Sunday, April 3, 2016

Amiri Baraka and Tyehimba Jess: on the Music and Musicians

Back in October 2005, we hosted Amiri Baraka for a couple of readings here at SIUE. Late one evening at Eugene Redmond's home, Baraka and I had a conversation about contemporary poetry. He wanted to know who and what I was teaching. I informed him that the book at the top of my list was the recently published Leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess.

Baraka said that someone had just sent him a copy. "You should read it," I said, somewhat surprising myself by telling the Amiri Baraka what he should be reading. He said he would read it when he returned home.

A month after Baraka's visit, I hosted a reading by Jess on campus. I had already been thinking about the links between the two poets, but witnessing them give readings on campus a month apart solidified things for me. They are both dynamic readers, and deeply inspired by the histories of black music and musicians. 

I'm more inclined to place Baraka in the category of jazz poetry and Jess in the realm of blues poetry, though of course Baraka has produced considerable blues poems. With Baraka, I tend to think about his individual poems on select musicians. Conversely, Leadbelly and now Olio prompt me to think about how Jess produces a series of interrelated poems on a single figure.   

Taken together, Baraka and Jess have given my students and me much to consider concerning black history and culture, music and musicians, and the convergence of poetry and performance. 

A Notebook on Amiri Baraka 
A Notebook on Tyehimba Jess

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