AN INTERVIEW WITH JAKE ADAM YORK
Gregory Donovan: This is Greg Donovan and I'm chatting with Jake Adam York. We're in Vancouver at the AWP annual conference, and we thought we'd take this opportunity to talk with Jake a little bit about the group of poems he's given us. Many of these poems, Jake, are all from your first collection, Murder Ballads, is that correct?
Jake Adam York: That's correct, yeah, that's right.
GD: Is there a kind of a theme or any kind of unifying aspect that you're after in this particular book?
JAY: There's one large theme that is captured by the title, and there are several manifestations of that interest in the book. Maybe I can just explain the title and then we can explore a few of those manifestations very briefly. The title, Murder Ballads, is taken from a type of music that I'm familiar with growing up in northeast Alabama. A lot of people know, for example, like The Louvin Brothers, the great gospel and country duo, who were from northeast Alabama. They're from Henager, Alabama, just probably forty, fifty miles up the road from where I grew up.
For a long time I've been fascinated with these songs that they and other people of their generation recorded that were tragic songs, the stories they told were tragic; often, there were murders, crimes of passion, those sorts of things. But the songs couldn't be sweeter, melodically, they couldn't be sweeter. And I've been struggling with this aesthetic problem of how to write about history that's terrible without offending the history, offending the victims of the history. On the one hand, you want to bear witness to the terror of it with the terror of your own. But on the other hand, you have an opportunity in memory, at least this is my feeling, an opportunity in memory to offer a kind of consolatory vision. That's the traditional work of the elegist. And I know that for the better part of the twentieth century it's been common knowledge, or common thought, that the ability to console is beyond us and that if we don't admit that, that in some sense we're being dishonest, we're being opportunistic in the moment of the elegy. We're trying to take someone else's suffering and by addressing it accrue the magnitude of that terror to our fame as poets, or to our skill.
And I understand the argument, I feel like it's a legitimate argument, it's a powerful argument, the history is certainly there and many of the things that we have to respond to are so terrible that art often has difficulty finding purchase. But as I say, I think still there's a great deal to be done in terms of offering a kind of consolatory vision for, or in response to, in these cases particularly, southern racial crime and the history of racial crime. While I was thinking through the aesthetic problem and listening to the country music, it dawned on me, probably many years later that that type of work was a model. Because if you listen to the words, if you work through the content, it is clear that the song is haunted and debilitated to a certain extent by the knowledge of how terrible the subject is. But at the same time, that desire or maybe the impossibility of not singing in a melodic fashion is there to offer a kind of compensatory balance. The whole book is an attempt to do that, to provide a series of poems that are interested in things that are terrible, while at the same time in their textures, the sounds, the music of the poems, offering something that is a little more dulcet.
GD: I think of songs that I've performed myself, like"Little Omie Wise," which is a great murder ballad, and in those great murder ballads it seems like there is something else I detect in your work, which is a part of the complexity of this process as a modern Southerner, you're trying to come to terms with the past, and it has to do with taking responsibility, with the complexity of that, too.
JAY: Well, I think part of it is taking responsibility, actively embracing the whole history, but on the other hand, it's also partially just a matter of recognition. If you're from a Southern family as I am—my family is six, seven generations in Alabama and before that further up the Appalachian chain—you're already implicated in the history in so many ways that you can't know specifically. And one of the things that has motivated many of these poems is discovering just how closely implicated I've been in so many of Alabama's particular racial tragedies. The "Bunk Richardson" poem for example, is about something that happened in my home town, I did not know about it until that [James] Allen book, Without Sanctuary, came out. And I'm looking through these artifacts of terror and seeing this one very heavily damaged picture, and it says, "Gadsden, Alabama." That's my home town, and I know the bridge, you can see the bridge and I know it. It's still the exact same bridge with the same foundations and remarkable to know that in what is otherwise a fairly unremarkable community, that this occurred.
