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Entries in elegy (1)


Jacob Rakovan

He has so many commas after his name. Jacob, poet. Jacob, bartender. Jacob, dad. Jacob, hillbilly. That last one is as much a badge of honor as any of them.

“I use it because I want to say, 'This is what a Hillbilly looks like. This is what a Hillbilly sounds like,'” says Jacob, a Portsmouth, Ohio, native who now lives in Rochester.

Jacob Rakovan on his early influences: “Weirdly, I was obsessed with Thomas Merton—the Trappist monk and poet, and Baudelaire—the decadent poet who wrote litanies to the devil. Both at the same time. When I was around thirteen,” Jacob says. “I think those influences find their way into my work whether I am aware of it or not. Probably some Dante, as well. Metalhead teenagers dig Dante, at least the Inferno.”He grew up in Appalachia. And, though he's lived and traveled all over the U.S., Jacob never forgets his origins. Hillbillies are his people. And the word has a connotation he wants to dispel.

“It's not something cute on a barbecue sauce label, or a knickknack of an outhouse your parents picked up at a gas station in Virginia,” Jacob says.

“Hillbilly is a huge, disenfranchised population, dying in coal mines, living in pollution and decay, being fed prescription heroin by unscrupulous doctors and then being incarcerated for it. Hillbilly is the third world, here in America, mocked because some assholes with beards get a television show.”


The poet begins

He discovered poetry as an Appalachian teenager, hanging with a circle of high-school headbangers. The group discovered a library book they liked well enough to photocopy and decorate Jacob's cellar haunt.

“It was a limited edition of Kenneth Patchen's The Dark Kingdom. My hoodlum friends and I loved it so much we first photocopied it, and hung the poems up in my heavy metal basement, and then eventually 'liberated' it, and read it until the cover split, then duct-taped it back together.”

It was just a matter of time before he started writing poetry as an angsty teenager—where many poets begin.

“And I just kept doing it,” Jacob says.

Good thing he did. This year, Jacob received the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry for a project in which he interviewed members of his family to build an oral history of Appalachian culture.

“Catfish baits are made from congealed blood,” he offers. “The word 'Ohio' means 'woe' in Enochian, the language of the angels as according to the Elizabethan magician Dr John Dee. The Mothman appeared in West Virginia on the night the Silver Bridge fell into the river, the same night my grandmother was shot.”

The project isn't complete yet, but another big one is.

This fall also saw the launch of Jacob's first full-length collection, The Devil's Radio, from Small Doggies Press. One of the chief forms in the book is elegy, many of which are written for people who were once a part of Jacob's life.

“When you are from a place like Southern Ohio, your personal mental cemetery gets pretty crowded,” he says. “When I was putting the book together, the elegies formed a natural skeleton. So a book that had been a much looser collection started to have a structure around loss, and grief, and trying to name names. There are a lot of deceased people in there.”

He wrote it in a season of loss and reflection.

“It was such a time of grief for me, having just lost my niece, and trying to process that,” Jacob says. “I realized I had all these other deaths that I was carrying around, and I just tried to unpack that grief. It gets heavy carrying all those people with you everywhere.”

As for what people take away from reading his book—that's entirely up to them.

Jacob's first full-length collection, The Devil's Radio, is out this fall from Small Doggies Press. He'll mark its release at Poetry & Pie Night Friday, Dec. 13. See details below.“I think people bring themselves to the book. It's a place where we meet each other,” he says. “I hope people find some music in it.”


How poetry has changed

Readers find all kinds of different meanings in poetry. These days, they're also finding poetry available like no other moment in human history, thanks to the internet.

“Everything is accessible, all the time,” Jacob says. “We have externalized memory, and at any point, you can read whatever you want to read, so this world of poetry, that used to seem very small and closed and esoteric is immediately open and accessible to anyone that wants to read something. A Sumerian creation myth. CIA improvised munitions manuals. Facts of Life erotic fan-fiction. Everything.”

And the digital revolution affects readers and writers alike.

“Every poet, everywhere, has access to the world's biggest library,” Jacob says. “I believe very passionately in provincials and autodidacts, and the internet is great for that. Anything you want to know, no matter how minute, how bizarre, is out there, somewhere. All of that changes what poetry is, and how it works. All the good stuff comes from the outsiders and the fringes.

After the New Year, Jacob dives into teaching a poetry workshop, titled “Poetry as Invocation,” at Writers & Books in Rochester.

“Poetry is how we address eternity, in both directions in time,” Jacob says. “The class itself is based on the ideas of invocation and evocation, the practice of apostrophe, in which the writer or speaker addresses an opponent, or a third party other than the audience, and the idea of images as a sort of mental construct, of poetry as conjuration.”

Jacob, teacher.

See more: Visit Jacob's blog or order The Devil's Radio

Say hi: Via email  and on Facebook.

* * *

Poetry & Pie Night: A book release party

Friday, Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m., join Jacob Rakovan and Rachel McKibbens for a special edition of their popular underground reading series, Poetry & Pie Night. Both Jacob and Rachel have books recently published. The pair will read from their new collections, and have books available for sale and signing. Email for directions to the event.



A selection from The Devil's Radio

(first published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature)


The river is for drowning girls

every song says it's true
hair blooms in the cold current

the little fish rise like angels to meet them
they go down into the dark
in the good black mud

they roll, white-eyed
through brown water
arms out in benediction
fish-pale bellies and breasts
a basement full of mushrooms
roots and blind things

they say
there are catfish big as Volkswagens
near the dam, the divers come back up
and never go down again

they say
when the drought drops the water
low enough the old carved stones
break the surface

and only say
that you'll be mine
and in no other's arms entwine
down beside
where the waters flow
down by the banks of the Ohio

here, once
they humped the earth like new dug graves
in the shape of serpents, eggs, moons
wheels and bears
buried bones,
copper axes, obsidian hands

but the river is for drowning girls
every song says it's true

Train trestles cut across
flat stones and mud, ring top beer cans
tangles of fishing line
the river swells with rain and swallows fields
making mirrors of the mud
leaving fish to die for the corn
leaving the old stone blades of knives
arrowheads, bone beads and broken pots

the river is for drowning girls
hungry for their white flesh
it beats against the city walls,
glutted with chicken coops, detergent bottles
syringes, empty jugs, tampon applicators
slick black logs and fishing floats

dark as a rotted oak leaf, as a cold night
as the smoke of a fall fire on the bank
dark as a barge filled with west Virginia coal
electric light of a lone house
and a song ringing out

go down go down you Knoxville girl
with the dark and roving eye
go down go down you Knoxville girl
you'll never be my bride

the river is for drowning girls,
girls drunk and dancing
girls fucking
boys fresh from jail
in cars

girls with hair too high,
with painted faces, and slit up shirts
girls in towns with cold smokestacks
who run blue lines up their noses
smoking beside a bonfire
swapping speckled eggs for candy bars

the river is for drowning girls
they go down to the last line of land
and wait to be taken away