Tenderness and Tragedy: A Simultaneous Experience


Jake Skeets is a Diné poet, holds a degree from the IAIA, and his debut collection 


Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful Of Flowers was selected by Kathy Fagan for the National Poetry Series in 2018. We spoke to Jake over the phone about his debut collection, image, his process, and the balance of violence and tenderness that moves throughout his collection.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In many ways this book is so physical – its addresses touch and body in a way that intertwines tenderness and brutality in the same breath. What does addressing body in your poetics mean to you and can you speak briefly maybe on the idea of your book as a collective body in and of itself? 

I’m really glad to hear that so many are touching on the idea of the body and the physicality of the collection. I think going into this type of collection, for me, at least because it deals with such a darker story: it deals with violence [and]a lot of things I don’t think I was necessarily ready for.As I was writing these poems and finding [an] order between them and finding a thread through them one of the things that I found the poems navigating was the body. It was the physicality not only of the human body but the physicality of text on the page. I think for me that was an unconscious thing where I was just trying to maneuver the darker tones and darker stories of the collection with this physicality. I say that only because the refrain of “in the fields” or those fields themselves are really places that I placed in the collection to both give the reader a break, to give breath, but also for myself to give myself a little break but also to add spaces for reflection. I think what that does is that it pulls both the text and the reader onto the page physically where we are forced to reflect or take a pause. And that’s really what I wanted to accomplish at the end as I was creating the collection.

Violence and tenderness seem so interwoven in your poems, as well as brutality and affection. Do you see those concepts as binary, a duality or on a spectrum or something else?

In terms of violence and tenderness and them existing I don’t necessarily see them in binary form. At least, what I’ve been trying to do is create a conversation where they’re not in a binary. I also don’t think they exist in a spectrum either, only because we are still specifically looking for a frame of reference in these conversations. We’re still referring to ourselves as the center. Where do I fit in this binary or spectrum of tenderness and violence – I don’t think those conversations of binary or spectrum are allowing the capacity for this type of existence where tenderness and violence exist simultaneously in an ordered chaotic way. I’ve been trying to come up with a word or a model of some kind that I can map out because I think this is borrowing from my own understanding of Diné language and Dine culture. In Diné language and culture there are no binaries, there is no spectrum, there’s kind of this simultaneous existence that may seem chaotic— because there is no order we automatically assume it is chaotic. But I think there is an order to it, it’s just that English, unfortunately, doesn’t have the capacity to try to explain it. It’s an ongoing project of mine to think about these things not necessarily as binary or spectrum but as simultaneous existence.

Legacy, lineage and inspiration are a theme you’ve touched on in the past – this collection ends with several pages of acknowledgements and thanks. Are there any poets or mentors in particular whose influence you see in these pages?

Definitely, I think the poet that has the most influence is Orlando White. I work now at the [Diné] college and he’s now a colleague but also a Diné poet and a friend of mine. It wasn’t until I read Bone Light, his first book, that I was able to see language in a very pure form. I was able to see the possibilities of language and the history and depth to English that I hadn’t seen before Before that, I was mostly being taught poetry through a more traditional lens, such as the form and those types of things which is totally fine and is necessary to study form and study history, especially American poetic history and how that evolved throughout time. But Orlando’s White’s Bone Light really showed me the possibilities were endless fields of language, fields of the page that are possible and that the poet can create for the reader. Which was lifechanging for me as a poet, especially as a young poet then. The other poet would probably be Sherwin Bitsui, who mentored me since my undergraduate time, he’s been mentoring and focusing on image. The other mentors would be Joan Naviyuk Kane and Santee Frazier, both great readers, great sound masters. They were the best in helping me understand the page and helping me understand sound, so I’m really grateful for them. And I think none of this would be possible without the early writers, especially those publishing from my own tribe. Poets like Lucy Tapahonso, Laura Tohe, Rex Lee Jim. Those early poets really created the scene of what Diné literature could be, and I’m so grateful that they were able to navigate those spaces. And now we sort of have a friendship with all these writers and it’s so great to still be mentored by them.

