Walking the Line Between Today and Tomorrow: An Interview with Jake Syersak

I had the pleasure of interviewing poet, translator, and editor Jake Syersak about his debut poetry collection, Yield Architecture (Burnside Review Press, 2018). The collection is a series of beautiful contradictions and coalescence. Jake’s book displaces language one might think they’re familiar with. He makes words into experiences with lines like, “dove. the of I’m folding into a wing of” on page 13, and then the line “to utter absence is to the, a window: a clear space for speech” on page 17, pairing words one never might never consider pairing together. This work will have you invested in the minutia of his poem, encouraging you to diligently make an effort to translate and interpret the words right in front of you. It is available for purchase at Burnside Review’s website

Sam Hui: From reading other interviews and researching your other work, I know that you’ve translated pieces from French. I notice that French pops up every now and again in the chapbook. Considering both the foreignness of your idiosyncratic language as well as the actual foreignness of your use of French, how do you think that your work in translating poetry impacts your original, untranslated pieces? How does your translation work inform your craft decisions?

Jake Syersak: I love the possibilities for foreignness in a poem, whether through its syntax, rhythm, lexicon, content, imagery, metaphorical resonance, etc. I’m just as interested in how a poem is asking me to come closer as I am in how it’s telling me to get lost. Poems that don’t even try to walk the line between the two honestly don’t interest me that much. Translation lives somewhere along that line. In my own poetry, as well as my translations, I’m always weighing how much I can afford to “foreignize” what the reader is experiencing and how much I can “domesticate” what the reader is experiencing (to borrow Venuti’s terms). In both instances, I believe the greatest payoff is in the amount of foreignness you can make the reader swallow before they leave. That’s my large, abstract answer.

My more practical answer: Both Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine and Hawad–the two poets I’m currently working to translate–write in highly stylized poetic modes of their own creation. The former writes in an iconoclastic, genre-bending, syntactically-sharp, and hyper-imagistic style he refers to, in one of his works, as a “guerrilla linguistics.” The latter writes in a style he’s coined “furigraphy” (a mash-up of fury and calligraphy), involving an improvisatory, repetitive, and trance-like aesthetic designed to create a sort of trance-like “surnomadism” (a nod to both his Surrealism and his nomadic, Tuareg heritage). Both these styles have entered my work in a lot of different ways. The syntactical/imagistic similarities are somewhat obvious, but there’s other stuff, too. For example, Khaïr-Eddine often likes to switch abruptly from verse to prose, and from the autobiographical to the fictive. And like Hawad, I find myself incorporating a lot more repetitive gestures–looking to induce those trance-like states. 

SH: The language of your book often conflates nature with meditations on the words that are used to describe said nature, For example,  “I think it’s the / impress – overhead – of sky, this sky, this the-less sky” (26). In what ways do you see the things that come as they are, and the things that are created (like language), working with one another?

JS: When I was writing Yield Architecture, I was really interested in habitation as a concept, in the broadest possible sense. In other words, I was trying to work with big abstract questions like “how much of art can we inhabit and control versus how much of art inhabits and controls us?” And likewise, “how much of language can we inhabit or control versus how much of language inhabits and controls us?” I didn’t really know it at the time–or at least didn’t explicitly think it in so many terms–but I was trying to see how much I could blur the traditional ontological binaries of subject and object, the inner and the outer, the self and the environment. 

Since writing Yield Architecture, and working more consciously through ontological and ecological themes, I’ve come to see how ontologically fuzzy all entities/objects are. There is always a discrepancy between the appearance of the thing and the thing in and of itself (how it appears to us and what it actually is). This is as true of manmade objects as it is “natural” objects, as well as “nature” itself. “Nature” is little more than an abstract label we’ve designated for anything we’ve chosen to imagine doesn’t involve human influence (this is a pretty fundamentally flawed way of thinking, especially when one considers the full ramifications of the Anthropocene). Just think–where does a city end and nature begin. Is it when you leave the city? Is it when you go to a park within the city limits? When you enter your backyard? A “sustainable” building? A botanical gardens?  And yet, we know what someone is talking about when they say “nature.” So it is and it isn’t, simultaneously. In a way, “nature” lives on because of the language ascribed to it. It gives it a reality, at least partially. There are some primordial residues of this kind of thought in Yield Architecture, like the moment you cited. Language is just one thing, among many, that can dress up and even codify abstraction. Luckily, it can also strip away and/or reveal said abstraction.

