Interview with Chad Davidson
Chad Davidson holds a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in English from Cal State San Bernardino, the University of North Texas, and Binghamton University, respectively. He is currently a professor of English at the University of West Georgia. His poems and articles have appeared in AGNI, Colorado Review, Hotel Amerika, The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. Awarded the Crab Orchard Prize in Poetry, Davidson has published several poetry collections including: From the Fire Hills (forthcoming in 2014), The Last Predicta (2008) and Consolation Miracle (2003). His textbooks (coauthored with Gregory Fraser) include Analyze Anything: A Guide to Critical Reading and Writing and Writing Poetry: Creative and Critical Approaches.
MJB. So, Chad, I’ve been familiar with your work for some years now (I was an intern at the Crab Orchard Review and your collections stood on one of the office shelves—stately, pristine)—but before I ever read them, I watched a YouTube video of a reading you gave at Clayton State University back in 2010. You start off by reciting a poem titled, “Thank You Thanks For Being Here It’s Great To Be Here Really” which is phenomenally awesome, and mentions a few of the elements you touch upon in From the Fire Hills. When was this manuscript born? Or, maybe it’s better of me to ask, how did it come to be?
CD. I wanted to write a particular type of poem for readings, one in which the line between intro remarks and first poem blurred. That’s what I came up with. It’s called “Swell of You” currently, but I also use the title “Thanks, thank you, it’s great to be here, really,” or something like that. VQR published it a long time ago. It’s never made it into a book, though. Maybe it should. Thanks for calling attention to that one.
As for FTFH, I suppose that book had been brewing for many years. The central problem is pretty clear: How does someone from California write about a history to which he has very little access (namely that of Italy during WWII)? I tried off and on to tackle those issues in poems, and some of the attempts made their way into my first two books. They were scattered, though, and never grouped together, never reaching any sort of critical mass. The turning point for me was the poem “The New World.” In that piece, I finally understood that what I really wanted to write about was not the history of Italy during WWII but rather my obsession with the history of Italy during WWII. I know. Sounds meta, doesn’t it? Still, that’s what fired me up to tackle what otherwise seemed far too grand for me.
MJB. There is so much chemistry between California and Italy, it makes me kind of feel like I am a voyeur sitting in on some type of date (he dapper/trendy as hell, Pacific tan; she more than happy to show a little skin, vintage “Roman Holiday” chic). It is a match made in heaven—unexpected, but so organic—but why California and Italy? Were these two separate manuscripts at first? Or was it apparent early on that there existed this dialogue between the two, a premeditated yoking if you will?
CD. I probably answered this somewhat in the last question, but California (where I grew up) and Italy (where I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life) both had to be present. The book is really concerned with the blurring of those two spaces. Yes, it’s absurd to amalgamate the bombing of entire cities during WWII with the planes that flew overhead during my childhood, dropping retardants and water on the ubiquitous wildfires. But that absurdity is representable in poetry (and not in many other art forms, I think).
Also, I just remember the shock of recognition that I experienced one time in Italy. We were riding a train to Agrigento in Sicily. I woke up from a long, sleepless night and opened the window. What I saw (and what I smelled, even) was not Italy at all (at least not an Italy familiar to me). It was California—the parched hillsides, the scent of sage, the gnarled olive trees. I was transported back to California, a state I hadn’t returned to since leaving ten years earlier. I knew that would make it into poems.
MJB. I was born and raised on a farm in New Jersey, and I write about New Jersey differently from other places I’ve visited or lived (either intentionally or unintentionally, I don’t know). California and Italy are rendered so beautifully—everything from the micro to the macro, ever so elegant and ballsy—but, I wonder, did your writing process/style differ between the two?
CD. Not really. I tried consciously to make that “toggling”—cutting back and forth between Italy and California—seem not so much a trick as much as an architectural feature of the book. Many of the poems do that work, some quite explicitly (“The New World,” “Native,” and “Controlled Burn” come to mind). Others, less so. Still, the idea was for the book not to be about California and Italy but about the common space they occupy in my mind.
MJB. There are sonnets and what I like to call Davidsonian quasi-sonnets (like “Elegy,” “The Churches of Italy,” and “Santa Maria in Trastevere”—17ish lines, top-notch musicality, something close to a rhyme scheme) speckled throughout the book—but after reading the entirety of the collection, the internal arranging of all of these poems seems so thought-out, deliberate, rich, and reminiscent of form. How does form weigh in on your writing process, or does it? Is form a beginning or ending point for you?
CD. I was asked this question not too long ago, and I guess I’d have to say that form (meaning the deployment of received form, since every poem has some sort of form) for me is mostly generative. That is, it’s akin to scaffolding on a construction project. It helps me build the thing, and then I mostly tear it down. Sometimes (rarely), the scaffolding becomes so tied to the artifact that I preserve it or some iteration of it. I don’t consciously set out to write sonnets, however. The few that you allude to are just that: sonnet-y, really. There are two in there that are stricter in their sonnetness, but that’s rare. (Both of those are older poems, too, which I recommissioned, resurrected.)
MJB. My apologies, for this next question, because it’s a long one AND it might be a stretch. Here it goes:
From your first poem “In Ravenna” all the way throughout FTFH, I cannot help but think of Dante and Virgil. There are obvious references: the direct mention of Dante’s grave and the manner in which the speaker of these poems guides us through the landscape as Virgil did with the Italian bard through the rings of Hell. However, it is your engagement of the pastoral elements that more strongly links your work to theirs—at least in my eyes. For example, your writing about the caper pickers of Pantelleria seems akin to Virgil’s First Georgic describing a farmer working an ox driven plow, to Dante’s capturing of the “locus amoenus” (translated as “beautiful place”).
