Poetry News

Characters, Caricatures, & Art in the Face of Oppression: Tyehimba Jess Shares His Work With Students at Interlochen

By Harriet Staff
Tyehimba Jess

On Weekend Edition Saturday, Interlochen Public Radio's Dan Wanschura documents Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess's recent visit to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. Jess spoke with students about the difference between characters and caricatures, as they relate to his book Olio, which explores the rich history of minstrel performers. Jess explains: "Characters have depth. They have multiple dimensions, right? A caricature, you only show one side of a person. They're oafish. Or they're silly. Or they're dumb, etcetera. A character, you see multiple sides of their humanity." More, from the transcript: 

WANSCHURA: Like Blind Tom Wiggins, a 19th century pianist who, Jess says, earned his master a million dollars through his musical talent. And the McKoy twins, Millie and Christine, who were conjoined - people who Jess had never heard of before he began his research.

JESS: It's not easy to find that history in the creative literature. You know what I'm saying? So that became a calling for me because it's territory that hasn't really been explored a whole lot.

WANSCHURA: So Jess tells the story of the McKoy twins in a series of poems - how they were rented out by their owner to traveling shows around the country, how they were kidnapped and shipped to England for a while, and how, once emancipated, they earned enough money performing to buy the land where they and their family had been slaves.

JESS: We make greenbacks with dimes hoarded by pinching francs and pounds for our folks. Thus, we buy liberation against servitude. We sing freedom bound. And we know the cost. We've overcome from the root of our guts. We give back with duets all mingled up to heaven. We've bought land that once enslaved our parents with duets all mingled up to heaven.

WANSCHURA: Jess says one of the goals of his book was to show that these people were empowered through their performances. And that caught the ear of Wesley McNair, a former Poet Laureate of Maine who also served on the Pulitzer jury and recommended "Olio."

Listen to the whole story at NPR.

Originally Published: July 17th, 2017
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