Interview with Jake Adam York
July 6, 2011
Many have noted that Jake Adam York’s poetry avoids the autobiographical. “I think my poems may appear to be less autobiographical than some of my contemporaries,” he said in response, “but I think that’s just because I start from a different place or because I work in a different way.” For instance, he has suggested that writing about the physical space and history of Alabama is one way of writing about himself, in that “what’s happening internally is an extension of that geography.”
York has written three books of poetry, Murder Ballads, A Murmuration of Starlings, and Persons Unknown, that examine the history of the Civil Rights Movement and preserve memories of the movement’s martyrs. The music of his poetry, tuned in delicate keys of melancholy, takes readers by the ears. His imagery—sometimes lush, other times stark—compels his audience to face often forgotten stories that comprise significant portions of our shared past, as seen in “The Hands of Persons Unknown,” written for Civil Rights martyr, Mack Charles Parker:
…Now the river’s taken you,
a gauze in every wound, a coil
in every coil and crease of skin, a pall
to draw you in the catfish dark
and pull your skin.
Natasha Tretheway has written that York’s poems “resurrect histories and show us that the past—with its troubled beauty, its erasures, and its violence—weighs upon us all. York’s words, like wings, rise from the ash of silence—a murmuration so that we don’t forget, so that no one disappears into history.”
In addition to his three books of poems, York has written a work of poetics, The Architecture of Address, which analyzes the increased cultural resonance achieved in poems by Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Robert Lowell by appropriating “the architecture of real public spaces,” such as the Brooklyn Ferry, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Boston Common. In his last years, York was also working on a cultural studies book, “Monument and Memento,” in which he explores artistic responses to the Civil Rights Movement.
On a morning in July of 2011 York entertained me in his dining room with discussion of Shrimp Creole, psychic tourism, Project Runway, and the ethics of remembering.
SR: You’ve described the way of talking in the South as different from the West. Could you elaborate on that?
JAY: Where I grew up, and when I’m around other southern people, I get into this place which is very comfortable for me. Talking is not so much about presenting information as if it were point-counter point, but it is a process of inviting a kind of elaboration. So if someone were to ask me about how my mother was doing, or if I wanted to talk about how my mom was doing, or, by the same token, if I wanted to talk about what I was working on, I wouldn’t immediately give some five-point or ten-point presentation about: This new book is going to look like this or These are the things my mom has been doing. In the Northeast and basically everywhere but the South, you see this, where somebody has something they want to tell you and they’ve already kind of figured out what they want you to know, and you kind of have to stay put.
Whereas in a southern conversation you wouldn’t spill it all out. You would sort of offer a topic and if someone were to invite you to continue to elaborate in some way, then that information would come through. Mostly I think I feel this in the way that I’ll offer an idea and wait for the invitation to elaborate, which usually doesn’t come. But it’s so deeply ingrained in me that I will typically wait for somebody to ask the second or third question. When somebody doesn’t, I think the conversational assumption is that I don’t have very much to say. I’ll often say something briefly and then the other person will go off on a totally different way.
SR: Do you find the things you don’t get a chance to say come out in your writing?
JAY: Yeah, writing’s a good place for that because you have to play both parts. You have to be the speaker, but you also have to be the listener. You have to figure out ways of folding the invitation part into the production of the writing, and therefore you build in those time delays over a long period of time.
If you write a poem—if I write a poem, anyway, it takes at least a couple days and sometimes as many as a few months. And in some cases even years. That’s a lot of time to go through that process of putting something out there and then waiting for some invitation to come back and elaborate on it. So, yeah, I guess it comes out in writing and in some ways I guess it also comes out in other talks, teaching, that sort of thing. Sometimes it can feel like you’re having one conversation but the person on the other side of the conversation keeps changing. And it might take you months to finish developing a thought. I talk to you for an hour and then you go away and then what I didn’t say to you I say to somebody else and then no one gets the whole thing.
SR: I understand you’ll be working on a book about the Civil Rights movement this coming year through a fellowship at Emory University, and that you’re also working on several collections of poetry. Will all these books feed each other or get in each others’ way?
JAY: The book I’ll be working on at Emory is a cultural history book called, “Monument and Memento.” The conceit of the book is that there are two modes of thinking about civil rights history, but this could also be applied I think to other subjects. One of those modes is the monument, and the monument is about making some sort of large public statement that seeks to reorganize the way the recipients understand themselves or their position in the world in which that statement is possible. The other approach is the memento, which is something more personal that, if you will, evidences the artist’s relationship with that subject in his or her life, in his or her own bodily experience, without necessarily directly implicating the reader in any particular way.
I think in my poetic work these terms have some resonance as well. A lot of my recent work has been interested in the monument and making some sort of a statement that was conceived in part against what I perceive to be an overwhelming cultural and historical impulse to erase a certain kind of history. The monument is the sort of gesture that works against erasure. If you think about the places in your life or the places in American cultural life where we have monuments, they really are about trying to remember something that is about to be erased or has been erased.
