Jacob Sunderlin is a writer and musician. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Gulf Coast, Narrative, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Third Coast, and elsewhere. He’s received residencies from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. His records Death Ranch (Castle Bravo, 2016) and Hymnal (NULLZØNE, 2017) are available on cassette and for download.
Fifteen years ago, sitting at the Tippecanoe County Public Library with an anthology on the table in front of me, poetry asked me to take it seriously. A lead apron of student loans seemed necessary.
In pursuing poetry, I’ve worked as a bricklayer and a line cook. I’ve tutored rich kids, played the banjo for 20 bucks a gig, baked bread, washed dishes for minimum wage. I’ve written “content” for money. I’ve overdrawn my account buying white bread and cigarettes. I’ve studied, I’ve written, I’ve earned degrees. I’ve been lucky. The collection calls still come in the morning.
So, when I’m diligent, do the poems. My hands caught in some grease trap or cement mixer, I thought of poems it seemed unlikely anyone would ever read, or take as seriously as I did. I went to the classes the loans afforded and tried to read the French philosophy, writing poems instead of notes in my notebooks. Someone in the desk next to me said, “What smells like onions?” And it was me, straight off breakfast shift.
Give into the smell, the smell would say.
This National Endowment for the Arts fellowship gives me the ability to pay off those student loans, to quiet the anxiety of the smell, for a moment. Submitting manuscripts, applying for opportunities—this all costs money and time, and poetry has always privileged a certain class. I will be forever grateful to the NEA—and its free application process—who does this essential work, providing the opportunity for writers across the spectrum of class privilege to be taken as seriously as they take themselves.
Back to burning tires, hot scratch of wire.
Back to gravel pit & grease spill.
Back to brass, back to callous, back to
nails in a paper sack. Back to the cold
solder I kiss with a blowtorch so it drips
quick down the back of the fist
my mind is always making. Hot Clorox
for the neck of the anointed
punk with the burning scalp. Jesus is just
some other daddy he said, stuffing forty dollars
of tinfoil into my pocket. Don’t let nobody
tell you how to do. He called me
Bleach. He means listen. Tattoo into the hospital-
white skin of the thigh a grinning skull
made with pen-ink & fork. He made
money from money, so I called him Cash.
Had a Ceasar cut & a copy machine,
bought a Jordan throwback with photocopy tens.
When he told me how they loved on beef liver
at the boys school Charles Manson
ran away from, he told me how it felt alive.
I have felt alive. He said, crucify your love
of ease, nail it down upon the hardest wood
& this is how I came to worship
each cut, every blue tarp thrown over a halfbuilt
car, each bloody knuckle, the snailshaped burn
on every palm, the empty-rattling jug of bleach
in the back of my brother’s truck.