Poetry Dialogue: Jake Adam York

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A black and white photograph of participants in the March on Washington in 1963

Originally from Alabama, Jake Adam York is Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Colorado Denver. He is the author of three books of poems—Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005), A Murmuration of Starlings (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), which was a winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry, and Persons Unknown (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).

York’s poems have appeared in Anti-, Blackbird, The Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Diode, Greensboro Review, New South, Northwest Review, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Southern Spaces, Third Coast, and other journals. Originally from Alabama, York is now Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Colorado Denver, where he co-edits Copper Nickel.

I’m drawn to Jake’s work for many reasons. I love his use of language and the dexterity with which he moves from the tactile to the imaginary while maintaining a connection with the reader. Beyond that, I really admire the way he integrates research into his poems. A Murmuration of Starlings and Persons Unknown are both steeped in research and work together to elegize the more than 130 recorded martyrs of the Civil Rights Moment.  That’s a simple summary of the books, though. Historically and poetically, Jake’s undertaking is much more complicated than recording. What Jake is doing in these poems is part excavation and part reclamation.

Not too long ago, I heard a piece on NPR about a slave uprising in 1811. 500 slaves armed themselves and set out to take New Orleans while the city was getting ready for Mardi Gras. Like most uprisings, this one was undone by a couple of slaves selling out their peers for extra bread and clothing. But what made this uprising remarkable is the slave-owners’ response: after executing the participants and lining the roads into New Orleans with their heads on pikes, the plantation owners completely eradicated any evidence of the uprising to keep the citizens calm. No newspaper reports, no court records, or death certificates. No official explanations or apologies.

I bring this up because there are parallels between the 1811 uprising and the Civil Right Movement—once you get past the very important difference in ideological approaches. Clearly, Dr. King would not have advocated the violent takeover of a city. But the narrative of the uprising illustrates once again that an incomplete history isn’t a history at all; it’s just a partial story. Like the version of the Civil Rights Movement in textbooks.

The poems in Jake Adam York’s collections explore our subverted history and that exploration is necessary because much of the activity during Civil Rights Movement was censored or ignored. In his poems you will find the history, the story, and the music we need to begin to understand this revolutionary moment of our history. With that, here’s my conversation with Jake Adam York. Our dialogue took place via email at various points between February 1, 2011 and March 29, 2011.

Adrian Matejka:

Before that big storm that shut down most of the middle of the country in February, I was stacking firewood in the event we lost power. Our house is at the edge of a windy ravine and the tarp covering my wood pile blew off at some point, so there was snow covering my firewood. Anyone who has tried to start a fire with damp wood knows the problem I’m talking about. They don’t teach you anything about that in Scouts. Not that we had Scouts in the neighborhood I grew up in.

Anyway, I used Facebook to complain: “If I wrote a blues tune for this icy/snowy day, it would be called ‘Snow in My Woodpile.’ Is that title taken?” You responded with this great bit:

I got snow in my woodpile, and my cord’s all wet.
I got snow in my woodpile, and my cord’s all wet.
All I got to heat my place is a cold, cold sweat.

What do you think it is that makes the blues (in poetry and in song) such a great vehicle for venting?

Jake Adam York:

I think the second A line is key. In the proto-blues—field hollers and so forth—that second A line is the response the participating audience gives the leader. The audience assents to the leader’s vision, gives the leader permission to continue, and the leader continues, usually, even more loudly, as if his voice is amplified by the power of the audience’s voices. In the blues we all know, the blues of recorded music, it’s a single singer who has to carry both the call and the response (though it’s great when Charley Patton or Howlin’ Wolf let the guitar’s melody line carry that other voice in songs like “Spoonful”). Just so in poems. And in these single-voiced blues, I think the second A line provides a moment in which the singer gets to draw an even greater breath and come in to the B-line with greater force to offer some serious ventilation.

And, maybe too, even if it’s just one singer, there are other breaths—the breaths of history—in that second A line, so you feel, however individual your tribulation, you’re singing with more than two lungs, one throat.

