In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Todd Davis
Your poem, “Deposition: What Was Lost,” brings grief to the page with gentle, yet visceral, imagery, blending every other phrase with life and death. There’s a very cyclical feeling to the poem with these images. How did you find that pattern when writing this piece?
The older I get the more obvious it becomes to me that we live in many times and places at once in our perceptions of reality.
With the deaths of those I’ve lived with and loved, I find that I slip in and out of a present moment–perhaps walking a stream in the woods near my house, seeing a fox move in the undergrowth–to settle in another moment from long ago. I find the triggering points of such movement in time evocative and fertile for writing.
The cyclical nature of this poem and its images feels organic to me, feels closer to the way I experience existence. The more-than-human natural world is rooted in cycles, and I’m more content when I follow those cycles than when I get lost in the pressures and stresses of the notion that time is linear. I love how the moon is present and affects so much of our existence, how sunlight grows and diminishes through the year, how where I live growing seasons lead to the harvest, lead to dormancy, and eventually to rebirth.
As for the images, they come from different moments in my life. When I think of my mother, and her descent into dementia, they serve as holding places of love in the moment of that loss.
The spacing of the poem seems to invite watching it flow across the page, and brings to mind the dripping honey on the last few lines. What was the impetus to space this poem in the way you did?
I like very much your description of the lines as appearing as dripping honey!
With most of my poems I try a range of forms. Anything from a single stanza to multiple stanzas of similar or exact length.
I also play with lineation, which might lead to a very thin, short line or to the explosion of the line, the erasure of which creates a prose poem, a form I like to work with.
This poem felt like it needed breathing room, space for the deep and ragged breath of grief, moments to stop or pause, to take in and remember.
Speaking of honey, that seems to be a recurring theme in your work; one of your published poetry collections is titled “Coffin Honey.” What draws you to this subject, or image? What other themes do you use throughout your work?
The simplest answer is that I love honey. I have two big mugs of tea each day with heaping spoonfuls of local wildflower honey.
In other poems, I’ve written about my great aunt Alverdia Davis who was born in 1887 and died in 1984. She kept bees and would take a metal wash basin and a wooden spoon and drum out a song that would lead a swarm back to the hive.
I’m interested in the intelligence of all animals, of all beings. The collective work of bees, the importance of their work as pollinators, and the gift of honey, simply leaves me awestruck.
You teach environmental studies, and in an interview with Speaking of Marvels, you talk about how working with your veterinarian father as he recited poetry led you to both a passion for writing and nature. Does poetry find a place in your classroom in any way?
My father’s love of poetry is undoubtedly the reason I started writing poetry. And, yes, I bring poetry into every class I teach. I want poetry to be something that is part of my students’ everyday life and experience. And I try to write poems that most anyone can enter. I like to think of my ideal audience as my Appalachian grandparents who had very little formal education but who loved the sound of language and played with words and story all the time.
As someone who studied literature, and Thoreau in particular, I was excited to hear that you’ve written a chapbook called Household of Water, Moon & Snow: The Thoreau Poems. What was your process in writing that book, and in balancing research versus creativity?
More than 30 years ago, during my doctoral studies I, too, studied Thoreau and many of the writers that comprise the American Renaissance and in particular the Transcendentalists. I was especially drawn to Thoreau because of his deep love for the natural world. Emerson, for instance, seemed to “use” the natural world for his higher spiritual purposes. Thoreau, especially in his later work, seemed to take nature on its own terms.
A moment in Walden that has stuck with me is the winter scene in which Thoreau tries to measure the depth of the pond. On the mountain just to the west of our house is a pond I visit throughout the year. One winter I snowshoed back to it after a heavy storm. The woods were white and glistening and the voice in my head was not my own. The pond is spring-fed and where the ice thinned because of that constant flow I threw a larger stone to break the ice. A poem began at that moment, with the descent of that stone, but it was a persona poem, which later I understood was in Thoreau’s voice.
From that single poem grew a chapbook of persona poems or biographical poems about Thoreau in the third-person. As I worked on them, I enjoyed reading back through Thoreau’s writing, as well as various biographies of Thoreau’s life. I used some of that factual information to begin poems, but I always gave my imagination the freedom to explore the possibilities of Thoreau’s interior life.
These poems were published in Household of Water, Moon, & Snow (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010), but they also serve as the middle section of my book In the Kingdom of the Ditch (Michigan State University Press, 2013).
Where do you find inspiration? What authors do you keep returning to?
The workings of the more-than-human natural world always inspire me. I’m endlessly interested in the other beings who share the planet with us, who make our very lives possible. There’s a black bear that’s been following me through most of my books, and in Coffin Honey this bear I call Ursus took on a significant and recurring role in the stories of that book.
I’m also inspired by and tend to write about those humans who are neglected or who are treated unjustly. Working class folks are my rootstock. I come from poor, subsistence farmers and grew up in a Rust Belt factory town. I’ve always lived in the Rust Belt, and for the past 21 years my home has been in the shadow of an Appalachian railroad town, in the mountains where coal mining and other extractive industries have left a very damaged landscape that’s slowly healing and rewilding. It’s that landscape and those people who inspire me most and are featured in many of my poems.
As for authors, there are so many, but I’ll try to name a few. I read a great deal of fiction and also always have a book of poems I’m working through.
Here are some authors and titles that I return to often: Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River; Ron Rash’s Something Rich and Strange; Sherman Alexie’s The Toughest Indian in the World; Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union; Rick Bass’s Where the Sea Used to Be; Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares; Donika Kelly’s Bestiary; Robert Wrigley’s Earthly Meditations; Geffrey Davis’s Revising the Storm; Jim Harrison’s The Woman Lit By Fireflies; Jane Hirshfield’s After; Dan Gerber’s Particles; Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude; Charles Wright’s Appalachia; Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke; Camille Dungy’s Trophic Cascade; David Hinton’s translations of many classical Chinese poets; and anything by David James Duncan. I love his most recent and long awaited novel, Sun House.
And there are so many more writers I return to, but these are folks I find myself reading and re-reading the past few years.
You are the author of seven books of poetry. What else are you working on?
I’m working on three books at the moment. I’m editing A Literary Field Guide to Northern Appalachia, which is a companion volume to A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia. The University of Georgia Press will publish this book in September 2024. I’ve been busy writing and compiling the poems for my next book of poetry, Tributary: New & Selected Poems. And the third manuscript is a prose book of linked essays about being a father and a son and how those relationships have been shaped by particular moments in the woods and on the water, especially in connection to native, wild fish like the brook trout.
Todd Davis is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Coffin Honey and Native Species, both published by Michigan State University Press. He has won the Midwest Book Award, the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Bronze and Silver Awards, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, the Chautauqua Editors Prize, and the Bloomsburg University Book Prize. His poems appear in such journals and magazines as Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Missouri Review, North American Review, Orion, Southern Humanities Review, and Western Humanities Review. He teaches environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College.