Tyehimba Jess on Excavating Popular Music Through Poetry
Exploring the Sustenance of Song and Historical Clapbacks
In Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, a new book length performance of poetry, song, collage and art object, musical knowledge is channeled back to its source—before the wax cylinders of antiquated recording technology, before Alan Lomax and W.C. Handy, to the 19th century of black musicians. Jess’s poetic concentration is so absolute, dithyrambic, multimodal, encyclopedic, that it defies categorization as much as the early music of gospel singers and jazz pioneers, blues artists and vaudeville performers he describes and celebrates. History as song; as expression; as freedom. That is, a living history that follows the great migration of African-Americans between the Civil War and World War I who undertook journeys across thousands of miles as well as musical history. The result is one of the most profound portraits I know of how artists have redefined their very being in the world. I was lucky to sit down with Jess in a favorite restaurant of his last month, and talk to him about the origins and labor involved in this decade-long project.
Adam Fitzgerald: Olio is a magnum opus. I’ve been trying to think of the right handle for it, because I want to say epic, and I want to say opera, and I want to say Broadway, and vaudeville—all the things that the book brings into conversation. But it’s such a sustained multi-layer performance. How long did you spend working on this?
Tyehimba Jess: About eight years. It took a while. But thank you. I started writing Olio the summer just before I left teaching in Illinois—that’s when I wrote the first thing that would look like it would appear in this book. So that was in late ‘08. Maybe the spring of 09, more or less. Then, I think the only part that was really written was the interview with the nurse who was the last person to really see Scott Joplin play. I think that was the only thing. I think a section of it might’ve been written.
AF: And you soon sensed that this would be part of a larger tapestry?
TJ: You know what? I didn’t know what it was going to be. Because it was so prosaic. So, it was really not in the direction that I’m used to going. And I didn’t know, really, why I was writing it. And, really, there was another thing I wrote that was gonna be in this book, but it was Blind Boone talking about the day they found out that Scott Joplin had died. And that was really the first pathway. And then that didn’t really work out; it just wasn’t happening the right way. But then when I came here to New York… I felt really behind. It’d been four years since Lead [leadbelly] had come out—and I didn’t have a book. You know what I’m saying? So, basically, I was up against the wall. Everybody around me has been movin’ and groovin’.
AF: Sure hasn’t been a quiet time for poetry.
TJ: No, it really hasn’t! So I felt, like, “Ok, Jess. It’s time to make it happen.” And, really, the one thing that had been blocking me was that when I wrote Lead, I was deep in that Leadbelly voice. And so everything I was trying to write sounded like Leadbelly.
AF: How does a poet—I’m sure every writer in the world wants to know—turn off a voice they had channeled so intensely?
TJ: Well, you know what, I think I have to get my discipline tighter, because, really, if I’d been writing everyday I would have found a way out of it quicker. Probably. But what happened was—the one thing that I came up with was to write in form. So I decide, “OK,” because if I write in form and I follow a sonnet, then the whole rhyming situation is gonna get me out of the Leadbelly voice. And it worked. I had to break it up, because I was thinking, “I can’t do the exact same thing.” And I was a little scared because I didn’t really want to go back and do a musician again. I was thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna get pigeonholed as doing this one thing.” But, then I wrote this… in order to get out of the voice, I was like “I need to do something.” So I reached for what was my obsession, what was familiar—I never had read about Blind Tom—and the first poems in the book were the series, the crown of sonnets about him. And that made me get a little bit out of the voice.
AF: Tell me about the discovery and imaginative time you spent with that voice.
