Monday, June 30, 2014

An Interview with Frank X Walker

Conscious Narratives: Exploring Historical Poetry with Frank X Walker
By JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp

I had the pleasure of being introduced to Frank X Walker, also a Spalding University MFA graduate (2003), while attending a panel discussion in 2009. I mentioned to Spalding faculty member Jeannie Thompson that I was currently interested in the persona poem for an alternative approach to my study of the life of Mary Jemison. Frank happened to be in the ballroom of the Brown Hotel that day, and Jeannie said, “Well let me introduce you to someone!” The result was a deep appreciation for not only his poetry collections, but the example he sets for us all regarding earnest research when representing the life of our heroes and heroines.

A founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, Frank X Walker is the editor of America! What's My Name? The "Other" Poets Unfurl the Flag (Wind Publications, 2007) and Eclipsing a Nappy New Millennium. He is the author of six poetry collections: Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers (University of Georgia Press, 2013); Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride (Old Cove Press, 2010); When Winter Come: the Ascension of York (University Press of Kentucky, 2008); Black Box (Old Cove Press, 2005); Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York (University Press of Kentucky, 2003), winner of the 35th Annual Lillian Smith Book Award; and Affrilachia (Old Cove Press, 2000).
A Kentucky Arts Council Al Smith Fellowship recipient, Walker's poems have been converted into stage productions by the University of Kentucky Theatre department and Northern Kentucky University's Theatre and Dance Department and widely anthologized in numerous collections; including Ecopoetry: A Contemporary American Anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. III, Contemporary Appalachia, Spirit and Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry and Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art.

He is the first Kentucky writer to be featured on NPR's This I Believe and has appeared on television in PBS's GED Connection Series, Writing: Getting Ideas on Paper, in In Performance At the Governor's Mansion and in Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. He contributed to Writing Our Stories: An Anti-Violence Creative Writing Program Curriculum Guide developed by the Alabama Writer's Forum and the Alabama Department of Youth Services. He co-produced a video documentary, Coal Black Voices: the History of the Affrilachian Poets, which received the Jesse Stuart Award presented by the Kentucky School Media Association, and produced a documentary exploring the effects of 9.11 on the arts community, KY2NYC: Art/life & 9.11. A multidisciplinary artist, Walker's visual art is in the private collections of Spike Lee and Bill and Camille Cosby.

Walker is a native of Danville, Ky., a graduate of the University of Kentucky, and completed an MFA in Writing at Spalding University. He has served as founder/Executive Director of the Bluegrass Black Arts Consortium, the Program Coordinator of the University of Kentucky's King Cultural Center and the Assistant Director of Purdue University's Black Cultural Center. The University of Kentucky and Transylvania University awarded Walker honorary Doctorates for his collective community work and artistic achievements. He is the recipient of the Thomas D. Clark Literary Award for Excellence, Actors Theatre's Keeper of the Chronicle Award and a Recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship in Poetry. He has held board positions for the Kentucky Humanities Council, Appalshop and the Kentucky Writers Coalition as well as a government appointment to Cabinet for Education, Arts & Humanities and the Committee on Gifted Education. He has served as vice president of the Kentucky Center for the Arts and the executive director of Kentucky's Governor's School for the Arts.

JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: I was introduced to your work in the fall of 2009 upon reading Buffalo Dance and When Winter Come. These historical poems travel through and beyond the scope of social justice in order to create the profound sense of empathy the reader feels for York. What happened in the very beginning of this journey that inspired you to explore this man’s story?
Frank X Walker: My initial journey with York and my initial interest in historically based persona poems began with the embarrassment of acknowledging my own ignorance. After attending a Chautauqua presentation given by Hasan Davis in the character of York, I tried to rationalize how it happened that I had never heard his name before, given his Kentucky connections, given my background in African American culture and history, given the fact that I was living in the same city and walking the same streets, and given his significance to the success of the expedition. I wasn't sure if the education system failed me or if had failed myself. I thought I was familiar with the Lewis & Clark story, but the more I learned about York and the other young men from Kentucky who participated and other important details regarding their interactions with Native peoples, the richer the story got.

LoVerde-Dropp: In the poem Revisionist History, York brings to light the omission of his own role in the journey in the lines,
            The truth seemed to stretch so
            that by and by I seem to disappear from they tongues
            as if I had never even been there
            as if my blackness never saved they hides.

