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Steve Davenport- Interview


An Interview with Steve Davenport

                                                                        -by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: The more I read poetry and think about what makes a poem I like versus what makes a poem I don’t like, the more I think it has to do with desire, as in What do I desire in a poem versus everything else?  I know for sure that I desire to understand a poem.  I’m not interested in poems that I either don’t follow on a narrative level or that take so much effort to follow that they wear out their welcome.  I know for sure that I desire music: rhythm, sound, repetition, etc…  And I also know that I desire imagination.  That’s what I find strikes me most about these sonnets, particularly “Arrange Their Sea-Smooth Bones in Fourteen Broken Bones.”  I just love those opening lines/sentences: “In your lizard skin boots, reread the book of myths. / Dip it two parts whiskey to one part gunpowder.” and the lines that follow.

What do you desire in a poem?

Steve Davenport:  Fourteen, fifteen years ago when I began that sequence, back when it wasn’t a sequence at all but a single line, I began with desire.

Say you're drunk and ass deep in theories of desire

Just a line but it was the line I’d been looking for: high (theories) and low (ass), idea (desire) and sound (consonance), strict order (twelve syllables) threatened with disorder (drunk).  Twelve syllables I could count off on my jeans or a table top or the top of my head, thumb and fingers beating a rhythm under the words driven by the repetition of S and D, curiously my initials but not something I saw at the time. 

One line intended as the first of fourteen lines, a sonnet but not the sort you take home to your parents unless your parents are Stagger Lee and Ma Barker.  I’d been reading literary theory, an essay by Leo Bersani about desire, and I wondered what would happen if I tried a closed form and packed it with nervous energy better suited to barbaric yawps.  Though they appear late in the sequence, these lines from what became “She Tosses the Moon Back Like a Shot of Vodka” were the first and they came in a rush. 

Say you're drunk and ass deep in theories of desire,

stereo cranked, and you know better than bourbon

what the thumping means, the violence under your skin

like noise in a drum, like Tonto caught in his name.

You know all about the absent object, how lack

motors desire and bodies seek dismemberment.

What I saw was what I heard was what I wanted, the sizzle and slide of the Ssss and the thump of the D, the pulse of blood through a closed system, circulating, thumping, hot for the doing, the pushing against the walls, the boiling up and almost over.  And it begins with a nod to Richard Hugo via his “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.”  My “Say you’re drunk,” his “Say your life broke down.”

What do I desire in a poem?  It changes.

AMK: This first sonnet is a poem of command, each line of the poem telling the reader to do something very specific: “Fall in tongues or fever, thieving the terrible. / Wake and feel the fell of dark, not day… / …saddle a seahorse and dive into the wreck. / Salvage all you can…”  How did you come up with this way of writing this poem?

SD: Without it, the sequence begins on the kill floor of a failing marriage (“In the End We Walk the Long Tunnel, Dumb Slaughter”) made particular in the third line: “second marriage after first divorces.”  Had I opened that way, I would have marked the book’s intent as memoir or confessional.  While I’m not against its being read that way, I wanted to complicate or frustrate reader expectations about a one-to-one mapping of my life or, for that matter, any person’s life

For instance, in the O’Keeffe-Stevens’ sequence, which follows the sonnet sequence you’re asking about, I work a painter and a poet through the traces of a relationship that begins in a thunderstorm and ends outside a bowling alley on the tailgate of the husband’s pickup truck.  He’s the poet.  Does that mean he’s me?  Maybe you’re the pickup-driving poet.  I’ve never owned a truck.  I was, however, the bouncer at a bowling alley bar with a gravel parking lot.  I like to think Georgia and Wallace were out in the parking lot one evening, putting asunder what God had made the mistake of putting together.  Maybe Wallace goes on to a bad second marriage.  Maybe he’s the “I” in the sonnet sequence.   

If so, is that his voice (insistent, commanding) in the poem you’re asking about, “Arrange Their Bones in Fourteen Broken Rows”?  Is that voice the same voice (do this, do that) that pops up from time to time (e.g., “Watch the Hot Young Women on Puritan Benches”)?  I will say that I mark one character’s use of “your” as “yer” to separate out voices, especially in “Another Hundred-Line Drunken Cowboy Sonnet,” which closes the book, but also to mark his (Murfy’s) insistence as his own, not to be confused with the voice in the first sonnet.