Shortly after I saw that book a gentlemen at the local newspaper did an article on that event, the lynching of Bunk Richardson. And the response to it was really fantastic in that it was as if the hundred years between then and the article had evaporated. People were calling this guy and giving him death threats and so forth, and he ended up . . . finished the series, and he ended up quitting the paper and moving out of town. I thought, this stuff is still living and it's not so much that people are as racist or as criminal as they were twenty, thirty, forty, a hundred years ago, but the memory of it is still so strong that though people would not do the same things now, their response to it at a distance is such that you can still feel that these problems, these wounds, these crimes have not been recognized, they have not been atoned for. And that's what we're still working through.
So, like I said, some of these are geographical proximity, the "Bunk Richardson" is something that happened in my home town. "Tallasseehatchee Creek" is actually, it describes an archaeological excavation that my wife worked on at one time. And these others are ones that maybe I'm a little less directly implicated in. And "Consolation," when I was researching Willy Edwards's murder, I discovered that one of the conspirators was named York, James York. And the echo of the name was just too much to ignore. And I thought, this is a poem in which I can imaginatively implicate myself and extricate myself in a way that both begins to address a need for atonement that I feel, and at the same time, provide a vision of a kind of flexibility that I think many modern, contemporary Southerners want. Which is the ability to feel abashed by what has come before and at the same time begin to move beyond that. Because it's my feeling, talking, for example, with my grandparents and people of their generation, that they do feel terrible about the things that maybe they didn't stop, but at the same time they don't want to feel paralyzed by a sense of their own criminality. My grandfather, in fact, he was on a grand jury that had a chance to indict the murderer of a postman who was doing a one-man march in 1963, he was taking a letter to Ross Barnett from Chattanooga, Tennessee, all the way to Jackson, Mississippi, and he was murdered right outside Gadsen. My grandfather was on the grand jury, and they had the chance to indict the guy that they knew murdered him—they had the gun, they had the bullet, they had everything—and for whatever reason they decided they couldn't make a case. But that is something that when I talk to him, he's aware of it, he's not denying that he had that part in it that he played, but he also doesn't want to talk about it very much, and you can tell. And there's that kind of paralysis that is interesting and devastating at the same time. And so some of these poems are trying to get beyond that as well, recognize it, but get beyond it.
GD: That's a traditional role for the poet, it's an aspect of the bardic role, to be a recorder of history, but it's not simply, of course, journalistic, it's [an] emotional and religious and cultural portrait, a kind of a fabric that you provide. And that, I think it's only in that full context that you're able to accommodate events with such power, of such import in a way that is not demeaning or dismissive or merely journalistic. One of the things I noticed in the language that you're using, for example, there's a lot of evocation of a religious idea that in fact, you're kind of achieving a resurrection in these poems.
JAY: Yeah, and I hope the resurrection is one that primarily comes through language. There's obviously not anything we can do to bring any of these people back. But if in imagination, if in language, if in the stories we tell there is something, a vision that is, as I say, compensatory or consolatory in some fashion, then we've done the best we can, I think.
GD: Well, it's a work to be done too, it's a way of, what do we do now, you know, just sit around on our hands, or grieve about the past? Of the many things that can be done this seems to me one of them.
JAY: Right, so in there we touched on . . . I mentioned there were several sort of sub threads in the book and one of the ones you can see here is—and these all pretty much follow from that idea of the murder ballad, the poem that's beautiful and terrible at the same time. "Vigil," for example, and "Buck Richardson," and "Consolation" are from a series that talks about civil rights martyrs. And I mentioned one of the others, there's a poem about the murder of Bill Moore, he was the postman that was mentioned a few minutes ago. There's a poem about the murder of Viola Liuzzo, who was a civil rights worker driving marchers back and forth from Selma to Montgomery. Several other poems, all in that vein, in the book, and that forms one kind of density in the collection. "On Tallasseehatchee Creek" is from another thread that's primarily concerned with other aspects of Alabama history. I guess it's a kind of rhyme with that series on civil rights martyrs in that Alabama's history of dealing with Native Americans is certainly no less terrible. In fact, in some cases, though the victims are not known because we didn't have their biographies, the things that were done with them are in some ways more horrific. To read Davy Crockett's account of the burning of Tallasseehatchee Creek is just absolutely, it's unbelievable.
