Professor’s poetry debut hits shelves

By Dan Petrella

After 10 years of publishing poems in various publications, Tyehimba Jess, a first-year assistant professor in the English department, published his first collection of poems Oct. 1.

The collection, titled “Leadbelly,” is a biography in verse of musician Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter.

Jess began working on the poems in 1999 while reading a biography on Ledbetter.

“I took a scene from one place in the book and I just started writing about it from the perspective of Leadbelly, and then I started writing a few more,” Jess said. “At first it was only going to be maybe five poems or seven poems, but then it just grew and grew and grew from there.”

Eventually, he decided to try to tell the life story of Ledbetter.

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“I think writing a series of poems gives a poet a chance to engage in a narrative in new and inventive ways,” he said. “It also allows a poet to explore a subject in a really in-depth fashion.”

With the partially completed manuscript in hand, Jess began work on a master’s degree in creative writing at New York University, where he worked with the poets Sharon Olds and Philip Levine. He returned to graduate school 11 years after graduating from the University of Chicago.

“Basically, I decided that I needed to further my knowledge in poetry and I had started this manuscript … and I wanted a good atmosphere in which to finish it,” he said. “A (master’s) would give me the time and the opportunity to study with very good poets and to get some good feedback … and hopefully complete the manuscript and hopefully get it out in the world.”

Jess completed his master’s in 2004 and submitted his finished manuscript to about 30 poetry competitions.

One day last year, while walking down the street in Brooklyn, he received a cell phone call informing him that he had been selected as one of five winners of the 2004 National Poetry Series. The series is an annual contest in which five established poets, serving as judges, each choose one manuscript to be published by one of five participating publishers. Jess’s manuscript was chosen by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, a University poetry professor, to be published by Verse Press.

Soon afterward, in the fall of 2004, the English department began looking for a new creative writing professor to replace two professor poets who would be retiring at the end of the spring 2005 semester.

“Brigit was so excited about his work that we decided to take a look at him,” said Philip Graham, program director of creative writing. “We knew we liked his poetry. We wanted to see him in person and have him give a reading.”

Jess came Nov. 15, 2004, to read at the Illini Union Bookstore.

“We were impressed, certainly, by the reading,” said Michael Madonick, creative writing professor and poetry editor of Ninth Letter, the department’s literary magazine. “We were impressed by the writing to start with. We were impressed with the reading because he has a concern for audience … and a degree of performance poetry which was enlivening and invigorating and very dynamic.”

He recalled that at the reading, Jess had an undergraduate student assist him in reading a poem, which was written in two different voices. Madonick said that this displayed a sense of community that interested him.

“He’s quite brilliant and at the same time unassuming, and those are rare characteristics,” Madonick said.

Based on his work and the impression he gave at his reading, the department committee in charge of hiring the new faculty member gave Jess an interview and he was hired to begin teaching this fall.

Madonick said he felt adding Jess to the staff would allow them to deal with different types of poetry in a more dynamic way while still maintaining the “fundamental rigor,” which he believes is important to the faculty.

Jess, who lived in Chicago for 18 years, said he is happy to be at the University not only because it’s close to Chicago, but also because as a research institution, it allows him a lot of time for writing.

“The other thing that’s exciting is that they’ve hired a very diverse staff,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of energy and heat that’s going to happen in the next few years.”

Jess said that having his collection on bookstore shelves is frightening and exciting at the same time.

“It’s like having your child go out into the world alone,” he said.