A Year After Death, a Poet, Educator and Friend Remembered
Students and faculty reflect on the remarkable Jake Adam York
There's a short hallway of offices on the fourth floor of the North Classroom Building, just past a table of Copper Nickels neatly piled under a sign that reads "free for the taking." Not long ago, students walked down that corridor to seek guidance from a professor whose brilliance was often intimidating, whose writing was widely admired, and whose loss is still felt keenly to this day. On December 16, 2012, Jake Adam York died suddenly at the age of forty, but his presence is still felt and his memory still celebrated on the Auraria Campus.
York was the author of three books of poetry, each primarily focused on the Civil Rights Movement. Often eulogizing the martyrs of that movement, York took emotionally charged and complicated issues and turned them into beauty, meaning and hope. Nicky Beer, Assistant Professor of English, speaks eloquently about York's poetry: "He never offered easy answers in his art, and I think that's one of the ways he respected the subject matter. He never drew easy conclusions, he was never moralizing. He was interested in illustrating complex ideas about humanity." York's first published book, Murder Ballads, won the 2005 Elixir Prize in Poetry. His second, Murmuration of Starlings, won the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry. In 2010, Southern Illinois University Press published his third book, Persons Unknown. At the time of his death, York was preparing a manuscript of new work for publication. Beer and Associate Professor of English Brian Barker, his literary executors, are working in conjunction with Southern Illinois University Press to posthumously publish his fourth book, Abide, due out this spring. Shortly before his death, York was named a 2013 Literature Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts. His was one of forty chosen from a field of more than a thousand.
When York started at the University of Colorado Denver in 1999 as a tenure-track professor, he had earned a BA in English from Auburn University, followed by a MFA in Creative Writing and PhD in English Literature from Cornell University. With his well-rounded education and innate ability with language, he was ready to turn fledgling scribblers into polished, confident writers. York did this by intuitively tapping into a student's potential, says Nancy Ciccone, English Department Chair: "He was an excellent teacher and he had an ability to see people ‘as they are, where they are,' and to encourage whatever kind of development that particular student needed." Ciccone says students changed the way they read poetry as a result of taking his courses. "He fostered the idea that poetry has a history, and he helped students to find their own poetic voice. He took the time to cater to his students' needs, to remind them of the formidable force that lived inside them.
His teaching style was as unique as he was. I remember observing him in the classroom early on in his career. He used a Greek term to describe a rhetorical feature, and then broke it down for his students. He conveyed both the academic labels and the definition in words they could understand," recalls Ciccone. She opens a manila folder on her desk, flipping through Faculty Course Questionnaires (evaluations students give professors at the end of every class at CU Denver) and begins to read at random: "Jake has been the most influential teacher during my time at UCD;" "He is always willing to meet and discuss any question and makes time to do so;" "Jake is highly encouraging and sincerely wants students to succeed. I enjoyed the course." Closing the folder, she says, "It didn't matter if they were beginning students or Advanced Poetry students; each one took something away from his classes."
Brian Barker, Assistant Professor of English, has an office adjacent to York's former space. He reflects, "There were always students in his office, his door was always open." If a student was there for help on a specific assignment or there to discuss Copper Nickel, they were all given the same respect and attention. "He was someone with deep knowledge—and the students respected him—but he was also someone who was very giving of his time, with all students," says Barker. According to Barker, most students would summarize York with one word: intimidating. "Some students found Jake intimidating because he expected so much from them and because of his depth of knowledge. He expected them to rise to the intellectual and creative challenges of his classes," says Barker.
Teague Bohlen, Assistant Professor of English and Copper Nickel Contributing Editor, reflects on York's stature: "I think he was intimidating to students in a big way. In fact, I know he was. Especially since his passing, I've heard a lot of students call him that. But he wasn't intimidating in the sense that people feared him." Bohlen would sit in on York's classes, picking up pointers from his teaching style, he says, "For example, he would use terminology in the classroom he knew the students didn't know yet. Then you'd think to yourself, ‘I don't know what that means,' and you'd go look it up. Eventually, in class, he would define the term, but he made the students responsible for their own education in a way that's rare and admirable. There were high expectations set for his students and that's what can be intimidating." Bohlen remembers getting a strong impression of York from their first conversation. He can't remember the breadth or depth of what was said, but he remembers thinking, "'Wow, I'm going to have to really step up my intellectual game if I'm going to continue to play on this field.' And I think I'm a fairly intelligent man. But no matter what setting we were in, whether in a social setting over bourbon, or in an academic setting, he was always on point."