As I said, I needed the first poem of the sequence to knock the reader off the poem-as-memoir assumption, which elevates content above aesthetic.  That was the last thing I wanted, so I went the route of invocation, instruction, of clear commands that call into question who’s talking to whom.  Is the reader receiving instruction to take up arms?  Could be the commands are directed at the speaker (the “I”) introduced in the second sonnet.  Could be the voice is talking to itself.  Could be any number of voices in one pointy head.  What better way to deal with the threat of the book’s title (Uncontainable Noise) than to turn into it, the noise?  Dive, dammit.  Seek the eye

AMK: The last few lines of “Arrange their sea-smooth bones in fourteen broken bones” essentially declare that the sonnet will be the speaker’s weapon of choice.  This is the opening sonnet of a sequence of sonnets in your first book, Uncontainable Noise, which was winner of the Transcontinental Poetry Award with Pavement Saw Press.  Tell us about this sequence.

SD: A poet friend or two suggested I begin the manuscript with the O’Keeffe-Stevens sequence.  You know, ease folks into the slaughter.  Sweet-talk them down the long tunnel.  Here, reader, reader.  Here, reader, reader.

No.  Better to go pedal to metal, two parts whiskey, one part gunpowder, cue the sex (“bodies opening”), fold in the can’t-stop of crazy hot (“hip and gut pull to the bed springs of amour fou”), and cut straight to death’s edge, “the final rending” of divorce, of hips and bellies grinding and fucking off the side of a cliff even as they’re being ripped from each other by each other.  Get the blood of both in the teeth of the speaker, on his tongue, and it will find his voice.  Do that, I thought, and the bruises, like “badges of damage for show-and-tell,” will hold the reader, will communicate the poems’ meaning as much by sound as sense.  Poem as bruise, as record of damage, but also as weapon, as kill pipe and knocking box, bringers of sonic damage.

AMK: What strikes me about these sonnets is how unique they are.  They’re not the best sonnets ever written (I have no idea what sonnets would qualify), but they read like poems that could only exist in the state they’re currently in.  It’s not like someone is going to come along, read your book, and think “Oh snap, that’s how I should be writing my poems!” these sonnets emerging from such a singular frame of mind and ending up in such a singular voice and for such an individual purpose that they really are their own entity.  However, a reader might think to themselves, “this is what my poems should be like”: singular; unemulatable; their own.  One thing I always find myself thinking about is the danger of such thoughts, that what’s most important is to write a good poem and while unique is part of the idea, it’s not, in my mind, a very big part of the overall equation.  What do you think?

SD: This is the question I should walk away from.  I see my Noise book as my response to the call in Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” my shout back in language that could come only from me, yet not every word is mine.  My “book of myths” pays a debt via salvage work, a picking through the boneyard of writers who helped develop my voice.  Call the bone-picking my homage or unattributed borrowry (i.e., without quotation marks or endnotes) or playgiarism (a la Raymond Federman) or outright theft, but don’t say I didn’t warn you more than once in the poems.  I more openly admit to the practice at the end of the book in my “Note on No Notes,” which takes up the concerns Marianne Moore writes about in “A Note on the Notes” (from her Collected Poems).

Here’s my version of Rich’s speaker/swimmer, approaching the sea-floor treasure of poet bones and poem scraps, in “A Hundred-Line Rooftop Sour-Mash Yodel Sonnet”:

this is it,

this is ours,

this is what

we’ve come

to pick through,



to find our voice.


in my case,

means howl

or scrawl

or cowboy yawp (ll. 30-42)


I say as much in the opening lines of the book.

In your lizard-skin boots, reread the book of myths.

Dip it two parts whiskey to one part gunpowder.

Fall in tongues or fever, thieving the terrible.

Wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.  What black hours.

Then saddle a sea horse and dive into the wreck.

                   Salvage all you can of the poets buried there.

Once upon a time, the second and third lines were different.

In your lizard-skin boots, reread the book of myths.

Brew a cup of coffee according to Hopkins

and steal the terrible from one of his sonnets.

Wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.  What black hours.

Then saddle a sea horse and dive into the wreck.

                   Salvage all you can of the poets buried there.

In both openings, my salvage work involves two nods to Rich (“book of myths” and “dive into the wreck”) and a line plucked (“Wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. What black hours.”) from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ corpus, the bones of his Terrible Sonnets.   In the first draft, Hemingway also makes an appearance.  His “coffee according to Hopkins,” a phrase you can find in “Big Two-HeartedRiver,” gets recast as a command (“Brew a cup of coffee according to Hopkins”) that pulls together the two of them, Hemingway and Hopkins, as influences or voices in my myth book.  Line eleven adds two more names.  I’ll leave those to you. 