TJ: He’s an interesting character that not a lot of people talk about. And he was such a contradiction, because he was a slave in the time after emancipation. By misfortune of his autism he had been relegated to the ownership of these slave owners. And he lived like that for the rest of his life. And, I mean, that’s such a conundrum; I wanted to investigate his life. I’m pretty much a one-thing-at-a-time person, so I was working on them continuously for probably a couple weeks, three weeks, maybe. And I looked at them when I was done and I thought to myself: “These are OK.” And I put them away and I looked at them again, and I felt like: “This really isn’t happening. I mean I like it…” I think it was doing something—but it wasn’t doing the thing I wanted it to do. And that’s when I thought: “You know what? Why don’t I just try and double em’ up?” And that was a challenge because I had done contrapuntals in Lead. But this was a bigger challenge. I said to myself: “OK, if I’m gonna double it up then I have to increase the stakes. I can’t just do what I did in the other one.”
AF: “Doubling up” seems very, very central to your vision of this book about the simultaneity of black life in American history, music and song. What’s very unique about this book is that song is not simply an expressive agent. Song is not simply this great cultural artifact. Song is the historical path towards freedom and reinvention of blackness in a way. You use “blues” as a verb, as in to blues blackface of the Berryman sonnets. Not “dream songs.” But Freedom Songs. Can you talk to me about simultaneity and music as a sense of freedom.
TJ: Yeah, I think that that’s part of the dynamic: to be able to fully express oneself—and singing is such a full and total expression of the soul—to be able to do that and then to really have that sustain you, through the darkest times of slavery. And the two are inseparable. To be able to sing under that kind of oppression I think, in a lot of ways, is the very essence of survival, of a people, of the ability to have to the hope to make something beautiful amongst so much wretchedness. That’s critical to the concept of human survival. And in this particular context, of African Americans working through slavery… that’s what we had. I was trying to make a line like that with the Fisk Jubilee Singers: “often, we owned the song more than we owned ourselves.”
To be able to sing under that kind of oppression I think, in a lot of ways, is the very essence of survival, of a people, of the ability to have to the hope to make something beautiful amongst so much wretchedness.
AF: Not a metaphor.
TJ: No, it’s not a metaphor! To carry that essence into these various artistic endeavors—from comedy to the instruments to the sculpture—is trying to think about what it means to imagine oneself free enough to imagine, through the context of brutal slavery. It is signifying that you are still alive and you still have some human potential. And as far as the doubling went, what happened was I started to do the sonnets. And that was hard … I struggled to get the first two lines and then the next two, and so on. I just played around with it. And eventually I got through the very first syncopated sonnets. You can see the development of it in the book, because they start off with each voice relegated only to the left or right side—and then they start to meld more and more with each sonnet. I got the first one done and then I thought, “Well, if I can do one then I think I can do another.” The first one that I did that was contrapuntal, and reversible, was the one about Blind Tom being buried in two places (a true story, kind of…).
And really, part of the motivation behind those syncopated sonnets, behind the creation of them, was the fact that when I moved back to New York, Taylor Mali set me up for one of his Page-Meets-Stage events with Yusef Komunyakaa. I think it was gonna happen in February; and I got here in August, or whatever. And all (the while) in my head it was looming over me: “Oh shit, I’m gonna have to do a Page-Meets-Stage with Komunyakaa! I can’t read the same poems!” So, all this pressure was being applied while I was writing. Really, I was like, “I have to have something to present that’s new at this GIG!!” I was scared shitless. So I started going making the syncopated sonnets, and was going through them, when at the very last poem I tried to make a middle column—and that’s when I discovered how to get them to read them up, down, diagonally and interstitially.
AF: What allowed that inspiration to go multi-directional? It’s awesome to behold.
TJ: You know what? It was early in the morning, half haze, sleep and all that stuff you have on your mind. And you’re looking it over and looking it over. And then it started to connect—if I made this change there, and that. It really started to connect. So I started trying to write them with an eye towards multidirectional comprehension. And that’s when I decided that one of the themes of the book was going to be the contrapuntal poem. And I said to myself, “Well, since I’m in the neighborhood, I must as well just try and see how far I can stretch this.” And from there came “The McKoy Twins.” And then came the “Williams/Walker Paradox.” And then from there came the Dunbar/Booker Double Shovel.
