Prose Feature: “Against a Bad Hammer: An Interview with Chad Davidson” by Emilia Phillips

August 22, 2014

Chad DavidsonChad Davidson is the author of From the Fire Hills (2014), The Last Predicta (2008), and Consolation Miracle (2003), all three from Southern Illinois UP, as well as co-author with Gregory Fraser of Analyze Anything: a Guide to Critical Reading and Writing (Continuum 2012) and Writing Poetry: Creative and Critical Approaches (Palgrave Macmillan 2009). His poems have appeared in AGNI, Boston Review, DoubleTake, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. He is a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of West Georgia.

Emilia Phillips: I recently had a student who responded to a workshop essay about the writer’s family’s summer home by saying “I really liked this piece because my family has a summer home too.” Since then I keep thinking about your essay “Can You Relate?” that we published in September 2013. In it you respond to any-given-workshop’s oft-mumbled criticism, “I can’t relate to this poem”:

the idea of relating to a poem is absolutely the lowest common denominator of judgment. More so, it’s just a cover for what we really mean: I don’t understand the poem or I am uncomfortable with the poem or, perhaps most disturbingly, I just don’t care about the poem.

Well said, sir. And, you know, it’s not just students who garnish a poem with a relate/can’t relate umbrella, it’s poets who teach creative writing, who edit literary magazines, who review poetry collections. Do you ever get the feeling that some folks who get paid to read poetry don’t like to read most of it? Do they buy offset credits against their cynicism with this remark?

Chad Davidson: Relatability is just a fancy word for likability. On one hand, it’s perfectly acceptable criticism. John Ashbery was once asked why he was always positive in his poetry reviews. “Why would I waste my time,” he responded, “writing about books I don’t like?” On the other hand, we often too quickly dismiss poems that we don’t immediately understand or “relate to.” Thing is, for me, the pleasure in poetry is often enough untangling, working, exerting. When people say they can’t relate to a poem, it just feels as if they’re saying, “I don’t want to work at all to meet this poem half way.” Any criticism—any specificity—is better than the relatability test. As a tool for making poems better, it’s sort of like a bad hammer. You can beat things with it, but nothing much comes of the effort.

EP: When do you attempt to meet the reader in the drafting process? At what point do you turn and put your reader hat on? Can one unknow what one knows about the vision—the intention—of the poem in order to get a better handle on the reader’s experience of the poem?

CD: I remember Bruce Bond asking me one time who I thought my perfect reader was, how I envisioned the person. When I didn’t really have an answer that was articulate, he said, “I imagine my perfect reader as someone just like me, only a little smarter.” That bit of thinking has stayed with me, so I suppose I don’t put my reader hat on so much as trust that my perfect reader will somehow miraculously understand even more about the writing than I do. Obviously, that’s not true, but it frees me to write with very little constraint, at least at the beginning. I also read the poem out loud as I’m drafting. Yes, this is old hat. No, I don’t think as many people do it as we might think. Reading aloud as the work is formed: that seems to me one of the most crucial ways in understanding reception (let alone phrasing, enjambment, breath, etc.). You also look really kooky to your cats.

EP: I tell my students all the time to read aloud. Not only does it make sure that they get the grammar and tone accurate, it allows them to hear how sound stitches the poem together. I see that throughout your work, Chad. I’m just going to grab a few lines from one of your poems from From the Fire Hills, your new book, from “Elegy”:

Yet on this island of regrettables, reduced
to rubble, relegated to those heavy winds,
elegies run wild by the roadside, low
to the ground, like capers, good for nothing
but the brine, and you pick them for free.

For me, the most important function of sound—and how it’s mapped into a cadence—is to provide a kind of texture to the poem to either enact physical movements or tone, as in musical scores. Think how the violins reinforce the movement of the knife in the Psycho shower scene or, more broadly, how a crescendo can indicate a swelling of emotion. For me, you’re doing all that in the short passage above. This is partially a function of the sound of individual words, partially a function of their juxtaposition with other words, and partially a function of form. By placing “reduced” at the end of the line, the movement, the falling off of the line, enacts the reducing whereas the “heavy winds,” with its masculine ending of the stressed “winds” enacts some of that force. The elegies, starting a line, are able to run through the line, “run wild by the roadside.” Etcetera, etcetera. I could go on and on.

