CSI Professor of English and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry Tyehimba Jess gave a riveting and dynamic lecture and poetry reading, last Saturday, at the annual Friends Literary Brunch in the Center for the Arts. Keeping with the Friends’ mission to support CSI students, the event raised funds for scholarships.
Prof. Jess read and discussed poems from his latest poetry and prose collection, Olio, which won him the prize.
After explaining the two meanings of olio—a miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements, and a miscellaneous collection of performances in a minstrel show, Jess began by discussing the history of Millie and Christine McKoy who were conjoined twins born into slavery. Prof. Jess recounted their history, interspersed with poems he had written about the sisters who were leased by their master to the freak show circuit when they were very young, often falling victim to intrusive medical examinations, only to become famous performers who earned enough money to eventually purchase the plantation on which they had been born.
As he read the poetry, Jess demonstrated to the audience that many of the poems could be read in a number of different ways with focus on each sister individually or the sisters speaking together.
Among other topics, Prof. Jess also spotlighted Bert Williams and George Walker who were African American minstrel show performers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Regardless of the color of their skin, they donned the blackface makeup of the white performers on the circuit. Jess underscored, however, that Williams and Walker succeeded in becoming characters in their performances, not caricatures, as was standard in minstrelsy.
Like his poems about the McKoy sisters, the poem about Williams and Walker, which could also be read in a number of ways, demonstrated the men’s hardships, but also exuded their pride as accomplished performers who often had a profound emotional impact on their audience.
To conclude the event, Carol Berardi, Acting President of the friends of CSI, presented Prof. Jess with a Certificate of Merit from NYC Assemblyperson Nicole Malliotakis, and informed him that Staten Island Borough President James Oddo had proclaimed October 21, 2017 as Tyehimba Jess Day in Staten Island.
Prior to Prof. Jess’s talk, attendees had the opportunity to take part in a meet and greet to receive an autographed copy of Olio and have their picture taken with the professor. The talk, which also featured remarks from Berardi, CSI President William J. Fritz, and Provost/Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Gary Reichard, followed the traditional brunch in the CFA Atrium. Raffle items, which had been generously donated, were also available.
Prof. Jess came to CSI in 2009, achieving tenure in 2015, after serving as an Assistant Professor at University of Illinois at Champaign, and an artist in residence in the Chicago Public Schools prior to that. He has received a number of fellowships, including a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and other awards, such as the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award. His fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of anthologies and many journals, and he is the Poetry and Fiction Editor for African American Review.