NEA Literature Fellowships

Jake Adam York

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(2013 - Poetry)

Jake Adam York authored four books of poems: Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005); A Murmuration of Starlings (Southern Illinois UP, 2008); Persons Unknown (Southern Illinois UP, 2010); and Abide, which will be published posthumously by Southern Illinois University Press in 2014. Originally from Alabama, he was educated at Auburn and Cornell. He received fellowships to serve as a Poet in Residence at the University of Mississippi (2009), to serve as the Thomas Visiting Professor in Creative Writing at Kenyon College (2011), and from the Mellon Foundation to serve as a Visiting Faculty Fellow at the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Study at Emory University (2011-2012). He was also a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. At the time of his death in 2012, he was an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver and edited the journal Copper Nickel.

Photo by Sarah Skeen

Statement About Jake Adam York

Jake Adam York's poetry engaged in an ongoing and ambitious project of elegizing the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement. In doing so, his work became a vanguard for contemporary poets interested in combining research and creativity, in balancing documentation and the imagination. He accepted the burden of history in his work and wrote with unflinching passion, courage, and moral complexity about life in the South.

Jake received the news that he had been selected as an NEA fellow only about a month before his death. He was, of course, elated, not only for the financial support, but also for the recognition and encouragement from his peers. Writing is solitary work, but the very nature of Jake’s project and process may have made his work even lonelier. He would often spend long hours in libraries, reading old newspaper articles. He often traveled long distances to do field research in the cities and towns where the racially motivated murders he was writing about occurred. Perhaps it was this solitude, combined with the weight of history, which allowed Jake to approach his subject matter with particular sensitivity. About this, Jake has written: "To elegize the martyrs of the movement requires delicacy, requires reflection. For a white man to elegize men, women, and children, murdered by men whom I resembled, demographically, by men to whom I may be related or for whom I may be mistaken—for this man to elegize these martyrs requires hesitation, a stutter, a silence in which the ghosts of the murderers may be sloughed from my skin, even if only for a moment."

Jake was deeply grateful for the support of the NEA that would have bolstered the continuation of his work. Though his untimely death precluded this, his poems remain for all of us to engage. They challenge each of us to remember, interrogate, and honor the past.