I work hard on my voice.  If forced to pick, I prefer sound to sense.  (I’ll die on that sword.)  Just as I prefer idiosyncratic or singular voices in music, I love a poet’s voice for the same reason, a strong ID stamp.  That doesn’t mean voice is enough.  Do I think you should emulate my voice or interpret the sonnets’ approach (the yawp’s full-throated, in-your-face, look-at-me aesthetic) as the way to go?  No more or less than I should emulate your voice or Shakespeare’s or Sharon Olds’ in “Language of the Brag,” where she addresses this very topic.  I think we’re all emulating and borrowing from each other through the largely untraceable network of influences that allow us to achieve singularity through reconstitutions of voices and approaches.  Jack White listens to Son House sing “Grinnin’ in Your Face” and wants him some of that.  WWJD?  WWJWD.  I want me some of Jack White’s guitar, approach, aesthetic.  And without that Sharon Olds’ poem, the way she self-consciously takes on the brags of big boys Whitman and Ginsberg and whups their asses with her pregnant, leaking body, the ultimate brag, we wouldn’t be talking about my sonnets.  Surely that’s true of all of us.  We don’t live in original invention.  We find our spaces in traditions, many of which are personal and unknown even, or especially, to us.

An email from friend and fiction writer Kyle Minor just popped into my in-box.  In response to a piece of my fiction, he writes, “Steve, I think if I came across your sentences in an Antiguan daily newspaper, I'd still know they were yours.”  Now that’s timing.  It also says something about voice transcending genre.   

AMK: Why the sonnet; why the sequence; why the sonnet sequence?  I myself am drawn to all three but have no idea why…

SD: Don’t know about you or why I’ve seen so many sonnets and sonnet sequences in the last few years, but when I sat down to write poems in the mid 1990s, it didn’t take me long to find the formalist in me.  I have to say it was a surprise.

The sonnet with twelve-syllable lines fits perfectly what I was trying to do at the time: represent the body under pressure, the body about to blow, to howl, to risk its own dismemberment.  As I kept building my tightly packed sonnets with the idea that rupture of form is both constant threat and inevitable result, I became interested in the voice-breaks in a yodel, the rapid shifts in register, the way the voice ramps higher and higher until it breaks and must drop down (chest voice) to ascend again (head voice).  What I like about the yodel is its incorporation of the breaks, the tiny, controlled ruptures that seem extravagantly displayed yet are anything but extravagant because they’re fundamental to the form.

Beyond the obvious differences in physical properties, I don’t intend there to be much difference between a yodel sonnet and a paint bullet or a corked bottle.  I want the same packed quality, the anticipation of explosion.  I want it to feel like a loaded pistol, preferably one you didn’t load and you don’t know if the safety’s on or off and it’s right there on the cushiony, bouncy couch beside you, aimed at one of your thighs or, better, your hips.  Toward that end, I carefully pack each line with the same number of syllables.  I load the sonnet with projectiles and motion.  I aim for those shifts in register within and across the sonnets to give them a yodel stamp, mine.  For that reason, “So I Send This Three-Word Burst, Poor Ink, Repeating” is one of my favorites and arguably the best single expression of what I was after: that perfect noise at the razor edge of jail break, the uncontainable click or bang that changes, opens everything, right there, smack-dab in the moment of that uncontainability.  Rupture.  Rapture.  My mantra, I guess.  The sequence, culminating in two very different hundred-line sonnets that I hope are unmistakably mine, gave me the fields and fences I needed.

AMK: When I requested to feature these particular sonnets from the sequence (sonnets 1, 3, 12, 17, and 20 of 20), you remarked that these were interesting choices.  I think I selected these for two main reasons.  One is that I wanted to give POW readers an overall sense of the sequence.  And the other is that of these sonnets, these are the most musical, imaginative, and are full of wonderful and uncommon word choices.

Some examples (word choices italics):

“One room from the kill floor, your face knuckling into / mine… the container a glass body / bag, the full measure of who we are, a closed field, / our only escape a killing drain…”

“Tonight I’m the topographer of my desire. / No need for grace or wings… / mountain chains, hurdling ridges, peaks, and mesas / like slurred words, a badlands sonneteer yodeling / and stumbling after Snodgrass through the universe…”

“Throwing spells at the phone like dice… / I fire these plastic bullets at things that take paint. / Canvases, boards, buildings, animals with thick hides. / How about the moon, I whisper.  She slides her hand / down my washboard belly…”

and, finally,

“Unrepentant. / My suitcases unloaded in sequence and stacked / on the porch like cartridges, a Remington’s length / from the whiskey barrel that has my name on it…”

Image upon image, idea upon idea, word upon word, and sound upon rhythm upon rhyme upon sound again and again— would you agree with this reading?

