Shadows and Story: Talking with Jake Skeets

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When I was asked to judge the 2018 National Poetry Series, I hesitated for one brief moment before replying an enthusiastic “yes.” I hesitated because, having launched my own publishing career with a National Poetry Series book thirty-four years ago, I knew firsthand how life-changing my choice would be for the winner. Although I have worked as a teacher and editor in the decades since, I have never taken lightly the responsibility of those roles, perhaps because I never believed I would be in a position to hold either. That is one reason why choosing Jake Skeets’s manuscript, and interviewing him about his book, has been so very moving and instructive for me, but not the only reason. That is one reason why choosing Jake Skeets’s manuscript, and interviewing him about his book, has been so very moving and instructive for me. His work is from a Diné youth in the American southwest, male-centered, landscape-infused, and replete with family history, sexuality, and violence.

What I find especially rewarding in the interview that follows is Skeets’s discussion of the use of chiasmus in his poems, a notion that is to my mind loosely related to Keats’s negative capability: the willingness to engage two thoughts/feelings/positions at one time. Both of these young poets are alive to the sensual and ephemeral, and the dark beauty that informs each. Both create, in the aural and kinetic qualities of their poems, a uniquely choreographed linguistic experience; Jake compares it to the process of weaving.

Skeets holds an MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is a winner of the 2018 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Contest and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Skeets edits the online publication Cloudthroat and organizes a poetry salon and reading series called Pollentongue, based in the Southwest. He is a member of Saad Bee Hózhǫ́: A Diné Writers’ Collective and currently teaches at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona. His debut collection, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, will be released by Milkweed Editions tomorrow.

I spoke recently with Jake about publishing his first collection, his use of chiasmus, and the influence of Diné culture.

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The Rumpus: One of the first things about your manuscript that stood out to me was the title, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers. It immediately created for me a connection between self and others, an erotic yet sorrowful connection, and now that I have a proof of the book in hand, the Richard Avedon portrait of your uncle on the cover adds yet another powerful layer to the connection your title suggests. Could you discuss how the book begins its journey with those two elements?

Jake Skeets: I have always been obsessed with the line, the refrain, and chiasmus. I think any Native writer would echo this obsession. In Diné, chiasmus comes up during translation. I think of a line from my grandmother (through clan), Luci Tapahonso, a Diné poet and my literary matriarch. In one my favorite lines from one of my favorite poems, Tapahonso writes “the store is where I’m going.” In English, the correct subject-verb-object structure of the sentence would be “I am going to the store.” However, Diné follows an object-subject-verb structure and that’s why the line reads “the store is where I’m going.” So when Diné and English are paired, it creates a chiastic read: “I am going to the store / The store is where I am going.” When I was interrogating the structure of the book, I began to see how there were two pairs of distinct threads within the book: masculinity and queer sexuality, and masculinity and violence. These threads position the self against intense scrutiny. So I position the speaker within that epistemology, an epistemology of body versus land, and desire versus violence.

A chiastic structure helped bring all of it to life on the page. For me, “Drunktown” is chiastic. The state of being drunk is one of freedom and one of danger. This spurred the title poem. The poem begins with this terrible tragedy and bleeds into these specific flowers and plants. Often, the plants found in the fields are ones used for medicine in traditional ceremonies. It was a small attempt to offer comfort for the ones who have lost their lives in these spaces; the ones found in the fields were found with plants and medicines. So, for me, the title became a chiasmus because contradiction is not the right word. For me, chiasmus allows for contradiction without the linear, without the black-and-white, this-or-that. Instead, chiasmus allows for multiple possibilities of the same words and images: Eyes/Flowers and Bottle Openings/Mouths.

The image of my uncle came later in the manuscript creation. At first, I was hesitant to include the story and image. I felt it belonged to my uncle and my family. I was not comfortable writing about my uncle. However, it was through revision and craft that I became comfortable with the expression of his story. I learned I could re-field his story because Avedon sought to remove all aspects of background, hence the whiteness surrounding him. Avedon specifically worked in shade to remove the orientation of light, and the subjects stood before a white sheet of paper to surgically remove subjectivity. I attempted to use language to reclaim what Avedon attempted to remove: shadows and story.

