Interview with Alan Davies
Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?
Alan Davies: For me poetry is a natural manifestation like flowers or dogs or stars. Human beings appear to be its agent – but everything that exists has many agents (perhaps a primary one and numerous secondary ones). I’m glad simply to have my hand in it – and to let it go at that.
TB: Your response strikes me as being a bit disingenuous, somewhat unresponsive. Surely there was a beginning point for you, Alan Davies, as a poet. And your work is crafted with great care. It doesn't just happen.
AD: My answer is not in the least bit disingenuous.
Perhaps it is macroscopic – while you were seeking a more microscopic answer. Perhaps you want to know about things that may have influenced my development as a poet. I’ll answer that question. My father was a preacher. There were times when I heard the same sermon several times – sometimes as often as four times in two weeks. People were attentive. The power of the word was apparent. That may have had some appeal. My father was not generally focused on us – he was spaced-out and in-love-with-Jesus. But at one time he read The Song of Hiawatha to us at bedtime over several weeks. The fact of his being more present than usual may have added to the ringing tones of the poem itself. I remember – By the shores of Gitche Gumee, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water, / Stood the wigwam of Nokomis. I also successfully memorized Casey at the Bat. In high school I bought an anthology called A Gift of Watermelon Pickle which contained a poem by Wallace Stevens that compared a razor blade to a mountain range. I couldn’t make sense of it – so I took it to my friend Boyd with whom I shared such things and together we still couldn’t make it mean in any of the ways we thought it might. We took it to Alec Garland – who’d studied at the Sorbonne and who did a terrific job of teaching us French and English. We showed him the poem and I asked him what it meant. He said – I don’t know what do you think it means? Being thrown back on my own resources in that way – into that space of just-don’t-know – was marvelously liberating. In college I enrolled in pre-med to please my parents – found biology untenable after one semester – and quickly made my way to the English department from which I graduated. Shit! – What a lot of words! I think my first answer was a lot easier and more to the point. This has all been something of a distraction.
All of this explanation might fall in the category of what I first referred to as secondary causes. The main cause of my writing is still what I said it was – it’s a natural phenomenon of which I’m a miniscule almost-non-signifying part – and I’m content to leave it at that.
You ask about craft. To use your own words – I would say that being crafted with great care is how my poetry just happens. Pound noted from the Chinese that art should imitate nature in its methods of operation – and that’s about what seems to be the case. Yes – I read read read read and I write write write write write – so naturally I learn how to do what I do do do do do. But saying that – what have we learned? Each poem speaks for itself – each is its own cause – and each fails (let’s put it like that) in its own unique way.
TB: What about your intentions as a writer? Surely your poems aren't all autonomous creations which bear no relation to one another?
AD: Intentionality is always a difficult thing to assess – or to front for.
I remember riding back downtown from one of those Avant-garde Festivals that they had a few of on a pier on the west side – seated next to Hannah Weiner in the back of James Sherry’s car. I asked Hannah why she wrote – she said – Because I see words – and asked me why I wrote. I said something about wanting to help other people or words to that effect. Hannah said – Humpty Dumpty.
Hannah’s prediction has unfortunately proven to be very much the case.
But I still have this idea that I can contribute something vis-à-vis showing how the mind works and how it might work better – if only we’d let it. I myself try to aim in the direction of clarity / centeredness / compassion. These things aren’t separable – if you’re clear and centered then compassion is the only natural response to situations / if you’re compassionate you radiate clarity and centeredness / centeredness is the pivot upon which the others find their balance / and so on. So those are things that I try to exemplify in my life and (my writing being a part of my life) in my writing as well (almost by default). Do I fail? – Yes.
I also write a great many differing types of things. So to that extent they are “autonomous creations which bear no relation to one another” – and to that extent if it were otherwise I’d be bored. And boredom is not particularly conducive to clarity / centeredness / and compassion.
There’s also something to be said for getting my ideas across to other people. I’m probably better at doing that in writing than in other ways.
