On October 1, 2008, Jake read to a standing-room-only audience of students, faculty, and locals at the University of New Orleans. He later sent an email, “Thanks again for everything at UNO. It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had.” From anyone else, I would have dismissed the comment as a nicety. But not from Jake. Sure as hell, it wasn’t the emoluments—we maybe covered his flight and a couple of bracers. I doubt that he was impressed by the venue, our faculty lounge, a grim, low-ceilinged room with six entrances—one behind the podium allowed a few latecomers to share the stage with Jake. The Q and A lasted longer than the reading: we were electrified by Jake’s work. The questions were difficult. As a fellow Alabamian, I squirmed when one audience member described his poetry as “apologist.” Jake didn’t flinch. He simply recognized the value of making amends through poetry.
I met Jake in 2007 when he was down from Denver to see how the city and the literary scene were faring post-Katrina. He wanted to feature Gulf Coast writers in a forthcoming issue of Copper Nickel. From what I can recall, the city was still a hot mess. So was I. In Jake, I recognized the kind of liberal Southern man who puts me at ease: he was a lot like my dad— bald headed, big-boned, and brainy. He called himself “hungry”— and who could argue with that— but just as keen, in my limited experience, was his willingness to provide for others.
For the next several years, our conversations were rare but choice and always about poetry. At the 2012 AWP hotel bar, I shared a table with Jake, his wife Sarah, and some other Southerners. I was drinking hard that night and holding court about my sticky academic appointment. He said only, “If you need any help, just let me know.” Laconic Jake. In August, I was on the horn asking him for a letter of recommendation. Problem was—thanks to a series of miscommunications—I needed the thing by the end of the day. It was 3 p.m. already! He wrote it and wrote it well. I was lucky to be among those poets Jake looked after. I gained a new community of writers and friends, thanks to him. In one of our most recent email chains, he introduced me to poet Weston Cutter: “I think you share a common ancestor somehow, but I could be wrong. Maybe y’all will exchange books and jump start my 94 Jeep Cherokee...” Vintage Jake.
“7°F last night. Can’t stop singing Johnny Shines: ‘So cold in Vietnam, words don’t sound the same,’” Jake tweeted on December 10, 2012. Vietnam. That history gets me thinking about the Civil Rights martyrs Jake memorialized through his poetry. In 1963, one martyr, African American Civil Rights activist Medgar Evans, was shot in the head. Some months later, JFK died in Dallas in the open-top Continental that my former student, Louis Braquet, depicted on Jake’s flyer. “So cold in Vietnam ...” My toddler dances to the Delta blues lick I haven’t heard in a month of Sundays, and I think that we should play more music around here. What that NEA grant could have afforded him, what authentic sense of ourselves, our history, we might have gained from Jake’s future poems. ... He got the lyric wrong though, Jake did—mixed up his contractions. Don’t stop singing, Jake. Words can’t sound the same.