Christina Davis is the author of two collections of poetry: An Ethic (Nightboat Books, 2013) and Forth A Raven (Alice James Books, 2006). She currently serves as curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Our exchange took place via email as we we both wrapping up our Spring 2013 semesters. I appreciated Christina taking the time to join in the interviews, and I’m especially grateful for these thoughtful and thought-provoking answers, not to mention her terrific poetry.
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MURRAY: I’d like to begin by asking you about two poems from your first collection. The poem “Forth a Raven,” expresses a dream of replacing god with birds, and gives a striking image of their movement:
…the whole of their bodies
is ahead, hazarded
like a question. Every question
I have ever asked could be ground down to
Do you love me? Will I die?
The poem “Border Patrol,” which closes the first section, also presses forward with harrowing questions:
When you ask your lover what he is thinking,
aren’t you really asking
Do I occur to you? do I take place?
Sometimes to walk toward anyone
is the wilderness.
What are some questions that you are currently hazarding in your poetry, or are there any questions that poetry is hazarding of you?
DAVIS: I’m pretty sure that every poem I undertake is governed by the conundrum, “I am free. Why am I not free?” (with a nod to Sherwood Anderson’s “I am born. / Why am I not born?”). I grow curious about what constrains and structures me, as a person and as a poet. Which forces I consent to willingly and which I resist tend to differ on a regular basis, and a poem can be a great litmus and insight into fathoming (and informing) this physics.
MURRAY: It seems a fundamental question is, in some ways, about form. I know you’ve spoken of this a little bit in your wonderful interview at Open Loop Press, but in what ways do the things that constrain and structure you come out in your thoughts about and experiments with form?
DAVIS: I wish I could say something impressive. But the fact is, for all of my thinking about it, form is probably my worst hurdle. I suspect that if I am experimental at all, it is in the realm of the thoughts themselves, not the actual structure.
For instance, I am woefully obedient to the left margin; I’ve never understood my resistance to moving away from a left-justification. It’s a sort of inertia in my work, but every time I take a step away from the left, I distrust myself. It feels decorous, forced. What could possibly be telling me that? In a genre that is so committed to freedom, it fascinates me that I abide by these (unenforced by anyone) laws.
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MURRAY: Did you conceive of your second collection, An Ethic, as a continuation of the explorations taking place in Forth A Raven? An Ethic also begins with the eponymous poem, which touches on ideas central to Forth A Raven:
There is no this or that world,
only the long illusion we are landlord,
the never-ending study
of anotherness, the ark of ilks and kinds.
It is a later wilderness
in which we find ourselves . . .
How are you thinking of “wilderness” and in what ways does this second collection represent a later one?
DAVIS: I suppose you could say that Forth A Raven was written about death before I had experienced it first-hand. In so far as An Ethic is a continuation of my first book, it reflects a continuity of (involuntary) knowledge—from naïveté (in Forth A Raven) to experience (in An Ethic). We are always writing at a distance from the next knowledge, and experience is never final: So I do not mean to discredit Forth A Raven, which knew much that it did not understand and dwelt in a different kind of freedom than what follows. I remain grateful for that record of my ignorance, as it testifies to a life I can no longer lead.
Though I know it’s a little earnest, I find the title-poem’s placement at the outset of a collection is the most honest way I can proceed. Since, for me, a book is always “heading away from its name” (as Jabès might say), outgrowing the book itself. The title is a form of permission: to say farewell to the first intent.
MURRAY: Could you say a little bit more about this idea of bidding farewell to the first intent? In what ways are the poems in An Ethic heading away from its name?
DAVIS: Sadly, I’ve already said farewell to what I just said! It’s often very hard for me to perpetuate (or endure for too long around) an idea. Which is why I write short poems, and why I do not write much prose. I’m in it for the permission to be transient and to change my mind.
I am also a singer, and I suppose the analogy to your question would be that notes are never “held.” The whole idea of holding a note is somewhat erroneous. All vocal training is about passage, about carrying the note out of you and forward. So, by extension, a title to me doesn’t hold the poem: It’s just the opening of the mouth. It has to permit the poem to pass through and beyond it. Well, at least, ideally.
MURRAY: The poem “Addendum” from An Ethic reads in its entirety:
Who was it said “AND
is the greatest
be his/her name.
What or who have been some fortuitous “ands” in your work or your poetry?
DAVIS: The dichotomies comes to mind, those old standards: Life and death. Here and there. Time-present and time-past.
Though I can’t always remember the context, I’m thinking this poem was probably a variety of self-instruction not to dwell on the rigidity of nouns but to look to the elasticity of “and” and what connectives (like “and”) allow to live together—in closeness and in stand-off. What wouldn’t we be, Celan writes (in Pierre Joris’ superb translation), if we were with our words.
MURRAY: “On Re-Reading Walden” is one of my favorite poems in An Ethic. It begins “Who has not loved / who could // teach them?” Could you talk a little bit about this poem?
