In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Noah Davis
Your poem “Passenger Pigeon, Audubon Plate LXII” from Volume 23 includes repetition of the words ‘trust’ and ‘lesser’, which alters the meaning and tone of this poem in different reads of it. Can you tell us the inspiration behind this poem? What drew you to consider thinking and writing about this extinct species?
I took an amazing ecocriticism literature class with Christoph Irmscher while I was at Indiana University, and we’d visit the Lily Rare Books Library to look at Audubon’s original elephant folios of The Birds of America and The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. It was stunning to see those huge prints of birds and animals I’ve been fortunate enough to see and encounter in my life, and others that I never will see. This longing for creatures I’ve never shared the earth with, that this earth has lost, is a true fear for me. The human species will become increasingly lonely as we continue to lose the other beings we share this planet with. What do we see as ‘lesser’? What do we ‘trust’ in?
The off-kilter nature of this poem is seeded in the off-kilter nature of Audubon’s description of a passenger pigeon slaughter he witnessed along the Green River in Kentucky:
The birds continued to pour in. The fires were lighted, and a magnificent, as well as wonderful and almost terrifying, sight presented itself. The Pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses were formed on the branches all round. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion.
The moment of my poem, a tender pausing of mouths and trust, is seated in unsettling language. Unsettled like the world is when it loses another member of its body.
We published your poem “Snapping Turtle on Loneliness” back in Vol. 20, Field. Body. Country. When we talked about what contributors we should list on the back of this issue, poetry editor Katrina Vandenberg immediately championed you, noting that you’re a recognized name in environmental literature. There is such a bounty of great environmentally-focused writing right now—why do you think people are interested in reading this genre? Who are some writers you admire or draw inspiration from?
That was very kind of Katrina Vandenberg, but I don’t know how recognizable my name was or is. However familiar it is now, she had a hand in helping me share my work, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.
I think people are drawn to environmentally-focused writing because they are witnessing climate change in their backyards. We are in a ‘moment’. So much of writing is couched in longing and aching, and this moment utilizes these aspects. When the redbud blossoms arrive earlier in the spring and leave only a week or so later, we long for them. When we can’t see the blue sky because smoke from Oregon and California billow above, we miss that color. But because nature is a balance, nature writing also offers moments of joy. These moments don’t off-set the sorrow or doom, but make us weep with gratitude that beauty is still being made. Have you looked at the plants growing in a stream? How sometimes they look like fish tails for an instant? Or how a hummingbird perches on an impossibly small branch and doesn’t bend it an inch? Or how orange a duck’s feet are? Or good goodness, what about the leaves of a catalpa tree??? Bigger than my head!
Wendell Berry had an interview with Orion a year or two ago and the interviewer listed all the terrible happenings in the world. Listing them and asking how can any of this get better with Wendell’s localism philosophy? And Wendell answered back: “You realize, don’t you, that you’ve won this argument?… The argument for despair is impenetrable, it’s invulnerable.” And this was so powerful to me because it made me realize that wading into and immersing oneself into despair will do nothing against the despair. That doesn’t mean one should not acknowledge the despair-inducing aspects of the world, but joy doesn’t fly away because of despair. Maple keys are still spinning through slanted sunlight damn it! Revel in it!
There are so many writers who I admire and who inspire me and so here are the ones whose work I’ve been thinking about most recently: Bonnie Jo Campbell, Ross Gay, Rose McLarney, Todd Davis, Ron Rash, Eudora Welty, Frank X Walker, T’ao Ch’ien, Wang Wei, Li Po, and Langston Hughes.
Do you think there is a responsibility of environmental writers, particularly white writers, to reconcile with writers of the past who championed nature writing and ushered in a genre that was, and often still is, exclusionary?
We certainly need to acknowledge the issues exclusionary genres and writers of the past erected, and root out the spaces where it still occurs, because I’m sure there are still folks out there who think if you’re BIPOC you’re from the city. And there’s also the idea that if you’re from the city, then you must not be connected to nature. While it’s true that nature takes on all kinds of shapes, depending on human habitation and the ways we change the landscape and ecosystems, the false divide over white folks and BIPOC folks, over urban and rural folks, and our relationship to greater-than-human nature must be overturned. We’re all in this together.
I think one of the most effective ways of planting a new tree (the metaphor here being the future of environmental writing being a tree) is to read and share a diversity of works. Just like how a healthy tree needs so many different microbes and nutrients to grow! And it’s there. You don’t have to look far to find the poetry of Geffrey Davis or buy M.L. Smoker’s amazing collection. Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poems or essays. Crystal Wilkinson’s work. The superstar Robin Wall Kimmerer. J Drew Lanham’s work. Go pick up that work, nourish yourself with it, and pass it on.
