Poet Todd Davis will spend a few days in residency at Write On. While here, he will teach the workshop “Putting Sacred Spaces in a Poem” on Monday, October 10, 1-4 pm. Monday evening, Todd will read from his work, along with Door County poets David Clowers, June Nirschl, and Judy Roy. Maggie Peterman recently had the opportunity to talk with Todd about his writing and his visit to Door County.
Maggie Peterman: Where do you live?
Todd Davis: I live about 12 miles north of Altoona, PA, between two small villages, Bellwood and Tipton.
MP: Who is the author and/or book that has most influenced your own writing and why?
TD: I certainly never thought I’d write poetry when I was growing up in Elkhart, Indiana, a factory town on the border of Michigan. My father was a veterinarian and my mother was an elementary school teacher and a lay minister in the United Methodist Church. I was crazy about comic books and fantasy and science fiction novels as a kid. If I thought I was going to be a writer, it was going to be in fiction. In high school I got hooked on Hemingway’s short stories and thought that would be the thing to write.
Yet, as I look back now, I see poetry was everywhere in my house. My father, who went to a one-room schoolhouse in Green County, Kentucky, had memorized a great deal of verse for his teachers: Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, Longfellow, Whittier, Frost, and the like. He had the tendency to rattle off a poem when we were working together or hiking in the woods. My mom’s love of poetry came through religion. She would quote from the Psalms and the Gospels, weaving the language of the King James Bible with the vernacular of the South—she was born and raised outside Lexington, Virginia. It was quite a stew of sounds.
As for why I thought poetry was worth pursuing, I suppose I’ve been drawn to various wisdom traditions and the ways poetry tries to live within those traditions ever since I was given my first Bible in fourth grade. Here I’m thinking of Christianity, Transcendentalism, Judaism, and Zen Buddhism, the traditions I’ve lived closest with. But really, if I’m honest with myself, poetry ended up choosing me. By that I mean that when I was an undergraduate I stumbled across three writers that made me want to write poems, that made me think I might be able to make a poem out of the life I lived. (My life at that time was comprised of working with animals in my father’s practice, playing basketball, and wandering the woods of northern Indiana and lower Michigan.) These are the first three poems that ever truly hit me in the gut and made me sit up and take notice of what a poem can do: Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear” acknowledged the physical and mystical relationship we have with animals; James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” helped me see that there was something to be said about the sadness I’d felt with my teammates playing football in high school in our factory town; and Maxine Kumin’s “The Excrement Poem” celebrated the kind of work I did cleaning kennels on a daily basis.
MP: What is your writing discipline?
TD: I am a methodical writer. I think it stems from being a former athlete. I train everyday—poetry wind sprints and deadlifts. And I’m not being facetious. I try not to put off writing. I’m constantly reminded that this is the only day that I’m given, that’s guaranteed, so I want to be present in it, to work at the things I love and to be with the people I love. Most days that’s possible. Usually, I rise early with the family and fix the breakfast and do the dishes. And once they’re out the door to school, I sit down at my desk and write for at least a few hours before heading to work and my teaching obligations. I look to William Stafford’s example in this regard, knowing that many days my writing will be more about the process than the product.
MP: What writing project are you currently working on?
TD: I’m working on my next book of poems, Native Species, which examines human life in relationship to other species as the Anthropocene unfolds and the ways in which we have radically altered the natural, non-human world become more and more apparent.
MP: What is your favorite place to visit in Door County?
TD: This will be my first visit to Door County, so I’m excited about seeing what I’ve heard so much about!
MP: How did you become acquainted with Door County?
TD: I have known the painter Craig Blietz for a number of years and am a big fan of his art. Craig has continued to encourage me to come visit.
MP: What is your favorite activity unrelated to writing?
TD: It used to be playing basketball, but at 51 my knees and ankles don’t like me to play much anymore. At present, it is a combination of hiking and fishing, which occurs while fly-fishing small mountain streams for native brook trout.
MP: What are your favorite books?
TD: Again, this is such a difficult question. There are so many books that I love. I’ll answer, but for every book I name, there are likely ten I’m leaving out that I love equally: Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares; Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise; Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians; David James Duncan’s The River Why; Karen Russell’s Swamplandia; John Irving’s The World According to Garp; William Stafford’s The Way It Is; Mary Oliver’s American Primitive; Rick Bass’s Platte River; Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From; Mary Rose O’Reilley’s The Barn at the End of the World; Stephen Dunn’s New and Selected Poems; Wendell Berry’s Farming: A Handbook; K.A. Hays’s Dear Apocalypse; Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find; Jim Harrison’s The Theory and Practice of Rivers; Robert Wrigley’s Earthly Meditations; Chris Dombrowski’s Earth Again; Jane Hirshfield’s The October Palace; Harry Hume’s The Way Winter Works.
MP: How did you become involved with Write On?
TD: I met Jerod Santek at an AWP [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] conference as he was transitioning from The Loft in Minneapolis to Write On. I was intrigued by his vision for Write On and have stayed in touch, hoping my travels might bring me to Door County.
MP: What can people taking your upcoming workshop expect?
TD: I hope that I can pose some questions that will help them to think about what kind of places they feel are sacred or special in some way, and then offer encouragement and advice on how to make those places come to life for a reader. The struggle that writers have when trying to write about the sacred is that what we perceive of as metaphysical must still be written about in terms of the physical. Our language as poets does its best, most effective work, when it is grounded in earthly things.
MP: What advice can you give to aspiring Write On writers?
TD: First, recognize that the making of art is its own reward, and, second, read, read, read. I tell the same thing to players when I work with them on their basketball game. There is always something to learn from the great players, to practice from their repertoire of amazing moves. Same is true with poetry: I may not love every poet’s work down to my very core, but I can almost always find a move they’re making that I can learn from. So get out there and support other poets. Buy books of poetry. Read books of poetry. Request that your local public library buy contemporary books of poetry. And read, read, read. Soon enough your own life—and I mean all of that life—will join with what you’ve been reading, what you’ve been studying, and the moves will become yours, and you’ll add your line to the book of poems that has been open as long as humans have been playing with sound and image, recording all the beauty and joy and sorrow this world is made up of.
Todd Davis is the author of five full-length collections of poetry—Winterkill, In the Kingdom of the Ditch, The Least of These, Some Heaven, and Ripe—as well as of a limited edition chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems. He edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball, and co-edited the anthology Making Poems. His writing has been featured on the radio by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac and by Ted Kooser in his syndicated newspaper column American Life in Poetry. He is a fellow in the Black Earth Institute and teaches environmental studies, creative writing, and American literature at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College.