A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Blackface is in the news and — should anyone be interested in the details — instructions on “How to Black Up,” complete with recipe for burnt-cork face-paint can be found in Olio (p. 132), Tyehimba Jess’ book that won the 2017 Pultizer Prize for poetry. Reprinted from the 1905 Witmark Amateur Minstrel Guide and Burnt Cork Encyclopedia, the recipe is on one of Olio’s foldout perforated tear-sheets, among the strategies — typographic, textual, multiplicitously playful — Jess deploys in his remarkable project to mirror and deconstruct minstrelsy.
On Friday evening, January 25, at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Jess took center stage, no podium, for his Olio show-and-tell. He opened with a news item of the day that had, it seemed, leaped from his book. At a 2005 Halloween party, Florida’s secretary of state, Michael Ertel, was photographed in costume and face-paint. Outed earlier that day, the photo had by evening cost Ertel his job. Each day since then seems to bring new headlines of a public figure’s racist highjinks, for which Olio provides a historical frame and cultural context.
Seldom does poetry intersect this actively with current events. Olio and Jess’ presentation of it — with projected visuals — excavates what was America’s most popular entertainment in the 19th well into the 20th-century. Minstrel shows — originally whites in blackface, later including black performers — caricatured blacks as lazy, unintelligent objects of ridicule, an outlet for mostly white audiences to vicariously experience a projected “savage” nature they associated with blackness.
Defined by the dictionary as a mixture of song, dance and puppetry, “olio” was the second part of a minstrel show — a variety of acts, a format that later evolved into vaudeville. In striking, idiomatic poetry — mixed with letters and documentary texts — Jess’ Olio reaches deeply into these pre-electronic roots of American popular culture and gives new voice to black artists, some of them fairly well known, such as ragtime pianist/composer Scott Joplin and Bert Williams, a late 19th-century minstrel-show comic who became an early vaudeville star.
Others have long faded into obscurity, such as Blind Tom Wiggins and the McKoy sisters, Millie and Christine, conjoined-at-the-hip twins who toured worldwide as a virtuosic piano and singing duo. Many of these artists, some of them former slaves, realizing an opportunity to lift themselves culturally and economically, became minstrel performers.
In Jess’ telling, these blacks wore their unpainted faces as masks — “we wear blackface,” says “Coon Songs Must Go!/Coon Songs Go On (1),” “to make white folks’ truths easier, to mask the ugly in their mirrors.” Jess’ tour-de-force formal inventiveness, which he demonstrated with overhead projections, features “syncopated sonnets” — double columns of text that sometimes intersect and can be read in multiple directions, up, down and diagonally.
For many PBPF participants, Jess’ presentation, as much performance as reading, was a stunning poetry event. (It was among the most powerful this writer has experienced.) Still, it was only an hour’s worth of this year’s PBPF, the 15th annual of this six-day, south Florida gathering. An opportune mid-January getaway for many northern-hemispere poets, PBPF mixes readings, workshops and craft talks with sun, sand and ocean — making it possible to return north not only inspired but tanned.
The roster of headliner poets, always notable, included several Pultizer-Prize winners: Sharon Olds (Stag’s Leap, 2013) and Gregory Pardlo (Digest, 2015) along with Jess, whose Olio has garnered a truckload of honors. Another of this year’s poets, Campbell McGrath, was a 2017 Pulitzer finalist for XX, with a poem for each year of the 20th century, most of them focused on a personality, such as “Joseph Goebbels (1944)”: “Propaganda is how the gods first spoke to us,/ in talismans and entrails, in searchlights/ inscribing their emblems upon a starry sky.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Olds, revered among many poets for her work over 30 years, charmed her audience during an hour-long interview (gracefully conducted by poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar). Asked about what’s ahead with poetry, she said, “More consciousness. If we hadn’t had art, we wouldn’t have lasted as creatures one week.” With climate peril looming unspoken in the space between her words, in a tone both optimistic and not, Olds said “I love the feeling of hope.”
At Wednesday’s “Thomas Lux Memorial Reading,” honoring the poet who was one of PBPF’s strongest supporters, to a packed auditorium, Olds read from Odes, her current book, along with unpublished work from her upcoming collection, Arias. Among other poems, she shared “Ode to my Whiteness”: “You the unseen fat which fed me in the wilderness./ You my masonic handshake./ You my stealth./ You my drone.”
With “Real Estate Ode,” she points slyly in magnate directions, imagining a pyramid in Manhattan. The huge structure would occupy several city blocks and be home to one “dead person, and of others made dead/ to keep him company, in his deadness . . . .” It would be so weighty that trousers placed under it at night would come out “flat in the morning, with a killer crease.”
As with most evenings at PBPF, there’s a post-reading sense of satisfaction, smiles, hallway chatter and an unrushed stroll back to the historic Colony Inn Hotel (where I constantly expect to see the Marx Brothers of “Cocoanuts” pop out of a doorway). In balmy night air, it’s a pleasure to move through the noise and neon of Delray Beach’s main drag, Atlantic Avenue, its carnival ambience of open-air drinking and dining establishments — no hurry, cross the railroad tracks, past the Elvis impersonator at Johnny Brown’s (unless it’s Rod Stewart night), and stop at the Colony bar for a beer, some talk, maybe people-watching on the veranda.
Yes, just ahead there’s flying home to Pittsburgh, the split polar vortex, sub-zero chill at the bone. No need to think about that now.
Mike Schneider won the 2016 Robert Phillips Prize in Poetry from Texas Review Press for How Many Faces Do You Have?
Copyright 2019 Mike Schneider