interview: Todd Davis
when you picture someone reading your poetry, how do you see them? what do they think about, wear, and do? or, maybe a better way to say it: who do you write for? and how do you see your writing nourishing others?
When I write, I am writing to real flesh and blood people. I write for my poetry buddies who actually read early drafts of my work and help me to revise and refine it. I write for my wife and two sons, who listen to endless versions of my poems. And when my father was alive, I wrote with him in mind as my ideal reader. He never tired of reading my poems; it was a very vital way we communicated with each other.
I feel infinitely blessed that there are those people I do not know who actually read my work, who actually buy my books. I see art as a human enterprise, based on relationship, on community, on communion.
As for my work nourishing others, all I can say is that there are those poets who have helped me negotiate, embrace, survive so many moments in my own life. If my poems do just a little bit of that for some other person, then I can only offer a bewildered “thanks be.”
how do you use poetry as a practice for spiritual exploration, discipline, or growth? can you offer any practical advice or sure-fire practices for folks interested in allowing writing to inform their spiritual discipline?
I’ve said elsewhere that I do not believe in a separation of the spiritual and the physical worlds as is taught by most Western thinking, an elevation of one and the denigration of the other—(See Wendell Berry’s essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” or Sallie McFague’s The Body of God for work that has informed my thinking on this subject)—and, with that in mind, poetry is always a means for spiritual and physical exploration at once. The writing of poetry affords me with, even necessitates, that I pay close attention to the world at hand—both human and nonhuman—that I meditate upon it, that I be open to it.
To offer advice on writing as spiritual practice would suggest that I know what I’m doing, a claim I’m not willing to make. So rather than think of what follows as advice, I’d like only to say that the following steps help as I work on my poems, and writing for me is most certainly a spiritual discipline.
First, pay attention to what is around you; second, learn the names, the behaviors, the life cycles, etc, for what is around you; third, learn the ways that all living things that are around you are connected and the manner in which you are connected to them.
I think if we keep working at recognizing the mysterious, the mystical, and the absolutely natural and biological ways we are connected to one another and the earth, we’ll be better off in terms of our spiritual and physical state and in turn produce writing that is authentic to who we are as people.
Here’s a poem from my first book that speaks to some of this, especially in its final line:
Near the gravel pit just below
the crest of Norman Hill, two
fox sprawl, end of day warmth
rising from earth. Across the road,
hay turned into windrows rings
William’s field, gold against green
against gold. To the west, sun
flowers itself down the ladder
of the sky, as heavy clouds break
to reveal burnished red of ash
leaves, a fox’s tail disappearing
into the undergrowth. At this hour,
what isn’t prayer?
first published in Ripe, (Bottom Dog Press, 2002)
when you approach your desk, journal, computer—where ever it is you tend to create—what are some of the processes you use? what’s going through your mind? tell us about your habits of writing, no matter how quirky, mundane, strange, or small.
I do a fair amount of drafting in the field. I have 31,000 acres of gamelands just west of my house here inCentral Pennsylvania. It’s pretty wild for the Northeast, and I often encounter such creatures as black bear, coyote, fisher, bobcat, deer, porcupine, mink, beaver, turkey, grouse, and the like. The mountain range to my east begins the Ridge and Valley country ofPennsylvania, and the mountain range to my west begins the Allegheny Front. I often walk the woods several times a week, no matter the season or the weather.
I also take to heart William Stafford’s admonition to write daily, to give your best self to your writing. I try my best to find time each morning at my desk. So as I polish work at my desk—my Buddha bear behind me (a four-foot carving of an American black bear I bought many years ago whose belly and demeanor strike me as Buddha-like) and an Ansel Adams photo of vertical strips of Aspen in front of me, receding into the dark undergrowth—I tend to read the work of other poets, look at paintings, read field guides to local flora and fauna, read biographies and histories, the works of mystics like Meister Eckhart. The written word and the visual image usually get my own imaginative juices seeping from my tongue, and I speak back to those who have come before me, who have made gestures (never final statements) toward the mystery of this life and to what we call “God,” an incomplete and unnerving word if ever there was one. (I am that I am is one of the great koans and only suggests greater mystery to me. Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy!)
when you go to revise work, how do you typically go about it? are there best practices you follow? give some wise instruction for those of us ready to get cracking on revision!
