Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
Down the rocky bluffs, ghost horn comes wailing
onto the floodplain, steel-blue scissoring
one note through Madison and St. Clair
counties, through factory cutbacks and closings,
refineries and strip clubs
brick walls of meatpacking plants caving in,
scattered machines, rail cars, no-trespass signs bent back,
scrub bushes up through asphalt making temples
of rusting abandonments. Sign of life
hanging outside a shack. CHICKEN IN A BOX
AND MUCH MUCH MORE.
Somewhere a shelf of
containing formalin and bits of flesh.
Somewhere a book waterlogs in a tub
cells batter a body.
Aggressive. Invasive. Metastatic.
Somewhere a container labeled right breast
flanked by four others. Lymph node, sentinel
one. Sentinel two.
Axillary tail. Breast skin.
Somewhere Overpass Girl bruises, blows, burns.
Somewhere retreats. Somewhere folds
enthralled, ravished, betrothed.
Field and Stream
four curtal sonnets for BBD
was a field my father was a field
my father my fall and summer ball field
this highway north a long winter
splitting empty corn field bean field corn field
his shoulders and steering wheel a front field
his cousin riding shotgun a side field
Ten years old
and half the back seat my field
beagle dog Duke the car trunk his closed field
unlatched at the old barn
to rabbit field
my .410 my holiday proving field
was a long field
It was a stream I was a stream running
fast as piss a piss of a boy shell packed
with shot and snot nosed
boy spray my shotgun
pointed at the clump of grass there see it
a rabbit see it balled up fur its eye
right there hot twitching I couldn't see
mine was a hot
stream of sight running wrong-
eye dominant across the gun barrel
instead of down it to that hot dark eye
pulled that trigger pow it was a stream
It was a hot
The rabbit a field my father a field
and I was a field of vision rushing
the banks wrong-eyed streaming
my shot a click
bang that switched field to stream was spray was meat
was blood of that rabbit splattering us
you should have said he said we can't eat that
and a .410 mine
my father wiping the blood from his face
from the barrel and stock of his 12 gauge
of study his hand on my head
The field is a stream
What's holiday is heavy and heavy is hard
and hard is hot and hot is time and hot
in time his barrel up and stopping time
he had a head not a hot head a
big boss bald head turning laughing pointing
and the wide car stayed in the lines
What's holiday is father and shotgun
is hard cold ground is .410 and 12 gauge
is air thick with breath
with time with walking
is metal smoke is necessary form
barrel is a long field.
Sestina Has Been Sinking
Sestina, tonight's the
night I push you off the overpass.
I'm done with your six kinds of hell. Your demanding sky,
your French complications,
your clouds in my happy wagon,
your forty-two words for rain, your pearl-handled gun,
this concrete and asphalt
that leap-frogs the low ground
locals call the Bottom, dirt cursed with industry and blood.
I'm done with your sixes and sevens, the pressure of blood
at the thirty-nine sutures pinning us to this long
you keep calling me to, far above the patchy ground
that only we who grew up here could think deserves
any sky, even this one with its petro stink. I too have a gun,
this twelve-gauge I'm pulling loaded from
my buckshot wagon.
May your pieces make a smart pattern.
May the dead wagon
carry a vacuum and glue. If there are forty-two words for hell,
I expect thirty-nine of them
to be you. You need a real gun,
Sestina, my dirt under your nails, the rough of this overpass
for texture, the
heft of a gunite hose shooting two-up at the sky
to make a holy road for rich pilgrims heading for better ground,
which means rolling or manicured or ode-worthy, any ground
petro dirt you call me back to with talk of the wagon
that will save you. I'd do the Crazy Wing through a bad sky
if I thought I had anything new for you and your stale blood,
your long form, the way your returns wrap this overpass,
Sestina, in the same old sixes and sevens. Better someone gun
you down than endure one more round of blanks from the gun
you pull from your obvious garter. Better the hard
meet you falling than I waste my love from this overpass
on your history, the stretch marks you
earned on the art wagon.
Bottom needs steel, slaughterhouses, freight trains bringing blood
and thump of
flesh on flesh to make its rough song, one part sky
five parts slag and spill, glorious smokestacks praising the sky,
canals, and river, a round of voices joining
as I lift my shotgun
and new ashes settle all over this Bottom I love like blood.
Time for us to go, Sestina, double-pumped
to sky and ground,
me to open fields, where I'll whistle past the dead wagon,
and you to your forty-two words for
life after overpass.
We promise to curse the sky. We
deliver our ends to the ground.
We're loaded on the meat wagon. We love the noise of the gun.
the blood we love. Here is where we leave the overpass.
Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interviews - ReadingSteve Davenport is the
author of two poetry collections: Overpass (Arsenic Lobster/Misty Publications, 2012) and Uncontainable
Noise (Pavement Saw Press, 2006). His poems, stories, and essays have been anthologized, reprinted, and published
in scores of literary magazines both on-line and in print. A story in The Southern Review received a 2011
Pushcart Prize Special Mention. His Murder on Gasoline Lake, published in Black Warrior Review
and later as a chapbook by New American Press, is listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. He has a website: Collected Works of Gasoline Lake.
A Mini-Review of Steve Davenport's
Featured Poems by Assistant-Editor Matthew Huff
The sonneteers of yesteryear would be proud to read this week's
selection of poems from Steve Davenport's second collection of poems, Overpass. Though John Donne might
not recognize Davenport's "curtal sonnet" form (they look and sound nothing like the sonnets Donne and
his brethren wrote), they represent a rogue form of this poetic tradition that, like a dog with a docked tail,
still carry a bite and are as complete as any traditional sonnet.
Aside from the obvious visual and structural differences in Davenport's "curtal" sonnets, one of their
primary attention-grabbing elements is the seeming paradox or juxtaposition of each title's popular connotation/association
to its subject matter. Each sonnet references highly-popular, mainstream periodicals such as, "Entertainment
Weekly," "Good Housekeeping," and "Field and Stream," yet each poem, though it represents
similar content to the magazines, treats the commonly held subject matter as something of an antithesis to the
Weekly" is the most traditional of the sonnets in this week's feature. The poem utilizes a moderately traditional
Shakespearian end rhyme scheme of ababab cddc abd e. What makes these rhymes interesting is that the final word
in each verse is not necessarily the word which completes the rhyme pattern. Furthermore, the rhyme patterns could
be read in various configurations depending on what portion of each word is used to complete the pattern, particularly
if you are looking at sonic or visual properties of each word. Davenport also uses a bit of front rhyme with the
words onto/of, countries/refineries in the first stanza and scattered/scrub, and rusting/hanging. While it is not
always clear how these poems operate, you have to admire the intricacies and limitations Davenport confines himself
This poem, along with the others,
is more narrative in nature than lyric. The narrative is achieved in a unique manner though; it is created through
the use of extensive lists which give the poem a panoramic/visual movement it would otherwise lack. The reader is
given quick-fire images and descriptions, which move from one locale to another as though the town is being viewed via
a kaleidoscope. In the case of "Entertainment Weekly," the poem illustrates a small, decrepit town where
the only sign of life is an add for the weekly entertainment, "CHICKEN IN A BOX //AND MUCH MUCH MORE"-
ironic considering the periodical the title alludes to.
"Good Housekeeping" is fascinating formally speaking. First, while the sonnet maintains a
regular syllabic pattern, the rhyme patterns are quite interesting. The stanzas are inverted (the first stanza
has six verses while the second stanza utilizes only four verses) and rather than ending the sonnet with a couplet,
the last stanza is only one line long, or, as we like to call it, a "stitch."
Davenport maintains a (more-or-less) traditional English (abab) pattern, but he does so in a roundabout
way. For the "a" pattern words, the rhyme is easily identifiable with the repetition of the visual "ta"
sight/slant rhyme. The "b" pattern is slightly more complex. The first word "flesh" does not
rhyme with the second word in the pattern, "body," but both words share common sonic properties with
the third word, "breast."
The second stanza
is a bit stranger. The pattern is uncommon (ccdc d). This time, the first two words of the pattern are easily identifiable,
"sentinel" and "skin," but the last word is trickier to locate as the last word in the line
is "somewhere." Here Davenport uses the second to last word in the line, "in," to complete the
pattern. The "d" pattern is also an anomaly as it spans two stanzas.
It's also worth noting that the varied turns or movements in this sonnet are announced by the anaphoristic repetition
of the word "Somewhere." This can also be seen at the end of the line leading into the volta which enjambs
the last "stitch" of the poem. Additionally the "Somewhere" assumes a type of personification
as if it were a character itself within the poem.