SH: I find I always have to remind myself why I write poetry, or why it is important to study and discuss poetry, especially during our current political (yet personal) climate. How important, do you think, is the discussion of poetry to our own poetry when there are people out there who don’t even have the same luxury of thinking about poetry, let alone discussing or writing it?

JS: It’s never a bad idea to keep reassessing something like that, especially in an ever-changing landscape of writers and aims. To relate it back to my previous responses, I think that poetry does at least two major things extremely well: 1) it allows us a space in which we can learn how to take comfort in what once appeared maybe uneasy or foreign to us and 2) it affords us a space in which we can sort abstraction from reality (as temporary or ephemeral as that sorting may be). Poetry offers us the prospect of coexistence, inside and out, with ulterior inner realities as well as ulterior external realities.

The means by which we explore coexistence are accelerated, I think, by poetry but are no means exclusive to it. There are any number of other spaces where people can cultivate coexistence, even in the everyday. Of course, I acknowledge that poetry–and the discussion of poetry–is a pretty privileged space, and no one has access to the same resources, but I don’t see much discrepancy between performing poetry and thinking poetically. 

Likewise, I don’t see any reason why thinking poetically and thinking politically need be juxtaposed. One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was stumbling upon William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a teenager. Without a doubt, nothing–no political tract or theory–influenced my political development more. And The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is by no means an explicitly “political” work, at least not in the way that some people today often nowadays tend to define “poems” against “political poems.” What Blake’s work showed me, which was so important at the time (as an angsty punk teenager), was  that thinking in terms of binaries tells us very little about the world around us; that is, some realities always reside, to some degree, in other realities, even if they appear–superficially–radically divorced from one another. If we want to affect any political influence whatsoever, it’s imperative that we learn to think about the blurriness between binaries. Poetry helps us do that. Being able to recognize how and why things are never what they seem is the best political weapon you could hope for. It strips the trajectory from someone’s ideological sharpshooting. Think of all the ghouls in Washington right now trying to convince us right now that there’s such a thing as an inherent difference between an illegal and a human being. Poetry inherently says no. 

SH: I am interested in your attempt to find coalescence in response to Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire (19). (The Course of Empire is a series of five paintings that follows the creation of a  civilization from its natural beginnings to its inevitable destruction.) It seems that this series is an attempt to portray the strength of nature in relation to architecture and other creations by humankind. However, your work does not possess the dichotomy between nature and the human-made. How do you reconcile the difference between Cole’s depiction of decaying human civilization and your book’s attempt to blur the line between natural and human-made?

JS: I think the mutual quality of entropy blurs the line for me. If decay is common to both the human and the nonhuman, then I think a reconciliation–or a coalescence, as it were–already comes pre-uploaded into the system. While Cole’s sequence can be read as a wholly Romantic gesture (as in, some allegory for the ultimate triumph of Nature), I’d argue that there’s an equal tone of eeriness, or a mutual transmission of metaphors to do with decay, in both the beginning and the end of his sequence. In the former, it’s mankind that decays Nature; in the latter, it’s Nature that decays mankind. The Romanticists remain fascinating to me for their ability to stumble upon snapshots of these weird intertwinings. I think in Yield Architecture I was searching for comparable snapshots of weird intertwinings between reality and abstraction. 

As luck would have it, I was able to visit Thomas Cole’s residence/studio just a few weeks ago, and what was once his idyllic retreat in the Catskill Mountains is now virtually surrounded by urban sprawl, with the signature mountainscape in his paintings still visible in the background from his front porch, cars whizzing by on the street below. I wonder how his art would react to something like that.

