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Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Poetry=amk

Brilliance & Bourbon: An Interview with Two Former Students Who Knew Jake Well

Leia Darwish and Ali Pearl were students of Jake Adam York's at the University of Colorado Denver. In addition to taking English and Creative Writing courses with Jake, both worked as editors under him at Copper Nickel. Darwish is currently an MFA candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University and Pearl is working toward her PhD at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. This conversation took place in March of 2013.

AMK: How did you two meet Jake?

Ali Pearl: I met Jake when my high school English teacher invited him to come read his poems to our class in 2005. We didn’t have any contact after that until I transferred to UCD from a college in New York City my freshman year. I took a class with Jake that fall, the American Short Story, during which he encouraged me to join the Copper Nickel staff. Everything developed from there as we got to know each other and I came to trust him and rely on him as a mentor.

Leia Darwish: I met Jake as an undergrad at UCD. I was a transfer student as well, so I entered the program in in the middle of college. The first conversation I had with him was after our first meeting of Poetics (a class I partly took just because I knew he was teaching it and had heard good things). I had been waiting anxiously for a response on my submission to Copper Nickel. I remember him telling me he wanted to publish my poem, and now the rest of the conversation is a blur. I was ecstatic. I got to know Jake, truly, through working with him on Copper Nickel. It started as an internship. He asked me what I was interested in doing and I said, “I want to learn how to run a journal.” He did not disappoint.

AMK: What was he like as a teacher? Being a colleague of his, I don’t know much of what he was like in the classroom.

AP: I feel like he was a different teacher for everyone, so that makes this kind of a hard question to answer. But I thought he was hilarious, supportive, intimidating, brilliant, and pushy. I guess there’s a difference, too, between how he was as a teacher in class and how he was as a teacher one on one. He was always very generous. He would walk you through an argument, and he was patient.

LD: Ali’s right, and I want to make it clear that even though he is one of the most important people to me, I didn’t know Jake nearly as well as I wish I had. We were always working, so what I got from working with him and the things he told me, that’s all I have. He put so much thought into the lesson plan and in class, he’d lead us through it. He’d show up and start off by saying something like, “Ok so you’ve got this poem/idea/dirty sock that’s been hiding somewhere and you’ve got to reunite it with the other one.” (Terrible example of a Jake metaphor, but he always taught with the widest ranging metaphors of any teacher.)

AP: Yeah, he always used analogies that his students would understand. He’d ask, do any of you know this thing about Tupac? And if enough people knew, he’d go with that analogy, and if not, he’d try something else. He did everything he could to enlighten students who may have had different ways of learning. Sometimes he would draw and write on the board; other times it was straight lecture; other times we had engaging discussions.

LD: Casual at times, talking whiskey, and then very serious at times—usually when he was really into what he was explaining. You could tell he got incredibly excited (in his reserved way) about poetics. Sometimes it flew over people’s heads, sometimes not. If he responded to your comment in class with, “Hell yes. Pour me a glass of whiskey,” that was the best compliment. Unlike other professors I’ve had, he used his knowledge —exercised it. Believe it or not, I think that was surprising to most students in the classroom. He was so damn articulate.

AMK: What do you mean by “he used his knowledge”?

LD: You could be talking about office supplies or politics, and he’d bring in some theory of astronomy. I’ve had brilliant professors who act very nonchalant and self-deprecating. From where I was sitting, it never seemed that Jake was afraid to use his knowledge. I guess he was into purpose: If I learn this, I’ve got to use it. Maybe that’s what intimidated people the most, but I really respected him for it.

I think Jake is known for an “encyclopedic” knowledge, but that doesn’t just happen. If he wanted something done, he’d figure it out, study it, master it. I think he just enjoyed that process. He even wrote the code for the Copper Nickel website. His vocabulary, breadth of knowledge—he didn’t show it off, but it was like everything he learned became a part of him so when he spoke it all came out so naturally, and then you think, “Shit how can a person be so naturally smart?” But he was a purposeful person, I think, and he was very aware of himself, as if it were a human responsibility, and using his knowledge, maybe that was part of that.