Aside from the unusual mechanics of this poem, it also pays homage to the sonnet tradition with a direct
allusion/reference to John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14." Most notably is the repetition of Donne's words,
"enthralled, ravished, betrothed" in the last line, but there is also reference to Donne's use of the
Holy Trinity in the lines "Somewhere a book waterlogs in a tub / while three-personed cells batter a body.
/ Aggressive. Invasive. Metastatic." While Donne uses "enthralled, ravished, betrothed"
to present a type of cleansing or renewal, Davenport uses them in the more literal context of destruction.
"Field and Stream" paints a rather bleak
experience via four separate movements or sonnets that achieve a cohesive narrative structure. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this poem is the
narrative structure and arc of the sequence. There is no punctuation and each thought is expressed via fragment
rather than complete sentences. Despite this fragmentation, the poem derives a specific, visceral narrative via Davenport's
unbalanced whirlwind of associations and flashbacks.
This poem also has unique sonic properties, which help aid its narrative structure. For instance, the first movement
of the sonnet more-or-less end stops every line with the repetition of the word "field," much like a
period. As the narrative arc builds toward the climax, in the second and third sections, the visual momentum
of the poem rapidly increases with its short, fragmentary structure and internal rhyme/alliteration, paired with
the poem's imagistic nature:
...I was a stream running
fast as piss a piss of a boy shell packed
with shot and snot nosed boy spray my shotgun
the clump of grass there see it
a rabbit see it balled up...
This occurs in the second sonnet in this sequence right as the climax begins to rise.
In "The Sestina Has Been Sinking," Davenport departs from his
modified sonnet forms and delves into an ecclesiatic ars poetica directed toward the sestina form itself. The
sestina is not only the subject of the poem; it is also the form Davenport chooses to write in.
You have to love how witty and funny this poem is: a sestina about
hating the sestina form: Sestina,
tonight's the night I push you off the overpass /I'm done with your six kinds of hell... // ...I'm done with your sixes and sevens, the pressure of blood
/at the thirty-nine sutures pinning us to this long overpass... //...If there are fourty-two words for hell, /I expect thirty-nine of them to be you.
Either way you might view these poems, it can't be denied
that Davenport is a master of language. Davenport is able to easily transition between a variety of adapted and
unadapted forms as well as emotional landscapes. Uncontainable Noise and Overpass make tremendous
strides in establishing Davenport as one of the most innovative and important poets working within the New Formalist
class of poetry.
Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
Overpass by Steve Davenport
Reviewed by Alex Starace, first published at TriQuarterly
One gets the sense that Steve Davenport composed much
of Overpass while soaking in a bathtub, nursing a tumbler of whiskey. If this sounds like a compliment,
it’s meant to be—the close intimacy, the contained debauchery, and the deep introspection in this collection
compellingly establish the narrator’s personality. It’s also easy to empathize with the sorts of day-to-day
frustrations, longings, and joys that Davenport documents here, as he catalogs life in The Bottom, the polluted,
half-abandoned Mississippi floodplain in southern Illinois.
The collection, which is best read sequentially, transports the reader to a world of wistful black humor,
small triumphs, and an almost cartographic listing of places, people, and historical events. Davenport starts
with a volley of unrhymed curtal sonnets, all titled after magazines: “Entertainment Weekly,” “Good
Housekeeping,” “Playboy,” “Rolling Stone,” and so forth. In them he sets a standard
for both hardscrabble beauty and direct, crackling diction, such as in “Travel and Leisure,” which opens
Let the big river arch its
and hiss, slap banks to keep time, roll around
the crooked fingertip of Calhoun County
to hook the Illinois and flood Grafton . . .
Underneath this lyricism, however, is a biting resignation, such as when Davenport writes, in “Outdoor
Life”: “Once again she becomes as clouds veiling / the fucking moon.” The “she” in
this poem, and throughout the collection, is Overpass Girl, or O.G. As the poems progress, a picture of Overpass
Girl develops, even though her moniker is never explained: she has breast cancer, it’s metastasizing, and
the narrator can do little for her though he thinks about her often. It’s this weaving of pain, misery,
and medical terms into the rural-industrial life of a man accounting for his Midwest backwater home that gives
the collection much of its poignancy. In “Popular Science,” Davenport writes:
Her mouth's blistered from chemo and she's full
of holes as she goes where hydrocodone
grows in the acetaminophen shoals.
