Tribute to Jake Adam York

by Aaron Anstett

[Note: The following is the text that Aaron read from at the Tribute to Jake Adam York and Cort McMeel at Lit Fest 2013.]

[caption id="attachment_4267" align="alignright" width="225"]Jake Adam York at Lit Fest 2012. Jake Adam York at Lit Fest 2012.[/caption]

It's a truism that one's definitions of old and young change relative to one's own increasing age. Seventeen years ago, when people still sent such things, I received a postcard from Philip Levine saying that his former student and friend, the fine poet Larry Levis, had died suddenly, at 49.

Being 26, and callow, I thought 49 old. This last December, when I received an e-mail saying that Jake Adam York had died suddenly, at 40, in addition to “No” and “That's not possible,” I thought, “Jesus, that's young.” And it is, especially as I was born four years before Jake.

Two days after Jake's death, I wrote Phil Levine with the news. He responded,

Dear Aaron,  I was shocked last night when I got your email.   I'd just seen this wonderful poem by Jake & sent him a note on facebook.  i almost never use facebook but i had no email address for him.  he was such a large, vital, confident man.  I met his students--they all loved him--the one time I was at his school.  He'd gotten them into poetry with great flair & energy.  What a sad loss.  And he so gifted & young.

Thanks for writing.  I hope all is well for you,  Franny & I are fine, fine that is for antiques.

be well, phil

I got to know Jake a number of years ago, when we were part of a poetry group that met monthly up and down the I-25 corridor, in Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and Denver. Because of Jake, it was the best such group I've ever been involved with.

In one year, four of that group's members had books appear, including Jake's first, Murder Ballads. I'm humbled that he inscribed my copy, “Thanks for teaching me so much,” as I am the one who learned from Jake what poems might aspire to do.

Jake was a brilliant, generous critic. One Thanksgiving I received from him a seven-page e-mail that improved a manuscript of mine immeasurably.

In addition to helping me with my poems, Jake's generosity extended to the onerous task of schlepping belongings. A few years back he and Sarah came down from Denver to help move my things from a storage facility to a house I'd rented. As I recall, Sarah entertained my then small children while Jake and I wrestled with many boxes of books, beds, a couch, TV, and so on.

As small payment, I took everyone out for barbecue. The family who ran the place it turned out was, like Jake, from Alabama, and he chatted with them at length and declared that they made the best barbecue he'd had, with the qualifier, in Colorado. While I paid for dinner, Jake bought himself an extra slab of ribs for the drive home.

I've known few people who've taken such joy in what's enjoyable in life as Jake, whether barbecue, bourbon, music, poems, or conversation.

I lack the facility to articulate the expansive, generative quality of conversation with Jake, but whatever the topic, he enlarged it and made the world feel deeper and richer.

We were paired as featured readers a few times over the years, as we each had new books appear. I found us a strange reading match, my poems oddball and Jake's so serious and elegiac and sculpted and honed, but I was always honored to share a lectern with him.

Shortly after Jake's death I saw on a message board someone saying that he likely would have been the Colorado Poet Laureate, and I thought, that's aiming low. For years I knew he was some day going to be the U.S. Poet Laureate, just I’m sure he first would have won a Guggenheim, a National Book Award, and a Pulitzer. And he would have deserved every award.

While I mourn Jake's loss, I am grateful to have known him and appreciate the gift of the time in his company and his astonishing, enduring work.