Rumpus: One of the things I most admire about the book is its dual investigation of both male love and violence. From the outset, in the marvelous poem, “Drunktown,” men and their relationships with each other are tenderly and brutally described. Can you talk about the difficulties of balancing that subject matter and how, as a young, queer Diné poet, you were drawn to it as you made the poems for your first book?

Skeets: Writing the book was tremendously difficult and I am not just talking about the careful but also strict critique of Sherwin Bitsui, Joan Kane, and Santee Frazier. The book itself was emotionally and spiritually exhaustive. I read through dozens of newspaper articles from the Gallup Independent and other newspapers about the deaths that occurred in Gallup. I asked my mother questions about my uncle. Even just repeating the story brought her to tears. It was also draining to deal with my own history, as in “Dear Brother,” which is directed toward my older cousin who is currently incarcerated. Growing up, he became an older brother to me, and witnessing his arrest, trial, and ultimate incarceration was truly confusing. I balanced all this emotion with the idea of the field. The fields become a space of negotiation.

I originally thought I was working on two collections: my “coming out” collection and a collection about the violence in border towns like Gallup, New Mexico. However, once I returned home to the Navajo Nation, I begin to see that those threads are woven. My sexuality is not free from my masculinity and my masculinity is not free from violence.

An image that kept repeating itself in the news articles and my own memory was the image of the field. The fields represent childhood play and life but also drug use and drinking parties. Coming to terms with my own body, I came to realize that I experienced and learned desire in the same space where men would lose their lives: in the fields. The fields became a place where men desired and men died. These fields, however, are still fields filled with plants, medicines and very stark beauty. They are spaces for thought, freedom, and reflection.

Rumpus: Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers appears to refuse easy paradigms. The poems are set in Gallup, amongst a historical harshness of men and landscape, but they claim all the lush and sensual beauty available to them. Could you discuss the book’s sources of natural imagery? The ways that the Southwest resonates for both you and your work, and if you suspect it will continue to do so in future work?

Skeets: The Southwest has always been a space for psychological and economic negotiation for those who came/come to conquer it. For the economic, the Cities of Gold evolved into extractive mining like coal, uranium, and copper. For the psychological, the desert became synonymous with freedom and danger. An approaching lightning storm, with black thunderheads, is seen as foreshadowing. However, for Diné and the many tribes of this area, a coming storm means, quite literally, life. The rains provide for the crops. This type of recognition and reverence continues today for many communities. Land evolves into time and even discipline. For example, string games, like cat’s cradle, are not permitted during the summer because we learned those games from Spider Woman and we respect the presence of spiders during the summer. A solar eclipse is another example. While Twitter celebrates a visible solar eclipse, most families here fast and stay inside to respect the ceremony of the cosmos. This type of reverence even extends to the creation of art. I learned from Crystal Littleben, Miss Navajo Nation 2017-18 and the program coordinator for the Navajo Cultural Arts Program, that Diné basket makers can’t weave their baskets during the rain. These practices make up my own epistemology and poetics. For me, it was never a question about the role nature plays in my poetry. It will continue to be a crucial space for me to engage with poetry.

Rumpus: Could you talk about the experiential process of your first book coming into being, perhaps offering some best advice for emerging poets getting close to the early publishing stage of their writing lives? Not “career” advice, per se, but real talk about composing a book of poems, poet to poet.

Skeets: That is a great question and one we should all be asking regardless of where we are in our poetry careers. How does a poet compose a book of poems? I did consult with debut collections first. I wanted to learn a debut poet’s orientation to the idea of a book. I also trusted my mentors’ advice. Joan Kane squashed the idea of just focusing on the debut collection. I remember her asking me, “Are you going to write just a debut collection and nothing else?” She told me that thinking about poetry has the capacity for longevity. She asked about my second, third, and fourth collections. So I had several rounds of reading lists that focused on different themes like debut collections, gay poetry, place-based, and even a round of Four Way Books collections.

Once I had a solid manuscript, I began thinking about structure and order. I never once worried about the reader during the construction. I only consulted a reader when I thought about the physical relationship a reader would have with the book: how they would hold the book, where they would turn, where they might start reading. Toward the end, I began recording myself reading the entire manuscript and listening to it. Sherwin Bitsui asked me to carry the manuscript with me everywhere I went as a way to become part of the book. He would ask to see my manuscript randomly to make sure I had a copy. He even showed me a copy of Dissolve in manuscript form that he was carrying around with him.

