Geffrey Davis Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Geffrey Davis Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Geffrey, the poems represented in this month’s Congeries are part of a collaboration between you and poet F. Douglas Brown, a co-authored chapbook with the working title, The Daddy Notebooks. Can you tell us more about the project? What led you to work on it? How is the project going? How is the collaborative process different than the solo?
Doug and I first crossed paths in June of 2012 at the Annual Cave Canem Retreat. At the time we were each completing a first book that dealt with issues of the (absent and/or difficult) father and that grappled with ideas of masculinity. Of course, as fathers ourselves, we know that such books (perhaps necessarily) fail to put all questions of parenthood to bed. So, after leaving CC, where we had read and responded to one another’s work, we decided to continue the momentum/synergy we’d developed. More specifically—with Elizabeth Alexander’s and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s Poems in Conversation and a Conversation (a collaborative chapbook published in 2008) in mind—we wondered how our ongoing critical concerns related to fatherhood might be leavened by a collaborative creative approach. Alongside the writing, whenever our schedules allow, we’re also conducting workshops together. For me, the results have been very liberating. But, even in my solo work, I’ve often used forms or strictures to create a theoretical framework that gives me enough permission to attempt to speak about the things I find difficult (or impossible) to speak about. In this case, I think first and foremost it’s the idea that parenting is inherently a collaborative process—not only between people with different parental models of care or child-to-parent sensibilities, but also between past and present knowledges, between what we’ve survived and the unrealized futures our children will face, between the forces of worry and the forces of belief, &c.—and if we don’t honor or investigate the complexity of that collaboration, we risk limiting opportunities to celebrate or to improve. So, in this way, this creative project has provided another opportunity for us to prepare for how that collaborative process might evolve.
I think it fair to say that your poetry seems to exist mostly within the realm of the lyric. What other descriptors do you feel comfortable (or not comfortable) applying to your poems?
Confessional—there, I said it! (Though, technically, I think Terrance Hayes was first to say it publicly when his blurb placed my first book, Revising the Storm, in conversation with Robert Lowell’s Life Studies.) I’m actually not very worried about my work being associated with that term. I know that personal idioms can theorize and intervene and (formally) disrupt; I believe in the social/political possibilities of aiming at personal mystery and what lives in it. I mean, what poetry doesn’t have something to confess? Whatever feels uncomfortable about that term probably has more to do with my academic training and my sense of how the academy has influenced (and sometimes limited) reading appetites. I think when we use “confessional” in a derogatory sense, we mean to identify poetry with autobiographical details that have failed to transcend the merely personal or private.
The landscape of your childhood home, Tacoma, WA differs greatly from that of your current locale, Fayetteville, AR. Can you speak to how landscape does (or doesn’t) play a part in the making of your poems?
Often when I go to express my sense of a landscape’s influence on me and my experiences of navigating horizons other than the South Puget Sound’s, I feel compelled to quote from Richard Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams. Comparing Washington to the Midwest, Hugo writes, “In the west/ where we have mountains, we can always assume that hidden/ from us but coming is something better. Here, no illusion.” Now, nothing against the Midwest—I’ve enjoyed what time I’ve spent visiting that region—but I dig what I think Hugo suggests here, about how our experience of landscape and climate can tenor the ways in which we learn/read/write/revise/&c. our experiences of waiting or wonder more generally. Places and environments shape our tendencies of observation like that. And leaving the locations I’ve known best—Washington for Pennsylvania, and now Pennsylvania for Arkansas—has made me (sometimes painfully) aware of that (sometimes quiet) process. All of which is to say, I do think landscape plays a part—I think it plays a major part.
I can think of only one other contemporary poet, the late Rick Trethewey, who, as you have, has spent much time in the ring as a boxer. Are there others? You’ve written a short piece about boxing and poetry, but I wonder if you might give us a bit more insight into this activity and how it plays into your poetry. I’m especially interested in something you write in the piece, that you see the poem in draft as an “opponent.”
That’s a great question, and something I should look more into: who are our boxing poets? Wasn’t Philip Levine an amateur boxer? I mostly know boxing poems—for instance, Adrian Matejka’s powerful book The Big Smoke, about boxer Jack Johnson, and I was talking with a student just the other day about the boxing poems in Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Apocalyptic Swing Poems. One of my favorite boxing poems is Levine’s “The Right Cross.” In it, he talks about the elusive perfect punch, imagining that moment when it all comes together:
They say it’s magic. When it lands
you feel the force of your whole body,
even the deeper organs, the dark fluids
that go untapped for decades, […] you feel them
finally coming together like so many
atoms of salt and water as they form
an ocean or a tear, for just an instant…
Of course, Levine is also talking about writing here—about the poet’s search for that one poem or one line leavened by language that, if only for an instance, makes flush contact with an ineffable togetherness that both evades us and is us.