AF: I love how these poems reframe whiteness. There’s encounters throughout with famous white artists who have had a dominating influence on the narrative of American cultural history. Twain, this great satirist, conflicted and drawn to abolitionism. Berryman, one of the few white mid-century poets to confront race but only to re-inscribe a very racist minstrel tradition. And then Berlin, a tremendously popular song-maker who thought nothing of dismissing black artistry and ownership.
TJ: With Twain and Berlin—I discovered this from working with Lomax’s legacy in leadbelly—they’re so highly esteemed! The only way you can really convince the audience of their disposition or attitude is if you use their own words. Really, I can say it until I’m blue in the face, but if I have their own words in front of them, then hey, they can speak for themselves! Using primary documents really helps tell a story in a better way than I could imagine. So I tend to comb through these records and historical documents and start to see a side of the history that needs to have an alternating voice, a callback. As one would say, a “clapback.” Or, you know, call and response. That was the intention with all those people, with Berryman too. I’d encountered his Dream Songs before; and, I’m just gonna say, I’m not the biggest fan. OK? And I felt that the kind of use of minstrelsy that he employed in the Dream Songs was something that needed to be responded to. I’ve tried to find as much literature as I could about him and his perspective; and I never found anything that really convinced me that his uses of minstrelsy were… much more than a prop. A very convenient, well-worn prop. And I’m just not as convinced that his uses of this cultural prop, that’s been used to the detriment of my people, was worth what he was doing.
AF: And it’s still being used.
TJ: Yeah, and it’s still being used. And it still hasn’t really been… I guess I’ll put it like this: I wanted to add a new way to understand, to add a new prism for his work. And I wanted to add it in such a way as to directly engage its use of minstrelsy, so to speak.
AF: We’re back to white appropriation; the black body as an object or tool, a performance for the white artist’s hands. Did recent instances of blackface put a fire underneath some of this work?
TJ: Oh hell yeah! But the thing is, Berryman’s been on my mind for so long. The whole Berryman mystique. The bottom line for me is: the best way to address Berryman’s use of minstrelsy is to do so using the craft. So I decided to make something that employs his voice, that turns the voice back around on him. How about using that mask/voice with someone who really was a slave and really worked as an entertainer in the era of minstrelsy, and had freed himself? And now he’s smuggling himself out of the crate of that really is the mask that John Berryman wears in his blackface. All to tell the real story behind the woe of the blackface.
AF: Was there a single instance where you could hear the voices of any of these 19th-century black musicians?
TJ: No. Except Bert Williams, he’s the only one.
AF: I love the idea that this book is a reclamation; an excavation project. Unapologetically 19th-century. To go back to the origins of popular music as we know it, was that important to you from the very beginning?
TJ: Well that’s what happened. I had done leadbelly. And there were a lot of stories I wanted to put in that, but I couldn’t fit them in. There’s a lot of primary source material, you just have to figure out a way to do it, you know? I just started becoming curious… Lead is at the very beginning of the recording industry, and he was recorded in prison by John Lomax. But those weren’t the things he was gonna get paid for. He really started getting recorded professionally around the late 30s. But the thing with Lead is he’s at the edge of public consciousness. He exists in this kind of mythical zone that’s—you know Buddy Bolden? There’s a great book by Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter, about him. It’s a beautiful book. He’s writing about a legendary horn player that most people at the time had never heard. And it made me think about people that were playing around the time that Leadbelly was growing up—who were they? Where did they fit in the landscape of our collective consciousness? And that led me, first, to Blind Tom and then the McKoy Twins. Then it was the first crew of Fisk Jubilee Singers and then Bert Williams, George Walker. And it just started flowing from there. The thing that frustrated me is I thought I knew about Black music. I slowly realized that I knew about recorded black music. That’s what I really knew about.
AF: As you say, so many of these figures in Olio are pre-W.C. Handy. To realize that most of this book is before that commercialized, shareable, documentable year zero. And so much of the book is written as much documentary as live performance. Including this really gorgeous lyric towards the end of the book that I’m obsessed with, “O Patra Mia.” Gorgeous, gorgeous poem. But you also put in: interviews, essays, letters throughout it. That seemed to me like such a compelling mystery that you wanted to capture music/performance that is lost to us.