When does the Washington Monument go up on the National Mall? I think they started building it in the 1830’s and it’s not too many years after George Washington died. But George Washington is dead and so a part of what the Washington Monument does as a structure is it replaces the body—the missing body—of the dead president. The monument writes what’s erased back into a landscape or into a space and then that writing requires your body and my body in order to be legible. When we go and stand beneath this very tall thing and we look up at something, that bodily action suggests what it is culturally we want to think about George Washington. He’s so great. He’s so big that we always look up to him.
The memento is a kind of a new valence in my work. I was starting to think about it—though not in those terms—in some of the poems in Persons Unknown. In particular in the long poem, “And Ever,” I’m thinking about the ways personal or private things—that are not necessarily culturally symbolic in any way—how those things become creatures of memory. They can fade into the texture of life, but then they can also rise up out of it. But only momentarily. For example in that poem, “And Ever,” it might be the moths that are so common you wouldn’t necessarily think about them as meaningful if you saw them. I mean particularly now in Colorado we’ve just gone through Miller moth season and so you see them and you think Miller moths. But in the right context, in the right person’s life—in this case Merle Evers’ life—the moths might become something else. Or the shirts might become something else.
The cultural history book I’m working on is thinking about those two poles: the work that is monumental, like Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial, but also the work that is more interested in the life of the memento, as in the paintings of Kerry James Marshall. In a lot of the living rooms in his paintings there’s a poster of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, or Robert Kennedy on the wall. These posters were designed to be taken into the home and to be put up as a kind of private memorial.
The next book of poems I’m working on is trying to get these two types of writing to live together to still continue the more monumental work that I identify in Murmuration of Starlings, some of the poems in Murder Ballads, and some in Persons Unknown, but also to get the memento to live in the same world that the monument does.
SR: In your book of poetics, The Architecture of Address, you describe the bogs in Seamus Heaney’s poems as monuments in that they are daily physical reminders saturated with political meaning. Do you see your use of trees in your poetry as monuments, the hanging moss as reminders of the men who hung from their branches?
JAY: Yes. I would say it’s a special class of monument and this is what I started to discuss at the end of The Architecture of Address, to think about a monument that didn’t occupy singular space but was an arrangement of elements in more than one place and that you could enter—maybe accidentally. Or you might enter repeatedly regardless of what you were doing. So, yeah, the trees are definitely one of those elements.
There’s a particular image that I have in my head that keeps coming up. I guess I should say there is a pair of images that keep coming up obliquely in different poems. One of them is simply the trees with the moss on them and the moss in certain cases is enough of a body to suggest the body of a hanged person. I’m also thinking about something Milt Hinton, the jazz bassist, said in an interview—probably about twenty years ago now—that after someone had been hanged, it was the ritual of the African American community to go out and cut the tree down and to paint the stump so that no one would ever be hung from that tree again. There are places in the poems where there are stumps and the stumps are there to suggest the monumentality of the tree, even in its absence.
SR: The landscape has such an interesting role in your work, especially in Persons Unknown. The rivers and the trees were forced to facilitate so many deaths and it seems as though they’re almost implicated in the murders, seen as witnesses. Did you do this on purpose to make it easier for the reader to implicate him or herself, as well?
JAY: I’m not sure I thought about it that consciously. If anything, I think the use of the landscape in that way is an extension of my own feeling that even though people are not comfortable thinking about it or saying it, that we are already implicated in those crimes even if we did not directly participate in them. This is something I worked through in the poems of Murder Ballads and that helped shape what was going on in A Murmuration of Starlings, this idea that if you were going to write about civil rights history it had to be out of some sense of personal guilt.
When I was starting to read some of the work in Murder Ballads, the question that would come up over and over again is, Who in your family participated in this sort of thing and why is it that you feel like you have to work through it? There really wasn’t anybody in my direct family tree that was involved in any of these things. Nevertheless, I felt drawn to those events and implicated in them, like when Mamie Till says in 1956 that in a way all of us are guilty for her son’s murder because we didn’t say anything.
We let people do the insane things that they wanted to do and we did not stand up to them. That’s the idea that I’ve been trying to develop for these last couple books—for all of these books. I think in some ways the poems in Murder Ballads are more direct about that, but also I think people have shied away from that position. So maybe the landscape has filled in that space of accusation. But I don’t know that I sat down and said, This is what I want to say but people don’t want to hear it in this way. I didn’t think about it as a vehicle, but it became a vehicle, in part, because I think the landscape has that same duality of being a sort of unintentional participant, but also being an unintentional witness.
When I’m thinking about the social system that allows those things to happen or that allowed them to happen, that’s kind of the same duality I’m trying to express, that of being an unwilling participant and an unwilling witness at the same time.
