Wednesday, January 15, 2014

There Are Angels: A Guest Posting by Camille Dungy about Poetry, BCS Football, Angels, and Jake Adam York

Editor's Note: If you were anywhere near Earth a little over a week ago, on Monday, January 6, then you know there was a football game that night—the stunning BCS National Championship game between the Florida State Seminoles and the Auburn Tigers. It was, by all measures, a game of poetic twists and turns on the field, but more stunning for the P&PC Office was the poetry taking place off the field in the televised commercial for Auburn, which featured—no, was completely anchored by—Jake Adam York's poem "There are Angels." (Watch it here or scroll to the video at the bottom of this post.) Like a stadium crowd silenced by a kickoff returned for a touchdown, we were speechless, hardly believing our eyes and ears; we knew Jake (pictured here) during his Auburn years and after, and, like everyone else in the poetry world, we were shocked by his sudden and untimely death in 2012. (N.B. Jake's newest book is due out in March.)

Confused, thrilled, and emotionally tangled by this mixture of football, poetry, and our memories of Jake, P&PC turned to the only person we could turn for an explanation—to Camille Dungy (pictured here and in the next image below), a poet, editor, and cousin of former NFL coach Tony Dungy. The author of three books of poetry (Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison), the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and the winner of an American Book Award, Dungy is currently a professor of English at Colorado State University. Here's what she had to say.

January 6th was King's Day, also known as Epiphany, the day the Three Wise Men presented their gifts. It is the day my family marks the conclusion of the Christmas season, and so while many other Americans were watching the BCS championship football game between Auburn and Florida State, I took down my Christmas tree. It has been years since I owned a fully-functional television (this is partially due to my belief that TV infringes upon my ability to commit myself to poetry), and even now that I have a television, I don't keep it in the living room, so while I was taking down the tree, I wasn't watching the football broadcast. I was thinking about angels.

That morning I'd had breakfast with a new friend, Mary Ellen Sanger, and she told me about her family. There were seven children in all, but one of them died in infancy. "Growing up, I remember feeling special because I was the only person I knew who had a brother who was an angel," she said. As I took angel ornaments off my tree, I was thinking about the implications of what Mary Ellen said. I was considering all the ways we perpetual mourners demonstrate our grief.

Along with all the angels and the Santas and the miscellaneous ornaments, my tree had three snowflake ornaments this year. The snowflakes were tatted by a woman who lives in Iowa City, Iowa. She tats them throughout the year and, in December, donates them to Lensing Funeral Home. If the funeral home has conducted a service for your loved one, you are eligible to receive one of these tatted ornaments. I have a snowflake for each of my mother's parents and one for my father's brother. The latter snowflake is newly on the tree this year because of services Lensing conducted for my uncle last spring. I packed away the snowflakes and kept thinking about angels.

I thought about the poet Jake Adam York, who died in December of 2012 at the age of 40. I thought about his brother's eulogy, about the fact that his brother had to write a eulogy, about the ways his brother expressed his memories, his grief. I thought about Jake Adam York's elegy for the jazz musician Sun Ra, "Letter Already Broadcast into Space." That poem begins, "You are not here..." and goes on to say "I think, / they've forgotten you." I thought about how I have not forgotten Jake Adam York and the good work he did while on this earth. I thought about how Jake's poems memorialized people who lived and died to bring attention to injustice. I thought about how important it is to remember people who make us care about the lives around us. I thought about how crucial that work is, though much of it happens away from the general public's gaze. "Come down, Uncle, come down / and help me rise," his poem pleads, "I have forgot my wings." I thought about how finding ways to broadcast our connections to our own versions of angels can prove a service to us all. I thought about how I have not forgotten my uncle, my father's brother, any more than Mary Ellen's family forgot their own angel, the infant brother they gave wings. We were born in the same year, Jake Adam York and I. I thought about this. Mine, like his, is an associative poet's mind, known for imposing emotional context on the littlest things, known for believing small things matter a great deal. I thought about all of this in my living room's TV-less quiet, as I packed away angels.

The reason I haven't had a fully-functional television in the house for years is because, some time ago, I disconnected my cable and, rather than spend the 2.8 hours that the average American spends watching television each day, I spend my time reading and writing or walking and cooking or talking and thinking instead. For the first two years that my cousin, Tony Dungy, led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFL playoffs, when I didn't have a television but still wanted to support him, I haunted sports bars and colleagues' couches every Sunday and Monday the team played. (This might seem like a major commitment if it weren't for the fact that my uncle, Jesse L. Dungy, even more dedicated to family than I, spent every game weekend flying or driving to whatever city in which the Bucs, and later the Indianapolis Colts, were scheduled to play.) A few games into the Buccaneers' third consecutive winning season, I calculated the hours I'd spent watching football over the previous two years: at least 120 hours, and probably more like 200.

Tony and his team weren't spending 60+ hours a year thinking about what I did for a living—of that I was sure. They were focused on football, which is where their talents find expression. My talent was writing poetry, to which the world of football gives comparatively little thought. Why was I dedicating so much energy to a pastime that would likely never return my investment? The Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics report that revealed America's 2012 TV watching habits also informs us that, on weekend days, the average American over the age of 15 spends one hour reading. Younger Americans read even less. "Individuals ages 15 to 19 read for an average of 7 minutes per weekend day," the report claims. The TV watching public could care less about literature, these statistics would suggest, and the people who build television content for them know this. I resolved, again, to dedicate my time to poetry instead of the TV.