GD: It's interesting that people, generally speaking, find a lot of these memories and aspects of American history so painful they don't want to ever recall them, they don't want to talk about them. Like in Richmond, the only person who could have accomplished this very thing, there's a great deal of talk about establishing a museum of slavery, and of course it's our former governor, who was the nation's first African American governor and now the city mayor, who is trying to establish that museum. But in other cities in the South they have talked about trying to have some sort of museums of slavery or museums of the slave trade or things like that.
JAY: I think in fact, the museum, that is now going to potentially be in Richmond, it was offered to Mobile and I believe they turned it down, and before that, wasn't it in Gulfport and they turned it down as well?
GD: Yeah, so many people find it too painful to even bring . . . including African Americans, of course, I mean, naturally of course, what a frightening thing. I always try to talk to white students I have about such realities, asking them to imagine that moment in a black family's life when someone has to explain to these young children what's going on, what is the history of this, why is all this strangeness going on? And imagine the painful dual role you have to take up of both being angry, and yet you wouldn't want to terrify your child.
JAY: On the other hand, it's to a certain extent unavoidable, not just because it's written in the culture, which it is, and to that extent you can't not talk about it, somebody's going to mention it, something is going to indicate it in some way that makes it impossible to avoid it, but on the other hand, there's an artifactual record, and those things show up in unlikely places. I remember my wife taking me through the woods and we went by some trail, and this was a place where she worked as an archaeologist, they had discovered a lot of shackles. They were chattel shackles, whether or not they were for African Americans or for Native Americans is hard to tell, but you know they're there. And there not that far under the surface, maybe there like three, four inches or something like that, and it's just remarkable, just right there.
GD: In your work as a poet, are there things that you feel like this particular project taught you about your own writing, or you're becoming aware of something you want to try and accomplish, or that you're struggling against?
JAY: What a question . . . probably it taught me everything, you know? This is my first book and I have struggled to find my direction, or as one of my teachers said, to find my subject. When I started graduate school, it was a little more than ten years ago, I didn't really think of myself very much as a Southerner. As I said earlier, I'm from Alabama, I'm six or seven generations in Alabama. And I guess it's just so obvious and pervasive in my life that I just never really had the opportunity to think about it. When I got to Cornell and everybody was pointing out that I was Southern, in this way or that, it was bizarre at first, but then I felt that I had to accept the truth of it on some level just in order to be able to have a conversation with my colleagues about writing and about my writing in particular.
I feel like these poems that are represented here, which mostly I've written in the last two years, have been probably the culmination of that kind of very initial phase of my idea of myself and my work, which probably I resisted in some ways. Because, I just thought, I grew up thinking I was mostly normal with a few exceptional moments when my regionality was pointed out to me in a way that was difficult. And here I was as an adult, kind of hoping, I think, to get beyond it, but then discovering that it was written in me in a way that made it impossible to escape from even if I wanted to. Which now I don't. I used to think about escaping it, in a sense want to, but now I don't think about it.
So the project has allowed me to embrace the good and the bad in one package. For me, beyond these poems, the personal struggle has been, do I speak with an accent or do I try not to? And I try not to a lot, just in order to get things done. I don't live in the South currently, though I would like to, and there are many times when if you talk the family way you're not going to be understood. But like I say, doing this work has allowed me to take those things that are bad, like for me it's the accent a lot of the time, and the things that it makes people think about, and I take the good, which is a kind of storytelling inheritance I get from my grandparents in particular. My grandparents are great storytellers, my grandfather, his father was a preacher, and I think we get some of the preacherly cadence has passed down through those generations, and it's in these poems here and there. I feel like that is a key element of my work now, that kind of preacherly cadence, that some people recognize it as such, there's something Baptist in it, they'll say, or some people recognize it in a more poetic fashion, saying that there's a kind of Whitmanian dilation at work in some of these poems. And I can't imagine writing without that now, it's just such a part of my voice, my repertoire. And these poems are the ones where it really settled in, I think, it makes sense not just from a musical standpoint, but it actually works with the subject.
