Adam O. Davis was born in Tucson, Arizona. His work has appeared in several journals, including Boston Review, Fourteen Hills, The Paris Review, Raritan, The Southern Review, and Western Humanities Review. He earned his MFA from Columbia University and he is the co-founder and director of Mystery Bench Press. He currently works as a freelance writer and teaches English literature and composition in San Diego. His writing and other curiosities can be found at www.adamodavis.com.
[Grist]: I was wondering if you could talk about your current aesthetics. Certain poems such as “The Mosquito Monocracy” have a fluidity to them that results in this complex layering that is impressive. As a reader, I’ll ask myself, “How did I go from reading about bones to Josephine to Zulu?” Yet, it works.
[Davis]: My current aesthetics focus on expanding my aesthetics. I want to see how far I can stretch things, how different I can be from before. One of the things that I love about poetry is that regardless of the style or form or era or writer, when the words work, they work. A line, a series of images, a brocade of well-placed breaks that send the message home—if there’s truth in the poem it shines through, regardless. Everyone has their own way of working toward that and I want to see how many different ways I can work toward it. I think of poems as phone numbers you dial at random—sometimes they ring true and someone picks up on the other end, while sometimes you get nothing but dial tone, a dead line, an operator telling you to try your luck elsewhere. I’m looking to dial good numbers. Or, at the very least, find some interesting prerecorded messages.
[Grist]: You have mentioned before that you admire jazz improvisation, and I can’t help but recall writers like Yusef Komunyakaa who write about how their work is affected by Jazz. In Blue Notes, Komunyakaa writes: “A poem doesn’t have to have an overt jazz theme in order to have a relationship with jazz, but it should embrace the whole improvisational spirit of this music.” Does jazz influence your writing in a concrete way or is it more a certain connotation about jazz, like improvisation, that influences you?
[Davis]: You mentioned layering above and it strikes me that that’s a concept of jazz—stacking notes, modal progression, following certain rules until you see the chance to break them for their own good—and that’s what good poetry does: remind us of the old rules while showing us they no longer apply. It’s history: we’re simply building upon what was built before. And, of course, if what we write proves solid foundation, it’ll be built on in the future by others.
What I love about the “improvisational spirit” is the freedom it affords. To develop as an artist, regardless of the medium, is to court risk at every turn. Miles Davis is a paradigm of this. He repeatedly worked toward newer sounds, which infuriated most at the time because he showed no loyalty to what had proven successful in the past. It’s interesting to me to see how we reward creativity in those we admire—we ask for more, but only of the same.
But why keep doing the same thing over and over? That in itself is a definition of insanity. Do something well and then move on, find something else to do better. Miles was vilified by many for going electric, for incorporating guitar, funk, atonal notes—at the time it must have looked crazy, but in retrospect, the work is stupendous and his artistic evolution incredible. The lesson I take from that is you have to follow and find inspiration everywhere. We all develop safe places from which to write and see the world—try another one, and then another, and then another.
For me, the idea of improvisation is appealing because it provides positive creative pressure. Your success depends entirely upon your ability to think and react in the moment. No blueprint, but there are ideas present, things that have been mulled over that suddenly become useful. An important thing to acknowledge is that not everything works—by its very nature improvisation can yield stunningly good or poor material—but the process itself can be very fruitful. Sometimes the words just work. Other times I can write a full page where nothing seems to be coming together, but when I go back I find some choice cuts—that’s where the writing caught fire, but I couldn’t have gotten there if I hadn’t written everything before it.
[Grist]: You’ve been seriously writing now for nine years. After that length of time, writers definitely can mark stylistic periods with their work, changes of concern and form. James Wright, for example, after his second book said he was done with those types of poem, which for him meant received form. Relating all this back to your work, what has been a significant change for you? What were you responding to or reacting against?
[Davis]: In late 2007 I started working on a series of poems that concerned themselves only with themselves—I was writing them and allowing them to be whatever they were, without concern of who might see them or how they might be interpreted (I was never heavily concerned with those ideas, however I discovered after graduating from Columbia that the workshop—and the MFA—while being great things, can also take your poetry away from you). Fundamentally, on a certain level, when working with peers who you both admire as poets and call friends in public, you tend to cater lightly (or not so lightly) toward what you perceive their tastes to be. Interestingly, the majority of the poems I wrote in the program and in the years up until my most recent project seemed haunted by the ghost of the MFA and consequently the manuscript I had didn’t work. There were many good and honest poems in it, but they never meshed fully, there was no unifying theme or connective tissue between them other than they had been written for presentation in workshops.
