Tyehimba Jess, A Literary Father’s Day

12 Jun

Father’s Day just rolled around, and these days I’m thinking about how my literary forefathers have shined the light toward where I want to be and what I want to write.  There are a lot of men that I wanted to emulate over the years, from Haki Madhubuti to the Last Poets to Baraka to Komunyakaa.    But there was one that had an especial effect on me because I got to know him on a personal basis. He expressed an interest in my work at a time when I had almost completely given up on poetry. Our meeting was unexpected and fateful and essential to my understanding of what poetry could be.

At the end of my college years, which were longer than usual, I was pretty much set to be a social service worker.  I had given up on the poetry I wrote from the age of fifteen, turned my back on the sheaves of scribbled up poems I’d written in order to pursue the idea of being a social worker.  I was just about ready to graduate with a degree in Public Policy but only had two more electives to take, so I decided to take them at University of Illinois Chicago to save money. There, I took a class called “The Black Aesthetic” because it looked like it might be interesting. I didn’t pay any attention to who was teaching it.

So when I met Sterling Plumpp, it was that first day of class, him leaning on the lectern, elucidating the history of the Black Arts Movement in a Mississippi drawl. Over the course of that spring, I would begin to realize the possibilities of the word. More importantly, I was able to see firsthand someone who looked like me who had succeeded in doing something that I had dreamed of doing.  And when I read his work, it seemed like he was doing that thing in ways I had never quite imagined.   He was bringing together the worlds of music and politics and history in a way I had never quite understood.

One of the most important things his work did for me was to explain the Blues and how he could fit the feel and intent of the music into a political context, and synthesize it up into an explanation of sorts in his poems.   His book that had the most impact on me at that time, and still today was ‘Blues: the Story Always Untold.’   There were poems inside this book that made me understand the pathway of the blues in ways that most everything else I heard could not explain.  When I reached the end of the poem ‘216,’ I started to understand how the blues could be a ‘personal plea/hitched to a national agenda.’

In other poems, he excavates the identities of bluesmen and women and shows us the multidimensional world of the music that fed the veins of the west and southside streets.  In ‘B.B. King’ he tells us;

Later on, I went to his office ours to talk to him about the class and poetry.  I had gotten ahold of his poems, and I was trying to understand.   I was truly baffled.   The words sometimes didn’t make sense, but then again, they seemed to sound just right.  They seemed to draw the right picture.  “How do you think up these things to say?”   And this I will always remember: Plumpp, leaning back in his chair in his office filled with books upon books upon books, slightly smiling.  “That’s the job, man.  That’s the job.”

I guess that is what he meant by reaching inside himself to find something unique to his own tongue, the one migrated from Mississippi to Chitown and schooled in Latin and Bluespeak.    I guess that I wanted almost more than anything to try to write something that would hit people like what he was writing.  And I guess that right then and there was when I knew that I wanted a gig like what Sterling had.  There in that office, he lent me a copy of Larry Neal’s ….. I borrowed, it, copied every page, and read it over and over again, trying to get a clue about the journey he was taking.

It wasn’t until later that I was in a bar on 43rd street, the original Checkerboard Lounge where Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Lefty Dizz, Howling Wolf, Junior Wells, and so many other greats used to play, that I started to understand how  fundamental The Music is to Plumpp’s approach.    I would go to the bar sometimes to just watch, and other times to sit in with my harmonica on the nights when they had open mics.   Lo and behold, one day I roll up in the joint, and there sits Professor Plumpp, sitting at the bar, slowly nodding to the music.   I got the nerve to walk up and shake his hand, and we had a brief chat, but I noticed that he didn’t want to be bothered much.  He had a pen and pad in hand, even as he nodded his head to the backbeat, and he was slowly deciphering the messages between the notes that tied the slow fist of the bass to the history of the hands inside the music to his own story and back again.  He was ‘encamped I motions’ in motion to the music.  He was deep at work, transcribing the tinsel lit neon and smoke of that tiny theatre of Checkerboard or Rosa’s Lounge or Velvet Lounge sound into something that could smolder and spit from the page.  He was busy being a griot in the best sense of the word.  He observes the people and the music and the news of his community and then writes it down with imagery and grit.

It was only later that I would realize that Plumpp was only the second Black male I had studied under in my entire educational career.  I was around 24 years old at the time that I first met him. I really can’t say how important it was to me to have crossed his path at that time.  But I can say that it made a difference to me.  I can say that he was generous enough to write a blurb for my first self-published chapbook – a gift that he definitely didn’t have to give.    I can also say he was generous enough to be brutally honest with me when he thought my work wasn’t hittin’ it.   And he would explain why, with excruciating detail.   He would also give an illuminating breakdown of other people’s work, many times rife with comparisons to sports figures  – who was throwing the meanest literary punch, or who could make the three pointer shot at the clutch in the last stretch of the poem. He gave me enough to go on, and he would then step back and his silences would demand more. I learned as much from watching him as I did from listening.

So, this father’s day, I’d like to send a shout out to a mentor that’s given back a lot. On my really good days I’m trying to live up to that kind of character that he displays on a regular basis.  On my bad days, I’m not picking up the pen at all.   I’m trying, these days, to have more good days than bad days.   I could say that I owe it to Plumpp, but I really owe it to myself.

Born in Detroit, poet Tyehimba Jess received his BA from the University of Chicago and his MFA from New York University. Jess is the rare poet who bridges slam and academic poetry. His first collection, leadbelly (2005), an exploration of the blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s life, was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Brigit Pegeen Kelly,and was voted one of the top three poetry books of the year by Black Issues Book Review. A reviewer for 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.” 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 (1996), Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry (2000), and Dark Matter 2: Reading the Bones (2004). He is the author of African American Pride: Celebrating Our Achievements, Contributions, and Enduring Legacy (2003). His honors 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 has taught at the Juilliard School and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (source: Poetry Foundation).

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