Lessons in Repair and Recovery:
An Interview with Geffrey Davis
Geffrey Davis is the author of two collections: Night Angler (BOA Editions, 2019), winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, and Revising the Storm (BOA Editions, 2014), winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. He also coauthored the chapbook Begotten (URB Books, 2016) with LA-based poet F. Douglas Brown. His poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, Massachusetts Review, Mississippi Review, New England Review, New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, PBS NewsHour, Ploughshares, and elsewhere.
LH: In the age of social media we are all curators of our own good-time galleries, generally only exhibiting our most polished moments—we still haven’t made much progress as a country when it comes to openly talking about loss and grief. Ironically, talking about our pain is more likely to actually give us the connection with others that we seem to desperately seek. Poetry is one arena in which it’s ok to openly talk about such things. I’m curious to know how you view loss and grief in terms of their gifts, and specifically, how has writing about your father connected you with people you don’t know?
GD: This past summer, Rebecca McClanahan, a fellow writer and teacher at The Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA, invited me to join a roundtable she was calling “Turn on the Light, It’s Too Dark in Here: The Challenges and Possibilities of Writing from Joy, Gratitude, Rapture, and Mirth,” and, honestly, my first thought was apprehensive confusion: me, joy? I even joked with my wife that my new friends/colleagues were staging an intervention—after all, my new book is called Night Angler. I initially (and happily) agreed to join the roundtable as a kind of long overdue commitment to exploring something I perceived as absent in my work. But, as the group of us gathered ahead of time and began discussing the topic, I learned that I wasn’t the only one who felt like maybe their pull towards dark topics would have forfeited a seat at such a table. What’s more, we spent the next several days leading up to our roundtable naming and defining the various joys we appreciated in one another’s writing, in effect challenging each other to claim and study a presence, not an absence. All of which is to say, loss and grief have undoubtedly populated much of my writing, but the gift has been discovering and inventing new ways—images, metaphors, sounds—for connecting with someone around or despite or because of loss and grief. Another name for that connection is joy. It wasn’t always that way for me, however. There was a time when, before I knew any better, I was working hard to fashion realities of loss and grief into good reasons for keeping emotional distance from people. Another name for that distance might be loneliness. Lucky for me, the writing of others found me and nudged me off that early course.
I think we’ve all encountered a love—our own or that of someone else—that has frustrated or confounded or risked rather than ensured how clearly we hear our belonging in the world. My father happens to be that main player in my life, and telling that story has allowed me to, as you said it, more openly (and so more accurately) gain some critical traction on that truth—what it might mean; what it might could not. But such a diversity of folks have come up or since reached out to say a version of ‘I hear you,’ often by beginning to share their own resonant experience of that love-story, many of which seem to bear no outright resemblance to my own. This tells me, for all that could be particular about my life, the under-sound of it is anything but rare.
LH: The “What I Mean When I Say…” poems recur in both Revising the Storm and Night Angler. I can’t help but bring up social media and fast communication again here…how it feels there is no room for context, nuance, and revision…no room to clarify or say something in a different way let alone change one’s stance. Where do these epistemology poems come from? What started this need for you to define and redefine language, meaning, and events?
GD: The need was started by the trouble of subjectivity in storytelling, especially family stories, and my anxiety with “getting it right,” whatever that can mean. I love art objects that show their work/search, and I was looking for a way to mark poems with their ongoing, undecided effort to claim a telling that always wanted to be more collaborative. And I think those recurrences are an attempt to honor and to maybe rest a little inside—rather than, say, bypass or resolve—my uneasiness with that exact and real tension: the impossibility of holding all the idiomatic nuances of any single act of communication as a numinous exchange between two individuals. This was true before social media and fast communication, although they’ve certainly complicated our practices or distorted our rituals for a kind of contact that’s decidedly against that tension. But it’s lovely and courageous and necessary to still try, right? And I think poems raise our literacy of that dynamic, both the risks and possibilities of sharing meaning. And I think (or choose to believe) that my best efforts at understanding that tension come from walking a poem or piece of prose up to the question of its own silence—that, because communication is so imperiled and language so unwieldy and so much is still on the line, maybe the best or safest thing I can do is just shut the fuck up—i.e. linger quietly with another body around the troubling subject. Or maybe not.
