by Devon Bohm and Barbara Wanamaker
|The Church of Language
An Afternoon with Poet Carol Ann DavisSitting down with Carol Ann Davis on a rainy afternoon in November, we experienced poetry through the author’s insight, using her latest book, Atlas Hour, as our guide. Atlas Hour is an impressive landscape of poem maps, where Davis takes on a massive scale of subject matter—from her children to the Holocaust. Her philosophy on a poet’s place in time is as poetic and universal as her work: “It’s easy to worry one doesn’t have a right to such big subjects, until one realizes thinking about these past events is a way of understanding the present moment, and that there’s perhaps even a responsibility—not exactly to witness, but to reckon with, what has come before you.”
Carol Ann’s take on language and writing poetry is equally refreshing and open, as well as free of constraints. “As a teacher of writing and as a writer myself, that’s the business I’m in: perpetual inquiry leading, eventually, to revelation, and all of it based in craft.” And all of this while surrendering, supplicating, to the building blocks of language: words. Carol Ann shared her philosophies of religion, writing and language use. Here are her words.
Q. The first thing a reader notices about your poetry in Atlas Houris the form on the page. Inventive, alluring, how did you come by the use of caesura in such a creative manner, employing white space as a tool in creating your poems?
A. I don’t think of those breaks as caesuras because whether you stop depends on the poem. When I read those poems out loud there’s a conversational rhythm to them. They don’t stop like that, so it’s more of a thought-space type thing. I just used the form because it was helping me write poems and anything that helps me write poems I do without question—until it quits helping me write poems. And so it started as this basic, almost primal gesture of shaking the idea that rhetoric runs the poem and letting things like image or precision run the show. The spaces are a natural extension of that kind of allegiance.
But a funny thing happened in that the sentence became even more important because there wasn’t punctuation—it meant I had to be clear. You don’t want people to attach an image to a wrong verb phrase. So at the same time I was focusing on not using punctuation, the spacing was becoming punctuation. Those spaces became not so much a rhythmic caesura as some sort of space on the page correlating with a space in the brain.
Q. You also use little to no punctuation and prefer lower case letters to form your words, which is a distinct style. Is this simply how your poetry emerges or is it a deliberate tactic to entice the reader?
A. The music of found speech is beautiful and often that can be an anchor for me inside the poetic tone, the tonal color of the poem. All of those were my surrenders, all those things that you’re listing here were ways of surrendering myself to what I felt was something essential inside the language. It’s funny that people are thinking of it as a style, but I guess it’s good. If you surrender hard enough you might actually get a style, but if you try to cultivate one, then forget it.
Q. Your poems contain a lot of religious imagery. Is this iconography inherent in all of your work, or particular to Atlas Hour? Do you think it helps to tie your work together?
A. I’ve had to accept this tendency toward religious imagery. I grew up Southern Baptist and some of my earliest reading experiences were the Bible—in the Sunday school curriculum you read the whole book every five years. My mother was the secretary for the preacher, so I would go with her on Wednesday to collect the sermon and she would type it.
I actually think it’s a melding of my writing consciousness with religion, because my preacher tied intellectuality to religious life for me. He had this writing assignment every week and I was three years old being exposed to his writing process. After he died, his widow brought me a sermon and when I read it, I could tell I developed my sentence structure from him. Before I could read I was listening to his sermons and putting together what syntax looked like.
And so, it’s bound together. I don’t know if I’m a believer or not. But when the love of language is that tied to a certain book, a certain man of faith, it just doesn’t go away. I just come by it honestly; it’s the landscape of my childhood. We went to church three times a week. Had I not been a person interested in language it might have been oppressive.
Q. What is your philosophy of writing, of being a writer? And why poetry?
A. I often think of what my teacher James Tate said—here’s a paraphrase: that poetry is noble precisely because of its uselessness. Its uselessness is what keeps it out of any kind of corrupting sphere. I don’t have an audience really; I’m not a poet with a public imperative; I’m not an activist poet; I’m not a member of a group that needs me. I’m really a lyric poet concerned with my own brain.
It’s funny that in workshop it’s all about what the reader thinks. In my mind that’s not the point at all. What you’re writing has to be clear to the writer and if it is, then the reader will follow it. The reason to get rid of what’s unclear isn’t for the reader; it’s for yourself. It’s not about answering the reader’s questions, but an awareness and exploration of what your own questions are.
With that said, your standards have to be higher than anyone else’s. There can be no hubris or laxity. I don’t mean that readers don’t matter. I just mean that you should’ve done so much work that any reader will feel comfortable.
