“He unlearns how to hold a fist / with my hand”: A Conversation with Jake Skeets

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 currently teaches at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona.


Lisa Higgs: Your collection opens with “Drunktown,” a poem that introduces the setting to Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, “Drunk is the punch. Town is the gasp. / In between the letters are boots crushing tumbleweeds, / a tractor tire backing over a man’s skull.” It also introduces a cast of recurring characters, the protagonist “I,” a father, an uncle, a chorus of oftentimes drunken men. In your collection, the people of Drunktown—who love and despair fiercely—seem both an acknowledgement of and a direct confrontation of stereotype. How difficult was it for you to enter into this terrain in your poems?

Jake Skeets: It was an organic move into this place because, in the words of my favorite poet Luci Tapahonso (and grandmother through clan), “at its essence, poetry is storytelling.” I wanted to tell the story of Drunktown, a story of the lives lived and lost within that space. I understood early on that this was dealing with the heavy stereotype of the “drunken Indian.” I decided to face the image head on. For me, as a poet, I often returned to craft in an attempt to circumvent or subvert the stereotype. With the stereotype, I offer the readers the characters, the speakers, the imagery, the sounds, the brutality, and the beauty. As a person from a Native Nation, I also needed to tell a truth. These stories, these voices, these lives are still being cut short in border towns across the country. Native people still face these violences and I needed to lend a hand in telling that story. There was a sense of accountability both on my part as a poet and person. I also wanted to bring accountability to the border town itself. I wanted to offer a mirror in a way; a mirror for me, and a mirror for the institutions that continue to benefit off the disappearing of Native folks.

 LH: Eyes Bottle Dark can be read as a coming of age story that centers around the first-person protagonist’s sexual awakening. The collection deftly holds a tension between a person discovering his homosexuality in a harsh country and discovering the beauty of the male form and of desire. I’m curious how close the “I” in this collection is to you, the poet. Likewise, I’m curious about the tenderness you are able to create in your poems of love and eros from the same language—drunkenness, fists, barbed wire, thorns, the railroad—that you use in other poems to describe desolation and pain. I’m thinking of “Love Poem,” in particular, though many other poems could apply. How does love enter your poems?

JS: Love looks different on the rez. Love operates and functions through labor and the body. Fathers get up at 4 a.m. and go to jobs that deal with resource extraction (mining or welding) to provide for their families. I know of mothers (like my own) who commute hours to get to their job site because jobs are so scarce that we often look to nearby towns. I don’t think I ever heard the words “I love you” growing up. It’s not that there was no love. I grew up surrounded by it. Love is just expressed differently around here. So it definitely impacted how I approached my own relationships, especially the idea of loving men. Masculinity has the capacity for violence and it takes a certain amount of effort and negotiation to fall in love with it. However, it’s through love and the body that masculinity is transformed into a space for vulnerability and tenderness. There are only certain moments where the “I” nears me as the poet. I wanted to show these moments of intense vulnerability to show that it’s possible for men to feel that emotion and tension. However, for my own protection and protection of the stories, I needed to create distance between the speakers of the poems and us. So for me, love is about negotiation. The fields in the collection represent a space for this negotiation, this space for simultaneous existence of many different realities, emotions, tensions.

 LH: Your title poem, “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers” describes a chilling moment when a young man—your uncle?—commits suicide by jumping in front of a train:

                        metal sand and gravel chutes
halve a body half sun half shadow
a man but not     just an oil canister
                        choked on exhaust     a body but not

So many of your poems seem to be exploring dichotomies between boys and men, men and bodies, bodies and beauty. Yet violence also seems central to these relationships—suicide, bar fights, guns, death. The list of flowers that ends “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers” are common and blood-soaked, “cholla flower / barberry / yellow plant / greasebush / bitterweed.” In what ways do you see violence as intertwined with manhood, and in what ways do you see your poems trying to unravel those connections?

JS: I wanted to find ways to talk about brutality and beauty not as binaries but as energies that surround everyone. Masculinity is such an interesting energy to dissect because it has the dead weight of violence chained to it. I think the poems use energies that exist within the land to match the energies of masculinity: beauty and brutality, body and land, boyhood and manhood. They also use the body as a way to negotiate desire, pleasure, aggression, and intimacy. Again, it came back down to storytelling. I needed a way to tell the story of this place and the spaces I inhabit daily. I realized during manuscript creation that the fields where I went to learn desire are the same fields where men often lost their lives.

 LH: Your uncle, whose portrait graces the cover of Eyes Bottle Dark, is an important character in this collection. Beyond ties of family and fraternity, what does your uncle symbolize in your poems and the narrative they weave?