            Them twist the tales an leave out my parts in it
            so much so, that directly I become Massa Clarks boy, again
            just along to cook
            an carry.

Here the speaker offers at least part of the explanation. Now in regard to your discovery of the revised history of York’s role in the expedition, I’m wondering if you experienced similar serendipitous events that led you to begin researching the lives of Isaac Murphy and Medgar Evers.

Walker: It would not be a stretch to say something similar happened in each case. Part of my interest in all of them is admittedly what I perceive as erasure. In Murphy's case, the degree to which African Americans participated and in many cases dominated thoroughbred racing is so invisible that it rarely comes up, though it wasn't my motivation for pursuing his story. And Medgar Evers' invisibility in a larger discussion of the Civil Rights that is often condensed to something as simple as 'MLK had a dream and Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat' is equally unfortunate. 

LoVerde-Dropp: In When Winter Come, the sequel to Buffalo Dance, you begin including voices other than York’s to tell his story. These voices manifest in the form of The River; Watkuweis; Sacagawea; William Clark; York’s Nez Perce wife, his slave wife, stepmother (Rose), father (Ol’ York), hunting shirt, hatchet, and knife. You state in the prologue, Another Trek, that these voices “provide the emotional undercurrent” in this second book. Could you talk more about this?

Walker:   Buffalo Dance is told in one voice, York's. By the time I was ready to write the sequel I had traveled more extensively throughout the Northwest reading from the first York book and had enjoyed significant exchanges with Native American scholars and members of the Nez Perce tribe which gave me a chance to hear another side of the story. I believed the sequel could get closer to the truth and be more authentic if other missing voices had a chance to contribute. I also believed that adding female voices would humanize the narrative even more.  Those new voices were the emotional undercurrent I was referring to. I have seven sisters and was raised by women so I know from experience that women see the world differently than men. I wanted to add their acute, honest, insightful perspectives to what had always been offered as a counterweight to an overtly patriarchal and predominantly white superman mythos.

LoVerde-Dropp: Your third book of persona poems, Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride, emphasizes the fierce devotion within Murphy’s circle as much as it does his rise to fame. I am thinking specifically of the poems “Keeper of the Flame” and “Too Heavy,” which were attributed to his wife, Lucy. What were you able to borrow from your devotion to your own family in order to create voices so real?  

Walker: I feel confident in how I perceive human interaction especially between women and men. I'm old enough to have loved and lost enough times to have become wiser for it.  When I craft collections of persona poems, I'm building from source material gathered from memory, research and imagination. It’s the emotional currency that comes from a first person voice and the imagination that keeps it from just being another history text. I'm fortunate to have survived enough personal experiences to create the authenticity that I want my readers to experience.

LoVerde-Dropp:  You’ve now released your fourth book of historical poetry, The Unghosting of Medgar Evers – how has your approach to the persona poem evolved over the past decade?

Walker: My approach to building a narrative driven by persona poems or what I now refer to as Historical Poetry, has definitely evolved over the four collections. I think I can say with confidence that multiple voices, especially those voices in opposition, lend more authenticity to the narrative and create a greater sense of truth for the reader. I've learned that much of what we accept as history is often simply the point of view of the one individual who wrote it down. I've learned that there are great rewards in spending the time, money, and effort in the research. I'm a better human being having encountered these men, their families and their stories.

LoVerde-Dropp: What do you feel are the most important lost details about the life of Medgar Evers that Turn Me Loose has restored to public consciousness?

Walker: I would hope that Turn Me Loose helps push Medgar Evers' name back into the conversation about civil rights. I think more people know about the details of the tragedy of Emmett Till than know about Medgar's assassination and even fewer know how responsible Medgar was in bringing the Till case to trial. I hope the book corrects some of those injustices.

LoVerde-Dropp: I get a sense of this the most in the poem Arlington, which is written in the voice of Medgar Evers’ wife, Myrlie. Each tercet is like a note higher than the last as the poem, which withholds its only period until the very last line, thus resisting both closure and complicity. Arlington reveals the incongruity between the ceremony offered upon Evers’ death and the reality of the lack of acknowledgement that should have honored his life.   This poem also integrates craft on a larger scale than what your readers are used to seeing, and I am wondering if you chose the tercet for this extended metaphor for a particular reason.
Walker: The tercets in this poem are intended to extend the image of the triangularly folded flag directly onto the page. Additional efforts, which include contemporary forms like the contrapuntal and hinge poems that are used throughout the collection, allowed me to illuminate the juxtaposition of voices that are in dialogue throughout the collection. I really worked hard on raising the craft in this last collection to something worthy of the narrative, where in the past I had been more concerned with just getting the narrative right. It was important to me that there was as many rewards for the reader looking for poetry as there was for the reader looking for a history lesson in these pages.  



