|Tyehimba Jess reading at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in November 2005|
|Tyehimba Jess reading at the University of Kansas in 2015|
I first saw Tyehimba Jess give a reading in 2005. I was two years into my teaching gig at SIUE, and Jess was right up the street teaching at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I invited him to give a reading; his book Leadbelly had just come out.
Before the reading, I had studied and began teaching Jess's work. But that hadn't fully prepared me for what he was like "live." He's a skilled formalist and immersed in black vernacular delivery styles. And...he was utilizing an overhead projector to present some of his poems in ways that were original and notable.
This summer, ten years later, I had called on Jess again. I got to choose a poet to present as part of my teaching duties for an NEH-funded summer institute "Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement" at the University of Kansas. Tyehimba Jess is Black Arts Movement2.0, so yes, we had to give him a call. He made it.
He read from Leadbelly, providing background on the composition of the book. One point, among many, that caught my attention was Jess's explanation that he was, in the poems, really trying to work through the meanings of Leadbelly's life (1888 - 1949) as a black man artist during that time period.
Then, Jess took us to his new work. He gave a reading of a ghazal, no, a double-jointed ghazal in the voices of the vaudeville performers George Walker and Bert Williams. His "reading" consisted of utilizing a large screen, which made it possible for us -- the audience -- to witness what he was doing on the page, the stage, and screen. He was bending and blending poetic form and technology. That was Tyehimba Jess in 2005, and here was Tyehimba Jess doing even more of that in 2015.
• Tyehimba Jess