She’s currently preparing for the publication of her second collection of poems, An Ethic (Nightboat Books, 2013), which is dedicated to her late father — and fellow Penn alum — John H. Davis GrE’70.
“When my father died [in 2006], the only way I knew to encounter his death was to use my poems to ask questions,” Davis says of her new collection. “I did not want to write an elegy. I find elegies troubling because it’s hard to make someone mourn another human being. I decided instead to honor him by being curious, which is what he was. I gathered all of my questions and honed them down to the one thing I knew — that he was in the ground — and then built An Ethic poem by poem based on that.”
Davis describes her poetry as “minimalist and compressed…but it’s simultaneously very lyrical. My interest is in this intense condensery and the ways in which one word catalyzes another,” she adds. “I strive to reduce something down to its raw essence, devoid of any shells or protective layers.”
With Davis’s permission, here is the first poem from her new collection. It originally appeared in Tuesday: An Art Project.
There is no this or that world.
One is not more or less
admitted. Into the entirety
one is invited
and to the entirety
There is no this or that world,
only the long illusion we are landlord,
the never-ending study
of anotherness, the ark of ilks and kinds.
It is a later wilderness
in which we find ourselves,
it is an Our thought
if we but find our selves,
we will find that we dwell on the one earth.
I hope we are found
to have lived
on no this or that earth.
Davis also sent along this recording of herself reading the poem:
She says her interest in the form arrived early, right around age 5. She wrote poems throughout her childhood and teenage years, but didn’t fully realize her fascination with the written word until enrolling in Rebecca Bushnell’s Shakespeare course at Penn. She recalls: “I was taking it because I wanted to become an actress. Our first assignment was to look at the Oxford English Dictionary — which I’d never heard of before — and follow the life of one word through all of King Lear. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t even known that words evolved. I’d been terrified of the dictionary because I thought it was a law, and something deep in me resisted it. I was in the Rosengarten Library basement reference area and when I opened the OED the word I fell upon was ‘zero.’ The fact that a word could have such dynamism and uncertainty — and that I didn’t have to believe in its law because it changes — was so thrilling to me and so liberating. Shortly thereafter, I changed my major to English with a concentration in creative writing.”
When she’s not writing her own poems, Davis works as curator of poetry at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room. She’s been there for nearly five years now, running programs including an oral history series, and says she often looks to Penn for inspiration. “I revere the work that Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein have done at the Kelly Writers House, and that certainly has guided me,” she says. “I have apprenticed myself to their template. It’s such a generous template.” As a result, “I feel like Penn is still guiding me, it’s still very much a part of my life and work.”
Here’s a look at one of those oral history events, as introduced by Davis herself: