On Dec. 14, Logan Square’s City Lit Books hosted the Poetry Center’s December “Six Points Reading Series”, this time featuring renowned Detroit poets Tyehimba Jess and Aricka Foreman.
Foreman, fresh off the release of her new chapbook Dream with a Glass Chamber, warmed herself by the in-store fireplace as she shared poems from her chapbook that she referred to as “struggles with wellness language”—the breaking down of models, which Foreman called ineffective, used to help humans deal with grief. A book of elegies, Dream with a Glass Chamber, dives into grief of every kind: from the loss of a loved one, to metaphorically about the loss of nature, to the loss of her beloved Detroit.
Even in material that is outside Dream, Foreman used her experimental poetry to grieve more recent events, such as the loss of Michael Brown and other African Americans who have died unjustly at the hands of police brutality. Foreman, however, has a way of weaving joviality into even the darkest of subjects, as evidenced by a found poem she read called “Monologue by well-intentioned White People,” which was composed of comments made by white people to Foreman—comments about the way she speaks, her hair, and her education—and curated to show the progression from seemingly harmless to insensitive.
Donning a Detroit Tigers hat,Tyehimba Jess, began his reading with a shout out to his and Foreman’s home city and its weather—a current New Yorker, Jess commented that New Yorkers don’t understand Midwestern cold like evidenced by Chicago’s weather—before starting his reading with a poem commissioned by the Milton Society. Jess’s interpretation of Milton’s classic poem, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” took the form of recounting a police encounter that Jess saw on YouTube. The light from the screen, he said, was caught by his glaucoma afflicted eyes, and showed a black man brutally beaten until nearly blind.
Before reading excerpts from his newest book, Olio, Jess read one last new poem. Taking inspiration from comedian Paul Mooney’s bit “100 times”—a bit in which Mooney says he repeats the n word 100 times before breakfast “just to keep [his] teeth white”—Jess’s poem went through a regimen in which readers could see the narrator’s progression as he took on Mooney’s challenge. Like all of Jess’s work, “100 Times,” is rife with glistening imagery and a tone that induces strong rhythm and musicality.
His newest collection Olio, takes musicality and rhythm to a new level. Olio, which means a variety show or collection of things, is a collection of poems told in the voices of different black artists such as Sissieretta Jones, the first African American to sing at Carnegie Hall, Blind Boone, a ragtime piano player, and Edmonia Lewis, an African American-Native American sculptor who received international acclaim for her busts and sculptures. In these poems, Jess weaves in history—like the fact that Blind Boone could play any song note for note after hearing it one time—and the effects race had on these artists, including the fact that Sissieretta Jones was referred to as “Black Patti” after a white opera singer, because Sissieretta was too different for the opera crowd.
The collection is not stuck in the lives of these past African-American artists, however. His final piece, “Fisk Jubilee Proclamation,” pays homage to the Fisk Jubilee singers—a group from Fisk University that sings spirituals. In this poem, Jess begins and ends each section of the crown of sonnets—a series in which a sonnet begins with the last line of a previous sonnet—with a list of churches burned during the uprising of the spiritual genre, concluding with the attacks on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Prefacing the reading of “Fisk,” Jess stated that it would be a disservice to ignore the context in which these spirituals came from, which is why he included the list of burned churches. It seemed to be a theme between Jess and Foreman—an appreciation for the past and context—as both readers talked about their city, African-American artists of the past, and current tensions from which their poems arise. Of course, with the recent election and rising tensions, hope seems to be bleak, but with poets like Jess and Foreman—ones who challenge the cultures of the past and present—readers will find that there is still hope, and warmth, in the words of these artists.