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Todd Davis on Poetry

Todd Davis has long been a friend to and supporter of Chautauqua. When I was serving as interim director for the Chautauqua Writers Center, I had the good fortune to spend time with him and his family. His generosity of spirit always lifts my spirits.

He is the author of six full-length collections of poetry--Native Species, Winterkill, In the Kingdom of the Ditch, The Least of These, Some Heaven, and Ripe—as well as of a limited edition chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow.

In addition, he as edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball, and co-edited Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets.

Readers can find his poems in many literary magazines--and we are always delighted to feature his work. Here he shares his motivation, ideas about writing, and offers some suggestions for our own writing.

Todd Davis Commentary on “A Map” and “Ursus Grows Wings”

These two poems are part of my new manuscript, “Coffin Honey,” which is about the precipitous place we find ourselves as we walk deeper into the 21st century.

The list is a long one, but I’ll begin with cataclysmic climate change, replete with deadly fires, rising sea levels, glaciers disappearing at unprecedented rates, deforestation, and pandemics as viruses jump from species to species. Second, the rise of authoritarianism and the emboldening of bigotry and racism of all sorts. Third, governments seeking to repress the protests of those who wish to change the landscape of institutional and systemic racism. And fourth, and the last I’ll list here, but I remind myself the list could go on, is the shameful and unjust treatment of immigrants, especially immigrants of color.

“A Map” concerns an immigrant family seeking to enter an unnamed country on its northern border and follows the son as he leaves his parents in what he hopes is a safe place in the forest, trying to find his way toward help and possible asylum.

The poem grew out of my anxiety and sorrow over the United States treatment of immigrants, especially illegal immigrants seeking asylum, the separation of families, the living conditions these families are subjected to, the lack of legal representation, etc.

I found myself as I lived in the poem feeling that the most feared element of the many transgressions leveled at immigrants, is losing one’s family, losing a way back to that family.

And so the idea of a map that is ultimately a map of the body and the body’s connection to those who made that body, scrawled on the flesh as a way home despite those who would torture or torment or imprison that body.

As for “Ursus Grows Wings,” it’s about a black bear hibernating in the hollowed trunk of a tulip poplar. Ursus is a reoccurring character in “Coffin Honey,” a bear living in Appalachia, finding his way of life constantly encroached upon by human activity and the impact of climate change brought about by humanity’s insistence on living in excess of what any ecosystem might provide.

Many people think of black bear hibernating on the ground, in recesses or caves, which does happen. But the tulip poplar is a tree that long before it dies may begin to rot from the inside, creating good nesting places for black bear in the winter months.

Ursus, who has climbed the tree to enter a hole and settle into the tree’s cavity, is awoken by a man cutting the tree down. Bear are amazingly athletic and can climb and jump in extraordinary ways.

I like to think Ursus is saintly in his tolerance of humanity’s bad behaviors and cunning in his ability to escape harrowing situations. Thus, Ursus’s meditation as he wakes.

Writing advice:

For me, after delivering myself from the tyranny of the “not-good-enough,” the voice in my head that judges what I might write before I even write it, the next step in my writing process is to go beyond myself. While there are always elements of the self in whatever we write, I find looking at the world from the perspective of other species and peoples, other stories, frees me to write. After all, “Todd Davis,” the version of myself that sometimes ends up in a poem, is very limited and not all that interesting. But the lives I observe or imagine are endlessly interesting and have all kinds of possibilities.

I write to free myself. I write to celebrate the life that is always beyond me. I suppose this is a bit like a Buddhist emptying oneself of the self, separating from individual concerns so I can be fully present to what is before me.

So if I’m stuck at my desk, finding nothing in my journal notes that sparks my attention, I begin to look at paintings and photographs and to read books about particular cultures. For example, I have a collection of The Foxfire Book(s) that provide interviews with Appalachian mountain folk. It offers insight into their customs and deep knowledge of place and the uses of many native species. It seems when I read passages in these kinds of books, there is no escaping a poem. I’m exhilarated by the new knowledge (or the ways what I’ve read brings me back to one of my grandparents and their ways of living in Kentucky and Virginia).

I suppose most of my writing is my attempt to preserve something I value: the knowledge of a plant, a particular event, a lesson in how to live better.

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