The first thing you notice about Olio by Tyehimba Jess, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, is that it looks like no book of poetry you have ever seen. It’s oversized, 8 x 10 inches, with a plain black-and-off-white cover, and more than half an inch thick. It looks less like a poetry collection and more like a workbook.
Open it, and you discover that its difference from traditional books of poetry is even more marked. It has poems, to be sure, and some drawings and photographs, which aren’t unknown in poetry collections. It also has an official cast of characters. It has interviews. Some of the poems are on pages that have to be manually folded out to be read. And for the pages containing poems designated “Jubilee,” you can read headers and footers of the names and dates of African-American churches. The dates are significant – the year the churches were burned or bombed or suffered other kinds of violence.
You begin reading Olio and you enter another world entirely. It is poetry, it is journalism, it is history, it is fiction, it is a minstrel show, it is ragtime, it is the Blues. Jess has created, or, more precisely, recreated, a world of the first generation of post-slavery African-Americans. He has told their story in a dazzling feat of imagination that fuses music, poetry, and history.
To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.
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