TJ: And then there’s Scott Joplin! We talk about Scott Joplin now as the King of Ragtime—but he faded in popularity for fifty, sixty years until his music was played in The Sting. He had a fascinating story and a compelling life. Like Blind Boone. Blind Boone had his eyeballs removed from his head at six months. If you played a song he could play it back immediately, on a thousand dollar bet. Black folks were doing amazing, amazing things in the interest of self-preservation, and self-expression as well. And that’s the way I think of it. They were not, the first two generations out of slavery, just thinking about self-preservation but self-expression as a means towards self-preservation. In other words making the arts a career. Having the ability to do that.
Black folks were doing amazing, amazing things in the interest of self-preservation, and self-expression as well. And that’s the way I think of it. They were not, the first two generations out of slavery, just thinking about self-preservation but self-expression as a means towards self-preservation.
AF: Talk to me about your choice to treat this historical material without overt gesturing towards the contemporary present.
TJ: I think that that was easier to do for leadbelly. I could draw the parallels more directly. But Olio takes place further back in time and it would have been stretching the credibility too much to directly reference the 21st century. Well, the thing that deterred me from doing that was that it was against the rules of the book. It just doesn’t work. Well, the closest I come to it is—I will say this—I do, in the parlance, tip my hat to a little bit of hip-hop. You know what I’m saying? I’m on the edge of it. But I don’t what to go all the way into it… To go deeper into it wouldn’t pay service to either aesthetic. But I can wave from a distance. Other than that, I didn’t want to stretch it too far. I felt like the people that would be reading it would get that… I mean, I use the word “coon” in the manuscript to talk about the genre of music called coon songs… What are the parallels in the 21st century? I think they’re obvious. And the idea of Sissieretta Jones being called “Black Patti” and considered a mere copy of the original (opera singer Adelina Patti), that still happens today. Or, say, Williams and Walker trying to work through minstrelsy and create something beyond minstrelsy; I mean those are a lot of the same issues we have today. So, the parallels are there, if you have half an imagination.
Also, there’s a circular structure to the book that speaks to the circular, connected nature of history. Basically, the spine is a circle: the double crown of sonnets that circle back on each other. Accompanying the sonnets are the interviews, which have their own circularities of plot. So you have these two continuous threads running all the way through, and then in between both you have the individual artists. I meant to speak to a circular nature of history. For instance, the book contains what might be the longest, most comprehensive list of actual Black congregations whose churches were burned down: the first church listed is the Mother Emanuel AME, in 1822. And then, tragically, the very last church on the list is that same church in 2015, when those innocent people were shot. So I’m trying to acknowledge that idea of a circle, and then around it are these stories. And I also wanted it to seem like the reader is entering the program of an olio—you have the introduction and all of that…
AF: Oh I love how it felt like I was looking at a playbill when I opened it to the introduction, the cast of characters listed. And to see a word like “Owners” was very moving and powerful.
TJ: Well I wanted them to, as much as they can, own themselves. And that’s what they did in real life! Even Blind Tom owned his music. Even if his label was taken from him, he still owned it. You know what I’m saying?
AF: And it was coming out of him.
TJ: It was coming out of him, right! It was his, just like it’s their stories. So, I wanted that to happen, and I played with a lot of different ideas that were kind of half making it work, not exactly making it. I needed an emcee—an interlocutor—and that became me, really.
AF: When you’re doing a book length project that’s so extensive and sustained, how do you balance the informational with the performative, the dramatization with the lyrical?
TJ: Seven. That’s the key to this thing. There’s seven spaces that I had to fill between the double crown. Seven is a sacred number. It’s a spiritual number. There are seven sonnets in a crown. So, there’s seven spaces between pairs of the double crown.