SR: In many parts of the world race is on the minds of people and talked about on a regular basis, more than it is here in the West. Many of my students think that we’re post racism. What are your thoughts on how race is and should be addressed?
JAY: Well, maybe those are two questions. One question might be whether there’s something special or unusual about the West in the way that it thinks about race. The other might be whether or not there’s something that is characteristic of our time. So when you talk about your students, and my students are there as well, thinking that we live in this kind of post-racist or post-racial world, that seems to me more a product of our time in America, not so much the geography. I think you could go a lot of places and hear the same thing—that we live in this post racial world or post racist world. Some of that’s the result of all the language that came out around President Obama being elected, that finally we’ve gotten past this as if it was some sort of grand reparative moment. That seems to be characteristic of our time, which I think is built on a kind of false assumption.
The way I’m trying to work through this with my students is really complicated, but the idea I’m trying to develop is that a sense of relief people had or have—of having moved past race—is really just whiteness reasserting its superiority. As if to say, Wow, all that time we had to think about race was a really inconvenient time because we couldn’t exercise our cultural power in the way that we wanted to. And now that we’ve shown that we’re nice people, we can basically go back to being assholes again.
It’s built on so many false assumptions, but the biggest one is the idea that whiteness is somehow nothing, that it’s the norm, that it’s invisible. Whiteness is just as much a set of assumptions and a set of power positions as anything else, and the minute it becomes invisible is the minute when it becomes possible to do things like pull a man out of jail for a crime he hasn’t even been convicted of and shoot him and throw him in the river. Or beat a young boy all night long in a shed, in a barn and tie a cotton gin fan around his back and throw him in the river. I mean these are the things that are the expressions of the righteousness of that kind of racial power.
When I’m in a position in which I can present my work—and often when I’m a teacher it’s not acceptable to present my own work; I have to do it through the work of other people. But when I’m in a place where I can present my own work, it’s easy to say, This is why I write about these things. These are the moments, not just when a black person is tortured, but these are the moments when whiteness is at its most monstrous because it refuses to look at itself. When I show it to you in this way, you start to see it as craziness. It is and it is a kind of psychopathy, but it’s also a kind of sociopathy and this is the thing we’re hopefully trying to protect ourselves from.
SR: What is some of that work you might use to help make your point—beyond your own?
JAY: I have a handful of favorite poems. They’re usually poems that seem easy to read, but when you start pushing on them—when you start looking at them again—that’s usually how I say it: Let’s look at it again, then it looks like a different poem.
Natasha Tretheway has this great poem, “Pilgrimage,” in her book Native Guard, and on the surface for a lot of my white students it’s just a poem about a woman who goes to Vicksburg. She stays in this room and walks around the city. Great. That’s what they say. Great, she goes to Vicksburg. But there’s a moment in the poem where, I guess if you don’t understand what it is you just sort of skip over it, but if you have some way to go back and look at it you start playing around with it.
When the poet says that her room has a plaque on the door that says “Prissy's Room” and then right after that the image in the poem is history sort of rolling over on top of her in the night and pinning her down. When you ask, What does the word prissy mean, why is it here, What kind of name is it? etc, then the racial dimension of the poem starts to become visible and the student might be able to see—even if it’s only because they’ve watched Gone with the Wind, or something like that—then they can start to see that prissy is not a name you would give your daughter.
This is really not a name of respect. It’s a name that belittles somebody by giving them a specific personality trait and defines them by that in the same way you might define somebody by a specific visual trait, like their skin color. Then they’re able to pull apart that plantation system, which is what is haunting Tretheway’s poem. The fact that it’s not exactly hidden, but it’s also not pointed out to them in a way that they might be able to walk into it right away, that’s the sort of thing that shows us the way in which whiteness pretends to be invisible and therefore is difficult to see.
SR: When you started doing readings from your first book, you said you had a fear you’d encounter people who would hate the poems or find what you did offensive in some way. Could you talk more about the nature of this fear and what’s happened to it?
JAY: There were three distinct kinds of fear that I was experiencing. Let me take these in the order of importance, the most important one being last. The first fear was something that was probably academically conditioned, the fear that I would read a poem that had a specific purpose to it. For example, in the poem “Consolation” in Murder Ballads the speaker, which is a version of me, goes back and retraces the route these five clansmen took in 1957 to kill Willie Edwards Jr., who is one of the civil rights martyrs. But one of the elements of the route is missing—the bridge that they forced him to jump off of—so the poem imagines getting them in the car in this sort of reenactment scenario, then driving into the river because the bridge is missing, and essentially killing them, which is the point of the poem. The poem has a very specific argument.