This season, though, there was poetry on ESPN. I'm not just talking about color commentary describing a well-executed play as "poetry in motion." I'm talking about actual poetry recited during actual football broadcasts. These poems appeared in the spots each university gets during a game to talk about what makes their campus great, why students in that 15-19 year old non-reading demographic would want to go there, why donors should donate more cash.

My dad was watching Iowa lose to LSU in the Outback bowl on New Year's Day, and as I walked through the basement to pick out linens for the dinner table, I caught the Louisiana State ad. (That's a still from the ad pictured here; view the entire commercial at the bottom of this posting.) Apparently it's been playing all season, a clip of the "student poet" reciting her ode to LSU, but I had no idea about this intersection between football and poetry until New Year's Day. "I know you're rooting for Iowa," I told my Dad, "but LSU just made a fan out of me."

A week later, on King's Day, after I stripped the tree of all its ornaments, I went to my computer to find out what to do with my naked noble fir. I've just moved to Colorado, and little questions like this sometimes swamp me. I was still thinking of Jake Adam York, who lived in Colorado, with whom I spent a delightful afternoon in Denver two months before he died, and on whom I think I would have called, often, for advice about life on the Front Range. My family ate barbeque on New Year's Eve, for instance, and I thought about how I wished I could have asked him about the best places to buy barbeque in Northern Colorado. (Jake believed in barbeque and wrote about it often, even in his poem to Sun Ra.)

Online, I found the best way to recycle a Christmas tree, and then I found myself on Facebook. (I might have preserved more time for poetry by watching less television, but it is possible that Facebook has come to occupy an equivalent number of my hours). The first post I saw was from Jake Adam York's former colleague, the poet Nicky Beer: "ESPN just broadcast some of Jake Adam York's poetry before the BCS bowl game. Speechless and crying."

If I didn't already know that the world is stitched from confluence, I would have been surprised that the first post I saw was about a poet about whom I had just been thinking. But that's not what surprised me. If I hadn't seen the LSU spot on New Year's Day, I would have been shocked to learn that poetry was to be aired on ESPN. (Okay, I'll admit, even having seen the LSU spot, I was shocked to learn that poetry would be broadcast on ESPN.) What finally surprised me was the fact that, according to Beer's link, right about the time I was taking my angels off the tree and thinking about my football fan uncle and thinking about Jake Adam York and thinking about "Letter Already Broadcast into Space," and thinking of how we honor our angels and thinking about the crazy connections poetry allows, ESPN broadcasted a one minute and twenty-six second clip featuring a reading of Jake's poem, "There Are Angels," over footage of a moment in football history I've wished, nearly every day since I saw the replays on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, that I could have shared with my dead uncle.

Too often I hear people suggest that poetry has no place in this modern world. Sometimes I'm one of those people myself. I haven't had a television for all these years, because I begrudge the cumulative minutes it distracts me from poetry. But when I rediscover the confluence between my deepest longings, our communities' celebrations, and the mundane details of everyday life, I understand, again, that poetry's transmission is unstoppable. They come to us like gifts, the connections poetry allows.

"There are Angels" ~ Jake Adam York | BCS National Championship from Bluefoot Entertainment on Vimeo.


Jeanie Thompson said...

Camille, thank you so much for sharing this, for putting all the parts together for us. I, too, experienced the wonder of poetry on ESPN that night (I didn't know about the other poetry, and appreciate your telling us this), but I have to say as a proponent of Alabama writers and writing for these past 20 years at the Alabama Writers' Forum, I have imagined just such a moment! So when I saw it happen -- with my friend Jake Adam York's wonderful words read over the images of the team that had broken my heart in the Iron Bowl (yes, I am a UA fan), I still felt exulted and experienced the wonder of knowing that miracles can happen. I have been trying to combine my love of football and poetry for years, much to the amusement of many friends in both of those worlds. The irony that it happened this way -- with our precious, departed Jake and the team I do not love made me a better person in that moment. I haven't written anything about this, so thanks for giving me the opportunity to respond. Soon we'll announce two new awards in Jake's honor in Alabama -- stay tuned. I will certainly link to your piece as part of the announcement, with your permission. In friendship and in poetry, Jeanie Thompson, Executive Director, said...

Thank you, Camille, for that beautiful essay and your memories of our Jake. We knew that this "spot" would be on ESPN via Jake's brother, Joe, whose friend Wright Thompson, an ESPN contributor (for lack of his real title), created the video and asked Joe if Jake had a poem that could be used. Joe picked it out and when we saw it, I was just amazed at how Jake's words melded with this year's AU Team of Destiny. Jake loved AU football and we would talk during the game and immediately after -- even if we won or lost. If we lost, it was always "War Eagle, anyway." David and I and Sarah and Joe, Kathryn, and Emma and our whole extended family were moved by Wright's work, it's presence on ESPN, using Jake's work to invite people to combine the beauty of poetry with the love of sport and its own beauty. Jake is missed with every breath we take, but we are all still amazed at his talent and are deeply humbled by and rejoice in the love that the poetry community has for him and his work. Again, thank you any much love. There will be a special angel on our tree from now on. Jake's mom -- Linda York

C. Dungy said...

Dear Linda York:

I understand that no essay from a stranger will help salve your loss, but I am honored that I had role in helping you see that your son's legacy thrives (even among Alabama fans: see the note above) and is cherished by more people than you can possibly know. When I think about angels, I think about all the energy those who still hold memories of our loved ones put into the world. All that energy must go someplace, and so we have created angels. The love and goodness Jake insisted upon, my memories of my beloved uncle, these are still ours to hold onto. Thank you for your note. Sometimes we can't know why we are driven to write what we write, but to know that this essay reached you is reason enough for me.