She laughs when
I write our hearts make morphine.
She writes you're three hours away happy
in a book,
in a tub.
The narrator’s ability
to still enjoy some aspects of life under the shadow of impending death infuses the collection with a rough-edged
introspection. Sometimes these ponderings are quite direct, such as in “Journal of Speculative Philosophy”:
. . . How to live
with end time stamped
on the back of your hands?
Good Book's not a catalogue of patter,
Preacher says, for the counters and trotters.
Instead: A ride on great red wings. A how-to
for beggars and kings.
At other times this introspection is expressed in both form and language, such as in “Real Simple,”
which plays, in part, off the shape and sound of the letter P, which looks like a “hobo bundle”,
Davenport intertwines cancer-related jargon and alliteration with these observations, turning the poem into
a pleading prayer: “letter P, aspirated, plosive note / in a portacath, post-mastectomy; / . . . post-belief,
pre-belief, / poor traveler, Please.”
the stress of contemplating death through the struggles of Overpass Girl gets released in well-placed, seemingly
one-off poems of madcap delirium. In the wryly titled “The Sestina Has Been Drinking,” Davenport creates
an Ashberyan mash-up of pop-culture references, hillbilly talk, and historical characters. He also has lines of direct
address to the sestina (“I know this guy, Sestina, this guy’s in love with you” ). The poem
thus becomes an amusing ramble through the mind of a drunken poet and a welcome relief from ruminations on Overpass
Girl’s suffering. In these semitriumphant, loudmouth moments, Davenport shows a robust, crass sense of humor,
such as in the poem “Diminishing Innuendo of Hog Sonnet,” whose lines include “Willy woody wiener
weenie” and “Salty dog schlong skin flute.”
This style of humor is just another evidence of Davenport’s skill as a poet. His ability to turn
a sonnet’s perspective slightly with the final line, while still encapsulating the thrust of the body of
the poem, is impressive. Equally impressive is his knowledge and use of forms. “East St. Louis Ontological
Race-Riot Toodle-oo, 1917,” for example, is a double kwansaba (a seven-line poem with seven words per line),
a form created by fellow Bottom-dweller Eugene B. Redmond, the poet laureate of East St. Louis.
Davenport’s passion for wordcraft and storytelling perhaps
comes through most clearly in the poem “True Confessions,” which is placed near the end of the collection.
Its narrator describes how during a softball game he spends his time counting syllables:
I don't know the batter. A dirt-leg friend
taking somebody's place.
The catcher's a toad and this guy's a tube
Of amphetamines. I'm watching,
As “True Confessions”
progresses, it becomes ever clearer that the poem’s narrator is a man out of place—and eventually, he
tells us, he “[leaves] the mill for books full-time.” There’s a beauty in the narrator’s
unfurling of the self, in his admission that “I found / poems . . . / Every day I write my true confession.
/ I count syllables.” Indeed there’s a confessional beauty in the whole of Davenport’s
collection; he has created a well-organized assemblage of direct, emotionally open poetry that demonstrates just
how fertile the seemingly barren land of The Bottom can be.
Steve Davenport's Overpass Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, first published
at Prick of the Spindle
it happened, I was reading Overpass, by Steve Davenport, in the waiting room of a doctor’s office,
which turned out to be exactly the right place to read it. The first three poems I read were titled after magazines
I might find there—Entertainment Weekly, Good Housekeeping, Consumer Reports, and then I flipped
through the pages and looked back at the table of contents, and, indeed, that was what was going on, and I could
look forward to Rolling Stone, Field and Stream, Better Living, and even the Journal of Speculative
Philosophy. Alas, the reason to be in doctors’ waiting rooms in Overpass is to attend the appointments
and surgeries of “Overpass Girl,” who is being treated for breast cancer and to whom the book is dedicated.
