Pulitzer-Prize Winning Poet Tyehimba Jess Speaks at Fisk

Written by: Dr. Patrick Fleming

Nashville, Tenn., March 26, 2019- On Thursday, March 14, the W. E. B. Du Bois Honors Program at Fisk University hosted Tyehimba Jess, whose book Olio won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Drawing on historical documents, letters, and songs, Olio gives life to black performers from the Civil War to the end of World War I. These performers shaped the sound of black music, but they lived before recording technology could preserve their individual personalities. As a review of Olio in the Tupelo Quarterly put it, Jess speaks through the voices of “obscure but historically significant African American artists.”

To the Fisk Family, however, some of those artists are far from obscure: Olio prominently features the original Fisk Jubilee singers. Jess had briefly visited Fisk in 2014 when conducting research for the book, and Fisk was thrilled to welcome him back to campus. He visited Dr. Katharine Burnett’s and Dr. Lean’tin Bracks’s classes, and in the words of English major Prince Bush, he “shared his journey as not only a poet but also a black man in academia—and had incredible advice on both topics.”

In the afternoon Jess gave a public reading of selections from Olio. Speaking in front of the Fisk Archives, a collection preserving many of the voices that Jess’s poetry recovers, Jess performed what he calls “syncopated sonnets,” even tearing a page out of his book to show how the poems can be read in different directions. English major Destiny Reed enjoyed seeing this tactile component of Olio, and said that the book “encouraged me to be in conversation with past artists who share a different black experience than myself.” Special collections librarian DeLisa Minor Harris called Jess’s visit a “thought-provoking and inspiring event for students, faculty and staff.”

While on campus Jess had the opportunity to spend some time in the Fisk Archives, where he was blown away by seeing Benjamin Banneker’s almanac, and to visit the Aaron Douglas Gallery, where he viewed the Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance exhibit, curated by students in the Fisk Museum Leadership Program. Jess ended the day by attending a rehearsal of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an experience he likened to “visiting the beating heart of the school.” After his visit Jess wrote that there is “a great familial vibe” at Fisk, one that “I've not encountered on the many other campuses that I've visited.”