Jake York pushed poetry like a wily dealer pushes drugs. You may not think you need it—but somehow, before long you’re back for more. His trick for recruiting students was to talk about whatever interested us (for me it was mostly music and single malt scotch), gain our confidence in his knowledge, sense of humor, and sensibilities, and then talk us into taking one of his classes. But Jake wasn’t manipulative—he was utterly sincere. His cause was noble: poetry needs a constant influx of intelligent stewards. We all know it’s an undervalued art form (after my mother admitted that she hadn’t read the copy of my honors thesis I’d given her, she admonished me by saying, “Well you knew all along that you were pursuing the most underappreciated art form—” this from my mother).
When I met Jake I knew almost as much about music and scotch as he did (I worked as a waitress at a scotch bar, and he worked almost as hard as a customer). But as our friendship developed, I realized he was one of those savant types who have a seemingly endless capacity for knowledge. No matter what I’d reference he’d know what I was talking about—it made for excellent conversations. It was like a mental playground. I once read on a teabag tag that you should always make sure that you’re the least intelligent person in the room (I can’t remember who was quoted); hanging around Jake made it obvious why that’s good advice. He elevated those around him. I imagine it would be nearly impossible for Jake to be the least intelligent person in any room, but he always found ways to be amazed by other people. He had a singular intelligence that relied largely on being able to parse the value in things—especially people and art. He was so good at this, that after a point I started to consider his endorsement enough to legitimize something. This is how I ended up taking a class called “Poet’s Prose” taught by Noah Eli Gordon. Jake talked me into taking the class even though I couldn’t use the credits toward my degree, and of course, it ended up being one of the most valuable classes I took as an undergrad. It was Noah’s concept and a very small class. I did some of my best writing in there. It was a small class in which we read and wrote hybrid and experimental pieces. Cole Swensen, Lyn Hejinian, Baudelaire, and Stein: my community had expanded.
I met many other amazing people, classmates, professors and visiting poets, through Jake. Philip Levine came to Denver and Jake arranged for a few of his most engaged students to “take care” of Levine while he was in town. We ate meals with him, chauffeured him around, and drove him to the Colorado Springs airport to see him off. This whole time we were able to gush over him and pick his brain, reveling in the excess of energy, wit, and knowledge he emanated. He told me to be ashamed that I hadn’t yet read Dorianne Laux and Donald Justice (for his music); he also imparted the excruciatingly surprising advice “don’t find your voice.” He said this was the most important thing he could leave us with. It’s been like a Zen koan in my mind ever since and it colors the way I teach. He also said “every poet needs a good fountain pen.”
Perhaps the greatest favor Jake ever did me was letting me read with him. As Murder Ballads was coming out, Jake was doing some readings to promote it. He invited me and a few other students to read with him at the Daiyku Collection—an art gallery in a bright loft with a musical glass bottle installation in Downtown Denver. Roxanne Banks and I read a few poems between Momoyo Torimitsu’s giant, pink blow-up bunnies. The gallery was closing during the poetry reading and the bunnies were being put to bed for the night. They gradually deflated behind us while we nervously read our poems. I mispronounced “semaphores” and “bougainvillea,” and I think maybe “baobab.” While I read I remembered Jake telling me once that the best way to figure out what needs to be changed in a poem is to read it in front of an audience. Jake gave us both lovely yellow fountain pens and hugged us after he finished reading. It was my first reading and I didn’t realize at the time what an amazing gesture it was for Jake to include us.
As I write this I’m feeling increasingly guilty. I realize that Jake created these opportunities for me (and others like me) because he was sponsoring my writing. It took a lot of trust and energy for him to provide me with such momentum, and now that I teach, I realize that it’s draining to encourage students on such a personal level. It’s not in the job description.
After I graduated with an MFA from Hunter College, I thought I would have a manuscript in a year—and maybe a couple of chapbooks. Why don’t I? Why do I let grading and housework and relationships, and now a baby, get in my way? How did Jake have the energy to do so much and still make every line he wrote a product of brutal honesty and optimum effort? I think he knew how to get energy and momentum back from the people and poetry he engaged with. I think he believed that I could learn how to do that too.
I hope my relationship with Jake can’t be reduced to a series of things he did for me that I took for granted. I hope he got something out of it also. But it’s easy to see how to honor his memory. I have to step out of my imagination, out of the sluggish quagmire of daily-life excuses, out of the world of tea-bag quotes that I’ve quickly become too comfortable in, and back into the world that Jake helped to create for me. A world of small workspaces designed for maximum inspiration, with tiny torn out pictures of John Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop, plastic flowers glued to rough cut boards, whimsically shaped paper clips, fragments and broken lines, books on shark behavior, architecture, punk rock of the seventies, and social insects placed like a shrine around my keyboard for constant access. A world where I analyze and catalog sea creatures and old furniture until the connection between them surfaces, and I can finally write it after lots of work. In this world I can’t make excuses or take shortcuts. It’s an uncomfortable world, but it’s unconscionable to let it crumble. Especially now that one of its greatest advocates and protectors is gone. Thanks for the fountain pen, Jake.