So it’s a devastating collection, full
of terror and wild humor, anger, and song, and echoes of T.S. Eliot (“etherized and spread out / on a white
table”), Wallace Stevens (“a palm at the end of an arm”), and Tom Waits: “The Sestina Has
Been Drinking.” And “…Sinking.” And “…Thinking.” Davenport takes it
on, love and grief, shared suffering, the blues, and connects the personal story of Overpass Girl to changes and
losses along the floodplain of the Mississippi River, the Bottomland “cupped by bluffs,” compromised
by “factory closings” and “rusting abandonments,” and birthplace of the great jazz musician Miles
Davis. But, as Davenport wails in “Rolling Stone,” “Bottom was never saved by a song.”
Here’s a gorgeous, scary sample
of the beauty in these poems, the hard edges, the technical knowledge, the flat statement of what is, with a title
that, like so many of the magazine titles, also mocks what is, what humans have to suffer:
Once again she becomes
as clouds veiling
the fucking moon. She’s mutability
on display. Life principle #1.
She floats there, twenty-one bruises,
until it’s light and she descends, veins
opening and singing anemia,
bird song of her bone marrow biopsy.
goes on to give the patient, and us, a “long, hollow” needle “for twisting, crunching into, rotating
/ out an answer 2mm wide, // 2cm long.” The lines are excruciatingly sensory, digging into the heart of our
bones, as well as hers, and coming up with too small an answer and not the one we want.
Dark as these poems are, they are also full of word play and plenty of
fun. They conquer the fear of death and pain with joy and rhyme. The repetitions in a villanelle can be a kind
of morphine. The struggle to organize a sestina can be a welcome pain in the ass: “Sestina, tonight’s
the night I push you off the overpass.” And most of the poems are curtal sonnets, shrunken (or “curtailed”)
to eleven lines, and ending with a half-line and often with a bang, not a whimper.
This is a fine book of steady lamentation and healthy cursing. It makes
me question human geography, why we stay in a place with a Gasoline Lake and a Dead Creek, both part of the desired
economic stream. “American Girl” begins, “I love the Bottom like I love a song / about trouble
and people staying put / despite the spills that pool under their feet.” (And make them sick.) And “American
Boy” begins, “Smile. Spills happen.” And ends, “This song’s // trying to look up.”
This book’s trying to make the best of it.
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: What's going on with these titles?
Almost all of them are titled after magazines...
Davenport: I like what Kathleen Kirk has to say in her review at Prick of the Spindle: "As
it happened, I was reading Overpass, by Steve Davenport, in the waiting room of a doctor's office, which
turned out to be exactly the right place to read it. The first three poems I read were titled after magazines I
might find there. . . . Alas, the reason to be in doctors' waiting rooms in Overpass is to attend the appointments
and surgeries of ‘Overpass Girl,' who is being treated for breast cancer and to whom the book is dedicated."
In fact, though I wasn't articulating it to myself that way at the time, I was writing those poems in a waiting
AMK: Talk to us about the forms
of these poems from your second book, Overpass. In your first book, Uncontainable Noise, you use
a form you called "yodel sonnets," which are 100-lines long, as well as more traditional 14-line sonnets,
some of which we featured at http://www.poemoftheweek.org/id319.html.
Almost every poem in Overpass is in the form of what you call "curtal or curtailed sonnets"
in the back of the book: a sextet followed by a quatrain followed by a single-line stanza (is there a name for a
single-line stanza by the way??).
How can you
call these sonnets? What is it that attracts you to this form so frequently in the book.
SD: Ah yes, the yodel sonnets, both the standard 14-line versions (each line packed with 12 syllables)
threatening to explode both thematically and formally. And the 100-line sonnets. Extensions of that idea. Rupture
and rapture. Voice breaks pushing the form. Gerard Manley Hopkins' Terrible Sonnets were a strong influence.
We talk about all of that in the first Poem of the Week interview.
In Overpass I begin with a form attributed to Hopkins, the curtal sonnet. Curtal as in curtailed.
Hopkins' curtailment is 75% of a 14-line sonnet. 10.5 lines. As in Uncontainable Noise, I set out to write a
handful of poems in a specific form and one thing led to another. I love what Emily Dickinson does with space and
I feel a kinship with Elizabeth Bishop in poems like "One Art. So it felt natural when I discovered the curtal
sonnet. I knew immediately I wanted to go shorter than a sonnet. I wanted to see what I could do in an even tighter
space. The yodel sonnet's 12-syllable line became the curtal's 10-syllable line, and 14 lines become 10.5, the
final half-line a visual and syllabic reduction that might underscore the power of curtailment.