On the mention of “border-towns”. What does the concept as Gallup as a border-town mean to you and how do you see that through the collection?

Where I grew up in Vanderwagen, NM is considered checkerboard area part of the reservation because it part of the Dodge Act: the breaking up of reservations into square allotments that would be given to different families. Where I grew up was a mixture of all types of land ownership. I lived on the reservation but just 5 minutes, maybe about a half a mile north of me, was State Land or private land, and then 5 min south of where I grew was also state or private land and just further down was the Zuni reservation. So I grew up surrounded by borders but also, there’s Ft. Wingate up my families sheep camp, so there’s all different types of borders there as well. I grew up surrounded by all these different types of borders. In terms of Gallup as a border town, I think it’s this essential space where all these different types of backgrounds began to mix. On one hand we have people coming in from the reservation, coming in from Arizona traveling in from several miles or hours to travel into Gallup to get supplies. Then we have the locals of Gallup and then we have tourists who come though Gallup because it’s on the famous Route 66 and it’s the “Indian Capital of the World.” Then we have all these different kinds of people finding themselves in Gallup. Which is good in some ways, it creates a culture and it creates a conversation of culture as well. But on the bad side it has a tendency for violence because there’s so much tension there. I think as a border-town Gallup is not alone: there’s Farmington, NM just north of it that also has similar themes of racism and violence and a lot of unsheltered Navajo people are there as well as in Gallup. Then we have the larger cities like Flagstaff, and Lake Powell, those types of things where they’re all bordered around a reservation.
I’m not sure exactly how border-towns came about, there’s a variety of reasons, but there’s a lot of speculation, at least on our side, that its vicinity to the reservation is convenient. On one hand they can market their town as: “Come to our town, it’s so close to the reservation” so it can became a tourist destination. I’m pretty sure businesses in all these border-towns are aware that the Navajo nation, the Hopi Pueblo, the Zuni pueblo all have to travel into these spaces to get supplies. They become central spaces of extraction, capitalism, cultural exchange, and violence and racism and those types of things that occur. We were children growing up in those spaces so we can see it playing out in real life. It was a really strange environment to grow up in.

Naming plays such a significant role throughout your work: Gallup and its many monikers, different reservation communities. What does the naming of place mean to you and what significance do you see it playing out throughout your poems?

In terms of naming the places, one of the main reasons why I named Gallup was because I wanted to place the reader in a specific place. The speaker within the collection is from Gallup and of this particular place.Again we’re coming into this idea of simultaneous existence because Gallup on one hand is the Indian Capital of the World and on the other hand it’s known as Drunktown, USA. So it’s interesting to think about how many levels Gallup, as this small town in NM, can be understood — how many lenses you can understand Gallup through. it was more so an attempt to get to its layers by naming it, by giving its nicknames and giving its actual name. In terms of other places that are mentioned in the actual collection, it’s mostly an attempt to give also the poems a reality. I don’t write poems in some ether or some other poetic place I’m writing these poems as I’m driving through Whitecomb, as I’m driving through Fort Defiance or Window Rock, especially now with the poems I’m writing right now, being back home. People here, at least on the reservation, drive everywhere and I wanted to lend a hand to that reality, that existence. To try to cover as many places as possible.

Your images are so visceral and tangible – especially the image of the skull beneath the tire I think is going to stay with me for the rest of my life. Where do those come from and how do you translate them to the page?

