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4.53  ·  Rating details ·  562 ratings  ·  93 reviews
Part fact, part fiction, Tyehimba Jess's much anticipated second book weaves sonnet, song, and narrative to examine the lives of mostly unrecorded African American performers directly before and after the Civil War up to World War I. Olio is an effort to understand how they met, resisted, complicated, co-opted, and sometimes defeated attempts to minstrelize them.

So, while
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published April 5th 2016 by Wave Books
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4.53  · 
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 ·  562 ratings  ·  93 reviews

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Olio can signify a mishmash of elements or variety of musical performance acts. In the case of Tyehimba Jess' ambitious volume of poetry which has won him the 2017 Pulitzer, Olio is miscellaneous recollections, which Jess has pieced together to give a voice to the early African American performers of Tin Pan Alley who had to take a back seat to their white counterparts. In a collection that is indeed a hodge podge of interviews, poems, minstrel songs, letters, and brief essays, Jess has brought ...more
Steven Felicelli
May 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is an overwhelming book. Blind Boone & Edmonia Lewis are two of the most powerful figures in narrative prose or poetry of the last hundred years.

Boone's inability to play Joplin's final outpouring note for note is a gut-wrenching conceit for the inability to fully empathize with another's personal anguish and seems to imply the sin of Slavery (Jim Crow, lynchings, burning churches, et al.) will not and cannot ever be atoned (note for note).

Absolutely blown away by this work. It ranks a
Peter Landau
Aug 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
History is important, but it takes poetry to bring the facts to life, especially when there are few details and no recordings. How do you revive the musical birth of a nation when even wax cylinders weren’t wasted in preserving the songs of the black musicians? All we have are ministerial shows and Irving Berlin, who was accused of stealing “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” from the King of Ragtime himself, Scott Joplin.

Joplin appears in the ambitions second collection of poetry by Tyehimba Jess, who
Read By RodKelly
10 Stars!

This book was overwhelmingly brilliant! It is poetry, performance, history, prose, art, witness, confession...I could go on... The sheer amount of care that went into the creation of this beautiful book is is impeccably researched and rendered; Jess has excavated the unsung black heroes from the period just after emancipation, giving them ownership of their legacies, all told in intoxicating, dazzling, dizzying language. I've never read anything like this in my life and I t
Dec 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is an amazing work. I had to try twice before I was able to enter into it. A compendium of sonnets and lyrical prose, a history of slavery and oppression and race relations (or the cruelty that blacks have suffered but whose spirit was not broken), a series of interviews about Scott Joplin, and much about art, especially music, its role in the black culture.

I feel physically full from this work, unable to completely digest it. I've been listening to Jess' recordings of sections of the poem
Cade Miller
Most of the poems, when experienced individually, aren't anything remarkable; however, the project as a whole is impressive and certainly unique, combing removable foldouts, poems that can be read in several different ways, all sorts of visual poetry, some wonderful drawings and pictures, and faux interviews that are probably my favorite sections. While I honestly think some of the poem-based sections could've been better served by being less simple in their language and straightforward in their ...more
"What part of me is mine that was
not mined from the mind of poets,
artists rewriting the past blow
by blow till it's pulverized past
the barely recognizable?
I was born when I was written,
then hammered out of a mountain."

This is one of the best books I have ever read. Apart from being one of the most ambitious volumes of poetry probably ever, it is also consistently surprising—and never becomes less so over the course of its hefty 230 oversized pages. Jess's project here is a big one: how have narra
Hhhhhhhhholy crap, this is an ambitious and complex book. Couple things - I recommend reading Olio in as few sittings as possible, for maximum immersion in the history, characters, story. I also highly recommend listening to Tyehimba Jess's appearance on the Commonplace podcast ( in close proximity to your reading of the book - it helps you take a deeper look at the construction of the book and format of the writing, if you're into that kind of thing.

When I finally got around to reading this one, I was surprised to find that none of my friends have read it nor have any of them shelved it.

Jess was the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for this collection of poems and I can totally understand the accolades. This is an amazing, mind-blowing piece of art. I mean I just can't say enough about what a master of words Jess is ... seriously.

