Interview: On negotiating brutality and beauty

In his debut collection, poet Jake Skeets summons beauty through darkness.

 

Gallup, New Mexico, is a border town, often called Drunktown and dismissed for its proximity to the Navajo Nation. For non-Native Westerners, this forgetting is a convenient cultural amnesia, given the stark and often brutal realities that have come with colonization and the reservation system: Indian removal, boarding schools, mining contamination, addiction and violence. Jake Skeets, Diné poet and winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series, examines and reflects on these truths with a Diné thought and poetics that seek beauty amid darkness and stereotypes.

Within this landscape, Skeets exhumes the diluted and misremembered lives that inhabit Drunktown with deftness and awe. Drawing inspiration from a photo of an uncle whose life ended violently — “stab my uncle forty seven times behind a liquor store” — and from his own queer experience — “I lick the railroad down your back— / admire black water down your hair” — Skeets has given us a book of poems that reverberate and summon the beauty of what has been overlooked or discarded. Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers defines a Diné understanding of history, the Southwest and the border towns that people living on and off the reservation mistakenly mystify.

High Country News recently spoke with Skeets about writing the poetics of queer Indigenous sexuality and finding beauty amid border-town violence. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Diné poet Jake Skeets.
Quanah Yazzie


DRUNKTOWN

Indian Eden. Open tooth. Bone Bruise. This town split in two.

Clocks ring out as train horns, each hour hand drags into a screech—

iron, steel, iron. The minute hand runs its fingers

through the outcrops.

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.


High Country News: Your collection centers on a New Mexico border town. What inspired you?

Jake Skeets: Gallup is such a storied place, and I grew up just 10 minutes south of Gallup, so it wasn’t really like I made the choice. I tried my best to separate, in the beginning, a collection about sexuality, and then maybe another collection on border-town violence and the story of my uncle. I tried to separate those two projects, but in the end, they ended up smashing together again, and I had no choice (but) to venture forward.

Once I moved back (to Gallup), everything kind of just clicked into place.

HCN: What was your process for mining the historical trauma and brutality that exist in Gallup, as well as in similar places, while also summoning beauty and balance?

JS: It was definitely a process, for sure, in terms of negotiating the brutality with the beauty, and it was a lot of emotional labor. For one, just the idea of returning home and just going through all these stories was a challenge for me, and then also, on top of it, getting ready to actually do hard research. I was looking at old Gallup Independent newspapers, and stories from The New Yorker or the Los Angeles Times about people who’ve lost their lives in Gallup, and then asking my parents about the story of my uncle and their experiences in Gallup. That itself was kind of harsh, having to relive it, and negotiating all that pain and all that grief.

HCN: How do you see sexuality and masculinity being intertwined with contemporary and traditional Diné values and the stereotypes associated with Native people living in border towns?

JS: It was an interesting turn that I took, because when I moved on to Phoenix, I met a lot of different Diné men who were living down there. Young men who were tradesmen, so they were working as welders or electricians or these very masculine jobs, and they were all living down there, away from their families in these urban settings and staying in motels for weeks on end.

I thought that was really interesting, and honestly, I was also navigating house parties, because you know Tempe, and that’s a huge party scene.

I saw these scenes of guys experimenting with sexuality, experimenting with desire. And it was so interesting to see because the next day it was that, this didn’t exist or it didn’t happen. It was just something that happened on the night before, when they were drunk. And I thought it was so interesting, because the state of being drunk is one of danger, especially in a place like Gallup. It’s a very dangerous thing to be blacked-out drunk. But when you’re in a secure place, like a house party in Tempe, it can also be a place of freedom, where you’re able to explore your body and be able to explore desire and explore what it means to be a young person living in society today.

HCN: What do you see as the future of Drunktown, your poetics and the Southwest?

JS: As far as Drunktown, I don’t know the future of it. It’s starting to become a little gentrified. There’s a lot of cool little artsy scenes that are happening in downtown Gallup. It’s cool to see all these young Navajo folks experiment with art, experiment with music and poetry in downtown Gallup.

I’m hoping that as we move forward, we can start talking about just specifically Southwest poetics and what that looks like. Because all these places — like Tucson, Phoenix, Flag(staff), Gallup, Albuquerque, Las Cruces — we all have a unique take on the world, because we’re so close to a bunch of different borders, both national and tribal, and it’s interesting to navigate through this field of Southwest writers.

I am hoping that in the future we can start talking about Southwest poetics, or even just Diné poetics and what it means to be a Diné poet, and how do we begin to borrow some of the depth of Diné — not necessarily the culture, or the story, or the language of the ceremony, but its depth of understanding, thought processes, and how we translate that into the American literary landscape.  

Bojan Louis (Diné) is the author of the poetry collection Currents (BkMk Press, 2017). He is an assistant professor of Creative Writing and American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona.

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