An Interview with Todd Davis by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "Last of December is a wonderfully
economic poem, covering so much ground in a mere thirty words arranged in four, fragmentary lines. Your third
collection of poetry, The Least of These, is prefaced with this poem. Why open this way? Is
it a tone-setter, an artistic statement, or simply what you felt was the best piece to start with?
Todd Davis: I suppose I'll choose the last option
to begin with: "Last of December" seemed like the best poem to start this particular book. But the
reason I chose to start with this fragment-(and it was a fragment in a notebook that I realized quite late in the
process was functioning as a poem)-is because it encompasses both a beginning and an end, a celebration of life
in the singing even as we are at all times dying. This is a theme that runs through all of my work, but especially
so in The Least of These. We are always perishing, one moment closer to our own deaths. But the question
for me given this fact is: How can we celebrate the moment we find ourselves in and what becomes of our living matter,
our very energy in our dying? I suppose I'm in love with the idea that the material of my life-the cells and blood and
bone-will be transformed into something else, as will everything we observe.
AMK: I love how "Last of December" unfolds as a series of sentence fragments linked via punctuation:
"Cottonwood flames, cherry parallels fire-" being the first; "out of the crack and hinge, quiet whistle
/ over the grate," the second; and "a comfort to know the dead sing / even as they pass into the new year,"
the third. These fragments bring another layer of meaning to the poem that otherwise wouldn't be there: that
life is, in fact, fragmentary, often cut short or thrust into the world before it is truly prepared. Was this
"layering" via syntax your intention, or is it one of the many natural side-effects of utilizing economy?
TD: Like so much of
poem-making, the original lines scribbled in my notebook occurred organically, without forethought or conscious
consideration of aesthetic devices. But as the fragment from the notebook began to take shape as a poem, as
I began to trust that it could stand on its own, the layering you note became part of the very self-conscious work
AMK: Poets are always going
on about how important economy is, but I don't know that I've ever gotten it straight. Is economy something
we're supposed to observe in the line or in the poem overall?
TD: I do like economy and compression in poetry. It's one of the reasons I'm
drawn to this form of art, one of the reasons I revere many of the classical Chinese poets like Han Shan, Tu Fu, Wang Wei,
and Po Chü-i. But I don't worry over economy. There are certain poems of mine where the line spreads across
the page, where narrative and character are thick. If that's what the poem demands, so be it. But I do marvel
when other poets compress and compress the snow pack of their verse until they have an entire glacier distilled to five lines
and less than 40 words.
To be fair to your question,
however, I think we can observe compression both in the line and in the poem overall. I am drawn to certain poems that
use radically short lineation to great effect.
What about word choice? There are some wonderful ones in "Last of December." Cottonwood, parallels, crack,
hinge, whistle, grate, sing, and pass are particularly well-chosen words for their embodiment of winter. They conjure
up images and sensations of cold weather and flames within fire places and the meditative mind that seems more open in that
time of year...
I think most poets are in love with words. While I'm a writer who uses language like a piece of clear glass so the
reader may look through the words to the world I am describing and, in a sense, creating, I certainly understand
and appreciate those writers who use language like a piece of stained-glass, as something to be marveled at for
its very "language-ness." When I'm writing I often spend time pouring over dictionaries and books
that offer words for the things of this world, for the actions we must perform in this visible, visceral landscape
we find ourselves in. I'm the happiest as a writer when I can find language that conjures images and sensations-the
world we see through the pane of clear glass-yet at the same time highlights the beauty of language as a thing in
and of itself.
AMK: I can imagine you sitting down
before a fire to read or write and writing this poem in one go. I can also imagine it being part of a longer
poem or being an excised collection of lines from a number of poems. Then again, this could easily have been
one of those poems you spent years on. Do you mind telling us about how this poem came to be and how it eventually
arrived in its final form?
I must admit I can't remember how some of my poems come to be written; in fact, there are a few that I really shake
my head at, wishing I could conjure whatever allowed the poem to come to fruition. But I suppose that's a rarity.