The book focuses on the lives of various artists, writers, entertainers from the Antebellum South and beyond. Jess has c
Eugenea Pollock
Apr 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
I must confess that I was slow to understand and appreciate the structure of this book—I was confused by the juxtaposition of interviews, biographical poetry, haiku, artwork, letters, directions for paper-folding, the imagined testimony of sculpture. However, once I “got it”, I was in awe of this literary resurrection of forgotten history. It is a necessary book, long overdue, that illuminates artistic contributions to Americana that were, at best, overlooked or, at worst, suppressed. Bravo to t ...more
Jen Austin
Sep 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I want to read this book again. I have nothing but good things to say about it. The creativity was so great. This book made me feel emotional. There was never a dull moment. I want to read this book again.
May 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. It is almost historical fiction. It is almost an epic of a people. It is a collection of stylistic performances broad in range and consistent in execution. If it suffers from anything, I think putting the historical material at the end hurts it, as there is something wondrous about taking these historical figures and their almost legendary labors and making a music of them. A music about music in many cases. You have a literal phantom of ...more
May 16, 2017 rated it liked it
I've never read or seen a poetry book like this. It uses the space on the page in unique ways, and many poems are like "two-for-ones." For instance, there are two columns/stanzas placed side by side, and you can choose to read one column top to bottom, then the other, or you can read all the way across. I believe my favorite of this type is "Duet: Blind Boone Meets Blind Tom, 1889," especially that last line ("This is how freedom feels--soaring through the stars in which I reel" OR "This is how ...more
very ambitious, which is especially commendable considering the state of poetry in 2016.

the poems are okay. they're better in free form. that's where most of Jess's ability is displayed. he manages to work up some unexpected emotion in the stories of real musicians who lived not too long ago. as for the "syncopated sonnets", they almost always read awkwardly, both because of his struggle with iambic pentameter and his struggle with combining two poems. it very rarely adds significant new meaning
University of Chicago Magazine
Tyehimba Jess, AB'91

From the editors: "Poet Tyehimba Jess’s second collection mixes sonnet, song, and narrative to chronicle the experiences of black performers in America from Reconstruction to World War I. Jess, an associate professor of English at the College of Staten Island, brings these mostly unrecorded voices to life and demonstrates how these performers challenged and transcended conceptions of the minstrel."
Weston Richey
May 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
Recommended to Weston by: David
Shelves: poetry, favorites
Olio is a marvel of contemporary American poetry. It's extraordinarily hard to say more than that in a way that faithfully and comprehensively covers all that there is in this book.

Before even thinking of the content in any substantive way, Olio marks itself in its form as an extremely ambitious, meticulously crafted work. It's difficult to settle on any particular description of its form when we use our traditional array of terms. I'm reticent to call it an out-and-out poetry collection because
Jan 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Ok, starting off this review as well every review of poetry I do... I hate pretty much all poetry. I especially hate more modern forms where you can read the poem forwards, backwards, up and down, and around and around. HATE it.

Olio by Tyehimba Jess deals with subject matter than many people don't want to deal with but should. For being mostly a style of poetry I can not stand, they were better than most. I can absolutely see why he won the Pulitzer.

Jun 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
things this book has:

- history lessons on ragtime
- interactive structural poetry
- lists that will make you cry
- a cast of characters
- some of the most incredible, beautiful words, telling stories about survival and the sly wit and tremendous bravery that survival required. words about thriving under impossible conditions.

it was all just really wonderful put together. each page was a surprise and a revelation and you should read it.
B. Mason
Olio is a sprawling work in its breadth and depth of exploration of perspectives, voice, and narratives of African American musicians and performers. The way Jess enters into each story is impressive all while maintaining an awareness of the rampant violence and degredation of the social context of these folks. I really hope to read more history approached in this manner.
David Swatling
Mar 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Perhaps, like me, you feel a scarcity of poetry in your literary life. Fortune led me to this extraordinary work when I was invited to an intimate lunch with the poet. Syncopated sonnets, ragtime rhythms, minstrel duos. Contrapuntal narratives, part social history and part ghost story. Characters leap from the page with cinematic clarity. Gripping, moving, inspiring.
Mary Flynn
Sep 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Usually, I hate modern poetry. I find it self-indulgent and undisciplined. This was the antithesis of that.

It was astounding, it was magical, it was soulful. In many ways, it was mind-blowing.
Tom Walsh
Jun 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Nice performance of good poetry and interesting history.

Listening to this as an Audible Original performance I enjoyed the music and the beautiful rhythms of Contemporary Black Poetry. Felt like being at a Poetry Slam combined with a lesson in the History of the Blues and the Cultural Appropriation of the Black Experience for entertainment purposes.