JS: I think my uncle represents direction. Back home, we often use mountains, stars, or other natural structures to mark direction. The sun rises in the east, sets in the west. Sometimes mountains are to the north or south depending on where you live. During conversation, when we offer directions to our home, we often use the landscape as a way to map our communities. For example, someone describing the way to their home could say something like, “You make a right off the main road, turn at a twisted juniper tree, go straight until you see a green house, then make a left until you get to a fork in the road, go right and then turn toward my house at the small hill with rubber tires on it.” There’s this direct engagement with the land that allows us to map things. For me, beyond family and fraternity, my uncle represents the mapping of a landscape, a figure to help map the complexities of Drunktown. Freeing my uncle from the portrait is something I attempted in the collection. However, my family recognizes that the portrait is here to stay. So I tried to give the portrait and my uncle a functionality, a purpose, so he’s not just an aesthetic, a landscape that can be mined, a field we drive past and forget, a mountain we create a ski resort on. I wanted him to become a mountain, a sunrise, a sunset, a twisted juniper tree.

 LH: Fields repeat throughout your poems—in imagery and in the repeated title “In the Fields,” which is found in all but your first section of Eyes Bottle Dark. What about the field landscape, its plants and inhabitants, interests you as subject and as scene? Does this in anyway contrast to your use of town spaces in this collection?

JS: They represent spaces for negotiation, reflection, love learned, and lives lost. For me, the field becomes the page, the graphic space, the white space of the poem. Fields are filled with circuitry, systems of energy, balances, movements, conversations. Poems should operate the same way. I wasn’t trying to contrast with town spaces. I think towns versus fields sets up a binary that lends no hand to the discussion of our environments. Rurality and urbanity are both fields of energy that we all have access to and can draw poems from.

 LH: In your poem “Let There Be Coal,” you choose to retell the Navajo creation myth with two boys and a father “busting up coal in Window Rock.” Coal, gasoline, and oil reappear throughout your poems, even figuratively in the veins of the people who populate Eyes Bottle Dark. How does this creation story inform the bildungsroman of your collection’s narrator?

JS: In “Let There Be Coal,” I simply used a creation story model that anthropologists and ethnographers created after hearing and translating our stories. It’s not a direct linking with our creation story. I don’t directly use stories from Diné history, as those are often protected and require certain ceremonies or circumstances to tell them. Instead, I borrow the depth of those stories and their connection to our daily life today. Specifically, I am very interested in the simultaneity of beauty and brutality, life and death, physical matter and beyondness, and happiness and grief. There seems to be a balance of the two operating within our creation stories and their operation is not as binaries but as energies that simultaneously exist. These organic structures then informed many of the poems’ forms throughout the collection. Thus, the bildungsroman of the narrator is guided by the simultaneity of energies and their negotiation. These negotiations happen on the body with the body in these fields.

 LH: I am struck by your earlier comment on how the fields of your manuscript hold desire and death as it relates to the simultaneity of what some people might consider opposing energies. Can you speak more about this simultaneity as it relates to your general work as a poet or to the collection itself? Do you have a poem or two from Eyes Bottle Dark that best exemplifies this quality of your writing?

JS: I do talk about this simultaneity in a variety of poems within the collection. In the poem “Buffalograss,” I talk about the Diné word for eye hardening into the word for war. I learned this from my father after he was talking with me about the word anaa’ and how it can be translated into eye or war. He said your eye becomes a shield against the evils that we see in our lives. I then asked the question about desire and imagined a speaker seeing a man naked for the first time. Is his eye-shield protecting him from this? What about this desire turns into war? What needs saving in this situation? The energies of war and desire swirl around this speaker and this man. The poem being in couplets only thickens this tension within this moment. This moment where desire can turn into destruction so easily because men desiring men is seen as evil, as wrong. In the poem “The Body a Bottle,” I also use chiasmus as a way to talk about opposing forces that actually speak to each other. The first image and last image of each line are somewhat opposing but also involved in the lexicon of the collection. For me, the translation of Diné and English often leads to a chiastic structure when placed by each other. I understand chiasmus through its crossing of opposing forces and the fact that symmetry is born out of the opposition.

This way of thinking is foundational to a Diné way of thinking. Our creation stories are filled with moments where concepts like death had to be left alone in order to achieve concepts like beauty or desire. However, English as a language and culture calls for the binary, calls for one without the other. This way of thinking is actually a precursor to policies like Manifest Destiny or “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Poetry has been a way for me to navigate all these frameworks.

LH: Often your images of coal and oil are dirty, viscous, sticking. They also come in direct contrast to your use of, and direct references to, white space on a page. Why is this interplay, this relationship, important to you?