When I started writing these new poems, I kept them to myself and focused on an overarching narrative structure and experimentation within each poem. I wanted to see where the unconscious would take me—I wrote focusing on sound and incorporating leaps that depended wholly on my own skewed logic—how I relate to the world, how I think one thing equals or doesn’t equal another, etc. More often than not, the poem would present itself in surprising ways, which leads into my answer for your second question: I’ve been consciously weaning myself off expectation when writing poems—I want to be surprised by where they go. I mean expectation in the sense that oftentimes we have ideas of where we want something to go, or have a great idea for a poem but we just need to find the right words. I’m basically putting my faith in the conscious and unconscious parts of my brain that light up when writing to guide me toward the truths or lies I want to write.
I read an interview with the Spanish novelist Javier Marias once and he said (I’m paraphrasing) that “I never plot out a story beforehand. If I’m not surprised by what happens, how can I expect them to be?” I think that idea is kin to Robert Frost’s “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader” statement. Poetry should surprise and delight and sadden and hearten and render every emotion and meaning possible to the reader, so it makes sense to me that the poet, when writing the poem, should be equally open to all those feelings. Uncertainty, the unknown, are good friends to the writer.
[Grist]: Yes, that sense of surprise, of uncertainty as you call it, is part of the necessary tension in a gripping poem. Do you have any examples of lines here in Grist that are doing what you are talking about? For me, the imaginative play in “The Constellations Lost” where a neighbor is serving time for stealing constellations is one of those surprising moments, partly because of how dead-pan and unsentimental you deliver it all: “The neighborhood agreed: these things happen.” I love that line because “these things”—meaning stealing constellations—do not happen, but in the microcosm of your poem they do. Anyway, could you talk about some lines or movements in your poems that surprised you?
[Davis]: To be honest, I’ve been surprised by much of what I’ve written in the last two years. I have no idea where “The night is a cash register that doesn’t know when to quit” in “What Blues?” comes from, but I like it. It makes perfect sense to me in every way that it shouldn’t. The “Bedtime Stories” took some surprising turns, more in terms of the abridged yarns they spun than the language—the idea of a hand emerging from the desert floor was too horrific and romantic to resist. Like “What Blues?” the movement in “Meteorological Symptoms of a Psychic Phenomenon” was surprising—it developed very organically when I wrote it, following this thread from “ruthless words” to the chemist’s recommendations to the way the weather has its way with us day in day out. “Heraldry” was conceived after I took all the words from a description of roundels and filled in the gaps. It’s almost like codebreaking—or perhaps codewriting—but it started as a puzzle that ended in a poem. I was surprised by “gulp what the fountain gives, give this in return.” Mainly in that “gulp” never held much poetic stock with me, but in that instance it feels right.
[Grist]: One element to your work that caught my attention was the rhythm. Your poems use strong, stressed beats that add momentum to the poem. And the lines aren’t simply rhythmic but coupled with vivid images. “What Blues?” is a great example of this. The opening lines are: “Horseflies hunt in the hockshop, heel / like hinges and rest like rust when dead.” As I reread the poem, I realized it was in accentual alliterative form, which made me wonder; how often do you use received form? What is your poetry’s relationship with received form and open form?
[Davis]: I’d say it’s a mixture of both. There are a series of separate narratives running through my manuscript belonging to several different characters, but one thing they share is an adherence to sound. I love the heightened musicality that poetry can offer, particularly when it’s unexpected. Most, if not all, of my work is in free verse, but there are moments of unexpected rhyme and a predominantly musical drive to the poems. I know the lines are working when I can recall them as soon as they’ve been written.
[Grist]: Thank you for these poems and sharing your thoughts with us. What might we expect from you in the next year?
[Davis]: I recently finished my manuscript, The Great Etcetera, and I’ve been sending it out—fingers crossed. After five years in New York I moved to California last summer. I can wear shorts year-round. My skin’s a lesser shade of pale. I’m upping my intake of avocado. I only live three miles from the beach; I think it’s time I learned to surf.