America has a long history of doing exactly that and, unfortunately, White America has benefitted mightily from it.
Oct 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The more I read and reread this book the more my enthusiasm grows. Tyehimba Jess is doing something truly original and innovative in poetry, explores history to make forgotten voices speak in a language that is both absolutely modern and, like geological strata, a carrier of memory. A dictionary entry that is the epigraph to the volume defines "olio" as "a: a miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements; hodgepodge; b: a miscellaneous collection (as of literary or musical selections). | also: ...more
Nick Gardner
Jan 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful book! It's a good feeling to learn about history through poetry. Fact, fiction, and poetry woven throughout in perfect order to build on each other and bring the narrative into the present.
David Schaafsma
Jess reading a poem on race and music and African American history:

An olio is

• a miscellaneous collection of things.
• a variety act or show,
• a specialty act performed downstage while the upstage set is changed
• a performance, as a musical number, presented between scenes or acts.
• the second half of a minstrelshow.

Jess, (who also wrote Leadbelly) is a young poet, and the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. A large book at 233 pages, Olio is mu
Oct 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is really an amazing and complex book. It is a fascinating companion to The Underground Rail Road by Colson Whitehead. The technical complexity of some of the poems is fascinating and I could read them over and over again. The insights into the stories of slaves and people who left slavery behind, and the running thread of Scott Joplin's story are also interesting and add to the complex layers that make up this book.

A fascinating and unconventional winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, w
Meg Tuite
Jul 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Tyehimba Jess has created a masterpiece of historical literature through syncopation and musicality of language that blows the mind! The greatest musicians and vaudevillians: slaves in early 19th century-early 20th century: John William "Blind" Boone, Henry "Box" Brown, Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Fisk Jublilee Singers, Ernest Hogan, Sissieretta Jones, Scott Joplin, Millie and Christine McKoy, Booker T. Washington (quote: "He who dances language note for note on the industrial soapbox. He who, eve ...more
Jack Heller
Mar 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing

I don't know what I expected from this book, but whatever it was, I didn't expect to feel like I do after I read Milton's Paradise Lost. As I write this, it doesn't seem like BS to mention Milton to discuss Jess. I don't think I've ever read another book of African American poetry which seems, as a whole, as a book, to merit the comparison. Jess seems to have altered my thinking. (Whether this is true or not will be born out in the future.)

What Jess does is to take individuals and the Fisk
May 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: poetry
Olio is Jess’ second collection of poems. The first won a National Poetry Series prize. His second, the Pulitzer. So not just a talented young poet, but one who has arrived. Both volumes had historical subjects centered on the African American experience with a musical context. The first volume focused on the life of the great blues singer-songwriter Leadbelly.

Olio has a wider scope and also uses historical figures, mostly, but not exclusively, musicians and performers, to consider the first ge

I should've come into this review with my nose up and mumbled something like "Masterpiece" and "Genius" and "contrapuntal" and "syncopated sonnets" and I could've put on airs and my best pretention and acted like this book didn't mind fuck me, but if you've ever read any of my other reviews you'd pick me out as a fraud straight away, so what's the point...

Just so you know: contrapuntal means counterpoint, so contrapuntal poems are a combination of two poems, and the genius of this in Olio is tha

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Tyehimba Jess is the author of leadbelly and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Olio. leadbelly was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the "Best Poetry Books of 2005." Jess's second book, Olio, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Poetry, and the 2017 Book Award for Poetry from the Society o ...more
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“–I'll just play the notes inside my skull alone in the dark where they roam around loose. 'Cause playing like a slave, I'd just step myself straight into a hangman's noose."
On Sissieretta Jones, Jess writes: "See, Sissie would know how to let folks into one mask and out through another. She'd even raise a toast to the mask, jokin about whether folk–black and white–really believed that the opera was wearing her as a mask, or if it just tickled them to see her puttin on that white mask of Vivaldi. Was it her voice or someone else's? they'd seem to ask. Well, it was all her. Every note, in whiteface or blackface or in just plain old American, went straight down to her bones. That's what I heard when I truly listened, anyway. She'd pour those opera songs all over her body and then dress herself in the church frock of hymns. She told me one time, that in order to hear her true voice, she'd had to ask herself about her own masks. What kind of mask might I have on? she said. Because let me tell you, most don't even know they're wearing a mask. You've got to know which masks, how many masks you're wearing before you can put it down and see your true self. Those that do, they know just how to slide in and out of it, how to make the world spin inside it and out of it. How to spread their song all over that mask and make it one with the world, no matter how thick or thin the truth in that song might be.”
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