Author Archives: Jacob Rakovan

About Jacob Rakovan

I was born in Appalachia in 1975. My father was a third-generation Slovak immigrant, my mother's family traced their origin through criminality and outlaw-culture to Magoffin County, KY. My work finds it's origin in navigating this space, forever liminal, forever inside and outside the boundaries. I grew up working class, in immigrant communities and the Appalachian Diaspora, in conclaves of exiles in urban centers and the post-industrial boundary of Appalachia itself. I believe, fervently, in autodidacticism, in the classicism of the provincial, in the ornery hillbilly distrust of government men and revenuers, in the Child ballads, the songs of murder and the workhouse. I believe in fiddle, and banjo, in moonshine and heavy metal. I believe in poetry as a force for social justice and as a defiance in the face of a received culture. I believe in literature as the final “fuck you” in the face of marginality, in the face of an engineered poverty and drug epidemic, in the face of a carefully fostered ignorance. I believe there is no line between cultural awareness and activism. To propagate a living culture of Appalachia, to refuse kitsch and sentimentality and to portray the interiority of being a broke Appalachian in the post-industrial era is inherently revolutionary. It is to refuse to allow the narrative of your people to be a joke, a banjo roll, a cartoon hillbilly in a floppy felt hat. To be an Appalachian and to claim that identity is an ongoing act of defiance against a culture which devalues and fetishizes us. I became a writer through a series of accidents. As a child, I read Kentucky writers like Jesse Stuart through a lens of working class Chicago suburban experiences. I found them impossible, utopian, romantic, embarrassing. I placed second in a sixth grade writing competition on the subject of “Patriotism” and was forced to read in front of the American Veterans to get my twenty bucks. I discovered Black Sabbath and The Misfits. After a series of arrests, of adolescent anger, I found myself living in the city of my birth, in HUD assisted housing, angry and class conscious. I saw the way the majority of Appalachians seemed to support things contrary to their own interest, marching in support of the first gulf war, voting in favor of mountain top removal and coal-company shills. I learned to love the music and language of my own people. I attended high school in a crumbling edifice leaking asbestos, with textbooks so old they said “some day we may land a man on the moon” in the late 1990s. I read, avidly, with the assistance of the Appalachian Literacy project, reading penguin editions with slashed covers, reading Milton, and Dante, reading Merton and Baudelaire, books taken from book drops, from yard sales. A copy of Kenneth Patchen's The Dark Kingdom was stolen from a library and passed around a group of hooligans, read till the covers fell off, and taped back together with electrical tape. This Black Book is the origin of my work, this theft is the place I learned one could synthesize this political and poetic consciousness, that one could be a writer from Ohio and have a voice that could outlast yourself, that your words could live on, dusty on a library shelf until someone found them and they woke something in them. I attended college early, a the first adopter of Ohio's post secondary enrollment option, allowing one to essentially drop out of high school and attend college as a high school junior. I took courses in classical literature, in political science, in visual art and educational theory. After High School graduation I attended Ohio University, in Athens Ohio and studied with the visionary outsider artist Aethelred Eldgridge. I worked as a librarian, and for the local public access television station. I learned how to edit film, how to hack cultural narratives, how to appropriate and repurpose texts. I filled my nights with punk and indie rock shows, with performance and unassigned reading. I wrote for unauthorized journals that were littered around the campus. I suffered a breakdown, looking into the future I was creating for myself as a high school teacher of English, and left school. I worked as a telemarketer. I lived in a basement. I hitchhiked from Kentucky to Colorado. I wrote. I came back to Appalachia. I wrote. I lived in a house with no power in Columbus Ohio, with Appalachian punks, skateboarders and drug addicts. I wrote. I worked in a coffeehouse and curated my first reading series. I moved to the desert in Arizona, and lived in an apartment with no furniture. I wrote, and read Ionesco, read Brecht. I lived in a farmhouse in Illinois, with bad plumbing. I wrote. I returned to Ohio, and became a founding member of the Southern Ohio Underground Poetry and Spoken Word collective. I read work in public, and wrote. I started an activist newspaper called the Portsmouth Free Press, and wrote as an editor, as well as under various pseudonyms, including Kinko the clown. In 2000, I assumed the mantle of the 3rd Thursday Open Mic reading series at Eula's Murray Street Pub (next to the crumbling shoelace factory). I would MC this show for the next four years. I learned how to perform, how to tie together poems, and clowns spitting fire, and ukeleles. How to make art matter, how art created community instead of the other way around, how to write and write and write. I heard dim rumors of the slam community, and in 2004, left Ohio for Austin Texas. In Texas, I met a community of writers who performed weekly, and joined them. I read at a spoken word showcase at AWP and at the Blanton Museum of Art. I published in journals and worked on performance. I performed in the Austin Poetry Slam Finals. I moved to Louisiana, and worked for a literacy nonprofit, as public relations director of the American Public School Endowments. I weathered hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I wrote with the Refried Writer's collective, and performed on National Public Radio. My life fell apart. I returned to Texas. I made finals again, I performed at South by Southwest and met the woman who would change my life. Rachel McKibbens taught me how to be a human being. How to process anger, and resentment, how to write work that was vulnerable, and honest, and filed with risk and danger. I moved to New York, and read with the Bar 13 slam community. A film made from one of my earlier poems won best screenplay at the 24 PS film festival in Abilene, TX. Rachel and I had children and I learned what real risk and love and terror felt like. We moved upstate. I was awarded the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry in 2011. My first book, The Devil's Radio was a finalist for the Gell Poetry Prize and the Louise Bruckheimer Prize in Kentucky Literature. Rachel and I began co-curating the Poetry & Pie Night Reading series, as an outgrowth of the Pink Door Women's Writing retreat we coordinate together. In 2013, I was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in Poetry. The Devil's Radio was published by Small Doggies Press, and I read from it at an off-site reading at the AWP conference in Seattle, as well as touring briefly in the northeast. The Devil's Radio was nominated for the Loyal Jones Weatherford award in Appalachian Literature. In 2014 I completed my second book, a book-length poem titled Of Blood & The River that invokes family history, violence, chemical pollution and the lyric in an attempt to claim the long form poem's high seriousness and cultural significance. It is meant to serve as a window into this world for my children, who have grown up outside the Appalachian community and to preserve and elevate the language and music of the Appalachian people. Copper Canyon press called the book “epic, and wide swinging” It is my hope to convert this poem into a text for performance, to find an appropriate publisher and to travel with this work in the hopes of generating support for larger issues of education and literacy within Appalachia and awareness and activism regarding recent ecological disasters in the Ohio River as a side effect of coal mining.

Excerpts from “Of Blood & the River”



How many deaths
do we carry within us, even now? 
What mercy of blindness have we been given?
What dim shape below the ice?
What chemical cloud in the river?
What slumbering lump of cancerous growth?
What urge for the bottle, or the needle
or the pills crushed on the dinnerplate?
What secret name does our angel know?

Warnie, with his gun and killer's hands 
heads towards a future he imagines is free
imagines himself outside of jailhouse walls
his neck free of the rope
but He and Nolda are trapped in the moment
fish in the ice of time
dead and speaking
their smiles frozen light
silver on paper.

Their voices wax cylinders
scratched film waiting for a spark
to send them creaking
to motion again, these marionettes
Pontius and Judas
smiling and smiling
cheery as wax fruit.
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