For Poet Jake Young, it is the pita drizzled with olive oil and za’atar in a Druz Village, clusters of Pinot grapes falling off the vine in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the sweetness of diseased fruit that reveals culture and its inherent connection to the land, and to one another. Between teaching, writing, working on a PhD degree, and serving tables on the weekends, soon-to-be Dr. Young found the time to connect with SNR contributor Kathryn deLancellotti to talk about his new book American Oak; the land that formed him, and his thoughts on craft and creativity.
Kathryn deLancellotti: Jake, your book American Oak, published by Main Street Rag, just came out. Congratulations! The first poem of the book “Vino Hermoso” begins “so much goes into a beautiful wine.” Can you talk about what, in your opinion, goes into a beautiful poem, and why?
Jake Young: Thank you Kathryn; it’s such a pleasure to talk with you. Like wine, there’s a lot that goes into a poem that we can recognize with our senses—control of rhythm, imagery, syntax, lexicon, metaphors—but there’s also so much that we as readers are unaware of, and often even as writers we may be unaware—this is largely the realm of influence and the unconscious. Who are those artists who have come before without which this new piece could never have been written? What had to be dreamed beforehand for this image or that metaphor to be imagined? Perhaps the most important thing that goes into a poem (and wine) that often remains hidden from view is time. It’s very rare for a poem to come to me fully formed. The earliest poem in my book was written nearly a decade ago, and I continued to revise it off and on throughout that time. As to why, I’m not sure I have an answer. That’s one of the mysteries surrounding art that I find so intriguing—that we don’t really know why people feel the need to create. What’s the evolutionary purpose of writing a poem? Or of painting? What’s clear to me is that we have a need to do so (and Paleolithic cave art reveals that we have had this need for a long time); we have an urge to be creative and artistic. So if you pressed me why I think poetry demands what it does of us I would have to say that because without putting what is required into a beautiful poem you may still produce a poem, but it won’t necessarily be beautiful.
KD: In the book you write about working in the cellar with Carlos, an El Salvadorian man, and how for the first time in your life you started to think in Spanish. You go on to say “I know this is not my doing. /Like wine, I’ve absorbed/what’s around me.” Can you share a little about your upbringing?
JY: I grew up surrounded by books, and reading and writing have always been an integral part of my life. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time in my father’s studio while he printed books or broadsides on his hand press. I often sat on the floor and made my own books out of the piles of cutoffs strewn around the place. When I was three, my father published a limited edition of one of my books. He turned my drawings into engravings, printed them on handmade paper, and bound them in cloth over boards. Two years later, Chronicle Books put out a facsimile trade edition—15,000 hardback copies. My father still shakes his head sometimes, and says that I got a better book deal when I was in kindergarten than he’ll ever get.
KD: How did your father, who is also a poet and a teacher, and who read Emerson aloud to you as a boy, influence your academic and artistic pursuits?
JY: While I don’t actually remember my dad reciting Emerson when I was young, I have fond memories of him and my mom reading to me in the evening before bed, and my dad has always recited lines from poems and from songs whenever something reminds him of one. Both of my parents are strong advocates of education, and have always encouraged my interest in literature.
KD: How did growing up in the mountains across the road from a vineyard helped to inspire American Oak?
JY: In college I studied English literature, and worked part time in the dining hall to help pay my tuition. I loved working with the cooks in the kitchen, and when I graduated I decided I would try to find a job in a similar environment for the summer before I began my MFA at North Carolina State University. I applied to many restaurants, bars, and wineries in Santa Cruz, California, including the tasting room that’s across the street from where I grew up. I was lucky enough to get hired on there to work that summer, and the next, and after I graduated Ryan Beauregard invited me to help him work the crush. I ended up working there for three more years before deciding to go back to school for my PhD.
Most of the poems in American Oak I wrote during those years, though the idea for the book was suggested to me in the last year of my MFA by my friend and mentor Wilton Barnhardt. Wilton is an amazing fiction writer (and fellow wine aficionado), and after looking through some of my poems he pulled out two that I had written about wine, including an early version of “Wine is for Drinking” (a poem about a woman who works in a tasting room, as well as about desire and transformation), and Wilton told me that I should write a book of wine poems. I took his suggestion to heart, and my time working at a winery gave me plenty of material to write about, as well as time to learn about wine and develop a passion for it.
KD: In a poetry workshop I took with your father, Gary Young, he told me that the job of the poet is to take care of goodness and truth, and beauty will take care of herself. You write mostly in a narrative style with straightforward, inclusive language, yet you’re able to write about multiple things at once thus creating poems layered with meaning. Are you conscious of the way you use metaphor, or does it creates itself so long as the poet tells the truth about the world they’ve absorbed?
JY: I work very hard to not think about how I use metaphor in my early drafts. There is meaning in imagery. We are symbolic creatures, meaning-making animals, capable of generating significance and value from the world around us. I have a tendency to rely too heavily on philosophical musings in my writing sometimes, which is one of the worst ways to try and ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’—not only is it often uninteresting language, but it’s also usually difficult and pretentious, so not even good telling. Once I have worked on a draft of a poem long enough, and it has gone through sufficient revisions to resemble a poem and not just notes for a poem, then I begin to pay more attention to individual elements of craft such as the metaphor(s) within the poem. I’ll ask myself questions such as does the word choice contribute to the tone and meaning of the poem? Is there a central metaphor, and if so how is it structured? Are all the parts of metaphor constructed as to lead the reader to take, as Robert Bly has called it, “a leap”? That said, even conscious construction of a metaphor will often miss what the unconscious is aware of—as long as we make a conscious effort to tell the truth, beauty will come along for the ride.
