Monday, November 23, 2020

Tyehima Jess's Innovative Sonnets

Let's get straight to the point: Tyehimba Jess's innovative sonnets are works of wonder. 

Last week, I was viewing his online reading for "Poets, Presidents, and Pandemics: A Reading for These Times" sponsored by One Book One New Orleans. He read "Millie and Christine McKoy," one of the sonnets from his book Pulitzer-Prize winning volume Olio (2016), and as I was reminded, as I listening to his reading, how inventive he is as a creator. 

Here's a printed version of "Millie and Christine McKoy."

Jess demonstrated multiple ways of reading the poem. You can read the middle lines as a stand-alone seven-line poem; then Millie McCoy's side with the middle, then Christine's side with the middle, and then read them together from top to bottom, and then finally, the poem can be read from bottom to top. 

During the twenty-first century, several Black poets, including Nikky Finney, Marilyn Nelson, Allison Joseph, John Murillo, A. Van Jordan, and Patricia Smith have produced sonnet sequences. Jess produced a sonnet sequence at the close of leadbelly (2005), and with several poems in Olio, he extends and really innovates the practice sonnet-making. 

Jess's ability to produce these fantastic, multidirectional poems on the page is quite remarkable by itself. However, the achievement of his print-based work is even more amazing when we consider that he first gained acclaim as a performer. He emerged in a realm of poetry that was and is sometimes thought of as alternative to print-based poetry. 

Spoken word is known for personalized poems where poets discussed aspects of their identities. In her book, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry (2009), Susan Somers-Willett explained that slam poets or spoken word artists would often “linger on personal and political themes,” with many poets producing work that expresses “marginalized identity,” usually the poets' own identities. Accordingly, one of the most viewed poems on YouTube is Jae Nichelle's "Friends with Benefits," where she discusses her struggles with anxiety. 

In his public readings though, Jess moves beyond the usual personal focus by inhabiting the personas of varied cultural figures. He takes the dramatized nature of spoken word art and applies it to different historical figures. 

The McKoy twins
The McKoy sisters, whom Jess writes about, were Pygopagus conjoined twins and former slaves. They were forced to perform in fairs and freak shows throughout the world. After the Emancipation Proclamation provided them freedom from slave status, the twins performed with the Barnum circus. 

In one interview, Jess noted that the twins "They have two separate heads, a joint body and two separate bases." Accordingly, his poem can be read and viewed as visual response and reference to the appearance of his subjects.  

When we talk about Jess's work, we rightly focus on his engagements with history. Olio and leadbelly are both comprised of poems that retrace and re-present the lives and experiences of several cultural figures. Jess is meticulous following historical records. 

Scholar Emily Ruth Rutter points out that although Jess thoroughly researches his subject matter, “his poems are not beholden to the historiographic methodologies of his sources. Instead, Jess uses his findings as a creative springboard, availing himself of both the formal flexibility and emotive economy of poetry in order to re-present” various cultural figures.

In other words, what makes his work so outstanding is how creative he is presenting what he has studied.

With "Millie and Christine McKoy" and many other Jess poems,  we're witnessing this special moment at the crossroads of history, poetry, performance, and representation. 


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