On December 18, 2012, the poet and author Jake Adam York ’94 left this world at the age of 40 just as he entered the full extent of his talent.
Celebrating the joys and tragedies of life in equal measure, from a love of barbecue to eulogizing martyrs of the Civil Rights era, York fearlessly explored his southern heritage as something to be cherished, but also, to be reckoned with.
A man remembered for unflinching intellect, incredible generosity and a heart for justice, what follows here is a brief account of York’s life, told by the friends and family who knew him best. By the very nature of York’s life and career, this narrative remains incomplete. There are too many wonderful memories to fit this space.
I hope, however, that this might do justice as an introduction to a man who seemed to see the bigger picture earlier and clearer than most.
York was born August 10, 1972, the oldest of two sons born to Linda ’72 and David York ’71. Growing up close to his grandparents in Glencoe, Ala., York was raised on kitchen table-side stories of family lore and folk tales. A fifth-generation Alabamian, the stories York heard as a boy would matriculate into his work as an adult. The story of an ancestor’s death at a steel factory became “Descendant” in his first book of poetry, 2005’s “Murder Ballads.”
She flips the skillet
So I’ll read the stamp
Then turns, explaining
Year my great-grandpa fell
Then feeds the skillet to the oven
“My grandmother, Lurleen, is one of the best storytellers you’ll ever meet in your life,” said Joe York ’99. “Listening to Jake read his poems, you can hear my grandmother in there; you can almost hear the dishes clinking.”
Five years younger than Jake, the two shared a bedroom growing up. Joe recalls Jake’s half was adorned with posters of LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee. A tall, skinny white kid who loved hip hop was an anomaly in Glencoe, but Jake’s love of rap’s verbal rhythm and technique was sincere.
The son and grandson of Auburn graduates, as well as the nephew of Auburn football player Hal York, there was no doubt where York would attend. Enrolled in the Honors College, he initially planned to study architecture, but abandoned those plans after his first year. His closest friends, Mark Rollins, Chris Campagna, Bob Cloud and David Dyas, recognized York’s humor where others saw aloofness.
“He had a reputation for being really serious and having encyclopedic knowledge and later being very demanding of his students, but we also had fun together,” said Mark Rollins ’94, currently Dean of Arts & Humanities at Young-Harris College. “He wasn’t just a robot.”
York exercised his high standards as the literary editor of The Auburn Circle from 1993 to 1994, occasionally even rejecting his friend’s submissions, but always providing constructive criticism.
“I remember being in class with him, he would talk and it’d feel like ‘wow, never thought of that before,’ but he wasn’t arrogant about it,” said Shelley Wunder-Smith ’96.
His senior year, York earned the President’s Award for the College of Liberal Arts, given to the top student in the honors liberal arts’ college. “I think his reputation preceded him because he was such an incredible writer, even in college,” said Anna Yoo, MD ’94. “He cherished the moments with his thesaurus and dictionary and just enjoyed putting the words together. I hadn’t seen anyone enjoy their craft like that.”
While earning his master’s and doctorate at Cornell, York’s mother warned him to lose his southern accent before it brought him grief. Isolated from his native culture, defending his heritage from Yankees, York’s love for all things southern grew exponentially. But he was still conscious of the South’s negative connotations around the country, wondering what it meant to be from Alabama if this is all people knew of it. As he explained in a description of “Murder Ballads” on his personal website, “I have undertaken, in these poems, to reckon this history, to answer it, and to answer for it.”
When he returned from Cornell, York’s family was astounded to discover he’d only gotten more southern since he left.
“That’s when you started seeing Jake in overalls,” said York. “Like, when the hell did Jake get overalls? Jake’s cooking barbecue? Jake doesn’t cook barbecue. Then you realize … now he does.”
Of all the southern observances York picked up, barbecue in particular became an almost sanctimonious ritual, a vivid memory for all that knew him bordering on obsession. Whether it was teaching a colleague to build a smoker, or a pilgrimage to Birmingham’s Dreamland BBQ (the subject of “To the Unconverted”), barbecue was as much about food as it was community.
When Joe learned to cook whole hogs while a documentarian for the Southern Foodways Alliance, their shared passion reached its zenith. Residing at the ‘John Grisham house’ as Ole Miss’ Summer poet-in-residence in 2010, the York boys dug a barbecue pit in the backyard and smoked-up one of Oxford’s most upscale neighborhoods.
