“And that’s what you’re talking about when you’re talking about the essence of the blues and its relativity to what we’re doing today. Because we’re working in the tradition of the literature, right? That’s inseparable from that stream. That was the literature we had before we could read and write. And once we were allowed to read and write without the force of death being put upon us, all that imaging went right into the literature. And that’s the connection between African American literature and the blues. So there is no separation between the two.” – Tyehimba Jess
Interview Conducted by E.M. Tran
E.M. Tran: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I really appreciate it. I was actually thinking about when Tyehimba’s agent asked me if I wanted to include another writer, and I immediately thought of Derrick [Harriell]. And the thing I thought about the most was, when I went to a writers’ conference this summer, the one thing I noticed more than anything was how difficult it was for editors and publishers to talk about what they’re doing to diversify literature, and how they’re pulling more writers of color into their journals or how they’re representing them. So I was just really happy I could immediately think of another person who I’d want to participate in this. I’m just really thankful for that.
But I wanted to speak to you both today and put you in conversation. I was reading [Derrick’s] Cotton and Stripper in Wonderland and [Tyehimba’s] leadbelly and Olio—I noticed your poetry has a kind of kinship. In particular, Cotton and leadbelly both inhabit the perspective of blues figures and experiences. Cotton actually opens with a quote by Amiri Baraka about the blues, and leadbelly is from the perspective of a blues musician, from a real blues person. And so, while they’re not your most recent works, I found this musical aesthetic has made its way into your other works, too. Into Olio and Stripper in Wonderland. I was wondering, even though those works are so different, why is the blues and music so central to your poetry? Why have you decided to revolve around these blues figures or these blue perspectives? Or what does the blues really mean to you?
Tyehimba Jess: What Derrick does that I dig is that he has his ear next to the navel of our sound, you know what I mean? He recognizes in his work the connection of the blues and its centrality to the African American experience. Not just the African American experience, but the American experience. You’re talking about a sound that came directly out of slavery getting directly transported from the continent, laboring under the duress of loss of language, not being able to speak your language upon punishment of death, not being able to learn how to spell or read and write in the language of your captor. Not being able to do that, and then not being able to own yourself or any of the things produced from your labor, or even the things you produced from yourself—your children. Or any of the things that produced you; your mother and father are taken away from you. The only thing you actually do have that they can’t touch is what comes out of you—and that is the blues, that is the sound of the blues. So you sing the sound that is labored underneath all of that tension, has been shaped by that tension. You’re talking about gospel and spirituals, you’re talking about that same sound being wrapped around a weapon that was meant to destroy us, and that is the bible. And transforming that book of slavery and inequality and lack of humanity into a vision of life and freedom and self-decoration. When you’re looking at that, you’re talking about the roots of African American literature. That’s what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with all the gods and goddesses from the continent being taken and being able to resist in the fullest and humane state when everything else about one’s humanity has been stripped away from them. And all of that music is bearing that. It was carrying the stories from the continent through slavery, and those are things that kept us alive.
So when you’re talking about the blues, that is what you’re talking about. You’re talking about the roots of African American literature, really the core of American literature. You’re drawing from that well. You’re dealing with that. You’re dealing with producing or relating to the sound that was so captivating and raw that even the people who forced themselves upon us would stand in awe of the sound coming from us and seek to copy it and own it in every way that they can. And that’s what you’re talking about when you’re talking about the essence of the blues and its relativity to what we’re doing today. Because we’re working in the tradition of the literature, right? That’s inseparable from that stream. That was the literature we had before we could read and write. And once we were allowed to read and write without the force of death being put upon us, all that imaging went right into the literature. And that’s the connection between African American literature and the blues. So there is no separation between the two.
Derrick Harriell: I love, Tyehimba, that you say that was the literature we had before we could read and write because my way into the blues, it was very serendipitous and organic. I didn’t know I was a blues poet until people kept telling me I was a blues poet. It wasn’t necessarily my goal to be a blues poet. But I knew I was interested in black lives, and I knew I was interested in the lives of my family who migrated from Alabama and Mississippi up to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And I was interested in their stories. What happened is, as a young writer in my early 20s, I would write these poems. They were persona poems. And then after the reading, some wonderful person would walk up to me—some wonderful elder would walk up to me—and say, “Oh, you a blues poet!” and I would just take it, like, “Yeah, of course I am!” But I didn’t know what that meant. I had no idea what they were saying, that declaration, I had no idea what that was, right?
T: Huh, Yeah.
