I first came to know Jake eight years ago through his then blog—Jacob’s Ladder. There, he began smart conversations with his readers about things that mattered so much to him—poetry and music and photography and barbecue. I remember thinking if his daily observations were this interesting to read, I can only imagine what his poetry must be like.
It wasn’t long after that I began reading Jake’s work. I found it hard to escape his cadence—a quality that most likely came from his love for music. His poetry is musical and inescapable like the starlings he writes about in his second collection. And to hear him read the poems aloud was a whole other experience. In 2007, as poetry editor of New South, I invited Jake to read for our students and faculty and to serve as the journal’s poetry contest judge. He accepted, as he was forever generous with his work. Jake read and just floored every person in the library that night.
Jake was also such a strong supporter of his fellow poets. When my first poetry chapbook manuscript was accepted for publication in 2005, I wrote Jake asking if he would mind writing a blurb. His generosity was almost overwhelming in his acceptance to write for me and in the insightful things he had to say.
Last year Jake came to read for our students and faculty at Kennesaw State University. I was elated the KSU campus would have an opportunity to hear poetry that is important and honest and poetry that meant so much to me personally. Jake was so engaging in his reading and you could even hear sighs every now and again from the audience.
Jake’s poetry calls for his readers to witness both the atrocities and the hope of the civil rights movement. When I think of Jake, I think of him how I always have—gorgeous, generous, and hopeful.
New South Interview with Jake Adam York
Jenny Sadre-Orafai: Tell our readers about your second book, A Murmuration of Starlings.
Jake Adam York: A Murmuration of Starlings is a book of elegies for martyrs of the Civil Rights movement. Throughout the first half of the book, a cloud of starlings grows around scenes of racial violence, as if produced by that violence; throughout the second half of the book, the same starlings become creatures of reaction to racial violence.
The conceit is founded on the fact that starlings were introduced into the United States in 1890, about the time racial violence found a new institution in lynching. The starlings, which began with 40 nesting pairs released into New York’s Central Park in 1890, and lynchings increased at startling rates. The starling population in America is supposed now to be around 200 million, and the starling is considered a kind of biological pollution, visible almost everywhere, and I wanted a way to image the effects of racial violence that would enable a reader to think about it as a kind of pollution.
But the violence with which these poems are concerned is not all-powerful. Though the murderers of people like Herbert Lee and Louis Allen thought their acts would terrorize African-American communities from the fight for Civil Rights, these acts had, in the long run, the opposite effect: the Civil Rights movement sharpened in response, seeking to redeem the suffering of the murdered by ensuring the fulfillment of the movement’s promise. The transformation of the murdered into martyrs relocates the power of the violence, so the violence is used against the violent. And that’s why in the second half of the book, these starlings, that had imaged and that continue to image the effects of racial violence, become the creatures of resistance to that same violence.
The fact that starlings are incredibly adaptable—they are mimics, not quite as fluent as mockingbirds, but capable of adopting the sounds of crying babies and police sirens as well as the calls of other birds, and starlings thrive in part because of their ability to adapt (or steal) the nests of other birds—underwrites the transformation.
This transformation is, however, never perfect. I say that the starlings continue to image the effects of racial violence even as they image the resistance to that violence. Though the Civil Rights movement managed to transform the meaning of that violence to strengthen, not weaken, the movement, the effects of that violence can never be perfectly countered. There is always a residue, and I hope the persistence of the starlings, moving in contradictory clouds and adapting multiple voices, imagines that for some readers.
JS: How did you start thinking about residue?
JAY: I started thinking about residue with respect to the work of elegy. In graduate school, I was always arguing about Jahan Ramazani’s Poetry of Mourning and the idea that elegy becomes impossible at some point because consolation is impossible because at some point the violence becomes so vast and terrible it cannot be undone. I never really thought the consolations of elegy are perfect—when I read “Lycidas” or “Adonais” the consolations seem to me excessive and that excess seems to me a measure of the impossibility of a perfect balance—but I continued to wonder how the elegy might perform its work accepting the inevitability of its own imperfection, how it might leave a residue of violence or loss as a way of recognizing the impossibility of rescinding loss or suffering.
In Murder Ballads, I wanted to explore various kinds of excess or residue. My initial project was to write poems in which the music was doing one thing while the plot or argument of the poem was doing another, with the idea that in an elegy the music could be sonorous and consoling of the senses while the argument remained cognizant of ultimately irredeemable horror and pain. Maybe an elegy could acknowledge its failures on a conscious level while working to provide some compensatory or consolatory experience on a sensory or limbic level.
