Jia Oak Baker

Matt Miller Interview


You were a football player while at Yale, and you currently coach at Phillips Exeter Academy. It’s an uncommon combination to be a football player and a poet. How did poetry come into your life?


It’s easier to talk about how football came into my life. My grandfather, Ray Riddick, played for the Green Bay Packers, and he coached high school for twenty-eight years in Lowell, where I’m from. It became sort of unquestioned that you play football. But poetry’s a different thing altogether. I mean I always just loved reading as a kid. My mom would say, “You always had a book with you no matter where we went.” And I actually thought I might have been too bookish. But I didn’t really like poetry. And then in freshman year of high school, in Ms. Matika’s ninth grade English class, she gives us a poem to read: Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer.” A small, little poem.  In it the narrator’s listening to the astronomer talk about the math and science of space, and all of a sudden he’s drifting away from the lecture into space, dancing in the constellations and the stars, daydreaming about the universe. I was like, “This is me.”  I got caught up in the language. I’m drifting away and I go, “How did this guy do this?”  He did it.  He nailed me.  He got me.  I had thought it took a novel or at least a story to do that.  He did it in less than a hundred words. I was hooked.


You mentioned that you’re from Lowell, Massachusetts, which is about 25 miles north of Boston.  How has being from Lowell influenced your poetry?


I can’t stress enough how much that place influences who I am as a person, as a father, as a husband, as a poet, and everything else I’ve done. I mean the toughness and wit and big hearts of the men and women that I grew up with. I was fortunate my parents had a good situation for my brothers and me—they could provide for us. But I had best friends who were living in shacks, who were barely keeping it together. The culture of drinking was prominent—it’s a tough town. But it’s also just great people at the same time. The storytellers—some of the smartest people I know, the greatest storytellers I know, who can barely read but they had this wit and intelligence that could just slay people. I would have friends visit from Yale, and they would get taken down verbally by a guy at the pool table.


In Cameo Diner, there’s this kind of musculature to your diction—the use of nouns as verbs.  It does a lot of heavy lifting throughout the poems.  Can you talk about your writing process as a whole and specifically to your choices in diction?  


I think a lot of that comes from the influence of Lowell as well.  Just the way people use language. And then picking up on the vernacular and just listening to the rhythms of the language.  I’ve probably heard someone tell a story in such a way and thought, “Wow.  They just verbed that noun.” It’s fun to do because sometimes there’s no verb that means the same—I want to say “the helicopters mosquito” because that’s what they’re like. I don’t want to slow down and go, “The helicopters were like mosquitoes.” It’s just too slow. I want to get there quicker with a little more punch. I want to combine the noun and the verb to get to the metaphor or simile quicker. I’m a big fan of Shakespeare--he was known to do that.  And also being from Lowell . . . Kerouac. I ended up reading a lot of Kerouac, and he did a lot of this “I’m-not-going-to-use-the-language-exactly-how-it’s-traditionally-done” stuff. I think he had a big influence on some of the rhythms and musculature in my writing. I’m not saying I write like Kerouac, but I think there’s a little of that same “driving forward” that he did.


W.S. Merwin stated in an interview that, “Poetry is an attempt to say something that cannot be expressed.” Would you agree with that?


I do agree with that. That’s what language is in general. It’s the thing that can’t be . . . it’s the placeholder for the real . . . you never can quite get there. And that’s what’s fun. To try to express it completely. Or you express it for a second. It’s there and then it’s gone. And then you have to go on to the next poem or story. The photograph or the painting or the song—it’s exactly the way it needs to be expressed. It’s fleeting. Frost said a poem is “the momentary stay against confusion.” I always think it’s that moment where the universe lines up perfectly. When you hit that poem or song or painting—I don’t care what the art is. It even applies to athletics. You think that basketball player’s in the zone. He’s just draining threes. Or Kelly Slater’s just pulling into the tube at Pipeline. He’s just in it. Everything goes away. Everything’s just there. You feel it. You know it. It’s perfect.         


In your poetry, there’s this sense of perpetuity. It’s as if long after reading the poem, its inhabitants are still working, still suffering, still surviving in the reader’s memory.  How much of that was intentional?


I don’t know how much intent was there. Maybe it just took me that way. In “The Blades,” I had the sense that this is always going on, this is what they’ll be doing today, and the next day, and the day after that. Or there’s a poem for my mother in Cameo Diner, the dancing poem “Margie Rae,” based on a true story actually. Her father said you can go wherever you want for college as long as you’re home every night for dinner. I knew I had to write about that. I had to write about who the people were around her in this little town. They’re going to leave school, and they’re going to go into the typing pools, working in jobs that stay the same every year. And my mom thinks she’s going to get out, and she ends up back in town.  She took a bus to high school and walked to college. Her younger brother went off to college, but she didn’t get that same opportunity.


In the foreword for Cameo Diner, Joseph Hurka states that your work is “full of this thing called conscience.” Do you believe a poet has a particular role in society—that they have a job to do as a poet?


I want to say, “Yes,” but I just don’t want to put that on a poet. It’s a burden. It’s already hard enough to play with the language and write, and then it’s like, “Oh, by the way, you have a job. You have a responsibility to the human experiment in some way.” Because if you write with that in mind, you end up writing propaganda. There are great political poems, but I sometimes cringe at some of them because they try to lecture me instead of trying to open up the world. When they’re done well, it’s great.  Poetry should also be play. Maybe it goes back to Frost—that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” It should be delightful. There should be play. There should be something to enjoy in writing and in reading. 


Congratulations on winning the 2012 Vassar Miller Prize for Club Icarus.  Can you talk about how you chose the titles for your collections?


There are all these ideas with “cameo”:  the pendant, the silhouette, the small literary work, or if a big star comes into a short scene of a film or T.V. show. I think a lot of that goes on in the book.  I’m taking a relief, small pictures of people, and trying to bring them out. And also a lot of people I actually know make cameos in the book. The great thing about it is that Cameo Diner is a real diner in Lowell. That picture on the cover of the book is the Cameo Diner in Lowell. It’s a good diner, too.

Club Icarus is the name of the title poem that talks about the idea of passengers falling from a plane. But then I started to think about how this is a lot of us. We’re all that child told not to go too close to the sun or too close the ocean. Fly the middle path as Daedalus tells Icarus.  But we don’t. We all want to go up and touch the sun. Of course we all want to touch the sun—that’s the romantic notion. And then we become adults, and we want to tell our children: “Don’t go too close to the sun!” Just like Blake’s “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Kids are like, “What does that mean? You gotta fall off the edge to know where the edge is?” Pretty much. That’s what we do. We go too far. We push too hard. And we realize when we look back, the wisdom is in staying here. But you don't get that wisdom unless you’ve gone too far. Fools persisting in folly, to again take from Blake, is what we all are as humans. In “Blinded by the Light,” Bruce Springsteen says, “Momma always told me not to look into the sights of the sun. Oh, but Mama, that’s where the fun is.” You can tell me the wisdom, but I have to make it my own truth.            



Jia Oak Baker lives in Peoria, Arizona.  She is currently pursuing a MFA in Writing and Literature at Bennington College where she is a recipient of a Liam Rector Scholarship.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Thin Air Magazine, Inscape, Likewise Folio and Arizona Literary Magazine.  Jia is the recipient of the 2013 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award in Poetry and is also an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the Sewanee Writers' Conference.