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Tyehimba Jess



By Tyehimba Jess

  • With ambitious manipulations of poetic forms, Tyehimba Jess presents the sweat and story behind America’s blues, worksongs and church hymns. Part fact, part fiction, Jess's much anticipated second book weaves sonnet, song, and narrative to examine the lives of mostly unrecorded African American performers directly before and after the Civil War up to World War I. Olio is an effort to understand how they met, resisted, complicated, co-opted, and sometimes defeated attempts to minstrelize them.

    WINNER of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry

    WINNER of the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Poetry

    WINNER of the 2017 Book Award from the Society of Midland Authors for Poetry

    2016 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for poetry

    2017 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award finalist

    2017 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award finalist

    Named a Top Poetry Book of 2016 by Library Journal

  • Tyehimba Jess’s second book, Olio, is a book without rules, blues on the page. It weaves new and reimagined facts with poetry, prose, and biographies of first-generation freed slaves who performed in minstrel shows. A spellbinding and lyrical melange of verse, Olio resembles its namesake—a minstrel show’s hodgepodge variety act that later evolved into Vaudeville, “the heart of American show business.”
    Tom Griffen, Tupelo Quarterly

    Olio is one of the most inventive, intensive poetic undertakings of the past decade. . . . Through photos, drawings, interviews, foldouts, tables, facts, fictions, and yes, so many strong poems … Olio assembles and raises the voices of an essential chorus: “Listen to how we sing while we/ promises unto ourselves not to die.”
    The Boston Globe

    Encyclopedic, ingenious, and abundant, this outsized second volume from Jess (Leadbelly) celebrates the works and lives of African-American musicians, artists, and orators who predated the Harlem Renaissance.
    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    It's been a decade since Tyehimba Jess's debut, and this sprawling, extraordinary book shows he's used his time well...
    Craig Morgan Teicher,

    An elegant, ingenious tour de force.
    Walter Muyumba, Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors

    The book is a formal tour de force.

    Olio works as much as an art book as it does as a book of poems. A reader has to feel his or her way around inside it, break it in, and even break it to read it right.
    Joshua Jones, The Live Oak Review

    Jess and Wave Books have deliberately cultivated a coffee-table art book effect in which the book’s scale, typography and illustrations are woven into its poetics...Olio is a groundbreaking book for African-American historic poetry and American poetry as a whole.
    Malika Booker, Poetry London

    Olio works as much as an art book as it does as a book of poems. A reader has to feel his or her way around inside it, break it in, and even break it to read it right.
    Joshua Jones, The Live Oak Review

    In a lightning-strike act of blending historical research and imagination, Jess's poems range from the post-Civil War era to World War I to vivify mostly undocumented and underappreciated musicians, from the pianist Blind Tom to the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Scott Joplin...Highly recommended; this formally risky collection proves to be a character-rich, historically informed page-turner.
    Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (starred review)

    Tyehimba Jess has always been vital to the archiving of black performance, and black performers. In his new collection, Olio, Jess continues this tradition.
    Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, The Rumpus

    The content of this book really is a remarkable one...Tyehimba Jess gathers the histories of the lives—untold lives of many of the African-American artists who sort of built the blues and jazz and the sound that...we consider quintessentially American. And he's written these poems as history in a variety of voices, in a chorus.
    Tess Taylor, All Things Considered on NPR

    Tyehimba Jess won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry this year. His book, Olio, takes on one of the most uncomfortable American performance art, one that is at the center of race and culture at the turn of the 20th century. . . . In his pages, these African-American performers finally take the stage as the full-fledged characters they were.
    Weekend Edition on NPR

    Historical personae has long proven to be a useful protest tool against oppression, and is, for this reason, not new to African-American poetry. Olio, though, is so ambitious, so relentless in its pursuit of the antebellum realities that remade our country, with its entrance into the canon we are jolted awake by a hundred alarms, a century’s racket.
    Kaveh Akbar, Oxford American

    The arc of its moral universe bends toward justice… it is not stated baldly but emerges from the performance itself, accumulating in all the small gestures and surprises and flourishes, gathering force, bit by bit, until the song has ended and you find yourself applauding or stunned into silence, ready to listen again.
    Scott Borchert, Hyperallergic

    …[T]he variety that Tyehimba Jess packs into Olio amply supports his goals of celebrating African-American musicial genius and bearing "wit-ness" (in the dual sense of affirming truth and acknowledging intelligence and agency) to "first generation freed voices," especially those of never recorded nineteenth-century artists. At 235 pages, Olio is so plentiful it is impossible to read in one sitting. Not only does its format invite browsing, but Jess encourages readers to "weave your own chosen way between the voices."
    Meg Schoerke, The Hudson Review

    Once I closed these pages I came to the conclusion that Tyehimba is our Langston—not necessarily in terms of style or lyrical sensibility, but in terms of proficiency and historical impact. It is the rigor with which this book archives history, offers new narratives and context for the “characters” it contains that leads me to the conclusion that readers a century from now will count this among the treasures that are emblematic of this era.
    Shani Jamila, African Voices

    In soulful, penetrating lyrics, Jess creates historic space for men like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Scott Joplin, and Booker T. Washington. With rhythmic, beautiful lines, Jess denounces the crime of American slavery and the subjugation of women...Jess’s Olio is an exhilarating and painstakingly constructed tribute to the human love of liberty. As a passionate pioneer of the human imagination, Tyehimba Jess triumphantly emerges as the Frederick Douglas of contemporary American letters.
    Sonja James, The Journal