KD: There’s a meditative, Zen-like quality to your work. It explores the natural world with wonder and praise for its beauty as well as its rot. Do you incorporate a spiritual practice other than writing that takes you to these transcendent places, or would you say it is more innate within you, something you capture with your art?
JY: There is beauty in rot because decay is necessary for growth. We all carry our deaths with us from birth. In this sense beauty is innate within all of us, and any recognition of this entails that transcendence is as well. While I was raised Jewish, I don’t consider myself religious, though I do believe that any sense of the spiritual requires that we pay attention, something that I find has become increasingly difficult in a world so full of information and commotion; but if we are able to slow ourselves, to take the time to think, to reflect, to ask questions about ourselves and the world around us, we can reach a certain kind of transcendence or spirituality. I often find myself in such a state of mind out in nature, or driving, or sitting out on my porch late at night, and these are the moments when I find I take time to pay close attention to the world and to let myself be inspired to write.
KD: Why is food and wine and its connections to culture and to the land important to talk about in today’s climate both politically and environmentally?
JY: Food is a human universal—it connects all times and places. Winemaking is one of the oldest known crafts (along with poetry), and there’s a growing body of anthropological evidence that wine and beer, along with growing grains for bread, played a central role in the formation of settled societies. Environmentally, food and wine are literal connections to the land; and looking at where we grow our food, and how, necessarily demands that we look at our environment. This is increasingly important in the age of the Anthropocene; humans have left scars on the earth that can be read at a geological level, and global climate change is one of the greatest threats to us a species we have ever faced. Politically, food and wine are important because they reveal structures of power and distributions of wealth, which often go hand in hand. This is true on a state-wide or national scale, such as the case of the socioeconomic distribution of food deserts in the U.S., as much as it is on an international scale, revealed by such problems as who decides which grains African nations should grow, how much acreage of rainforest in Brazil should be cut down for beef production, or the use and regulation of fertilizers, pesticides, and GMOs. While there are many environment and political issues that need our attention, it’s my belief that that if we want to fix most of the problems in the world, our food system is not a bad place to start because it is where so many other issues intersect.
KD: What made you decide to pursue a PHD in Creative Writing? Did you feel limited as an artist and/or professional with an MFA degree?
JY: I decided to pursue a PhD for a couple of reasons, the main reason being that I missed the culture of my MFA program. I loved staying up late discussing literature with my friends, or reading poems to each other in the afternoons, and while my friends in the wine industry were always very supportive of my work, poetry was always my passion and not theirs. The other main factor was that after working in the wine industry for a while I realized the physical toll it takes on a body, and the few options for health care that are available for people in the industry. I suffer from melorheostosis, a rare bone disease that affects about half the bones in my right leg below my knee, where the bones have continued to grow beyond the point they’re supposed to and have taken on a calcified appearance that medical textbooks describe as looking like melted candle wax. I began to think more about my long-term plans with respect to my career and my health, and decided that the academy was the right decision. I don’t regret pursuing a PhD at all, but I knew I didn’t want to leave the food and beverage industry, so when I moved out to Columbia, Missouri I did a bit of research and found the restaurant that I felt had the best wine list, and was lucky enough to get hired on at The Wine Cellar and Bistro. I’ve been working there for over two-and-a-half-years now, and I’m so glad to have been able to find a way to continue to balance my passion for food and wine with my passion for literature.
KD: Can you share with us a few authors you return to the most? How have they influenced you not only as a poet but as a human being?
JY: The poet who has influenced me the most is obviously my father. When I think of other poets who have been central to my own formation as a writer, as well as who have impacted my character, the ancient Chinese poets Li Po, Tu Fu, and Su Shi come to mind—while wine was a common subject of ancient Chinese poetry, and poetry drinking games were frequently played, no one wrote more often or more beautifully about drinking than Li Po. Pablo Neruda has many wonderful poems, particularly his odes, about food and wine, and is a master of description and metaphor. Antonio Machado, another Spanish language poet, has become an increasingly important influence on my work, and his proverbs continue to remind me of the traditions of which all poets enjoy and extend. As a writer from California, I constantly return to Philip Levine, Larry Levis, and Robert Hass, all of whom remind me to be attentive to my surroundings, wherever I am. And of course my mentor Dorianne Laux, whom I had the great fortune to study with during my MFA—she and her husband Joe Millar are amazing poets and people, and they (and their work) always encourage and challenge me to be the best version of myself.
KD: What’s next? Do you have another book or project you’re currently working on? Where’s the muse taking you?
JY: Right now I’m working on a currently unnamed collection for my dissertation. Many of the poems open with epigraphs, and the pieces largely focuses on notions of influence, history, time, and mortality. Change is perhaps the central theme of the collection, though I suppose that could be said of most poetry collections. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus mused, “The only thing that endures is change.”
Jake Young received his MFA from North Carolina State University, and currently attends the PhD program in creative writing at the University of Missouri–Columbia. His first collection of poems is American Oak (Main Street Rag, 2018). He has published in numerous journals, and his most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Miramar, Askew, Cloudbank, and The Hudson Review. In 2014, Jake attended the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. He also serves as the poetry editor for the Chicago Quarterly Review.