Voicing Counterpoint

Tyehimba Jess brings 19th-century black musicians back to life.
By Kyla Marshell

Tyehimba Jess's new book, Olio, is big in size and grand in scale. In an intricate assemblage of history, fiction, and poetic form, Jess brings to life Scott Joplin, Blind Tom, the McKoy twins, Sissieretta Jones, and others, black musicians of the 19th century who were legends of their time yet never recorded. Jess also writes in the voices of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington, Henry "Box" Brown, and Edmonia Lewis, and many others speak to this transitional moment in American history, post-slavery, when blacks were legally free yet still bound in innumerable ways.

In our conversation, Jess and I talked about the inherent conflicts among these characters—in politics, power, and otherwise. Jess is known for his use of contrapuntal poems—sonnets formatted to be read down columns, across the lines, even backward (he uses the terms interstitially and antigravitationally). In a book about musicians and individuals whose opinions greatly differed during their lifetimes (such as Joplin and Ernest Hogan), it makes sense that counterpoint, a musical device, is the one Jess employs to put these characters into conversation. Or, as he writes through the voices of conjoined twins and singers Millie and Christine McKoy, "We've mended two songs into one dark skin / bleeding soprano into contralto / —we're fused in blood and body—from one thrummed stem / budding twin blooms of song."

Read the full interview on the Poetry Foundation website.