How It’s Made: Jake Skeets’ Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers
We’re so happy to have had the chance to look under the hood of Jake Skeets’ Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series, from Milkweed Editions. With our How It’s Made series, we endeavor to take away some of that ever-present mystery of how a collection comes to being—in this interview, we learn of Skeets’ title-breakthrough-joy, the dangers of appropriation, and all the great albums that helped usher to book into the world.
What were the most joyful moments of Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers’ journey to publication?
Jake Skeets: I held onto any joy I found while writing the poems because writing this collection was challenging. I remember driving home from my our house in Vanderwagen and the image of bottle-dark eyes just came to my head as I was thinking about the portrait, the color of eyes, and beer bottles. The full title came at that moment: eyes bottle dark with a mouthful of flowers. It was a joyous moment because I spent months grappling with the poem. Of course, the other joy came when I found out about the National Poetry Series win. On the day it was publicly announced, I drove back to the place where the title was conjured and I just stood by the side of the road for a moment. Now, the joy I feel is when my parents and family ask about the book. I love to see how they share things about the book on Facebook. Of course, each moment we mention the cover image and Bensen’s story. We talk about the violence that still occurs. Of course, this may not seem joyful but I define joy differently than its greeting-card definition. Joy back home is always mixed with an observation of the challenges. Joy back home is not just ecstatic-outward joy. Joy, for us, is deep reflective joy. Joy is also the work we put into our relationships and responsibilities. Our joy is a joy called joy and a joy called survival.
What were the toughest moments you faced while getting the collection to the world and what have you taken away from them?
Finances and submission fees are the easier challenges to discuss. I definitely learned about the type of work that goes into selling and marketing the book. Luckily, I had support from IAIA and my mentors, especially Joan Kane and Jon Davis. The harder challenge to discuss is a more personal challenge. I thought long and hard about representation and the discussion of storytelling versus exploitation. I have felt and thought through this issue so much that I have broke down a couple of times. I kept thinking if my collection was appropriate and proper storytelling. I do not want to be seen as relying on “poverty porn” or exploiting the stories of people impacted by the violence in Gallup. I’m sure this is true for other Native writers. These worries pushed me to work so hard on this collection. They pushed me to scrutinize every word, punctuation mark, break, and page turn. I interrogated the way the reader would the manuscript, where they might start or pause, and where they may feel energy was being lost. I pictured my collection as a Diné rug and I imagined readers would look at the rug through a magnifying glass to notice each detail. I also imagined readers wondering how the design fit in its place.
An author never really works alone—without whose support would EBDMF not have made it across the finish line?
I thought about all the types of support I received when I was writing the Acknowledgements page. Of course, I have to start with my parents. They supported me through everything and I would not be where I am without them. My successes belong to them first. Then, of course, my friends kept me sane during this process. I also had to think about all the Diné writers who have come before me, including: Rex Lee Jim, Esther Belin, Laura Tohe, Luci Tapahonso, Irvin Morris, Orlando White, and Sherwin Bitsui. My mentors Sherwin, Santee Frazier, and Joan Kane were such big supporters of my work and the best critical readers. I also wanted to thank the various bus drivers and rail operators in Albuquerque and Phoenix because that was the only time I could find time to write during my MFA. The book was written on public transit and in clubs because I worked full-time at a very energy-draining job. I also thanked the land, our medicines, and prayers that kept me afloat during this time. I returned to ceremony during this process as much as possible.
What did you discover about writing and poetry over the journey of this book?
I discovered the energy that exists within the land. I discovered the way certain places find their ways into our poems through this organic energy. I always tried to experiment my way into narrative and away from narrative. I purposely drove poems in directions away from Gallup, away from masculinity, away from queerness. These spaces still found themselves in the poems through an unconscious part of myself as I was writing the poems and ordering them. I am continuing, now, this journey into identifying this energy or trying to model its influence on poems and poetry writing. Of course, I am not the first poet that discusses this phenomena in poetry. I am still studying Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov. I am also studying Sherwin Bitsui and Orlando White because they also share these interests and insights into energy, field, the page of the poem, and language. Language is the root of poetry. I think American poetry needs to see the work of Diné poets and thinkers because our existence is an act of language and an act of poetry.
What was the favorite piece of media or art you consumed while writing these poems?
I tried to be very diverse in things I consumed. I wanted to understand how other artists, musicians, and filmmakers formed narratives. I mostly listened to several dozen albums from beginning to end (during those transit rides) to try to understand how things in the world are pieced together. The album that stood out to the most during development was 22, A Million by Bon Iver. I studied everything I could about the album and I was very interested in the stories behind the symbols and signs of the cover art. The songs themselves helped me understand noise and sound. I am certain that the songs informed the way I ordered the poems in terms of sound, pause, and noise. So, I should also thank Justin Vernon and everyone else behind Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. I fantasize about working with Justin on a collaborative piece that is focused on language, image, music, and poetry. The other albums I listened during development and order: Melodrama by Lorde, Blonde by Frank Ocean, Licensed to Ill by Beastie Boys, Communion by Years & Years, Danzig by Danzig, Yazzie Girl by Sharon Burch, and Walk Under Ladders by Joan Armatrading.
What’s your one sentence piece of advice for poets currently putting a collection together?
I’ll echo two pieces of advices given to me: poetry means listening (Joy Harjo) and carry your manuscript everywhere with you (Sherwin Bitsui).
Jake Skeets is Black Streak Wood, born for Water’s Edge. He is Diné from Vanderwagen, New Mexico. He holds an MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Skeets is a winner of the 2018 Discovery/Boston ReviewPoetry Contest and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Skeets edits an online publication called Cloudthroat and organizes a poetry salon and reading series called Pollentongue, based in the Southwest. He is a member of Saad Bee Hózhǫ́: A Diné Writers’ Collective and currently teaches at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona.