In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Teri Ellen Cross Davis

by Apr 9, 2024



You have two poems in V26 of Water~Stone, “River Phoenix at 46” and “The Brain Confesses About Those Six Weeks.” With “River Phoenix,” I feel like I get something new from the text every time I read it. What inspired this poem’s creation?

As a teen, I had a serious crush on the actor River Phoenix. I had a poster from one of his films, “A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon” on my wall. River seemed intellectually deep and  rebellious and open enough to maybe understand me as a skinny black girl from Cleveland, or at least that is what I dreamily told myself. When he died, so early in his career, it felt like fabric being ripped from the quilt of my dreams. I wanted more for him. I wanted him to have had an award-studded career, to have eventually stepped back from acting, to at some point have a complete life away from Hollywood’s lens. In this imagined world, he could have had a family of his own. Poetry gave me the space to imagine that longer life, to toy with ideas of Halloween and the veils between worlds, to summon an alternate path for the actor.

This poem draws up many vivid images and phrases. When writing this piece, what drew you to these images? What was your process building this piece and this world with River Phoenix in it? 

I tried to envision an alternate reality that could hold both Phoenix and some of the ways mainstream culture has grown to be more culturally diverse and inclusive since his death in 1993. I knew the legend of the Sunset Strip club “Whiskey a Go Go” from a crush on Jim Morrison and the Doors so it was a fun way to imagine the inside of places I had read about, but never experienced. As a poet, I could play director. I could create a 90’s style montage of Phoenix’s imagined life with language. 

In “The Brain Confesses,” the narrative explores the trauma and post-processing of rape, and how people often shut those memories away. The use of em dashes gives readers that painful, jolting feeling. Can you talk about your process in crafting this poem with short lines and specific punctuation?

I wanted to use the em dashes like gloves, or tongs handling something so toxic it could not be near the rest of the body. The brain is “reading” the body—being honest and unforgiving, but couching both in love. I wanted the shape of the poem to contain and direct that energy downward until it eventually escapes out of its own hypothetical hatch.  

In both pieces, I felt there were moments of double meaning; “a life well-heeled,” for example. When writing, how much of your original drafts do you keep, versus rewrite to add these gems into the work? 

Thank you! I have language I fall in love with in a poem and sometimes, when things go right, I can keep it. Trust me, there has been a lot of theoretical blood on the cutting room floor. From original to final version, there is a lot of whittling, of reworking lines and form—things move forward based on what the poem needs and sometimes, it may not need my favorite line.

What themes do you find that inspire you, and that you return to in your work?

Parenting seems to be a ripe vein at the moment. I feel this double vision of me at this age and now my child at this age. Each progression feels like a peek into my teen psyche and it is well, weird, frustrating, acute, blunt, nuanced, and comical. From tending my own vegetable and flower garden to understanding the long-term impacts of climate change, gardening and my relationship with nature is another area of my life that is fueling me.

As a poetry curator, what do you look for in your job? How does your interaction with other poets influence your writing? What texts or authors helped shape the writer you are today? I look for poetry that moves me and brings a fresh voice to the page or stage. To ignite my own creative appetite, I read Lucille Clifton, Linda Pastan, Rita Dove, Hayes Davis (my husband) and more. Right now, I admire the ancestry research and communing in Tracy K. Smith and Remica Bingham-Wisher’s work, the wit and brevity in Beth Ann Fennelly’s micro essays, and the expansiveness in Camille T. Dungy’s SOIL. 

What are you working on now?

I am working on a third collection and the moment I feel I have a handle on a new direction for it, I feel a pull to write poems about something else. It’s wild, but I am trying to hold on and get something on the page as I do. I hear my ancestors rumbling with answers and I am trying to figure out the right questions. 


Teri Ellen Cross DavisTeri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of a more perfect Union, awarded the 2019 Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and Haint, which won the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is the recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Memorial Award and a Maryland State Arts Council award. Her work has appeared in print, online, and in many journals and anthologies including Harvard Review, [PANK], Poetry Ireland Review, and Kenyon Review. She is the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series curator and Poetry Programs manager for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC.



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