Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Interview Project #4: Jake Adam York

Some books seem made to be read again and again. Some books deserve to be read a little every day; to travel with you from time to time for the moments when you might find a brief respite and require a little company; to sit out on your coffee table, refusing to be shelved, because you're not done with it and might never be done with it. Murder Ballads is one of those books, but it isn't just some book. And Jake Adam York isn't just some poet. There are a couple reviews out there who do more justice to Jake's book than I could even begin to attempt (here and here), and I'll simply say that Murder Ballads is a dozen kinds of special. You should definitely get one.

Head over to Blackbird to read and listen to an interview with Jake. And while you're there do a little reading. And then keep reading. You can find another interview-type thing here.

But before you go anywhere, keep reading...

What are you working on these days? Any work coming out in the near or semi-near future?

I've recently completed a new manuscript of poems, A Murmuration of Starlings, which is now circulating. Some of the poems are recently up at Blackbird, and others are due out in Cannibal and The GSU Review, and a chapbook selection, entitled Murmur will be published by Poetry West in the coming months. I'm hopeful to see the book placed in the next year. I'm also looking forward to a Spring sabbatical, when I'll work on a third manuscript.

Perhaps it's worth saying that A Murmuration and the third both grow from Murder Ballads. In the course of writing Murder Ballads I discovered, as my teacher Robert Morgan might have said, my true mode and subject: the elegy. The last poems to arrive in Murder Ballads, and the poems that gave the book its shape and title, were the elegies for victims of racial crime, poems like "Elegy for James Knox", and "Vigil" and "Consolation".

Writing "Vigil" and "Consolation," I discovered the problem that would provide the kernel for A Murmuration: the Civil Rights Martyrs, men and women whose deaths marked important moments in the Civil Rights Movement, men and women who need to be remembered, but whose memories are difficult given the nature of their deaths, the unbelievable and nearly unbearable violence of their deaths. In the months after Murder Ballads was accepted, I turned to work on a few poems I'd tried to write before but couldn't, specifically poems about the murders of Emmett Till and of Jimmie Lee Jackson, also Civil Rights Martyrs, and in those poems emerged the thread that would bind A Murmuration, the starlings, which visualize the residues of racial violence. I worked on A Murmuration almost every day from last November through this past August, and completed the manuscript, and then began sketching out what will be the third volume, which I'll begin writing, in earnest, in the Spring.

I also have a few other projects that are somewhat disconnected at present, so I doubt they're of much import, but I also wouldn't rule out seeing some poems from one of those other works sometime soon.

What sorts of things have you been reading?

I read a lot, usually 4-5 poetry books a week. Most significant to me has been what I've been re-reading. I've recently returned to Joshua Poteat's Ornithologies and Larry Levis's Elegy, Maurice Manning's Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions, Diann Blakely's Farewell, My Lovelies. I'm also spending a lot of time tracking down Manning's "Bucolics" and Blakely's "Duets" which are beginning to surface in various journals. I'm shifting between reading poems that have a strong commemorative strain, poems that have a broad range of reference, and poems that have a strongly southern tone, as these are the elements I'm trying to coordinate every time I write a poem and elements that seem especially important to consider while preparing to address a new project. I've also spent a good deal of time over the last year reading books that come from very different places -- including Joshua Clover's The Totality for Kids, Christopher Nealon's The Joyous Age, Karen Volkman's Spar (which I continually re-read) -- books that either draw me in new directions or ground my present work.

Regarding your own work, do you have a favorite and/or most-representative piece?

I do so many different kinds of work, and the work itself changes significantly so often, it's hard to promote one piece as being strongly representative, though most folks respond strongly to "Elegy for James Knox" and "Walt Whitman in Alabama," both from Murder Ballads, and I wouldn't object to being represented by those poems. From the new manuscript, "Substantiation" (at Blackbird) is reading well, and I wouldn't object to being represented by that poem, especially as it comes closest to showing all the strains and all the strain of my present work. However, given all that, I'd have to say, if you wanted a single representative poem, I'd encourage you to read Murder Ballads as a long poem, rather than as a collection of poems (that's how I imagined it, as a single long poem comprised of (apparently) discrete poems), and then you'll have it.

Could you talk a little more about your "true mode and subject"? How did you come to writing elegies?

