Todd Davis: Poet Interview

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Please welcome Todd Davis to the Poetic Asides blog. He's authored and edited 13 books, including the poetry collection In the Kingdom of the Ditch.

Todd Davis

Todd Davis

Davis teaches creative writing, American literature, and environmental studies at Penn State University's Altoona College. His other three full-length poetry collections are The Least of These, Some Heaven, and Ripe. His poetry 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.

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The entire collection is a great read, but here's one poem that I especially enjoyed from In the Kingdom of the Ditch:

Missing Boy, by Todd Davis

I do not
want my son
to enter
the den
of sorrow.

At sixteen
he already
too much
of the world.

Like a pine
he slides
toward his
leaves behind
the skin
of his former

It sloughs
and curls,
of what
he's learned
but now believes
he does not


What are you currently up to?

The last month or so I’ve been working on revising my fifth full-length poetry collection. At the moment it’s called Winterkill. The poems have been written over the past three years, finding homes in journals and magazines along the way, and in May I began to put the poems together to see how they talk to one another.

After two revisions of the manuscript—rearranging the placement of individual poems, tinkering with lines in individual poems, and even dropping or adding certain poems to the collection—I’ve sent it to four of my poetry friends who are reading it and offering commentary.

Once they’ve finished, I’ll do some more revision based upon their observations and critiques and hopefully send it to my publisher, Michigan State University Press, in the spring. After that, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that my editor likes what she sees and the press will move the book into production.

In the Kingdom of the Ditch is your fourth full-length collection of poems (with a limited edition chapbook thrown in for good measure). Do you have a process for assembling poems for a collection of poetry?

I’m very much a daily writer and thinker. My mind tends to gravitate toward certain subjects based upon my experiences—in the woods, on the rivers, with the books I’m reading.

For example, yesterday I was deep in on a small stream in the 41,000 acres of game lands above the village where I live. My son and I were taking a long hike and fishing for native brook trout. I came across an amazing caterpillar on the walk—it was lime green with what looked like small spines or quills covering its body. At the end of these spines where bright, vivid colors—red and yellow and blue. I hadn’t seen this caterpillar before, and when I returned home, with the help of the photos I took, I was able to spend time looking through my field guides, discovering that this was the caterpillar that would later turn into a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia), the largest native moth in North America.

Several years ago at the top of the mountain above our village, I was hiking on an extremely foggy morning. Mornings like this many flying creatures settle to earth because nature’s “ground traffic control” has cancelled their flights. I’ve come across a kettle of kestrel and other beautiful raptors on mornings like this. That particular morning, however, it wasn’t raptors that I found but a cecropia moth clinging to a long blade of grass in a meadow. I spent more than 30 minutes photographing it, studying it, trying to express how enamored I was by its beauty. (Yes, I tend to talk to the natural world!)

I tell you this story because, like William Stafford whose example means a great deal to me, I go daily into the world simply to be with the miraculous range of human and nonhuman creatures, to observe what is unfolding, to attend to what is too often ignored. Out of this act of paying attention, I write my poems, trying to spend a few hours at my desk each day.

After a few years I begin to see the patterns of what the act of paying attention has afforded me. Once I feel the body of a book beginning to take shape, I place poems on the floor of my office and start to see what happens when a poem makes neighbors with another poem. It’s a bit like chemical reactions. Just as individual images or sounds in a poem, when juxtaposed with other images or sounds in the same poem, cause a reaction between them, so do individual poems in a collection. It’s fun to see how a poem will be transformed when it finds a particular place in a collection.

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Many of the individual poems in the collection were previously published in a variety of literary publications. How do you handle submitting your poems?

I try to keep the act of writing and all such a process entails separate from the idea of publication. I write my poems for myself—a form of meditation or prayer, a way of thinking—and I also write them with my closest friends and family in mind. After that, I’m thrilled if a poem makes its way into the world to be published and read by strangers. But I don’t want the idea of publication to control or change the way a poem is created.

Having said that, I use the other half of my brain to be fairly orderly and efficient in sending the work out. I try to send to magazines and journals whose work I’ve read. A good way to find magazines or journals that might be amenable to your work is to read the acknowledgments page in books of poetry you’ve connected with. After you have a list of places to send, get the poems in the mail and get back to writing.

This same half of my brain also deals with the rejection. I remind myself when I receive the endless rejections that come every writer’s way that the statistical probability of getting a poem accepted is incredibly low. Thus, when I get a rejection, I read the poems again and if I think they are still working, I get them quickly back into the mail to another journal. A poem can’t be published unless it’s in the hands of editors for it to be considered.

In the Kingdom of the Ditch, by Todd Davis

In the Kingdom of the Ditch, by Todd Davis

You teach creative writing, in addition to American literature and environmental studies. Could you share one or two common areas in which most students need improvement?

I truly enjoy teaching. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some amazing students. In fact, just this past two years, four of my former students have published first books of poems with very fine presses.

