Posted on Nov 18, 2012 in

Murder Ballads is my first book of poems. Before winning the Fifth Annual Elixir Press Award in early 2005, Murder Ballads was a finalist or semi-finalist for 15 national prizes, including the Academy of American Poets’ Walt Whitman Award (semi-finalist 2005). Poems from the collection were nominated for or were finalists for eight additional awards.

But what is the book about?

In short, Murder Ballads is an exploration of Southern history that pays special attention to the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

I grew up in east Alabama, near Gadsden, and lived in the halo of Birmingham and, later, Montgomery, both sites of much of Alabama’s visible and notorious history. In my life outside the South, I have, on more than one occasion, been asked to account for this history, to say whether or not I support or denounce it, to explain how I am or am not implicated in it. Though puzzling at first, I have come to understand this demand for representation. I have asked myself how I am and how I might have been implicated in this history and what it means to be from Alabama if this history is what most people know of Alabama.

I have undertaken, in these poems, to reckon this history, to answer it, and to answer for it. In this process, the central problem of the poetry has been how to write about the horrific murders that shaped the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama without stripping the dead of the dignity they deserve and without valorizing the crimes themselves, how to write about history without merely using it for the sake of the poetry. The problem is the elegist’s problem, how to write about death without simply using it as a subject for art, how to treat death in a way that presents it honestly and with proper respect, while at the same time moving toward an understanding and a statement of what that death means, of why we should remember it, of how we should feel that death.

Confronting this problem, I drew inspiration from and found a model in Appalachian murder ballads, particularly those recorded by Alabama’s own Louvin Brothers. In the murder ballad, the singer undertakes to narrate a horrific crime, at times in the first person, but does so in a melody so sweet, that though at first it seems perversely insensitive to the horror comes to act as a kind of consolation for the terror of the narrative and thus functions as a measure of remorse or loss. So, the poems of Murder Ballads seek to find a music in language that can act as a melodic consolation for all the poems must relate.

But you could see this from reading any of the book’s poems, as, for example, “Elegy for James Knox,” “Vigil,” or“Negatives.”

For more on Murder Ballads and on my motivations to this work, please visit Blackbird and read my poems there or listen to or read the recent interview conducted by Greg Donovan or view the video poems produced by Southern Spaces.

Book reviews at Blackbird.

Praise for Murder Ballads
Viewed through the polished, complex lens of Jake Adam York’s demanding poetic, the shackles and red-clay rhetoric, banjos and catfish of the Old South emerge new-fangled and political. York’s ‘harmony almost gospel’ is precise, demanding and exciting, and whether he is rendering that ‘ember burrowing/ like a mite in a dead bird’s wing’ or wind shaking the willows and scorched corn, he lets us know that it is not business-as-usual in Deep Dixie. Readers of Murder Ballads will witness the transformation of landscape and language as fireflies, Orion and sparks from the Magic City’s Bessemer furnaces conspire to light even the darkest secrets, and few will escape this wonderful book unscathed and unblessed.
—R. T. Smith, editor of Shenandoah and author ofTrespasserMessenger, and Brightwood.
Order Murder BalladsISBN 1-932418-15-6From Amazon