All of this is to say that I find your work to be technically adept and yet it doesn’t feel stiff or fated to its form. Some formalists are like Calvinists, I’d say. Others who appreciate formal techniques see them as a more fluid and changeable tool. Talk to me a little bit about how aware you are of these things. Does it come naturally, a kind of muscle memory, at this point? Or do you spend long hours considering the placement of words?

CD: A music background helps. My particular background is percussion. So, on one hand, I think the pulse, the rhythm of a line of poetry (largely the placement of accentuated syllables), is a percussive phenomenon. I have always been drawn to bombastic, percussion-loving poets, Robert Lowell chief among them (in my mind). Pete Fairchild (echoing a comment made about a much greater poet than I) once called me a “low formalist,” with, as he continued, “no deprecation intended.” I sort of like that. My first loves in poetry were formal poets. I thought, “Well, it’s like jazz: you have to learn the rules in order to break them.” So I tried to be a formalist at the beginning, and I think it still informs my work, in the most etymological sense of that word: to inform. That is, the ghost of the iambic pentameter line, the strictures of elegantly shaped quatrains, even the visual and auditory pyrotechnics of rhyme: these are all present in From The Fire Hills. With notable exceptions (a pair of sonnets, some scattered rhyming), they are just not in the driver’s seat. Form is generative to me. It’s like scaffolding, which mostly I tear down after a construction project. Sometimes, however, the scaffolding is just as interesting as what it was used to build, so it stays. Those are rare instances, as is evidenced by the collection.

EP: I’ve encountered some readers who feel that form is irrelevant in contemporary poetry. Do you think it simply has to do with the fact that many don’t understand form? When do you introduce your students to formal strategies?

CD: Form is irrelevant in contemporary poetry? That’s like saying a frame is irrelevant to a house. It all depends on how you define form. You can’t escape it. Ginsberg has form. Whitman has form. Jorie Graham, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian: they all have form. They just don’t often resemble traditional models. You either follow received forms or make up your own. (And most of the time what we think we’re inventing already exists.)

As for teaching traditional forms, it seems that’s long been a no-no (at least to undergraduates at regional universities). I have to say, though, that I’ve been fortunate to teach undergrads who find traditional forms quite enlightening, liberating even. We teach our advanced workshop with various themes (modernism, international poets, confessionalism, surrealism, the sonnet), meaning that the reading list for the semester is concentrated in one area of poetry (not, thankfully, that they have to go off and write a fractured modernist epic with pepperings of Sanskrit). I have taught a traditional forms version, and the students absolutely loved it. I would say that it’s not for every poet-teacher. That’s not to say that I’m special, just that it’s an interest of mine. If it’s not an interest of some other poet-teacher, fine. There’s lots more to teach. If the students are serious, they’ll discover the joys of traditional forms along the way, either on their own or through another teacher.

Also, most of the time, when I hear poets say that form is irrelevant, I take it to mean that they’re not very good at it or just feel a bit intimidated by it. Doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game. Just do what you’re good at. I love a cool, mod building, but I can also appreciate a craftsman house. Both have forms. Both can be beautiful (and ugly).

EP: I feel like poetry is often described in terms of metaphor. The stanza being the little room. William Matthews’s idea of the “hinge” in a poem. Do you ever find yourself describing other things—acts of doing or making, mechanisms, etcetera—in terms of poems? I find myself almost never making metaphorical parallels out of poetry. Of course, it has a lot to do with the fact that the average person doesn’t necessarily find themselves thinking about poetry. But what would happen if poetry became a common denominator in how we think about lives, other concepts, other art forms? We’re often comparing poetry so often to building or to music. What if we compared building and music to poetry? How might that sway our cultural zeitgeist into believing in the power of poetry?