D: It wasn’t until I could really, really dig into the literature, and even the music, and dig into, kind of what Tyehimba was saying, a legacy of blues. It’s not just a black thing, but it’s an American thing, and it’s an African thing. But I found out why they were saying that about my work, about my mission, about my goals. The funny thing is, once I did a little bit of research, and once I started to come to terms with that legacy and what blues is, and what blues literature is, and what blues culture is, it was humbling. Because I felt like it was something that was bestowed upon me. It wasn’t something that I decided. It was elders saying, “Look, this is what you’re doing. Carry on the legacy.” Right? Like, we’re riding with you, we’re depending on you, this is what we need you to do. And to that point, I will never forget this. I was in graduate school and I was in the library, and I was teaching a blues lit class. It was my first—I was a TA, but I had my own class. And it was the first time that I could run my show. I was teaching a blues lit class, and I was still trying to figure out my way. I went to the library, and I’m reading everything. I’m reading Amiri Baraka, I’m reading Tony Bolden, I’m reading Houston Baker, I’m reading all these texts. And then I started looking at literature. I started looking at poetry books. And, I kid you not, I put my hands on leadbelly. I sat down, and I started reading it, just some quiet afternoon, like right before the fall semester. And I could not get out of my seat for several hours. I was like, I didn’t even know this was possible. I didn’t know that we could do persona like that, in the way that it works on a meta-level. Because it’s about a blues man, a blues person, a blues singer, but it’s blues poetry, you know what I’m saying? It’s working on so many levels. That was so inspiring to me as a young writer at the time.
T: Man, you know. I think when I’m looking at your work, what I think when I hear you talk about your connectedness to your family, that’s really what I see as part of your work. I see a raw honesty about yourself, I guess, a wonder at the way the blues is manifesting around you. And your rootedness in seeing that in your family is what I dig about what you do. Because it’s your connection that you just described is what brought you home there. You’re writing about the bar, you know? All these things are real and rooted in that life, in that reality, in a very vivid way. That’s what I dig about what you do.
D: I appreciate that Tyehimba.
E.M.: Both of you are representing a version of a historic past on your own terms, and that seems really important. But when people talk about the blues, they talk about it as if it’s rooted solely in the past. I’m wondering—are you concerned or influenced at all, or occupied with present day blues? Do you think that exists?
D: You mentioned that Cotton starts with the Amiri Baraka quote, right? And, the quotes says, “Blues was a music that arose from the needs of a group, although it was assumed that each man had his own blues and that he would sing them.” So, when I think of the blues, it’s malleable, right? It’s not perfectly compartmentalized into a specific thing. When I think about blues, I think about marginalized lives. I think about black lives. So, a short answer to your question: I think trap music is inspired by the blues. I don’t need to go to a blues bar in the Delta to hear blues. I think that pain, that anguish, that legacy is in music right now.
T: I would echo that. I would also say that the construction of the blues was rooted in the construction of America, meaning slavery, because it’s a music that came directly out of the contradiction that America was then and still is today. That contradiction is at the heart of our understanding of ourselves as Americans, and yeah, it will always be at the core of the music that is generated from this place. It will be central to that understanding of the state of America, you know? So, it will always be present. It manifests in different ways. In trap, in hip hop. Remember, you’re talking about the great-great-great-grandmamma of the sounds we’re hearing today. There is no escaping at any time. That’s the center of my understanding of blues and its relationship and its relevance. It will always be relevant because it is part of the construction of the very thing, this country called America. There’s still fantastic blues players out there. The other week, I was out with Billy Branch and listening to him play. He’s one of the best. I think he’s the best harmonica player out there right now. [The blues] still manifests on the technical level in playing the instruments, but I think, in a lot of ways, you want to talk about ownership by the people who created it. Literature is where you find the real ripple effect of the blues the strongest. The most impermeable. Because it’s directly out of the black experience, you dig what I’m saying? So it will always be black. [laughs] No matter how many times I go into a blues club—I may be the only brother in there except for maybe one brother on the stage, or sister, you know. There may be two. Other people will be able to practice the blues. But it generated from us, and the most direct experience of it is coming through other art forms. The one I know best is literature. You can sing visually, you can sing all different kinds of ways. We lay claim to it in many other ways than just the music, and literature is one of the strongest.
D: I think that’s important, right? I think if we’re looking for the blues to manifest in a certain way, then we’re going to miss so many echoes of the blues.
T: Right, exactly. Exactly. It’s like it’s an explosion of sound and meaning that has ripples at the core of the foundation of this country, this nation-state, and it has reverberated and expressed itself in every other aspect of the country itself. Especially at the art form.