Early in this work I saw a documentary on the rise of the steel industry in Birmingham that discussed the torture, murder, and mutilation of James Knox. Knox was a young African-American man who, convicted of forging a check, was sentenced to labor in a coal mine. This was, practically, a death sentence, but shortly after he began working in the mine, he was murdered, and the discovery of his mutilated body drew a great deal of attention to the convict-labor lease system in Alabama which was then abolished. This abolition was presented in the documentary as a kind of consolation for Knox’s suffering—an idea that, while interesting, seemed a kind of platitude. So I tried to write a poem in which the syntax might enact and resist both the mutilation and the consolatory narrative. I wanted the suffering to remain real because I thought that was the only way to work in elegy without the elegy becoming a pornography of suffering or of power. I didn’t want to profane Knox’s death, or anyone’s death, by appropriating it into some display of poetic power or some act of personal absolution. I didn’t want to commit the acts that typically lead to elegy’s dismissal and thereby to re-murder Knox—to murder his murdering. (I’m remembering Thomas here: “I shall not murder / The mankind of her going…”)
I held onto that poem for over a year after I’d written it. I wasn’t sure about the poem, about how it might be received as a kind of elegy (there are a lot of contemporary poems that dismiss elegy outright as naïve or antique), how it might be received as a response to suffering, how it might be received as a poem by a white Alabamian about the murder of a black man in Alabama. I only sent it out as part of a manuscript and, though the manuscript didn’t get picked up, the poem did, so I started to think about it and its work in different ways. I wasn’t sure if the poem avoided all the problems I wanted to avoid, but it was out there, so the only way I had to address those remaining concerns was to write other poems that might eventually stand with “Elegy for James Knox” and, together, suggest the tone for this complicated elegy I wanted to write.
So I wrote “Negatives,” which is a reading of a lynching photo-postcard, and “Consolation,” an elegy for Willie Edwards, Jr., a truck driver murdered in Montgomery, Alabama, after being mistaken for a man who had slept with a white woman, and “Vigil,” an elegy for Virgil Ware, who was murdered the afternoon after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, in September 1963. And in writing these poems, two things happened.
First, I started thinking more explicitly about my position as the elegist. I didn’t think that poetry’s authority or the elegist’s authority or tradition’s authority was enough to allow entrances into these lives. I thought that it shouldn’t be enough. Maybe, the trouble with elegy is not that suffering is inconsolable, even partially, but that poetry’s demonstrations of its own authority, as justified per se, are what threaten to turn elegies into pornographies of power. And the murders I was writing about were murders by power —physical and hegemonic power—I didn’t want to place the murdered at the hands of another kind of power without asking questions of that power, and that meant asking questions of myself and my ability to enter their lives and memories. So, in many of these poems the elegist becomes the victim of another sort of violence, most of it self-willed if not entirely self-controlled. In “Negatives,” I implicate myself as a white writer into the spectatorial crowd that then gets burned—photographically, chemically, emotionally, vengefully: it doesn’t even the scales, it can’t even the scales, and it doesn’t attempt to even the scales, but it intended to expose the postures of power so a reader (or viewer) would be asked to consider his or her position, to be implicated. In “Consolation,” my speaker goes to find the murderers and drives them, and himself, into the river where Willie Edwards, Jr., was thrown, and in “Vigil” the speaker invites the molten iron of Birmingham’s furnaces to wash over him—both acts that should lead to the death of the elegist. While that kind of death won’t repair anything either, hopefully it exposes the difficulties of elegy while preserving the potential for consolation, however imperfect.
Second, I started more deliberately founding the poem’s syntax and sound on the facts and, wherever possible, the actual language of the murders, as gleaned from documents, interviews, newspaper stories, or photographs. In writing these poems, I would start with a quotation and build the poem out from there, shaping the syntax to echo the quotation, or building the line on the nominal length of phrase in the quotation, or developing strands of echo or synonymy or explication from the quotation’s diction.
In readings I’ve been calling this the “documentary lyric,” and this is what I mean. I try to write a poem that, however narrative, is still clearly lyric—that is, it’s musical, its attentions to language complicate and even arrest the flow of narrative. The lyric elements—those relations of language that are not necessarily narrative, that exceed narrative—in these poems are, however, not derived out of a private language but, instead, from documents that also provide the poem’s subject.
With respect to the questions of elegy, I’d hoped that this approach would create music in the poem—music that could offer some somatic appeal, even pleasure, suggestive of comfort or consolation—while at the same time drawing the readers’ attentions even more closely to the facts and events that should disturb them fundamentally. To put this another way, I wondered if I could console the ear and disconsole the mind at the same time, by using the same language to build a comforting aleatory and a disturbing argument. The impulse may seem contradictory, but I think this is the only way to write about these murders—that must be written about and read about and acknowledged in all their horror—without completely appropriating them to beauty, to aesthetics, to all that so many Americans find dismissable about poetry.
