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3-D reading and other lessons from Lamont Poet Tyehimba Jess

Slam poet and Pulitzer-winner teaches Exonians unconventional ways to experience poetry.

Nicole Pellaton
October 24, 2017
Tyehimba Jess visits Exeter.

Tyehimba Jess (left) autographs books after a dynamic Q&A session with students.

The poet on stage has just introduced his “syncopated star of sonnets” – five poems about two sisters, Millie and Christine McKoy, who lived as slaves and performing artists conjoined at the lower spine. Forty minutes into his dramatic reading, students lean into the cavernous space of Assembly Hall from the upper balcony as, from the packed downstairs, Tyehimba Jess invites his audience to read these poems from the bottom, the top, in a circle, on the diagonal.

“I want you to deconstruct and reconstruct the narrative in the book, as I will demonstrate to you,” he said. “Y’all down for that?”

“Yes!” comes the resounding response.

Jess turns to a poem from his book Olio, “Bert Williams/George Walker Paradox.” With verve, using voices and gestures to communicate the narratives of these two black comedians, he once again approaches the poem from various angles, sometimes repeating lines. The students watch his unusual progress through the lines on a large, projected image of the two-column poem, each side part of the poem’s conversation.

At the end, Jess tears the poem from the book (along perforations) and shows the students, most now silent with anticipation, how to create a cylinder for “continuous up and down reading” of the text. As murmurs of appreciation mount from the audience, he folds the page down the middle and creates a doughnut for “reading all the way around on the inside, on the outside, and side-to-side. ...” Now fidgeting with delight, the students watch as Jess twists one end to fashion a Mobius strip for “continuous reading from side-to-side, over and over again.”

With joy, the students jump to a roaring standing ovation.

New dimensions, new meaning

Invited to Exeter as the fall Lamont Poet, Jess is the author of two highly acclaimed books. Published in 2005, leadbelly is a collection of poems about the life of folk and blues musician Huddie Ledbetter. Olio, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry this year, explores the stories of African-American artists and performers against the backdrop of a minstrel show (the “olio” was a mix of variety skits, dances and comedy).

The morning after his reading, Jess held an open Q&A session attended by several hundred Exonians. Excitement from the previous evening was still palpable as students lined up to share their responses to the poems and ask questions relating to the craft of writing, poetic structure, and how the author picks the characters to portray.

“Jess has pushed the boundaries of poetry,” says Magisha Thohir ’18, who marvels at Jess’ syncopated sonnets. “We are able to choose to read his sonnets any way we want. … This reader agency makes me feel that I am truly interacting with the text, and that gives me a greater sense of the relationship that I share with his work and its meaning.”

“Jess’ work is an experience, not just a reading,” adds Maureena Murphy ’20, who feels that his poems “morph the longer you take to read them.” She adds, “He combines complex principals of mathematics and geometry with beautifully complex grammatical concepts.” 

Reclaiming black history

In discussing Olio with students, Jess explains that he explicitly sought out stories of African-Americans who were not well known, stories that he was often embarrassed to discover he did not know.

Murphy considers these characters the most interesting aspect of Jess’ work. “He brings to light historical figures who many young people, like myself, never would have heard of, and places them into a modern context,” she says. “Not only do leadbelly and Olio speak to the past struggles of being African-American, they also draw haunting parallels between our contemporary world in all its ‘progressiveness’ and what we consider to be a very distant past.”

Thohir sees Jess’ work as “an attempt to reclaim black history and identity through the narratives he presents.” Using poetry, she says, Jess tells the “story of the shared black struggle. A string of experience is woven with others to become the larger voice of many.”

Lamont Poetry Series

Since 1983, the Lamont Poetry Series has brought exceptional poets to campus each year, including Jorge Luis Borges, Mary Oliver, Derek Walcott, Donald Hall and Allen Ginsberg.