A Writer’s Insight: Carol V. Davis

Carol V. Davis’s poem “A Student Says Everything We Read Is Depressing” appears in the autumn 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses origins of the poem, her unique way of engaging with details, and her experiences “living” in multiple languages.


Garrett Hazelwood: What was your original impetus for writing “A Student Says Everything We Read Is Depressing”?

Carol V. Davis: I always tell my creative writing students to never start a poem with the title because one never knows where a poem will go. However, in the case of this poem, I started out with the title as this was a comment a student made and it was so perfect it just stuck with me. So the impetus was the comment by a student.

 

GH: How often and in what ways do your students become part of the fabric of your poetry?

CVD: I actually am not a fan of what I think of as self-referential poetry, that is, poetry about poetry or even about teaching. However, there are times when students say surprising things and these comments will work their way into a poem. More often than not, though, my work will come from the usual sources: an image (something I’ve seen and that sticks with me), a snatch of conversation, a memory. Certain pieces of music for me can often trigger the start of a poem. And, of course, more than anything, reading other poets’ work.

 

GH: The movement of this poem, from a student’s comment to an orange in a Soviet winter, is gorgeous and so much like the movement of memory. Can you tell us about your process in stitching together the various pieces?

CVD: This is probably an unsatisfying answer, but my mind works that way. I very often make these kinds of leaps in my poetry. It probably does have to do with the way memory works. When we read poems that make leaps, there is often a kind of organic unity. We can’t explain (not that we should need to), why it works, but it just does. I usually don’t consciously stitch together various pieces.

 

GH: One of the lessons of this poem seems to be that interpretation is fundamentally shaped by our ways of seeing. In your own life, do you feel naturally disposed to close observation or have you had to cultivate a practice for keeping your eyes receptive to the beautiful details like a “tourist’s plaid shorts” or “the crisp sheets under [a] dead body”? Can you recommend any techniques for honing one’s poetic eye?

CVD: This is an interesting question. Whenever I can, I like to go away to write, either to an artist colony or, when possible, to go back to Russia. I find that when I am away, particularly somewhere new, my powers of observation are always keener. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about that lately, as I would like to work on making this skill of “seeing” stronger, even when I am not away. When I am away, it is always in conjunction with either not teaching or teaching in Russia. Because of that, I tend to have more time and be more isolated, which helps in being more aware and being able to get a lot of work done.

In the case of this poem the details came from my thinking about what makes a piece of literature interesting and what is important in something we observe. I think there are also times in our lives when our power of observation is keener, when we are experiencing some change in our lives or some emotional intensity. In terms of techniques, certainly it is most important to pay attention, to be open to new experiences, but also not to be alarmed with fallow periods. For me, very often something I see will stay in my mind, and it will only be sometime later, even much later, when that image makes its way into a poem.

 

GH: Like the loud, maybe-Texan man in your poem, our own limited experience often causes us to misinterpret (or altogether miss) what is going on in the world around us. The poem also seems to meditate on both a lack and excess of language: the items on the menu don’t correspond to the meals available, the man is speaking too loud, the narrator hopes the waitress doesn’t speak English and then laments that her own Russian is not stronger. What role do you think language plays in shaping our experiences?

CVD: Language and the role it plays has been an obsession of mine for decades. In 1996, I went to Russia for a year on a Fulbright grant. I noticed while I was there that I was really a different person. I tend to be quiet in general, but there I was even more quiet. It was partly a language issue, partly emotional. If I were in a room full of Russian speakers, I often would be very quiet, listening, trying to understand everything. I was very aware of the effort it takes to fully express oneself in another language. As poets we are so focused on language, on how we say something, and it gets amplified when one is, as I said in a poem, “living in another language.” Perhaps this is the curse of a writer. For us, being able to speak conversationally in another language is not enough. That is part of my frustration living in Russia on and off for decades. There’s always that one word, that nuance, that I don’t know how to say, and I feel that frustration acutely. People always ask if I am fluent. I don’t know how to answer that question. Conversing and being bilingual are such radically different things.

 

GH: You recently published a collection of poems, Because I Cannot Leave This Body. Can you tell us about it?

CVD: The new book weaves together various themes. Poems cross cultural and geographic boundaries to explore my family’s history as Jews, as outsiders, as immigrants. Some poems probe the boundaries between faith, folklore, and superstition. One section has ekphrastic poems, mostly responding to paintings by Lucian Freud. And there are poems of place, Nebraska, Wyoming, Berlin, and of course Russia.

 


Carol V. Davis is the author of Because I Cannot Leave This Body, Between Storms, and Into the Arms of Pushkin: Poems of St. Petersburg, for which she won the 2007 T. S. Eliot Prize. She is the poetry editor of the Los Angeles newspaper the Jewish Journal.

Garrett Hazelwood is the editorial assistant at The Southern Review. He was the 2017 recipient of the Kent Gramm MFA Award for Literary Nonfiction and his work was recently anthologized in Eclectica Magazine’s twentieth anniversary anthology of speculative fiction. He’s currently writing a novel and at work on a book-length essay about the usefulness of pain.

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