CDR interviews Jake Adam York
CDR: Loyal fans of your work know that you’re interested in the historical, the investigative, particularly when it deals with race in the South. Both Murder Ballads (2005) and A Murmuration of Starlings (2008) relate, in often beautifully gruesome detail, stories of atrocities committed in America in the last century. Your third book, Persons Unknown, is forthcoming from Southern Illinois Press/Crab Orchard in October. How does this collection differ from your first two?
JAY: I don’t know that I have loyal fans, but anyone who has read Murder Ballads and A Murmuration of Starlings will be prepared for Persons Unknown, which extends some of the lines initiated in these earlier books and also (I believe) ties those very different books together.
Persons Unknown, like the two books before it, is primarily invested in revisiting and preserving the difficult and strangely delicate histories of Civil Rights murders, and this book, like the others, is part of a long-term project to write at least one poem for each of the martyrs whose names are carved on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Persons Unknown may be a bit more interested in the memory, in the hauntedness of the sites of these murders, than in the gruesomeness of the murders themselves. The poems in Persons Unknown are more meditative and, generally, are longer than the work in either of the previous books. At the same time, the poems in Persons Unknown work more independently than did the poems in A Murmuration of Starlings—and in that way, they bend back to recover some of the approach of Murder Ballads, and two of the poems in this new book revisit scenes first approached in Murder Ballads.
I’m interested in this idea Edouard Glissant articulates about Faulkner, that Faulkner’s interest in what Glissant has called the “poetics of relation” means that Faulkner never writes a completely discrete work but instead weaves all of his works together. Here’s Glissant’s statement:
We are living in the moment when an indivisible world harmony and the conceptions it suggests are breaking up, a time when partial harmonies arise everywhere and converge toward a generalized disharmony, something the writer feels strongly he cannot explore without first renouncing this indivisibility that established him, sovereign and seer, in his place and words. To renounce the indivisible is to learn a new way of approaching the world; in doing so the writer learns to deploy all of his works in this approach, to become accustomed to this new and generalized disharmony while trying to follow its innumerable traces. (Faulkner, Mississippi, p 5)
The way I understand this is that a writer, like me, who wants to explore the duality or multiplicity of our cultural and historical life—to look not only at the official (white) history that precedes the Civil Rights Movement and that often complicates it, but to look also at the stories and lives that were suppressed or nearly erased, and to look at those things both at once—has to occupy several places at once. Since writing is a temporal art—it requires time to create and time to consume—the only way to achieve simultaneity is through constant self-revision. One work revisits another.
I was doing this in the manuscript for Persons Unknown before I found this statement by Glissant, but it explains the idea better and more authoritatively than I can.
One thing I was exploring in poems that make up the second half of Persons Unknown was the experience of being more than one person at the same time. You might be the private interior person you know to yourself, but also be or appear to be the person others assume or imagine you to be, sometimes just based on how you look. As a white man, though I’m interested in undoing the historical or cultural power of my own whiteness, I may appear, to some people, to be someone who’s invested in the power of whiteness, from which I have benefitted, of course. These poems complement some of the work in A Murmuration of Starlings, most particularly “The Crowd He Becomes.” I’m trying to localize and investigate my self — or maybe it’s more accurate to say my appearance or my body — as the site where different narratives converge, where the personal moral narrative and the narrative of skin collide.
CDR: In Denise Levertov’s preface to her book, To Stay Alive (1971), she writes, “As one goes on living and working, themes recur, transposed into another key perhaps. Single poems that seemed isolated perceptions when one wrote them prove to have struck the first note of a scale or melody.” Does this resonate with you at all? If so, what themes do find running through past and present work most often?
JAY: In answering the last question, I could as easily have been answering this question.
In writing Persons Unknown, I saw and took advantage of a number of opportunities to harmonize a new poem with an older one, to complete or at least build the chord, to adapt Levertov’s image. I think Murder Ballads had a lot of self-interrogation in it, some in the speaker’s repeated imagination of violence to himself and some in the formal constellations of the poems (what does it mean, for example, to write in a musical language and create aesthetic value when one’s subject is philosophically and physically violent?). The poems in Persons Unknown have taken that self-interrogation further and have made it more explicitly part of the book’s thinking. Entwined in this are constant themes about memory and amnesia, about witness or failure to witness or refusal to witness. I have a long list of these themes and ideas that seem to run though everything I’ve written, too long to offer here.