Also, 7×7 is 49. And the year of Jubilee, when slaves are freed and debts are forgiven is the 49th (or 50th) year. The year of emancipation, whether it occurred at the end the Civil War or at the signing of Emancipation Proclamation, was often referred to as the year of Jubilee for American slaves—and especially by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Incidentally, the book was finished in my 49th year and published in my 50th. Oh, and last year was the third Jubilee year (in the span of 150 years) since the end of the Civil War.
AF: That’s amazing. Was that structuring of the project there early on?
TJ: Well, I don’t think I realized this about the structure or what the structure was going to be, until 2012, when I was halfway through. [laughs] It was a lot of “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing… but I know how it’s gonna look.” I had diagrams and all kinds of stuff.
AF: At some point the book become material object, foldouts and cutouts.
TJ: I originally didn’t intend for the book to be that way; but I looked up one day and the book was over 130 pages. I had done these things that would need extraordinary amounts of page space, and I thought about how I’d do them electronically, how to do them on the internet or whatever. And that isn’t necessarily that hard to do, or to get it done if I wanted to hire somebody to make that happen; but, once again, I have to say that being assigned Verse/Wave Press, in 2005 with leadbelly, one thing I got from them is that they are way chill. They waited almost a year for me to put revisions on the end of that book. They were real chill about the way they designed it. It had to fit; those poems weren’t gonna fit an ordinary book layout. And when I had the idea for the McCoy Sisters I was like, “Man, I need a press that’s gonna do that.” So, basically, at around ’12 going into ’13 I mailed it to them. I’d asked if they’d be interested in this book, and they said, “Yeah, why don’t you email it to us?” And I said, “Well, I can’t really email it to you.” [laughs] So, I bound it up—I made models of the actual way the 3D poems look when you follow the directions—and I mailed it to them; and they were like, “Yeah, we’re down.” I can’t really think of too many presses that would do that; but they put out beautiful books! They have the will to do that. And I think that became another mission of the book: to say “These are the fantastic things that a real bound book can do.” It’s not a computer experience; it’s a tactile experience. You can take the book, and take a page out, fold it into different shapes, and it’ll still mean the same thing. You can have fun with it. And in the midst of this is this very difficult subject matter. You can take this subject matter and experiment—read any way you want to read. You don’t have to go just from left to right and down—you can go up; you can go sideways—and that, I think, is like a celebration.
You become part of the performance. When you’re going through the McKoy Sisters—the idea was to give the kind of attention to a story that was contained by their bodies, so that you’re looking at their concrete form and absorbing their story at the same time. You can inspect it closely, “read” their form up and down in the same way that an audience might; but their story is there to replace their bodies, to replace that experience they must have felt when they were two or three or four years old and sold to a freak show. In that way, I think you are involved in a real conversation with the 19th and 21st century.
AF: Absolutely. The construction of the book could only exist now, which is a beautiful and exciting thing. Had you done work like that before?
TJ: No, not like this.
AF: So, what was it like to try using another muscle?
TJ: Well yeah, that was the idea. Honestly, the idea was to stretch contrapuntal to the absolute limits that I knew how to stretch it. Never to break, but to bend. So that you literally bend the pages, and create new meaning out of that two-dimensional surface, and make it three dimensional. That’s what Williams and Walker were doing with minstrelsy: taking a two-dimensional surface and adding dimension and paradox to it through the depth of their performance. That’s what was trying to happen with those poems, and same with the McKoys.
AF: Who were the guardian angels you could return to while writing this book, whether it’s rereading specific works or just admiring the architectonics of how a project can hang together.