Most poems are a matter of slow, daily work for me, an accretion of the time I've spent at the desk. However, I do
remember writing "The Last of December." My parents' home in central Indiana sits on about 10 acres
of woods, part of which is in a floodplain. Cottonwood, cherry, elm, ash, tulip poplar, and hedge apple (also
called Osage orange) are some of the common species on the property. My father takes down dead or diseased
trees and uses the wood to heat their house. Their fire place is made out of fieldstone and has a broad mouth.
When I'm visiting in the cold months it's nice to feed the fire, to watch the flames envelop the piece of wood,
to witness its transformation into something else, its body and energy talking, even singing-I mean this literally.
Have you ever heard certain wood-and at times this has to do with its moisture content or how porous or dense its
fibers are-begin to whine, offering an aria of sorts?
Several years ago I was visiting my parents on the last of December, and the fire was particularly beautiful.
The colors of the flame and the coals. The whistling of the wood. The breathing in of the fire place
and the sound of its exhalation through the hinges and cracks of its doors. I didn't want this moment to be
lost. Much like a painter I set out to frame this moment, to capture it as best I could in words. Needless
to say, at the time I had no idea how it would work with the other poems I was drafting, nor would I have expected
it to become the opening poem for my third book. I thought of it as a modest sketch, a brief watercolor that could
take me back, if only through my imagination, to that time and place.
AMK: "And the Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible" opens with a statement and proceeds from there in much
the same way. In poetry, it seems to me that statements are almost taken as a matter of fact or, at least, truth.
Even when a speaker says something in a poem that simply can't be true (take, for example, Carolyn Forche's opening statement
of "The Colonel:" "What you have heard is true..."), we read on. This is sort of odd when you consider
that we often question narrative twists in movies or the motivations behind statements made by characters in novels.
In this case, does everything really shine from the
inside out? Well, no, not literally. But, then again, I find myself immediately moved to read on when I encounter
this line and the rest of the poem proves me wrong. I doubt there are many readers out there irritated or disagreeing
with the speaker; rather, they feel illuminated (no pun intended) by it.
Does this have something to do with the myth that poetry is all autobiographical? Is this because readers are
looking for illumination in poetry? Or am I just wrong about this altogether?
TD: You make an interesting point. Like those readers you describe, I'm more
willing to go along with the assertions made within a poem than within longer narratives, as in novels. I tend to question
the reliability of a narrator in a fictional work, and that may simply be a matter of academic training in literary interpretation.
With poems I suppose I'm a more generous reader, willing to play along for the duration of a poem. I see poems-or at
least certain kinds of poems that address spiritual/emotional/mystical moments-as brief sojourns into the world of things
we can only guess at, mere gestures toward the mystery. Therefore, I don't demand of such poetic statements any kind
of longevity. I'm willing to say that in that particular moment there was some kind of truth, some kind of transcendence
that opened-like the way clouds may open-offering a glimpse of pure blue, before closing.
Another way to put it: I see poems as brief hypothetical statements,
a trying on of a position. And, yes, as I was writing the poem I did have a since that within each of us, including
the rocks and the trees and the flowers and the bear and the deer and the fox and the fisher, there was something that shines
forth, a kind of illumination.
AMK: There are some
wonderfully imaginative moments in this poem: the moon of which we've all swallowed a small piece, the cataracts skimming
our vision, our hands pushing outward on the lids of our coffins, etc... How important is imagination to you in your
work? Is it something you simply enjoy writing or something you hope we will enjoy reading?
TD: I'm happy to confess that I do enjoy
writing from this particular imaginary viewpoint. And like most writers, I certainly hope someone enjoys reading
what I've written, that something will resonate with the reader in such a way that they feel connected to something
broader than the individual self. But the more pressing matter for me when I think about the imagination's
role in the way we live has to do with my desire for all of us-including me, the writer-to have a greater sense
of awe for what we are living through, a greater sense of the enormity of this world, its sacred beauty, the way
it sustains us. I spend most of my time in the woods, and as a professor of Environmental Studies, I believe
firmly in the science that demonstrates our interconnectedness, our absolute interdependency. I'm afraid that
many of us-and our myriad actions attest to this fact-have lost a sense of awe and reverence for this world.