During the flag ceremony
                        soldiers folded, creased, tucked,
                        smoothed, and folded again

                        with such precision and care,
                        I imagined they were wrapping
                        a body

                        a red, white, and blue
                        which they passed, and saluted

                        and honored so much so
                        everybody stopped looking
                        at the casket

                        by the time they placed that triangle
                        of husband in my arms,
                        they left no doubt

                        I was holding his future
                        and what we were burying
                        was only his past.

LoVerde-Dropp: The topic of social justice appears in your role of editor as well as writer. The August 2013 issue of Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture is themed “The Lost Ones” and cites “the wake of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case” as the inspiration for its title. In this regard, you have a voice, unlike writers with compartmentalized public and private personas, that is steady and consistent. What can you tell us about how this carries over into the classroom when you are teaching in a University?

Walker: I don't try to hide the fact that I see myself as an artist/activist and teacher actively engaged in the world around me. I encourage my students to tune into what's happening in their own worlds and to consider what they are or can be emotionally invested in and to use that emotion as a starting point or an emotional center for their own work. I also use some of my own work in the classroom. When the students can make the connection between the writer and the work and have access to the entire backstory, they really understand the writing process, especially how authentic emotion vs. sentimentality can impact a piece of writing.

LoVerde-Dropp: Could you talk a little bit more about this – teaching the difference between authentic emotion vs. sentimentality – as it applies to creating a more three dimensional backdrop, especially in Historical Poetry?

Walker: Many students mistakenly initially believe that receiving an emotional reaction from an audience after sharing the details of a tragic event makes it a good piece of writing, which could spiral a peer workshop away from craft and into a tragedy contest. This evokes a kind of sentimentality that has more to do with the subject and less to do with the quality of the writing. When they fully understand the historical context, the motivation of the speaker, the possible emotional state during that poem as it relates to the other poems and other variables in a series that portrays the subject as a multi-dimensional character it is truly instructive.

LoVerde-Dropp: You also write in other genres besides poetry, and you are currently working towards finishing a fiction novel.  What was it that prompted you to explore the lives and circumstances of these men and women in the form of historical poetry as opposed to the biography?  

Walker: I like the under-the-skin-closeness of poetry. I like getting so deep inside a character's head and heart that you start to imaging what they dream about. That would be breaking the rules in a biography. You're not supposed to take those kinds of poetic licenses. And I also love the fact that a small collection of poetry, can take you as close or even closer to a subject as a thick biography or book of history.

LoVerde-Dropp: You noted that African American poets Kevin Young, Natasha Trethaway, Tyhimba Jess, Marilyn Nelson, and Adrian Matejah, among others, have also contributed to the genre and that an effort is being made to convince libraries, bookstores and publishers that Historical Poetry deserves its own shelf space. What exactly is it about Historical Poetry that draws you in so closely?

Walker: I think I’m drawn to the fact that the poetry is doing more than what most people expect of poetry, that it is misbehaving, that it has taken on a level of activism that allows it to break new ground and is creating new poetry fans.

LoVerde-Dropp: You’ve stated, “I feel that the research and character studies necessary to building the authentic narratives in the historical poetries made for an easier transition back into fiction.”  This brings me back to your current fiction project; what can you tell me about its inception and storyline?

Walker: This novel project comes out of a group of stories I've been carrying around with me for a long time. The one I'm focusing on in the current manuscript is probably closest to the life I've lived these fifty plus years but is still fiction. It’s a coming of age tale and an exploration of black masculinity that centers on a father and son separated at birth, both of whom become writers. After a secret interracial relationship results in an unplanned pregnancy in a state institution in rural Kentucky, the father is charged with rape and sentenced to twenty years in prison and the mother is transferred to a home for unwed mothers where she is forced to give her son up for adoption.  The story really begins when the father and son's lives cross for the first time twenty years later via an exchange of letters just before the father's release from prison. As much as I enjoy the craft of poetry I must admit that I've been excited about having a project that has allowed me to bring these characters to life on the page and to take everything I've learned about writing and things I've experienced in the real world and repurposing it all in an imaginary space on a much bigger screen.

