In each of our “Boo’s Hollow” issues, Associate Poetry Editor Lea Graham invites writers and poets to reflect on the role played by place in both their own work and poetry in general. This month, we’re proud to share the thoughts and work of Steve Davenport.
Lea Graham: I have been fascinated with the student writing assignment you speak of in your essay and your focus on a ten-mile stretch of place. Can you talk about the correlation between limiting your place/spatial focus and research and the practice of writing poems? It strikes me that that kind of close and limited inspection and poem writing are kindred acts.
Steve Davenport: About that assignment, I had three gifted undergrad poets in that workshop. They didn’t need the place constraint to be nudged along. The others did. Their page work benefitted from the jump start, took surprising shape, lifted here and there. Other constraints might have worked, too. At that point, I was done tilling the formalist ground (syllabic sonnetry) in Uncontainable Noise, my first book. Or I thought I was.
Back in the 1990s, when I started writing poems, I discovered early on that certain forms of constraint freed me. When I reduced a space, it opened. Here’s what I had to say back in 2010 at poemoftheweek.org about my work in syllabic sonnetry: “Toward that end, I carefully pack each line with the same number of syllables. I load the sonnet with projectiles and motion. I aim for those shifts in register within and across the sonnets to give them a yodel stamp, mine. For that reason, ‘So I Send This Three-Word Burst, Poor Ink, Repeating’ is one of my favorites and arguably the best single expression of what I was after: that perfect noise at the razor edge of jail break, the uncontainable click or bang that changes, opens everything, right there, smack-dab in the moment of that uncontainability. Rupture. Rapture. My mantra, I guess. The sequence, culminating in two very different hundred-line sonnets that I hope are unmistakably mine, gave me the fields and fences I needed.”
For Overpass, which deals with cancer and multiple forms of rust-belt damage, I wanted to escalate the damage I imagined myself doing to the sonnet form in those 100-line drunken cowboy sonnets. To do that, I went in the opposite direction with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ 75% reduction, the curtal sonnet, as the book’s primary form. I added others (sestina, villanelle, cinq cinquain, kwansaba), pushed some of them to the breaking point, all of it in an attempt to blow up the house of form. For me. Make it impossible for me to return.
Of late, in poems like “Dear No. 2 Pencil Decomposing in Whiskey,” I’m trying to open form, blow longer notes, phrase more organically than I ever have, see what happens in fields that roll out of view past the horizon. I’m a recovering formalist. Wagon’s a long, hard ride.
LG: I often think of your work directly linked to music. You even have a whole batch of poems you call “yodels.” I asked your friend, Clay Matthews, in last month’s Boo’s Hollow to talk about the intersection of place and song for him. I’d like to complicate that with you and ask you to talk a bit about the intersections (or roundabout!) among poetic form, place and song.
SD: My man Clay began with John Prine, my all-time favorite. Between you and me, I might have married a woman because Prine grew up in her hometown. You’ll think I’m making that up, but I’m probably not. Prine’s a great lyricist. “Mexican Home.” “One Red Rose.” “Far from Me.” I could name a couple dozen more of his songs I wish I’d written the lyrics for. Place is important in many of Prine’s songs, and he has such a distinctive voice. Voice, or sound, is what draws me to poetry. Asked to choose between sound and sense, I’ll take sound, which, done well, makes a sense on its own.
Yodels? Here’s another snippet from that 2010 Uncontainable Noise interview: “The sonnet with twelve-syllable lines fits perfectly what I was trying to do at the time: represent the body under pressure, the body about to blow, to howl, to risk its own dismemberment. As I kept building my tightly packed sonnets with the idea that rupture of form is both constant threat and inevitable result, I became interested in the voice-breaks in a yodel, the rapid shifts in register, the way the voice ramps higher and higher until it breaks and must drop down (chest voice) to ascend again (head voice). What I like about the yodel is its incorporation of the breaks, the tiny, controlled ruptures that seem extravagantly displayed yet are anything but extravagant because they’re fundamental to the form.”
