In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Jake Skeets discusses his curatorial approach and his own creative work. Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy. And I’m here today with our Guest Editor for November, Jake Skeets. Jake is the author of Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers. Jake, welcome and thank you for joining me today.

Jake Skeets: Thank you for having me. All right, let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?

Skeets: Yes, I wanted to approach curation through the lens of land. Honoring a month like Native American Heritage Month, which of course has many caveats, means there should be an honoring of the land in some shape or form. But land in all its forms really is what I’m talking about. The poets featured here caught my attention because of land and the yearning for it. You’ll notice, however, that in the curation that it’s not all sand, thistle, and bloom. There are images of a pair of working hands; there are images of mothers and the body. There’s both wander and protest. Land is both resistance and reflection, and we understand land as landscape, nature, wilderness in the American consciousness. However, land takes shape and form in many different ways where I come from.

Land is language; land is prayer and song; land is food; land is home. Land is our most inner selves reflected back at us, and we see ourselves in the land around us. It helps shape our perception of the world. And land is really worldview.

And, in addition to that, I also wanted to honor the Diné poets who shaped my own understanding of poetics. Of course, some were already curated by other Guest Editors, but I wanted to reach out to poets like Norla Chee, whose book transformed my idea of page and field, but [who] has not reached a larger audience, unfortunately. Many of the poets here are being featured for the first time in Poem-a-Day, and I think that was another one of my goals: open up as much space for others. Now, just to reference that Norla Chee book that you say has transformed you, was the title of that book Cedar Smoke on Abalone Mountain?

Skeets: Yes, that’s the book. Okay, I just wanted to clarify that for our listeners. If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?

Skeets: Yes, I think I would actually refer to two poems that I teach and return to often, if that’s okay. So the first is “This Morning” by Luci Tapahonso. And the other poem is “Why I Am Obsessed with Horses” by Michael McGriff. Both carry so much for me as a poet and as a teacher and as a thinker. Tapahonso’s poem is my definition of eco-poetics, which really is an honest reflection of the world during the morning time.

And McGriff’s poem is the kind of precision I look for in poetry. The poem, after all, is a space for interrogation and scrutiny and in Diné, or the Navajo language, there’s a word for all this I think, and that’s Siihasin, which could mean reflection, meditation, growth, and this idea of taking a brave step forward. And I’m so happy and honored that both of these poets sent a poem to me that I can include in this month’s curation. Just for our listeners’ reference, “This Morning” was published in Poem-a-Day on April 29, 2020, by Guest Editor and former U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. To go back to your earlier point, Jake, about curating through the lens of the land, both of these poems that you’ve just mentioned deal with memory and landscape, particularly the lands in the Northwest and the Southwest. Your début collection, Eyes Bottled Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, takes place in Gallup, New Mexico. Can you talk a bit about how your attention to the land, from your perspective, influenced the development of that book?

Skeets: Yes, of course. Again, land for me is a kind of worldview. It’s a way that we understand ourselves and understand the world around us. And so, for me, the main question that was sort of driving the project of Eyes Bottled Dark was setting. With the idea of setting in poetry, because we often don’t consider setting in relationship to the idea of a poem. Oftentimes we refer to setting in fiction writing. And so my whole idea was thinking about setting, and I really wanted these poems to feel grounded in a particular place in time so that the readers can pick up on an idea of setting—that these poems didn’t just exist. They existed in a specific worldview, in a specific time, in a specific frame, which can be a little limiting I think.

And so the way to open up space then was to open up the white space on the page. Hence, I have these very large pauses, these large fields if you will, that opened up across the page and the collection. Back in September, I had a conversation with that month’s Guest Editor, Cynthia Hogue, in which we discussed, briefly, eco-alchemical poetry. I’m not sure how much this would relate to your own view about land, but Cynthia described eco-alchemy as “space, not place, as holding the vibrations that the place has witnessed.” Does this resonate with you at all and your ideas about land?

Skeets: Yes, I think so. I think, again, land becomes a part of our personhood. They [sic] become part of who we are because land does witness so much, and land also carries with it so much [sic] of our memories, right? And I’ve talked about this before, about the way land and memory and time are sort of interwoven in a kind of matrix. And I called that “the memory field.”

And I think that was also probably in the back of my mind as I was thinking through these poems because a lot of them also do deal with memory in some big or small way. And so, for me, land is a kind of driver of our perception and a kind of driver of the way that we perceive time. So what are you reading right now?

Skeets: So I don’t have that much time for reading because I’m teaching and writing these new books. But I am reading Jennifer Foerster’s, The Maybe-Bird which comes out, which I believe is out from The Song Cave. And our listeners may know that Jennifer Foerster has also appeared in Poem-a-Day. She appeared in November 2019, the month curated by Sherwin Bitsui. You mentioned your work, so, of course, you’re teaching a lot of our Guest Editors, but you’re also working on some books. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Skeets: Yeah, definitely. With the help of two agents, I’m actually working on three books at the moment, which sounds pretty impossible, but I’m trying to make it possible for me. So these books include both poetry and prose, and it’s taking up most of my time right now. But I’m really excited to share it with you all soon, hopefully. And will any of these books deal with some of the themes that we’ve discussed today?

Skeets: Yes. So this new book of poems for sure will definitely deal with land and this whole notion of eco-poetics. And I’m actually working also on an essay collection, which is very much in tune with the idea of the memory field and this sort of notion of land carrying so much of us. Sounds great. And we’ll be looking forward to it. Thank you so much, Jake, for joining me today.

Skeets: Yeah, thank you for having me. I’m so excited.