Frank X Walker has taught in writing programs like Fishtrap in Oregon and SplitRock at the University of Minnesota and currently serves as Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Kentucky where he serves as the founding editor of PLUCK!, the Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp is a full-time instructor at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia and serves as Secretary on the board of directors for the Georgia Writers Association. Her article, “Accessible Poetry” appears monthly on the Georgia Writers website JoAnn received her MFA in Creative writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her poetry has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine,, and Bigger than They Appear: Anthology of Short Poems.

               Photo by Noah Dropp

Monday, June 9, 2014

Being There: The Emotive ‘Fly on the Wall’ in Ed Davis’ "Time of the Light"

by Anthony Fife

Observation, often passive, forms the nucleus of many of Ed Davis’s most striking poems in Time of the Light.  Through observation, often of everyday occurrences, Davis is able to bear witness, and funnel that newfound stewardship to the reader, in the elegant shuttle of social or metaphysical importance. The speaker in many of these poems is not satisfied, however, until he has allowed the scene to both arrest and, subsequently, fulfill his sought after evolution.  Davis’s characters channel what they find in the world into food for growth and self-transformation.
One such poem, “Shade," begins with a recumbent cyclist pausing en route to take in the scene of a handful of men beneath a shade tree “smoking and jawing like its 1951” (line 7).  The tableau is not particularly exciting, and the reader gets the sense that it is also not likely rare; perhaps these men meet semi regularly to mull over the day’s events, and take in the much needed relief the shade of the tree provides.  What is unique, however, is the immediate attachment the cyclist fosters for these men.
          The cyclist, for perhaps the first time, discovers that he is missing something in himself and, simultaneously, finds that something ’neath a shade tree.  Call it companionship—though community is maybe a more inclusive word—but whatever it is, the cyclist sees it and, at once, recognizes that he desires it.  Davis writes:

                 [M]aybe they'd invite me
                 to share their shade and sip
                 a cold one from their cooler;
                 or a glass of someone's grandma's
                 fresh-squeezed lemonade. (15-19)

Substitute any beverage for the beer and lemonade.  It is what the beverage represents (companionship or community?) that is important.  The ability to bond and, maybe even more importantly, to have someone to bond with, is what pulls the cyclist into his own head as he wonders what it would be like to share in the ritual.  It is no wonder Davis professes to admire the work of Wendell Berry, whose work often defines such relationships among initiates.  Unfortunately, there are insiders and there are outsiders; there is no overlap.
“Emergency Room Express Care: Princeton, WV, Xmas Eve, 1996” typifies the fly-on-the-wall perspective that leads, perhaps inevitably, to self-realization.  Davis writes:

                   They come not too injured,
                   but wounded enough,
                   clutching stomachs whose stitches
                   don't fully keep them closed,
                   faces denying pain bodies mime. (1-5)

A local emergency room is a den of suffering.  Wounds, sometimes horrific, are a common sight to those on duty.  The poem’s speaker, however, is no medical professional.  He is not so well versed in the manifestations of blood and pain to have developed blinders.  “I shut myself inside a book,” writes Davis (7), but the attempt to close himself off from the suffering is a failure.  Empathy trumps his discomfort and, through baring witness, the speaker is able to find the common strand that ties him, despite his immaculate health, to those whose bodies reject violently what transgression has befallen them. After a moment of silent, eyes-closed meditation, the speaker says, “Eyes open, I feel suddenly one/ with these Christmas casualties,/ though moments ago, I was a stranger” (20-2).  The transformation is nearly complete; the narrator is able to transcend both the bounds of his own body and its apparent lack of pain.  The unnamed “loved one” who he waits on suddenly, and unknowingly, becomes part of a much larger community.    

              “Dawn Singer in College Bathroom” is similar to “Shade” and “Emergency Room Express Care,” in that the narrator inadvertently discovers something, in this case a student singing ’60s R&B in a bathroom at 7:45 a.m., that highlights his life and how it lacks certain small fragments that, if found, will might make it whole.  What is missing in the makeup of this particular narrator is the ability to bypass the callused filter that labels as absurd the act of singing in a public restroom stall at a quarter till eight.   
            The inability to disregard social norms and articulate unbounded joy is more or less synonymous with the teaching of English Composition.  The narrator says:

                        I clamp eyes closed where I sit.
                        I am convicted by his sweet testimony
                        of being a prose-droning,
                        poetryless Standard English hack,
                        lacking the brashness to flute truths,
                        harmonizing brain with the body’s business. (7-12)