There’s this risky thing that goes on when it only matters to you, but it just has to really matter to you. I think people will sometimes use the excuse that the reader can’t follow because it was a personal experience, but they’re missing that part where it actually mattered to them as writers to understand the experience’s complexity beyond simply reporting it. That deep commitment is what finally means any reader can follow. That’s what empathy is.
There’s the necessary ambiguity of experience—like: “I’m sorry. This is the end of what I understand about this.” That’s the kind of ambiguity that’s okay in poems. It doesn’t matter if someone can’t understand you if you yourself have done everything to understand and have come up mystified. That means you’re up against mystery. But if you’re actually trying to be clear, someone else will understand you.
Q. We were taken with your two-part poem, “Upon Seeing the Terezin Children’s Drawings, Two Parts.” The first part of the poem is in past tense, the second in present. Is this a statement comparing how children endured the event that happened (Holocaust) then, and how children endure life today?
A. No. It could be that it’s a statement about that, but it’s not one that I intentionally put there. But I believe that all the things people interpret in poems are there—what right do I have to say that they aren’t? If someone is so engaged with one of my poems that they come up with something like a message within it, then I’m honored, because that’s a pretty deep engagement.
Q. In “Upon Seeing the Terezin Children’s Drawings, Two Parts,” the poems are nearly mirror-image inversions of each other while making perfect sense. Is there a technique you can share that will teach others how to create poetry in this form?
A. It’s a mirror poem. About one third of the poems in this book are mirrors in which only the backwards version was kept. A lot of times I don’t remember which ones have been flipped; it’s just a part of my revision process. Flipping a poem takes away the intentions of what I meant to say, because sometimes the subjects now refer to different verbs, so then I go, “Do I believe the things that this now says?” Then there’s all this work I have to do about whether or not this is something I would put my name to.
A piece of it is that sometimes you’re working towards saying something big to somebody in a poem and as you get toward the end, you’re really committing to it. I think poems are shaped like inverted triangles, so when you flip them, you end up with an opposite. If you turn a poem so it’s near-to-far instead of far-to-near, you really mess up what you were trying to do and find something new—maybe what you were really saying.
In “Terezin,” I kept both because I thought the two parts said different things. Something happened with the second half of that poem in terms of the release of force. There’s an incredible force there when you turn it, an incredible authority it inherited. You needed to see it flipped to feel it, and so I left it a little rougher than other poems. I remember at some point my editor said that even mirrors don’t reflect perfectly because he wanted me to change it more; let the second half be less a reflection, and I think he was right. But I think I was just shocked when I flipped it. Whatever happens happened inside the language, which I don’t feel is my doing.
Q. This issue of Mason’s Road deals with time—What is your thought process about poetry’s unique ability to include both History with a capital “H” and present time?
A. I’ve thought a lot about big-H History both during the writing of Atlas Hour and afterwards, as I noticed laced throughout the book are concerns about some of the major events of the twentieth century, most notably the Holocaust, but also movements in art that I find historic. It’s easy to worry one doesn’t have a right to such big subjects, until one realizes thinking about these past events is a way of understanding the present moment, and that there’s perhaps even a responsibility—not exactly to witness, but to reckon with, what has come before you. I think all that violence that occurred and is still occurring is inside me; I’m capable of it, especially if I leave it unexamined.
Adam Zagajewski recently wrote an essay about this topic, an essay I love, “Inspiration and Impediment,” in The Threepenny Review, Winter 2012, in which he says, “The skin of poetry is still covered with scars.” He’s discussing certain trends in contemporary poetry away from an awareness of historical events. He worries about what he calls an “urban irony” overtaking poetry, and what such a stance—without a consideration of history—does to the imagination. I think it’s an interesting conversation to have. I end my poetry writing classes with that essay as a way of reminding everyone events have come before us that have the power to shape our imaginations.
I also heard on the radio about a historian who is walking the revolutionary war—as in, crossing the Delaware on I-87 (I think that’s the correct highway) —and learning about history that way. That appeals to me, understanding history physically. Maybe poetry can help us with that as well.
Q. The language in poetry can be overwhelmingly figurative, often with little literal language used. This is one of the big differences between prose and poetry: figurative language. Care to comment?
A. I think that poetry can offer readers a more interactive experience than a lot of types of reading. The reader must meet the poet halfway, must come inside, must commit, and that difficulty requires the reader who comes in to come all in. I realize some readers will not come in at all, but the readers who do come in love it.