E.M.: This image of you at a blues club and being the only black man there is a really striking one. I am an Asian woman, and I usually am counting how many other people of color are in the room with me. It’s just kind of a reflex, right? You walk into a space and you take an inventory of what your surroundings are. And, it must be the same as a black man in America walking into or inhabiting certain spaces. People assume or expect you to occupy particular spaces or fulfill certain stereotypes because of your racial identity. So, I want to know about these deliberate choices to be black male poets. I view it as a kind of act of resistance. What led you to this decision, and do you ever feel like it’s an act of resistance in the daily practice of being a poet?
T: Whoo wee! That was a lot. [Laughs]
E.M.: [Laughs] I would like to know, on the one hand, how you came to make this decision to be a poet, because I think that being raised as a black man in America, you’re expected to fill certain boxes. And being a poet is probably not one of those boxes. So, how you were led to that place in your life. Like, how have you come to exist as who you are?
T: Wow, I would say . . . I’m going to back this up for half a tick and say that I was just in Chicago and I was at this black writers’ conference [the Gwendolyn Brooks Black Writers Conference].
D: At Chicago State?
T: At Chicago State, yeah.
D: Right on.
T: And Haki [Madhubuti] was there. And, you know I consider Haki—when I was coming up in Chicago, like 18 to 36 was when I was in Chicago—he was a huge impression on me as a young writer, you know what I’m saying? But it was him and Sterling Plumpp and Angela Jackson [at the conference]. And they were answering questions. But one thing [Haki] said, almost in an offhanded way, is his explanation of how he became a poet. He said, you know, back then, men didn’t write poetry. So he would pretend like he was writing lyrics for, like, the Supremes or something like that. You know what I’m saying? But I think that looking back at his understanding of the masculinity he grew up with, it was harsher than what I had experienced. And it took men like him to write, and like Sterling Brown and Sterling Plumpp . . . but you know, seeing them out there gave me guidelines to seek out for myself. Seeing other men do this work affirmed me in a lot of ways. And I also have to say, I think that our perception of black masculinity has changed a lot during my lifetime. I know that I have been actively thinking about trying to challenge myself in the ways I’ve been homophobic and sexist and just not that nice of a person! And in my relationships, et cetera. That is part of the challenge that I have faced in my understanding of what it is to be a black male poet. What I’m saying is, I chose this because when I took one step towards it, it took two steps towards me.
T: And everything I have in my life really comes from that.
D: I don’t know why that reminds me of the movie Malcolm X. What did he say? Take one step toward Allah, Allah will take two toward you?
T: Yeah! That’s the way it worked for me. Now, I’m trying to figure out how to be a black man in the 21st Century. It’s different from my perception of it in the 1980s and whatever it was before. It’s different now. I’m challenged to face it every day. Does that make sense?
D: I almost got my notebook out, right now. I gotta process that. Wow.
T: And I think that it’s been really beautiful to see such a conversation happening that I was not around when I was younger. It’s been an enlightening experience.
D: That’s amazing. And I’m probably going to be thinking about that commentary all afternoon. So to answer your question, [E.M.], when I think about myself and the decision—I don’t even know if it was a decision. I like what Tyehimba said, it took two steps toward me every time I took one step towards it. But my desire to write, and then to believe I had something that might be worth, or valuable to even one person, that’s what I tell my students often. You know, it’s a really, really exposing and humbling thing to write something and tell someone that this should matter to you, or you should listen to this, you should read this, or you should hear this! It takes a lot of courage to be a writer, first off, right? Because, it’s not like, watch me dunk a basketball, or watch me drive one hundred miles an hour. It’s like, listen to me say some words, and I hope you feel some kind of way about these words.
I like what Tyehimba was talking about, this deconstruction of black masculinity. That’s been a lot of my journey. My father, he’s a guy’s guy. He was a cop, and he was like a dude that lifted a bunch of weights. And when I was like, twelve, he was like, look, this is what we do. We lift weights, we eat chicken, and when you get 21, we get beer, too, and whiskey—and sometimes we objectify women. And I’m like, okay, this is what I’m going to do. But then you get grown and you realize, damn, I learned a lot of things I have to unlearn, now. Right? And one of those things was that, you’re not going to be a poet. My father was like, yo, you’re smart. Go be a businessman. Go be a doctor, go be a lawyer. You’re smart. Like, why would you waste your time with letters? [Laughs]
T: [Laughs] Right, right, right.