CDR: Now that your third collection is going to print, what new projects have your attention?
JAY: I wish I could answer this simply, but I can’t. I’m working on two different groups of poems right now. I see how they complement one another and how they work together. They might be two different projects, or they might be one big project. Neither is far enough along right now to say for sure. One group of poems is letter poems, written to other artists and figures whom I admire. These poems are meditating on my assumptions and my projects through encounters with the ideas and approaches of others. The other group is a clearer continuation of the work in Murder Ballads and A Murmuration of Starlings, elegies for Civil Rights Martyrs. There’s a third group coalescing, interested in earthworks—large scale sculptures—and I think those are more or less foils or mirrors for the visitations of the elegiac poems. Ask me again at this time next year, and I hope I’ve got a little more clarity. With the last two books, I cast about for 12-18 months after completing the one before and then got settled on an approach that carried me through.
CDR: Your poems are less autobiographical than most of your contemporaries. Do you make a conscious effort not to write the personal?
JAY: I think my poems appear to be less autobiographical than some of my contemporaries, but I think that’s just because I start from a different place or because I work in a different way. Glissant writes in his Poetics of Relation, “Sometimes, by taking up the problems of the Other, it is possible to find oneself.” And I think this is how it has been for me.
To begin with, I don’t find myself all that interesting, as a subject, and I wasn’t all that interested, when I began to write poems, in what I had done. I was 19, after all, and I hadn’t done much of anything. I had a rather quiet childhood, and most of my challenges couldn’t be listed or treated as any kind of trauma. Plus, I’m somewhat private about my romantic life. So, many of the things that “autobiographical” poets begin with just weren’t there for me, or I wasn’t interested in them. I had to turn outward. And this wasn’t any kind of explicit rejection. This is just the way I was. To keep my path, sometimes I had to make more explicit statements or avowals, but, again there’s no aesthetic argument with me. I’m just trying to follow an arrow.
Maybe this is what comes of growing up, more or less, in the woods. I spent most of my ages 5-11 alone in the woods. We had no neighbors, and most of what I did was hike trails and learn to identify trees and lizards or listen to the radio. There’s more to it than that, of course, and I’m starting to mine that in different ways, but I’ve always been more of a listener than a speaker, so I write poems and I approach poems in ways that record kinds of attention, that are responsive rather than assertive.
CDR: Do you read poetry before you sit down to write? Whose work primes your engines these days?
JAY: Sometimes, but not always, and lately not much at all. I’ll read in the afternoon or evening, after my writing hours are spent. I prefer to begin writing as early as possible, before anyone else’s language is in my mind. I feel that I am reaching for ideas and phrases that I haven’t heard before, and I need to go into that reach as fresh and as free as possible.
But my afternoon and evening reading very much impacts my broader view of what I’m trying to do. I’m always re-reading Levis, and I’m heavily invested in a number of poets who follow Levis—Kathleen Graber, Matt Donovan, Colin Cheney, Corey Marks, all narrative poets in some sense of the term, and all poets whose forms deal directly or indirectly with time and the way memory re-organizes it. These poets help me connect, too, to the prose writers, Faulkner foremost among them, whose work helps me think about the issues that are most on my mind. There are other poets whose work I visit frequently, poets whose practice either provides a kind of counterpoise or suggests another approach to the sentence, and among these Martha Ronk’s work is most arresting and instructive. There’s something about the brevity of her lines that never removes the poem from the colloquial, and I admire that.
CDR: You’re an Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at UC-Denver, as well as an editor of Copper Nickel. Many feel as though teaching and/or editing take energy away from writing. Do you feel the same, or do they somehow complement your writing life? What distracts you from writing?
JAY: Sometimes teaching and editing complement the writing life, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they take away. Maybe someone somewhere has it all figured out and it all works together, but I think if you’re growing or changing—as a writer or a teacher or an editor—your development in one area is going to pull on the other areas, and this isn’t always very pleasant. In the broad scheme of things, my various activities do complement one another quite well.