SD: I’d be an ungrateful dumbass not to.

AMK: These poems strike me as intensely personal, the voice most certainly your own, the subject-matter most certainly from your life.  It seems to me that writing about this experience in this way is pretty risky if you assume all of this is factual, not just the experience but the voice behind the experience.  If you think more deeply, however, one immediately has to question this assumption—  as we all know, writers wear their disguises and, even though poetry is often more factual than, say, short fiction, fiction is used to great effect in poems all the time.  Is it this duality of fact and fiction of verse part of what draws you to the poetic medium?

SD: We should always question that assumption.   As for the question about duality, I don’t consciously weigh fact and fiction when I’m writing a poem.  I’m much more interested in compression and sonic qualities and how they might move me closer to truth.  I want to get things right, and I don’t mean biographical details.  I’m not a journalist, nor am I a brass-tacks memoirist.

AMK: There’s an intense, working class voice in these poems.  It isn’t afraid of self expression.  It isn’t afraid to use violence.  It’s more often drunk than not.  And it’s bold and very sure of itself.  This sort of voice/point-of-view seems a bit unusual to me in Contemporary American Poetry.  Is it unusual?  Who should we be reading?

SD: I tell young or beginning writers to read the history of the ground (dirt, asphalt) they come from.  Read plat maps.  Labor manuals.  Histories of coffee.  Anything to accumulate content, gain depth.  Before I’d suggest particular poets to read, I’d ask what they have read, what they don’t like.  We want to know what’s in you, I say, but only when what’s in you is what’s out there.  I think all writers, regardless of age, should read outside their comfort zones.

As for my voice, I’m too close to it to know how usual or unusual it is, what it does or does not sound like.  Thanks for that description, though.  I’ll take all of it but the “drunk.”  It’s true that the sonnets in my book, more often than not, reference liquor and states of drunkenness, but the liquor bottle, like the paint bullet or the bullet bullet, is primarily a way to talk (think) about the body and the mind under pressure.  Before I finished that first sonnet, I knew I was chasing the Sons of Zeus.  The Apollonian-Dionysian split.  You know, get the sun drunk, force chaos into straight lines, see what happens.  Sometimes the liquor’s liquor; most times it’s a vehicle for theorizing about rapture and rupture at the intersection of Form and Content.  But the voice?  Sober as a union carpenter, I hope.  Sober don’t mean he can’t shake his booty.

Is it working class?  Lately I’ve been thinking about how complex and frustrating those two words--“working class”--are for me and should be for everyone.  Poet Ed Pavlic and I have swapped emails about those two words, about how they get indelibly stamped on the inner lining of a person but also how that same person, via work choices, can forfeit his or her union card.  Still, I recognize their power as short-hand for a particular class experience, a sensibility that is very hard to explain without falling into caricature but easy to spot when it hits home as real.  As real, say, as the opening stories in Tim Parrish’s Red Stick Men are for me.  What’s working class?  Liquor won’t tell you much.  Liquor does a decent business in every neighborhood.  You know, sometimes the best explanations come round-about.  I never set foot in that working-class Baton Rouge neighborhood of Parrish’s, but I know it.  I know how to live there.

There was no drinking in the family I came from.  My mother can’t say the same.  See “Athensville, Illinois” in the book.  Grandpa Hal drank.  And because he drank, he did a couple of turns in prison.  My mother thinks I was in the car when she and my father brought him home from Menard the second and final time.   At the other end of my mother’s experience with alcohol was her grandfather (her mother’s father), Grandpa King, in his time a good man but as teatotaling a Southern Baptist as ever sat tall in a pew.  Another reason I feature liquor in the poems is personal, is familial, is the stuff of myth, is an attempt at redemption.  Grandpa Hal’s.  He did some damage, but he cleaned up his act.  I was closer to him.  Both grandfathers are long dead, but I’m invested in the alcohol line that separated them.  I want the truth of damage, the role alcohol can play, but I don’t want Grandpa King’s position to be the right one.  I want to draw a more playful line for my daughters.  That said, I’m pouring myself a drink.    

AMK: Tell us about your revision process.  Do you think much about the elements of poetry as you write/revise or do you let the subconscious/well-studied mind worry about all of that?