TJ: A lasting influence on me was my very first poetry mentor Sterling Plumpp—who, in my opinion, doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. I stumbled into his class when I was twenty two and he really showed me the synthesis between the music and the people and the politics, the history—how they all flow together. So, to me, the number one would be Sterling—and also: Sterling Brown. I’m thinking about the way Sterling rhymes; he just has it down. You have this kind of syncopated rhyme that he brings, and his characters are so vivid and alive, and they’re so funny at the same time, and biting. His wit is so sharp and slashing, and he makes you laugh and cry at the same time. That was a big influence for me, in this particular project. And Ernest Gaines, the way he goes into history and just pulls it out of the marrow of the land. Toni Morrison. Reading Toni is like reading poetry, it’s just so sustained: it’s one poetic paragraph after another. I mean, Jean Toomer. Zora, I love Zora. Also Marilyn Nelson, who does such important historical work. Frank X Walker. Komunyakaa, Jayne Cortez, Patricia Smith’s mastery of voice in her persona poems. Phil Levine. Wanda Coleman. Ondaatje. Gayle Jones. Jean Toomer. Charles Chestnut. Such a genius, to do the work he did at the time that he did it, right on the edge of minstrelsy and in the pit of its heyday. He reclaimed this vernacular voice and made it cut in an entirely different way.
AF: Do you see this book as a way of taking back ministrely?
TJ: I wouldn’t say “take back minstrelsy.” What I would say is I want us to have an understanding… I think that George Walker and Bert Williams were in the act of really saying, “I will reclaim minstrelsy.” They really were about that, even the name of their act, “Two Real Coons,” was a kind of taunt at the white supremacy at the core of the concept. Instead of seeing these fake white “coons” dressed in blackface, you’d see some real “coons.” You know what I’m saying? This sly, late 19th-century wink was happening all the time between them and their audience. They were laughing wryly through this construction that they were performing. My task is to recognize their task. Because the same issues they were dealing with are the ones that we are really dealing with, in different ways, today. We have an issue about blackface (Zoe Saldana) in cinema, right now! Right this moment! We were talking about Bert Williams… it’s not that long ago. Only a hundred years.
AF: Last semester, Douglas Kearney skyped into one of my poetry classes and he was reading a minstrel poem from Patter, a bone-shaking poem. And Doug, of course, is this amazing performer, and then suddenly—and the class is about half white, half people of color—we’re watching Doug perform (live) his minstrel poem (about miscarriage, no less) on the screen in 2015. It was a deeply perplexing moment. Afterwards, we talked about that as a class, engaging our collective ambivalences and insecurities of being voyeur. Is that part, or one of, the big risks of Olio?
TJ: I think it’s a risk. I mean, one of the characters—I think it’s Blind Boone; I love Blind Boone: the most Zen-like of all these people—says, there’s way to “tell the story straight and true, so that the joke’s not on you, but all around you.” With any black person that tries to tell their stories, there’s that risk of vulnerability, of being perceived as part of the minstrel show; but it depends on how you tell it that as to whether you’ll be part of it, or just watch it around you. You know what I’m saying? And I think that was part of the task of what was happening; and part of what I was thinking about was: How do you talk about minstrelsy and acknowledge the ways in which we constantly struggle against being minstrelized? How do we do that and escape…? To be honest, doing those contrapuntals is an effort towards belying the minstrel myth. It’s a daunting exercise in transforming form that we’ve been following for hundreds of years, taking that form—just like the minstrel form—and transforming it into something else.
AF: Framing is so important for this performance, the book is filled with historical accounts, details, facts, timelines, actual documentation.
TJ: I don’t generally make up history—I make up a little bit—but the thing is, if I don’t have those notes in there, no one’s gonna take it seriously. That’s just a fact. That’s why the timeline is in the back. With the timeline, I wanted people to see the flow of the characters against the flow of American history.
AF: I’m curious about your decision to put the timeline at the back rather than front of the book.
TJ: You have to let the audience enter the show, and see it for what it is, before they see all the rigging in the back of the stage. That’s the way I see it. But without those facts—and, for instance, I had a lot of newspaper documents, from which I got the church burnings—if I don’t put all that in there, people are not gonna take it as seriously. That’s just the way I see it. And that’s partially because I got my BA in public policy, and that’s about chasing down facts.
AF: What libraries were you accessing for this book?