“I ran into someone the other day that was like ‘I’ll never forget when y’all cooked that damn pig in the middle of the neighborhood’,” said York.
Barbecue wasn’t the only southernism to emerge in his work. Pressed on his views of segregation, racism and the atrocities committed during the Civil Rights Era, York searched for an answer. He found inspiration in the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, a timeline of the victims of racial violence between 1952 and 1968.
The poems that would form his debut poetry collection, the 2005 Elixir Press Award-winner “Murder Ballads,” were based in York’s research—court documents, murder details, even popular music from the time—contrasted with York’s emotional observations and reflections gained from traveling to the site of the murders themselves.
Always fearful of appearing to exploit or profit from his “martyr poems,” York grappled with writing about death without simply using it as a subject for art, an obstacle he called ‘the elegists problem’—“How to treat death in a way that presents it honestly and with proper respect, while at the same time moving toward an understanding and a statement of what that death means, of why we should remember it, of how we should feel that death,” he wrote on his website.
Before taking a professorship at CU Denver, York spent a year in Auburn as an adjunct instructor, developing close friendships with fellow adjunct Dan Albergotti and future national poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. After years of sharing work with each other, Albergotti was stunned at the “pure empathy” York was able to achieve in “Murder Ballads” and later in his second book, 2008’s “A Murmuration of Starlings.”
“For me, poetry is all about empathy and trying to understand humanity on some deeper level,” said Albergotti, English professor at Coastal Carolina University. “His connection to these people whose lives he’s trying to memorialize and elegize —he totally disappears into the work on the page.”
In 2005, York was part of an experimental lecture series titled “Mixed Taste” at the now-closed Laboratory of Arts and Ideas in Colorado when he met the photographer Sarah Skeen. Recently divorced from his first wife, the two got to know each other over pizza following the lectures. One night, as York walked Skeen back to her car, he was struck by the Radiohead sticker adorning her bumper. The two were married Feb. 29, 2008—a leap year.
“Radiohead was his favorite band,” said Skeen. “For our honeymoon, we went to see Radiohead for two nights at the Hollywood Bowl—that’s what we wanted to do.”
“Music was so important to him, but it’s such a painful process to get copyright permissions that in the next two books he was like ‘nope, not doing that’,” said Skeen. “I’ll never forget “Blueberry Hill,” that song … to get just a couple of lines from that was a problem.”
A tenured professor at CU Denver at 32, York was both feared and respected as a professor among his students. He often invited authors and poets to read their work in his classes, sometimes bringing dissimilar camps together for the first time. He created Copper Nickel, a literary journal to provide students with publishing experience while still elevating the authors he thought deserved attention.
“Very quickly, he grew it into a national journal, which is astonishing,” said friend and current Copper Nickel editor Wayne Miller. “It takes a kind of dogged personality with a vision to do that, and Jake was very much that kind of person.”
York’s work earned the respect, and eventually the business, of his publisher Jon Tribble of Southern Ill. Univ. Press, at an Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference. “What stood out to me was how he integrated history so well into poems that didn’t feel like you were reading a historical text book, but reading something very urgent and meaningful in the moment,” said Tribble.
Early into their relationship, Skeen began accompanying York on his martyr-research trips, observing his intense research methods as well as his efforts to humanize the events. One method he tried was incorporating lyrics from popular songs of the day, but acquiring the copyrights permissions ended that endeavor.
When Tribble was shown the manuscript for the 2010 “Persons Unknown,” he all but demanded that Southern Illinois publish the book, the only time he’s ever done that. Incorporating more of himself into his ‘martyr-poem’ aesthetic, works like “Darkly” connect the past and present more clearly than ever:
I can walk their streets,
though no one walks here anymore,
until I catch that curve
in a window or a windshield
that wrecks my face
so for a moment
I can mistake myself
for the redneck at the end of a joke.
“He is on a street in Montgomery, looks into the shop windows and sees the people who did some of the horrible things in his reflection, and that is chilling,” said Tribble.
York’s sense of justice was not limited to the past, either. When author Brad Vice was accused of plagiarism in his short story “Tuscaloosa Knights,” in his first book “The Bear Bryant Funeral Train” and ravaged by the literary world, York published a defense of Vice with his storySouth co-editor Jason Sanford without ever having met him.
“In a very real way, I think I may owe [York] my life,” said Vice, currently an English professor at the University of West Bohemia. “I was in such a dark place. I could have hurt myself. But Jake was the one voice to say you don’t deserve this at all.”