AP: He was intimidating and brilliant, but he could talk to you about why certain songs were arranged in a certain order on your favorite Radiohead album and how that related to whatever specific thing he was trying to explain to you about what was wrong with the paper you wrote.

AMK: So he adapted to what you needed instead of sticking with one preconceived way to teach. He could engage students who might otherwise not have been engaged but also presented a sort of model of the way writers, thinkers, and readers approach a text, correct?

AP: Definitely. Always. I only ever had two classes with him, and one was filled with people who loved literature and writing—that was the Copper Nickel class—and the other had maybe a few enthusiastic students, and he managed to get across to almost everyone in both classes. The way I teach is directly based in the way he taught. Or at least I like to think it is.

LD: I agree, but I think he always had a plan going in. If he was teaching you about poetry or guiding you in a specific poem, he was teaching you about life and he made that clear; and so it followed that adaptation was part of the process. I definitely think he had a philosophy about teaching. I know we talked about teaching a lot, but my memory isn’t that great...I guess I’ve interpreted it in this answer the way it came across to me, and other students/friends. I know we would always sit around and gush about his teaching skills. You’ve done something right when your lessons bleed into your students' social lives.

AMK: That sounds about right. I’ve been teaching creative writing for about five years now, and some of the best suggestions for how to get ideas across, using different forms/genres for my younger/more-inexperienced students, came from him. I’m sitting in my office right now, right across from his. It’s a strange sensation. Like something is missing.

So you're both teaching? What sort of classes? Can you give us an example of how you’ve used Jake’s approach so far and how effective that has been?

AP: I taught three sections of first year English at Utah. I never dumbed down my language for the students. I spoke the way I speak, I used words they may not have understood, and I waited for them to investigate that language and taught them the consequences of not investigating language they don’t understand. I always used analogies, especially pop culture references and things I thought they’d understand. And if they didn’t understand, I’d try something else. I feel like students appreciate when you’re both current and not condescending. I learned that from Jake.

LD: I channel Jake as often as I can, whether I’m working in the Writing Center (a form of teaching) or just in life, when reading and responding to poems in workshop. A lot of the time, I share his advice directly to my students. In one of our last email conversations, he described enjambment in terms of physics—I had asked him to remind me what he’d meant years ago by “quantum enjambment”:

(Jake’s words, email dated 9/11/12) Probably I would have been talking about what happens in poems like Matthea Harvey's “Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form” in which the line-break stitches two independent clauses together through a shared word, the “jamb” participating grammatically (via the 'squint') in the line above and the line below, like an electron moving back and forth between the shells of an atom.

I try to employ wide ranging comparisons like that, though not as brilliant—whatever makes sense to the student, whatever works best to illustrate a point. Surprising the student, showing them that they can think of these things in ways they thought may not have been allowed or appropriate—showing them that the same principles apply to poetry that apply to picking out your shoes in the morning—that was how Jake taught and I try to emulate that.

AMK: It sounds like Jake’s students loved him—even though he wasn’t the easy teacher.

AP: Not all of his students loved him. He assigned a lot of reading. Or at least a lot if you weren’t an English major. And he had high expectations. He was a pretty easy grader, but he didn’t let people get away with being careless or lazy. And some students don’t like that.

LD: Yeah. Maybe other people would say he was a hard teacher, but he wasn’t the type to fail you. I don’t think he saw it like that. And your mind would just be so blown after class; that always made it worth following his lecture.

AMK: What books or sorts of books did he expose you to that you feel had the most impact? What was Jake reading?

LD: What was Jake reading? I can’t say, but he had a formidable library in his tiny office that I drooled over. When he was away, and I had a key to his office, I’d go in there and just browse. I felt very privileged! Actually, I remember asking him, out of all the books in his office, which would he grab if the building were on fire, and he pulled a little obscure chapbook off the shelf. There was a story behind it that I don’t remember, but he said he knew he could never replace it if it were lost. As far as books he exposed me to, it was without a doubt, Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. He taught an excerpt from this book, which is not a book of poetry, but a book of philosophy/theory. Then I used the book for a paper in his class.