DAVIS: I had it in my head that most people wouldn’t like that poem, that not enough of its original intention had remained (I carve away so vigorously at my materials). So, that’s heartening to hear. I was thinking, I believe, of apprenticeship: there’s that stunning statement in Oppen’s “Pro Nobis,” in which he says, “I believe my apprenticeship/ in that it was long was honorable.”
I was thinking then of the people (the dead and the living) to whom I have apprenticed myself, which is a particular posture, one that—at least in the political correctness of the time in which I was growing up—was coming under critique in certain situations. For instance, a young woman looking up to a male professor, etc. (And having studied at at least one institution where that hierarchy wasn’t openly questioned or critiqued, I can say that political correctness was a helpful lens and corrective to some problematic power relations.) But I remember thinking, prior to writing this poem: Of course, I loved them. My teachers, male and female. And why not call it what it was? If love is that permission to enter the unknown, and they were the bestowers of that intellectual access. There is love of the parent for teaching us the knowns and knowable, and then love of the teacher (and here I include mentors, friends, authors, etc.) for leading us into the unknown, the uncertain.
Stanley Cavell says that for a child to grow requires the familiar, but for an adult to grow demands strangeness. I suppose that’s what I was after in this poem.
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MURRAY: Who are the poets and writers whom Forth a Raven and An Ethic are in dialogue with? Did you turn to the writers in the process of working on the collections, or had you already turned to them, and the writing emerged out of those turns?
DAVIS: I don’t tend to write my poems with a collection in mind—that usually happens after many years of writing, 5+ years tend to pass between each book, so as you can imagine it’s very hard to name all of the poets whose works I experienced during that time. But if I had to isolate a few, I would say that during the Forth A Raven time-frame, Marina Tsvetaeva and Louise Glück were very present to me. And, as I was writing the poems in An Ethic, George Oppen and René Char and also Robert Duncan and William Bronk drew near.
In addition to deepening my meeting with another’s mind and (at times, you could say) with mankind, reading the works of my fellow poets helps to upheave my word-paths and re-orient my linguistic system. Not toward their work per se, but away from my own proclivities. “I heard speech reaching” (writes Peter Waterhouse). In reading others, reaching is returned to my language. I’ll hear a word I haven’t encountered or am encountering anew, and I’ll have to find a place for it in my mind. And in that moment, something moves an nth in me, something almost inevitably gives.
I suppose that’s why An Ethic is obsessed with the idea of welcoming, as a kind of primary humanities—this act of taking in. Admission: whether it be one mind taking in the conundrum of another; or the earth accepting the dead; or a nation welcoming people to its shores and borders.
MURRAY: I just came across a prose piece, “Poetry: Solitude Broken,” in A. Poulin’s 1987 translation of Anne Hebert’s Selected Poems, and it ends: “I believe in the virtue of poetry. I believe in the salvation of all right words lived and expressed. I believe in solitude broken like bread by poetry.”
The right words lived and expressed—this idea seems connected to the idea of “welcoming” that you point to in An Ethic.
[Note: In an email wrapping up the interview, Davis indicated that this was less a “not applicable,” for she had begun and then abandoned a too-lengthy response, than a “not answerable.”]
MURRAY: From your second collection: In the poem “Transcript,” some of whose lines are taken from the 9/ 11 Oral History Project, the speaker observes:
In the presence
of the unfinished we are
invited to look
in both directions, in case
the Empty is us.
What directions are you looking in now, and what do you see?
DAVIS: I am working on a sequence called, “Mankindness.” But tomorrow I may not be working on a sequence called, “Mankindness.” (You know how it goes!)
In terms of subject matter, I imagine I’m just trying to widen the circle yet again, my little lasso-the-moon routine. Yet another minimalist poet going after magnitudes….
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MURRAY: Thank you, Christina, for corresponding with me. It was a pleasure to learn more about you and your poetry. In terms of widening the circle, would you care to suggest 2-3 poets whose work you are interested in or who come to mind in light of our discussion? I hope to continue the conversation.
DAVIS: Well, I’m never very good at isolating just a few names, since I feel that my life is infused with the work of so many fellow poets and no single names suffice. But if I confine my mind to the past few weeks, I can say that the poets I have been reading with interest are: Dan Beachy-Quick, Peter O’Leary, Mary Ruefle, Eleni Sikélianòs, Jared Stanley, Peter Waterhouse, and Matvei Yankelevich. I’m also immersed in Inger Christensen’s poem “Meeting” and her book, “Alphabet,” but she has sadly passed away.
And, locally, I’m fortunate to be surrounded by many emerging poets in the Cambridge area: among them, Katie Peterson, Patrick Pritchett, Oni Buchanan, Janaka Stucky, Jonathan Weinert, and my dear colleague, Chloe Garcia Roberts (whose translations from the Chinese are forthcoming from New Directions). The list goes on.