That was Sherwin [Bitsui] – Sherwin is the image king. Sherwin is a good guide for image and translating it to the page. One of the things I was trying to focus on in the collection was movement. I come from a place where families drive everywhere. If you actually visit Gallup I don’t think there’s a quiet moment. You hear the train, you hear the cars on the freeway. Or if you’re in a restaurant it’s usually packed because it’s such a small town that a lot of people go through it, so there’s no quiet moments until you get to the fields on the outskirts. That’s when you’re able to finally hear silence. What that does for me is really focuses me on how I can make text move but also how can I make images move The other thing that helped me was focusing on sound and focusing on movement for those images: how do I make them move? So the one you were referring to with the skull beneath the tractor tire first began with the sound, that crunching sound, when I was thinking about tumbleweeds. When you’re driving in Gallup and this big tumbleweed comes across the freeway you have no choice but to run over it and you can hear that large crunching sound. I was thinking about all these things that made that sound. when I was researching for this collection— because I wanted to get an idea of just how many people have been dealing with this type of violence—I was reading a newspaper article about the people who have lost their lives in Gallup and it made this list of all these different people. It gave the name, gave the age, and listed how they died. It was this long list of all these people and a lot of them were essentially asleep and accidentally run over by vehicles— by tractors and by diesel trucks. So that image first was the image of a diesel running over a person but it wasn’t until Sherwin said how can we expand this image, how can we focus on this image so it’s one of movements and of sound when I began to magnify it. It became the skull, then just the tire.

There’s so much of your identity poured into this work: your sexuality, family, and culture. Did writing that come easily to you, that vulnerability? Or was that process more difficult what was that like?

The process was difficult towards the end. In the very beginning when I first began to write this book, it came a lot easier for me because a lot of the poems began earlier on. Some of the images in the poems in the collection are from high school, and it was around high school that I saw myself differently from my brothers or from my cousins or from the other young men in my class. I never understood why. ] That’s where some of those early images in the poems come from. Once I got into college, I began to realize it was because of my sexuality and my own experience with my body, and I was able to come to the realization: that was why I was different. Those poems about coming out or the expression of desire were some of the easiest ones to write because, for me, at the very beginning it was never my intention, I couldn’t even imagine being published in a book or anything like that. It was me thinking out loud through poetry or through language. It wasn’t until I met with Natalie Scenters-Zapico when she was an MFA student as I was getting into the more advanced craft classes that I thought: these few poems could definitely turn into a book. That was when things began to stall a little bit because I wasn’t ready to be that open or that vulnerable to strangers. On top of that, I finally came into the realization of the power of the story of my uncle, the story of my family experience with Gallup and it took me a long time to try and be okay with. It wasn’t until I got to IAIA and the mentors there and the poetry that I studied I was able to see how poets navigate vulnerability and navigate identity through craft. And it was through craft and through language that I was able to come to this open space where I was okay sharing this information. Where I was okay in terms of my approach, from harboring the story of my uncle and listening to the stories of my parents and my aunts and uncles and the stories in these newspaper articles because that space I was able to come was a space of care and space of precision and I knew I could take good care of these stories. And I still try to take as much care of these stories as possible. I feel it necessary because these stories aren’t necessarily mine they belong to other people.

I wanted to briefly ask about the cover and the Avedon image of your uncle, whose death you address in the collection. I know you’ve written and spoken about it in length, but I want to ask you a question from the perspective of reclamation or repatriation. There’s this theme of reclamation throughout your work – whether from headlines or themes of masculinity. What was the process of reclaiming or repatriating that photo like for you and your family? Does that feel like the right term?

I think that’s exactly the mark it was this idea of repatriation or reclamation of the image. Because what Avedon does in the portrait, the way it’s situated, the way Avedon works was specifically in was to erase the source of light and erase the background. Avedon specifically worked in the shadows so the people looking at the portraits wouldn’t know if it was evening or morning or afternoon – it’s all just there. For me, that’s a kind of erasure, that’s an erasure of my uncle’s story and on top of that Avedon labeled it “Drifter” which is just another act of erasure. The way I became okay with using the cover image and became okay with starting to write poetry about that particular image was this idea or reclamation or repatriation, was this idea of placing my uncle back into the context Gallup, back into the context of our family, back into the background of where Diné identity is linked to land. And also this idea of masculinity existing there both in beauty but also in brutality. It just became, like you said, this repatriation of giving my uncle something back. When Milkweed first approached me about using that image I said no, but I talked with my family, and they all sort of agreed that the portrait is already out there, so it would be best on one of his relatives, in this case his nephew which would be me, it would be best to have our name attached back to it in some small way. So that’s when I finally said okay to use the portrait as the cover. But you’re also right, I was very cautious about how I went about, there are more poems about that particular portrait but I only used one of them only because I didn’t want that to weigh anything down and I didn’t want to seem like I was exploiting that portrait or exploiting that story. I wanted it to be this simultaneous existence with everything else.

