I encountered Jake Adam York’s poetry when I and my then-fellow editors founded New South at Georgia State University. Our poetry editor solicited Jake’s work and we included his poems and an interview in our inaugural issue. We also brought Jake to Atlanta for a reading and that was when I actually met him. What I remember most about that first meeting was how calm he was, sitting in our tiny office, as we talked about writing. He was tall, and if you didn’t know him you’d think him imposing, with his stark bald head. But he was so gentle. The way that I would describe Jake Adam York’s personality in my 1990s California way of describing the world is chill. Jake Adam York was chill.
I was New South’s designer, so my interaction with individual authors was fairly limited, and I’d only spent a couple hours with Jake when he came to Atlanta. But at AWP, and in the midst of AWP turmoil, Jake found me in the crowd, walked up with an emphatic “Jamie!” and a friendly smile. He stuck out his hand for a shake. I wasn’t wearing the stupid nametag thing, either. He remembered me. So many have commented on his encyclopedic knowledge and that might have been because he was a great rememberer.
When I was sending out and publishing the pieces that became my first book I received an email from Jake, soliciting my writing for his magazine, Copper Nickel. The email was brief, personal, and inviting. It was an honor. Before AWP rolled around again I received another email asking if I’d like a slot for a book signing at Copper Nickel’s booth.
And what does any of that have to do with Jake? He made it happen. He was the kind of community builder who generously, eagerly, brought others into his fold and opened his world to them.
Since we were flung apart (in Colorado and Georgia) my next opportunity to see Jake came again at AWP. And again that emphatic “Jamie!” called to me from the squawking of a busy hotel bar. I was walking past Jake, where he sat at a table with Kim Addonizzio, and that same smile radiated out to me, and the three of us talked over a beer or two.
My regret is that the last time I saw Jake he had come to Atlanta for his fellowship at Emory University, and I was surprised to see him at an Emory reading. When he told me he was in Atlanta for a year we made tentative plans for dinner at my home. Those plans never materialized, and now I only have Jake’s wonderful books.
And what books!
It’s always sad when we lose a genius. To paraphrase Orwell, we are one mind less, one world less. Jake provided a window onto the world wholly his own, but steeped in our culture and the ideas that flow out from it, whether that culture resists them or not. Jake was a genius in all senses of the word: he was wholly himself, and could be no other; he was brilliant. He shone far brighter than the stars that gathered near him.
It’s also sad when we lose people we care about, and to me this is where things are strange. I wasn’t close to Jake Adam York. I’d never met his wife, didn’t know his family. We’d shared meals and beverages together, but I’d never been to his home, and he’d never been to mine. We were truly professional acquaintances. So I can’t explain the depth of sadness I’m experiencing with this loss. I honestly don’t know where it’s coming from. Although my theory is that Jake was such an easy person to feel good around. He was friendly, gregarious but not boorish, helpful, a lover of poetry, a soldier in pursuit of justice and human dignity. When I think of him I think of his smile.
In this tribute issue of Atticus Review we reprint the special feature that ran in the inaugural issue of New South. This includes then-poetry editor Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s interview with Jake, as well as the titular poem that later featured in his second book, A Murmuration of Starlings. Additionally, I’ve selected poems from Jake’s first book, Murder Ballads. Although it’s impossible to understand what a truly wonderful individual Jake Adam York was without having met him, you should grasp the gravity with which this man went about creating. It’s worth it to touch but the hem of his genius.