    This 21st century hymnal of black evolutionary poetry, this almanac, this theatrical melange of miraculous meta-memory. Tyehimba Jess is inventive, prophetic, wondrous. He writes unflinchingly into the historical clefs of blackface, black sound, human sensibility. After the last poem is read we have no idea how long we've been on our knees.
    Nikky Finney

    I don't want to overstate the case, but there is no way around it: Tyehimba Jess's Olio is a tour de force.
    Evie Shockley, On the Seawall

    A tremendous, and tremendously accessible, book of poetry.
    Molly McArdle, Brooklyn Magazine

    [Olio is] something people who care for the music, or for African American cultural history, will read and reread, whether or not they notice its ambitious expansions of what has been possible for the contemporary poem.
    Stephen Burt, American Poets

    At a time when hybridity often seems to equate, in itself, to an act of emancipation or resistance, this comes as an uncomfortable reminder that people of colour have long had the variety of their art burlesqued for racist purposes. Jess’s Olio draws on vaudeville-era language with a historical irony whose queasy frisson can hardly be misunderstood.
    Dai George, The Poetry Review

    If you’ve been wanting to get into poetry but haven’t been willing to give up the power, characters, and length of a novel, Olio is the book for you.
    Cassidy Foust & Zoey Cole, Lit Hub

    What Jess achieves with all these devices and modes is dizzying — it’s moving, beautiful, often zingingly funny, and unfailingly engrossing. And even with everything going on in Olio — the formal innovation and inventions, the barker-ish punning, the carefully interwoven voices, and the hands-on poetical geometrics — Jess still lays down simply, timelessly gorgeous lines of verse.
    Megan Grumbling, The Café Review

    Tyehimba Jess, in his encyclopedic new collection, Olio, describes a different form of the literatus, one that went largely unnoticed in Whitman’s time. Rather than describing the centrifugal—white and male—literatus of Whitman and Emerson, Olio recounts the largely undocumented lives of African American performers from the turn of the 20th Century. Olio offers the testaments of the hidden literatuses that America never knew...These are not the archetypal poems that Whitman tried to foresee, and yet they are the broken and hidden backbone of the American democratic story.
    Max Heidelberger, Ghost City Review

    No matter where you begin reading, the poems make sense. If you read them down the left side of the page, you get Millie’s story; down the right side? Christine’s. Read the poems straight across, and the two voices form a duet. If Jess had written one inventive poem of that stripe it would be an achievement, but that is just a small sliver of the originality you will encounter in this 200-page book.
    Kelly Fondon, Michigan Radio

    Olio explores how these performers, whose art remained largely undocumented, broke rules and defied expectations in order to tell truths about the experiences of their lives.
    E. Ce Miller, Bustle

    …this is an immensely wonderful second book from Jess, who has brought to life here many of the black artists whose work built up to the Harlem Renaissance: Blind Tom, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Harry "Box" Brown, Scott Joplin, Sissieretta Jones. This is some of the most fun you'll have learning about American history.
    Alexander Chee, Vulture

    Tyehimba Jess's new book [...] is really a remarkable feat of scholarship and artistry.
    Howard Rambsy II

    A book that pulls forward the voices of a disembodied era into the contemporary.
    Yellow Rabbits

    The world of Olio may be populated by turn-of-the-century musicians who went unrecorded, by sideshow twins whose voices were lost to time, by singers and slaves and artists unheralded, but the deeper Jess digs into the past the closer he comes to the present.
    Jacob Sunderlin, Kenyon Review

    This volume is like a good novel. The themes begin to accumulate at the very beginning, and quickly bring the reader along, inciting wonder at the art of those who defeated slavery by slipping around, through or under it.
    Lolita Lark, The Folio

    I know very few poets who use narrative time and space like this, and zero who do it with the level of command that Jess displays in this sequence. Before Olio, the world of page poetry had only three dimensions. With this book, Jess has drawn a tesseract.
    Rich Smith, The Stranger

    My particular favorite of Tyehimba Jess’s is a book called “Olio” [winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for poetry], where he uses everything from interviews, to dramatic monologues, to musical programs, to fonts and typography, to basically track the kind of art that was flourishing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ragtime, the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It’s really an amazing performative book.
    Margo Jefferson, The New York Times

  • Tyehimba Jess is the author of leadbelly (Wave Books, 2005) and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Olio (Wave Books, 2016). leadbelly was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the "Best Poetry Books of 2005." Jess's second book, Olio, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Poetry, and the 2017 Book Award for Poetry from the Society of Midland Authors. It was also a finalist for the 2016 National Books Critics Circle Award, 2017 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, and the 2017 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Library Journal called it a "daring collection, which blends forthright, musically acute language with portraiture" and Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called it "Encyclopedic, ingenious, and abundant" and selected it as one of the five best poetry books of 2016.

    Jess, a Cave Canem and NYU alumnus, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a 2004-2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Jess is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, and won a 2000 – 2001 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry, the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He exhibited his poetry at the 2011 TEDxNashville Conference. Jess is the Poetry and Fiction Editor of the African American Review and is Associate Professor of English at College of Staten Island.

    Jess' fiction and poetry have appeared in anthologies such as Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Beyond The Frontier: African American Poetry for the Twenty-First Century, Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Power Lines: Ten Years of Poetry from Chicago's Guild Complex, Slam: The Art of Performance Poetry. His poetry has appeared in journals such as American Poetry Review, Brilliant Corners, Ploughshares, Obsidian III: Literature in the African Diaspora, Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas, Mosaic, American Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Nashville Review and 580 Split.


Publication Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN# 9781940696201 (7x10 224pp, paperback)
ISBN# 9781940696225 (7x10 224pp, hardcover)

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