Poet Tyehimba Jess, who won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book Olio, visited the Joliet West High School Library by invitation from Joliet West teacher Mark Eleveld and hosted by librarians Amy Walsh and Amy Lingafelter. Jess read excerpts from Olio, a distinctive work that melds performance art with the deeper art of poetry to explore collective memory and challenge contemporary notions of race and identity.
Librarian Amy Walsh said, “Tyehimba Jess’s visit was a fantastic way to end National Poetry Month (which began in April)! The opportunity to listen to a Pulitzer-prize winning poet read and discuss his own writing was unique and inspiring. We were excited to provide this new experience for students in the Library. ”
As Jess read his poems that tell the story of the McCoy twins, Jess explained the historical significance while also teaching technical poetic terminology to the students. The students in particular were very impressed by the interstitial readings of his concrete poems, especially the star of syncopated sonnets that resembled the silhouette of the conjoined twin sisters. They were also amazed when Jess tore pages out of his book Olio to demonstrate the meaning of deconstruction and reinterpretation of African American history.
Along with reading his poems with great energy and nuance, Jess shared additional words of wisdom, “Poetry will always be there. It is part of the human condition. One thing that poetry offers is the opportunity to creatively explore and illuminate one’s understanding of one’s lived experiences. There’s a human ache for poetry. The goal with any reading I do is to carry the stories of African American struggle and progress and to share the story of American artistic excellence.
High school students are in an influential part of their lives. When I was a kid, I had the opportunity to see poets and their way of life. People often think that poets have to be dead for over 50 years before they are relevant. It’s important to be exposed to living, breathing poets as well. Along the way I have met some incredible poets such as Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, Sterling Plumpp, and Haki Madhubuti.
To be a poet, give it your all. Do what you love and the money will follow. It’s possible to be an artist and survive. Challenge yourself to grow yourself physically and intellectually. Rather than focus on the accolades, focus on what’s on the page.”
Having known Jess for many years, Eleveld was happy to invite him to perform at Joliet West and said, “It’s so important for our students to see poets at a young age. For several years now at Joliet West High School, we have hosted the best living poets, from Chance the Rapper’s mentor Kevin Coval to Marty McConnell. We are very happy to have Ty here, writing in the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks and other powerful voices from Chicago. Tyehimba is a thoughtful poet who works hard on his craft. It is great for the kids to see literature alive.”
Many students felt inspired and in awe of the immense creativity and thoughtfulness shared by Tyehimba Jess. Student Matthew Roth was moved by the experience and said, “Tyehimba Jess’s poetry reading took me on an emotional and spiritual ride. This experience was truly inspiring.”