I was concerned that I would read these poems that had specific purposes and specific arguments and people would say, Well, this is just political poetry, and political poetry is worthless, or is B.S. You know there’s a ton of literature about how political poetry may be interesting but it’s basically polemical. It’s not really good poetry. Good poetry is only good in as much as it is capable of having multiple meanings, that resists some sort of specificity. As if a poem can’t really do anything. That’s the Auden argument, right: Poetry makes nothing happen. There’s a pretty serious academic consensus in that regard, I think.
In looking at some of the political poems of the twentieth century, poems by Edwin Rolfe, in some cases, or Langston Hughes, maybe they do seem like they’re polemics, but in each of those cases, people are pointing out a poem that happens to satisfy the argument. Roth wrote a lot of really great poems that were political but not so singular, and the same with Langston Hughes. So that was one fear that I had and that may have been founded. I don’t know. I know there are people who don’t respond to my work and I think it’s primarily that kind of point of view, Oh, we know what this work is doing. It has this one purpose, and now that we understand what it is we don’t need to read it anymore. This is sort of disappointing to me because I’ve always tried to get a lot of music into the poems so that the sound of the poem was sort of a second poem that was happening at the same time as the argument poem.
The second fear was that, I would basically be offending a kind of silence in the communities that I grew up in and in which I was reading the poems that was still kind of sacred. That was a silence of white communities, people who would say, Why do you have to go digging up all this past again? When I would be reading about a case, I would often see this in newspaper editorials, somebody saying, Why does somebody have to go stirring up all this trouble again? I was worried that I would encounter that, but I didn’t. At least I didn’t directly. If anybody felt that way, I think they mostly just went away. I never had a confrontation with them.
In fact, what I discovered instead was that many white people in the communities where I would read in the South were actually really happy that somebody was going out and thinking about this. That silence I was worried about violating was really uncomfortable for a lot of people, and they felt like it was time to work through it and to move forward having made a different kind of a peace with that history but also having repaired the communities that were compromised by that.
The third fear was the fear that I would encounter black audiences who would feel like I was trying to steal their history. Some of that fear was conditioned by my experience in graduate school taking African American literature courses and basically having these sort of conversations with the African American students who were in my program. Being asked, Why do you, a white person, want to know about this? I had seen, or I had heard, rather, stories about this happening in communities like Birmingham, where the African American community had a very protective relationship to their history. This is totally understandable because the things that we’re talking about here—the martyrdom of many dozen black men and women, basically for the justification of white power—is something that was all about erasing a black community. For a representative of a white community to come in and say, Hey, now we’re going to take this over, is to take away the only remnant that’s left of these lives that were so violently erased.
I was worried about that, but again I found the opposite to be true. Actually, among the people I was most concerned to read to—the people who had lived through the movement, who were in their twenties and thirties in the 60’s—among those people I found a lot of welcome. A lot of curiosity, but welcome curiosity that someone who was white, but also someone who was as young as I am, having been born after the movement, would be interested in it.
I remember one man in Dothan, Alabama saying that he was so happy that somebody who didn’t have to care about it did. Those were the words he used: You don’t have to care about this. If you’re black in Alabama, you have to know this because it’s part of how you survive. It’s part of your history, etc. But somebody who doesn’t have to know it is caring about it.
SR: Through your poems, you seem to be saying that remembering and engaging with this history is a political act.
JAY: I also think it’s an ethical act. Maybe it’s a political act because it’s an ethical act: that if you’re a white person and you’re remembering through these poems, you’re giving up the centrality of your whiteness. You’re giving up the invisibility of your centrality and saying, I want to enter into a relationship with this history. Whatever it’s going to say about me, I want to enter into it. That’s a way of giving up or sacrificing something that hopefully is the kind of sacrifice that yields some greater reward or greater health to the community as a whole.
SR: You’ve been working with these themes and issues and memories and documents for years now. Do you sometimes want to escape the pain of it all?
JAY: It certainly is painful. It certainly can be painful. And some of that pain one learns to live with and some of it is always fresh. Some of that may depend on what your imagination is like. Or also what your documents show you. When I look at some of these images there’s a part of me that goes extremely quiet. As if there’s nothing that could be said to answer those, and yet to not say anything is to let that violence be final and to let it be total, and to let it have power. I think the struggle of the writing is to learn to find a way to speak back to that power, to undo it, even from a position that is afterward, but without totally giving up, without totally erasing that moment of quiet. In a way, the project of these memorial works is to figure out a way to both be there at the moment that the horror caused us to be quiet and to take pause, but also to move forward with that pause inside of us to work against the power that holds us still.
That’s such a complex stance—to try to move forward with this memorial inside of you, which is how I think about it. You’re making this place inside of you that is the echo of the monument, like the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. You always have this inside of you and you never forget, and all of the actions that you take in your ethical life and your political life and your writing life have that place inside of them.
