Lands Shift and So Should Poems: An Interview with Jake Skeets

By Margarita Cruzjake skeets

Jake Skeets (Diné) is from the Navajo Nation. He received an MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts. His work has appeared in Word Riot, Connotation Press, The Blueshift Journal, and elsewhere, and he recently founded Cloudthroat, an online publication of Indigenous art and poetics. He is the winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series.

Skeets read alongside Laura Tohe, former Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation, at this year’s Northern Arizona Book Festival in Flagstaff. At the Festival, we spoke to Skeets about writing through Diné poetics and aesthetics, language’s relationship to land, and the dual sides of the poet’s craft.

Congrats on being selected for NPS 2018 Open Competition! How did you react when you first heard the news? How are you processing it now?

I actually missed the call from Beth Dial over at NPS. I did the same thing when 92Y from NYC called me about the “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. I was at work both times I heard, so I had to refrain from being super excited. It was a shock really. I kept expecting a call or email saying it was a mistake. It felt surreal all the way up until the public announcement. Now, I can feel some nerves setting in because I worked on these poems for the past 10 years. Some of my earliest lines and images are from high school. It’s been a long journey, and I’m both terrified and excited for the book to come out.

You’ll be reading with the Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation on Saturday for the NAZ Book Festival…are you excited?

I am super excited. Laura Tohe’s work molded mine. Her work, along with other Diné poets like Luci Tapahonso, Sherwin Bitsui, Rex Lee Jim, and Orlando White, showed me that it’s possible to write poetry as a career. It’s possible to create a life out of poetry. It’s an honor to be able to read alongside her. We will be by one of our sacred mountains as well, so it makes the occasion very special.

How do you describe yourself, a poet, a writer? When did you start labeling yourself as either, or do you not label yourself that way at all?  How would you unconventionally describe yourself? (example: I am a tiny breakfast monster, caffeine IV drip carrier, plant mother.)

I find it difficult to still label myself as anything. However, I tend to lean toward the label of “poet.” I write poetry. I study poetry. I read poetry. My whole life is about language, however. I find that poetry is my most urgent entrance to language. It may change later. Language has always found me. On my Instagram, I have the label “Loverboy” only because I love love. I love love songs, romantic comedies, break-up songs, sad relationship songs, and any other artform that is made out of love. My newer poems are beginning to challenge the definition of love because my idea of love has evolved so much since moving home to the reservation. Love from a Diné perspective looks a lot different and I want to explore that.

What does the writing process mean to you?

I find the writing process to have two parts for me. One part is the physical making of language, the act of writing or typing words. For me this part is very unpredictable. This is where the craft of poetry or language is practiced and mastered. The other part is the more spiritual, mental, and/or cosmic side of writing for me. That part, for me, is when our bodies, minds, beings are in tune with the energies that surround us. We can feel and position ourselves in relation to everything else. This is when listening becomes most important.

Your poem, such as those published in the James Franco Review (‘Child Born of Water’, ‘One Night Stand’, ‘From Under His Cover’), evoke imagery of Diné culture. How important is not only culture, but identity, for you when writing? What has it become for you, culture and identity? Has it always been this way?

I was very fortunate to have been born on a reservation that is also our traditional homeland. I have a unique connection to Diné culture and identity. My entire language and thought process has been  molded by Diné aesthetics and poetics (or what I like to call Dinetics). When I enter a space, I find myself making my way clockwise into the room. Only because that’s how we enter a traditional hogan and is a teaching that has been rooted so deep into my thought processes. It becomes an instinct. I cannot separate Diné identity and culture from my poetry because Diné identity and culture is poetry in its purest form. Those poems are some of my earlier works. The only change I see is how I represent certain images like Child Born of Water, who is a holy person in our culture. I have since revised most of my collection to appropriately reflect those stories and energies to make sure I am not exploiting them.

The poetics of playing with space, form, is common in your published works – do you feel your work would be the same or even have the same meanings if you didn’t play with form?

I wouldn’t think so. I feel much of my spacing and lineation come from the mental/spiritual/cosmic side of writing that I mentioned. There is an organic energy that calls for certain representations of itself. Specifically, the way language and land interact with each other on the page definitely informs my spacing. I can’t talk about poetry without talking about the land. Lands shift and so should poems. I often find that when I start to play with space and line, the poem can sometimes change. There’s a spark that happens when you put two words together that weren’t paired before. So most of my poems are birthed from other poems when I played around with them. I used to hate revision. That changed when I got to IAIA. My entire study became about revision and how to play with your poems. So I urge everyone to play with your poems.


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