I'll say I slowly found my way to the elegy and not through my MFA curriculum. The thesis I wrote for my MFA had some of the first seeds of what would become Murder Ballads, but mostly it was something altogether different. I found my way to the elegy through my dissertation research, which focused on the relationship between architectural images and commemorative poems in American Literature. Having spent years with "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and "For the Union Dead," I started to write my own located commemorations, and the results were "Janney," "At Cornwall Furnace," and "Iron," each of which became part of my dissertation (which was a scholarly/creative hybrid) and later appeared in the last section of Murder Ballads. The Civil Rights elegies came out of those located commemorations, and "Elegy for James Knox" was the first.

I was working on a series of poems linked by steel mills, working and defunct, when a friend passed me a tape of a public television show on the history of Birmingham's iron industry, and in it was a segment on the murder of James Knox, an episode that usually occupies, mostly, a sentence or a paragraph in an Alabama history. "Elegy for James Knox" fell out of me. At the time, I didn't think much about why I was writing it, and since it came so quickly I distrusted it and didn't show it to anyone for more than a year. I was looking for a new title for the poem, mostly because I don't like poems that tell you what kinds of poems they are (e.g. I don't like sonnets that are called "Sonnet," but I do like a 47-line poem or a 3-line poem called "Sonnet"), when I reread Ramazani's The Poetry of Mourning and decided that elegy was the poem's mode and that having the word in the title would help a reader with some difficult matter. And only then did I realize that elegy, the tradition of elegy, could explain, describe, and support the work I most wanted to do in my poems, to recover the past and minister, at however futile a distance, to the memories of the victims of history.

I hadn't read Levis's Elegy yet. A friend recommended it to me in 2003, and that was the first I'd even heard of the book. I'd heard of Levis and, as it turned out, had read a few of the shorter poems in that book, but I'd never read that book. I see now why my friend suggested it, but I'm glad I didn't read it until Murder Ballads was almost fully formed, since I might have destroyed my book on the grounds that Levis did it better. (The influence of Elegy will be visible in the new poems, some of which are up at Blackbird and some of which will appear in GSU Review in the Spring.)

To make the claim that I wanted most "to recover the past and minister, at however futile a distance, to the memories of the victims of history" may sound arrogant, and it may be, but I didn't undertake this work to see or to show what I could do. I found myself, as I traveled in Alabama, more and more at the sites of the history I'd read, and I felt something enormous and terrible in those places, an almost debilitating dilation. This was my sublime, my Southern sublime, an apprehension of the enormity of landscape and of history. Perhaps nothing new, given the work of Dickey or Dave Smith, but I did feel it. As a former teacher put it, it felt like the subject chose me.

"Elegy for James Knox" is an immensely substantive and gripping poem. What types of responses have you received to it?

The responses to "Elegy for James Knox," and to the other Civil Rights elegies, have been amazingly positive. I've been able to read the poems all over the country -- south, north, east, and west -- and at almost every reading someone will come up afterward to talk about "Elegy for James Knox" or "Vigil," either because they or someone they knew was in the Civil Rights Movement or because they knew the history, too, or, just as often, because the poems taught them things they hadn't known.

For "Elegy for James Knox," the best reception, however, came from a Bridge program class in Dothan, Alabama. The teacher had given the students, 25 African-American students, the poem, and then asked me to visit the class. The students were surprised at first that the poem was written by a white person, that, as one student put, I could care so much about the subject. I don't know if I have an ideal audience, but if a group of high-school students in my home state would read my poems and engage them -- well, what more could I hope for?

How important is the specificity of place in your work?

For me, the specificity of place is incredibly important. Most of my poems are, I would say, narrative poems, and narratives need scenes, but that's perhaps a banal way of anchoring place, which is important to my work in two related ways.

First, most of my poems are not just narrative but reconstructive: many of my poems, particularly the ones that develop the Civil Rights sequence, reconstruct very particular narratives, often narratives that have been distorted or obscured in some way, and narratives that both express and develop particular views of particular places. The poem "Substantiation" (recently published in Blackbird) for example is about the trial of Emmett Till, which involved a number of competing narratives: that poem imagines that the narratives, expressing a set of wishes for the Mississippi some white folks wanted (namely the murderers and those that helped cover it all up), can root in and transform the actual landscape of that Mississippi.

Second, place is a valence of language even as language is a valence of place. Place is where an accent develops, from which it arises, and accent -- expressed in syntax more than in anything else -- shapes my work as surely as anything else, so specificity of place, whether it be my home place in northeast Alabama or some other geography in which I settle for the duration of a poem's composition, determines specificity of language, and from that comes all the rest, I think.

If your work were to be made into a film, who would direct it?