You ask do I ever feel like turning away or moving away. The answer to that is both yes and no. Yes in the way that there is the moment and there will always be those moments when I’m just overwhelmed by the facts of what has happened. But I feel like to turn away is, again, to let that violence win. This is not to say that there are not moments when I’d much rather be writing about something that is a thing of great joy, like writing about a piece of music that I love very much or writing about food, which I love.
The book I’m working on now, the book of poems is trying to integrate those moments of the joy of life, of living as an engaged person in the world, into these moments of ethical consciousness and memorial, which are also parts of being an engaged person in the world. The idea that, here’s the poetry of memorial or, here’s the poetry of politics, and then, here’s the poetry of joy and life, to me is a fallacy. I can’t separate the part of my life that enjoys making Shrimp Creole from the part of my life that maintains memorial. Those are the same life. And if they’re not, then we have become so brainwashed by the white power that committed all those murders—we are so far lost, there’s no coming back. We have to live a life where we can remember the things that we or our culture have done that are deplorable and also live in joy.
SR: You’ve written quite a bit about music. Are you also a musician?
JAY: When I was in high school I learned to play guitar using classical method. I liked classical guitar music, but I also think that my main investment was learning the guitar as a thing. Learning different classical styles showed you different parts of the guitar. Playing a rondo, something from Bach, is keeping you mostly in the lower end of the neck, but your fingers are doing two or three things at one time, which is kind of interesting. Playing a Spanish piece is moving you all around the neck and showing you different relationship between notes, which I liked. This was also the 80’s, the grand age of the guitar solo so there was probably something in that.
Since I graduated from college, jazz has really become my main music. Blues is a part of that and I learned when I was in graduate school, before I put it down, to play some blues. I still know how to do that, but jazz has become my main music, and now I’m learning to play jazz guitar, which technically is very different from classical guitar. Some of the things you’re told to do are contradictory. Like in classical music you keep your finger where it was until you have to move it, whereas in jazz guitar, the minute you’re done sounding a note you need to move your finger. It’s also different harmonically and I feel like that’s really what I’m focusing on now, those harmonic relationships. It’s less about the guitar as a machine and it’s more about music as a set of relationships, which is a lot more interesting to me now than it used to be.
I played a lot of sacred music in college, and when I was doing that I was really thinking about chording and about the way the chords bring voices together and the way in which the timing of the expression of chords in a hymn is important to move the congregation through the hymn. I was also thinking about the spaces between the chords as moments when the musician and the machine can voice themselves. Now I’m not thinking about that so much anymore. The chords are still part of jazz music, obviously, but you’re not playing them in blocks anymore. You’re playing them more as these strings that have been pulled apart.
Some of the interest in that is poetic. For example, in a longer kind of narrative poem, not thinking about the stanzas or the episodes as these chords that have some kind of solidity that sequesters them from the rest of the poem, but thinking about the long poem or the story poem as something that is moving from one tonal center to another tonal center. It’s moving along an almost improvised line of melody and harmony that is always pointing out, for example in a two line or a three line stanza, some kind of sub-relationships, things that don’t define the piece as a whole, but are important at that moment.
SR: You also like to write about food and the way you describe barbecue I get the sense you know how to cook it. Do you have any tips for making good barbecue?
JAY: You need to have a lot of time. You need to have a lot of time.
SR: You can’t just toss it in the crock pot?
JAY: That’s not really barbecue. You’re stewing at that point. Almost anything can be stewed into some sort of tenderness, but I don’t know that that’s cooking. It’s applying heat to food substance, but I don’t know that that’s cooking. At least it’s not cooking in the way that barbecue is cooking.
The project of barbecuing is to take something that is tough and is, for the most part, inedible—or at least difficult to make palatable—and to make it palatable. It turns out with these tough cuts, which are the soul of barbecue: the pork shoulder the rib, the beef brisket—these are cuts that are tough because of the structure of the fiber. If you cook it fast, you just toughen it up even more. If you cook it slowly, if you cook it correctly, if you cook it with attention, then you can trick this tough piece of meat into becoming one of the softest pieces of meat and also one of the most flavorful pieces of meat that can be made and can be eaten.
When I say you need a lot of time, what I really mean is that you need to be in a place where you can pay attention to what you’re doing, and not just to your actions, but also to the effect that those are having on the food. You can actually see it. The food is always talking back to you. The food is always signaling to you whether what you’re doing has an effect and you need time to not be worried about who’s winning the US Open or whether or not you’re going to get a raise or something like that. You need time to pay attention to the food. That’s one of the reasons I like cooking. It is like writing, as well, because to write well you need the same sort of time, you need the same sort of commitment to be attentive to what you’re working on.
There are some secrets, but they’re really mostly about just paying attention to what’s there. I can tell you that you can make a really good brisket if you cook it at 225 for eighteen hours, but you’re the one who’s going to have to figure out when you wake up in the middle of the night to check on the temperature. I could also tell you that wrapping the brisket in foil about halfway through is probably a pretty good idea, but just giving you these rules of thumb is not really going to be very helpful to you unless you’re actually paying attention to what’s going on there. Occasionally, you get some oddball things that you didn’t plan on and you have to be ready to roll with them.