SH: Why did you decide to title this book Yield Architecture? I think it is rather brilliant because of the ambiguity of “yielding.” Yielding can be both active and passive, bountiful or depleting; it can  be an active production of nature, or a passive surrender. Why did you decide to make this the central focus of your book?

JS: I’m glad you like it. You’ve maybe put it better than I could hope. I definitely wanted something that expressed the flexibility expressed therein–from concrete to abstract imagery, from taut to elongated syntax, from understanding to disorientation, etc. To be honest, I didn’t give it a lot of thought. A friend Miguel Angel Ramirez, another poet, had titled a small collection of his Yield, Flowers. Maybe initially as a joke, because of some of the commonalities between our aesthetics, I started referring to my manuscript under the working title of Yield Architecture. And it just stuck. The more the book’s core theme began revolving around the idea of invisible structures, the more serious I got about giving it that permanent title. 

In retrospect, one of the things I was interested in investigating while writing the book is what, exactly, that feeling is when you’re really struck by some sort of moving artistry–a visualization, a soundbite of music, line of poetry, or what have you. What is it, how do you get there, how long can you stay, how far are you really from it, can you move with it–those are the questions I wanted the poems to circulate. It’s a feeling that always seems ephemeral, but I think most people would agree that it leaves a permanent impression, too. One that rears its head every once in a while, even when the original stimuli is absent. What is it? Lots of terms, historically, have orbited it: catharsis, transcendence, sublimity, duende, ecstasy, and so on and so forth. To me it seems to be a moment in which we are under the illusion of being liminally suspended between subject and object, existing as a type of “yield architecture.”

SH: This book almost feels like a conveyance of other modes of art through a medium that is familiar to you. You discuss architecture and paintings solely through language. You say, “Or does what’s the most beloved remain unflinching, / like the soft punctuation of I’m thinking built into a painting? (20)” and “I’m using my / ‘architecture-in-turmoil’ voice / because that’s what I like I like the body in dialogue” (22). What are you trying to do for (or to) other mediums  through poetry?

JS: I’m not sure I’m trying to do anything for or to other mediums of art. But I do think it comes back to that desire to exist as “yield architecture.” I’m always trying to understand what kind of language poetry has in common with the languages of other artistic mediums. And of course I’m always interested in the overlap. In fact, I find it very difficult to create or even think about anything without putting it in dialogue with other arts. 

For example, early in the book there’s a poem about my first experience seeing Claude Monet’s Impression, soleil levant for the first time and the profound effect it had on me. I still regard it as one of my most profound personal experiences. That was the first time–or at least the earliest and most intense time I can remember–that I felt “yield architecture,” that I felt transformed into something somewhere between utter absence and some absence uttering. Nearly 15 years later, I’m still not sure exactly what it was. I guess the weird part is that it didn’t turn me into a painter. It turned me into a poet. Someone else will have to draw conclusions about that. 

SH: Reflecting on your work, I am reminded of the Emerson quote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict [sic] everything you said today” (Self Reliance). 

JS: Wow–what a great quote! Anything I say in response to it is bound to pale in comparison. In Yield Architecture, I was definitely trying to throw myself a bunch of monkey wrenches over and over again, to see where this or that seemingly contradictory thought might lead me, or this new form would lead this or that thought. I wanted to watch things fall apart, cohere, fall apart, cohere, in lyric time, to record the motion of thought as it constructed a habitat for itself, and then let it collapse as needed–as far as the page might capture something like that. In that sense, hard words were necessary at times, but it was just as necessary to dissolve those into something softer, or present the means to.

Of course, it’s impossible to skirt all consistencies. If there’s a central consistency in Yield Architecture, it’s probably the epistolary quality of it all. That is, even if the speaker is often inconsistent, they’re at least consistent in their desire to address themselves lyrically to someone or something (architecture, Thomas Cole, other artists, etc.). One of the more pleasurable contradictions I noticed, while writing the poems, was that the more fragmented (or inconsistent) the speaker became, the more that lyric fervor intensified, which contributed to the simultaneous construction/deconstruction motif.