Revision is often the hardest part for any writer because it usually means winnowing, separating the wheat from the chaff. Simply producing text can be an onerous and taxing experience. To think that some of what was so hard to write might not be up to snuff, that it will go in the compost pile, can be simply too much to bear.
What helps me bear it? Understanding that writing is a process, a form of play really, an imaginative act that is spiritual and physical, one that never leads to absolute perfection. Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it? When I acknowledge this, I don’t mind revision all that much. I do not wish to think of my many failed attempts in life as a waste; rather they are a path I follow.
While revising I also find myself thinking about the poems by other writers that I am particularly affected by and how compression is often a key to their impact. Such thinking allows me to carve away with a bit more joy.
what’s the best advice you can give to a person just beginning to write, struggling to write, or feeling stuck? what’s something you wish someone had told you starting out?
Well, I think the best thing any writer can do is read, read, read. How can we make poems without knowing how others have made poems. And we need to read both the old and the contemporary.
I read quite a bit of classical Chinese poetry—writers like Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, and Han Shan (also known as Cold Mountain)—and what I think these writers might offer a person just beginning is the idea that we should honor what is before us, what is present in this moment, in all its detail and physicality.
I often take my students out into the world beyond the classroom and have them make language sketches, asking them to take their time to study a thing, to ruminate upon it, to then describe its many facets. In this kind of approach to writing, the world of ten thousand things is made sacred, holy in and of itself, and worthy of our time, attention, and words.
I think when we first begin writing, too many of us wish to jump forward to insight, to grand statement, instead of allowing the poem to be an act of discovery, a way of exploring.
would you like to share a poem you’re working on or have recently finished and comment on how it was written in light of the comments above? if so, please do so below…
“Umbilical” is a poem that I wrote a few years ago and that was recently published in the journal Tar River Poetry. It describes a Sunday walk with my family in the valley just to the east, a place calledSinkingValley just overBrushMountain. I’ve written about this valley before in a poem called, “A Memory of Heaven,” that I’ll copy below as well. In both instances I did not go to the valley with an agenda, nor did I have a bald statement that I hoped to assert. (Agendas and assertions seem to ruin most poems.) I did go with the intention of being fully present to the moment, of noticing and naming the world, of communing with the creation, of recognizing the invisible threads that tie us to all things, including God. And in my notebook I began to describe what I saw. The poems did not come fully formed. Later at my desk I played with lines, with placement of certain images, with juxtaposition of words and senses. But here was a beginning, an act of submission, heeding the call of the world to note and embrace its sacredness.
As far as the eye will take you it’s honeysuckle and cedar,
skeleton of last fall’s teasel and this spring’s pasture.
From the height of the narrows where the crease comes
down into the valley redbud flows over broken rocks,
and later in May the flowering cones of black locust
cloud the basin floor. Black angus bent in supplication
to hunger hear the echo of our voices as we ascend
the ridge, wishing one another a sweet Sabbath
and our own gladness at having yet one more day
near the navel of this blessed world’s unraveling.
first published in Tar River Poetry
A Memory of Heaven
Ice is talking; water dreaming.
Overhead darkness pinched by starlight.
Below, in the mud of the world, turtle sleeps:
everything fluid, formless without the light
of a lantern. I must remember snow
is enough to see by, and ice will tell us
where we should step. At the end
of the valley limestone swallows water,
moon turns the trees blue, and red
crossbills look for seed among hemlocks.
Beneath the fields, water is talking
in its sleep; ice quiets its dreams.
What I write is always what comes after.
first published in The Least of These (Michigan State University Press, 2010)
Todd Davis is the author of four full-length collections of poetry—In the Kingdom of the Ditch, which will be published by Michigan State University Press in early 2013, The Least of These (Michigan State University Press, 2010) Some Heaven (Michigan State University Press, 2010), and Ripe (Bottom Dog Press, 2002)—as well as of a limited edition chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010). He edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball (Michigan State University Press, 2012), and co-edited Making Poems: 40 Poems with Commentary by the Poets (State University of New York Press, 2010) His poetry has been featured on the radio by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac and by Ted Kooser in his syndicated newspaper column American Life in Poetry. His poems have won the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, have been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize, and have appeared in such journals and magazines as Poetry Daily, Iowa Review, The American Poetry Review, The North American Review, Indiana Review, Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, Image, Ecotone, Orion, West Branch, River Styx, Quarterly West, Green Mountains Review, Sou’wester, and Poetry East. He teaches creative writing, American literature, and environmental studies at Penn State University’s Altoon College.