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Michigan Bookmark: “Olio” takes unique approach to tell stories of post-Civil War black performers

Apr 11, 2017

Tyehimba Jess has won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his book Olio. It's a book of sonnets, songs and narrative that examines the lives of mostly unrecorded African-American performers. 

Kelly Fordon reviewed the book last August:

I first encountered the work of the poet Tyehimba Jess back in 2014, when he returned to Detroit to speak to a group of writers at Inside Out Literary Arts. His second poetry collection, Olio, had not yet been published. But that afternoon he shared some of his work, and I remember leaving the room with the conviction that I had just witnessed pure poetic genius.

Jess was born in Detroit. He earned his BA from the University of Chicago and his MFA from New York University. His first poetry collection, leadbelly, published in 2004, is an exploration of the blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s life, and was chosen for the National Poetry Series.

Olio chronicles the lives of African-American musicians and performers in the years before and after the Civil War up until the First World War.

The word “Olio” refers to the second part of a minstrel show. Minstrel shows were popular in the 19th century. They featured comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in blackface for the purposes of pretending to be – and often mocking – black people.  

Jess’s book is, in his own words, “an effort to understand how African-American performers during that period resisted, complicated and defeated attempts to minstrelize them.”

Within Olio, Jess records the stories of little-known African-American performers including the pianist John William “Blind” Boone, who lost his sight to encephalitis at the age of six months. Then there’s the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and the comedic duo Bert Williams and George Walker, among others.

Although this might be hard to visualize on the radio, I want to convey what I mean by poetic genius:

Two of the musicians Jess introduces in “Olio” are the singers Millie and Christine McCoy. Millie and Christine were conjoined twins born into slavery on the McKay Plantation in North Carolina in 1851. Jabez McKay, the Plantation owner, didn’t know what to do with them, so he lent them out to a traveling freak show. They were talented, though, and later they became famous singers in their own right.

In order to capture the two distinct voices of these Pygopagus twins, Jess created syncopated sonnets. The sonnets work individually and also in tandem. When placed together on an extended fold out page, the five poems actually look like the legs, arms, trunk of a conjoined body.

Pretty cool.

But that’s only the beginning.

The reader can choose to read the five sonnets in any direction – from the top of the first poem to the bottom of the last poem, or from the bottom of the page to the top.

Want to read them from the right side of the page to the left instead?

No problem.

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.

Remember making spyglasses out of construction paper as a kid? Jess’s poems about Booker T. Washington and Paul Dunbar are meant to be literally ripped out of the book and rolled into cylindrical spyglasses that can be read in the round.

But if you don’t feel like folding the poem into a cylinder, how about a Mobius strip? Or end to end to form a geometric torus?

Still makes sense.

For a better visual, I recommend watching Jess’s TedXNashville talk on Youtube featuring the Millie and Christine sonnets.

Most of all? I recommend this book. As the poet Nickey Finney said:

Olio is a tour de force. 

Kelly Fordon is a poet and fiction writer. Her collection of linked stories, Garden for the Blind, was an INDIEFAB Finalist, an IPPY Bronze Medalist, a Midwest Book Award Finalist and a 2015 Michigan Notable Book. 

Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This segment was originally broadcast on Aug. 26, 2016.

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