I'd like to see a film like a collection of poems, with short chapters, sometimes overlapping. In my dreams, I'd have Janie Geiser, Stan Brakhage, maybe Catherine Sullivan, maybe Jane and Louise Wilson, Terrence Malick, the Stephen Soderbergh that made Kafka, Tim Burton, each direct poems and maybe have them overlap, work together on the transitional lengths. If I can't have it all, at least let me say I'd love to see what anyone would do with my poems, but I'd really love to work with, of all people, Janie Geiser. Her films looks the way I think about my poems: little bits of material, all originating elsewhere, floating together in a new order. Still, each of those I've named is an artist in his or her own way, much better than I am in my endeavors, so that's probably terribly arrogant, perhaps offensive. But you asked...

What does the phrase "Southern poetry" mean to you, if anything?

A difficult but necessary question.

I don't think "Southern Poetry" is a stable genre or subgenre of poetry or of Southern writing, either historically or contemporarily. There are what I might call small hollows of consistency, moments when intersections of concern and style begin to delineate a kind of poetry -- take the Fugitive Poets for example -- but those moments never embrace all the poetry that broadcasts some kind of Southern. So, for me "Southern poetry" is rather a region of poetry that, in one way or another, broadcasts some kind of Southernness, that in some way draws upon, contributes to, or speaks back to the broad cultural category of Southernness. So, for example, I'd consider Maurice Manning and Natasha Trethewey Southern poets: though their poetics are markedly different, the work of each addresses concerns of race and class as power dynamics that have linguistic as well as social consequences, and though such a concern might not be exclusive to Southern writing, I think such a concern has been and will continue to be central to Southern writing.

I consider myself a Southern poet because, even though the list of concerns in my own work may not provide an exhaustive list of those concerns that are Southern, the central struggles in my work attempt to speak back to the notion of Southernness and to the broader cultural field of engagement with Southernness, with the meaning as well as the constitution of Southernness. And, in my own case, I'm not sure I had much choice but to embrace Southernness and to write with it. I went to graduate school at Cornell where I was constantly determined by my peers as Southern, mostly (I think) because my geographical provenance was written in my throat and on my every word, even though my accent is not very "strong." My work would be read against the field of Southernness even if my poems did not directly invite such context, so I decided to write inside of and to draw from Southernness. So, another definition of "Southern poetry" might be poetry in which readers find evidence or avatars of Southernness -- or, as I've said elsewhere, poetry in which there is some kind of "accent."

Wallace Stevens said, "Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right." Do you share that idea? Stevens also said, "In poetry at least the imagination must not detach itself from reality." What does that mean to you?

I was once lectured, in a scholarship interview, for getting Stevens wrong, so I fear I may get him wrong again, but it seems to me that Stevens' work displays, perhaps more clearly than anything else, the power of conception of imagination. When Stevens says "Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right," I take him to mean two things: first, that through poetry we can make the world right, that we can reshape it so it makes sense; and, second, that we might, just as easily, come to understand, as we observe our imaginative visions or revisions, where we misunderstand the world and, then, how we might use imagination to reshape ourselves. That second reading may well be more my extension of or, more to the point, my idea of Stevens, but that's what he's saying right now, in my mind, so I'm going to listen to that. The other quote you offer, "In poetry at least the imagination must not detach itself from reality," might be taken as a corollary, reminding us that, while our imagination has the power to shape the world, if our imaginative orders become too independent of reality, they cannot have the force of reality, they lose their vocabulary and therefore their constative force.

What do these ideas mean to me? How do I develop them? In writing the Civil Rights elegies that, I believe, will be my major project for some time to come, I have become fascinated by what I'd call the facticity of error, by what happens when a lie or a mistake comes to be treated as fact. In many lynchings, the accusation that a black man might have raped or been intimate with a white woman was enough to set the mob in motion, so the accusation became tantamount to truth and though we can never know the truth of the matter, the lynching makes the victim a rapist or a paramour. Willie Edwards, Jr., for example, a truck driver who was thrown off a bridge into the Alabama River in January 1957, was thought to have been involved with a white woman; though much of what I've read argues that the Klansmen who killed Edwards identified him as someone else, the person who was involved with the white woman in their concern, that they identified him as the man in their minds was enough to make him that man. That's an example of the imagination shaping the world in an attempt to get it right. In my poem about Edwards ("Consolation"), I try to take that imagination, founded on error, and re-attach it to reality, in a very violent way. In doing so, I perform my own work of imaginative re-shaping. My poem might be considered an error, in some ways, but I've tried there, and in almost all of these elegies, to take the facticity of error that buttressed lynchings and turn it back on the lynchers.


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