Jake Adam York, Colorado poet and teacher, dead at forty

For his students at the University of Colorado Denver, where he was an associate professor of English, Jake Adam York had a reputation for being a hardass. You got the feeling it was a reputation he enjoyed. We feared him or we loved him -- often both -- and the reputation preceded him; everyone knew the name Jake Adam York, and most had an opinion about it.

He set high expectations and would let you know in no uncertain terms if you weren't meeting them. He inspired admiration and intimidation. Often, among the weaker, he inspired tears.

He was a serious man, Jake Adam York was. The kind of man you refer to by all three of his names.

He died unexpectedly on Sunday as the result of a stroke. He was just forty years old.

For all the fear and weeping it inspired, York's intense teaching style also inspired devotion, and his devotees were plentiful. When news of his death broke on Sunday, droves of students and colleagues, current and former, took to his Facebook page to mourn the loss. "I always thought he hated me," remembered former student Mari Christie. "He threw half my work in the trash and told me never to write that way again. He told me I used adjectives like they were on sale at Costco. I loved him for it."

Son of a steelworker and a history teacher, York was, as he liked to say, "a fifth-generation Alabaman," though he was actually born in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was raised in Gadsen, Alabama, and educated at Auburn, and his Southern heritage exerted a heavy influence on his work from the beginning. "York's work imitates no one," wrote Susan Settlemyre Williams in a review of 2005's Murder Ballads, his first collection. "While it bears a kinship ... with the relatively recent giants of Southern literature, its roots are found in traditions older and less consciously literary than theirs." That collection won the Elixir Press Poetry Prize.

York's inclination toward roots and tradition over literary tenets continued, and became more focused. His next book, 2008's A Murmuration of Starlings, read like a manifesto. A collection, in his words, of "elegies for martyrs of the civil rights movement," it was York's statement of his intention to grapple with the South's more troubling legacies, even if some saw his subject matter-- coming from a white poet -- as presumptuous. "I've been told -- whether because of my youth or my race -- that I don't have to be interested in this history," he wrote.

Jake Adam York as not dissuaded. Murmuration went on to win the Colorado Book Award for Poetry and the Crab Orchard Prize in Poetry, and his 2010 collection, Persons Unknown,drew from the same well, remembering lost figures of the civil rights

In spite of his Southern voice, the bulk of York's career took place in Denver, where he moved after earning multiple postgraduate degrees from Cornell University in 2000. He founded UCD's literary journal Copper Nickel in 2002, and as its senior faculty editor built it into a widely recognized institution. At the same time, he also served in editorial capacities at other literary journals across the country, and filled roles as visiting professor at Kenyon College and Emory University. The National Endowment for the Arts announced last month that it would award him with a fellowship next.

In many ways, York's work was just begun, both as a poet and as a teacher. And his influence will continue.

"I think Jake Adam York came to visit me in a dream last night," wrote Anna Knowles, a student who worked closely with him. "We were in class, and he came up to me and handed me a slip of paper that read 'WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING.' Thanks for the reminder, Jake."

From the archives: "Best Prose Pro: Jake Adam York"

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte