Professor gains acclaim, erases debt with selective Whiting poetry award

By Erin Lindsay

Tyehimba Jess is very thankful this Thanksgiving. After being declared one of 10 winners for the Whiting Writer’s Award, Jess has already spent his $40,000 cash prize.

“Sally Mae has all my money,” Jess said.

“It’s great to get out of debt, it’s important to pay yourself first,” he added.

Even more impressive than the fairly large cash prize is how Jess earned the money. Awarded annually since 1985, the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation awards 10 poets, fiction and non-fiction writers, and playwrights each year.

“It is given to writers with exceptional talent and who have promise to make great things in the future,” said Camille McDuffie, a public relations representative for the foundation.

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    With an award of such prestige, the selection process is quite secretive.

    McDuffie said writers from across the country make nominations and judges who ultimately make the final decisions remain completely anonymous. No application is allowed, which Jess said takes some of the pressure off writers.

    “You get to write what you write and hope it gets into the world and reaches as many people as it can,” Jess said.

    After winners were notified in early October, they were not permitted to disclose their good fortune for up to six weeks, until the announcement was made formally.

    Jess said that while he was allowed to tell his family and publisher, it was difficult to keep the award a secret.

    “It was very difficult, but I celebrated all the time in my mind,” Jess said.

    The decision to award Jess was based off of selections from his book of persona-poems entitled “leadbelly,” which was published in 2005. His work follows the life of folk and blues guitar player Huddie William Ledbetter.

    Martin Camargo, head of the English Department at the University, said that Jess’ prowess was brought to the attention of the English Department after hearing that he was a winner in the National Poetry Series. Two years later, Jess continues to teach poetry at the University as an assistant professor.

    “His poetry is appealing to people who hear it or read it,” Camargo said.

    “It has a powerful voice and is skillful in form, but you don’t have to be an English professor to understand it. It’s got that narrative dimension and it’s quite inventive,” he added.

    Jess’ list of awards and honors did not just begin with the Whiting Foundation. According to a press release from the Foundation, The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review named “leadbelly” one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.”

    Jess also earned a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and has won the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award, in addition to serving as Chicago’s Poetry Ambassador to Accra, Ghana.

    Camargo said Jess is a pleasure to have on the department’s staff.

    “He’s an easy guy to get along with, open, friendly, and he’s a good colleague in the department,” Camargo said.

    Jess said he has been writing since he was a teenager, which was nearly 25 years ago.

    He said he is glad that people can now be more aware of his writing, and more importantly, that he is out of debt.