Interview With Carol Ann Davis

Andy Kuhn:  I understand you’ve recently moved up here from South Carolina. Mother Nature arranged quite a welcome. Have you and your family enjoyed the temperate Northeast so far? And did you have to leave behind Crazy Horse, the terrific literary magazine you ran with your husband, when you came to Fairfield University?

Carol Ann Davis: My husband and I both went to college and graduate school in the Northeast, and my husband is from Massachusetts, so we knew what we were going to be in for in terms of weather.  In fact, we missed all of it all the many years we were gone, and I’m not joking when I say we feel we’ve come home.  Our youngest son at three years old would say, “I wish we could live where there was snow,” even though he barely had any experience of snow; overhearing us over the years had affected his outlook.  I would say we never lost that New England orientation.  We’d drive four hours up to Asheville each fall to go apple picking and see the leaves, or drive towards rather than away from snow on the rare occasions the North Carolina mountains had it; now we go down the street for apples and see quite a leaf show from our back yard.  We’ve already had a covering snow this fall.  We love it.

We were both very sad to leave behind Crazyhorse, a magazine we were very involved with in many capacities for a decade, but we knew we wanted to be back in New England, and when this opportunity came up, we had to take it.  Crazyhorse is housed at the College of Charleston and has plenty of administrative support there, so we knew we could safely depart and it would survive, which, of course, it has!  We miss the magazine, but we trust we left it better for our attentions.  That’s really all you can hope to do.

AK: Your father was a rocket scientist. Was it fun to say that, when you were a kid, “My Daddy is a rocket scientist”? Especially right after someone said sneeringly about something, “It’s not rocket science”?

CAD: Well, since I grew up proximate Kennedy Space Center, one didn’t really go around bragging about one’s father being a rocket scientist, since there were a fair number of other similarly situated kids around.  Our rival high school was the Astronauts a couple of towns south, where the kids of the astronauts lived who were, you can imagine, a different breed entirely from us.  And my father’s orientation was really that of a civil engineer.  That was his training, to build roads and bridges, and then by a curious set of circumstances, he ended up being one of those guys in Apollo 13 who was put in a room and told to square the circle (if you know the scene in the movie).  I mean, literally, he was one of those guys.  My brother, who was sentient then—I was born in 1970 and missed nearly all of the good moon-mission action—told me the story of my father coming home and telling basically the same story as the one in the movie around the kitchen table.  As you can imagine, it was memorable to my brother as a kid of seven or eight to have his father walk in after a sleepless night or two down at the Cape and tell him a story as amazing as that.  It reminded me how consequential it all felt, those years of my family’s deep involvement in the space program. Watching my father in those years definitely showed me that you could love what you do; you could serve some very ambitious purpose with the work that you chose to do, and what you do matters, all that good stuff.  I have a lot of pride and affection for the happy accident of my birth into the middle of that time and into the family where I landed.

Years after my father died I was walking in Spoleto, Italy and looked down and saw a government-issue Skilcraft pen, the kind that he always wore in his pocket, the same one that thousands of U.S. civil servants of a certain era carried, black plastic with a brushed silver band.  Readers who had a parent in the government will know just what I mean.  It made me realize he’s always with me and what a legacy being his daughter is.

But as for the “it’s not rocket science” joke—not even rocket science is rocket science.  It’s amazing how practical and resourceful those guys were, how totally creative they had to be.  It was a real lesson to me as a young artist:  get to the moon with these materials and these limitations.  Now get home.  It’s not that different from trying to write within limitations.

AK: Did your father’s passion for rocketry and the exploration of space have anything to do with the dreamy and speculative and expansive side that comes out in your poetry?

CAD: The short answer is yes, his curiosity about the world, his desire to understand the way things work and where we are in the universe, all of that is inherited, if I have any of it in my work, and it’s nice you think I might!  Thank you!

