“To be able to sing under that kind of oppression I think, in a lot of ways, is the very essence of survival, of a people, of the ability to have to the hope to make something beautiful amongst so much wretchedness.” –Tyehimba Jess
“The book is unmistakably a book of brilliant poetry, but it also has the feel of an encyclopedia. Not in the sense of weight, or language, but the mere presence of its existence is encyclopedic. In walking away from reading Olio, history has been reclaimed and redefined.” –The Rumpus
"A daring collection, which blends forthright, musically acute language with portraiture." –Library Journal
Born in Detroit, Tyehimba Jess is the author of leadbelly, winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series selected by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Olio, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize.
leadbelly, which explores the life and times of the legendary blues musician through a biography in poems, was named one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005” by both Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review, and Publishers Weekly noted that “the collection’s strength lies in its contradictory forms; from biography to lyric to hard-driving prose poem, boast to song, all are soaked in the rhythm and dialect of Southern blues and the demands of honoring one’s talent."
Olio, published last year, presents the stories behind America’s blues, worksongs, and church hymns. The collection 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, and is an effort to understand how these performers met, resisted, and complicated attempts to minstrelize them.
A two-time member of the Chicago Green Mill Slam team, Jess was also Chicago’s Poetry Ambassador to Accra, Ghana. His work has been featured in numerous anthologies, including Soulfires: Young Black Men in Love and Violence, Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry, and Dark Matter 2: Reading the Bones. He is the author of African American Pride: Celebrating Our Achievements, Contributions, and Enduring Legacy.
In addition to his Pulitzer Prize and National Poetry Series award, Jess’s accomplishments include a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award. A former artist-in-residence with Cave Canem, Jess has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown, as well as a Lannan Writing Residency.
Jess earned a BA from the University of Chicago and an MFA from New York University. He has taught at the Juilliard School, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the College of Staten Island in New York City. As of 2017, he teaches poetry and fiction at CUNY College of Staten Island and is the faculty adviser for Caesura, the University’s literary arts magazine.