AP: Same here. The number one important book Jake exposed me to is Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. This is the book that completely shifted my honors thesis. This is when I learned about narratology, and subsequently when I learned that a lot of people in academia hate narratology, and that English and academia aren’t just one-sided. That there are arguments. It’s kind of strange to me that I only learned this my last year at UCD, but at least I learned it eventually. I’ve used that book in probably 75% of my papers since college. I give it to other people when they have questions about narratology. It’s such a simple, basic primer, but it has changed how I think about and approach a lot of fiction.

LD: Poetics of Relation is not for the faint of heart. It took me five hours to read and comprehend a thirty page excerpt (there was a lot to look up). I learn something new every time I reread it. It has been my rock, in my writing and in life. Glissant passed away in the year before AWP Chicago, and there was a tribute to him. I know Jake wanted to go, but I think he was on a panel at that time.

AP: I’m sitting at my desk right now, surrounded by every book I own, and when I look at most of them, I realize I can trace them back to Jake. Other than Narrative Fiction, Jake introduced me to some of my favorite writers: Junot Diaz, Gertrude Stein. A whole bunch of poets. At this point, Jake’s recommendations have become such a huge part of my life, and I’ve been reading people and books because of him for so long, that I honestly don’t even remember what he gave to me. Most of it. Most all of it. Almost every poet I’ve ever read is someone Jake introduced me to.

AMK: Talk to us a bit about Jake as a direct mentor. What was he like one-on-one?

LD: Hmm. This makes me sad. I had less time with him than I guess it shows “on paper.” I started at Copper Nickel in fall 2010, and then in spring 2011 he was at Kenyon, and then the next year he was in Atlanta. It was always really hard not to have him around because his attitude was so infectious. I took two classes with him before that, and we were in contact over email. When he came back on breaks, or when we came together at AWP, we’d sit down and catch up. With my writing, well, he was always pretty hands off. Being gifted with words, he didn’t have to say a lot to get the point across. Most of the time I was trying hard not to say something ridiculous because he wasn’t amused by neurosis (I’m pretty neurotic). I often imagined my first trip back to Denver: popping in to see him, sitting down, catching up, waiting for a morsel of advice that I could live off of when I needed it, when I left. Even though Jake was not easily impressed (that’s not really right either because he was, but I think he had high expectations), he never hesitated to tell me when he was proud of me. He was an invested person, and he would invest in a person. He’d sit down and show me how to do something—typeset, database. Then he’d say, “Okay, take the wheel.” Knowing that he trusted me to do things in his absence, when he was in Atlanta, was everything.

AP: Interestingly enough, I never gave Jake any of my “creative” work. We worked strictly on critical stuff. Once I wrote this god awful introduction and I came into the office and he’d literally scribbled out the entire introduction. He could have just made a note about it in the margins, but he scribbled the whole thing out. It had the effect of being both very hilarious (as sort of an ice breaker) and very serious. He told me my sentences had cooties and that they were avoiding each other. If you gave him any piece of writing, he committed to it as much attention as he could. If he didn’t have the time, he’d wait to look at it when he did have the time. No one else has ever been that devoted to helping me revise my work. Even in graduate school. When I sent him my statement of intent last winter when I was applying to PhD programs, he wasn’t able to scribble all over it, but he did quote various things I’d said in order to ask me exactly the right questions about what to others might have seemed minute details. When I forgot to respond to a question he’d asked me about my piece, he refused to answer my follow up email until I’d answered his question. He took his criticism of your work seriously, so he expected you to take it seriously. The day he called something I wrote “brilliant” is the day I decided to make this my career for the rest of my life.

LD: Yeah, he taught me a lot about how academia works (the funding hierarchies, the delicate interpersonal dynamics); he was very clear about it. I guess it always went like this: I’d ask how something works, why it is the way it is, etc. If he had time right then, he’d say, “So, what you have to understand is...” or a variation on that, and then he’d explain it. Otherwise he’d make an appointment to talk about it. He was busy, but he always made time.

AMK: Ali, I think you used “pushy” a bit earlier, but I never encountered that side of him at all. He was one of the more relaxed teacher/poets I ever met...