At the same time I wouldn’t want to forget that I write simply because I love to do so. Although I write more and more on the computer now (especially book reviews) – I absolutely love the feel of a pen moving over a more-or-less clean piece of paper.
And – in the final analysis (if there is one) – the main reason that I write is because I can’t help it. Nor would I want to.
TB: You are associated, of course, with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Would you speak to that association and what it means to you?
AD: That’s a historical question – and I am a poet.
But I can tell you a few things that I remember. When I was living in Boston in the early 1970s I published the magazines Oculist Witnesses and A Hundred Posters – and particularly through the latter I began to be in touch with poets in New York City and elsewhere. Among them were Michael Gottlieb and Charles Bernstein. During the year that I lived in Boulder (1976-77) I remained in correspondence with them – and with others as well. And then when I moved to New York City in the fall of 1977 I met people that I’d only known through the mail. My first reading here was at a large pub near Columbia – four people read – Charles was one of them – there was one of the so-called New York School of poets (second generation) – and I forget who the fourth was. That reading exposed me and my work to more of the people who would become known as the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. That “group” of poets is named after the magazine started by Bruce Andrews and by Charles – and in the writing and production of which many of us participated. I typed some of the issues and was paid for it (for which I was grateful) – many of us got together to do mailings. Various people were also involved with James Sherry’s ROOF magazine. The Ear Inn series of readings was started at about that time – and I ran several series in collaboration with other people (a memorable series with Diane Ward through the midst of a very harsh winter – socks drying on the radiators as readers read and listeners drank). Occasionally there were get-togethers to share new work – I remember meeting at Hannah’s apartment in the East Village / at mine in Park Slope / and elsewhere. There were parties – and we got to know the work of like-minded people in other arts (dancers and film makers and musicians). People began to make connections – through publication first and then through reading tours as well – with our peers on the west coast / as well as with the few kindred spirits living on neither coast. I also got in touch somewhat belatedly (considering that I am Canadian) with some fellow-writers in Canada – Christopher Dewdney (with whom and with whose work I’ve always felt particularly close) in particular (and later with younger Canadian writers who were kind enough to take some interest in my work).
My friend Michael Gottlieb has some excellent autobiographical writings about the early days of the “group” (particularly in New York) that I hope will be published soon. They’re much more thorough / and much more charming than my few remarks here.
So all of these inter-lacings (and untold numbers more) made for a community. And the community began to be named by others after that seminal publication. It’s interesting to me that that naming was done by people outside (or adjacent to) the group. I can’t remember (or imagine) any one of “us” saying – We are (the) L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. The name was applied – not chosen. I know that my peers and I have many times been asked this question – or other questions about this. But I know of no cases yet of people who did the naming being identified and asked the same question the way it might by interesting to have it asked – Why did you persist in calling them the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets? I think that might end up by being a more interesting project.
I would like to say also that among poets in New York City and elsewhere I’ve had many (and continue to have many) valued friends and colleagues who wouldn’t be considered to have any association with that “group”. This becomes even more the case as I make friends with younger poets whose affiliations are sundry / and whose influences have been many – and who are very important to me as I continue to develop as a poet. It’s a joy.
So what is really being described by the term L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (from my point of view) is more a community (and its machinations) than an ideology – although somewhat loosely shared senses of ideology (about both politics and craft) might have been instrumental in shaping the group’s project (particularly early on). What those associations mean to me in retrospect is also what they meant to me primarily at the time(s) – friendships of varying intensities and textures (but principally the chance to have had them at all). When people ask me about the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets I think first of people I love / of people I care about intensely / of people with whom I’ve had difficulties / of people whose work I admire (and from which I’ve learned a great deal) / and so on. Then (and only then) might I think of the work / and what it all means / and whether any of it has anything in common with any of the rest of it / and so on.
TB: Do you see your work, at this point in time, as some kind of a "social project"?
AD: No. I’ve never thought of my work as a “social project” (with or without the quotes). I’ve thought about it in human terms (some of which I talked about above) – and also in spiritual or universal terms (as I spoke about its being a simple part of the flowering of universal process).