D: And that’s also the kind of tokenism in, like—I won’t even just say certain black communities, but in a lot of communities. You’re thinking about class systems, you know? If you’re deemed a person that’s capable of being, quote unquote, one to get out, you’re supposed to really get out. You’re supposed to be president, then. But the way it came to me, when I was in high school, I wrote poems and I would also write rhymes. I would MC. I was a kid of the 90s, I was coming up in the 90s, so it was like TuPac era, Nas and Jay-Z era. That’s what I would do. At lunch, we writin’ rhymes, and we puttin’ beats on the lunch table, and we’re rappin’. That’s what we did. We battle-rapped and all that. But I didn’t know what that could manifest into—I didn’t even know that that was poetry, what I was doing. I thought it was something else. And I thought that meant I should get a record deal. I thought that meant I should be a famous rap star. But then I remember, I think it was my freshman year in college, someone was like, “Come to an open mic.” And I didn’t even know what that was. This was circa maybe 1999, 2000. I walk into an open mic, and I saw all these brilliant folks, doing these amazing poems, these amazing performances.
T: Yeah, that’s how I started out.
D: It was almost like method acting, in a way. I didn’t even know this was a possibility. When I saw them doing that, I left that open mic and it was clear to me. This is what I’m supposed to do. I wasn’t confused—this is what I’m supposed to do. I’m not supposed to be a rap star, I’m not supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer. I’m supposed to do this and let the cards fall where they fall.
T: Yeah, I tell you, that was a pathway for me, too. I learned a lot from open mics. I went to open mics for years and years.
D: Was the Green Mill [Jazz Club] cracking when you was there in Chi?
T: Yeah, it was. I was going to open mics. Most of the open mics I was going to were black. You know, in Chicago there was a few choices, we’d be hittin’ it. I did some open mics, too, at a donut shop on 71st Street and a book store in 1990. I learned so much. And then I learned more from slam. And then I learned a lot, like a huge amount from Cave Canem. MFA was finishing school.
E.M.: It seems like the way in for both of you was performance. This auditory and this on-stage presence.
T: Performance poetry.
E.M.: Yeah, performance poetry. What is it that engaged you? What drew you in? It seems like, Derrick, the moment that you knew was when you attended an open mic. Why is that?
D: Well, I think it was the audacity. What’s so funny, as a sidebar, being at my first open mic, I had no idea what to expect. And then I would hear them introduce these poets, and they would have these, like, huge names. It’d be like, here comes Killa the Conqueror! And then a little dude would walk on stage. Here comes Killa the Conqueror! That’s him right there. But the audacity to say that black stories matter. And the audacity to say that our hurt and our trauma can manifest into something that’s beautiful. That’s cathartic, I guess cathartic might be the word. Because I didn’t think our stories mattered. Again, we’re talking about black masculinity. You take it to the chin and keep moving. You don’t talk about it. If something goes wrong, you take it to the chin and keep moving. But then, I saw these people talking about social justice and talking about black lives and talking about the sort of mountains or obstacles we have to overcome as a people. That was what hooked me. And you know, my uncles are poets. They’re not published in books. The sort of caveat is, a couple of them were also pimps. So there’s that conflict. When I was young, they would sit me down and be like, “Yo, listen to this, it was me and Spoon-G sittin’ on twenty-first street.” And it was a poem! I didn’t know it at the time, but they were poets. So, I was raised in that kind of oral community. I think going to open mics gave me a platform. I said, okay, this is something I can connect with, and I can do this. I think I can do this.
T: Yeah, that’s what happened for me. I think the other thing I wanted to say was, look at the exposure to hip hop and how it’s a public exercise of poetry on so many levels. We have such a multitude of poets born in the streets, just all the time. Brothers doing raps and black folks rappin’ all over the place. It’s weird because it’s an all-time high of poets. Just from the proliferation of hip hop. But that was one thing I wanted to say because we were talking about the context of being a poet, or being a black poet, being a black male poet and all that. You have so many poets out there, like raps.
D: I was in a hip hop band. We recorded in Chicago and we performed a lot in Chicago.
T: Which shift?
D: From 2001 to like 2006? But I remember finishing grad school and feeling, like, this should be a secret. I can’t get on the job market and then try to get an academic job and say that I was a rapper. So I didn’t talk about rapping.