AP: I said pushy because sometimes I was a lazy student. I took that 4000-level American Short Story class with Jake when I was eighteen, so he knew he should expect more from me than I was sometimes giving after I’d taken that class. We spent an entire year working on what ended up being my honors thesis. We had an independent study the fall semester of my senior year then an honors thesis advisement the spring semester.

He knew when I wasn’t reading, or when I wasn’t writing. Usually he’d sort of jokingly harass me about it. I’d use the office printer to print something for another class and he’d say, “Wow if only you ever wrote that much for me!” Sometimes it was more serious. Like when I was slacking on my Copper Nickel duties over winter break that year. I came back to school, and Jake sat me down in his office and had a serious conversation with me about what it is he expected and how I wasn’t meeting those expectations and how if I wanted to continue as fiction editor, I needed to step it up and start devoting myself or he’d find someone else. That was a super difficult thing to hear from him because clearly I had disappointed the one person who’d ever really believed in me, so I felt like a jerk.

But it worked, and I stepped it up, and I think shortly after that I solicited a really good fiction piece for issue eleven. I did everything I could to show him my commitment at that point, because I realized that if he was as committed to my career as it appeared, then I needed to be committed to it, too.

But I really do also mean pushy. When I wasn’t meeting his expectations, he’d let me know, and not in the nicest way. He was never mean, but he didn’t sugar coat things. If I was procrastinating, he’d straight up tell me I was procrastinating and that I was doing myself a disservice and that I needed to knock it off. I’m not gonna lie, I definitely cried a couple times in undergrad because of things he said to me. I didn’t cry because what he said was mean, but because what he said was true. He didn’t just let me slip through the cracks, especially when things in my personal life compelled me to disappear. He never let me disappear.

LD: Yeah, we had a lot of conversations about teaching. I was always very curious about the life of a teacher, apprehensive about it. He told me how he loved teaching, that he could feel he was good, really good at it. He wore a lot of hats in Denver and even though by last spring it seemed like he was ready to get back to his hats, in Gambier, he said he had gotten back what he loved so much about the classroom. I know he loved the campus there, and the people: “I was kicking ass there. We’d blow through the lesson plan with forty minutes to spare and I’d have to start making it up and it was great.” (I’m paraphrasing, but this is pretty close.) His face lit up when he talked about it. He mentioned that he’d been writing more too. When he said these things, it was always unbelievably genuine. He said all this halfway in the Copper Nickel office door, halfway out, his messenger bag on his shoulder. He was either just getting there or leaving. That was a side of Jake that I was grateful to have known. I’m grateful for those talks.

AMK: That’s touching. I think we all know how important it is to have mentors like this in our lives. I think we also know how rare it is. I think that’s part of why his passing has been so hard on so many people. Of course, his close friends and family are grieving, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a reaction across the spectrum of poets, fiction writers, editors, students, friends...Jake was a workhorse, and he did such great quality work. It’s wonderful to hear that he taught you that. I think he believed in the importance of that.

Judy Jordan did the same thing for me. The first day of workshop at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, she said “Don’t turn a poem in until it’s finished, not until you’ve worked 100 hours on it.” I went home to my wife and said, “Honey, we’re screwed,” and then I got to work. The first few poems I turned in, she ripped to shreds. The only positive thing she said about one of them was, I’m not kidding, “Nice font.” I had to learn how to take it, how to recognize that, sure, that might have been a bit much but that that was how she felt about it and that I needed to respond accordingly. Then, a few poems later, when I knew I’d nailed it, she told me at the end of workshopping it to send it to Poetry.

I sent it to Poetry. They didn’t take it. You know who did? Jake. We were at AWP. I’d submitted it to you guys (Copper Nickel) a few weeks previous, and he said he and his editors had been debating it quite a bit. He offered up some suggestions, I took the ones I agreed with, and resubmitted, and we went from there. It was a three year process. Here’s an editor taking the time to work with a poet on a poem BEFORE he even accepts it. Why he did this, I’ll never know. But I’m grateful.