Let’s talk about your debut book Of This River (Wheelbarrow Books/Michigan State University Press, 2020). You said in this interview with Daniel Lassell that an impetus behind creating “Short-Haired Girl” was because of a societal perception and disconnect of who makes up rural populations. You touch on this idea of a “culture of care,” and you mention that “in a lot of ways, Of This River is about community” which is such an interesting way to think of the various bisections of nature writing. What can humans do in this politically divided age of accelerated climate change to create and sustain a culture of care for the non-human world? How might writers aid in this culture?
Thank you for that kind observation. Yes, community is very important to me, pride in community is very important to me, and I am quite sad now about how split communities have become. Not only politically, but ecologically. The Us vs Them mentality of our country (and world) extends beyond race, sexual orientation, gender, politics, and class to the human and greater-than-human world. The majority of Americans don’t view the earth and the animals on it as their neighbors, or their community. Which is why we’re draining rivers, clearcutting forests, peeling back mountain tops, and driving creatures to extinction. You don’t do that to neighbors you care about. And we wonder why there are certain cancers, why we can’t eat the fish in specific lakes, why we have to check the air quality before we go on a run. There is no Us vs Them when it comes to the earth. We’re living here, too. We’re doing this to ourselves.
What writers can do to aid in this culture of care is to tell stories. I went to a talk with the writer and environmental activist, Rick Bass, and he said that the time for spewing facts and figures to the climate deniers is probably over. That isn’t working. That wasn’t moving them. But maybe now is the time for story, for myth, which is intensely powerful still. Hell, the power of stories got Trump elected. Damn. Anyway, stories are our oldest and probably most influential tool when it comes to creating understanding, modeling, and empathy. Write stories about things people care about that are being lost by the warming planet. There are fewer trout and they’re getting smaller. Snow doesn’t stick around like it used to. More ticks are in the woods. The grass is dying and the cows can’t eat. Not a lot of water in the irrigation ditch. How can we make these things better?
Write stories that people can read and see.
One of the challenges of putting together a collection, instead of one longform work like a novel, is envisioning what the book will look like as one cohesive product. What is some advice you would share with new writers on what this process looks like?
Write! Hahaha! I think we as writers are obsessed with certain topics and that obsession is what drives us to continue to create. And writing through that obsession is so important to making something we call a “collection.” As you’re writing, don’t think about completion. Write until you’re writing the same thing, until you feel drained by the obsession. Then print the poems out and lay them on the floor and try to find a thread. When you’re handling the poems you can feel that thread.
Being from Minnesota, I wasn’t familiar with the Allegheny region of the Appalachians until I read your book. And judging by your Instagram account, you seem to spend a lot of time on the water! What is something you would like WSR readers to know about Of This River?
Yes, on the water is probably my favorite place to be! I guess I’d like readers to know that they’ll follow characters in this book. From Short-Haired Girl, to her father and mother, to her brother, her grandmother, to herons, to rattlesnakes, to coyotes, to pink lady slippers, and the hollows. Readers will hopefully see the community of characters I love. Ripe pears, deer blood, and river muck.
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
Huckleberries. Nikea [Davis’s spouse] and I are part of the privileged population who can go and find wild edibles not too far from our home. And these last few tiny afternoons we’ve spent searching for rather tiny berries that large bears also eat to knit their fat so they will be warm in hibernation. It’s an old sacred thing, to go and find food that birds planted. We have to be so careful when we’re picking, so specific with our fingers, so as to not drop each berry before we set them in the bucket. I hunger for that motion, for that space, for the sweetness between our teeth.
What projects are you working on right now?
The poem “Passenger Pigeon, Audubon Plate LXII” is actually part of a long ekphrastic project looking at Audubon’s The Birds of America. I’m writing poems from the plates, but also Audubon’s life. It’s nothing too original, but it’s what I’m thinking about now. Audubon made beautiful art but was also problematic with his slave-owning and other colonizing issues. I want to write poems about those things. It’s how I learn.
Thank you for this opportunity to share my work.
Noah Davis grew up in Tipton, Pennsylvania, and writes about the Allegheny Front. Davis’ manuscript Of This River was selected by George Ella Lyon for the 2019 Wheelbarrow Emerging Poet Book Prize from Michigan State University’s Center for Poetry. His poems and prose have appeared in The Sun, Best New Poets, Orion, North American Review, River Teeth, Sou’wester, and Chautauqua among others. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Poet Lore and Natural Bridge. He has been awarded a Katharine Bakeless Nason Fellowship at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and the 2018 Jean Ritchie Appalachian Literature Fellowship from Lincoln Memorial University. Davis earned an MFA at Indiana University. Listen to Noah read his poem “Passenger Pigeon, Audubon Plate LXII” on our YouTube page. You can learn more about Noah and his work at his website or follow him on Instagram.