T: Huh, that’s interesting. Because that’s part of your education. That’s part of who you are. I feel you. The first time I saw a poetry reading was Quincy Troupe. And I was like [sighs], I would like to try and do that, that was pretty fly. He was talking about music and his dreads was flyin’ all over the place. I remember it like it was yesterday. Anyway, then I would start to go to open mics. Black folks are so confined in every other aspect of our lives, the open mic is just a place where we can sit down and say whatever we want. And be listened to. And if you’re doing your job, they gonna be quiet. It’s one of those few places of emotional care, and it happens in an open mic. That’s performative and everything, but that is what’s happening. They’re saying “Look, I’m having this problem and I need you to listen to me.” You know? It’s not enough to solve the problem, but at least it’s an outlet to say you have that problem, that you’re thinking about these things. And that’s the very basis of community. It’s community more than anything.
D: I’m feeling what you’re saying because part of what I’m thinking about is the ways in which, when I first started an academic job, I would get like, suggestions for things to watch out for. And I’m like, do you know where I come from? The first time that I got involved in an open mic, that was harder to do than to get tenure! Go to an open mic and have them feel that. Because the first few times, they were like, “Oh, he whack.” [Laughs] You know what I’m saying? I’m on stage shakin’, and they’re like Errr, Ahh . . . we’ll pass on him.
T: That’s a learning ground. What had happened with the academy is I think it has grown—my perception of poetry was not anything like what I saw at an open mic. Poetry was supposed to be boring and by old white folks who been there for three hundred years. I gotta have a detect-o-ring to figure out what they’re talking about, and a thesaurus, and blah blah blah. And it would be boring and about something that had been gone and happened 300 years ago. So, I think what open mic did and, I would have to say, what slam did in a really aggressive way, was that they spoke back to the public that had been alienated from poetry, and said, no, it can really still exist and mean something in your life. And you can come in this place, and you can actually appreciate this art form. When you talk about moving the crowd, that’s the idea. When you talkin’ about reverberations of the blues—taking it back there once again—you’re talking about also the oral tradition. You’re talking about that gospel tradition. You’re talking about the preaching tradition of the black church being summoned through all of the people who ruled the first ten or twelve or fifteen years of the slam. They were all black! All this sonic force had a place to go. You gotta put energy into it. That energy has awakened in academia, and to academic poetry. It’s still necessary to inhabit, it’s a good thing to inhabit your poems like you’re living in them when you’re delivering them to your audience. When you read a poem in front of somebody . . . there’s people I know who I’ve heard them read, and I can’t read their poems without hearing their voice. That’s when you really have an opportunity. That information that you’re giving with your reading is an opportunity to really show your soul through your work in a different kind of way. Slam and performance poetry and open mics became impossible to ignore. Look at Patricia Smith. She’s coming not just with her performance on stage, but she’s also dealing with what she’s got on the page.
D: Oh my god. Her craft was impeccable.
T: She inspired me. Thank god for Tía Chucha Press that put out her first book. I remember that because it was called [Life According to] Mo-Town, and I was from Mo-Town! Who is this writin’ about Mo-Town?
E.M.: Do you think your work is in dialogue with these other black voices? In this larger network?
T: Oh, yeah. It’s in dialogue with the world, but it’s definitely in dialogue with them. I see myself in dialogue with the world, primarily. Really, honestly, I’m in dialogue with me. And then that dialogue opens to the world in order to witness. I’m having conversations with Sterling Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks. I feel like I’m in conversation with all those . . . you know, Howlin’ Wolf . . .
T: I’m in conversation with all those who came before me, ya dig? That’s what it’s about. I’m particularly interested in that river, that blues river. But I think it’s also true that when you focus on who you really are, when you focus on your experience (even though I do persona), when you do that, you also allow people . . . how’s that rule go? The more particular the experience, the more global the understanding. Those details, you think they’re too miniscule, but they give insight to folks outside of your perspective. Because they can identify with those very human things.
D: I think what’s so interesting and significant about what you said is primarily, or even first, I’m in dialogue with myself. I think it’s romantic to feel like writing is this sort of philanthropic undertaking, but it’s really a selfish undertaking. It’s really me trying to understand myself and my life and my family. And where I come from. That quintessential question of once we first get awareness of, “Who am I?” Right? Like, who am I? That’s a big part of why I write. People might read it or might not read it, but initially, I think at the core of it all, it’s me in conversation with myself.
T: Who am I, and, to quote Marvin Gaye, “What’s goin’ on?”
D: What’s goin’ on!
E.M.: You say you’re in dialogue with yourself and you’re also in dialogue with the world—but I feel like I can really place your work in a tradition. You mentioned confinement. Going to open mic allowed you to break out of certain kinds of confinement, but I noticed that your poetry makes conscious and deliberate returns to spaces in the south. I guess a more accurate way to put that would be to say that your poetry travels, and journeys, and returns. I feel like I’ve been reading a lot about this lately. Jesmyn Ward wrote something about returning to Mississippi for Time, and Kiese Laymon has written about returning to Mississippi in his essays.