I do hope it to be of some use – but I’d be hard-pressed to define that use – and certainly much more hard-pressed to insist on it.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t think about it a lot – I do. It’s just that this is all I’ve come up with!
TB: What are you, as a writer, most preoccupied with now?
AD: I’ll answer the question first in terms of my works.
In 2000 I began a series of books (BOOK 1, BOOK 2, and so on) which I imagine will occupy me for the rest of my life. Each book is quite different from the others structurally / in terms of tone / in terms of what the available content might be / and so on. There’s something fragmentary about the material that goes to make up the texts – I think at this time it’s difficult (and unnecessary) to get beyond fragments – there doesn’t seem to be much that lasts or coheres beyond what a fragment might contain / express. Three of the BOOKs have been published in limited editions – the most recent being BOOK 5 (Katalanché Press, 2007). Many have been read in public.
I was part way through BOOK 10 when some other sorts of things started keeping me up at night – and I found after some time that I had written a book of / and called ODES & fragments.
I’ll now return to BOOK 10 – and have an idea of what BOOK 11 will be. Beyond that I’ll simply be able to happily surprise myself. The BOOKs as a totality do cohere I think – and I expect that to go on happening.
I’ve also been writing a lot of reviews again (after a lengthy hiatus) – beginning toward the end of 2004. Many of these are of books by younger writers whose work I have found singularly engaging – and it’s a pleasure to speak to and of them in that way.
Reading is also and always a great pleasure. I read a lot of diaries and journals by writers / autobiography and biography of same / books pertaining to artists I particularly admire (Giacometti and Bacon and Ana Mendieta of late) / some poetry books that friends send me / Japanese and Chinese poetry / novels / some philosophy / and other things. From time to time I’ll go back (it’s not really back is it?) and read work by predecessors I particularly admire – Creeley / Kyger / Whalen / MacDiarmid / Wieners / Notley are recent examples. I’ve been reading the classics as well – currently Horace’s Satires and Epistles.
I’ve also been enjoying very much lately corresponding with writer friends. Among them are old friends with whom I had been for some time out of touch – like Larry Price. And there are newer friends among the younger poets – Roberto Harrison and Geoffrey Olsen and others – from whose correspondence I’m learning a lot about my own values and practice.
TB: Would you speak to your sense of purpose and process in your fragment-poems?
AD: I think I’ve said enough about my “sense of purpose”, to the extent that I have one. I feel as much driven by “it” as I feel capable of being any kind of driver – and the fact that I don’t even know what “it” is is perhaps what drives me most. I think it is.
As for process – (I don’t know) – I’ve already said something about that also. But practically speaking – I write mostly at night. I’ve always preferred being awake then (when circumstances (job etc) permitted) – the quiet / fewer interruptions / control of space and activity / solitary motions and emotions. I’ve always loved the word lucubrations (which has the etymological connotation of work produced at night by lamplight).
Words seem to appear – they wake me up (not (not) as it were) / or I wake up for them. They seem to come in little clusters / bump against my head (what I call my head) / and demand to be let in (or is it out?). I go on from there – or sometimes I go on from there / and sometimes I leave it at that. Process is what we’re all in the midst of.
The phrases or chunks of words then seem to find their place by way of accretion – motivated in part by (sometimes prior) senses of style and structure. In the case of the longer BOOKs these pieces seem to arrive quite slowly – so that to complete one has been taking an average of nine months. Some other recent poems (from the series called ODES & fragments) have been written in a great flurry – but the sense of fracture seems still to be there (wherever there is).
It might be interesting to think for a moment about the relationships between “sense of purpose” and “process” – does sense of purpose produce process (as we might (willingly) think)? – or is it process that generates sense of purpose as we go on (and on)? I would think that both of these might be the case in a sort of yin / yang way (but without the masculine / feminine notions often attached to that). In other words – sense of purpose and process are co-generative – and it is precisely that co-generative motion that produces the work of art. Neither is prior – if it were the work of art would always remain a hidden secret (which in some cases it does do).