SR: In an interview you said that you don’t live in the south but you wish you did.
JAY: Yeah, that was about five years ago or six years ago. I think now I would say that I do live in the south, but it’s in my head.
SR: Is that healthy?
JAY: Probably not, but it also is what it is. It’s not a question of having withheld myself in some way from Colorado or from the West, but I think it’s really more a fact of that culture and that place being so deeply engrained and embedded in every part of me, that regardless of where I am, I will also always be there. That life continues in me while my life may continue in some other geography, civic or otherwise.
Would I like to go back? Sure. I go back frequently, which I guess is part of my feeling that I do live there, and I also live here. I go back to see my folks, I go back to do research. I go back to the South probably six or ten times a year. There’s probably not two or three months that go by that I’m not going back to Birmingham or Atlanta or someplace like that. I do feel like that geography is still a very important part—and that culture is a very important part—of the life that I live. And so I would say that I do live there even though I don’t live there.
SR: If you literally did move back, what city would you want to live in?
JAY: That’s a good question. Birmingham would be the easiest for me to move to, because I grew up near there. It’s frightening and amazing sometimes to see how what is happening in Alabama—not always with good results—is reflecting something in me that seems private or personal. Some sort of struggle that I might have thought was neurotic, but now seems cultural, seems geographical. I guess what I mean is that in Birmingham the things that are happening publicly have been happening at a rate and at a time that are constant with things that are happening mentally with me.
I was in graduate school in the late 90’s and I was thinking a lot about what it meant to be from Alabama and what it meant to be the sort of accidental but frequent representative of a very troubling history. People would say, Well, you’re from Alabama, explain whatever, you know, insert racial shenanigans here. At the age of twenty-two I don’t think I had very much insight. But by the time I was twenty-six I had thought about that question so much and it had been posed so many times that I was starting to have some kind of answer to it but also knew that it wasn’t complete.
At the same time, Alabama was kind of dealing with the same questions publicly. What does it mean for Alabama to be this representative of some of the worst, most discriminatory, most hateful behavior in American history? What does it mean that it was a state run by George Wallace, who was one of the more virulent racists in the 20th century? Alabama was thinking about this, in part, by erecting monuments like the Civil Rights Memorial, which went up in Montgomery when I was an undergraduate at Auburn. That was probably the first moment when I realized that there is a large and troubling history that I don’t know very much about. The monument was a way of saying that to the state, that there is a large and troubling history you don’t know very much about and this stone is here to tell you that you need to think about it. I walked away from my first visit thinking, I need to think about this. I need to learn about this. I need to know it.
Alabama was thinking about this by working with the FBI to reopen these cases that had been investigated in the 60s but were never successfully prosecuted. In 1997, ‘98, ‘99, and 2000, they tried two of the four bombers of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and got convictions. They pulled up evidence that had never been treated very seriously and they got these convictions.
This is what I mean when I say that what’s happening in Birmingham on a kind of civic or political level is reflecting some of the things that might be happening privately. I guess in part because what’s happening internally is an extension of that geography. It’s almost as if the space of Alabama is organizing the space in my head. The things that were unresolved when my head space got formed are continuing to work in my head, but they’re also happening in the real space.
If I could move anywhere in the South, though, I’d probably move to New Orleans. I really love the city. I really love it. I’ve spent a lot of time there as well, and it’s very important to me. There’s a poem in Persons Unknown, the poem “Shore,” which spends some time navigating New Orleans as a psychic geography as well as a physical geography. New Orleans is a really good place to do that if you like that sort of tourism.
SR: What is it about New Orleans that lends itself to psychic tourism?
JAY: New Orleans is a city where, to paraphrase Faulkner, the past is not even past. New Orleans is a place where if you have a picture of something the chances that you could go back to that exact location and see the very structure that was there in the picture are pretty high. They’re not perfect. It’s not as if the city has never been developed, but the city has been developed in ways in which the old stuff stands with the new stuff.
This is even true after Katrina. You can go into neighborhoods—you see this in the neighborhoods a lot—where a lot of houses were condemned and one of them would have been torn down and replaced with some totally new million-dollar townhome. Then right across the street is a condemned derelict that is worth like two-hundred bucks or something like that. You see that extreme contiguity in New Orleans in a way that you don’t often see it in other cities. I don’t know why exactly that is, but I do know that people who have lived in New Orleans for a long time never want to leave. I think they sort of preserve their property by inhabiting it in ways that might not happen in other cities.
SR: I was surprised to read that you like Project Runway.
JAY: I used to. This last season was really kind of a travesty, I think. I don’t think I’m going to watch it anymore.