D: That’s my brother! Heavy is heavy.
E.M.: Yeah! But I’ve noticed that a lot of black writers are reflecting on this kind of return. You both write about journeys and returns to the American South. Why have you decided to think about this kind of journey?
D: Tyehimba had mentioned Haki Madhubuti. I went to Chicago State for my MFA, and so I worked with Quraysh Ali Lansana, Kelly [Norman] Ellis, and Haki Madhubuti on poetry. And I’ll never forget, it was one of the most intimidating classes I ever sat in because, I don’t know what the enrollment was that year or that semester, but it was me, another student, and Haki for two and a half hours once a week.
D: [Laughs] Exactly! I was on my best behavior. But I remember Haki saying something along the lines, and I’m not quoting directly, but, “Don’t waste time on the mic.” And for me, tradition is important. And even having this conversation with Tyehimba, to know that I didn’t come out of thin air—there were people who created a space for me to have a platform. To write art. I could easily be a welder, I could easily be on some assembly line—and not dissing those careers. But people created a space to say that, “Look, black boy, you can do this, too.” You know? Be imaginative. And when you’re imaginative, try to dream something further than any fantasy that you could possibly have when you first came up in those Milwaukee streets. And so, for me, as much as it’s a selfish undertaking, I’m very, very much aware of the folks that paved the way for me. And beyond that, how brilliant their work is, and how much that work has inspired me. I owe that, and I will always owe them.
T: Yeah. Yeah. I second that motion. When I’m writing in persona, I do also feel like I’m in conversation with somebody. Trying to listen to their life and see what they actually say. And I think that I’m also in conversation with all the writers that had nowhere near the level of access that I’ve had. Or opportunity that I’ve had. Because they put out their work and they fought for me to be here. I feel like they cleared out territory for us to do what we have to do. I’m thinking of like [Robert Hayden’s] “Middle Passage,” and thinking about the kind of history that was laid out in that poem. It had the names of the slaves and the slaves ships all up in there. And how it was cutting a path into history, a history we know much more about now then was known at the time that the poem was written. We have a much better grasp. We needed to have “Middle Passage”—or I needed to have “Middle Passage”—to guide me to do this kind of historical work that is able to get beyond “Middle Passage.” You can’t have chapter four without chapter one, you know? You can’t have chapter two, three, and four without understanding how we got here. That’s the kind of territory he was covering in that particular poem. I see that as a beacon for the kind of work I’m trying to do right now. So I consider myself in conversation with that.
E.M.: So part of understanding that integral history is going back to the spaces and exploring them? Perhaps mapping those historic spaces?
T: All of that, to make a long story short—going back to those spaces because that’s where we come from. That’s the long story short. I mean, I’m from Detroit, I was born in Detroit. But I grew up around Southern accents.
E.M.: I only ask that question, actually, because I know that you’re from Detroit, and Derrick, you’re from Milwaukee. And that you went to school in Chicago and New York, and I read this essay actually—Derrick, I’m sure you’ve read it—that Catherine Lacey wrote [for The Believer], about leaving Mississippi. It was noticeable to me that she talked so much about leaving Mississippi and never wanting to come back, basically. And what I’ve seen so much from so many black writers is that it’s about having left, but necessary to that story is also returning. Olio is grounded by various churches, and in cities and towns or dated hand bills from different parts of the South, and Stripper in Wonderland creates its own kind of weird dystopia cobbled together from Atlanta and Mississippi. It was just striking to me that your poetics seem really concerned with tangible places and returns.