What I’ve noticed in my 27 years of teaching—I taught junior high and high school English before receiving my Ph.D. 19 years ago—is a decline in reading. No mystery there, given the radical technological shifts. But if someone wishes to be a writer, there’s no substitute for reading the best from the past and the best from the present.

I’ve also noticed a shift away from delayed gratification. In a consumeristic culture, we’re used to desiring something and then purchasing it. No delay to our gratification at all. However, writing demands patience. Writing rewards self-discipline, delayed gratification, the ability to toil for days, for months, even years, to finally make that poem or story “work.”

I suppose this is similar to training for an athletic event. If someone was hoping to run a 10k race, for example, they would need to put in time running on a daily basis. Many days the runs will not be great, but they’re still necessary. You never know the day you will show up and things will click and your body feels unbelievably good and suddenly you are running effortlessly, turning in your best time.

Like an athlete, I think you have to show up to your desk, knowing that many days will be a slog, nothing seeming to work. But one of those days you’ll show up and the fantastical will happen at the desk. It’s kept me coming back to my desk for many years now.

I like to share poetic forms on the Poetic Asides blog. Do you have a favorite form?

I don’t think I can pick one favorite form, but I can name two that I enjoy reading. (I don’t claim to be a good practitioner of either!) The ghazal as practiced or recreated by such contemporary poets as Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell and Jim Harrison, and the sonnet, especially as Gerard Manley Hopkins practiced it.

It was hard picking a favorite poem from In the Kingdom of the Ditch, and I was impressed by the variation of structure. Could you describe your writing process?

I think I’ve described quite a bit of this above, but I might add that reading other people’s poetry is instrumental to my writing process, as is looking at visual art. I see art as a way of not only expressing something interior in oneself, but also as a way of having a conversation with other artists (living or dead) and their art work. Many poems I’ve written have begun because of a line or image in a poem, some music I’m hearing in a line, that reminds me of, or calls forth, a narrative or a phrase or an image from my own experience.

You mention structure in your question. I’m a free verse poet, but I love all kinds of sound play. Sound is one structuring device in my poems that shapes what the poem will become. I also enjoy experimenting with different forms that grow organically out of the content and sound play. Thus, my work does take on different shapes on the page, addressing the issue of white space and order/disorder.

One poet no one knows but should—who is it?

I’m going to cheat again. I can’t name just one. Sadly, there are so many poets we don’t know about because it’s difficult to find a bookstore where you can go browse 100 books of poetry that were published in a given year.

So here’s a list of poets whose work I truly respect and that many people may not have heard of: David Shumate, Natalie Diaz, Ross Gay, Chris Dombrowski, K.A. Hays, Austin Smith, Nathaniel Perry, Rose McLarney, Jack Ridl, Mary Rose O’Reilley, Dan Gerber, Amy Fleury, and Harry Humes. And that list only scratches the surface of writers I wish I could tell everyone about.

Who (or what) are you currently reading?

Here’s a list of the books that I’ve either read or am currently reading this summer: In Poetry, The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It, by Molly Bahsaw; The Glad Hand of God Still Points Backward, by Rachel Mennies; Revising the Storm, by Geffrey Davis; It’s Day Being Gone, by Rose McLarney; Hum, by Jamaal May; in fiction, Brown Dog and The Road Home, by Jim Harrison; Blasphemy, by Sherman Alexie; Swamplandiaia!, by Karen Russell; Eight Mile High, by Jim Daniels; Light Action in the Caribbean, by Barry Lopez; The Plover, by Brian Doyle; in nonfiction, Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder; A North Country Life by Sydney Lea; A Fly Fisherman’s Blue Ridge, by Christopher Camuto; Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, by Bernd Heinrich.

And, of course, I’m always taking off the shelf books of poems to read a poem or two in the morning by writers I return to again and again. They’re my sustenance.

If you could only share one piece of advice with fellow poets, what would it be?

I see many people get caught up in trends, writing work they think will be considered hip, publishable. I have no trouble with experimentation, with the creation of new schools of poetry, poems that push our understanding of what poetry might be. But, again, I’m referring to our hyper-consumeristic culture and the ways that mindset bleeds into the world of poetry in negative ways.

We all become dust and our books will become dust, too. (Or digital files to be lost in the grand cosmos of the digital multiverse!) I don’t say this to depress my fellow poets. I say it to remind myself (and others) that no one can predict who will be read 50 years from now, 100 years from now. So the question then becomes: what art truly moves me, and what art do I wish to spend my time creating, sending into the world, hoping it reaches some other person and impacts them in a way that changes them, moves them?

I’ve had many poems change the way I live. I suppose that’s the kind of poem I’m interested in writing. Whether that poem ultimately becomes dust and is forgotten doesn’t matter. It’s life in the here-and-now that matters. I suppose such comments are born out of my conviction that poetry is an integral part of the pattern of human community. So what kind of poem do you wish to send to that human community?


Robert Lee Brewer is an editor with the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of Solving the World’s Problems. Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.


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