Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #8

Murmuration: An Interview with Jake Adam York

Jake York’s A Murmuration of Starlings received the Colorado Book Award in Poetry for 2009. The following is an e-mail interview with him in October, 2009.

BK: How did you become interested in this subject, the Civil Rights Movement?

JY: When I was just starting to write poems, as a student at Auburn University, I happened to swing through Montgomery, where the Civil Rights Memorial had recently been erected. Though I didn’t, as an undergraduate, ever write about the memorial, the sculpture of it — the black granite etched with the names of 40 martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement and pivotal moments in Civil Rights history — stuck with me, and as my other interests led me to stories of race-related violence, the memorial provided a useful focus. A few early poems I wrote about martyrs whose names are on the memorial were in Murder Ballads, and these poems were the ones that got the most attention, the ones people wanted to talk about, so as I was waiting for Murder Ballads to come out, I started to plan out a book that would address itself, entirely, to the martyrs. What emerged was A Murmuration of Starlings, which obviously doesn’t address even a large number of these murders, but the work helped me envision an open series.

ake Adam YorkBK: In your notes, you say it’s part of an ongoing project. What’s the total project, or what do you have planned?

JY: I don’t know exactly what this project will look like when it’s done — I don’t know how many books or how many poems I’m going to write — so I’m now calling it an open series. My basic commitments, as clearly as I can understand them, are to write at least one poem for each of the 126 martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement (40 named on the memorial and another 86 whose names have been collected over the almost 20 years since the memorial went up), to draw attention to the circumstances of the murders and the fact that most are (legally) unsolved, and to let the subjects set the tone and direction of each individual poem and each group of poems as well.

BK: What do you think are the problems, if any, in dealing with such a public and historic and dramatic subject in poetry?? How did you try to solve or overcome those?

JY: One of the problems in writing about anything historic is that, if you didn’t live through the time or the event, you have to get there, to develop a perspective on the subject — and you have to do it in a way that will offer a reader some entry into that subject or event as well. In some cases, if the historic subject is particularly well-known, you have to find a new way to approach it so you’re not just writing what everyone already knows. For the most part the poems in Murmuration deal with events that, sadly, very few people know much about—events that I myself didn’t know much about. To get into those times and places and subjects, I adopted some documentary techniques, using photographs and printed documents—including newspaper articles and legal transcripts and FBI reports—to reconstruct scenes and events in imagination, and in most of these cases, I was also able to travel to the places the poems re-imagine. The newspaper articles were most useful, because small-town newspapers rarely mask their communities’ prejudices and often provide some fantastic material that enables the more surreal moments in these poems.

To write about a history of racial violence involves still more problems. As a white writer entering into a history in which black Americans suffer, I run the risk, in every poem, of replicating the power dynamic that enabled that violence. Does the decision to access this history witness a kind of privilege? The history is created by many actors, black and white, and there is a heterogeneous record. Here, again, the documentary methods, particularly the use of documents and photographs as lenses that would both focus and refract elements in these stories made it possible, I think, to revisit these moments without glossing over the white power or reducing black suffering.

BK: I’d say one of your solutions to the problem of portraying such events is your use of imagery involving starlings—as ‘murmuration’ is the collective name--as well as other birds. Sometimes the starlings figure as witnesses. In one place “a plague of starlings gathered into little boys” who found one of the bodies. In another place, when a courthouse is gutted, various transcripts are simply set out on the street and “Starlings pick through the gutters’ wreck / and weave typescript fragments into their nests.” Sometimes that imagery seems used as a kind of lyric intensity, as in “and no one can see what lands, what cracks / the skull, the hairline fracture in tangled hair, / what’s nesting, what’s beating there,/ what wings are gathering in his eyes.”