Nicky Beer recalls York's depth of knowledge and near perfect recall of the subjects he was well versed in: like the taste of a good bourbon, great Southern BBQ, or blues legend Lead Belly. But she also remembers his playful imagination, she says, "I believe there are many people in the world who have a perfect recall of facts, being well-read on everything, but to have that knowledge and to use it in a playful, imaginative way—whether in his art or as a teacher—that is highly uncommon." For those who were lucky enough to hear York lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver before his death, Beer remembers it as an experience of seeing York in his element. "He was extremely comfortable in front of an audience, speaking on subjects he was passionate about. He could capture a room, each person captivated by each word, practically on the edge of their seat, if only to be inches closer to York as he imparted his knowledge to them." Beer continues, "He took the opportunity to speak publicly about subjects that mattered to him and he took that opportunity seriously. He delighted at the chance to get the general public excited about something he was passionate about and that's the job of what a public intellectual should be."
York was brought to CU Denver to help build the Creative Writing program, and the result is a living testament to his genius and vision. York's confidence in what a creative writing program should encompass, plus his will and tenacity, brought it to fruition. York worked diligently to raise interest in the program, first at the student level, and then as he pitched his vision to the university. He developed most of the undergraduate curriculum, using the experience of other faculty members to flesh out his own areas of expertise. "He built a literary community at CU Denver. He developed the courses and he was instrumental in our hires," says Ciccone. The program is now robust, with about fifty current students, and many graduates have gone on to MFA programs all over the country. York encouraged students to take risks in applying for programs they might think of as outside their reach, and those risks paid off. Ali Rachel Pearl, a PhD candidate and Doctoral Fellow in English Literature and Digital Humanities at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and former student of York's, says, "I am doing what I am doing because of Jake – and now also for him. He inspired me to always reach farther than I thought I could, and to this day, I always feel like I can do better, do more, and those are the thoughts that lead me to successes I couldn't have imagined before."
Shortly after York's arrival at CU Denver, students approached him with the idea of creating a journal, run primarily by students but with a faculty advisor. Because he was passionate about growing a literary community on campus and about getting student's voices heard, York was the obvious choice. Copper Nickel, the journal that grew from a pamphlet of student work into a nationally acclaimed literary journal publishing student work alongside that of internationally acclaimed writers, is a direct result of York's ability to take a risk and turn it into tangible results. Most student-run journals are housed within a university's graduate creative writing program and run by more experienced students. Copper Nickel has enabled undergraduates to become better writers and editors, and Barker says, "There is a risk in the way Jake set up the journal, but he knew it was a risk worth taking."
The students whose writing and lives have been improved by being a part of Copper Nickel agree. Leia Darwish graduated with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing in spring 2011, is now working on her MFA in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and is a lead associate editor at Blackbird, the VCU graduate program's national literary journal. She says of her experiences, "I would not be—would not even know how to be—an editor if not for Jake giving me a chance at Copper Nickel. More than anything, I think his style of leadership was very influential. I looked up to him; and I'm still baffled by how Jake managed all his roles in life so effectively; how so much of what he did supported the creative and professional development of others, from the journal to teaching and beyond."
Copper Nickel printed nineteen editions under York's authority, two issues a year. The latest issue, under Barker's supervision, was distributed after York's death, and was dedicated in his name. Barker says, "Since the beginning, the journal was designed to be something the students had a big hand in, so I think students were motivated to do it because of that." Barker continues, "The faculty is motivated to be a part of Copper Nickel because they see what it's done for our students. It's given them a leg up in the world of publishing, but also made them better writers and editors." Currently, Copper Nickel is on a temporary hiatus. The university is currently searching for a candidate to fill the role of managing editor, and Copper Nickel is expected to resume production in the fall of 2014.
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On January 31, 2013 the English Department's memorial followed many others that had been held in York's honor, including one at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver and another in his hometown of Gadsden, Alabama. York passed away over winter break , so the department's memorial was held once students returned to campus for spring semester. Faculty and students got a chance to grieve alongside admirers, alumni, fellow poets and intellectuals from all over the country. Ciccone remembers, "We had as many chairs set up as they usually keep in the sanctuary at St. Cajetan's, but people kept coming in. We added more chairs until eventually it was standing room only." The memorial concluded with an open mic forum, where everyone had the opportunity to speak and was encouraged to do so, as York would have wanted. With a weary voice Ciccone recalls a poignant moment, "During the transition between speakers I showed a slide show, and St. Cajetan's, being what it is—a historic building—we had technical difficulties." Ciccone remembers, "Something happened in the middle of a poem he was reading, and the screen went blank. I was horrified. But then someone from the audience said, ‘Oh, that was just like his life.'" A life cut too short, no fade to black.
At this moment, students are walking past that short corridor of offices in the North Classroom Building. Some of them know who once occupied NC 4022, but most, unfortunately, never will. According to Beer, "It rests heavy on everyone's minds how to best remember him, and we all mourn him. But I'd say being a curious person is the best way to carry on Jake's legacy. Be passionate, curious people. Be excited about literature and remember to value the life of the mind. That was the kind of standard he held himself to, so it's only fitting that we all try to do the same."
Stacey McDole is a student at CU Denver majoring in English Writing with a minor in Film Studies.