SR: I’m curious what attracted you to the show.
JAY: There are two things I like about it. It’s basically a design show. I think some people look at it and say it’s a fashion show and fashion’s sort of silly; therefore, the show is silly. But, it’s basically a design show. I started out as an architecture student at Auburn, so I have a sense of what a design education is. To me the things that are happening on Project Runway are very similar to what would happen to us in architecture. We’d go into the studio. The studio leader would come in and say, Okay, today you’re going to make an airplane out of balsa wood and tracing paper. You can use Elmer’s Glue, but you can’t use any other adhesives, and, oh, by the way, your airplane has to carry an uncooked egg off the top of the stadium and the egg has to survive. You have twelve hours to do it.
Those are the sorts of things that happen in design education, where you’re given a set of parameters that may seem capricious or unreasonable and that you begin to work within. It’s a structure for creativity. It’s a structure for learning to look in unusual ways at what you have. I think it is also about making decisions rather than deferring the decision until a moment when you have some special tool or some special knowledge. Did I know anything about airplanes when I got the challenge to make the airplane? No. I’ve been in them but I don’t know how they work exactly. I know that lift is involved but I don’t know how to make lift. Most of what I had to do was simply improvise with this very restricted set of materials. And the egg becomes this thing you can’t change, right? An egg has a shape and you have to have a way of putting the egg into the structure, etcetera. The egg is a certain weight that you have to use in trying to make this airplane work.
I like that aspect of Project Runway in that it is a design show that is creating these weird parameters that are then opportunities for creativity. They’re not challenges to creativity and they’re not insults to creativity. They’re opportunities for creativity. I really like that. And then there’s all this crazy interpersonal behavior, as well, and to me that’s symptomatic of creativity or creative enterprise at an extreme level. Most people are not able to do that for a long period of time, including me, but when you do that you find yourself acting in weird ways. I like those two things about the show.
I think, too, you can’t be a poet all the time. You have to also be a book reviewer and a blogger and all these other sort of things. One of the difficulties of a show like Project Runway, and also a show like Top Chef, is that you’re watching in the judging part of it the way people struggle with the capacity of language to communicate something that is fundamentally sensory or aesthetic. It’s not propositional. An A-line dress does not have some sort of stable meaning. It’s not a sign in a way the stop sign in its octagonal-ness is a sign. People are trying to force these things, which are qualitative into language, and that’s a hard project.
The reason a certain type of person likes to write about food is because, given the right type of experience, what happens on the tongue overwhelms all the other capacities of the tongue, most importantly, the ability to make language. It’s hard to talk and to eat at the same time. People do it, but it’s hard. And so the writing about food is what happens when that moment of overwhelm is answered by this moment of extreme articulation. It’s a balancing act.
I think in order for that to be interesting, whatever the aesthetic trigger is has to be really good. So, Project Runway is boring if the clothes are boring or if the clothes are merely competent. Also the language of Project Runway is boring if the clothes are merely competent. You know you’re just going to hear Michael Kors say, “We’ve seen it too many times. It’s so matchy, matchy, matchy,” or that sort of thing. But occasionally Michael Kors, who seems kind of silly in some respects, turns out to be a really articulate person who points out to us the ways in which our ability to perceive color or shape work well when they work well.
SR: Why did you switch from architecture to poetry?
JAY: I was an architecture student and having this one particular encounter with poetry—and who knows what else was going on with me at the time—I understood it as a design in a way I hadn’t before. In senior high school English I mostly understood a sonnet as a set of rules, but I don’t think I understood what following the rules with deliberation rather than with fear really meant. For me the switch from architecture to poetry was a similar switch from following rules out of fear, like, Oh, Jesus, the studio leader’s going to get mad because he’s going to come up here at two-thirty in the morning as he does every morning at two-thirty and I’m not going to be here and he’s going to yell at me. As opposed to, Now here’s an opportunity for me to do something I wasn’t able to do before.
Poetry just gave me a different kind of freedom, maybe because when you’re working with language, by the time you’re nineteen hopefully you’ve been working with the English language for—what do you think? Maybe seventeen, seventeen-and-a-half years or something? You’ve got some familiarity with the materials. I think in that moment when I heard R.T. Smith reading, it all clicked for me. I said, Oh, language is a material. Oh, poetry is the design of this material, language. This is exactly what I’d been learning—supposed to have been learning—in the architecture studio, but it made so much more sense to me.
I just wasn’t a very good student of architecture. I was an okay student, but I wasn’t a good student. I saw this way of flipping over into a realm where I could make decisions out of a sense of opportunity and also with a sense of personal reward rather than simply trying to avoid being yelled at by the dude who probably hadn’t shaved in five years or something like that. I couldn’t probably be the writer that I am without having been a student of architecture. I wasn’t a student of architecture for very long, but what I learned in that brief period of time has been valuable to me many times over. Now I know I wouldn’t have been happy as an architect, so I think I made a very good choice.