Imagination is a great tool for jerking us up, for making what some may perceive as the mundane, shine again.
I'm quite taken by what is referred to these days as "magical realism" because the "real" world
I spend my time in is certainly just that: magical.
Do you write poems for yourself or for a potential reader?
TD: The act of creation is precious to me. I'm very much a daily writer-whether
it be in the collecting of sounds and images, doing research into particular flora and fauna, particular cultural artifacts
and people, or the literal act of putting pen to paper-I crave that experience for at least an hour or two each day.
When I don't have that experience for a few days, I feel dislocated, like someone else has invaded my skin. For these
reasons, I suppose my initial impulse to write is for myself. But that kind of writing, that ultimately is only for
myself, holds little allure or interest. I write first and foremost for my family and friends. They hear early
drafts read to them. I send them copies in the mail. Art is a means for connecting, a way to play a part in the
fabric of humanity and the communities that sustain us. I see writing poems as an act of stewardship. This is
one of the things that I've been given to do. To squander such a gift, to misuse it, would be to betray it.
Ah, but this sounds so serious, so formal, and I don't mean to
suggest that. Most days I find myself laughing at the absurdity that I write poems, and when someone calls me a poet,
I simply blush and find myself sweating with self-consciousness. Maybe that's because of the valuation of certain
art forms that I have no control over. For example, I think the work I do in my garden, the time I spend making
blackberry jam and salsa from the fruits and vegetables we raise, is just as important and blessed. In other
words, stewardship covers it all, including laughing at ourselves while we try do what it is we do-whether gardening
or writing poems or helping our children with homework or making love or preparing a meal we will slowly and luxuriously
consume. The sensual world we live in thrills me, and I don't wish to betray one moment, to desecrate one
gift I've been given.
"And the Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible" is borrowed from Corinthians. Can you tell us about
what that lines means in the context of the Bible and in the poem itself?
TD: Among certain forms of Christian theology, there is a belief that Christ
will come again to raise the dead. In such a theology, those who are raised from the dead-believers who have
been saved by the blood and resurrection of Christ-will live in a new heaven and new earth where death will hold
no sway. It really is a fantastical, even fabulistic, notion, one that reaches out for a mystical belief in
perfection, a new created order without sin.
not here to argue theology, but I find among certain Christians who hold this belief a denigration of this life
and this world we are in. Certainly, some forms of Christianity damn the body and praise the soul. I think this
is wrong-headed. Among those who believe in this fashion, at times you'll hear a suggestion that we hurry up and get
to that other place, a call for Christ to come again right now, a desire for death and a resurrection into a new world, a
new order. I suppose I'm just not that kind of Christian. I see this life as absolutely precious, this moment
as full of grace and mystery enough. I'm in no hurry to find out what comes next.
AMK: "And the Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible" is an address to an unnamed "you." In
poetry, we call it apostrophe when a speaker or writer breaks off and directs speech to an imaginary person. Can you
talk a little bit about this form and how it came to be the form of this poem?
TD: As I said in my previous answer, this relates to a particular theological belief
and the folks who hold it. I grew up in the Bible Belt and certainly have many friends and family members who hold
to such a conviction. While the unnamed "you" I address can function as most any reader of the poem-because
there are plenty of folks (atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, etc.) who still don't seem to be in love with this
life all that much. The original unnamed "you" I address could be one of any of these folks I've
rubbed shoulders with. Maybe I'm a missionary for the incarnated world, for the preciousness of the moment
we are in now. For years I've been drawn to certain Transcendental ideas and ideals as put forth by folks
like Emerson and Thoreau.