You appreciate this, I know, because you can’t write poems like “Wheels of Steel” without having this in mind. Those lines—

Two jigsaws spinning, buzzing the backdrop

for woodshop or emcee, bar mitzvah
or afterset. It’s DJ Run, DMC rocking

 

without a band, but not without me.
I make it rain. I make it rain on these

shined up rims…

—the rhyme of “mitzvah” and “rocking,” of one party situation with another, of Run DMC with Fat Joe and Lil Wayne, all this folding into the voice of the turntable, which is also your voice. As I once wrote in to The New York Times, in response to an article that suggested Andy Warhol invented hip-hop when he started working with silk screens, hip-hop is a kind of blues. It’s got so many voices in it, in a way everyone’s in the house.

AM:

I like that. I think the connection between the blues and hip hop has been undervalued. Hip hop, at its core, is made of the same improvisation and imaginative honesty as the blues. It’s non-exclusive to language or subject in the same way. Hip hop also has some connections to the story-telling—or maybe oral tradition is a more accurate term—aspects of the blues. I’m thinking Ghostface Killah’s “Shakey Dog” or A Tribe Called Quest’s “8 Million Stories.” When Phife Dog says,

Picked up this girl in the hoopty
Just because of her rhymes she tried to soup me
Pay for this and pay for that loot for nails and hair
Who the hell do you think I am, Mr. Belvedere?

he gets to one of the centers of the contemporary hip hop-driven blues: not having in the face of the perception of having. I read someplace that A Tribe Called Quest received $36,000 total to split among the three of them for Low End Theory, one of the seminal records in rap. That was a long time ago. Hip hop in general is sort of an anti-blues now. It’s about having rather than having lost.

Both of the tracks I mentioned plays back into your idea that the “voice is amplified by the power of the audience’s voices.” Phife’s words are resonant because most of us have driven a hoopty and hung our heads in embarrassment. You know, the blues as feeling. Phife’s experience feels like the blues because we as audience can intuit the experience and to use that great word again, “amplify” it.

JAY:

A reader’s sympathy is the biggest amplifier, to be sure. But I’m struck by the thought that one reader may amplify on more than one channel. I’m thinking, as you’re saying that, three things. (1) You’re right, that Phife’s and Tribe’s power comes in part from our having been there in some way; their poetics (if you will) speaks out of a particular (and perhaps private and perhaps privated) experience toward a common note where other voices might harmonize. And (2) though the idea of being “Amplified” may end up, in a Tribe context, belonging to Q-Tip, Phife nevertheless does swing toward something larger in a track that (3) is further amplified by its allusion to Kurtis Blow’s own “8 Million Stories”—from the Ego Trip album (1984), one of the first albums I bought with my own money. (The first being Afrika Bambataa’s Planet Rock, the second being Run DMC’s Run DMC.)

You can’t listen to one without hearing the other behind it, even if the allusion is sly or sideways. Even in a track that is, as you say, more about having than having lost, like Common’s “Universal Mind Control,” the sound or texture of the track is pointing back to Bambataa’s “Planet Rock” with the keyboard melody and classic 808 beat track—and I think that’s a kind of blues.

AM:

Mantronix: The Album was the first rap album I bought. Before that, I got all of my rap music (including Run DMC and Doug E. Fresh) via second- and third-hand dubs because few of the record stores in Indianapolis sold rap music until around 1985 or 1986. I was astounded at how crisp the voices sounded once I got a store-bought cassette.

It’s funny because I almost included Kurtis Blow instead of Ghostface in my earlier response. Those two versions of “8 Million Stories” highlight some of the allusory and self-referential aspects of the blues and hip hop. I’d love to see more allusion in contemporary poetry and I think the desire comes directly from being a hip hop junkie. This is a really big question, but I think it takes us back to where we started in some ways: what connections do you see between the types of music we listen to and the poetry we write?

JAY:

I can only speak for myself—I am convinced that I listen to a lot more music than anyone else I know except you, so my experience may be atypical—but I owe a serious genealogical and methodological debt to various kinds of music.

Rap music, I’m convinced, brought me to poetry. In Gadsden, Alabama, in 1984, when I turned 12 and my parents started letting me spend my own money, rap was just starting to show up. I liked it because it was different from anything else I’d been exposed to—country music, 70s rock—and because the rhythm of words seemed to me the primary instrument. When I got into high school, my best friend that freshman year was also into rap, and we started kicking it around, even joining some battles at the fountain in the Gadsden Mall. It was terrifying and exciting. My love of the theatrics faded, mostly, but the love of the rhythm stayed. I can’t say I’ve mined as much rhythm from that music as, say, Major Jackson has (I hear the mid-80s 4-beat line teasing up to a couplet rhyme in a lot of his work), but when I go back to Run DMC, I find a lot of the attitudes—a sense of bewilderment at where the world has come to—resonate still with me and my work.