JS: There seems to be a natural progression between the two collections. In what ways do you find the second book different? Did you find it easier to write?
JAY: A Murmuration of Starlings does, I would say, grow from Murder Ballads—you said a “natural progression”—but it’s a different kind of book. Most obvious to most readers will be that while Murder Ballads included only a few of the Civil Rights elegies, A Murmuration of Starlings is a book of these elegies (only one of the poems is not explicitly a Civil Rights elegy) and could even be considered a long poem. I’d hoped that Murder Ballads—which seems to include many different kinds of poems, some elegiac, some autobiographical—might be read as a long poem, but I’m not sure anyone has done that yet. Murmuration, however, has a much more obvious progression and stronger ligatures between poems—the murmuration of starlings most notably.
The process of writing A Murmuration of Starlings was much different. After Murder Ballads was under contract, I felt like I had a year in which I didn’t have to worry about making a book. And getting Murder Ballads under contract, after three years of sending it out, let me feel that it wasn’t entirely foolish to think of myself as a writer, that I didn’t have to prove and justify my work in the same way. So I had almost a year to try some new material and to feel like I could do it. I can’t say that there was a moment when I said consciously that I wanted a second book to be different from the first, but in this free time the kernels of Murmuration emerged.
The first poem I wrote for the book was “Substantiation,” a longish poem built of nine sonnet-like sections (you can see this in VCU’s Blackbird). It’s a poem that I think I wouldn’t have written if I felt there were immediate consequences for getting it wrong. I knew if I continued writing the Civil Rights elegies I was going to have to write about Emmett Till, which I thought was going to be impossible. But this free time allowed me to try and get it wrong as many times as I needed. The last poem I wrote for Murder Ballads was “From A Field Guide to Etowah County,” a poem in which the detached language of the field guide intersects with the almost tired language in which history is rehearsed, and I thought, at first, I might try a similar approach with a poem for Emmett Till. I tried writing the poem as a kind of echo poem, in which the language of Bryant’s and Milam’s defense twined with Mamie Till’s voice, one voice almost science-fictional and one very directly realistic, to create a tension like that in “Field Guide.” But approaching the poem in two columns didn’t work, so I collapsed the voices into one space, allowing them to work over each other, and when they came together in the same space, the natural images, particularly the starlings, began to move on their own through the poem, linking one voice and another.
Once I started working in this way, I wrote most of “Substantiation” in about two weeks, and this became my starting point. I made some arbitrary decisions that I thought would just help me draft the manuscript—I was going to embed a quotation in every poem, I was going to allow the starlings into every poem even if only obliquely. In about a year I had over half the manuscript, and finished it over a summer. Whereas Murder Ballads took me maybe four to five years of concerted writing, A Murmuration of Starlings developed over the course of about eighteen months. I can’t say I knew what I was going to do when I started, but allowing myself to let go of a lot of the pressure I’d felt to get a first book out—that allowed me to become more sensitive to my material, allowed me to let my subject shape the book a little more easily, and the result was that the work came much faster.
JS: You say that you allowed yourself some freedom in the early stages of writing Murmuration, but I wonder if there were other influences on your method or changes of method.
JAY: Well, there were a few books that I read at just the right time. I usually read four or five books of poems each week, and that rate increases as my writing increases. But there were a few books in particular that gave me new life and license, including Elizabeth Robinson’s Apprehend, Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Suspensions of A Secret In Abandoned Rooms, Zachary Schomburg’s The Man Suit (which I read in manuscript), and Joshua Poteat’s Ornithologies. In each of these books I found an interesting balance of lyric intensity or attention, on the one hand, and narrative or argumentative progression on the other. I’d tried in arranging Murder Ballads to strike such a balance, but here were more interesting ways, and I feel that I learned something from each of those books that was crucial to my completing Murmuration. I admired how each book would introduce an element, let it lapse, and then reintroduce it at crucial moments so it would persist. These books helped me imagine the ways in which I’d manage the appearance of the starlings throughout Murmuration and perhaps encouraged me to write a book unified by a single persistent image.
Of these books, Poteat’s was most important to me. Some might think obvious the debt one book dominated by birds owes to another book dominated by birds—or the kinship of one with the other. But my starling obsession was already full-blown by the time I read Ornithologies. I learned other things from Poteat. Or it may be better to say Poteat’s book helped me learn other things. Most of all, Ornithologies translated some of the approaches I admired in Larry Levis’s Elegy into a Southern context so that I could imagine adopting them more fully. I spent a lot of time reading Elegy, which helped me think about the project of exposing loss and imagining different ways in which consolation could be possible, but I don’t think, until I read Joshua’s book, I understood how Levis’s approach to the poem—not just his stance on questions of elegy—could work in a Southern context.
