As a deeply modern poet who effortlessly mixes literary style with contemporary slam, Tyehimba Jess is one of the most celebrated American wordsmiths of his generation. After receiving quiet praise for his previous poetry endeavors, Jess received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 2016 collection, OLIO. Jess was born in Detroit and raised by parents who both held distinctive roles in the black community. He began writing poetry in high school and won second place in an NAACP poetry competition. Jess became discouraged as an English major at the University of Chicago when his first papers received poor grades, so he switched his focus to Public Policy. Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Jess knew he had to return to poetry.
Jess’ first poetry collection, Leadbelly, was voted by Black Issues Book Review as one of the top three poetry books of the year in 2005. This collection, which focuses on blues musician Huddie Ledbetter’s life, set the pace for his future works that examine lives of black cultural figures. Jess continued to enjoy success as a slam poet as well, receiving recognition at the 2001 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Awards and having publications in Slam: The Art of Performance Poetry.
Jess is known in the poetry community as a vital voice and archivist of black culture. In fact, the title of his recent Pulitzer-winning collection comes from the “olio” of a minstrel show, which is a medley performance of all the artists. Poems like “Minnehaha” in OLIO come from the points of view of these figures who were often lost to history. By borrowing the voices of black cultural icons like Scott Joplin and John William Boone, Jess brings a voice back to silenced performances.
In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, OLIO received immense reader and critical acclaim alike, making 2017 a banner year for this poet. Jess currently teaches poetry at CUNY College of Staten Island and advises the college’s literary magazine, Caesura. He has previously held teaching positions at the University of Illinois and the Juilliard School.