Person Behind the Poem – A Q&A with Jake Sheff

PY: How did you first hear about the Skull Tower of Niš, and what about it inspired you to write this poem?

JS: In all honesty, I went looking for it, but I didn’t know what it was. I wanted to find something worth knowing about with a lot of poetic potential. I began searching for landmarks in Serbia—I’m an avid National Geographic reader, so foreign places and customs are one of my favorite topics. On top of the page with search results were pictures of tourist attractions, and I believe third in line was the Skull Tower. I said, “That’s it.” An endless fount of meaning; awe itself.


PY: You intersperse a lot of pop culture and unexpected references. Goldilocks, Jimi Hendrix, Facebook, Matt Lauer, Reese’s Pieces, and Ken Griffey, Jr. all make appearances in your piece. Describe your writing process for this poem and how you captured these cultural references that popped into your head.

JS: Difficult to answer this succinctly. “Unexpected” is part of the reason for the references. I like the catalyst metaphor of Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: being the catalyst. Ephemera can make a timeless object (the successful poem) timely, and hopefully more endearing (or charming) to its time. I’m always impressed by allusions to contemporaries (usually otherwise unheard of or forgotten) in classics, like Martial and Montaigne—makes the writing (and writers) more real. Also these referents are ours, mine, specific to us (here and now): they’re part of my life’s fabric so always part of my poetic material, but choosing one renews that relationship, affirms it. Blurring the lines between high- and low- (or pop-) culture is always fascinating and more like real life, more democratic.


PY: You clearly had fun with imagery and rhyme in lines like, “Or maybe it’s, ‘In / twenty good vibrations Death is born / like fallen nations from their green and / golden stations in the parlance of vacations / often spoke by gray carnations.'” Do you always write like this? What other kinds of work have you written?

JS: I always write like that! My poet friend Grace Curtis thinks I’m the only writer who dreams up form before content. (I do that sometimes.) I’ve written a verse closet drama with haiku and an abecedarian built in. I’ve written a long poem similar to this, only in a form I call “Jacob’s Ladder” and with elements primarily pulled from American idioms and iconography. I’ve written iambic pentameters with different rhyme schemes at the tetrameter and trimeter feet. It’s organic artifice though, growing from what’s filled anthologies (a sort of compost). I never do it without including “real toads.”