Grammar is a less than compelling subject; the teacher of grammar, then, can only be, the reasoning goes, a less than compelling person.  The tuneless narrator, in light of the bathroom serenade, believes this hype and applies it to himself.  “My armpits pour and my milky knees quake,” the narrator says, “while I contemplate teaching Comp I where I/ force-feed poor students syntax and grammar” (13-7).  The self-loathing is short lived, however, because “suddenly/ his song gives me grace, lifts the top/ right off my head and inserts a prayer” (21-3).  The transformation is complete.  Perhaps English class will be a bit more energetic today.    
            Davis’s fly-on-the-wall poems culminate in “Transubstantiation,” in which the passive narrator is no longer content to stumble upon scenes and allow them to force their shape upon him.  In this case, the narrator overtly seeks an experiences and, as reward for his efforts, is given new life. 
            Seeking out a wild place, the narrator says, “I plunge through creek toward the place/ where the great blue heron flew” (1-3).  Only three lines in and, with this one act, the narrator has been more active in the shaping of his own destiny than the narrator in the three aforementioned poems combined.  The result is a complete physical and psychological transformation in which the narrator becomes a great crane.  Davis writes, “While I gape, my arms flicker/ fire before morphing to feathers./ Lord-a-mercy, I’m growing wings!” (11-3). Not content to merely possess wings, he must also use them.  Finding himself amongst a flock of cranes, the narrator says:

My tissue wings stretch taut,
pocket the air while I rise,
trailing hollow reeds legs,
rowing up-current, gaining altitude.
We are flying, and we are singing together,
our wings sing. (21-6)

Making the case that the transformation is psychological and not physical would be easy.  Regardless, whether “Transubstantiation” is about a man who transcends the bounds of gravity or merely of his own mind, he is a man quite unlike the narrators in “Shade," “Emergency Room Express Care” or “Dawn Singer”; he is not a passive bit of clay upon which chance meetings leave their imprint. 
            Ed Davis’s narrators are various and complex.  One thing they have in common is that, with help, they reach a higher plain of existence.  An important difference, however, is that though most elevate their vantage through sheer luck and longing, at least one seeks out his fortune.  Davis portrays dynamic characters who are most themselves while being acted upon by the presence of others.  But a truly overt act can take place, and when it does the actor transcends through sheer will of the spirit.

The first poem in the collection, “These Poems," is an introduction of sorts.  Would you mind talking about this poem and what it does to shape the book?  Also, when was this poem written, and why?  Was it written much like any other poem and just happened to fit, or was it created to serve this specific function? 

ED: You’re right, it is an introduction. Although I wrote the poem at least five years ago, it still feels “recent” to me. It came to me, as many poems do, while hiking Glen Helen Nature Preserve in Yellow Springs; but unlike most, it arrived fairly complete. Almost all poets share this uncanny, even sacred, experience of a significant work arriving fully-formed as opposed to the long, tedious (somewhat obsessive) process that midwifing poems usually is. Naturally it doesn’t happen often enough. The poem is a good one to perform first at readings as a sort of prelude or invocation. It feels mystical to me, perhaps due to its origin, though it’s very concrete and reveals, I believe, much about me personally as well as a sort of poetic credo.  It seems to be about faith. 

Right off the bat, with the first poem, you begin defining specific relationships — “These Poems”, “Uncle Frank and the Boy," “Shade," “Boots, Repaired," “My Hands at Fifty-five”  —  some between people, some otherwise.  Each of these poems includes some type of dependence.  Would you please discuss that dependence and how it, perhaps, defines the relationship?  Though similar in this way, they all have, or so it seems to me, a contracted or expanded focus which also makes them, the poems and the relationships, quite different from one another.  These are just a few examples, of many, and happen to be the first five poems in the book.  Would you please speak to how relationships form the nucleus of some of your work?  Is it possible to write a poem that doesn’t include some type of relationship?  How does a poem like “Shade," which is very much of the moment — kind of a snapshot — fit with the other poems I’ve named that are hard fought, earned relationships taking place over great time and space?

