The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired this collection?
Carol Davis (CD): I don’t ever think in terms of a collection before I put it together so I can’t say there was a specific inspiration for the collection as a whole, but as I realized I had any new poems (since the last book), it started to come together. On a National Parks Service artist residency on the Navajo reservation, I wrote a number of ekphrastic poems using paintings by the British painter Lucian Freud. I knew that would be one section of the book (with other poems about art). As I started going through poems and thinking about choosing a title, I realized that there were a number of poems that dealt in one way or another with the body and so this title seemed to fit the collection. There are about various themes that weave their way in this collection: faith and doubt, poems of place, poems engaging with history, ekphrastic poems, family history and nature.
TWM: What were your greatest challenges and satisfactions pulling this collection together?
CD: For me the hardest part in putting together a collection is deciding on the order of poems. For my first book (or rather first book published in the United States as my first collection was published in Russia), I found this particularly daunting. If I can talk about that first book for a minute, I think it would illustrate the problem. That book, which won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, covered a 10-year period when I was living on and off in St. Petersburg, Russia. Originally, I had organized the book chronologically. The wonderful poet, Brigitte Pegeen Kelly, who sadly passed away in 2016, had agreed to read the manuscript to look at the order. She suggested I mix it up. After re-ordering it, I sent her the new T of C and she did the same to me. Interestingly both our new reorderings were almost identical. I used this as an example for subsequent collections, including this one. Usually a reader does not read a poetry collection front to back, but when you are submitting a manuscript to a competition or to a publisher, the editors do read it that way and the ordering ends up being very important. I start out by making piles of poems that I want in a book. I then move the poems around. The satisfaction of course is when it’s close to being completed.
TWM: There’s an “other-worldliness,” moving freely between realms, to some of your poems in this collection, which subtly adds layers to the verse. Were you aware of this when writing?
CD: One of the worries or challenges for any poet is themes that run from one collection to another. Being Jewish, of course I worry about everything! In working with this manuscript, I tried to calm down and not berate myself for continuing some of the obsessions that were in the previous collection, Between Storms. So in this collection there are also poems about faith and doubt, so the otherworldliness comes not from having answers but from the search. I can’t say I was aware of the otherworldliness consciously in writing these poems but certainly in revising them and looking at the manuscript as a whole I did see that as one of the themes.
I hope I think especially for where does one feel inspired in terms of Judaism or religion or poetry for me offering music is a draw including Russian orthodox church music which of course makes me uncomfortable religiously but I am still drawn to it.
TWM: You show a great range of style in this collection. Was that intentional? How do you determine what style to use?
CD: As poets I think we sometimes get in stylistic ruts, whether it’s writing one stanza poems with short lines or couplets or four-line stanzas. I do like to play around with the poem on the page and yes, I was aware of that variety in this book. Because a number of poems had what you called otherworldliness, giving the poems a more fragmentary style and breathing space through placement on the page seemed important.
TWM: Who inspires you?
CD: I read a lot of contemporary poetry and often someone else’s work will inspire me. I have gone on many artist residencies. Being in a new place and with time inspires me. When I go on a residency, I often take a project with me in case I get writer’s block. I never do but having a project is comforting for me. That’s what happened with bringing a book of Lucian Freud paintings did. On an artist residency in Boise, I put together this manuscript. Having a whole month to really concentrate on putting this manuscript together was great. As for poets who inspire me they are many and the list gets added to, but I always can go back to the work of Bridget Pegeen Kelly, Jean Valentine, Yehoshua November, Christian Wiman as well as discovering younger poets. Classical music often is a muse for me, including some religious music, especially by Arvo Paart or Russian Orthodox music (ironic, I know, as a Jew).
TWM: How/when did you get interested in writing poetry?
CD: I didn’t come to poetry through an MFA. I had written bad poetry in high school but did not pursue it. I had been a dancer actually, trained in ballet and then modern and actually took a leave from grad school and joined a small company in Seattle. I studied Russian literature in college and grad school so studying literature was my entry to poetry. After my MA exams, I started writing poetry and corny as it sounds, I just knew it was right for me.
TWM: How do you decide where to send your individual poems for publication?
CD: This is a difficult question. Of course, there are places I always hope to get published in and there are times when I think a poem would be right for a literary journal. But that does not mean the poems will necessarily get accepted there. It is getting harder and harder to get into very good magazines. There is just so much competition now. Also there seems to be a sea change in style (or taste) that is going on. I have noticed this, as have poet friends too. If our work gets to the editor, we have a chance, but often it is rejected by the first readers – grad students – and I think their taste is different than for readers of a little older generations. As for Jewish-related work, there are not that many journals. There are a few that also cater to a more “spiritual” bent. That said, a poem with Jewish themes (or any other) does not have to go to a magazine of the same bent.
TWM: What advice do you have for poets of Jewish content?
CD: My advice for poets of Jewish content would not be different than for other poets, to read many literary journals. Journals always say to read their work before submitting. This is good advice but really most journals have similar styles and themes, minus the journals on the fringes. Also don’t be afraid to submit to journals abroad. Some poets don’t like to publish more than once in a lit mag. I don’t agree with that. If you have a connection to the editor, point that out.
About Carol V. Davis
Carol V. Davis is the author of Because I Cannot Leave This Body (Truman State University Press, 2017), Between Storms (2012) and won the 2007 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for Into the Arms of Pushkin: Poems of St. Petersburg. Her poetry has been read on National Public Radio and the Library of Congress (U.S.) and Radio Russia. Twice a Fulbright scholar in Russia, she taught in Ulan-Ude, Siberia, winter 2018 and teaches at Santa Monica College, California and Antioch University, Los Angeles.
Thanks for a really interesting interview. I agree the arrangement of poetry in a collection is difficult and very important. I will be looking for Carol’s new book.