Since 2005, I've been been reading and writing about Tyehimba Jess's book Leadbelly. I taught the book to various classes; used the book in reading groups; and blogged about the book on multiple occasions, including a crown of blog entries on the book last November. In retrospect, the concentrated attention on Jess's work prepared me to engage his powerful new volume Olio.
Jess's Leadbelly and Olio correspond to each other in all kinds of important ways. Both books concentrate on aspects of black music history. Both books present us with these fascinating cultural figures. Both books include interrelated sequences of poems. But in the end, Olio is a more ambitious book, covering a more multifaceted cast of characters and revealing Jess working through more poetic and prose modes of writing.
That's not a slight on Jess's first book, which remains one of my all-time favorite
The cool thing about reading Olio is that you get a chance to see Jess developing ideas that he began experimenting with in Leadbelly. For instance, the end of his first volume includes a sequence of interrelated sonnets. In Olio, there's a sequence of sonnets focused on the Fisk Jubilee Singers that runs throughout the course of the book. There's a sequence on "Blind" Tom Wiggins as well.
In Leadbelly, Jess includes various contrapuntal poems, juxtaposing Leadbelly's and John Lomax's perspectives such as "leadbelly vs. lomax at the modern language association conference, 1934." Olio includes a variety of contrapuntal poems, and those poems achieve their most pointed effect as Jess presents accounts from of Millie and Christine McKoy, conjoined twins. What it means to encounter their linked and separate thoughts in individual poems is really captivating.
Jess clearly pursued serious research on Huddie Ledbetter to produce that first book. He went even further in Olio. He traces the lives and envisions the thinking of an even wider array of characters, including John William "Blind" Boone, Wiggins, the McKoy sisters, Scott Joplin, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington, singer Sissieretta Jones, sculptor Edmonia Lewis, and performers Bert Williams, George Walker. I've been writing about contemporary poets as historical researchers for years now, and what Jess does in Olio is the case and point for that.
Leadbelly, we're even clearer on now, was a testing ground for what Jess would get to now. The book -- even the extended size to make room for those contrapuntal poems -- gave this former spoken word artist important opportunities to figure out the possibilities of performing on the page. In Olio, Jess extends across the page and includes perforated pages in a few instances allowing readers to remove and rework select works.
And Leadbelly wasn't just a testing ground for Jess. That first book also did important work preparing some of us for Olio. I'm still in the early stages of taking in all that's happening here in this new volume. Some of what I'm grasping, though, is a result of what I learned re-reading Leadbelly over the years. Who knows what I'll be ready to do once I've fully absorbed the lessons of Olio?
• A Notebook on Tyehimba Jess
• Tyehimba Jess and the outstanding Olio