Jake Adam York is a fifth-generation Alabamian, raised in and around Gadsden, in Etowah County. Currently, he is Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver. His books include Murder Ballads, selected by Jane Satterfield for the 2005 Elixir Prize in Poetry, and A Murmuration of Starlings (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) selected by Cathy Song for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and winner of the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry. He was the recipient of a 2002 Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship and was the 2009 Summer Poet in Residence at the University of Mississippi. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Gulf Coast, New Orleans Review, Oxford American, and Cincinnati Review.
SHALL BE TAUGHT TO SPEAK
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
—Henry IV, Part One
Schieffelin’s cages champ the morning air.
Forty hands on the latches wait for the sign.
Dawn invades, feathering trees he’s civilized
with sparrows, finches, a failure of nightingales,
and now the least of Shakespeare’s birds,
forty pairs of starlings for the New World’s nests.
Even he cannot know how they’ll explode,
how they’ll plume, then pair, then spread
to double, a hundred two hundred million
in a century, maybe more, how they’ll swallow
all the country’s wandering songs
then speak their horrors from the eaves.
A thousand miles away, in Arkansas,
six men pose beneath a tree. In the photograph,
the hanged man’s sweater’s buttoned tight,
his hat, his head raked to hide the noose.
One man stills the body with his cane.
Another moves to point, but his arm is blurred.
Trees burn quietly in the morning sun.
Their jaws are set. Just one thing’s in motion.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I drafted (by hand) the poem over a day (or two) in June 2006. I typed it a few days later, making minor changes, and continuing to make minor changes (a word here or there), finalizing it in the third week of August 2006.
The poem was composed with the idea that it might be the first poem for the book A Murmuration of Starlings, which, in the summer of 2006, I was trying to complete.
I had written three of the longer poems in the book—each of which involved the same image, of starlings in flight, gathering into a single seemingly solid mass then spreading to show the individual selves—and a few shorter poems. I didn’t want the image to seem a capricious overlay on the difficult history of the Civil Rights Movement—which is the book’s concern—regardless of the power or convenience of the figure. So I needed a poem that would frame this image.
Somehow—I can’t remember how—it occurred to me that the same year that starlings were introduced into North America, 1890, was also around the time that lynching statistics were starting to be kept at the Tuskeegee Institute, the time that Ida B. Wells discusses in her book, On Lynching, about the time that lynching became a visible phenomenon of white-on-black violence in America. It was also the date of a lynching photograph I knew from James Allen’s collection Without Sanctuary. The poem began with the recognition of this coincidence, and it was written, fairly simply, as an attempt to connect the two events — the release of the starlings in New York City and the lynching in the Arkansas photograph.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I’d call this a one-draft poem. I might have—I can’t say for sure, though it’s typical for me—thought about the poem for a few weeks before I sat down to the first draft. I can’t say that I had — or have — a single eureka moment and then went to writing. I usually mull a thought for a few days or weeks. If it stays and still seems interesting, then I start writing, though sometimes I won’t set pen to paper until I have a good idea of the poem’s arc. During that thinking time, you could say I’m drafting the poem already.
In this particular case, I wrote the draft in a day or two. In my recollection, I wrote a full draft one morning and, later that afternoon, made some changes to the first eight or ten lines. Then I let it sit, in manuscript, for a while, a few days probably, and then I typed it, making minor changes as I typed. This typing stage might be considered a draft, but if most elements are not in play, for me, this is a continuation of one draft. By the middle of August, it was done, and I didn’t make any further changes to the poem.
So, to answer more directly, I’d say the poem was pretty much done in the first two days, though the finishing stretched over another eight or nine weeks, which is pretty typical for me. I usually go through a stage of speculation—in which I’m preparing to write a poem, whether through meditation, cogitation, or research—, a drafting stage, which is usually pretty concentrated, and a finishing stage in which the poem is typed and tinkered with. The finishing stage can take a few months or a few years.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration, but I also believe it’s either much more rare or much different than most people imagine. When I hear my students talk about inspiration, it’s like a lightning strike, in which the object of the electricity is fairly passive. I feel very active when writing (or even thinking about) a poem. Yes, ideas may arrive from no particular source, or an accident — something on the radio or the television, something someone says in the grocery store — will contribute to the conception of a poem, and maybe that’s inspiration. But usually work is going on — before, during, and after such moments. I’d prefer to call this “reception.” You’re working to be receptive, and sometimes you’re receptive early in the process and sometimes not until the end of some arduous course.
In this case, there are historical facts that inform (or form) the poem. In the sense that the matter is not invented, it is received. And yet, this poem isn’t working with the kind of information that one receives passively, through the media ubiquity: you have to be looking for this. So, the reception, or the conditions that enable the reception are, in my mind, kinds of invention, or products of invention, “sweat and tears.”
So, to give short answers:
Do I believe in inspiration? Yes, no, and maybe.
How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Over the last decade, I’ve come to a fairly stable formal vocabulary, in which certain line-lengths do certain things, and certain stanza shapes do certain things. Because of that, I knew early on I would be using (or trying to use) a five-beat line and a couplet grouping. The five-beat line, to me, has a fairly measured pace; it’s steady, and also not prone to break into cadences that are at home in more musical verse (which I wanted to avoid, so as to preserve a somber tone). The couplet helps me keep a rather tight control on a sentence; tercets and quatrains as well as longer stanzas or paragraphs are prone to running, to a broader cadence, while the couplet, in my ear, enforces a kind of solidity, keeping the sentence taut. I don’t say all this to myself when I’m finding the form of a poem, because I’ve had this discussion, in some definitive form before, and now these technical questions and answer arrive more by feel and instinct. At times, I test these choices after a draft is done. In this case, the appropriate form arrived fairly early in the process, and it passed the tests. I did not know how long this poem would be — I didn’t say it would be 20 lines or whatever — but I had some sense of what the proportion of the poem would be, how long the Arkansas episode would need to be in relation to the New York episode.