But where Virgil, and Dante and other Renaissance pastoral poets discussed the innocence of the country, you find their Italy (home of Nero, Mussolini, and Berlusconi) a place stained by exile, ravaged by bombs and wartime, and now conveniently price-tagged for tourists. This goes for California, too: the wildfires spreading ash over citrus orchards with their “money trees,” the fact that if you look back hard enough “nothing is native.” In your poem “Native,” an invented son of a Venetian merchant “imagines a boy balanced/ on a rock wall between two worlds: some pastoral/ edition of his childhood called Ubi sunt, and the other, “America” which highlights this discord. The pastoral: a place we come from, to which we cannot return. And this is what reminds me of something I read (but cannot remember where), in which Billy Collins said we are in the age of the anti-pastoral. “From The New Republic” is a particular poem in FTFH that seems to really stress this sentiment.
What are your thoughts on pastoral poetry? Are you trying to engage this most classic of poetic forms? Do you think that we are in an age of the “anti-pastoral”? Or is it that we as Americans/American poets are divorced from the land?]
I think your preamble here is quite astute. Can I just say you’re right or that you have seen something in my poems that I am sure I thought about but about which I was not completely conscious? Yes, I think often of Virgil and Dante, and so they are there. Though what could be more pedantic and expected in this case than to allow them too much weight? They are in the background mostly. (Incidentally, that first poem “In Ravenna” was the very last poem to make it into the collection. It was pretty much written after the collection had already been accepted.) Instead, I let other “pilgrims” have a bit more sway. I particularly liked the idea of reversing the Old World / New World binary and allowing Marco Polo to visit contemporary southern California (as he does explicitly and momentarily in “Native” and implicitly in “From the New Republic.”
CD. Growing up where I did—in the mountains above the teeming “Inland Empire” (My God, even that awful name resonates in the collection)—I thought (and still think) of my childhood as incredibly bucolic. We were outside the city limits of Upland, and it was actually pretty rural. We drove through miles of orange and lemon groves to the city proper. Course, by the time I left in 1995, it was a different story.
I suppose the issue at hand is that the pastoral is a construction that was never really accurate. Only those liberated from the harsh realities of literally working the land (and not gentleman-farming) idealize that life. It’s an false form, and so I find myself constantly having to reconcile ideas of California and Italy with the places I actually experience. It’s difficult as a tourist in Italy (Northern and Central Italy, at least) to see past the machinery of the planned—entire villages curated and exquisitely calibrated to your expectations, wineries and olive-oil consortiums attempting desperately to cloak their technology in myths of the pastoral, in the stone and worn terracotta of the imagined past. Coming from California (another exhibit space, of sorts), maybe I was already somewhat sensitive to the distances between the simulated and the actual. But I’m not sure my poems here are anti-pastoral so much as self-conscious of the pastoral as a tradition and not a truth.
MJB. So you have three tremendous collections of poetry—and perhaps it is because I am waist-deep in formulating my own second manuscript—that I am interested in how the manuscript process has changed as you have put together your books? Or are your series of poems/poetic projects/working manuscripts all distinct, separate endeavors that dictate how they themselves will be arranged and presented? Thoughts in general?
CD. For me, there’s some sort of generative group of poems. I knew when I wrote “The New World,” “Controlled Burn,” and “The Gothic Line” that I had ostensibly the nucleus of an entire collection. Then I could easily go trolling back through poems in the past and find interesting connections, allow those core poems to help me generate new ideas. There are a few of what I would call “resurrected poems” in FTFH—poems that I had abandoned years ago or that I had published but never placed in a collection. Poems like “Ossi di Morto” and “Truffle,” for example, were resurrected for this collection. Whereas before they seemed rather marginal to my other poems, they were suddenly central to this book. But to continue with your questions, I keep at least a few different projects going at one time. I wrote lots of poems during the making of that book that had nothing to do with Italy or California. Those may just appear in another book.
MJB. People always say that music and poetry have an irrefutable relationship, and in the case of your own background, it seems that is true: you’re a percussionist and a poet. Groovy. How has being a musician altered/helped your writing process? Was it a natural/inevitable transition from one medium to the other?
CD. Very natural, at least for me. Music (drums, specifically) was my first love. I flirted with just bagging school altogether and following a musical path. What stopped me—aside from the hours (long nights in smoky bars and clubs)—was the constant reliance on other people, many of whom were flaky. I got turned on to poetry later in college, and I just thought, “Here’s all the musicality and creativity I love, and I can be my own damn boss.” Side benefit: I don’t have to cart around my drums all the time. If I do a gig now, I come with a book in hand, and that’s it.
I still play in bands; it’s fun time for me. I don’t mind tearing down a kit every once in a while, but a laptop is a heck of a lot easier to pack than a drum set.
MJB. How does the practice of reciting your own poetry at readings alter/influence how you compose on the page, or does it even affect it at all? How do people/audiences react to your recitations? (Personally, the internal rhythms/rhymes and delivery of your readings is as pure a poetry experience as those people, ions ago, who watched and listened to Virgil with an audience in some great hall.)
CD. I was always drawn to the performative aspect of poetry. I memorize some of my poems, not intentionally, really, but it just sort of happens. (I spend that long with anything—a pop song, a particular film—and I’ll have it memorized.) Some folks think it’s egotistical and weird to memorize one’s own poems. I don’t know. I go back and forth. Part of me thinks, “Well, if I went to see a favorite band of mine, and the singer had to read the lyrics from the liner notes, I’d feel cheated.” But then a poetry reading doesn’t have to be a big performance. I just end up memorizing the poems but still keep the book out. I hover somewhere in the middle.