GD: As you're talking I'm thinking about how, for one thing, other regions of the country, generally speaking, although there probably are exceptions when I think about it, individuals from those regions aren't asked to take responsibility for their regions in quite the same way, or the idea of guilty until proven innocent basically for all Southerners when they find themselves in the North.
JAY: Yeah, for white Southerners. I think you're right, by and large. There are a few exceptions obviously, the people from L. A. frequently have to answer for the Watts riot and things like that and people from Detroit as well. These are places where race riots were very visible. But it's not quite the same, and I think it's mainly because you don't hear somebody and say, you're from L. A., and you don't hear somebody talking and say, you're from Detroit. I would call it a kind of soft minority. Here as a white Southerner, because you're white, you're in the racial majority or you're in the racial hegemony, but at the same time you're in a subclass inside that, that doesn't carry with it any of the rhetorical strength of being in a minority, and that's a very difficult position to be in. It's certainly not . . . I wouldn't call it a tragic position or anything like that, but it's a rhetorically difficult position to be in. Rodney Jones writes very eloquently about that, and he's somebody who has been indirectly a very important interlocutor for me, asking questions and saying things in ways that are important to me.
GD: I think one of the great things about Rodney's work, too, is that he never loses his sense of humor, not at all . . .
JAY: What a funny guy . . .
GD: Yeah, it's often a self-accusatory sense of humor, but the best humor always is, I think.
JAY: Yeah, and I see in that . . . well, first of all, I wish I was that witty and second of all I wish that I was just that funny. You know, that is just not something that ran in my family, I'm not accustomed to it. We enjoy a joke, we're just not very good joke tellers. I think we kind of tend to be more serious people by and large. But I see in that the way the humor provides a kind of a mask or shield that also allows the poems to be very honest and forthright about something. Also a model that has been useful to me, I would say that in my work, that it's the cadence or it's the drive of the poem as a sentence that provides a musical shield, that also allows the poem to be forthright. But there's that idea that you have to do two things at once in order to do anything.
GD: Are there things in your education or your own reading that you feel like you're working away from . . . at one point you had an idea that that might be a good thing for me to do, and now you feel like, no, that I see now, that I need to avoid that, or even triumph over it? Is there anything like that that you . . .
JAY: I want to say I don't think so, because my primary experience, and this happens on a very regular basis, is that I don't so much eschew ideas that I think were wrong as much as I modulate them and make slight changes every couple of months, and so, remarkably, when I go back ten years and look at work I was doing as a very young student, I can see the seeds were the early forms of what I'm working on now, and I don't feel disconnected from that work at all. The main thing I think that I've moved away from is that, when I was an undergraduate at Auburn University, in part because a lot of my teachers were saying, you know, if you've lived in Alabama all your life, twenty-two years, you probably need some experience outside, and there was all this encouragement to move north, in particular. I really felt then, when I started graduate school in Ithaca, New York, that Southern-ness was something to be ashamed of, in a way. If anything, that's what I've moved away from. I understand why it's potentially shameful, and I'm trying to look at that. But in a different way I don't feel like the idea is gone, it's just being treated in a different fashion. And I would say the same about all the aesthetic issues or the issues of poetics as well, that there are approaches I've taken in the past that have turned out to be bankrupt on a certain level, but the ideas, the impulses, have not gone away.
An example of this would be something that may not be visible in these poems, or I should say, audible, and that's the idea of the place of the accent in the poem. Ten years ago I spent two years trying to write different kind of dialect poems. I went back in the 19th century and into the early 20th century in Southern poetry and looked at different applications of dialect spelling and tried to play around with that for a little while and, of course, came to the conclusion individually that we had culturally come to many years before, which is that orthographical problems of such a poetry are so insurmountable for most readers, that it's a type of poetry whose usefulness is very minimal, and of course it's also demeaning. But I haven't given up on the idea of accent, I feel like I've tried to just a different way to get it into the poems, and for me, again, the cadence of the longer poems like "Vigil" and "Consolation," for example, is for me a way of getting a type of Southern accent into the poems. It's not the Southern accent, but then there's no the Southern accent anyway.
