Interview with Featured Poet
Jake Adam York
[Town Creek Poetry]: Several panels at the 2007 AWP in Atlanta, a recent Southern Review, and an upcoming issue of Southern Quarterly all attempt to explore the contemporary state of Southern literature. Do you have any remarks on this preoccupation with "Southernness," and do you consider yourself a Southern writer? For what reasons do you or don't you?
[Jake Adam York]: Yes, I consider myself a Southern writer, and I identify myself as a Southerner, though, as I’ve stated elsewhere, I don’t know how much choice I had in the matter. Even when I haven’t self-identified, others have been happy to identify me as such, so I’ve come to think of my self and my work, not just my speech, as having an accent that can’t be muted. My experience, I’m sure, is peculiar in some ways—in graduate school I was accused of being Southern by folks for whom the identification was tantamount to indictment—but I suspect it’s not entirely unique.
I’ve lived much of my adult life outside the South and have, then, been constantly reminded that the way I say things, the words I call things, the ways I describe things, the ways I imagine things, the ways I like to interact with people are from somewhere else other than where I am.
Some argue that current interest in “Southernness” is a natural operation in a region that is changing too rapidly, becoming part of America in ways it never could, that our accents are changing and our landscape is changing, that many of the markers of “Southernness” are passing away and that the crisis of that deterioration makes us turn back and ask what it means, after all, to be Southern. Some even go so far as to say that Southernness is dying, that you can’t be Southern in the same way any more. But I disagree with that view and that diagnosis. I don’t think “Southernness” is dying out. It’s changing as Southerners work to articulate, to personalize a regional identity that maybe 40 years ago you could have described more simply, for better and for worse. It seems to me now that whereas decades ago I suspect you would either have been Southern or not-Southern, now you can identify yourself in a more particular way and modulate the received elements of regional identity. So, I’m happy to see that African-American and mixed-race writers, Natasha Trethewey and Kevin Young and Yusef Komunyakaa, are identifying themselves and being identified as Southern. If Southern used to mean “white” in some way, it doesn’t, it can’t mean that any more.
[TCP]: A clichéd critical appraisal of Southern poets states again and again a nearly ubiquitous tendency toward conservative styles. The somewhat hermetic styles of contemporary poets like Forrest Gander, as well as older poets like Besmilr Brigham, prove exceptions to this "rule." Would you agree that your poetry vacillates between a Southern lyricism and a modernistic fragmentation? Do you think this vacillation reflects a proportionate, simultaneous need to retain and abandon Southern identity?
[JAY]: The cliché unfortunately bears the shapes of Southerners’ own insistence on seeing themselves, and the region, as conserving traditional ways of life, whatever that has meant, and for that, I think those figures who first defined the idea of the Southern poet (the Fugitives), successfully realized the broader cultural rhetoric most spectacularly in the preservation of what are called “traditional” or “conservative” poetic styles. But the terms in this polarization, as well as the basic suggestion of the cliché, fall apart on inspection. First, what we call “traditional” styles—exact rhyme, certain approaches to meter, preference for closed forms—are relative new-comers in the history of poetry in English, enjoying a relatively brief vogue—not an uninterrupted reign from classical times. What’s being conserved in so-called conservative poetics is not necessarily the best ecology: poets choose to conserve what suits them and so are not conservationists, per se. Gander’s work may conserve some more ancient poetics even while it seems to abandon “tradition.” Second, poets to whom we turn for some substantiation of the category of Southern poetry are not all or even largely conservative poets. Dickey is an obvious example of a poet whose Southern identity seems central to his work—both in terms of its creation and its consumption—and Warren, who comes out of the Fugitive school heavily responsible for setting the initial terms, wrote as much open poetry as anyone in the 70s and 80s.
All that to say, I don’t know that I can accept as a true choice the one offered in your first sentence.
Just so, I also don’t know that the choice is between lyricism and fragmentation. Compared to dramatic poetry or to much prose writing—essays, novels, stories, histories—the lyric might rightly be considered a fragment. I consider the lyric a kind of recombinant fragment: you can read it as being torn off of something, but that something may be implied, indicated, and even potentially reconstituted by the fragment. I believe modernism to be as interested in forms of recombination as in fragmentation, per se, which is another reason I think lyric/modernist fragment are not alternatives to one another.