AMK: There are a few variations of form in the
book. In "Field and Stream," you use a sequence of this form, "The Sestina is Sinking my Ship"
is a sestina, and a number of other forms appear in the latter pages of the book. Why?
SD: A couple of the poems, "Field and Stream" and "True Confessions," are
compound curtal sonnets. That is, they're each a curtal-sonnet sequence and therefore, as in "Shore Song in
Cinq Cinquain" (a cinquain I multiply), they constitute a stretching of the form. It's in the Sinking, Drinking,
and Thinking sestinas where, I think, I do the work of the 100-line sonnets and push the form most fully. I stay
true to the number of lines, but I play with the end-line rhymes that are key to the form. In the Sinking sestina,
I destabilize the form with "blood," replacing it once with "hell" and shifting its position
a tiny bit in the last half-stanza. In the Drinking sestina, I alter at one time or another four of the six end-line
rhymes to suggest inebriation or instability. The form, like Overpass Girl's body, is at risk. The final and most
brutal of the sestinas, the Thinking one, obsesses over the six words, destabilizing all of them, and makes the
removal of a last breast (or "tit" as it's called in the poem five times) the focus. Sestina and Overpass
Girl are one and the same at this point. The bodies of both are at stake. These are the things I see when I reread
is, at its heart, a book about the Illinois Floodplain you grew up on near St. Louis as well as a breast cancer victim
named the "Overpass Girl." Both this setting and character figure largely in these poems but are always
discussed from the side; you rarely address or discuss them directly; rather, you utilize a more lyrical approach
via which we receive fragments of these figures but never a complete picture. What's up with that? Why avoid straight
narrative so fiercely?
SD: I addressed
damage to and on the floodplain (AKA American Bottom) directly in essay form in Murder on Gasoline Lake,
originally published in Black Warrior Review and later as a chapbook by New American Press. In
between those two publishing events it got itself listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. Around this time
I was already beginning to make poems of the floodplain, curtalizing, if you will, material from Gasoline Lake.
And then the cancer-witness work began and took the early form of a highly fragmented essay, "Bomb Fragments
12.11.07," I read at the Hyde Park Center in Chicago for Series A, a podcast of which is still available via
WBEZ-FM on the internet. In that essay, I addressed damage underway in Overpass Girl's body and said I would fight
cancer with spit balls, with words, with poems. The curtal sonnets became my spit balls. A year after the Series
A broadcast on WBEZ-FM, I was asked for an essay by the then editor of the now-defunct Northwest Review.
I was already writing the Overpass poems, the spit balls, and wondered how the cancer material might work in a less fragmented
form. You can decide for yourself how it worked by feeding some combination of my name, Northwest Review,
and "No Apology for Happiness" into a search engine. You can find a copy of it on-line. Why does Overpass,
as you say, "avoid straight narrative so fiercely"? If it lacks the long, straight address it might
receive in prose form, I suppose that's the nature of a collection of short poems. Or spit balls, which do their
best work via odd, sneaky angles.
I love the language of "Good Housekeeping" and "Entertainment Weekly." They not only wonderfully
describe the subjects of your gaze (the Illinois Floodplain and the mutative affects of cancer) but do so in a way
that transmutes the feelings and sensations associated with those subjects. Is this sort of lyricism, is this approach
to subject matter what draws you to poetry, what makes poetry uniquely different than fiction?
SD: Don't most attempts at defining poetry and
fiction against each other fail? I publish quite a bit of fiction and I've been teaching literature and writing
for years. I admit to making the following distinction in the classroom: "The most important page in fiction
is the next page. The most important page in poetry is the page you're on." No matter what I write, I want
it both ways. I want you to stay in one of my poems even as you want to read another. I want you to want to know
what happens next in one of my stories but to be slowed by passages you want to roll around in, read aloud to someone.
AMK: Why the sections in "Field and Stream"?
Why no punctuation? How did you arrive at this form for the poem? Are you at all concerned that all the repetition
might irk some readers? How much do you worry about your readers in the first place?
SD: Do we ever remember, as writers writing, why we did certain things? In answering, we're writers
reading, albeit our own work. Why no punctuation? And why the sections? I wanted the four curtal sonnets that
make up the poem to look like fields, and I employed no punctuation to make each section flow like a stream of words.