Levis, like the poets I mentioned before but perhaps more extensively than they, masters the management of an image’s appearance and re-appearance. The poems in Elegy are long, and they’re argumentative, by which I mean they test an idea by extending it as far they can, but the architecture of the poems is one of images, and you have to ask certain questions of the poems or they seem to slide off you like water. The poems in Ornithologies often do the same, and they helped me understand how to think about a long poem that’s about the South.
In Murder Ballads I worked a lot with long sentences—something I learned from preachers, not Faulkner—but not with long poems. I don’t think I ever felt that I had the right tools or the right permission to write a long poem. I was raised in an Appalachian language tradition where almost everything, even when it’s verbose or argumentative, is contracted in some way, where everything’s motivated by the sense of having to say things quickly, though I never knew the reason. And my teachers—R. T. Smith and Robert Morgan in particular—came out of that same language tradition. They were known for poems of tight, contracted phrases. And with the encouragement of family and education, I tended toward that contraction in my writing. I think of even my long sentences—as in “Walt Whitman in Alabama” or “Elegy for James Knox”—as fairly compact, phrasally. I’m comfortable writing that way because I know that if I can get the sentences right and the sounds right so the language will announce its own authority.
But I have to justify even beginning work on a longer poem. I have to figure out how I have the authority to arrogate that much space or time. Ultimately, the subject has to ask for the length, and it has to generate the language—the phrasing—that will support a longer poem that’s not just a long plot. The idiom of the poem has to be appropriate to the subject and at least not foreign to the rest of my work and my language tradition. Those are largely technical problems, but they’re also problems of culture or tradition: there aren’t many Southern poets to whom one can turn for models of the long poem, and two of those—A. R. Ammons and Charles Wright—built their longer poems of short, lyric segments.
So, when I started reading Levis seriously, I admired the work but the length and logical complexity of it didn’t intersect with my sense of Southern writing or Southern language. Poteat’s book, which clearly learned from Levis’s (Levis, as it turns out, taught Poteat), showed me that Levis’s more argumentative approach could work in a Southern context. Ornithologies has a number of longer poems I admire for their success at maintaining a line of inquiry and for maintaining an inquiry that’s about the South, about what our region and our history means and especially what it means for a contemporary Southerner. Those are the questions that interest me. Those are the questions Southern writing has to answer. Poteat’s poems showed me that a Southern writer could enter into a longer poem, like Levis, and continue to deal with the historical questions central to Southern writing.
And if Poteat’s book didn’t help me solve the technical problems I had, it at least solved the problem of authority, the question I had, which was “How can a poet with my historical tradition pretend to a long poem?” Poteat’s poems suggest that the history, which we share as a subject, asks for that treatment. So the choice is made and you set in on the technical problems, which is where those other books helped me.
JS: Can you say more about what you mean by “Southern writers” and “Southern writing”? Do you see Southern writers as having certain responsibilities?
JAY: A writer’s subject always places certain responsibilities on the writer. I consider myself a Southern writer. By that I don’t mean someone who lives in or who lived in the South who is also a writer. I mean instead a writer whose work is either about the South or whose work is conditioned by the South—by its history, language, and culture—in some way. I take the South, or rather the conditions Southernness has placed on me, as my subject, so I have certain responsibilities—to my subject, and to my poems.
I’ve lived outside the South for eleven of the last thirteen years, but in most of those years I’ve been asked to explain various aspects of Southern history or culture. And that fact has given me certain responsibilities, which I might have refused if I were another Southerner. But I’m a white Southerner, with a slight but noticeable accent, with a Southern syntax and vocabulary, with Southern eating and reading and musical tastes—and this has meant that I have provided some other Americans with a location for considering and exercising their views about the worst white Southerners. I’ve been supposed to be racist, based on my accent alone. This means that, whoever I know I am, I am also someone else to others. I am, in many situations, two persons at once. So, I’ve come to address this, however indirectly: whenever I write about Civil Rights murders, I’m interested more in the metaphysical violence than the physical violence—what did people think that made this violence possible? I’m even more interested in linguistic violence—what kinds of thinking does language make possible, does language enforce, can language resist? And those are ways of thinking about the history and nature of the white Southerner and the intersection of skin color and a particular accent. That is my responsibility. Not mine alone, of course. But it’s mine because these are the problems that condition my work and that condition my ability to work.
This begs the question To whom or to what am I responsible? For me, that list goes on forever.
Photo by Heather F