LH: As an only child, I’m always interested in poems about a speaker’s siblings. I see brothers and sisters as mirrors held up to the self—the likenesses and differences help us examine our own history, habits, traits. Maybe siblings also act as additional cameras on the movie sets of our lives…capturing images outside of our own lens.
I think particularly of “Write the Memory of Throwing the Stone” in Revising the Storm, how the first line commands, “Tell it right this time.” And I think of the title poem itself, how it speaks directly to “little Brother.”
Going back to what you said about “the trouble of subjectivity in storytelling, especially family stories,” how have your siblings impacted the way you tell family stories? Do any of your siblings also write or create art centered on your shared youth?
GD: We’re a family of artists and storytellers. My sister is a visual artist, one of my brothers is a musician, and my other brother is a writer. And, yes, I’ve seen and heard and read work of theirs that speaks, directly or indirectly, to our shared youth. In fact, I’m in the process of moving and going through things and was looking through some early watercolors that my sister did, and I’m suddenly seeing another layer to them, a tragic one, her compassionate attempts to soften and distill and celebrate a sense of childhood that had been deeply compromised. They brought me to tears. And the poems you mention were my own risky attempts at interrupting a few silences that I didn’t feel serving us. They were also my apology for participating in a history of erasure at times.
And I think that’s right about siblings being mirrors of sort, like poems, reflecting shades of our childhood that we can’t outright see through memory. But writing about siblings is also challenging because you’ve witnessed each other at radically vulnerable stages of becoming fully realized people, you know what I mean? You’ve shared moments of inexplicable tenderness and generosity; you’ve also shared moments of inexplicable boredom and cruelty—and every extreme shade of emotion and action between. What’s safe or helpful or humane to share from those conditions? And I maybe think the added uncertainties created by poverty, addiction, abandonment, violence, &c. can intensify how/why we each remember what could have otherwise been typical (which isn’t to say easy) family victories or betrayals. More often than not, my own instincts have been to protect that strange sibling calculus (or maybe to falter under it), which is why I think I have so few poems directly addressing my siblings—even though, ironically and as you’ve rightly pointed out, siblinghood has been so central to my work in certain ways. All that is also why I’m proud of the ones I have risked writing to/for them.
JM: From prayer to hymns to re-imagined renderings of the gospel of John 3:16 and the Temptation of Christ to the title of the book itself—perhaps working in dialogue with Christ’s lesson on becoming “fishers of men”—Night Angler is chock-full of allusions to Christianity. And yet, one of the central tensions in the book seems to be whether these poems, as prayers, are answered or ignored. Can you talk about how you see religion functioning in your work, both specifically in Night Angler and more generally?
GD: Yeah, like many American families trying to survive addiction, my relationship to the church grew from my father entering a string of drug rehab programs that had Christian affiliations and support. And I remember so vividly when an idea of “god,” the power of it, first entered the equation; in certain ways, I don’t think I’d ever been less afraid or less lonely before then—how comforting it was to feel that a higher authority had control, that a road to my father’s salvation existed and had road signs for getting there. Growing up, despite their best efforts to hide or ignore it, I could hear the uncertainty in adults’ voices when it came to my father—that doubt lived in his own voice, too—but god suggested a belief beyond that human narrative. This early experience of faith set the foundation for my later conversion to the church of poetry. Because I don’t practice formal religion anymore, in addition to being a book-length prayer against passing on certain childhood traumas I inherited from my father, I think Night Angler may be my way of introducing my son to my current spirituality, my evolving language of faith.
JM: The speaker in Night Angler is carrying in one hand his feelings of wonder and reconciliation toward his father, and in the other, feelings of fear and hope for his son. His proximity to his son seems to teach him things about his father. Can you talk about what it’s like to navigate this intergenerational space? What tensions, surprises, and challenges exist?