He taught me celestial navigation—one of my first published poems was about that—and he always wanted NASA to go to Mars.  Now that we’re exploring Mars, I’m so happy; he would love it.  He wanted that so badly, and to go back to the moon.  So yes, I think that the idea that we are very small and our smallness is in some ways a metaphysical comfort, if that’s a philosophy that undergirds the poems, it’s certainly something he imparted to me.  We also went on a lot of night walks at the beach (which was at the end of my street) looking up at the stars and finding the Little Dipper, the Big Dipper; all of it sort of a way of shifting and finding perspective.  That informs my poetry, I think.  Maybe that’s the expansiveness you’re talking about.

I’ve only just recently started to write about this time period in a conscious way, and there’s a new poem in APR this month of mine, about space, about that time.  I think it’s funny how long it takes to begin seeing your childhood inside some larger context, and mine is certainly that era.  It’s one of my contexts, and my father, for a lot of reasons even besides that, is a huge influence—as is natural.   Another big aspect of his life was church; I grew up Southern Baptist going to church three times a week and he was always a deacon.  He was a man of science and of faith; I like that he held those two seemingly contradictory ideas in some kind of conversation, a kind of happy mystery he lived easily inside.  He was tolerant of mystery—an essential aspect of poetry.

AK: Your first book of poems, Psalm, is a meditation on your father and his loss. Can you say a little about that collection, and what writing those poems was like for you?

CAD: Well, the collection is pretty self-explanatory:  it traces a narrative arc from his death to the birth of my first child.  My father died and within a year I was pregnant—in the immortal words of Babe:  Pig in the City, the rare sequel better than the original:  I was stranded. I couldn’t go forward and I couldn’t go back.  So I wrote my way through grief, into this new experience of pregnancy.  For some weird reason, the two experiences spoke to each other.  It helped me to understand both experiences to write about them.  That’s important, I think, to say:  I write poems to better understand my life, internal and external.  The poem is a by-product of trying to live mindfully.  I don’t know if that makes sense, but the being a good person, the living better, is the important part, and the poem is the helpmate to that.

Writing these poems basically got me through that time.  Looking back at those poems I can see some of what I was going through; at the time I didn’t know and couldn’t have told you.  I can make sense of the poems in retrospect but at the time I felt I was wrestling with unknowns.

AK: Your most recent collection is called “Atlas Hour.” The poem by that title starts by intimating a kind of post-disaster landscape (beginning as it does “the flood that passed”). There’s a suggestion that a further and more final apocalypse may be imminent (“the zero hour       is upon us”) and that the thing to do in response is to “submit” (emphases in original). All this in the first five lines! But then things take a turn for the more domestic and seemingly benign. The children, though bitten, (apparently only by some kind of bug), are asleep, and the “finally” suggests that the poet, who is also a parent, is preoccupied with the ordinary hassles associated with that role, rather than with the end of the world as she knows it. Can you talk a little about what this poem means to you, where its title comes from, and why you made it your title poem?

CAD: I just came up with the title.  I liked the way the words sounded together, atlas and hour, and later it seemed to be a fitting title for the whole collection.  The idea of an atlas, a book of the world, combined with the hour in which it is read, the hour you spend with it, a kind of pure attention.  In a way, it’s a more fitting title for the collection than for the poem.

The poem itself is a little bit strange, and I’ve never really thought of this poem as having a “post-disaster landscape,” but that’s one of the great gifts of sending your poems out into the world.  The echo that comes back (the feedback, as the sound an amp gives of a guitar) is wildly interesting.  I love hearing your description of the poem—I almost feel it needs no answer because the question you’re asking has its own sense, the sense of the reader who must read the poem alone, without the poet for notes and annotations.  There’s something pure in that exchange that the poet sullies by commenting.  Inside that moment, for the reader (who, as I’ve said in the previous answer, isn’t a concern for me as I write the poem because I am concerned only with what I can learn from the poem) the poem is best if it is both clear and open.  Clear as in followable, not needlessly opaque, and open as in open to the reader’s interacting with it, as you have here.