As for the repetition, farm land as experienced from a car on a two-lane Illinois highway, where I grew up and
where I live now, is corn field corn field bean field bean field corn field. And there's the shotgun shell at the
heart of the poem. Steel shot is its own kind of perfect repetition. Father-son relationships are sets of experiences
that are repetitive. Plus, I wanted the poem to be fast to suggest the speed of a stream or a car or a shotgun
trigger click bang. I think about the reader, whose participation I need, but often the music that evolves in a
poem as well as the ways in which form and content tuck into each other take over and make demands. That's the
reader in me answering. The writer in me says he doesn't remember.
AMK: How did it come to you to write a sestina TO the form of the sestina itself in "The
Sestina Has Been Sinking"?
I address form directly in all three of the sestinas in Overpass. In "The Sestina Has Been Sinking,"
I express frustration with the form, its tight-ass sixes and sevens, its predictable thirty-nine sutures (or lines),
and yes, I threaten Sestina with a shotgun, with death, if she won't do something to save herself. I charge her
with stale blood stale and old skin. I threaten to use my rough hands, my poet hands, to make her (to scrape and shape
her) as real, as gritty as the Bottom land I've relocated her to. Rough language is part of it. In "The Sestina
Has Been Drinking," I do my playful Tom Waits' best to liquor up the nearly dead form (easy to make one, hard
to make a good one) and, in so doing, declare my love (yes, via the old Herb Alpert lyric "this guy's in love
with you," in part because it was popular when the woman who's the inspiration for Overpass Girl and I were
growing up). By the time we get to "The Sestina Has Been Thinking," arguably the most brutal poem in
the book, Sestina has become synonymous with Overpass Girl, the book's central figure of damage, and I'm working
as hard as I can to save her as a witness, as a poet. Just as O.G. has lost a breast to metastatic cancer, she
is about to lose the other and the nights are long with pain and waiting, pills and liquor her medicine, stirred
with my "six words or lines or shots repeating shit." I bend the six words, show the ultimate respect
for form by risking showing none at all: "Rough as the moon,/ my hands twist Shot to Shoot to Shit, Six to
Sick to Sink,/ beat Bell back to Bowl, Neat to Night, knock Blue to Blow." Sestina becomes, in this rendition,
as rough as she needs to be to make it on the Bottom, to survive another cancer night.
AMK: "The Sestina Has Been Sinking," as well as much of your work in general, is a rather
violent poem. The voice/tone of the poem is rather gruff and working class and images of guns and dirt and blood
appear time and time again. Where does all this strife, all this poverty and violence come from? While I realize
you grew up poor, you're now Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Why dwell in the floodplain? Why not write about the academic life or iPhones or travel?
SD: First, I've never been poor. My father, protected
by a union, worked steadily as a pipefitter at a Shell Oil plant. My mother was an R.N., who could always find
work if we needed it. For a few years we owned a corner grocery store and reaped the economic benefits of that added
income. And so on. Still, I was the oldest of four and therefore the one who most fully felt the early pinch and
understood the landscape of the Bottom as rough and the aesthetic I grew up in as working-class. Is that synonymous
with "poverty"? No. Is there "strife"? Sure, for some, for many folks at different points
in their lives, their weeks and days. As I write elsewhere, the landscape in Overpass is a largely depressed
industrial area across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. American Bottom runs from Alton down past East St.
Louis. As is true in many places around the world, folks need work. Too often settling for scraps is the only
deal on the table. That doesn't mean they're without dignity or complexity, those with and without iPhones, those with and
without jobs, those who stay and those who go. It doesn't mean they live in poverty or they're without hope. It
means they're alive and insisting on staying that way for as long as the clock will let them.
Where does my preoccupation with "violence" or the "violence"
in my poetry come from? Life. Birth. It begins there. I've watched four daughters being born. Though each
delivery was successful, birth is an inherently violent act. In both of my books, Uncontainable Noise and
Overpass, I write about the body under pressure. If you want some joy, go back to Uncontainable Noise.
There you'll find real, explosive joy ("rupture and rapture," as I explain in the first interview I did
with you). The second time around, in Overpass, I take on multiple forms of damage in a particular location.
I take on cancer. I settle for scraps. Like scrub bushes through asphalt, I insist on life in spite of the odds.
Steve Davenport interview at Poet's Voices
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