AP: He did it because he was always aware of what was good, of what he wanted, and he wasn’t shy to work just a little bit more to get exactly what he wanted. He had wicked amounts of faith in people. And it’s like his faith compelled them to be what they already were, to do what they could already do, but just hadn’t done yet. It’s almost like he saw the perfect, finished version of work, or of peoples’ thoughts, and he was always waiting for the other person to catch up, and he’d do whatever he could in his power to help them get there. It’s kind of incredible. I’ve never met anyone else as devoted to other peoples’ work. I’ve seen writers do this to themselves, but I’ve only ever seen Jake do this to other people. I think maybe that’s in part why he’s had such a huge impact on so many students and colleagues.

AMK: I tell people my work wouldn’t be what it is without the work of others before me. Jake was a model for that. I met him back in 2006 when he came to give a reading at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (where I got my MFA and his last two books were published). I’ll never forget: we were at the local barbeque joint (seemed wrong not to take Jake there!) and he was talking about the various hats he was wearing. He said he did it because he owed a debt. I thought to myself, “That’s exactly right.” I started PoemoftheWeek.org that semester. So I guess it’s our job to carry on that legacy. At least, I think he might scold us if we didn’t.

LD: In the time he’s been gone, I’ve learned that these “lessons” we’re taught by all of our teachers/mentors keep on teaching even when you’re not in their presence—walking down the street, tearing your hair out over a poem. Obviously, I learned a lot from him about poems—what they’re good for, how to make them. One thing I always appreciated about Jake was his methodical, nearly scientific approach. He approached everything from putting together an outfit (this is from a metaphor he used once in class) to designing a poster for a reading as a chance to learn a new process, to turn it inside out. You’re asking us what he taught us…for me…everything, I mean everything was a teachable moment. You knew when he was giving you a challenge. He’d ask you to do things and, when you finished, if you were successful, you’d realize you did it mostly on your own.

AP: It’s funny, he never told me that I needed to do the sorts of things he did. I just knew I needed to do it. Once, when he asked me what I wanted and I said, “I want to be you,” he said, “No, you want to be better than me.” I don’t really think that’s possible, but I know he’d want me to try to be better, whatever that means, so that’s all I can really do. Though if I’m being honest with myself, just trying to be him is hard enough. If I ever come close, I’ll feel like I’ve done him justice.

AMK: Leia, you posted a picture of a poem he had edited for you on Facebook a few weeks back. It had writing ALL over it. I mean, words, arrows, little drawings of images. It was pretty obvious how much effort he put into his students (let’s not forget we’re not talking about MFA students here) work.

LD: Oh, that was my handwriting!

I did all of that, but it was, of course, inspired by how he taught us. I mean, we had to write a paper. I chose “Dream Song 1.” I had no idea it was a sonnet when I started, and I scanned the shit out of it, found a mathematical way to show exactly how Berryman had resolved issues of changing the sonnet form. I made five copies of the poem and marked each one looking for different things: meter, image, voice, etc. It took me so long to figure it out, that I had two hours to write the paper before deadline. I emailed it to him with a ton of typos, section headings instead of transitions, but I knew that didn’t matter to him in this case if the ideas were solid. Doing that and writing a paper like that was something I wanted to give him. I was thinking “Here, look what I did. I got what you were saying in class.”

I think, though, this inclination has always been a characteristic of mine, and I think that’s a reason why I connected with Jake when it came to teaching/learning. I was always willing to go there with him. I posted that picture because I wanted to show how he was the kind of person you worked hard for. You knew he would appreciate it. That’s extremely rare. I felt that way when I worked at Copper Nickel, too. I would stay there until 11 pm sometimes (many times) to get something right because I knew it would never go unnoticed or unappreciated.

AMK: Thanks guys for speaking with me about Jake. You knew him better than I did. It’s been great learning about him from you.


Leia Darwish graduated from the University of Colorado Denver with a BA in English Literature/Creative Writing in the Spring of 2011 and is now working on her MFA in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Ali Pearl is a PhD candidate and doctoral fellow in English literature & digital humanities at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her work is published or forthcoming at Quarterly West, LIES/ISLE, and The Fiddleback.