I want my poems’ primary performance space to be the page. I want them performed in your reading of them, and I want you to want to read them again and again. So yes, maybe I’m influenced by an old notion of poem as song, as something we memorize because we have no choice. I’m thinking of Eliot, Plath, Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks. I don’t need to hear them reading the poems of theirs that most draw me. I hear them on the page. I aim to write poems like that, distinctive voicings that employ form and formal constraints as transcription or notation.
Place becomes essential in the poems in my second book, Overpass. It’s there that I confront my home turf, American Bottom. It’s not surprising that I invoke the Bottom’s most famous son, Miles Davis, as I make every attempt to blow his ghost horn through the curtal sonnets and sestinas and other forms that guide that song book.
LG: To take the rhyme of “place” and “race” and use it to launch a discussion about race in a country like the U.S. is interesting and gutsy. I think of the LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka book, Blues People, and how his teacher, Sterling Brown, told him when he was an undergraduate, “the music is our history.” So taking rhyme—part of the music of our language—and using it as a springboard into places that are embedded with criminal and tragic and hopeful and intensely creative histories seems a generative place to start. Can you talk a bit about your notions of place, race, history and song?
SD: It might be gutsy if folks were paying attention, if my words struck a chord with them. Words in the ether are easier to avoid than cow flop in the Parthenon. It might be gutsy if I were Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury, calling out American writers for insularity in 2008. I haven’t that power nor am I a fan of sweeping statements. That said, insularity, by definition, is a problem. For whom, though? Those left out (the invisible or the underrepresented)? Or those, both reader and writer, whose view suffers from cultural (class, race, gender, sexual, etc.) narrowness? I’m not suggesting our literature improves if we march lock-step to committee meetings intent on producing racially accurate poems about geographically limited, historicized spaces. It won’t. And by the way, there’s room for everyone and every view, however narcissistic or myopic, at the lit house party I’d envision. I am fully capable of liking tales of like-minded folk doing like-minded things. I simply think it would be healthier all around if white writers did their fair share of the race work that literature can do, that it might do, that music arguably does better because influence gets felt more deeply there, because the sharing or the theft travels in all directions more freely, more communally, more generatively. Or so I think right now. My soapbox speech is a simple wish that more white writers, poets too, include race in their work in some way. Is that gutsy? If it is, it’s a fucking sad world we live in.
LG: I think of you as one of the busier writers I know. Talk about what’s next. What is Steve Davenport thinking about these days?
SD: I can go months and produce nothing much. A year ago I was devoting almost all of my writing time to Sudoku puzzles, the more difficult the better. One day I quit, walked away from that smart, addictive box, and began writing about place and literature for my website/blog. Go to the very first blog entries to see what I mean. For instance, in From the Whiskey Tub #1, I reread first books by two well-known writers, Robert Wrigley and Kevin McIlvoy, who grew up on the Bottom. Two days ago I had four files open and was working steadily in all of them, bouncing around like the poster boy for Attention Deficit Disorder: a song lyric for a musician friend, the “Place Space Race” essay for you and Boo’s Hollow, an intro for a Rumpus interview I did with Tim Parrish about his race memoir Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, and some light editing of a previously published short story for possible inclusion in an anthology of redneck fiction for a French audience. Last night and this morning, it’s been one file only, these interview questions. By tomorrow I hope to be back working on fiction and what I hope will be my next book, a novel maybe: BLACK GUY BALD GUY. (Did I say we have four young daughters at home?) This coming semester I’ll be team-teaching a songwriting course here at the University of Illinois with Julie Gunn (performance) and Stephen Andrew Taylor (composition). My role will be word guy, lyrics. And it will be a daunting enterprise. Though Julie and Steve have been easy-going and inviting, I know the caliber of their work. Julie travels the world teaching master classes and accompanying singers like her husband, baritone Nathan Gunn, and Mandy Patinkin. From Carnegie Hall and a Chicago Symphony commission to collaborations with the band Pink Martini and the singer Storm Large, Steve Taylor’s list of accomplishments, compositions, and performances is also enough to shut me down. So I can’t think about all of that, but I am. I’m thinking about all of that right now. Poems and songs are different forms that share certain properties. How to explain the differences? Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll return to Sudoku right there in the middle of class. Maybe that will be for the better.
Photo By: Jasper Colt