CHAMPAIGN – Poet and University of Illinois Professor Tyehimba Jess knew six weeks ago that he would receive a Whiting Writers' Award on Oct. 25. But he had to keep it a secret from his colleagues.
"I told my department the day before I left to go get it," he said. "I was very surprised when the foundation called me. I was just sitting in bed and they gave me a phone call. I was shocked and bewildered and then I said, 'Great, fantastic.'"
Jess picked up the $40,000 Whiting Writers' Award at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Altogether three poets, two playwrights and five fiction writers each received a Writers' Award, created in 1985 to recognize emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise.
"The selection committee this year was struck by the daring virtuosity, the fearlessness of these writers," said Barbara Bristol, director of the Whiting Writers' Program. "In their hands we can see, for example, how poetry has become a vibrant way to talk about culture, politics and history. And it is evident that the short story is as strong and vital as ever. We look forward to seeing what they will do next."
The candidates for Whiting Writers' Awards are proposed by 100 or so anonymous nominators nationwide.
"Winners are chosen by a small anonymous selection committee of recognized writers, literary scholars and editors appointed annually by the foundation," according to the foundation Web site. "At our meetings over the course of the year, the selectors discuss the candidates' work and gradually winnow the list. They then recommend up to 10 writers for awards to the foundation's trustees. The foundation accepts nominations only from the designated nominators."
Because there is no application process, Jess said, he felt especially honored to have been selected for the Whiting award. He already has won a number of awards, among them the National Poetry Series for his first book, "leadbelly," a collection of poems published last year by Verse Press.
As a poet, Jess first made a name for himself at poetry slams, an arena in which the spoken word or oral tradition supersedes the written text. As a slam poet and member of the Green Mill Poetry Slam Team in Chicago, he won several awards including the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award, in 2001.
Jess eventually gave up slam poetry to transition to the written word. He went to New York University to earn an MFA degree in poetry and while there he worked on "leadbelly," which tells of the life of the legendary blues musician Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter. Jess composed the 69 poems in "leadbelly" in a variety of innovative forms and voices: those of Leadbelly himself, his wife, the objects that surround him, and John Lomax, a famous ethnomusicologist who collected American folk songs.
Jess, who grew up in Detroit, majored in public policy at the University of Chicago. After getting his bachelor's degree in 1991, he remained in Chicago, working a variety of public-policy jobs. He had begun writing poetry, though, when he was 15 and soon found himself writing at work.
He eventually self-published a chapbook, which gained him attention. His first published poem was in the 1995 anthology "Soulfires: Young Black Men on Love and Violence" (Viking Press). An increasing number of his poems were then published in anthologies, journals and periodicals. Jess also wrote and had published a nonfiction book, "African American Pride: Celebrating Our Achievements, Contributions and Enduring Legacy," in 2003 by Citadel Publishing.
He is currently working on "varied and sundry poems" in addition to teaching introduction to poetry and graduate and undergraduate courses in poetry at the UI, where he also is thesis adviser to several graduate students.
Jess joined the UI faculty last year.