JY: Several of the examples you cite are from the same poem, “Substantiation,” which is the first poem I wrote in which the starlings appeared. There, they provided a way of imaging a force that seems natural, but is conglomerate and shifting. We’ve all seen groups of starlings flying, making mesmerizing clusters and then expanding again, and that’s the image that allowed me to imagine these different ideas of history as merging, at different points, into different creatures, whether of witness or violence or suffering.
The book emerged, in its present form, as a way of testing whether the starlings could be used as a unifying motif for the whole book. I’m sure for some people there are too many starlings in the final form, but I came to believe that the starlings, which are a form of biological pollution, could image and symbolize the pollutions racial animus introduces into our lives.

That starlings are beautiful and difficult birds, capable of very agile flight and of mimicking sounds from their environment while being very invasive, helps draw the book’s many strands together.

BK: Another stylistic device is to apparently distance the subject from reality, which also intensifies it to me, through the verbs of “see” and “say”. I’m thinking of a whole poem built around “The sheriff says,” “the defense says,” “everyone will say,’ and the like. Or “No one sees him cross the courthouse lawn / and no one steps from the line and pulls a gun.”

JY: These attributing devices come directly from the documents used to get back into the events, specifically trial transcripts and other legal affidavits. These documents often present contradictory accounts. In order to braid and balance those accounts—to get both sides of each story into the poems—these attributive devices come into play. They do distance the subjects and hopefully enable a reader to approach them with some kind of objectivity or equanimity that could conduce a more nuanced understanding of the situation and a deeper understanding of the linguistic and epistemological violence, as well as the physical violence, of this history that can be difficult, even impossible to face.

BK: Several poems are divided into sections—or I could say unified into sections. Did you call on a special aesthetic to use this form, such as a combination of lyric and dramatic, or did it just seem what the subject demanded, or what?

JY: I wanted, as I want, to create poems that are narrative and lyric. Poems like “Substantiation,” “The Crowd He Becomes,” and “A Murmuration of Starlings” create the narrative line by sequencing lyric moments. In the end, these poems become meditative by the combination of the lyric and the narrative (or sequential). To accommodate multiple lines of inquiry, the poems need to be dense enough to shape thought or meditation and long enough to allow for contradictory movement. I think this is what the subjects demanded, but I’m also aware that this may be a function of my own temperament and interests.

BK: What role do the various references to music play in this book? I’m thinking of the jazz references, like Coltrane or Sun Ra, as well as titling some poems after Top Ten songs in that same period of time.

JY: In some cases, as with the songs that are named for top 10 hits, the idea is that, viewed from the right angle, anything or everything could be a witness to history, part of a compound eye. The jazz references, I hope, suggest a similar but more deliberate kind of witness, since jazz is often taking popular song and complicating the form in order to make it express changing conditions, whether they’re personal or cultural. Sun Ra is most important in this regard, since his “identity” and his musical approaches are formed as explicit rejections of the segregated South and particularly Birmingham, where much of the book’s violence and retribution occurs. The man who would be Sun Ra, was born in Birmingham, and in the mid-40s he concluded that he couldn’t be from the kind of place where people commit on one another the kinds of violence he was witnessing; but he didn’t just reject Birmingham, he rejected earth and posited an extra-terrestrial origin for himself. Coltrane is a contemporary, and I find it interesting that the spiritual and experimental dimensions of his work grow as the Civil Rights movement progresses and matures. Both musicians are imagoes of a general spirit that creates wonder out of frustration.

BK: Do you have another book project in the works or in your mind?

JY: As I write these answers, I have actually completed another book, called Persons Unknown, which extends some of the work in Murmuration and adds some new strands to the project. It’s designed, in some ways, to be fit inside of Murmuration, to round out the thematic work that book could not quite complete due to the common restrictions on length. I have a tentative agreement to publish the book in 2010. While I’m waiting for that to come out, I continue to work. I’m completing a chapbook right now that will serve as a kind of postscript to Persons Unknown, and beginning to make some headway on the next full-length volume. After that, fourth, book is done, I have an idea for a long poem centered on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, one that will take a long time to write, so I’m looking for some time off to make further progress on this open project.

BK: Thanks, Jake. And congratulations.