SD: I recently fell for the curtal sonnet, a form that Gerard Manley Hopkins put his mark on.  (Hopkins.  I couldn’t help myself.)  It’s a three-quarter sonnet, 10.5 lines instead of 14.  I counted syllables in this form, too, in part because I was still dealing with the body/mind under pressure (e.g., a friend’s cancer).  My revision process in the yodel sonnet sequence was similar to the more recent curtal sonnets.  In both cases, I’d start with a strong or peculiar phrase and build from there.  Place it in a line, let that line spin out for a while, stop, consider syllables, line breaks, effects (sound and sense), pull the line back via syllable-crunching, move forward again.  I might let it spin out for five or six lines, then start cutting, squeezing it back to three or four, take off again.  Along the way the poem’s content changes, intent develops as the poem’s sound takes shape, I begin to feel I might have a poem worth keeping, but I’m not done because the poem’s run a line or two too long, the phrasing is lax in spots, it needs to be more tightly wound or differently wound than it is.  Rarely have I opened the gate and let what I intended to be a yodel sonnet or curtal sonnet wander in the fields of free verse.  I would rather keep working on the poem and abandon it if things aren’t working out.  If I’m going to write free verse, I’d rather begin freely and find the poem’s form that way, be on the look-out for it from the beginning. 

AMK: Did you worry much about these poems and the chances that this book would be published?  I ask because it’s not the kind of manuscript that I imagine a lot of first readers at book prizes immediately select for possible publication.  It would take a reader interested in difference and in sequences and in sonnets and in that working-class voice to select it.  Or maybe this wasn’t a problem at all.

SD:  When I said to a friend and fellow poet that this magazine or that had accepted one or other of the yodels and she assumed the editor had to be a man and a certain kind of man at that (aficionado of the redneck trinity of gun, liquor, and pickup truck), I realized I had a problem.  I might actually be a redneck or, worse, need a redneck judge or publisher to love me.  Turns out (and it didn’t take me long to realize) that misreadings, the full range of them (those that miss what you’re doing and those that see things you didn’t consciously intend), are a necessary part of reception and, in many cases, growth (the writer’s and the reader’s).  Very early on, I became comfortable with the idea of failure and knew I’d have to bide my time until the right readers came along.

AMK: How long did it take to publish this book and how much did it change over time?

SD:  Six years?  Something like that.  The order of the poems and the sections changed a couple of times, and early on I thought the manuscript would be all sonnets (a la Berryman’s Dream Songs).  The title of the manuscript changed and, at the last second, changed again. 

AMK:  How has it affected you being a poet without an MFA?  I ask this because there seems to be this myth out there that if you have an MFA you somehow have a leg-up in the publishing world (see the first letter to the editor in the most recent Poets & Writers).  If it’s true that MFAs have a leg-up, then I’m pretty pissed because I have yet to see any of that.  The one advantage I do have is having had three years of intense study with badass writers I respect and who worked intensely with me.  This is extremely rare out here in the real world.  How have you done it?

SD: I don’t know that there’s been any effect, and I don’t think I’d know if there were.  I suppose I would have known more about the lit mag scene if I’d studied for the MFA and read quite a few more contemporary poets than I did on my own.

AMK: How has having a PhD in Literature impacted the way you write?

SD: I doubt I would have written those yodel sonnets without my PhD because I doubt I would have been reading Leo Bersani.  I would have understood what Bersani was talking about, but I wouldn’t have found my way to him by myself.  As for poetry, it was all the close reading I did during my undergrad and Masters’ years at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville that makes me the reader I am and a large part of the writer I’ve become or am becoming.     

AMK: If you could only have five books on your bookshelf, what would they be?

SD: Oxford English Dictionary, the one-volume Columbia Encyclopedia, a book of Illinois plat maps, Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo, and Miles: The Autobiography (with Quincy Troupe).  If you give me five more, I’d take Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Paul Auster’s Invention of Solitude, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.                                                                                                

AMK: What are you working on now?

SD:  Too many projects.  I have two poetry manuscripts that I’ve kicked out into the world to see what becomes of them.  For now let’s call them Dismembered Love Notes, a long poem (some will say “art porn”), and All That Hell, which again takes up the topic of damage (environmental, familial, personal) via, for the most part, the curtal sonnet.  You can get a taste of those poems here: http://www.theliteraryreview.org/chaps/Davenport_Steve_51_4.pdf.  If you look further into that on-line chapbook, you’ll find yourself in Black Guy Bald Guy territory, a fiction project I’ve been trying to grow into a novel.  I’m working that ground, too. 

AMK: Thank you.

SD: Thanks, Andy.