GD: I think you're bringing up something that I've noticed that is very important, and I find that's what the other side of the coin is about. The notions of, as you're saying, achieving consolations, of facing squarely things, but the other side of that is something that actually I think I encounter more in fiction maybe than poetry, where people . . . writers will create a narrator, say a first person narrator, of a novel, who's a Southerner, and the way they handle all of this is not even just through humor, but through making the person a crazy S. O. B., you know, just some madman or madwoman, and that seems to me to have its own problems really from the other side, too, that ultimately that is, it's almost like putting on a form of blackface, or maybe it's whiteface, Southern whiteface comedy, you know, the cracker.
JAY: It's definitely putting your hick on, you know, that's what I call it. A little bit of hickery. And you're exactly right, it's a mask is what it is, and the mask is offensive to somebody. I was in a meeting—and I hope this doesn't go too far afield of our conversation—but I was in a meeting a couple of months ago where I'm on this board and we decide about bringing people in to perform in Denver and certain locations. And we were looking at a comedian, you can put that in quotations, a "comedian," whose routine was supposedly having to do a lot with stereotypes. And the idea was that by indulging them that they would be perforated and you would see them as false. In particular, I was really bothered by all of the Southern stereotypes, the white Southerner and the black Southern stereotypes, and it's not like it wasn't funny, but I felt like the source of the humor was shame. Not out and out pure humor, which is supposed to be rooted in fun, I think, at least I hope that it is. It is a kind of whiteface, blackface, there're all sorts of faces, and when it's cosmetic you can feel it, and that's when it feels like that it's being employed as a kind of lever against you.
GD: Do you hope that at the end of reading your collection of poems that, do you imagine a way that your ideal reader would be responding, or feeling, or sensitized after reading your work? And are there keys that they might keep in mind, the readers who might come to Blackbird, are there keys they might keep in mind that would allow them a greater appreciation?
JAY: The main thing I like for people to feel is, I like them to ultimately feel—I mean, I guess to think that my poetry could have this kind of effect is really sort of beyond me—but ideally I would like for people to feel that you can feel two contradictory emotions at once. Much of our public conversation about anything has to go one way or the other. Politics is about someone representing this emotion, someone representing that one or that intellectual position, which is emotionalized in some way, and there's not any complexity, there's not any subtlety or suppleness, and I find that very frustrating because I feel, if we're honest with ourselves about even things so inconsequential as having a bad conversation with someone we know, that our emotions are much more complicated and that's why our public life is complicated. Not because we can't agree on this value or that value, but it's always infinitely more complicated than any of our public conversations would lead anyone to believe. I hope the poems become opportunities for people to feel two contradictory things at once.
For example, in "Vigil," I mean this is . . . it's just a pathetic story, as well as a tragic one, by which I mean . . . just thinking about the facts of it put you in mind of the tragedy so directly that this type of poem, and any writing that would tell the story, is automatically on the edge of sentimentalism. And so there's that sense of a kind of pathetic appeal, I want you to feel sad as a result of this poem. I'd also like for you to feel angry. I'd also like for you to feel a little uplifted that the prayer that the poem is trying to achieve doesn't solve the problem, but it's a response to the problem at an individual level. I don't feel like I can do anything culturally, I don't know if these poems can, in a sense they're beyond me, I have not written them entirely—I wrote them down, but part of the work comes to me from without. Anyway, if the poems are opportunities to feel different things at once, then maybe it makes a slight touch on the way that we talk to each other.
GD: I wish for you readers who deserve your poems, because that sounds like an aim that's as old as Keats's negative capability. it's the ability to hold two conflicting ideas in mind at the same time. And I think it's a quality that I find in your poetry and it's one that I try to demand from my students, too. I encourage them in that direction. It's an aspect of what one of my teachers, John Gardner, who wrote the book On Moral Fiction . . . people misunderstood what he was trying to do with that book. He wasn't placing any kind of demand on writers to write in any sort of narrow moral program, in fact quite the contrary, he was doing much more of what you're talking about, asking of them a level of honesty that would achieve artistic and moral honesty, and clarity, and full-fledged portraits.
JAY: I appreciate that. I don't know that I deserve readers, but I hope the poems deserve them.