NEA Literature Fellowships

Tyehimba Jess

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(2005 - Poetry)

Tyehimba Jess

lomax v. leadbelly:
on the road, 1935

... i had made only a few requests of him,
and those for his protection
in a strange country;
i wanted him
to eat good food,
to take plenty of rest,
not to sing and play
for groups of negroes
late at night,
and not to drink

there was some things i was prayin' he'd do
-things to keep peace while
travelin' together:
to quit botherin' on where
and what's healthy, and
risin' with the sun, and
no midnight parties
at no jook joints
until dawn.
- lord knows, it was

too much

Italicized text from John Lomax's Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly

Tyehimba Jess' first book of poetry, leadbelly, was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. Jess was recognized as one of 2005's eighteen debut poets to watch by Poets and Writers magazine. leadbelly was voted one of Black Issues Book Review's three best poetry books of 2005.

A Cave Canem, Green Mill Slam Team, and NYU alumni, Jess was a 2004-5 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. He won an Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship in Poetry for 2000–2001. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

The NEA grant that I received in 2004 was a godsend. At the time, I was an artist in residence at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, in transition from a two year MFA at NYU, and on my way to an uncertain future in the job market. The NEA grant helped me put aside my temporary money woes so that I could focus more clearly on my long term goals: the finishing touches on my manuscript, and researching the work of other poets in order to further my craft.

The NEA grant is also a great morale booster. When I applied, I did not think I would get it, as there are so many extremely gifted writers that have received it in the past. To be included among that number is a vote of confidence from a group of highly selective writers from across the spectrum of American literature.

As a writer, hacking away at line after line each day, counting syllables, researching the historical content of our work, drudging through the clerical task of sending out manuscripts and individual poems to face rejection after rejection, the NEA literature grant is a meaningful and generous way for the NEA to say –"“Keep it up – we believe in your work." The grant is a much needed investment in this country's artists who struggle each day to keep their work real, alive, and close to the bone. I hope to be able to live up to this vote of confidence in the future.