There’s that inner activity, for instance, in metaphor: Your hair is like a waterfall—I say that and you have to do the work to figure out that waterfalls are shiny, that waterfalls gush, that these are similarities with hair. The reader does that work. That’s why figuration is a real trust issue between the reader and the writer. Use figurative language too soon and you may not have the trust built up with the reader where the reader will to want to know what you mean. [The reader might say] I don’t want to think about how hair is like a waterfall, thank you very much. I don’t want to sit here and watch your poem go by and be told that I’m inside this or outside that; I don’t want to have to think like that.
A poet is asking for a commitment with figurative language. For that reason I almost always revert to the literal, if I can, rather than the figurative. I ask my students to stay away from figuration unless they really have a reason.
Q. The book jacket of Atlas Hour states that, “…these poems bring the stuff of every day into relationship with the great mysteries of existence: what we believe, who we love, whom and what we choose to hurt or leave unharmed.” The last part of this quote is a beautiful and intriguing way to describe human behavior. Care to elaborate?
A. It was a little terrifying how ambitious this book was on a historical level. Nothing worried me except that I was thinking about the Holocaust and suffering and how that came into in the poems. There’s St. Agnes who was sentenced to persecution by rape in this book; these things that I felt like—really? You’re really going to reach that far; you’re going to say that you’re a part of a history of suffering? I felt I had to answer for that type of arrogance on the jacket. I had to make this leap to humankind because I had done that in poems, though I wasn’t totally comfortable with having brought in so much history. The other big suffering all through this book is Rothko’s suicide [artist Mark Rothko committed suicide in 1970], a question of why he did it. I don’t know that the poems are received as that but they deal with it. And there’s also, “Triptych for Richter,” which is about the Baader-Meinhoff gang [a German leftist terrorist group from the 1970s to the 1990s].
With many of the poems, I was accidentally knee-deep in what I considered to be suffering I don’t have a right to. But I just have to go with Plath—she said something like I have a right to it because it affects me. I’m a citizen of the United States and I was writing this book during our wars. I’m not an activist but this is the way you accidentally become an activist. You find out later you’re preoccupied with ethical concerns and then you have to own up to them. It’s all a backwards gesture toward finding out what I believe in the world; and you don’t find that out unless you do this kind of work.
Q. When conceiving the idea for a poem or the theme for a collection, how do you get started? What inspires you?
A. I almost always start with a little piece of language. Just a tiny piece of language and it’s a very mundane operation. Sometimes it’s something someone says to me or something I overhear. If you know that about the book, you can see that all the poems work in that fashion. It’s just a question of whether that piece of language remained the title or the first line—sometimes they get cut.
That’s what’s funny about all this philosophical stuff that ends up happening when we talk about the poems or when you think about them or when I think about them. They’re really language games at a basic level. I have a lot of faith that language works out. I’m good about having faith in that.
Where I’m good is with supplication and that’s probably my early religious training. You know Baptists say “Lift it up,” and it’s a silly little thing but it helps, it helps to lift it up, to let it go. You know, all those pop psychology things about reminding yourself that you are small and it is big.
I grew up down the street from the ocean at one end and the river at the other and I think I remember the spiritual experience of walking down to the ocean to see that I am small, specifically to be comforted by my smallness. I remember planning to go just to feel it. I remember thinking, this is hard. This is hard. I’ll go and feel my smallness. I feel that way about language—it’s a place to feel my smallness. It’s like this is bigger, it’s big enough to hold onto me, big enough to give me some information about myself. There’s the idea of call and response, all those things, all very reassuring, all very attractive to me, all that spiritual practice stuff.
I think language is church. Part of my difficulty in everyday life is that everyone’s using what I go to church to do, the most mundane things. It’s kind of heartbreaking for poets that language is used all the time, every day by everybody. It’s not true for painters; they don’t have to walk around seeing everybody use paint in some way that they don’t agree with. Musicians don’t have to walk around hearing everyone try to play the piano all the time. Poets have to listen to everybody and poets themselves have to use bad language all the time, too.
Poetic language is a different thing from everyday language. So the idea for a poem is always coming from that act of supplication to this bigger thing, this better thing than me, which is probably why I’m okay with inventing words. When I use big important words they’re not mine anyway, they’re just in the larger tradition of language.
Carol Ann Davis is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry; her poetry collections are Psalm (2007) and Atlas Hour (2011). Recent work is just out or forthcoming in Volt, American Poetry Review, and Image. Last summer, after editing Crazyhorse for over a decade and directing the undergraduate program in creative writing at the College of Charleston for a number of years, she joined the faculty of Fairfield University and began teaching in their MFA Program.