ED: At first the word “dependence” surprised me, but the more I think about it, the more it fits. The older I grow, the more I feel the interdependence of all things, especially people. Introverted and solitary by nature, I’m nonetheless quite aware I write poems for people to read and hear. But not all of them. Many more are written for myself, my own growth, personally and in the craft. “Uncle Frank” is a direct celebration of a boy’s depending on a good man (and, indirectly, Mother Nature). In “Shade,” the outsider observes a tight-knit community, depending on their neighbor to share a lot more than his tree and property (and, again, Nature shares with humans). The narrator of “Boots” feels companionship, even love, for the tools of his “trade.” So you’re right, of course. As solitary and private as some poems (and their narrators) can be at times, the “world is very much with them.” I think of my hero Wendell Berry and how focused all his creative work, prose as well as poetry, is on the tight human circle:  family, then community. The Big World, including God, seems a distant third, since all nature, all non-human things, are infused with spirit. Same with my poetry, I think. Relationships are key. As I used to tell my college composition students, “I’m much more interested in our pursuing what unites rather than separates us.” Conflict isn’t my favorite relationship.

Your poems seem to almost alternate between the urban/suburban and the rural.  This makes sense, given your background.  Would you please discuss how region shapes the physicality of your poems?  How is the physical shape of a poem (the poetic line, stanzaic form, etc.) conceived differently, if at all, by regional concerns?

ED: You’re right:  they divide themselves into rural and urban; for example, most poems set in the West Virginia of my boyhood are quite rural in their people, settings and theme, despite the fact that I was always a townie and never lived in the country. Do regional concerns affect the physical form of my poems? You might have discovered something there. To the extent I’m reproducing speech (as in the dialect poem “God Knocks”) or a very Appalachian setting and theme (as in “Roots and Branches”), lines do seem much affected by their subjects:  tending toward natural pauses, including drawl, in the former; and to rural mountain sprawl in the latter. Thanks for that insight! 

While on the subject of form, the poems in your collection don’t seem to concern themselves much with traditional forms.  Or consistent traditional meters, for that matter, though throughout the collection there certainly are hints of both.  What is it about the lack of given rules that attracts you to that freer poetic mode?  If you do bypass given form and, therefore, all the inherent rules of tradition, what are your rules?  What guidelines do you place on yourself or your work to guide you where you want to go?  Where do you want to go?

ED: Though I write free not traditional verse, I’m obsessive about the integrity, length and especially rhythm of my lines. If readers see my poems as merely chopped-up prose, I’d be disappointed. A few important rules that I hope are obvious include the following. Lines must end on a significant (hopefully suggestive) word, compelling the reader forward (never a throwaway word like a preposition or article). And you’re right that, while my lines don’t scan as traditional verse, there’s tight, even strict rhythm, achieved more by intuition and “feel” rather than counting syllables. I also favor musical devices such as alliteration; and one-syllable, concrete words over multi-syllabic abstract ones. My experience performing in rock bands in the sixties, playing music by ear, which by definition is informal, improvisational and “free” (at least in the listening), influences my poetry much more, I think, than my formal literary education. In a way, my poems are the songs I’d write, if I could. But I’m a poet, not a songwriter, so what I’m after is concise musical language that both entertains, informs and hopefully moves readers through a tightly-controlled form designed to speak as directly as possibly to my audience.   

There is a great deal of listing or cataloging in this collection.  For example, ‘This is the things poems do’ (3-4), ‘These are the things hands do’ (8-9), ‘This is how the body changes form’ (23-24).  Can you please discuss how listing plays a part in your poetic imagination and, if at all, how maybe it is part of a poetic tradition you might be a part of and/or tap into?

ED: Lists are so generative! As poets, our job is to capture the ephemeral, the transcendent moment as it happens right before our eyes (even if it was from a day in our childhood forty years ago), and while the telling word and well-disciplined line are central to writing effective poetry, sometimes I just let ‘er rip and take it all, though I can feel a little guilty later. For a long time, I let the sprawling poem “Dawn Singer” linger after writing it pretty much as it appears in the book, saying to myself, “This won’t do. It’s way over the top. Gotta cut back.” So the day came to tame it, show it who’s boss and see if it could be saved. But I decided it was fine the way it was:  over the top, self-indulgent and messy. So be it. A lot of folks have told me they enjoy the poem. But I think that, except maybe for “He Could Write,” most of my list poems in “Time of the Light” are more tightly controlled and less “wild.” Revising can become self-censoring if we’re not careful. We can revise the heart and soul right out of the poem.

What is the rhetorical nature of the five sections of your book and how do these five sections interact?  Is there an implicit conversation between the different parts?  How has this shaped your expectations of what the reader will receive, both as they read and once they have walked away?

