Leadbelly: Poet brings FAMU knowledge & soul

Florida A&M University experienced a day of poetry and uncut wisdom on Monday from Tyehimba Jess, the author of the award-winning poetry book, “Leadbelly.”

After reciting a soulful and uplifting piece from his poetry collection, Jess left the audience thrown because his soft-spoken voice and conservative appearance didn’t match his thunderous performance.

Jess said his poems incorporated questions, ensuring that his readers can respond and engage in them. To execute this idea, all of his poems are written in first person.

“I want to get past that persons’ judgment and see into their heads and see how they rationalize,” Jess said.

Jess also spoke on the influence of hip-hop in poetry.

“It’s critical to understand where the music is coming from and its influence on literature,” Jess said.

Before Jess ended his session, he left the audience with instructions on how to write poetry.

“It’s OK to write the first thing that comes to your head, but make sure you go back and revise the lump of clay with the education you receive from school,” Jess said. “If you want to write well you’re going to have to equip yourself.”

Audience members saluted Jess’ work with positive feedback.

“I thought it [poetry session] was a huge success. Everyone responded to his readings,” said Kristine Snodgrass, an English professor at FAMU.

Snodgrass said it is good to have a perspective of the poet’s craft.

“When you listen in on poetry sessions you learn more about the subject of the book,” Snodgrass said.

The poem featuring the book’s namesake, “Leadbelly,” stood out to some participants.

“He took a historical figure and gave him emotions that most people wouldn’t expect,” said Brandon Neasman, a sophomore magazine production student from Wilmington, Del. “It was a real interesting twist that was added to poetry.”

Neasman, 19, said Jess really gave the crowd something to think about.

“The slave that was picking cotton in the poem and Jesus being crucified was a really good comparison,” Neasman said.

At a young age Jess began the craft that paved the way for his creative words and unique writing techniques.

Jess said at 15 he started writing “little rhyming poems” that eventually led to a favorite past time ­- performance poetry. Jess entered a slam contest and performed two years with two different teams.

After learning the fundamentals of creative writing and grammar, Jess said that he realized poetry wasn’t to be governed by rules of the English language but to be written and perceived at will.

The Detroit native and Chicago resident said the patterns for the 20th century American arts scene were set between the Reconstruction period and World War I. This is the period during which songwriter and blues artist Huddie Ledbetter, also known as “Lead Belly,” came to fame.

After Jess received his undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and Master’s from New York University, he decided to give back the best way he knew how and became the assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“College students are interesting to me,” Jess said.

Sharing his knowledge and working with students offers a feeling of accomplishment, he said.

In addition to writing poetry, Jess also improved his craft by writing fiction, science fiction and history pieces.

“I find motivation when I do it; generally things come to me,” Jess said.

And to add to Jess’ credentials, he also served as Chicago’s Poetry Ambassador to Accra, Ghana and won more than 10 poetry awards, including one of the three best poetry books of 2005 by Black Issues Book Review and the 1994 Sister Cities Poetry contest.

Jess’ next stop will be Oakland, Calif., where he will be a featured poet in the poetry festival “Poetry For the People,” which debuted in the late ’80s.