TJ: I’d just buy the books, for the most part. Because I’m gonna return them late if I don’t.
AF: And what about certain historical documents?
TJ: JSTOR, LexisNexis, all the electronic resources I could find at my disposal—searches of Crisis Magazine, the Chicago Defendant, Indianapolis Freeman, The Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, the Schomburg. All of those resources were very instrumental in making this thing happen. And, just, as many books as I could find about all of these people. I’ll show you two of them—Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz and Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895.
AF: How important were these two?
TJ: They were very important, They provided a setting, so to speak. The books contain actual newspaper and magazine articles and photographs from the era. You can see the way people wrote and how they wrote about the music. Yeah, those are two gorgeous books.
AF: Who are the people you bounced ideas off of?
TJ: There’s a few. Tayari Jones, David Mills, Tonya Foster, Frank X. Walker. Who else? Randall Horton, Patrick Rosal, Willie Perdomo. The Macarthur Award winning Ragtime piano player, Reginald R. Robinson. My lady, Kelly.
AF: There is so much learning in this book. The idea that I could go through any education without learning about Henry Box is like, just, Jesus Christ.
TJ: I felt the same way man! It’s like, “How come I don’t know about the McKoy Sisters?” There’s people I left out of the book, man, that were just amazing! There’s some stories I wanted to tell, but I just couldn’t make it happen. Really, there could be five Olios—ten, twelve—going in different directions, doing different things. I don’t know if that would be my calling. But, what I’m saying is that’s a very underappreciated period in our history, between the Civil War and World War 1. There’s all kinds of amazingness happening in that span of, what, sixty-odd years.
AF: Talk to me about the beautiful line drawings in Olio.
TJ: Jessica Lynn Brown. I found her on Facebook; two friends of mine, Joel Dias Porter and Krista Franklin, hipped me to her. And the thing is she has a unique talent: she has the ability to write with both hands, the same thing, simultaneously, in different direction. It’s crazy, to see. You can dictate to her… It’s a real kind of split brain thing. She’s doing this contrapuntal writing and it just intrigued me. And then I saw her art, which are these stark, haunting line drawings. She lives in St. Louis. Her drawings bring this space into the book, that just lets it breathe in a different kinda way. I was real glad—because I sprung that on Wave at the very last minute, and they rolled with it. They do beautiful books, man. I was really glad that we were able to get those drawings in. It just brings it to a whole other level. I think she’s gonna be a really successful artist.
AF: What was the hardest part about the book?
TJ: Man, there were so many hard parts. One, the hardest part, was figuring out who was gonna be in the book, and what the structure was gonna be. There are some people, like James Reese Europe, who’s in but book, who really deserves a book of his own. One of the most important musical personalities of the 20th century, who nobody talks about. James. Reese. Europe. He’s in the book, but he plays kind of a side role. He’s part the reason why Julius Monroe Trotter’s going around trying to interview people. Do you know who he was?
AF: No, sadly.
TJ: He was the leader of the Hellfighters Band for the 369th. Europe had started something called the Clef Club, which was basically a black musicians’ union. He started this around the early ‘teens, went to WWI, fought in WWI, had rank, and played jazz in France. He would play for the crowds in France. One of the first melodies they recorded was about being in WWI—”On Patrol in No Man’s Land.” But, anyway, he comes back to the United States right after the war, and within a year his drummer cut his throat. He had the biggest parade that had ever been launched for a black person for his funeral—it happened in 1919, on 125th street. Gigantic. Duke Ellington before Duke Ellington. But yeah, like I said, James Reese Europe can be his own book. His legacy was so deep, I couldn’t quite fit him into Olio.
AF: And, finally, when did you finish Olio?
TJ: Last revisions were probably in October. There were a lot of revisions at the very end. I mean a lot. And that happened all within the last year. The last sections were finished up… and I was just tired. Going back and forth with the proofreader and blah blah blah. But it was all worth it because, picking up the book, it was like everything that had been in my head was right there.