ED: Well, it’s sort of a greatest hits collection—poems spanning my entire poetic career, from the 1980’s right up to 2012. It includes most of the poems in my chapbook “Healing Arts,” but only one each from the chapbooks “Haskell” and “Appalachian Day,” none from “Whispering Leaves.” From the first, I envisioned the book as a repository for the (hopefully) best poems from four decades—but I also included newer poems that had gone over well in readings, such as “These Poems” and “Epitaph” as well as a few more obscure poems that fit the book’s overall theme as well as the section in which it’s located. Then I organized all of them into four sections—The Art of Living (concerned with people and relationships); The Nature of Art (ekphrastic poems about everything from rock, blues and jazz, to modern dance); The Art of Nature (mostly the fruit of many walks in the woods); and Spirit (poems which seem more directly centered on the sacred). However, since I believe all poetry is sacred and about important relationships, there’s a great deal of overlap; there’s probably no single poem that couldn’t be placed just as well into another of the categories. And yet I feel the book has shape and movement, from lighter to darker, humorous to more serious, human to more mystical. The book’s four categories feel flexible, malleable, a little arbitrary, reflecting perhaps the free verse I’m so committed to. 

Who is your audience?  Who is the person or persons in your head that make up the ideal receivers of your work?  How do these phantoms help you create?  Do they have real-world counterparts?

ED: I think a lot about other poets, who’ve gained sacred places as judges in my head because of their strict discipline as well as their kindness and generosity—but mostly because of their values, which I’ve inculcated to lesser or greater degrees. I’m aware of them, though I don’t always listen to them. All rules are to be broken, one’s own and surely others’, but not without good reason, soul-searching and respect for one’s perceived audience. Not all experiments work. But all poets need to experiment. Some of the poems in “Time of the Light” began as rather bold experiments. For me, “Transubstantiation” felt new, raw and experimental enough to make me nervous the first time I performed it. However, with my audience’s acceptance has come my own; now that poem seems fairly conservative, perhaps even typical of my work. But breaking “their” rules is enervating and a big part of my process. I try not to write the same old typical Ed Davis poem over and over, though I know I’m not entirely successful. I take it on faith that if I can please the people I respect, I believe strangers who love poetry may be pleased, too. And while I hope my poetry may even speak to people who think they hate poetry, I’m under no great illusions there. I can only control what I place on the page; I have no control over any other outcomes, which seems to me a good philosophy of life as well as creative endeavor.  

Finally, this feels like kind of an unfair question, or at least an ambush, but this blog is titled Why Poetry Matters.  Well…why?

ED: Poetry matters because poetry is at the top of the literary food chain. If you love language — and we all do, despite what we may say, despite what well-meaning but misguided “grammarians” might have done to us in our formal education—you know that poetry gives you an experience that most prose doesn’t give you:  a more intense experience. Heard orally, poetry shoots directly from the brain to your blood if you let it, without mediation:  no need to understand it all, no need to feel every single sensual experience as it passes; just relax, as you would listening to a great piece of music the first time you hear it, and let it wash all over you, let it wash you, brothers and sisters, in the Spirit! And then, later, in quiet contemplation you can return, read and re-read silently, plumbing those depths to your heart’s content, gleaning insight, savoring nuances of the poet’s voice, tasting speech, appreciating the writer’s deep craft. But first:  pure joy. At least that’s the way it is for me. I love it that poetry has nothing to do with commerce, everything to do with the soul.

Ed Davis is a former professor of writing, literature and humanities. He served as the assistant director for the Antioch Writer's Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and has participated in writing conferences such as Taos Writers’ Workshop, Cleveland State University’s Imagination Workshop, Antioch Writers’ Workshop and the Novel-In-Progress Workshop sponsored by Green River Writers of Kentucky. He has published several books of poetry, two novels and many short stories. "Time of the Light" is his latest book of poetry. More of Ed's work is available at his website,


Anthony Fife lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with his wife, fiction writer Lauren Shows, and their daughter Lucy.  Anthony accepted his B.A. and M.A. in English from Morehead State University and his M.F.A in Poetry from Spalding University.  Anthony teaches English at Clark State Community College and Sinclair Community College. Anthony’s taste in poetry is broad, but his main interests include personae poems and character sketches; in short, poems that place the focus primarily on one person's shoulders, and don’t let them get away with anything.