In a way, the poem is built the way a sharp metaphor or simile is built in a speech: loaded up front so the torque of the source qualities transferring to the target is a strong as possible. Again, this was not the product of a very explicit deliberation, (e.g., “I’m going to write this poem as a metaphor”), but due to long practice using such figures in speech and writing, the instinct seemed right, and I knew what to do once I was in motion.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
About sixteen months. It first appeared in New South in late 2007.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
All my poems rest for a bit before going out, but there’s no strict rule. I tend to pack most of the resting in a laying-by period between handwriting the draft and typing the poem. Unless the poem is particularly ornery, I won’t type it until it’s nearly done, and then I’ll make minor changes when typing it.
I should say, too, though, that since I typically write poems in suites and streaks, I might have a near-final draft that sits around for months until I’m ready to complete the related poems. Once I have a small suite, then I send the poems out. For some poems, only a month might pass before the poem goes out, and for others it could be a year or more. In this particular case, it was six to eight months before I sent it out.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I’m going to echo here my response to the question of inspiration and reception. The poem is interested in facts—that starlings were introduced into North America in 1890, that this was happening as lynching was becoming popular and visible as a tool of repression whites used against blacks, and that there is a photographic record of the lynching and a biological record of the starling introduction. And the poem is interested in rendering these facts without distortion. But this doesn’t mean the poem does no work, that it invents nothing, that there is no fiction. The fiction of the poem is that you can see both events, one in New York and one in Arkansas. The fiction is the historical or poetic perspective. The fiction is the sentences. The fiction is the sound of this language. Fact and fiction overlay one another and coexist and there are no isobars between them.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes, no, and maybe.
Sometimes I hear people making a hard distinction between lyric and narrative, as if you have to choose. Usually, such a distinction is predicated on some characterizations. Narrative is linear, more situational (social), more discursive or explanatory. Lyric is static or circular, more insular or abstract, more telegraphic or oblique or musical.
By these definitions, first, yes, the poem is narrative. It is somewhat linear. It is social or situational insofar as it concerns a specific point in historical time and as it involves more than one person. It is certainly discursive, using the sentence, and its ability to infold or unfold, fairly deliberately.
But the poem is also lyric. While the poem is linear, in terms of its disclosure of each particular geographic scene, the leap the poem makes, from New York to Arkansas, from the release of the birds to the lynching, requires a distant perspective which remains static, in both places at once — as well as in all the years between 1890 and today. And to the extent that the scope of the poem’s knowledge points to the writer’s consciousness, the poem implies a lyric shaper. That leap the poem makes is not extensively framed or explained—the poem works in part through juxtaposition—and that complicates the poem’s linearity, making it a little more telegraphic or oblique. I also feel that repetitions of syntax and sound create spaces within the poem and insulate it a bit from the language of the rest of our lives.
So, the poem’s lyric qualities may disqualify it from narrative, and vice verse. So maybe it’s narrative.
I’d prefer to call it a meditative poem, whether or not you need Leo Martz’s definition to make that meaningful: a poem of deliberate, if mobile, attention and an interest in creating crenellations that might induce a reader into a similar meditation.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
When I’m writing a lot — and this poem was written during a particularly athletic run — I tend to read a lot as well, maybe a book a day, so I won’t remember everything I was reading. But I was spending a good deal of time with Joshua Poteat’s Ornithologies and Larry Levis’s Elegy, as well as with Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Lug Your Careless Body Out of the Careful Dusk and Maurice Manning’s Bucolics. I want to say, too, but this could be an imagination, that I was also consulting David Wojahn’s The Falling Hour. All books that, to me, show a skill in establishing and maintaining and modulating a tone, and this poem seemed to me one that required a strong control of tone.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
My ideal reader is willing and even forgiving — not of mistakes, but of complication. Many of my poems are long, and most of my short poems are arranged in sequences that could be read as long poems, and for that I need a reader willing to be enveloped, even confused. I don’t always know who that reader is—it might be my father sometimes, a friend from college, or someone I don’t even know. I have a list of people whom I don’t want to disappoint or alienate, and sometimes my concern to connect with them shapes a poem as much as a singular vision of an ideal reader.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I rarely show a draft of anything to anyone, unless I feel that I have a time constraint or I believe I have a serious problem. But there are a few readers I go to at those times, and I’ve learned how they think through my poems so well that I always hear them in my head when I’m editing a poem. That’s not “workshop” per se, but my revision process incorporates an imaginary version. I don’t know if others do this, but I have a strange collection of favored readers, and each searches for something different, so I tend to hand off poems to each individually when I feel I need a particular prod.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don’t write many poems of this length. I usually work in forms either much shorter and more elliptical or much longer, though at the same time this poem doesn’t seem that unusual to me. When I wrote it, the combination of the two scenes from different locales was new, a different approach. Since writing this poem, however, I’ve been working with simultaneity more. In a year or two, that feature of this poem won’t seem unusual at all.
What is American about this poem?
The history, the story. And, I hope, the drive to understand how the heterogeneity of America makes sense of itself.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?