SR: Does poetry appeal to you more than prose because it’s more designed language?
JAY: I would say when we read poetry we are in a place where we pay attention to the design a little more. Really, really good prose is also carefully designed. I can hardly read a Faulkner novel all the way through without stopping and working on a paragraph for a couple hours or a couple days just because the choices that are made in there are so abundant and also so amazing.
I think that is a really great way to read a novel, but I also know the way that we treat novels in our pedagogical spaces is so against that. You read the Faulkner novel because of the plot, because of the story, because of the characters, and all these things, which are also part of narrative design. But we don’t spend a lot of time talking about the design of a sentence or paragraph and I feel like those are the places where the materials are most palpable. Maybe it’s something about having a certain kind of need for tactile stimulus that makes me focus on those aspects of writing. In poetry I think it’s easier to do that—or it’s easier to expect a reader to pay some attention to that.
That said, you can always, in a poem, do certain things that for you as a writer are very clever or very important or seem to you to be triumphs over particularly difficult material. You’re lucky enough if anyone even reads the poem once, and if more than one person reads it you might talk about the poem in a couple of different ways and never talk about that particular moment of material triumph. That’s what keeps me writing, anyway. That’s what’s exciting to me—those auditory, those visual, also those historical, etymological features of words—those are the tactile stimuli that keep me thinking about language and keep me thinking about organizing those elements in some way.
SR: What is something about your poetry that you’d like to see recognized?
JAY: I guess this brings us back to the beginning. When we first started talking, I was talking about how I have a feeling I’m never having a full conversation with anybody. I say part of what I’m thinking about to you and then I say the other part to the next person I’m talking to, and that one conversation is sort of spread out among all these different people. This is how I make a book, as well. In some of the ways none of the poems is very singular or very independent and in terms of trying to think about getting poems in anthologies and even in journals is a really bad way of writing, I think. Or at least it’s a way of writing that is always going to be characterized by certain lack of success.
Each of these books is built in a way that an idea in one poem is carried over into another poem, and so they can be read as books and not just as collections of poems or boxes of poems. I do think of the books in a kind of almost novelistic way. Or in a way that you see a book of linked stories, the stories are independent but you also know that they add up to something larger. I see these books and I built these books to be that way.
You can always look back on a book—and I do it with all these books and think Damn, I wish I had done that, and There was a missed opportunity, or I was so tired of that particular thing at that moment that I didn’t do this other thing that would have been really great. But this idea that the Caribbean poet Édouard Glissant expresses about William Faulkner—the idea that he was always writing one book, that he was always writing this one story or vision that was complicated and got expressed in often contradictory ways in different particular discrete books, that this was his career, that he was always trying to create this vision of a world in which nothing was really at the center, that’s how I think of these books of mine.
SR: What would you do if someone figured out which of the martyrs you hadn’t written about yet and finished your project before you got a chance to?
JAY: I think I’d have to welcome that because the whole point for me of doing the project is not to own the martyrs but to suggest that this is something that people need to pay attention to. So, I think I would have to be happy if somebody were to start doing that. It wouldn’t stop me from continuing to write those poems, though, because, again, I feel in some ways like I am Alabama in a human form, with all of its contradictions and troubles. I’m trying to work through that in the space of one life as the state is trying to work through it as a political space. So I’ve got to keep doing that. If somebody else from Alabama were to do it we’d probably intersect a little, overlap, but you have to think that there’s something individual and unique about each person’s or each poet’s reckoning of that history and of those stories that will continue to make each visitation valuable.
When we build the monument, we have to hope that people are going to come into it. In fact it’s the nature of the monument, as I say in Architecture of Address, that it’s designed for people to enter. It doesn’t mean anything until a person’s body is inside of it and is able to make the relationships of form and space human, to make them meaningful, to make them significant in some kind of human vocabulary. We don’t build the monument to stay empty and stay perfect. We build it so people can come into it and even if somebody comes into and they don’t get exactly what we want them to, if they do break through whatever cocoon of the present surrounds them into a relationship with the history and the life that the monument is always trying to re-indicate, then it’s a success. Even if it’s a kind of messy success, it’s still a success.
If somebody else were to be writing the martyr poems it might be liberating. Then my work is not necessarily the work of trying to translate the civil rights memorial into poetic form. I could then become one of the people who’s inside the monument rather than the person who’s trying to build the monument. That’s what I mean when I say each of those visitations, however imperfect or however individual or however idiosyncratic they are, each of those visitations is valuable. I think that’s what’s at stake—it’s to get to a place where the history is not special because it’s singular. It’s not special because no one else is writing about it. It’s not special because it’s been forgotten and now it’s being re-written. We want to get to a place where the history is common, and it’s part of the life that we all live.