Winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series, selected by Kathy Fagan, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers is a powerful debut poetry collection by Jake Skeets, a Diné Poet. Set for release September 10th, 2019, the book mostly takes place in Gallup, New Mexico—also known as Drunktown. In a poem of the same name, Jake describes the city like this:
“Drunktown. Drunk is the punch. Town a gasp. / In between the letters are boots crushing tumbleweeds / a tractor tire backing over a man’s skull.”
Jake and I are both Navajo and members of the same clan, Black Streak Wood—Tsi’naajínii. In this conversation, we discuss Native life, masculinity, and language.
When I think of the Navajo landscape, I’m reminded of both its beauty and brutality. On the one hand, I sometimes see the mesas in my dreams. On the other hand, on the way to a ceremony there, a relative froze to death. What do you see now, and how does the land inform your poetry?
I’ve lost family members and heard of folks losing family members in similar ways. It is important to note those things, I feel. Right now, I am working through what it means to not polarize beauty and brutality. What would it mean if they become, not necessarily synonymous, but part of a duality, or maybe simultaneity because it would depend on the frame of reference. How do I find beauty in brutality and brutality in beauty?
I base much of the book in Gallup, New Mexico, simultaneously known as “The Indian Capital of the World” and “Drunktown, USA.” There is a series of poems in my book that share a title: “In the Fields” and that same phrase becomes a refrain throughout the book. In the fields is where bodies are found, generally from exposure, overdose, or homicide. I read through many articles out of the Gallup Independent and other newspapers about bodies being found in the fields caused by a variety of deaths, most attributed to alcohol. As I would drive past these fields, I began to notice that those same fields are where I would go to experience desire. Men learn desire in the fields, and they also lose their lives.
I was able to negotiate brutality and beauty with the land. The poems were informed by the land. My entire orientation is based on the land. I have a door that faces east; I make sure my headboard isn’t to the north; I walk clockwise when I enter a room; when there’s lightning outside I stay quiet; when there’s an eclipse, I fast. When a body is found in the fields, the body is surrounded by the plants and sand we use in ceremony to heal (the beauty in the brutality). When there are bodies in the fields of desire, they exist in space that is tender and intimate but is always so close to turning lethal and violent (the brutality in the beauty).
I think I see beauty and brutality as having the same relationship as land and masculinity. Just as land can be beautiful and brutal, masculinity can also be beautiful and brutal. I think the fields are spaces where we can see this in full light, literally in the fields, or conceptual fields, or within the fields of the page.
“Poetry has the capacity to reframe masculinity outside the western binary of masculinity versus femininity.”
I encountered brutality many times growing up among others and within myself: the juxtaposition of violence and tenderness within men. Your poetry addresses these issues. Although I’m straight, I imagine it must be more difficult when acts like sex and love fall into the male world. How would you characterize your poems in relation to masculinity?
Poetry has always been a space where I can examine masculinity. First, it was my own. It was through poetry that I came to my own masculinity. I didn’t come to terms with my own sexuality and masculinity until college, when I started my poetry career. I was writing love poems about women and suddenly I began writing love poems about men.
Now, I examine the way masculinity is reflected in the stories that inform my poems. Specifically, the story of my uncle, who was murdered in Gallup in 1970. A year before, he was photographed by Richard Avedon in Gallup, and that photo is now the cover image. It is only through poetry that I can narrate that story. On one hand, there is my uncle, a so-called “Drifter” but family man. On the other, there is Avedon, who was a fashion photographer for people like Marilyn Monroe but also people like Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the infamous killers in Capote’s In Cold Blood.
Poetry has the capacity to reframe masculinity outside the western binary of masculinity versus femininity. In Diné, those qualities exist in all of us and are not in binary form. Poetry is a space where I can explore that through language.
It’s a striking photo. In the poem “Drunktown” you mention your uncle’s murder explicitly. If you’re comfortable, can you tell that story and how it affected your family?
I can’t tell the full story. My mom and her sisters can tell the story better than I can, and I hope they have a platform someday if they feel ready to tell it. I do remember asking my mom about the story, however. I saw the image as a child, but it didn’t really register for me then. It wasn’t until I returned home and moved back in with my parents that I began to realize its darkness and its power.
I remember when I asked my mom to tell me the story, she went into several stories about all her older brothers and how her family lost them, one by one. She began to cry. So the energy of those stories is still very real, and I make sure to take good care of them. I believe my mom and her sisters are still going through the motions of healing as much as they can. I’m hoping to shed light on the issue of violence in border towns like Gallup because families are losing their loved ones in the streets and in the fields.
I didn’t want to subject my mom to reliving that pain, so I often turned to Google and found plenty of information there. From what I found, my uncle was killed by stabbing behind a liquor store by a man who was from out-of-state. The man, later, turned himself in to police in his home state. At least, that’s what I gathered from the internet. I don’t think anyone knows the reasoning behind the stabbing, and I don’t know the fate of the killer.
My mom told me she and my grandmother heard about the murder over the radio. My mom constantly has the radio on throughout the house. It is set to our Navajo stations like KTNN or KGAK (All Navajo, All the time). From my youth to today, the radio is a thing I constantly hear when I’m in my parent’s house. My mom said that is how her mom kept the house as well. Perhaps that is where I get my attention to silence and the white space of a page.
I do hope your mom and her sisters get that platform one day when they’re ready. When it comes to words and the page, I write in the only language I know. My father spoke only Navajo growing up and acquired English as a second language at boarding school. What are your thoughts on writing in English while retaining our culture? Or on utilizing Diné Bizaad in poems?