I’ve probably learned more, methodologically, from listening to jazz and blues.

Before rap arrived, I was developing an interest in electronic music. When my parents got a VHS and started renting tapes, they would occasionally let me rent a concert, as long as it wasn’t rock music. I rented a Herbie Hancock concert, which came out about the time he was putting together Future Shock. After that, my folks got me a copy of that LP, and then I convinced my mom to buy me a cassette copy of Maiden Voyage. It was more like “history shock.” I didn’t know how to listen to that music. It was almost as if I couldn’t even hear it, but I would go back to it every few months until it started to gel—though that took years, probably well into high school. I could even say I’m still trying to listen to it, to read it. As a result of that experience, I really value a slow unfolding, a slow revelation—and I probably write poems that are too long for a lot of folks. But the structural lesson of Maiden Voyage (which is probably the lesson of just about any recording of modal jazz) is about the play between the statement (or reminder) of the root or head and the excursion the soloist takes away from the root, which can be translated in long sentences that stray from their core and then rediscover or remember it.

And blues—blues was in the background until I got to graduate school and got interested in folk wisdom and folk poetry and was also generally feeling sorry for myself. I spent a lot of hours listening to Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf (I’ve got an old Wolf lyric folded into “Substantiation” ), Robert Johnson, trying to learn that sideways tongue that says two things at once. And Son House, who I turned into an avatar of exile—a Mississippi musician who “disappeared” in the 40s into upstate New York (where I was in graduate school), only to be rediscovered. That music from the rediscovery sessions—it was a kind of archaeology, that kept two times, one past and the other present, in two places, one Mississippi one New York That sense of simultaneity kept me going, and I tried—through various forms of echolalia and recursive verse—to get that into my work, the blues pattern not just repeating itself but gathering voice and time and place into its reiterative movement.

AM:

Your response makes me think some of the same mechanisms are necessary in good songs and good poems, even though the two moments (a “song” or a “poem”) are not at all the same construct. Those shared mechanisms help create poetic connectivity, though. Like blues songs, good poems and collections of poems allow the reader the opportunity for emotional or intellectual call and response, a communal investment beyond the textual realm. Your project about Civil Rights martyrs, which includes both A Murmuration of Starling and Persons Unknown, relates to this in many ways because the poems are elegy, blues, and history all at the same time. Do you think there is a distinction between an elegiac poem and a blues poem?

JAY:

The blues poem and the elegy certainly overlap. The blues poem may have something elegiac in it—whether we’re thinking of the ending of Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” or Michael S. Harper’s “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,”—something that is celebrating something even as it passes, sometimes (Hughes) apparently disconsolate or deflated, and at other times (Harper) apparently enlarged. These poems create communities of support as they imagine their readers. Some elegies do the same thing. Elegies can be extremely personal, even private—I think of the mood of Jack Gilbert’s “Michiko Dead,” for instance, which advertises the poet’s grief publicly while convincing us that the grief is a private burden. But elegy usually works to share its grief and its consolations, and that outward push that is calling forth a chorus even in its quietest moments. To me, for example, Geoffrey Hill’s  “September Song,” a sonnet that is also a holocaust memorial and elegy, requires a response from its reader—in an almost excruciating quiet.

I’m thinking of the kind of quiet like the one in that moment in Son House’s “Death Letter” when he sings “Hush—I thought I heard her call my name,” where House is suppressing the audience’s voice to draw the listener into the singer’s theater. This moment in House’s song always makes me feel my emotional responses compressed, ready to explode…

This is what I’m trying to exercise in these Civil Rights poems. When I read, for example, of Willie Edwards, Jr., kidnapped by Klansmen and put on the edge of a bridge outside Montgomery in 1957 and given a choice to jump or be shot—when I think of Edwards making his choice to jump—I feel all the breath go out of me. And yet, this story, like so many others, is kept in a space without breath—and that quiet, I think, lets the Klansmen’s story sound. They get to walk away. So, I have to take the breath back. And I need more than two lungs to do that. I need a reader to be with me. So, these poems try, like House, to feel the breath go out of things and then to invite the breath back in, so the poems can talk back—and maybe that makes these elegies blues poems, in a way.

This is Adrian’s eleventh post for Get Behind the Plough.