D: With Stripper in Wonderland, I was very much interested in exploring landscapes. And by landscapes I mean that in the most broad way—like, emotional landscapes, internal landscapes, but also physical and geographical landscapes. And I’m sure Tyehimba can completely relate to this. My book before Stripper in Wonderland was Ropes. That was actually my dissertation. So, I had to spend five years researching. There was so much about my personal journey that I never even tried to—again, talking about the ways writing is cathartic and a way of understanding ourselves—that I never even attempted to understand. And so, I’m stuck writing Jack Johnson poems (in the best way of being stuck), but I’m also stuck in like 1914. I’m listening to ragtime, and then I’m writing Joe Lewis poems, you know what I’m saying? Then I’m writing Mike Tyson poems and listening to Run-DMC. Whatever was on the menu in the world at that moment. I was very much stuck in these very particular historical time periods. And so with Stripper, so much had happened in my life while that was happening, that I wanted to try to process. It’s weird for me because I love Mississippi, I live in Mississippi. And I’ve been here for six years, this is going on seven, now. But I also know that I’m not from Mississippi. So, in some ways, I’m still a voyeur. Someone like Kiese [Laymon] coming back to Mississippi, that’s some real hometown hero stuff. He’s from here. He’s from the Jackson area. So I try to tread lightly while still trying to understand the space. Because, for me, it’s fresh. There’s certain baggage that I don’t have because I wasn’t born here. There’s certain weight that I just get by without feeling it. I understand that that could probably be insensitive. Sometimes I’m not really trippin’ on a confederate statue, because I’m like fuck that confederate statue—but I didn’t suffer directly because of that, and the manifestation of its power isn’t spoke about where I’m originally from. We feel it in Milwaukee but it’s not a part of our black conversation. It’s really important because “place” is me trying to process what I did being in Milwaukee, being in Chicago, or being in my 20s again when I was researching for Ropes. One of my most dear friends, he’s in the NBA. He plays ball, and so I was trying to process being at Chicago State living off $20 a week and ramen noodles, and then flying to Vegas. And then you land, they got the little sign with your name on it. You know what I’m saying? For a weekend, I’m rich, apparently. Just trying to process what that means and how that informs me becoming who I become. That’s part of my journey in Stripper.
E.M.: I would like to ask about your process and craft because I think so much about being a writer is the unglamorous daily trudge. Getting up every day and just doing it, even though you may not want to or you’re at a difficult part and you really don’t want to look at it, right? What we get from you guys, the only part we really see is this finished product. All we see is this beautiful object that we can have on our bookshelf. Where do you start when you start approaching an unrealized idea? Especially in poetry, so much of it is about form and about negative space surrounding the words that end up on the page. So what is your process in crafting a poem, or a collection, or a body of work?
D: You know what’s funny about that question? I was almost going to hijack that question in this interview because I’m interested in what Tyehimba would say, because low-key I call Tyehimba the D’Angelo of poetry. leadbelly came and I was waiting for like fifteen years for another book! And then he dropped this jewel that bust my whole head open, and our whole heads open, and so I’m interested in how that works for you Tyehimba. I’ll just say this quick caveat: one of my mentors, who’s a very celebrated poet who was in his early 70s, told me one of his regrets in his career was publishing too many books. He published maybe 25, 26 books in his career, and he said that was just too many. So I’m interested in that question for Tyehimba.
T: Well . . . [Laughs] Well you know what? I think that my process has been a makeshift of obsession, desperation, and curiosity. And probably a few thousand Makers Marks.
D: [Laughs] A harmonica somewhere in there.
T: I think that I got lucky in a certain kind of way in that I somehow found my way to a point where I could take the time I needed to write Olio. Which really took like three years of moving around it to figure out where I was after leadbelly, and getting his voice out of my head. And then seven and a half years or so of writing. I find something that I’m really interested in and I just try to see what its story is. I’m a storyteller and I like telling stories. I’m just trying to find a better way to tell a story. People get bored very quickly. You gotta keep people engaged. And I gotta keep myself engaged. But I think that it may be that one’s process may change. I don’t know. I’m wondering if it’s true that one’s process for one book may be different than it is for another. What changes from one project to another? For me, the difference is between . . . I guess, was it scope between leadbelly and Olio? It was thinking in a different scale. But it was also just thinking, just trying to figure out a problem. It’s like figuring out a problem or a diagram.
D: [Laughs] Yeah!
T: It’s like a game in a way.
D: It’s an equation—it’s a puzzle.
T: It’s a puzzle is what it is, yeah. You’re trying to piece together and see the entire image, and you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you start out. You don’t even know what the puzzle looks like. Each piece comes into play and that’s how I see it. Is that what you feel?
D: Psh . . . man—to be quite honest, it’s been…
T: Like how did you deal with all that research you did for boxing and everything? How did you feel doing that?
D: It was fun, it was really fun. When I initially started playing with persona, I really thought I was someone else. Then I realized, well, this is still about me. Because I’m acting. This ain’t Mike Tyson, this is me playing Mike Tyson. My hope is that it reveals some things maybe about this man’s life, but it’s really revealing something about me and my obsessions. But what’s interesting is that my first two books, they had a pragmatic purpose. Now is the time that I’m finally able to write for just the joy of it. There are still things that are pragmatic, and there’s still things like full professor, or awards that could feed my son or could put money in his savings account—whatever. That aside, Cotton was my thesis for my MFA. And Ropes was my dissertation. And I was also on the job market. So there were real, real stakes with those books. If I don’t nail this and this doesn’t get published, then I’m going to be the first cat with a PhD working at McDonald’s. Maybe not the first. [laughs] Maybe the third or the fourth.
