Pulitzer Prize-winning Book of Poetry—“Olio”— Is a Liberating Experience

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Tyehimba Jess
Tyehimba Jess. Photo, John Midgley / courtesy Wave Books

The 2017 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, Olio by Tyehimba Jess, “melds performance art with the deeper art of poetry,” explains a statement from the judges, “to explore collective memory and challenge contemporary notions of race and identity.” English teachers will find a wealth of source material in the book’s bibliography—from slave narratives to histories of the music of black Americans—to supplement the study of the poems themselves, which offer vibrant typography, innovative and highly original forms, and a collection of voices that sing of both the pain of enslavement and the joy of freedom.

The speakers of the poems in Olio are, in many cases, performers and lecturers—African American creatives, as Jess calls them—from around the time of the Civil War up to the period of World War I,  when minstrel shows thrived in the United States. In fact, the word “olio” is the term for the moment around the middle of a minstrel show when the performers—jugglers, dancers, musicians, or comedians—assembled collectively on stage.

An olio, then, is a miscellaneous collection, as is Jess’s book. Readers can delve into Olio from whatever starting point they choose.

Originally, whites in blackface performed in 19th-century minstrel shows. After the Civil War, however, African Americans increasingly took to the stage in the same roles previously portrayed solely by whites.

In Jess’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, the voices are all African American, those of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Henry “Box” Brown, Scott Joplin, Millie and Christine McKoy, and the comedy team of Bert Williams and George Walker. These poems—many of which read as dramatic monologues—become an exuberant journey of discovery, in terms of music, U.S. history, and lyric poetry.

Jess has said in an interview with poet and scholar E. Ethelbert Miller that “when you’re listening to black music, you’re listening to the sound track of America. You’re listening to the pulse and the rhythm of everyday America.”

Among the musical cast of this olio are Scott Joplin—“Ruler of Ragtime”—and “Blind” Tom Wiggins, born in 1849, whose skills at the keyboard netted his white managers over $1 million during his lifetime.

The McKoy Twins, Millie and Christine—conjoined at the hip—were born in slavery and, when still children, exhibited by their owners in freak shows. They not only toured in the United States but later as adults went abroad as well. Jess tells their story through a form he invented—the syncopated sonnet. These poems, or songs, are also examples of concrete poetry. It’s possible to read each sonnet devoted to the McKoy Twins three ways: down one side, as the voice of Millie, down the other as the voice of Christine, and down the conjoined middle as the song of the twins together, in duet. Each sonnet reads backward, too, from the last line to the first. Joined together as they are, the physical appearance of the poems suggests the conjoined reality of the twins, a reality that the twins learned to employ as the means to their own freedom.

When the twins toured Europe after the Civil War—now as learned adults—they performed in several languages—and eventually earned the sum necessary to purchase the former plantation where they were born.

Henry “Box” Brown—who shipped himself in a crate from Richmond to Philadelphia—employed lively descriptions of his unusual voyage to freedom on the lecture circuit, thereby reclaiming his own history. Brown even traveled the lecture circuit in a box similar to the one he had shipped himself in earlier. Jess presents his work to audiences by demonstrating how “Box” Brown’s Freedsongs are a way for Brown in his own voice to think outside the box, so to speak, and to reclaim his own history.

Jess’s “Freedsongs” play off  John Berryman’s dream songs to express Brown’s own sense of liberation. Berryman also won a Pulitzer for poetry, in 1965 for 77 Dream Songs, in which he used an alter ego named Henry. The Henry character in 77 Dream Songs sometimes spoke in a minstrel-inspired voice. Jess in turn uses the dream songs of Berryman as found poetry and inserts Brown’s own story into both Berryman’s poems and the form he originated.

The title treatment on the cover of Olio is suggestive of a palindrome. The book’s designer added an extra “O” to the title and rearranged the word nonlinearly. This mirrors the way students can read the poems and the book itself—forward or backward and starting in at any given point.

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