GD: For me, one of the most challenging parts of being a parent is catching those transitions of care that you’ve just outlined—when I go from teaching my son to receiving a lesson from him, often about myself as much as about my own father. They’re almost never clean transitions. Because he’s young and I’m partially responsible for his welfare, a good portion of my days get organized around ushering him through the necessary motions: feeding him healthy food, making sure he brushes his teeth, giving him his vitamins, asking him to clean his room, dressing him warm or cool enough, coaching his mistakes, getting him enough rest, taking him to doctor and dentist appointments, &c. But somewhere in all that everyday ushering, and so often in the midst of what I think is a moment that needs correcting, he will be telling me something that I need to learn, something lyric I desperately want to hear. The strange poem “Like a River” in Night Angler in part turns on such a telling, one I missed at first. Which is to say, poetry provides me a way to hone that ability with transition, to not be so moved along by the day, to maybe get it right the next time, to maybe miss fewer of his insights in the grand scheme of things.
JM: The interrogative finds its way into many of your poems. Can you talk about the power of asking questions in poems? How do you know when it’s time to ask? How do questions change a poem in the context of memory?
GD: I think turning a declarative moment into an interrogative one can help recommit a poem to wonder, one of its basic functions. And you could boil the revision process down (or mine, anyway) to the art of asking the next best question of a poem or our relationship to the poem. I’m not always clear on when or why I feel compelled to outright ask questions in poems, but I think sometimes I’m on the hunt for when, consciously or unconsciously, I’m trying to be smarter than grief or joy, which I don’t believe in doing. Sometimes, making myself question can help interrupt that impulse. Poetry became central to my life once I learned how uncertainty could be a means of softening my emotional grip on memory enough to see more of the emotional and intellectual field around certain experiences.
JM: In the third “Night Angler” poem of the book, you write:
Dear Boy: Despite my return to running water
and migratory moods, I have spent your life
trying to break the feathered wheel of habit
in my voice, to bring you evidence
that I am done revising the seasons of storm—:
the God-cycles of hurt breath. There I go again…
There are at least two fascinating things happening in this opening stanza: you seem to clearly be in dialogue with your first book, Revising the Storm; you break the fourth wall with the line, “There I go again.” Can you talk about these moves? In your mind, what does it mean for us to be in conversation with our previous work? And how might the poet enter the poem in ways that expand, convolute, or otherwise illuminate?
GD: I think this is me reminding myself that sometimes what we think is between us and the poem might just be a part of the poem. Writing that first book (which I begin as a son and end as a father) gave me the healthiest breathing room and practices of my life, up until that point. But now I feel caught between my ongoing faith in studying my past in the name of more breathing room and my fear of burdening my son’s life with that past. I know I need more lessons in repair and recovery, but I also need the new grace and presence of his unfolding childhood to interrupt that worry so I can be a better witness to his life.
LH: The staff at Poets & Writers asked you ten questions in an interview posted on 4.30.19. One question had to do with what you’d change about the literary community/ and or publishing. You responded that you wished that “our books, as art objects, had better ways of showing more of the practice and work and failure that go into making them.” I wonder many things…if you have thought about creating a book or some other artifact that shows drafts of poems, crossed out lines, crumpled poems salvaged from the wastebasket…if you have a poem in Night Angler that you really struggled to write or one that you feel you never got right…if you have any alternative lines you’ve saved on your computer that you wish to share…if perhaps you are writing any nonfiction about your writing process…
GD: Yes to all that speculation and those dreams of visibility! In a certain way, I feel like my impulse to link poems and repeat titles are minor ways for me to load that sense of struggle and return and salvage. But the magazine underbelly is answering this call in more wonderful ways. They publish drafts of work alongside revisions and invite writers to share short essays about process. They recently ran some versions of “The Night Angler” that gave me a cathartic swipe at this. And, yes, I’ve been working on some other prose that more explicitly grapples with how to smuggle more process in the process.
LH: Is there a question about your poetry (your life?) that you’ve been waiting to be asked?
GD: Writers often get asked about future writing projects, about what books are coming next, but I’ve been asking myself a question that, for polite and completely understandable reasons, folks don’t usually ask poets: how might poetry be done with me now? Do I need a new way of attending and attuning my own heart and mind? I’ve been living in that question lately, and loving it. I don’t know.