In my experience, boxers (and poets) practice against that elusiveness; they want to own the “perfect punch”—which is to say, unlike Levine, they mistake the necessary rarity of it, baited by the potency of its power. Relatedly, people also seem to misjudge domination’s relationship to success in the ring (and on the page). Too often, they assume that domination means merely overpowering, means violent mastery over an opponent (or a poem). But I’ve experienced firsthand how this approach can diminish your abilities while boxing (and while writing): a boxer catching a hint of advantage and losing too much control in the hunt for crushing an opponent, only to punch himself out in an early round. From my relatively short time inside the world of boxing, perhaps the most vital thing I’ve discovered is that I am my biggest opponent, and that success has more to do with control and/or release of the self—more to do with a timely ability to acclimate and focus and intensify the body’s motion from round to round. Likewise, as poet, I don’t want to “master” the poem. I don’t want to see the poem as opponent. The poem is the event—it’s the ring or the round(s) or the bout—and I want to wield and unharness how and why and what my language is moving inside the poem according to the subject at hand. Something like success depends on how timely I’m acclimating and focusing and intensifying language in the poem. Though, of course, somewhere in the back of my mind I know I’m also poised to experience that “perfect punch”—I’m searching for language precise enough to create that most rare and heightened and potent moment of contact—KO.
Finally, you are a founder and currently serve on the board of directors of the online journal, Toe Good Poetry, a project that dates from your undergraduate days at Oregon State University. Can you tell us more about the journal, how it came about, and what role you think online journals do, or might do, in helping to create a vibrant community of poets?
At the heart of TGP is a dedication to showcasing the diversity of emerging writers seriously dedicated to crafting poems. We achieve this diversity commitment, in part, through a system of rotating editors with year-long assignments. We also have an annual Indian Sumer series (every September) that highlights Native voices. The level of involvement in our submission process—our editors read a chapbook’s worth of poetry from each writer—helps to ensure that we attract “serious” writers. I think it also pushes submitters to reflect on their own body of work. For each writer chosen for publication, this body of work is then used to draft a brief editorial that we publish alongside a poem, reading, and bio.
As you mentioned, TGP’s roots are in a group of writers (six or so, at the time) that formed during my undergraduate years at OSU. I think we took to heart something the poet David Biespiel said to us about the difficulty (and importance) of creating and maintaining a community of serious writers/readers. We would meet regularly at local bars or at one another’s apartments to read drafts and discuss poetry. Jerry Brunoe, who is really the group’s and the journal’s visionary, started calling us the Toe Goods—borrowed slang from The Warm Spring Reservation, where Jerry is from. The term means “bad” or “horrible.” On the one hand, I think it was meant to make sure that we didn’t take our young selves too seriously. On the other hand, though, it confirmed that our first and ongoing investment was in growing as writers and readers. In a way, the inception of the journal was our attempt to extend some of the synergy created by our group’s early investment in growth and by its diversity. In terms of creating a vibrant community, I think online journals in general do really important work in keeping poetry accessible. And I look forward to seeing how online journals might further experiment with the digital platform in order to engage and diversify audiences of poetry.
From The Daddy Notebooks
the first blood drawn I drew
clipped too close the nail’s tender
bed opened a new red secret
inside my throat when I tell you
I wept at so little loss and fear
bloomed inside this I mean
to say I discovered a sudden
window for my waiting
for paring prayers may what
breaks rise and reach again
‘Everything Changed Has Voice’
we sprawl around this
dumb noise swooning in its noun-ness
fact of mouth den to tongue
electric with animal clatter
and then the first full note
from our son’s mind emerges
—hi— delivering him
across the last question mark
of his getting here
our ears adjust to the sound
my unease no longer flares
inside dreams mornings
I wake and walk hand-in-
hand with worry on the way
to the potty feel five
little fingers like five pins
on ghost grenades
tugged by memories of the ground
the world can tear from underneath
little mixed boys and I would fall
on each possible
blast but I need to brush
these tiny teeth and no matter
how dearly I hold
my son’s face no measure
gives up the moment
for each wound I know
on its way in the mirror we smile
‘The Night Angler’
a headlamp guides me through
October cornfields along the slender
cross ties of bridges bulky in waders
I sidestep thick brier patches of poison ivy
all the way to the river’s edge
where I kill the lamp soon the moon’s blue
albedo is enough to enter water
with dream fish prowling the currents
and I begin casting toward the far
cloaked bank all ear all fixed on the grim
swish of my streamer threshing
back and forth—a mad bat parting night air
in time I will lead my own boy into
the precision of this contraction in the throat
this animal alarum in the dark when
my first cast conjures nothing—no monster
trout panicking the line—I slide deeper
into the river’s cold send more barbed asking
through shadow I labor long to lure
a sudden swallow the pulse of hunger
alive on the other end of these hands