Monday, April 11, 2016
Poets as Researchers: Tyehimba Jess and Robin Coste Lewis
For some time now, I've taken note of contemporary volumes that were the result of poets pursuing extensive formal study. You get the sense that the poets spent considerable time covering historical documents and other materials in order to produce works that are artistic but at the same time thoroughly researched. Although we've always had poets who were cognizant of history, rarely have we had so many poets participate in the production of such intricate, painstaking, and lengthy poetry projects.
These days, Robin Coste Lewis and Tyehimba Jess come to mind when I speak of poets as researchers. Lewis's Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems (2015) and Jess's Olio (2016) typify and perhaps expand our notions of how poetry volumes can actively treat historical figures and events. In fact, while you'll likely find works by Lewis and Jess in the poetry category, it's not too much of a stretch to think about the ways that their works fit within or at least complement the "history sections" of bookstores and collections.
In the title poem for her volume, Lewis presents a narrative poem that "is comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present." It's one of our most extraordinary and ambitious long poems.
In Olio, Jess narrates the experiences and inner thoughts of a wide range of historical figures, including Henry 'Box' Brown, Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Sissieretta Jones, Edmonia Lewis, George Walker, Booker T. Washington, "Blind" Tom Wiggins, and Bert Williams. The ability to transform historical research into evocative poems is one of Jess's most powerful skills.
What Lewis, Jess, and various others are doing with these representations in verse of history constitute really distinguishing approaches to the production of poetry. Their volumes give us new possibilities for envisioning the capabilities of poets and researchers.
• A Notebook on Robin Coste Lewis
• A Notebook on Tyehimba Jess
• Black Poetry and the History Section: a partial list