I've recently been reflecting on what it's meant to read Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly (2005) over the last 10 years. I've covered the book on several occasions with students and general citizens as I selected the book as a component of a few different public arts programs.
I only had rudimentary knowledge of Huddie Ledbetter when I first encountered Leadbelly. Jess's book gave me a reason to really try to understand this blues and folk musician.
More notably, at the time I began reading Jess's volume, I was hardly into contemporary African American poetry. For the previous years, I had been deeply immersed in poetry of the 1960s and 1970s as I was completing a major research project on the Black Arts Movement. I discovered Jess and his poetry as I was consciously trying to check out contemporary, 21st century works.
In 2005, I owned perhaps less than 50 "contemporary" volumes of poetry, which is to say books published from 2000 onward. After Leadbelly, I was inspired to expand my collection of contemporary poetry books. Today, I own more than 300 volumes published over the last 15 years. Jess's volume was the crucial gateway.
In particular, I became increasingly fascinated with persona poems as a result of reading Leadbelly. I found myself seeking out persona poem connections between Jess's work and the works of various other poets. The lists I was developing grew and grew.
• 10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 3: In the mix
• A Crown of Blog Entries for Leadbelly: project overview
• 10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 1: Amiri Baraka and Tyehimba Jess