CD: That sounds like a cool world. I want in. Then again, I don’t think there’s that much difference between, say, a sonnet and a great song. They follow similar forms, turn at similar moments, express (often enough, it seems) similar emotions, attempt to represent similar experiences. “Sonnet,” after all, just means “little song,” and it’s very formulaic in its structure, as is a Nirvana song. The formula, however—like the lines and net of a tennis court—provides for the original play. I just watched Djokovic weather the Federer storm at Wimbledon. That, my friends, was most definitely a kind of poetry.

Life moves quickly. Arts slows it down, at least slows down the people who create it (and at least for the time it takes to create it). What I mean is that using poetry as a metaphor for other things (beyond, say, Thomas Dolby’s “she’s poetry in motion” line) seems quite fitting, and I’m confident that folks did use poetry-based metaphors when poetry held a more prominent spot in the culture. Metaphor, it seems to me, arises first out of a desire to make the unfamiliar suddenly familiar (and often in an artful and uncanny way). Think of the Old English kennings or Homer’s epic similes (themselves elaborate metaphors). When the bard claims that a few hoplites descended on their foes “just as two falcons soaring overhead might suddenly dive to pluck their prey,” he is rendering war (something that probably—hopefully—not every audience member there would be familiar with) in terms rooted in the natural world. If more people read poetry and were used to the kinds of language and devices deployed there, then using those devices in turn as metaphors for other things (houses, cars, domestic appliances, yogurt) might make some sense. As it stands, poetry is usually the unfamiliar.

My apologies, too, for that bad epic simile.

EP: If we were in a world where poetry was much more valued, wouldn’t that, in some way, make poetry less, for lack of a better term, precious? (Think value, not sentiment.) Can there ever be answer to the question: If we make poetry more accessible, does that mean it’s easier? Should we value difficult writing?

CD: A friend was recently rhapsodizing to me about his last vacation to California and recalled a comment made by someone on a television show. “Lots of people talk,” the guy said, “about the political climate in California, the cultural climate in California. What about the climate climate in California? Because it’s pretty damn good.” Well, whatever happened to poetry poetry? Difficult or accessible, I don’t much care. I say worry about making good poems (however you define it), and worry less about whether or not you’re staying true to your camp or pushing the boundaries of the possible, or being too accessible or not being accessible enough. Making good poems is hard enough.

EP: Amen.

It’s summer, a time when a lot of teaching poets are writing. Are you working on new work? Can you take us through some of your process and current concerns on that boulevard toward the good poem?

CD: Teaching poets who are not teaching, you mean? I just got back from teaching on our program in Italy, which sounds great, and it is, but it’s also work. It’s a great deal of work, so I had very little time for my own writing while there. That’s fine by me. I feel an incredible sense of guilt writing in Italy anyway, when I could be out in the streets. Once I’m home, I process the experience, let it filter into the writing.

Part of me is starting to recoil from “process,” not so much the action but rather the constant emphasis on that word. I know it’s important and all, but it also seems rather obviously important. You can’t just have product. You have to have a process. If you took the word “process” out of the AWP Conference schedule or The Writer’s Chronicle, however, what would be left? Everyone is describing process these days. It’s great to talk about process with younger students, I think, since they may not be used to metadiscourse, concentrating on autotelic writing, writing without an explicit outcome, writing as exploratory. At this stage, however, I’m not sure someone’s “process” is of much help to me. I have my own, good or bad, that I have come to rely on. It’s not that I’m set in my ways; rather, I think I’ve heard enough renditions of “process” that they all seem rather related. It’s not like someone is saying, “How I write a poem? My process? Well, I start by beating my head against the closest wall until I pass out. Then when I wake up, I eat three pints of ice cream, always vanilla.” Now what would be a process worth hearing about (if not to emulate).

Mary Biddinger*: Are your poems animals or vegetables or both, and why?

CD: They are animals. All of them. Rotten, stinking animals.

EP: Now, Chad, provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.

CD: How do you establish your list of poems for a public reading?

Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and prose editor of 32 Poems. For more information, visit her website: http://emiliaphillips.com.

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