Geffrey Davis grew up in Washington and holds degrees from Oregon State University and Penn State University. Revising The Storm (BOA Editions)—winner of the 2013 A. Poulin, Jr. Prize—is his first book of poetry. Davis’s awards also include the Anne Halley Poetry Prize, the Wabash Prize for Poetry, the Dogwood Prize in Poetry, the Leonard Steinberg Memorial/Academy of American Poets Prize, Pushcart nominations, and fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation and Penn State’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities. Recent work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Green Mountains Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Massachusetts Review, Mississippi Review, Nimrod, [PANK], Sycamore Review, Zone 3, and elsewhere. Davis considers the South Puget Sound "home"—though he's been raised by much more of the Pacific Northwest. In Fall 2014, he joins the MFA faculty at the University of Arkansas.
Congratulations on the publication of Revising The Storm! Tell us about life with a first collection out in the world, a brand-new job in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and a young family. Does the momentum of your busy life help you focus as a writer, or does it make writing more challenging?
First of all, I want to say "thank you."
You know, the past few years have been pretty incredible. Last year, in fact, felt like a big punctuation point with the birth of my son, my marriage, my book coming out and this move to Arkansas right in front of me. But I think the momentum of my days helps me focus. I’ve always liked to keep myself stretched thin. My memory is actually pretty bad, and gaps in my schedule can lead to trouble and to me forgetting things. Because my day-to-day life is so loud, I feel better poised to notice inspiration or make inquiries that lead to a poem.
In your life as a teacher of literature and creative writing, what do you find yourself trying hardest to teach your students about poetry/academia/life? What do you find most rewarding—or most frustrating—about teaching?
I aspire to teaching for what comes next. I want my students to spend more time thinking about and honoring the moments and ideas that lead into and out of the poem—to think of poetry as something we practice beyond the page. For example, when discussing the use and effects of literal and figurative language, I might give them the assignment to call their loved ones over the weekend and pay attention to how much literal language versus how much figurative language they use naturally in a conversation like that. Then I might ask them to comment on the types of relationships they have with the people they called and ask themselves the language used says about the nature of those relationships.
Next, I might ask them to call another loved one and to try using only literal or only figurative language in the conversation. They quickly realize that the person to whom they are speaking finds this strange. This is one way to illustrate the importance of balance between literal and figurative language in poetry and how it impacts the reader.
As for frustrations, I have noticed a general resistance to poetry—even by students who have chosen to study it. This might have something to do with how poetry is introduced in high school or earlier, so I want my students to start with something familiar and see how poetry can heighten that experience. My approach also has to do with the fact that I was a late student. I haven’t been writing all my life. I was actually a Zoology major before I switched to language. And I nearly failed out of college. So, I want my approach to be generous to people who consider themselves unconventional students of poetry.
We reprinted two poems from your collection in this issue, “What I Mean When I Say My Name Is Nobody” and “Teaching Twelve-Year-Olds The Trail Of Tears.” Let’s talk about the way you manage humor and gravity in these poems. In the “Trail of Tears” poem, for example, we have laugh-out-loud moments in a poem that tackles a very serious subject matter. That balance seems important to you and comes up several times in Revising The Storm. How do you find and maintain that balance in your poems?
I’m weirdly interested in laughter during uncomfortable moments. I’m interested in how laughing or smiling in a difficult situation can be a bodily wish for immediate repair. My main challenge in Revising The Storm was to allow myself to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality of humor and let it exist alongside gravity.
The poems in Revising The Storm explore memory, trauma, grief, joy and masculinity. How do you find your way into this highly emotional material without allowing the subject matter to dominate the poems? How do you maintain such a high level of craft even when dealing with narratives that are so powerful and devastating? How do you keep a necessary distance from your subject matter?
I start with imagining or desiring a better relationship with some subject matter or, perhaps more accurately, with an urgent intention to engage with ideas or events that I find devastating. I find that the poem only works if the craft somehow engages with the subject matter. This provides a more accurate survey of the emotional truth of the poem. So, the process of writing becomes a search for the right relationship between poem and subject matter.
You know, there used to be some memories I was too worried to turn to the page. They happened when I was very young and they felt like magic. I worried what putting them on the page would do to my relationship with these memories. I then stumbled upon the idea of a memory series and, through the use of a repeated imperative [in the titles of these particular poems], I was able to write past the anxiety and get these poems out. Once I started, I cranked out a whole book of these in a very short time. Only two of these memory series poems appear in Revising The Storm. They are “Write The Memory of Throwing The Stone” and “Write The Memory Of The Girl Dancing In Apple Blossoms.”
Finally, the larger journey of this book—that is to say all the flailing toward the poems—has been edited out. (I also try to teach my students to read beyond the poised success of publication.)
How did the title fragments “What I Mean When I Say...” and “The Epistemology Of...” serve you as you wrote and/or edited these poems, or as you compiled this manuscript?
I am enjoying the experience of repetition. I am always grateful for reading a book that is cumulative. The repetition helps me negotiate my awareness of and my anxiety about speaking across language communities. I have a mixed ethnic background and I am the first member of my family to attend graduate school.
The repetition of “What I Mean When I Say” in the titles of some of the poems is a way for me to, hopefully, announce another in-between-ness of meaning. I think of poetry as an intellectual space for creating language that’s nimble enough to travel some of this distance between “self” and “other.” But I am also self-consciousness of the story in these poems and I am trying to find more agency with this saying: “what I mean when I say.” To say it and re-say it is the project, I suppose.
And now the burning question for all your fans out there: what are you working on now?
I have been spending this past year finishing my dissertation on 20th-21st century American poetics. I have also been sending out pieces of this critical project for publication.
In terms of my own poetry, I have been thinking about and working on poems largely catalyzed by the two poems in Revising The Storm that mention my Native American and my Filipino heritages. My connection to these groups is somewhat tenuous but, in a way, that frees me up. I feel like a cultural outlaw!
Oh, I also have been thinking about the long poem, particularly as a counter-model to Revising The Storm (which is comprised of shorter poems) for creating a language of survival.
In my head, the long poem offers an opportunity to feel less pressure to reach conclusions in a poem. Just as the memory series I spoke of earlier allowed me some combination of form and content that was liberating for me personally, thinking about the long form seems like it might be a way for me to be less pushed in and out of poems. Because my connections to my cultural backgrounds are fractured, I feel a great deal of hesitancy. I guess I’m just curious how the long poem might be liberating for me.