Open main menu

Tyehimba Jess (born 1965 in Detroit) is an American poet. His book Olio received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.[2]

Tyehimba Jess
Tyehimba Jess 2205022.jpg
Born1965 (age 53–54)
Detroit, Michigan
OccupationPoet, teacher
EducationUniversity of Chicago (BA), New York University (MFA)
Notable worksOlio
Notable awardsPulitzer Prize in Poetry
Years active1992–present[1]


Early lifeEdit

Tyehimba Jess was born Jesse S. Goodwin.[1] He grew up in Detroit, where his father worked in that city's Department of Health. His father later became the first vice president of Detroit's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).[1] Jess's mother was a teacher and nurse, who founded a nursing school at Wayne County Community College in 1972.[1]

According to Jess, he started writing poetry at age 16. Within just a few years, when he was 18, he had won second prize for poetry at an NAACP academic competition. He graduated from high school in 1984.[1] Next, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he intended to be an English major and pursue his poetry writing. However, he soon abandoned this as an option, and dropped out of the university in 1987. During this time, to support himself, Jess worked as an intern at a bank, as a community organizer, and as substitute teacher in the public school system in Chicago.[1]

In 1989, he returned to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and by this time had switched his major to Public Policy.[1] But Jess says that after he began to take classes at UIC with the poet and scholar Sterling Plumpp, who became a mentor, he realized that his real passion was for poetry.[1] Plumpp's classes focused on literary figures from the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and '70s. And although he was just a few credits shy of a degree in Public Policy, Jess felt inspired enough to again switch back to poetry. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1991, with a BA degree in Public Policy. He later pursued a MFA degree at New York University which he received in 2004.


As of 2017, Jess teaches poetry and fiction as an associate professor of English at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. He is also the faculty adviser for Caesura, the college's literary arts magazine.[3]

Jess's first book of poetry, leadbelly (Wave Books, 2005), was chosen by Brigit Pegeen Kelly as a winner in the 2004 National Poetry Series competition.[4] Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the "Best Poetry Books of 2005".[5]

In April 2016, Jess released his second full-length poetry collection, titled Olio. This work has been described as "part fact, part fiction….sonnet, song and narrative to examine the lives of mostly unrecorded AfricanAmerican performers…."[6] In his book he writes some poems in reference to Edmonia Lewis, John William Boone, Henry Box Brown, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ernest Hogan, Sissieretta Jones, Scott Joplin, Millie and Christine McKoy, Booker T. Washington, Blind Tom Wiggins, Bert Williams and George Walker.

His work appeared in Soul Fires: Young Black Men on Love and Violence, Obsidian III: Literature in the African Diaspora, Power Lines: Ten Years of Poetry from Chicago's Guild Complex, and Slam: The Art of Performance Poetry.



Jess' inspiration for writing stems from his drive to express history through expression and performance.

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[7]

Jess, though an author who has a voice that cannot be mistaken, acts more as a gentle tour guide through a period of black artistry that is often represented differently than it is here[8]


  • "When I Speak of Blues Be Clear", Cave Canem
  • "out". Ploughshares. Spring 2002. Archived from the original on August 20, 2006.
  • "freedom". Ploughshares. Spring 2002. Archived from the original on August 20, 2006.
  • "martha promise receives leadbelly, 1935", Poetry Foundation
  • "harris county chain gang"; "home again"; "martha promise receives leadbelly, 1935", Perihelion
  • Leadbelly. Verse Press. 2005. ISBN 978-0-9746353-3-0.
  • OLIO. Wave Books. 2016. ISBN 978-1-940696-22-5. OCLC 1004655645




  • 2000 Duncan YMCA Writer's Voice Fellow
  • Illinois Arts Council Artist Roster
  • 2000 Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship
  • 2001 Chicago Sun Times Poetry Award.
  • 2001 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Awards
  • 2001–2002 Ragdale Fellow
  • 2004 National Poetry Series
  • 2004 NEA grant[9]
  • 2006 Whiting Award[10]
  • 2007 Lannan residency[11]
  • 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
  • 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award [12]


Tyehimba Jess ... coaxes an astonishingly rich world from the wood and steel scraps of the life he finds before him. He chronicles the story of Leadbelly — the killer, the lover, the victim, the son, the greatest bluesman of his time—and he has the chops to animate this complex man.[13]

Tyehimba Jess' latest collection, Olio, does and is so many different things that it distracts you from your preconceived notions about what poetry can be, what it can do, and, ultimately, what you think you know...Olio is and is not like any book you've seen before.[14]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Marsh, Michael (June 6, 2002). "Local Lit: Can Tyehimba Jess wake up the world?". Chicago Reader. Sun-Times Media, LLC.
  2. ^ "2017 Pulitzer Prize Winners and Nominees". The Pulitzer Prizes. 2017. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  3. ^ "Tyehimba Jess". College of Staten Island. Retrieved April 10, 2017.
  4. ^ Kelly, Brigit Pegeen. "Tyehimba Jess". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved April 11, 2017.
  5. ^ "Olio, by Tyehimba Jess (Wave Books)". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved April 11, 2017.
  6. ^ "Olio by Tyehimba Jess | Wave Books". Retrieved April 11, 2017.
  7. ^ "Tyehimba Jess on Excavating Popular Music Through Poetry | Literary Hub". Retrieved February 14, 2017.
  8. ^ "Olio by Tyehimba Jess". The April 6, 2016. Retrieved February 14, 2017.
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-08-25. Retrieved 2009-08-16.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ "U. of I. poetry professor Tyehimba Jess wins Whiting Writers' Award". University of Illinois. Retrieved April 11, 2017.
  11. ^ "Lannan Foundation". Retrieved April 11, 2017.
  12. ^ "Tyehimba Jess: Olio". The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. 2017. Retrieved June 12, 2017.
  13. ^ Daniel, David (Spring 2006). "leadbelly, poems by Tyehimba Jess (Verse)". Ploughshares. Archived from the original on November 4, 2007.
  14. ^ "Book Review: Olio". The Found Poetry Review. August 9, 2016. Retrieved April 11, 2017.

External linksEdit