JS: I haven’t thought of them in relation to each other actually. I think, after you bring it up, this is how whiteness works. The white space presents us the English language, viscous, and that language brings us resource extraction like coal and oil. As a poet, I’m very aware that I’m engaging with a language that helps institutions disappear people, ecosystems, animal life, and Nations. So I often try to find ways to tangle and untangle the relationships between conquest and language, and poetry and language.

 LH: Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers uses form in a variety of ways—long poems with short stanzas leaving much white page, space within lines without punctuation, irregular indentations, short lined poems, poems in couplet, and prose poems. Does a poem’s subject matter play a role in how its form is selected, or is form a more organic process for you?

JS: I think it’s a matter of both. I am obsessed with Black Mountain Poets like Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Levertov who talk about form as an extension of content and how form is an organic process. I truly believe that form is gifted to us by our landscapes and environments. So I approach form through the organic energies of the land, specifically through text as image and sound. I learned these techniques from poets like Orlando White, Sherwin Bitsui, Santee Frazier, Joan Kane, and Layli Long Solider. Sound and image help shape the forms for me because sound and image shape the landscapes and environments around me. As Joy Harjo once told me, “it’s about listening.” Being a poet means learning how to listen.

LH: How important was it to you to incorporate Navajo language and mythology into your collection? While your epigraph in Navajo is translated, your final lines of the book, “Hózhǫ́ Nahasdlii” are not. Does this relate in any way to the journey that the protagonist, poet, and reader undertake in Eyes Bottle Dark?

JS: Diné is such a rich language and history. I wouldn’t label our histories and stories as mythology, as that can often reduce their power within the American landscape. The last four lines are not translated because I feel like, at that point, the reader should be able to understand the context of the language. I am always interested to think what readers think the English translation of the last four are. For me, my hope is that the reader understands, at least, the depth, resonance, and function of the last four lines. There is a sense of creation that goes on within the book through the loss of life, loss of innocence, loss of environment, and I feel it important to recruit the reader to leave the collection with a sense of this creation through loss. Again, our creation stories are filled with energies that opposite, that chiasmus, that push. I wanted the reader to have this final sense of these energies. The last four lines are also there for the stories, my Diné readers, characters, and people within the book.

LH: I love that you intend for non-Diné readers to make their own understanding of those finaI lines, while at the same time honoring Diné readers and the characters within Eyes Bottle Dark. Completing research for this interview meant that I—a white, straight, Gen-X woman—searched the Internet for cultural and language references that were unknown to me. Yet Google is likely to direct readers to sources drawn from surface-level translations or interpretations that rely on terms like “mythology,” which, as you say, should not apply to Diné stories and histories. How do you think your work, and the work of other Native poets like those you’ve mentioned, allows Diné and non-Diné readers to explore new spaces of Native identity?

JS: I think it allows readers to explore new (as in never-before-seen) spaces in general. Native thought, perspective, and identity have been absent from the American literary landscape since its inception. So as more Native writers make it onto the scene, readers get to explore entirely new domains. Of course, folks can point to Joy Harjo, Leslie Silko, N. Scott Momaday, or Louise Erdrich and say Native identity has been represented. However, there are more than 500 tribes in the United States alone, each one with its own history. I think it’s exciting to think about the possibilities of allowing more Native writers into the national consciousness so we can learn from these communities that have survived through the decades of conquest. However, I think it’s also important that we rethink the frameworks under which we read these new stories. Colonial thinking has proven itself a danger to Native identity and representation. This is where I see Native writers taking us. I see us journeying into new realms where we discuss and unpack and rethink frameworks, and we take control of our own literatures. And we are doing all this work in a language that was meant to destroy us. We embraced a conquering language and we are learning how we can untangle the aggression that was embedded into its coding. That very act will prove beneficial to every reader in the country. I think that’s why I love poetry so much. It reminds me of what is possible.

 LH: The final two poems in Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, “Love Letter to a Dead Body” and “In the Fields,” suggest that beauty burns alongside the weeds and bitter water of Drunktown. What role does beauty have in untangling the complicated histories—oppression of a people, suppression of desire—that underpin your collection?

JS: For me, beauty is the foundation of who we are as a people. Beauty is at the core of poetry. Language was created for the expression of beauty. I believe our early cave markings were to record the environments of the time, these beings of beauty. Of course, this is not to say I am calling for utopia. Beauty for me is the simultaneous existence of all factors of the human experience. Poetry, for me, is the only way I can bring this beauty to the page.


Lisa Higgs

Lisa Higgs’ third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in 2019. Her poetry has been published widely, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and the Adroit Journal.

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