Yes, I hope they do. Diné moms and aunts and grandmothers are often the best storytellers, and they tell stories in both Diné and English. The storytellers in our families are often bilingual and have unlocked a depth in English that naturally exists in Diné. I am not fluent in Diné, but I understand the depth to the language, its connection to deep time and this other holy world. I don’t really incorporate Diné Bizaad into my poems, and if I do it’s with intense purpose. However, I use the structures from Diné like verb, image, and sound. The energy that exists within Diné is the energy that exists within the land, and it’s felt through verb, image, and sound.
Luci Tapahonso has a story about driving to a reading with her father and asking him if it’s okay to sing a Diné song. Her father tells her that Diné words, prayers, and songs are hers to use. He then warns that English, however, is a borrowed language and one that must be used with extreme caution. We know, based on our policies in the US, that English has the capacity to destroy worlds. Diné has the power to create them. So I enter language, English and Diné, through that framework. English has to be used with extreme caution and today’s social-media world takes that away from us. Words simply become tweets and posts and hashtags. I am not attacking social media because it has become a tool. However, we must remain cognizant of its erasure of English. Poetry can be a way through because poetry asks for intense scrutiny. I feel like poetry is the key to unlocking a depth to English that our society erases. Orlando White, a Diné poet, friend, and colleague at Diné College, taught me so much about the origin of individual letters. The letter “A” has such a rich, poetic, and powerful history. English has a beauty to it but also a brutality and, again, the poem is a place to examine that simultaneity.
“My writing process is now about experiment, play, care, and attention. I’m not so much about ritual when it comes to writing.”
On the topic of your colleagues, you attended the Institute of American Indian Arts and have worked with other teachers and writers in our community such as Orlando White, Luci Tapahonso, and Sherwin Bitsui. How has your experience there changed your writing or writing process?
I was very fortunate to have a lucky stream of teachers and mentors. My junior-year high-school English teacher gave our class a packet of Native American poetry with poets like Joy Harjo and Luci Tapahonso. Then, at UNM, I met Sherwin Bitsui in a Navajo language class. He told me, “keep going, I can see it” after I read the poem we wrote for the class. I met Joy Harjo after she gave a reading with Tanaya Winder at the UNM Bookstore. After, she called me over and treated me to lunch at Frontier Restaurant. Also there, I studied with Amy Beeder (a fellow Discovery Prize winner) and Lisa Chavez. I sparked an important friendship with Natalie Scenters-Zapico, and she introduced me to poetry prizes. Sherwin and I also began emailing, and he told me about the IAIA Low-Rez MFA program. It was a perfect fit because I knew I could spend time exploring craft rather than explaining content.
IAIA was such a gift. For a week, we intensely studied poetry from nine am to nine pm. I was able to study with Sherwin Bitsui to begin, and he opened me up to image. I then moved onto Santee Frazier, the newly appointed program director of the IAIA Low-Rez, who was by far my best critical reader. I concluded my study there with Joan Naviyuk Kane who mastered the balance between critique and encouragement. I wouldn’t be where I am without their guidance. IAIA taught me craft. How to approach a poem critically, with vision and patience. My writing process is now about experiment, play, care, and attention. I’m not so much about ritual when it comes to writing. I like to approach a poem through all avenues.
Going back to the idea of exercising caution, what do you make of those who claim false identity? The most recent example is maybe Elizabeth Warren. Many white progressives have waved the issue away—or worse—have forgiven her on behalf of Cherokee. And the same problem exists in the art world. What’s your take on this issue?
Within the literary world, I can think of Timothy Barrus, aka Nasdiij, who published as Diné. There is also John Smelcer who has been accused of not belonging to a Native Nation. I can go on for days on the implications of people claiming Native identity and its implicitness with conquest.
My main concern is that the labor falls on Native writers themselves to parse through the individuals who falsely claim these identities. Writers like Barrus and Smelcer have won awards for the works. This shows that the larger publishing world still does not understand the complexity of Native literature. I feel like they should carry some of the labor and do work to ensure their publications and institutions are taking precautions. That is what I hope I can add to those spaces for my tribe—to offer some insight into the complexities of Diné literature.
You have your own online publication called Cloudthroat. How and why did you start Cloudthroat? Do you think we’re seeing an increase in the number of places for Native art?
I began Cloudthroat just to offer space for folks to publish work. I had no idea the amount of work that would go into the production of a small online publication. I understand that masculinity comes with privilege, and I always try to use that privilege to open and hold space for those who have necessary voices without the necessary access. I am currently working with a newly formed team to redesign and relaunch Cloudthroat. I had to take a step back because of my class load at Dine College. The thing I do see increasing is the amount of DIY spaces for art and activism. I know of plenty of Navajo artists and writers who are doing amazing work both on and off the reservation without adequate funding or organizations. They are simply venturing out into the world and doing what needs to be done. I am grateful for the work so many do on their own to move, change, and build Nations for our tribes across the country.
Thanks for doing this interview. Any closing thoughts or final statement?
Thank you for the insightful questions. My answers and thoughts don’t belong to just me. They belong to my family. They belong to the monsoon lightning storms that are beginning to pass through Tsaile. Diné aesthetics and poetics, or as I like to call Dinétics, are a force where I come from. Diné culture informs who I am as a poet, writer, and person. I understand that it’s an extreme privilege to be able to write poems and make life out of it, so I try not to take it for granted.
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 Review Poetry 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.