AMK: "A Memory of Heaven"
is a wonderful lyric, reading much like a prayer or meditation on the speaker's love of the natural world and her/his
trust of it. Tell us about the lyric: how it works, where it comes from, and how it differs from narrative.
TD: Whew! I'm not sure I can offer you an
answer to all of this. I wrote an essay called "The Body of Poetry" that was first published in Review
Revue and is included in the anthology I co-edited, Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets
(State University of New York Press, 2010). In that essay I focus on the role the body plays in the writing
of lyric poetry-how our breathing patterns determine the line; how we can only speak on our failing breath; how
to inhale, for the sake of keeping our bodies alive, demands silence, which has the potential to lead us into reflection,
into listening to the other. So the lyric works for me as a form that must move in concert with my body, with its habits-the
way my heart beats, the way my mouth opens and my lungs fill with air. I think "A Memory of Heaven" was my
attempt on one of my winter walks to listen to what the creek was saying, what the water beneath the fields was saying.
The locale of the poem is a place called Sinking Valley, rich in limestone, where water runs beneath the surface and slowly
eats away at the stone creating underground rivers and caves.
AMK: "A Memory of Heaven" seems to be essentially about the immediacy of the natural world and how, no
matter how hard we poets may try, we can never truly get our experiences with it down on paper. Is "A Memory of
Heaven" an ars poetica, a poem about the writing of poetry?
TD: Yes, it's a poem about the writing of poetry, and my acceptance that the thing
itself is, for me, always better than the representation of that thing. It's also an acceptance that to work at that
representation is a good in and of itself. It's also a poem that is suggesting a metaphor for a kind of spiritual life
and an acceptance of that life.
AMK: The first
line of this poem opens in trochaic meter, which consists of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. It
then utilizes a number of double anapests in moments like "in the mud of the world"
and "At the end / of the valley." Can you talk a little bit about meter
and why you use it in these instances and in your poetry in general?
TD: Because I seldom work in given forms, I do not set out with a specific metrical
pattern in mind. Often I hear a certain pattern in words-a phrase I may have jotted down in my journal-and am drawn
to that pattern. Or in drafting a poem, the music is established by what is running around in my brain. Having
said that, I am at all times mindful of the meter in my lines as I revise a poem. Often I tell students in the workshops
I teach that all language has rhythm and rhythm creates a certain kind of music. We need to be conscious of the music
our poems are making and whether we like the way the music interacts with the ideas or stories or images our poems try to
carry. I think this act of evaluation-does the music/meter in a poem perform in concert with the ideas/stories/images-is
intuitive and comes from years spent with poems, as well as the rhythms we are born with, that we are drawn to.
AMK: What are you working on right now?
TD: I'm writing poems that will comprise my fourth collection, which at this point is called In the Kingdom
of the Ditch, and I'm also working on some essays about our relationship to animals. I'm the son of a veterinarian
and have spent much of my life around animals. I suppose I should mention that my first chapbook, Household of Water,
Moon, and Snow, a series based on the life of Henry David Thoreau, will be published by Seven Kitchens Press in November
2010. I've never worked on a series of poems focused upon a historical figure. These "Thoreau" poems
were accidental. I'd been reading around in his journals, as well as some biographies, and the poems just started to
show up-some written in the first person and others in the third.
AMK: If you could only have five books on your bookshelf, what would they be?
TD: Well, first, I'd be in a whole lot of trouble. I'm a bibliophile. I just love books.
They are the voices that speak around me as I walk through my house. These voices can be so insistent that I have to
stop and pull a book off the shelf and read a poem. I guess this is my way of saying that ordinarily I wouldn't choose
to play such a game as you propose, but since it's only a game-which means like all games I could start over and
pick another five and then another five-I'll do it. Here are the five I'll pick for the first round of the
game, and they are in no particular order.
Galway Kinnell, Selected Poems
Jim Harrison, The
Shape of the Journey
Mary Oliver, New and
Selected Poems AMK: Thank you.