Jake Adam York is the author of Persons Unknown (2010) and A Murmuration of Starlings (2008), published in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, and Murder Ballads (Elixir 2005). Recent work appears in Pleiades, Literary Imagination, and Ninth Letter. His poem “Cry of the Occasion” appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
Just after the 2011 AWP Conference—just as the Claudia Rankine-Tony Hoagland thing was starting to blow up—I was thinking about the panel I was on with Ailish Hopper, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Martha Collins, and Douglas Kearney and, through that, of some of the moves I’d be using in my long-term project to elegize the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement begun in Murder Ballads and A Murmuration of Starlings and continued in Persons Unknown. One technique I’ve avoided is the persona poem, because as a white man writing about African-Americans murdered by white men, I didn’t want to amplify the historical acts of white power with a contemporary act of white privilege.
But, as Hoagland-Rankine heated, I started to think about what was not being written—the lives, the joys of the martyrs, what happened before the bullets. I asked myself whether my hesitation, which was meant as a gesture of respect, wasn’t doing the thing I wanted to avoid, erasing part of the martyrs’ history.
I was reading about the murder of John Earl Reese—his sister, who was also shot but survived, described them dancing in the cafe, to a jukebox or a record player—and, independently, writing poems about record players, and basically I mixed the idea of an elegy or a memorial for Reese’s last living moment into an idea about a vinyl record and another idea about a tape-loop and started working. I drafted for a few days, then went away and came back in the summer to try making a “real” poem out of it. In the laying-by, I had played with a few looping poems, and I decided to make this into a loop, which really compressed the poem in ways that solved most of the small infelicities.
The hardest part, I think, was giving myself permission to write it at all, to let imagination (rather than documentation) do what it could do to fill in a quiet there’s no other way to fill, but I had to develop the looping technology as well, which requires thinking of the entire poem as a long anacoluthonic sentence, which was exhausting but fun.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I love, have always loved, that total world-silencing concentration, that “flow” state Csikszentmihalyi talks about: that’s my drug, but I’ve learned I can wear myself thin working toward that high. So I’ve learned to play more. I start working on a poem, and if it doesn’t come right away, I move to something else and then return to the first thing and go away again to a third thing and then come back to the second and the first—but there are maybe ten things at play. I’m waiting for something to step out of place and show one these elements in a new light or waiting for the ten things to combine in a way (imagine a Deerhunter song or Radiohead’s latest From the Basement session) to make an eleventh (or twenty-fifth) thing that becomes a poem.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
I always read The Southern Review cover to cover, and each issue of Blackbird; these are dear friends. But in general, my reading tends to shift about. I’ll read Ninth Letter pretty hungrily for a while then (maybe when the staff turns over) redirect that hunger toward something like Pleiades or The Laurel Review. I seem to like switching between journals with very different editorial models. But Cave Wall and Barn Owl Review have become new friends; they’re young—in a way, they’re occasions that generate and concentrate a lot of excitement. This comes through both in the energy and freshness of the poems published there and the great variety of authors contributing and as well in the way people talk about the journals.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
Yes, this describes the life of the poem. My first stage and second stage, using Larkin’s terms, are fairly messy and recursive, but I do think of the poem, the text, as something like a strand of recombinant DNA (RNA): it arrives in the reader’s mind where it is completed, where the code is read and completed in ways that make new life. So, I spend a lot of time in the last part of the second stage obsessing over the reader and how I teach him or her to deal with the poem’s code.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ranson invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
Literature makes us better people, in an ethical, moral, and political sense. That literature that moves us—this is one form of the soul.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
Over the last seven years, that has been Larry Levis, a referred to me by friends (Craig Arnold) and other teachers (Dave Smith). Levis had been dead for eight years by the time I started getting serious about his work. I keep reading Levis and finding new things—about syntax, image, mode, about the arc and movement of a poem, and also about memory. I expect I’ll be at school for a while.