TB: I'm always fumbling … In your poetry, ethics and eros seem palpably embodied in the turns that thought takes as it goes away. The texts, insistently present, are also self-consciously transitory. By way of example, here's the opening of your BOOK 8:
the slightly adult adept
the failure --
of the shadows --
of the leaves --
against the car
as though they are
as though they
the endangered third world --
the end of the word --
as we know it
truncated bundles of hunger
I suppose what I've been trying to get to all along is a better sense of your perspective of what it is that is converging in your work.
AD: I really have no idea.
I mean when I begin a piece I sometimes (sometimes) have a sense of things like tone / structure / duration / material – I would say that’s about it. (And I think that I used to have a clearer sense of those things when beginning than I do now – although perhaps it’s just that it’s become more intuitive.) But I don’t always have a sense of all of those things (I don’t know if I’ve ever done) – and sometimes have no sense of any of them at all. And yet to begin with a piece of language seems (of some kind of necessity (of some kind of necessity?)) to drag other (perhaps not overly dissimilar) pieces of language into being along with it. It’s a mystery.
If I didn’t find it to be a mystery I wouldn’t do it – at least not still. I can bear almost anything but boredom – and I can bear even that if I get a little work done in the midst of it. Most things are interesting – but they’re interesting because they create their own uniqueness (by being (I suppose)). Even boredom is interesting.
I don’t have a lot to go on with. One word is rather quickly a phrase (of some sort) – then (after however long a time) others follow along – and so on. At some point I’m satisfied that I have enough of them – that I’m quote done end quote. That point of completion is sometimes determined by the notebook I’m writing in – when it’s full I’m done (or maybe not).
I don’t know exactly (or at all?) how you’re trying to get me to explain this. But it’s an organic process – self-initiating / self-perpetuating / self-limiting. Of course I have something to do with it – I’d be a fool to pretend that I don’t – but I’d also be a fool to try to convince either you or me that I know what that part played is. I’m a factor.
TB: Would you humor me by asking yourself a question and answering it?
AD: Q: How would you compare your earlier works with the things that you are working on now?
A: My earlier works – those that I wrote after college and when in Boston and Boulder and then in New York City – and some of which can be found in Active 24 Hours (Roof) as well as in a an av es (Potes & Poets) and Mnemonotechnics (also from Potes & Poets) – often had experimentation of some sort as their call to existence. I wanted to find out how the language worked – and what was in (in (what was in)) it. I sometimes thought of the works as core samples – as taking a sample of the language in a particular place and time – and I usually accepted that as enough of a reason for doing that / although I also knew that I was expressing my self (whatever my “self” might be (might be thought to be)). I wrote around certain ideas – often involving duration and textuality – and modes of getting at (at) things. It was really a way of learning how to write.
At about the same time I wrote a work called The Story of One Who Was Great In Respects – which is more personal (or which has (at any rate) more personality in it) – and there were others of that sort. I wrote a work for Mary Lane whose title I no longer remember but that ended with the line – Work abandoned. And in Boulder I wrote a group of at least somewhat satisfying lyrics – and they had a lot of me in them (as well as some of that trust in the language that I had learned from doing the other works).
Later I wrote the much more personal works that are collected in Candor (O Books) – and in two subsequent unpublished manuscripts (called Life / and Lonely). But I have always written a variety of things – not contented to mine (to use a phrase appropriate to that earlier thinking alluded to) the same content or form for much time.
I would say that the series of Books that I’m now working on – as well as (in differing ways) the manuscript just completed called ODES & fragments – owes much to those earlier researches (and the products they produced). But I feel now a greater confidence in the assimilation / the confluence / the conflation – of the various modes and tensions and substances that go to make up a work. I guess I would say that I feel more in control (now) of the what as well as the how of writing – and I know that that is what goes to make up the whole work (as a whole). It’s the best I can do – perhaps future moments will teach me new things to add to the mix / and the wherewithal and the how-to of doing so. I’m always as willing to learn from my own work as I am from that of others.