So in a way I don’t know what I can say about the poem besides that I like how you read it and it adds some dimension to it to hear you think about it.  When I wrote the poem it was a poem concerned with the wilderness of parenthood, and it’s addressing my husband about this joint venture of the children in a sort of intimate shorthand of a type I was very keen on in exploring the book.  Specifically to address this poem, though, so much is at stake in the day to day of parenthood, but half the time you are just preoccupied with things like bug bites.  And you’re never sure when the children were bitten or by what, or when they’ll fall asleep.  The proof of your existence is simply their existence; it’s terrifying and miraculous. In a lot of ways—practical and spiritual—you’re hostage to the ups and downs of it, or it feels that way, especially in the early years.  This poem interacts with that feeling.  I think it takes place on the porch of our old apartment after a storm; it was a great wide porch, and Charleston had some great storms.  That’s the post-disaster part, which is just the calm after a thunderstorm of the sort that happen there.  Of course it’s easy to be sentimental about such storms once you’re out of them, as I am now; the poem is closer to that time than I am now and so it bathes me in that for the time I read it.

AK: The poems in Atlas Hour have a tranquil presentation, maybe because of the spacing on the page of multiple short phrases, which seem to balance each other, or to move serenely along like leaves in a current, or like thoughts during meditation—they are there, the reader notices them for a moment, then has to let them go. A flood and a child’s watercolor are stressed about the same. But there’s a lot of dark material, even in the Ekphrastic pieces, the poems that take their inspiration and comment upon works of art.

CAD: First I must say you’re generous to use words like “tranquil” and “serene” to describe the form; I think many readers find the spacing anything but!  Still, as I said before, I was writing to discover something, and the form just helped me with that, which is why I used it.  This is by way of explanation, which I realize you haven’t asked for, but many have felt the form was hard to enter, and so I just want to say that I entered the form because it welcomed me—and I hope it welcomes the reader, although the reader has to sort of leave some expectations about clarity, I suppose, or regular narrative pacing, at the door of the poem.  The reader has to, as it were, take off his or her shoes to enter, or as Wittgenstein says—I’m paraphrasing—one must climb the ladder and then throw it away.  If the form requires some sort of supplication from the reader, I hope he or she is reassured that it first required the same thing of me!

I realized after I worked with the form for a while that it was increasing the intimacy level in the poem.  As I said about “Atlas Hour,” I was able to talk in a sort of shorthand to my husband; likewise to my children, and eventually, to artists, and even to events, such as suicides and genocides.  The dark material came in—I don’t know how else to say it—quite naturally once the form was doing its work on me.  It’s as if the form itself, its engagement with language, its weird clarity, asked more of me as a human being.  And so as a human being some of these larger issues (the nature of violence, how suffering happens, what it means to bear witness, etc.) became accessible to me through my experimentation with language and form.  It seems, I think, like a wild leap to go from parenthood to genocide, but if you think about it, it’s not.  Plenty of parents have found themselves in such situations; it’s just an accident of my circumstance that I haven’t.  And that others have has something to do with me.  I don’t know if that makes much good sense, but it’s all I can do to explain it.

AK: Sometimes the contrast between what you’re writing about and the way you’re writing about it is startling, almost eerie. “Upon Seeing the Terezin Children’s Drawings, Two Parts” references a collection of drawings done by children in a transfer camp outside Prague during the Holocaust. The approach in the poem to this situation and material is oblique, and the references to the central situation and the people seemingly muted. Can you say a little bit about how this poem came to be, and how you would want us to engage and understand it?

CAD: My first engagement is with tone, with the tone of the language that is coming to me, and then within that I will engage—obliquely or directly as the tone requires—with the body of knowledge, with the subject, as it were, of the poem.  But it’s sort of secondary to the tonal color, and that poem in particular runs almost entirely on tone.  I had been to Prague with my husband many years earlier and then we visited again when our children were very small.  On both occasions we visited the children’s drawings described in the poem that are housed at The Jewish Museum in Prague.  The second time I saw them my second son was four months old and strapped to my body as I walked through, which I remember feeling was deeply ironic, the weight of him, his nearness, surrounded by the art of these exterminated children.  I can’t in all honesty say I ever thought I would write about it—at the time I’m certain I felt I would not ever have “a right” to do so—it was just an experience that stayed with me.  Then, a year or two later after this form had progressed a bit for me I found myself writing about that experience, and I just let the poem do its work on me.  I took details from that time—such as an altarpiece called “Christ in Limbo” we had seen shortly before—and I sort of let the thing knit together.