SH: What are you entering into today believing that you would have believed differently yesterday? 

JS: If I’m being completely honest, right now I’m just kinda waiting around for the next seismic shift in my psyche to find me. I recently went through a long period in which I hardly wrote anything for something like half a year. And every time I tried to write, it would just feel strenuous, like I was pushing a boulder up a hill. I used to get really scared whenever that happened and just push harder and harder and harder until something gave way. I thought that if I didn’t write something every week, I’d lose the muscle or magic for it. Now I’m learning that maybe sometimes you have to let the fields fall fallow for a little bit. And maybe it’s for the better in the long run.

One of my old teachers, Jane Miller, used to say, “it’s when you’re out living life, not thinking about writing, that you’re actually writing; when you’re at your keyboard, all you’re doing is recording.” I resisted that idea for a long time. But like most of her best advice (which I, stupidly, ignored throughout my more formative years) it’s turned out to be 100% correct. So I’m experimenting with that: looking at writing as something that moves in and around life rather than something that moves life, trying not to panic in front of the blank page, knowing when enough is enough, and so on. I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life, so maybe I should go ahead and take my time.

So maybe yesterday I would have believed that poetry was an emergency. And today I want to believe it can simply merge with life. 

SH: What projects are you currently working on or planning for the future?

JS: I’ve probably made it sound like I haven’t been up to all that much, but my second book of poetry Mantic Compost, is forthcoming in 2021 from Trembling Pillow Press. It’s my attempt at deploying a Surrealist eco-poetics that responds to the ecological crises induced by the Anthropocene. Coast|NoCoast just published a chapbook-length excerpt of the book, called Vortex(t).

I’ve also got 3 books of translations either out recently or on their way, all by Mohammed Khair-Eddine: his 1967 hybrid novel Agadir (co-translated with Pierre Joris), his 1975 poetry collection Proximal Morocco–, and his poetry collection, Resurrection of Wild Flowers, originally published in 1981. 

Agadir recounts the author’s experience of the devastating 1960 Agadir Earthquake. The novel’s narrator, a civil servant, is sent to the city to try and salvage what’s left and provide aid for the surviving populace. The trauma of the event sends him into hallucinatory spirals in which he transforms both his ancestry and the dynamics of the country’s oppressive regime into surreal theatrical dramas in order to make sense of the situation and his role in things. It’s a really fascinating text: alternating between fiction, autobiography, reportage, manifestos, playwriting. 

Proximal Morocco– is a collection of his poems written between 1964 and 1974, the years just before and during his political exile from Morocco. It’s just as fascinating–heart-rending in its depiction of his love/hate relationship with his native land as he struggles with the feelings of the distance between him and his homeland, and inspiring in the unrelenting fierceness and optimism he holds for the communal, revolutionary potential of artistic creation. 

Resurrection of Wild Flowers is the first poetry collection that he published upon his return to Morocco. I hope that all works arriving in English around the same time and from all different periods of his writing career–beginning, middle, and end–will give his new Anglophone audience a good impression of his range and development as a writer. 

Sam Hui graduated from NAU with a BA in English and certificates in Creative Writing and Literature. Her poetry has been published in Maudlin House Magazine and the Tunnels. She is a coordinator for Poetry on Roosevelt Row, a youth leader for Arizona Masters of Poetry, and a reviewer for Independent Book Review. She has been working on bringing the First Friday favorite back to Arizonans in the safest way possible. She works for a non-profit that gets underrepresented youth to college. She is currently social distancing with a pen, paper, and her beautiful baby Finn Finn.

Jake Syersak is a poet, translator, and editor. He is author of the poetry collections Mantic Compost (Trembling Pillow Press, forthcoming 2021), Vortex(t) (COAST|noCOAST, 2020), and Yield Architecture (Burnside Review Press, 2018). He is also the translator of the poetry collection Proximal Morocco— (World Poetry Books, forthcoming 2021) and co-translator, with Pierre Joris, of the hybrid novel Agadir (Diálogos Press, 2020), both by Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine. He co-edits the micro-press Radioactive Cloud.