This is a piece of it. That’s what I was trying to get out of that with its inclusion.

I read that “The Body a Bottle” and the process of writing that poem – fixating on the darkness of the beer bottle – transformed your manuscript. How did that image transform your poems?

The way that particular image transformed the collection was through trying to include the simultaneous existence between brutality and beauty. Before moving back home, before coming to the realization of my uncle, I was just going to write a very airy coming out collection. A collection focused on the body, about queerness, and I was very cautious not to include things that could be labeled as stereotypical native literature or along those lines: focusing on tragedy, focusing on alcoholism, those types of things. It wasn’t until I came to the image of this dark beer bottle that I began to understand all the layers behind it, all the connections that could be made. So that’s how it shifted. I finally just agreed with myself, for the most part, to go ahead and start writing those poems and see what happens. And I think fortunately I was also in the throes of IAIA and in the throes of Sherwin Bitsui’s mentorship, so, as these poems were created they were created with intense scrutiny and precision and craft. I think that’s why to my own critical eye they began to work. As I was able to start seeing these poems produced, I was able to start ordering the manuscript around them, and then suddenly it was finished. It was just a breath of fresh air, almost, and I was done. It’s a collection that I wasn’t intending to write but it’s a collection I think that was necessary.

As stated, there’s a lot of violence and darkness in this book, yet in ends with a Navajo prayer and a commitment for hope and beauty. There’s a tension there, that repetition of there will be beauty, there will be beauty. Why make that choice? Why move towards hope?

The framing of the collection, the focus on beauty, is something that is natural to any Diné person who grew up on the reservation. As I was thinking about the collection, thinking about how to frame it, what should I include as opening words or ending words, I began to realize that in all the hardships that my family experienced or are experiencing there’s always this return to prayer. There’s always this return to ceremony, and there’s always this return to the language of those acts and the language of those acts rely on beauty. A lot of the words that we use in Diné, have some relationship to this concept of beauty and it was interesting to come that realization because, when we go through ceremony, when we come together as a family. that process itself is tremendously difficult. Only because we know what’s in store and what’s in store is having to navigate the heartbreak of the tragedy. But then in the morning when the ceremony is done there’s always a prayer that asks for the restoration of beauty, the restoration of balance. And again, we’re not talking specifically about a western concept of beauty or a western concept of hope, we’re not asking for this happily every after type of experience. It’s more so let’s get back to a place where there is a balance, where there is a beauty that has simultaneous fields of experience. Those are actual words to actual prayers. But I didn’t want to go through the whole prayer I just wanted to have the very first line and the last four lines to frame the collection as a kind of prayer, as some kind of trudging through the tragedy and trying to find aspects of balance and beauty.

You received your MFA from IAIA. And you’ve How do you feel that experience and that degree played into this collection and these poem?

IAIA was a tremendous place. It was such a gift for me as a young poet, sort of learning poetry learning craft there at that space. It is something that I can never trade, it’s such a gift for me. I chose IAIA specifically because it’s a Native centered or Native based institution. It’s rooted in indigenous thought and indigenous life process, so I knew if I attended IAIA I wouldn’t waste time explaining my poetry. I would be able to go there and explore poetry and explore craft, rather than sitting there with people who are not from where I’m from. Who maybe don’t have experience with stories or communities from where I’m from. IAIA was a very conscious choice for me and it was such a great experience because we all understood where everyone came from and we were all eager to learn specifically about craft. We weren’t necessarily worried about publishing or overarching meaning or things like that. It was more so let’s just focus on poetry and how we can produce the best poetry possible.