When you write poems, and you own a bar, and you’re a little bored during the winter, you come up with The Whiskey Box Sonnets. At least that’s what Flagstaff poet James Jay did. He gives us the next installment of KNAU’s series Poetry Friday.
Hello, my name is James Jay and I’m a poet in Flagstaff, and I own a bar here. From those two things this last winter, I ended up working on a project which I call the Whiskey Box Sonnets. I was doing some inventory in the liquor room one day and I was taking the boxes out and I started unpacking this Connemara 12-year, this Irish whiskey, this peated Irish whiskey that was just absolutely gorgeous, this box, and it seemed like a shame to waste it. So I pulled it out of there and I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do with it, but I ended up pulling the flaps up, and slowly I started thinking about directions and the way things move and unfold, which made me think of the sonnet, which I’ve always considered a directional form. And there’s all kinds of rules that we learn in high school, but I’ve always thought of the sonnet as something that teaches me which way to look. So, I unpacked this Connemara 12-year and started writing on the back of it and ended up with whiskey boxes every week, of course. And I was working with the idea of work with what you’ve got, not what you want, and what I had with these goofy boxes and kind of a faint notion of writing a poem on the back. From that these poems came out.
“Whiskey Box Nebraska”
I found the scanned arrest record for my great grandpa first
through the genealogy research to which I subscribed monthly.
Bad check writing. Sixteen years old. Nebraska.
The family had come down on tough times.
He only found the ledgers, claimed his confession
to the court. It’s not like he pilfered firsthand.
Buy of this what you want.
He’s not my great grandpa anyway.
He’s yours. Your family had come down
on those old and familiar tough times.
Whatever makes you feel better keep.
The rest toss back, so many tiny fish hooked
on a wide sea of bad luck. You passed those bum
checks, so you’d be in a tale, whatever the role.
Because you went quietly, the sheriff kept
the cuffs loose. The rest the evidence is my record.
“Whiskey Box IX: The Mackay Poet”
Like a stag, tall, lean,
must sneak about
to spot him.
Forget about the town
from which he hailed.
History swiftly and
It’s of no help
for ones such as us
is no way to wander.
Squint your tired eyes
at the end of the work day.
Breathe. Mad poet
of the Clan Mackay, your blood-
line, scratch for him a half
verse here and here
on stones and wait.
Bone handle knife
like a pen. Reclaimed
steel polished as a song.
Was he ever there,
you ask? In the Highlands
in the light of the first
rising of the sun,
don’t tell him how
to be. With a strong hand,
on a hilt he speaks,
if you don’t like my poems,
you don’t like me—