NYU Alumnus Tyehimba Jess Wins Pulitzer Prize

Tyehimba Jess, left, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his “Olio.” Surya Mattu, center, and Micki McElya, right, were finalists for explanatory reporting and general nonfiction, respectively.

NYU’s own Tyehimba Jess, a 2004 alumnus of the Graduate School of Arts and Science, was recently named the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his second book entitled “Olio.” Jess’s success was accompanied by two more NYU alumni — 2014 Tisch alum Surya Mattu and 2003 GSAS alum Micki McElya, who were both finalists in explanatory reporting and general nonfiction, respectively.

Jess hails from Detroit and attended the University of Chicago before acquiring his masters in Fine Arts at NYU. His first book of poetry, “leadbelly,” hit shelves in 2004 and tells the story of the 20th century jazz musician of the same name through a combination of poems and songs. “leadbelly” was met with critical acclaim and won the National Poetry Series Award.

Jess’s sophomore release, “Olio,” focuses on African American musicians prior to the Harlem Renaissance. In his creative collection of poems, Jess tells a story of culture and art through a mixture of sonnet, song and narrative.

Jess’s work has been commended by members of the poetry community. In a blog post, Douglas Luman of Found Poetry Review said that Jess’s “Olio” has the ability to change preconceived notions about the nature of poetry.


“‘Olio’ is and is not like any book you’ve seen before, summoning up reading experiences of the research-driven poetry of Martha Collins and visual/spectacular/performance work of Douglas Kearney, among many others — the same way that one can imagine a spectacle, but to attend it is altogether different,” Luman wrote in his post.

“Olio” beat out Adrienne Rich’s “Collected Poems: 1950-2012” and Campbell McGrath’s “XX” to win the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Jess currently teaches poetry at the CUNY College of Staten Island.

Surya Mattu is an artist and engineer who also works as a contributing researcher for the non-profit investigative journalism outlet ProPublica. Mattu was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting. While working for ProPublica, Mattu used data analysis to inform the public on a variety of issues ranging from the analysis of information collection algorithms by companies like Facebook and Amazon, to machine learning in headline creation by news outlets and even racial discrimination in auto insurance prices.

Mick McElya’s “The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery” tells a story of U.S. history through parallels observed in the representation of the nation’s national cemetery. McElya currently serves as an Associate Professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of History.

In a WNYC interview with Brian Lehrer last year, McElya said, “It [the cemetery] really is a microcosm of American history and culture and population and diversity, both military and nonmilitary since the Civil War.”

Administrative aide for the Creative Writing program Soren Stockman said in a statement to WSN that in recent years, NYU alumni have won a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, two Stegnar Fellowships, two NEA fellowships and a Whiting Award.

Jess joins the likes of Harold C. Schonberg, GSAS 1939, Dorothy Rabinowitz, GSAS 1960, and over 20 other NYU writers and reporters who can claim Pulitzer Prize Awards to their name. Vice President of Alumni Relations and Annual Givings Brian Perillo said he was impressed by the accomplishments of these NYU alums.

“We are incredibly excited for Tyehimba Jess, Micki McElya and Surya Mattu to receive this recognition, which is a well-deserved acknowledgment of their hard work and talent,” Perillo said. “It is immensely fulfilling to see the impact that NYU alumni, a community near half-a-million strong, are having on the world.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 17 print edition.  Email Mack Degeurin at [email protected]



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