T: That is real. That’s the truth. Must. Work.
D: You gotta work. And I’m working, making $16,000 a year as a TA [Teaching Assistant], and my wife is holding the whole fort down. And she’s looking at me like, “Bro, you know this is a sacrifice. So this better work.” There was no plan B. This had to work. All this is to say, my process was a lot more pragmatic. Like, I have to sit down, I have to write. And to that end, I had so much fun writing Stripper in Wonderland. Because it was the first book I wrote that I didn’t need to write.
T: Ah . . . I can feel the freedom in it. I totally see that. I think it’s a lot riskier book. The risk is right up front. But what I think is disarming about that book is you’re getting to explore your gendered reality. Your sexuality. Your vision. And your sensitivities in that book are raw, open. That’s not easy. That can’t be easy.
D: That’s the best blurb ever.
T: It’s a very vulnerable book.
D: But to the point of having fun with it, I was okay with it never coming out. I was just having fun on the page. And then LSU was like, “We want that!” I’m like, forreal? Y’all want that? I had no expectations at all for that book. That was a big part of what made the process so enjoyable. It’s different if you’re in a race, and you’re like, I have to make a certain time. As opposed to, I’m just jogging. I’m looking at the trees, like, oh! There’s a car right there, there’s a park over there! No, I’m not worried about my time. I’m just running.
T: Yeah, that’s beautiful. That’s a good way to be.
E.M.: I actually feel like Stripper in Wonderland even looks like, the cover itself is like, “I’m free! I’m having a good time!”
D: As free as I can be in academia! I’m gonna declare this space. This is as free as one can be there.
T: That’s your process—it’s freedom.
E.M.: I appreciate you bringing up the pragmatics of writing. A lot of people view it as just this thing that’s like, “This is a hobby,” or, “I really like writing and I’m just going to feel it.” Which is true for everyone, right? You feel the writing, that’s why you’re writing it. But it’s also at some point a job. You’re getting up and doing it.
D: Right! Talking about the pragmatics, this whole time, I’m sure I’ve been super echoey in this conversation because I’m in the garage. I have a six year old in the house. There’s nowhere in the house that he’s not going to find me. There’s real shit on the line that comes with it. He has to eat, he has to go to college.
T: And it’s like Haki said. Don’t waste time on the mic.
D: Don’t waste time on the mic.
T: Exactly! You gotta come. You gotta come with everything you got! It’s real out here, man. The other thing about that is, even as you’re giving it all you got, you have to know that there is no guarantees whatsoever of anything. Being published in a journal or anything at all. You have to give it 100%, but you don’t know. You can’t be writing for somebody else. You have to write for you. That’s the trick.
Artwork: “Winter Rain,” by Jeff Kallet
Tyehimba Jess is the author of two books of poetry, Leadbelly and Olio. Olio won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, The Midland Society Author’s Award in Poetry, and received an Outstanding Contribution to Publishing Citation from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. It was also nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Jean Stein Book Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Leadbelly was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.”
Jess, a Cave Canem and NYU Alumni, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a 2004–2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Jess is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, and won a 2000–2001 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry, the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He presented his poetry at the 2011 TedX Nashville Conference and won a 2016 Lannan Literary Award in Poetry. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2018. Jess is a Professor of English at College of Staten Island.
Jess’ fiction and poetry have appeared in many journals, as well as anthologies such as Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Beyond The Frontier: African American Poetry for the Twenty-First Century, Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Power Lines: Ten Years of Poetry from Chicago’s Guild Complex, and Slam: The Art of Performance Poetry. (from Tyehimbajess.net)
Derrick Harriell is a poet who was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since 2011 he has been a professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. He earned an MFA from Chicago State University and a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2012. He was a poetry editor for The Cream City Review in Milwaukee and Third World Press. He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. His three works of poetry are Ropes, Cotton, and Stripper in Wonderland. (from Mississippi Writers and Musicians)
E.M. Tran is a Vietnamese American fiction and creative nonfiction writer from New Orleans. Her work has appeared in Joyland Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Prairie Schooner, where her essay was awarded a Glenna Luschei Award and listed as a notable essay in Best New Essays 2018. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing at Ohio University.