In addition to linking “Tuscaloosa Nights” side-by-side with Vice’s “Tuscaloosa Knights” on storySouth’s website, York argued that comparing 1920’s Alabama to the modern one invites readers to consider “inheritance not as something that is past and locked away, but as something that is living and extensible.” When Vice’s book was republished in 2007—the plagiarism charges dropped—York contributed a new introduction for it.
“It was a risk, standing up for other people, but that’s really who Jake was,” said Skeen. “He never backed down.”
The night he died, York was hard at work—grading students from his 10-month residency at Emory, writing recommendation letters, laying out the cover for the next Copper Nickel and mailing copies of his next manuscript, titled “Abide,” to publishers for consideration. Afterward, the two drove to a friend’s Christmas party, where York suffered a small, but fatal, hemorrhage in his brain.
“A lot of places reported that he died of a stroke, but he didn’t have a stroke. He had a tiny little hemorrhage in his brain,” Skeen said. York had just turned 40 months earlier and had no known health problems.
Receiving the Abide manuscript four days before York’s death, Jon Tribble read it through tears. A publishing veteran, Tribble had experienced authors’ deaths before with regret, knowing their final work was unfinished. “I read this thinking “I hope that’s not the case, and of course, Jake being Jake, it wasn’t,” he said. “Abide” would later be nominated posthumously for the National Book Critics’ Circle award.
In the wake of York’s sudden passing, for Nicky Beer and Brian Barker, who came to CU Denver in 2009 and joined the Copper Nickel staff, last encounters were frozen in memory. Barker accompanied York to a Cy Twombly retrospective in Houston, “one of the first times I’ve seen Jake speechless.”
Weeks earlier, Beer met York to give feedback on the “Abide” manuscript, where she first read what would be her favorite poem of his, “Exploded View.”
…the blanks in the books’
diagrams all ash, all flame. All silence,
they seemed to say. But silence
is a furnace, too, where breath is turned
“Jake was a poet who I admired so much,” said Beer. “Getting to see “Abide” as he’s putting it together was such a pleasure, and in retrospect, such a privilege.”
Copper Nickel was put on a two-year hiatus following York’s death, releasing its first issue under Wayne Miller’s leadership in 2014, with drastically expanded resources. Beer and Barker were chosen by Skeen as York’s estate executors.
Only a few months earlier, York had shown friend and Emory English Professor Kevin Young how to barbecue a hog; following his passing, Young packed up York’s complete archives and transported it to Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library, requiring more than 100 boxes to move his writing and research materials. Young said it was the most organized archive he’d ever seen.
“He was crafting not just this poetry for us to keep and study and love, but also this archive to understand how he got there,” said Young. “That was a really unexpected, precious gift in the end.”
York was once asked how he’d feel if someone else wrote poems on Civil Rights martyrs. His answer? “Relieved.” The original list of 41 names was updated in 2010 with 74 more. Rather than abandon the project, Tribble said, York acknowledged in conversations that it would likely be his life’s work. In addition to publishing a complete collection of York’s work, one of Tribble’s ongoing projects is the completion of “Inscriptions for Air,” his collected martyr poems, this time crowdsourced to members of the poetry community.
There were plenty of people urging York to move on from his ‘martyr poems,’ but for Skeen, now a Community Voice Advocate with Hunger Free Colorado, his body of work has never been more relevant than the present moment.
“People were like, ‘really? You’re gonna write another martyr poem book? Aren’t we sort of past that?’” Skeen recalls. “Now that we can see, with Black Lives Matter and everything, we’re not ‘done’ with that as a country.”
His hard work, perhaps, was influenced by a copy of the Auburn Creed he carried in his wallet until the day he died.
York’s legacy continues to live on in other ways. There are multiple poetry prizes named after him; his former students, some now teachers themselves, introduce their classes to his work. One of his final poems, the ode to barbecue and family “Grace,” has become one of his most accessible.
For Joe, who always knew his brother “was operating on a different level from most people,” it’s the minor teaching moments built over a lifetime that remain. “That to me is the mark of a true teacher, he continues to teach us every day,”
said York. “There’s really no end to it.”
In a 2007 interview with the journal Kicking Wind, asked about the power of poetry and whether it could make a difference in the world, York didn’t hold back.
“Poetry changes people. People change the world.”