I’d rather identify two approaches to a poem, one inward, the other outward. There are poems in the book, like “Hush,” which I understand as being built on a music that refers primarily to itself. The poem has something of a narrative, but I don’t think you need to understand anything in particular, you don’t need to know any facts, in order to read the poem. The poem’s repetitions of sound make it look, and I hope encourage a reader to look, back into the poem for both the architecture and the significance of the poem. And then there are poems like “Elegy for James Knox,” a poem that, while still heavily patterned, asks a reader to know something particular, something factual, in order to get at the poem’s significance. I want you to know that James Knox was a real person, that what happened to him, as narrated in the poem, is something that actually happened. I want you to know that the poem has reference outside what’s on the page or the screen. The question of the fragmentariness or the wholeness of the poem can flip: you can say the inward poem is fragmentary in that it detaches itself from the world, but it’s whole in having a sufficiency that can be defined with reference to itself, while the outward poem might be called fragmentary in that it asks to be read as part of a larger truth or story, but it also imagines the terms of its completion in asking the reader to do or know something.
That may be a tendentious answer to a sincere question, but this is how I think about my work and how I think toward new work.
[TCP]: It was an admittedly confining question—and your answer helpfully breaks it apart and opens new pathways. You've mentioned that music has influenced your poetry. Can you describe your encounter with the music that inspired much of your first book, Murder Ballads? For what reason do you think it significant to listen to older country music like the Louvin Brothers and Hank Williams? Finally, what contemporary bands have best inherited this style?
[JAY]: The short answer is I grew up with that music. Almost every weekday morning until I was 10 or 11, I ate breakfast at my grandparents’ house where the radio was always on, usually on WAAX, an AM station that carried Paul Harvey and a wide range of country (what we’d now call traditional country) and gospel music, so that was the first music I can remember listening to. (See my statement of poetics in H_NGM_N.) I didn’t know many of the songs, but I knew the harmonies and the sound: it was always around. When I moved to Ithaca, New York, for graduate school, and I didn’t have my grandparents’ radio anymore, I started listening more deliberately to that music. The Louvin Brothers, in particular were favorites, because they were from Alabama, not far from where I grew up, and because they recorded murder ballads as well as gospel songs, often right alongside one another, something I also admired in the later work of Son House and Johnny Cash’s American recordings. And Hank Williams: I’ve become so jealous of Hank Williams over the years—jealous for his figures of speech, his fluency—I can’t quickly describe the power he has for and over me, but there’s not a wittier songwriter alive or dead. I listen to traditional country music because it connects me to the deep roots of oral tradition in English (and Irish and Scottish for that matter), to the ancestors of our stories, and to the innovating wit of the provincial, the speaker who’s cut off from everything but him or herself, and even though that’s not me, I wish it was.
It’s harder to say what contemporary bands have inherited the style. There have been revival bands, like BR5-49, which have done justice to the tone of the music, and there have been other bands, like Porter Hall, Tennessee, that situate themselves in those traditions, and of course Charlie Louvin isn’t done yet—he’s touring on a new album—and Hank Williams III, in both his punk and country modes, is keeping the attitude alive. Nick Cave has made significant contributions to the life of the murder ballad, and dozens of country artists have come together to compile albums of traditional murder ballads (see The Executioner’s Last Songs). I’ve been thinking lately that some of the harmonies we hear in Lynyrd Skynyrd and that descend into newer (and, I think, better) bands, like the Dexateens descend in some measure from the close harmony of the Louvin Brothers. The elements of the old music are everywhere, but not altogether, which is good, I think. The influence is there, but everything’s rearranged and renewed.
[TCP]: Certain motifs other than music carry through Murder Ballads, particularly metal and the corrosion of old metallic objects. As in the steel poems represented here, metal objects seems to dually signify stalwart presence and indefatigability. Can you explore this preoccupation with metal?
[JAY]: Metal—iron and steel—are important to me largely because my father was a steelworker. He’d come home smelling like hot metal, but he didn’t talk about his job much, so I started reading about, and writing about, steel as a way of thinking about what he did. The more I wrote, the more I read, the more I saw the metal around me, particularly the elemental iron. Now, the smell of iron and of steel being made (which I get to smell here in Denver) reminds me strongly of my father, almost overpoweringly, so iron and steel, even in their corrosions, help me think of persistence more than loss. When the iron is artifactual or archaeological, even when it is mineral and geological, it images for me the persistence of things not as objects but as fields of element and even influence. I don’t see the corrosions as kinds of loss, but rather as part of the life of the metal, as one of the ways the metal makes its way into us, into our bodies, where it becomes part of us. Maybe that signals a loss of identity,
but I like to think of it as an expansion.
[TCP]: How does your new book (forthcoming from Southern Illinois UP), A Murmuration of Starlings depart aesthetically or stylistically from Murder Ballads?
[JAY]: A Murmuration of Starlings is a more strongly unified book, in style, theme, and image, than Murder Ballads. Murmuration is exclusively a book of elegies for the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement. There are longer poems, most of which are composed of short segments, so, strangely, the poems are simultaneously denser and looser than those of Murder Ballads (see “Substantiation” in Blackbird). In preparing to write Murmuration, I spent a lot of time with Larry Levis’s Elegy and with Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” and I think many of the poems approximate one model or the other. Both Stevens and Levis (in Elegy) wrote poems that were strongly musical and argumentative at once, and that’s the kind of poem I think I was trying to write in Murder Ballads, especially in poems like “Walt Whitman in Alabama,” “Elegy for James Knox,” and “Negatives.” I’ve tried to carry the argumentative disposition over from Murder Ballads and to find new musical forms for that impulse. I’m now writing what I call a “documentary lyric,” a poem that’s strongly musical, that has a strong internal coherence, musically, but which gestures outward, through documentary elements, including quotes, to a story that begins and ends outside the poem. I’m now working on a new sequence to follow Murmuration, and the poems again are long, sequential, but also dense, even lush in some respects. It’s too early to say how that book is going to go, as a whole, but it’s coming together.
[TCP]: What artists working in media other than literature have influenced you, and why?
[JAY]: Obviously music has been very important to me. Anyone reading A Murmuration of Starlings will note the reappearance of John Coltrane as well as of Sun Ra, who’s actually a character in the new book.
Beyond that, photographs—historical and documentary photographs, not all by known photographers, but some by folks like Charles Moore—have been enormously important to my work. I keep returning to photographs by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and I hope I’ll write something about his work at some point. But the artist who’s really captivated my imagination at this point is Kerry James Marshall, who was born in Birmingham but grew up in Los Angeles. Marshall’s Mementoes, a series of paintings that explore motifs of memorial for Civil Rights martyrs and forgotten musical talents, is much on my mind, and I expect that the next book will include something inspired by or addressed to him. And I’ve been returning to some collages by Tennessee artist Billy Renkl, which may also appear obliquely in the next book. More distantly, I’ve also been thinking about Willie Cole’s “Elegba Principle,” which helped me write another sequence I installed in a gallery last year and am trying to transform into a book. And I’ve been working with Alabama photographer Robert A. Schaefer, Jr., on a book about Alabama farms, which may come out within the next year.
[TCP]: As sappy as it might be, I'm interested to know (a) how you encountered poetry, and (b) what made you want to become a poet. If you were to list a brief "anthology of influences," who would those poets be?
[JAY]: I encountered poetry and decided I want to write poems in one afternoon. As a freshman architecture student at Auburn University, I decided to play hooky from the studio one afternoon to catch a poetry reading by R. T. Smith, who was the Alumni Writer in Residence at Auburn then. Somehow, I tuned into the design in his work, understood it as something kin to what I was learning in architecture, and decided I didn’t need to cut myself with Xacto knives in order to do something creative, so I switched my major at the end of the term. I took four classes with Smith, and he introduced me to the poets who were early and important influences and whom I would still list as important forces for me today: Seamus Heaney, A. R. Ammons, Robert Morgan, Emily Dickinson.
If I were to list a brief anthology of influences? Early: R. T. Smith, Heaney, Ammons, Morgan, Dickinson, Berryman, Dylan Thomas, Charles Wright, Philip Levine, Eliot and Stevens. Somewhat early: Robert Hayden, Walt Whitman (both of whom, after Ammons, led me further into argument), Robert Lowell, and less Berryman and Thomas but still the others. Over the last decade: early Ashbery, Larissa Szporluk, Larry Levis, Maurice Manning, Joshua Poteat. And I don’t know if she’s properly an influence yet, but I’m reading Karen Volkman very consistently and returning to Stein and Marianne Moore, which may lead to something else: I’m working on a few sequences of prose poems, though mostly to see if I can do them with any intelligence or with any
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