florida state capital—certain capital offenses, chewed and digested—have rippled their way to the poems that Our Reader Tonight, our poet-at-large, brought to three thousand students in five sessions over the last two days at high schools near here.
Just yesterday morning, our poet reminded auditorium-fulls about blackface—opening for the students on a big screen an ancient primer on the technique of blacking up—the burning of corks, the grinding-of-them into powder, the adding-to-them of petroleum jelly… And the application onto the skin… “So easy for gentlemen, and ladies, too.”
Then this morning at breakfast our poet read about our state secretary in the New York Times.
The Times, which aren’t a changin’, not enough.
Even before the object lesson, we knew: Our man’s poems are news that stays. For seven years he was devoted to the daily work of recovering personal histories from previous centuries, histories that resonate personally now—for him, and for us; for readers of The Times. What he made from them was Olio, a chronicling in poetry—part performance, part documentary, part eavesdrop, part blueprint—in new forms that first engage the reader’s volition, and then step out from the sewn sections into volumes that stand, and deliver.
To encounter these poems is to remember that their speakers—Blind Boone, Box Brown, the McKoy sisters, Edmonia Lewis—each of them troubled this actual air with larynx and embouchure, with sound waves that are rippling out yet, diminished but factual, toward Ultima Thule—and that the sensibility, the instrument that catches – and renders – and returns them to us must be very fine, indeed.
Indeed, it is.
And prescient, too.
Tyehimba Jess is a native of Detroit who lives and teaches now in New York City. His first book, leadbelly, won the National Poetry Series. Olio, his second collection, won the Pulitzer Prize.
It’s with great pleasure and gratitude, Tyehimba, that we welcome you to our stage tonight.
-Delivered in January at the 2019 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Tyehimba was brilliant and warm & welcoming to students, festival goers, and to me.