I also learned from IAIA the technique of taking a hike while you are reciting your poetry or listening to the recording of your reading. I did this back home on the reservation where our hiking trails are pretty vacant. It was just me and the land. I read my poetry to them. I always advise that trees and plants like to hear what they give breath to. Of course, not everyone has access to this type of experience. From this, I simply learned how to listen to the poems. I learned my poems were not stuck in their form. They moved, they danced, and they sometimes danced off the page. A poet cannot offer their poems permanence. A poet can only offer their poems space.

Rumpus: While reading your manuscript, it is immediately noticeable that you practice great patience with the poem’s utterances, using field of page and other visual cues to affect the poems’ pace and music. In fact, the bodies in the space/landscape of the poems often felt carefully choreographed; reading them made me think of dance with its unique kinetics, timing, and physicality. I’d love to hear you discuss those and other craft elements in your book.

Skeets: The best way to honor language is with craft. I experiment and I play. I write things and scramble the words. I use online websites that reorder words in random order or give me random paragraphs composed of random words and use them to write poems. I rewrite entire poems from the last line or the middle line. I take out punctuation marks or I add them. I enter poetry with intense scrutiny. I question whether English earned its existence on my page, in my space.

If not, I experiment more. I, too, invent constraints like writing about the body without using the word “body” or names for parts of the body. I am my own worst critic. By critic, I don’t mean I badmouth my own writing. I mean I interrogate the amount of energy that went into a word, line, stanza, or poem. Diné weavers use quite a great amount of energy to create their rugs. It begins with a lamb. This lamb must be cared for during its first few weeks. Then, the sheepherding starts, of walking through many fields. Then, the sheep is sheared to produce wool. This wool is then spun into yarn. This yarn is then dyed in dyes prepared by the plants from the fields. A loom is constructed using much energy. I helped my partner construct his loom and I was tired by the end because of how precise everything needs to be for the weaving. (My partner, Quanah Yazzie, was a tremendous help in understanding the depth in Diné thought and lifeway.) Then, the creation of the rug begins, line by line until a whole image is created. We can see the energy that went into the creation of Diné rugs. I want my readers to see the energy that went into the creation of a poem.

Within this collection, I was focused on movement. I wanted to make sure the poems were constantly moving. For me, it was a way to fully develop the images. It was also a way to negotiate time within the collection. I wanted to play with the linearity of the coming-of-age structure with movement, but also maintain a familiar linearity onto which a reader can grasp while reading. A boy becomes a man in a field, the same field filled with sediment that took decades to reach, the same field of broken bottles busted by partygoers in 1988, the same field where a man lost his life the year before during a heavy winter. To give images continuity, they needed to move. To give my poems both linear and deep time, they needed to move through space. To achieve this, I play with the line, with white space, with chiasmus, with the couplet, with through line, and with refrain.

I am not one for ritual when it comes to the making of a poem. I try to try everything. I do think of a poem as a field. When one comes across a field, one doesn’t try to ponder its meaning or narrative or accessibility. When one comes across a field, they ponder its beauty, its existence. One doesn’t read a field, they experience it. They study what is moving, what is making sound. They notice the plant life, if any, and wildlife, if any. I try to approach a poem the same way I approach a field. The poem, then, becomes a translation of the depth of that field. I have faith that the energy of place will dance its way onto the page. A wind will carry itself into the fields of the page and offer breath to a poem.

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Photograph of Jake Skeets by Quanah Yazzie.


Kathy Fagan's latest collection is Sycamore (Milkweed Editions), a finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. She is also the author of the National Poetry Series selection The Raft, the Vassar Miller Prize winner Moving & St. Rage, The Charm, and Lip. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, the Kenyon Review, Slate, FIELD, Narrative, The New Republic, The Nation, and Poetry, among other literary magazines, and is widely anthologized. Fagan was named Ohio Poet of the Year for 2017, and is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Frost Place, Ohioana, Greater Columbus Arts Council, and the Ohio Arts Council. The Director of Creative Writing and the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, she is currently Professor of English, Poetry Editor of OSU Press, and Advisor to The Journal. More from this author →