Then, as I often do, I flipped the poem to see what would happen to the sequence of ideas.  And something very strange happened:  a really emphatic energy unleashed in the second half.  I could see it was compelling and I just left it as it fell.  Usually when I flip a poem I keep only the second half, but here it felt right to make it a mirror poem, to revisit everything once the world was turned upside down, as it had been for the children.

But the engine under the poem is the parents, these parents who had art classes for their children in a camp.  These parents decided to have their children continue to process their worlds through artistic expression; I find it deeply moving and heroic that they did this.  I can’t think of anything more difficult or beautiful than what they gave their children by collectively teaching those classes in that setting.  What must that have been like?

AK: Your first collection was called Psalm and some of your work in Atlas Hour is overtly prayerful. Even the Terezin poem references “the story of the annunciation” and “Christ in Limbo.” Do you consider yourself a spiritual poet, and is yours a specifically Christian spirituality?

CAD: This has come up a bit, especially in the reviews of Atlas Hour.  Psalm, dedicated to my father, was a direct homage to my upbringing in the Baptist Church, of which I’ve not been a member my entire adult life.  As an adult I am deeply agnostic, though I don’t like the word spiritual very much, since I like the ritual of religion.  Well, this is getting a little muddy.  Perhaps biography can help: I grew up reading the bible, and I had an influential preacher with whom my family was very close—he was also the chaplain for the Daytona International Speedway and a visual artist and musician as well, a very interesting presence in my life.  From an early age artistic practice and religion have been joined, just as science is not so separated from religion in my father’s thinking.  I don’t remember a lot of big lines being drawn between these aspects of my life, and all of them feel like formative experiences to me.  So yes, it’s a short walk from that upbringing to an interest in devotional art, which is where things like the annunciation come into the poems.  My interest in visual art reaches its apotheosis in someone like Fra Angelico, who is bringing a bunch of areas of inquiry together for me in his art.  Whenever the annunciation is mentioned, his frescoes aren’t far behind in my thinking.

But also, as I said, in the Terezin poem I just grabbed around for the details of that day, the things we had seen around the same time (such as the “courtyard full of bees” outside our apartment), and we had just gone to a medieval art museum and seen these amazing altar pieces, not just “Christ in Limbo” but “Our Lady of Sorrows” and several others.  I love every bit of it—the wood of the altarpiece, the paint, the language—it’s a joining of all my essential interests.  So in terms of language and form I’m mixing some of this together, all of these felt experiences, that are real but not necessarily sequential or related, and I’m seeing how the tone of one thing runs up against another; then I’m also, as you said earlier, “leveling” the importance of each of them.  In the moment of experiencing them, they’re all important, all equal.  I think I do that because as we perceive the world we don’t know, immediately, what is more important than something else.  Importance is assigned in retrospect, and I’m not interested in making explicit meanings exactly.  I’m much more interested in feeling it than knowing it.  So when I’m writing I don’t add value and importance as a habit.  A true exploration depends, I guess, on not judging what you’re seeing as important or unimportant.   I try to keep an open mind, and I hope that means I get to see a little bit more of the visual field, a little bit more of the periphery.

AK: How has your experience of being a parent changed you as a poet?

CAD: It’s almost ridiculous to answer.  It has totally changed me.  When my oldest was born my sister said something to me like, “Here he is.  The one who changes everything.”  And she was absolutely right.  I’m so lucky they’re here.

AK: Looking at the list of writers who have read for the Series,  http://katonahpoetry.com/history/ ,do you see any names of poets who have influenced your own development?

CAD: Well, it’s such an incredibly esteemed series, I kind of can’t believe I’m a part of it.  So it’s humbling to imagine my name will join that list in a few short weeks, and it would take me years to explain how so many of the poets on the list have influenced me or helped my thinking about poems.

But I’d be remiss not to mention that the person who has most influenced me—among an embarrassment of riches on your list—is my own teacher, James Tate.  It’s no understatement to say that he gave my poetry life to me.  I will live all my days inside the bright light of that great debt.

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