Poet Olena Kalytiak Davis Talks About Spring, T.S. Eliot, and Wonderoos

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To mark National Poetry Month, BTW recently interviewed poet Olena Kalytiak Davis, whose Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities (Tin House/Bloomsbury) is a Spring 2004 Book Sense Poetry Top Ten Pick.

Davis' work has been included in three Best American Poetry anthologies, and her first collection, And Her Soul Out of Nothing (University of Wisconsin Press), was selected by Rita Dove for the Brittingham Prize for Poetry.

In his nomination of Shattered Sonnets for the Poetry Top Ten, Herman Fong of Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts, noted, "To enter Davis' poetic world is to throw yourself into an exquisite storm. As if deemed inadequate for her purposes, language is rent and then rebuilt, to offer voice to a heightened experience of being alive, in all its exuberance and agony."

Davis' responses, sent via e-mail from her home in Alaska, show the same kind of exploration of, and inventiveness with, language characteristic of her poetry.


BTW: Do you think living in Alaska significantly affects the way you write?

OKD: Depending on the day, or, more likely, (see below), the season, I could and would and have probably argue(d) both sides. Yes, sure, after 10 years here (although three very different here's: Bethel, Juneau, and Anchorage) it probably is a defining characteristic and affects my writing in some way, the same some way that, say, being female, a mother, 40 years old, and lazy is/are does/do. But, not that defining, one, or at least this one, hopes. Cause, really, who cares that it has been winter outside my door since October? That there is moose shit on my front lawn? What matter that there are some pretty big mountains just down the road? I don't think I've really seen them or mentioned them once. Okay, maybe something about the lack of distraction ("If thou fill thy brain with Boston and New York, with fashion and covetousness, and wilt stimulate thy jaded senses with wine and French coffee, thou shalt find no radiance of wisdom in the lonely waste of the pine wood.") (Emerson), but I drink my fair share of wine and lattes here, too, and usually fail to find said radiance. Maybe the "outsider" thing, but, I guess I feel that I might/would write/live from an outsider's perspective no matter where that/I was. It's funny, cause Alaskans refer to the rest of the world as being "Outside."


BTW: Spring appears throughout Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities. Can you talk about your attraction to spring?

OKD: Now, that may simply be your/the (correct) answer to question number one. And, actually, I can't, or decline to, or, hey, already have in the poems. But, there was a pretty cool and astute review of Shattered... online on a site called The Constant Critic by Ray McDaniel, who wrote: "Her poems seek to both analyze and occupy the intoxications of Spring, both as historical lyric force and febrile imagination, mulch and shoot. What you see here is thus a combination of Spring's drunken relief, life uncontrolled and untrammeled; you also get to see the spasticity of new life, its hunger, desperation and ruin." That's way better than I could/did? do. And, he finishes up by wondering if 10 years from now the book will hold its own, whether, it will be like "true Spring (which, goddamn, works every time.)" I love that. And I can/will also quote Rimbaud: "I've set out to express my good thoughts, my hopes, my feelings, the provinces of poets -- I call all of this Spring."


BTW: You use space in many inspired and unique ways. Words run together -- "forgoodisthelifeendingfitandfaithfully." Broken apart -- "Hall /-ucinated." Otherwise altered --"thekingmyfather'swrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrack." How do you make these decisions?

OKD: How do we make any decisions? I mean, in the same way we/I make any decisions. Logic. Aesthetics. Discretion. Permission. Mood. Feelings. Luck. The same way you pick a pink t-shirt over a blue one. Vodka over gin. Free verse over a sestina. Hopkins/Dickinson/Berrigan over Blake/Whitman/Ashberry. Alaska over France. To dye your hair blonde. To have children. To take a lover. To get a divorce. I meant: To get a divorce. To take a lover.


BTW: There's a Jabberwocky-esque enthusiasm in the book, particularly in the poem "a new philosophy of composition, or, how to ignore the non-reasoning creature capable of speeech perched outside your bathroom window," which includes the lines "now now now it stops and spires, now now now it rolls and gyres." Who or what are some of your influences?

OKD: That's an old poem that I never think about, but, now that you bring it to my attention, I do believe it sparked and stands for one of the main strains of Shattered... Yes, I had just read Poe's "A Philosophy of Compostion" and probably most or all of the other stuff mentioned in there, but as the poems says/does: whatever! It marks the making of my decision, my way of dealing with the "western canon." The decision to say, hey, whatever, I'm no scholar but this stuff sometimes sticks with/it to me. I do sometimes look to it, and sometimes think it looks to me. And sometimes I balk, I misinterpret, I misunderstand, yes, I close the books, I disregard. But I am affected, and, sometimes need to respond. And, as long as there is some kind of actual impact I can (do!) claim it as my own. Of course, I like to think of myself as being influenced by everyoneandthing.


BTW: The collection begins with a three-page dedication to your reader. Do you think about your audience as you write?

OKD: I think the answer is a weird complicated hesitant no, I mean, yes, cause, mostly, if I really make myself think about it, which implies that I usually don't, I think the/my audience is inside me. But, nonetheless it is all about intimacy and immediacy to some live thing. Whereandwho ever it/that/they may be.


BTW: Shattered Sonnets contains some wonderful words we don't often get to read/hear -- mullioned, ablation, abaft, spikenard, rosemallow, yawl. Do you save lists of favorite bits of language?

OKD: I think I am attracted to words the way some people are to shoes, or, to, say, other people. They don't necessarily have to be fancy or extraordinary ones. I did used to run to write stuff down more than I do now. Now I kind of know if it's supposed to stay with me, get used, it will. I do often stumble upon stuff in the dictionary when I'm looking something else up, usually something very familiar that has suddenly become strange, like, say, the word "wry," most recently. But, finally, ultimately, both "wry" and "twigborers" and "wonderoos" should/ can do as much as each other. As should each "I," each "love," each "you."


BTW: Shattered Sonnets is full of surprises and delights for the reader. Did you have to maintain such states to write it?

OKD: Yes, of course, a constant derangement of the senses! No, just kidding. Well ... Poetically speaking, at least, I can say that I never ever ever know what I'm doing. Maybe this helps. The old no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader as dear old Mr. Frost or whoever it was always said/says. I recently realized I've been writing for 10 years, but when I sit down at my desk, I'm even more clueless than I was back then. Is that possible? I often ask myself the same thing! Maybe a different cluelessness, but, I think, no less lost. The word(s?) (see what I mean) idiot savant mean(s) a lot to me. And so does someone like Eliot writing:

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what is there to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate -- but there is no competition --
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.



BTW: What are you working on now?

OKD: Nothing much. (See above.) I've also come to realize that a waywaywaywardness, i.e. not so and so not "working," is mostly my way. You can/will laugh, but I'm really mostly still trying to figure out love (who to/ why/ how) (having read Laura Kipnis' Against Love, reading Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters); and sometimes, thankfully, there's little stuff that comes up and needs to be attended to: the last three pages in my notebook are on the color blue (alice, aniline, aquamarine, azo, baby, bensoazurine, beryl, bice, bleu celeste...). I've been throwing around and away titles for my next collection like: "on the kitchen table from which everything has been hastily removed," or, maybe, "troth." Thinking: what now? what next? I do want/need the next poems/book to be not like the last poem/books. Can't write the old ones anymore, can't find the new ones yet. So, mostly, getting my children raised, or just dressed: finding two matching socks, making sea creature mobiles, reading The Magic School Bus and Moby Dick to them, sweeping over and under the mess, including scraps of construction paper and scraps of the western canon. But, my god, look, outside my window: spring! --Interview by Karen Schechner