What distracts me from writing? Anything can distract you. You just have to decide what you’ll let distract you. Like anyone else, I’ve got money problems. I’ve got a house to take care of, and I’ve got to coordinate schedules with my family. And at school not everyone wants to work on the same schedule, and sometimes someone schedules a meeting at 7am (I am not kidding). And all that can be distracting. I set aside one day a week to do nothing but write, and I can usually save an hour each morning of the other days to keep things going. I try to do that early in the day so that at least I feel that writing is the first thing.
CDR: You’ve been living in Colorado for quite a few years now. Does location affect the way you write about place? Are you drawn to write about the western landscape at all?
JAY: In some ways, being distant from my home geography and from the places I write about makes it a little easier to write about them. Once I get the place in mind, it can stay there and remain stable, instead of changing around me. It’s hard to write about Denver, where I live, because it does change so much.
The broader Colorado landscape, and the mountain landscape, have a kind of delicacy and a kind of resistance about them. When you’re above treeline, it seems that every movement can have a lasting impact on the landscape. And yet, everything’s so windswept, so frost-heaved, it seems, at the same time, that nothing you do will register. So, I haven’t written much about the west, though I’m working on a series now about earthworks—like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty—that I hope will answer this dual aspect to the landscape. I think here the land may enact a kind of memory/amnesia that’s like the historical memory/amnesia I write about most often.
CDR: What do you miss most about the south? (Choose something which can’t be duplicated anywhere else.)
JAY: My folks, most of all. But I do miss a way of talking in which no one spills it all out at first. One reels out the kite of an idea and if the wind of someone’s attention catches it, then the rest can play out. I approach most conversations with my small kite and long string, and in the west—despite the atmospheric wind—there’s rarely the sort of give and take, invitation and acceptance that makes a conversation work. Maybe what I imagine isn’t Southern at all, but, conversationally I feel much more at home back home.
CDR: A lot of poets have other talents. Kim Addonizio, as you probably know, is an extremely talented harmonica player. Beth Ann Fennelly makes a mean red velvet cake. Alan Shapiro can play the pants off anyone in basketball. Besides poetry, what other talents do you have?
JAY: I make some seriously good barbecue.
CDR: Since this interview will appear in early fall, what are some of your best fall memories? What screams fall to you?
JAY: Football is fall. College football. Auburn University football to be more precise. I, literally, grew up on Auburn football. Some of my earliest memories are of Auburn. My uncle played for Auburn in the mid 70s, and my parents would take me to see the games. I don’t remember many of the plays, but I remember well parking under some of the campus’s giant oaks (between Haley Center and the dorms). Those leaves, going a little yellow, a little brown—that is fall.
CDR: What were you like in middle school? In what embarrassing fads did you take part?
JAY: In middle school, I think I was more or less of an outcast, for which I compensated by getting in fights—some wins, some losses. Two or three friends and I enjoyed mutually BMX bicycling and, on weekends and afternoons, spent a lot of time building ramps and flying off of them, often injuring ourselves. During school hours, we spent a lot of time making up codes—cryptographic, I’m talking—and seeing who could write the smallest hand—writing the Gettysburg Address on/inside the blue lines of theme paper.
CDR: Friends and readers of your work know how fabulous you are, so describe the first time you failed miserably at something.
JAY: When I was 5 or 6, I got cut from the tee-ball team because I couldn’t hit the ball. Tee-ball.
CDR: Do you like The Country Dog Review? Check: Yes _X_ or No___
Jake Adam York is the author of three
books of poems—Murder Ballads (2005),
winner of the Elixir Press Prize in Poetry, A
Murmuration of Starlings (2008, Southern Illinois University Press), winner
of the Crab Orchard Open Competition and the 2008 Colorado Book Award,
and Persons Unknown (2010,
University Press)—and a work of literary history, The Architecture of
Address: The Monument and Public Speech in American
Poetry (2005, Routledge). Originally from Alabama, he now lives in
where he is an associate professor of English and Director of Creative
at the University of Colorado Denver. He edits Copper Nickel with
his students and colleagues and serves as a
contributing editor for Shenandoah.