I more or less stumbled on Peter Davis poetry. I saw one of his books, Poetry! Poetry! Poetry!, with its eye catching and not very conventional poetry book cover, displayed with its front out on a photo on the homepage of Berl’s Poetry bookstore in Brooklyn. It looked unusually cool for a book of poems, and if it was only half as good as it looked I would be more than satisfied.
I got the book, and eventually a signed copy from the poet himself, and I loved the poems instantly. They are like deadpan meta poetic investigations, and mocking such investigations, into what poetry is, the role of the poet and what a reader of poetry actually does. Many poems address the reader, which in some peculiar way both makes it more obvious what the poems are doing and make them more strange. These are two openings of poems in Poetry! Poetry! Poetry!:
”It is possible you don’t enjoy this poem because you have legitimate problems with the ideas and issues inherit in this poem.”
”I want to explain more about what I’m thinking, but I’m afraid it will make me seem stupid. I do worry about how I appear in this poem. It is not cool for a poet to appear to be anxious for praise and attention in a poem.”
You might call these poems postmodern, but postmodern poems are usually rather dull, these poems are often hilarious. Davis is playing all kinds of tricks with the reader’s mind and its hugely entertaining. The next book by Davis I read was Hitler’s Mustache, which is actually his debut collection. Contrary to what one might assume Hitler’s mustache plays a minor role in this book, but its full of mustaches. It’s essentially a book about mustaching the mustache, or something like that. The poems are pastiches of different kinds of texts and genres.
This is ”Hitler’s Mustache: The Short Story”:
Important arrangements were to be made. The party would not plan itself. She sat on her square, black sofa, dreaming about the decorations and imagining the caterer and even some of the clothes her guests might be wearing. It made her happy to think like this. But, soon enough, her grand hopes began to settle like soft snow on the warm floor of the situation. She didn’t have much money. A. would never get behind her on this. Her sister-in-law would drink too much and break her black, square heel and throw her purse in the swimming pool and fall asleep in a lawn chair. There were bills that needed to be paid now. If only she had never met mustache. If only he hadn’t mustached her aunt in a furnace, or breaded her over an open mustache.
That evening while her husband and children ate the food she had carefully mustached for them, she got an idea. Perhaps, she thought, if I were to mistake something for mustache. It seemed perfect. It covered all the angles. A. would get behind it because he needed that mustache. Her sister-in-law would take care of the bills. The cold snow began to melt. As a metaphor for her mood the cold snow no longer made sense and began to drift upward, out of the story, out of the poem, existing only in the past, in another time, one that seemed much bleaker.
The next morning she packed the children’s lunches and pressed A.’s shirt for him. After the kids were on the bus, and A. kissed her cheek and drove the Volkswagen down the long driveway, she fed the mustache and packed her baggage. She called the mustache. Put a note on the door for the mustache, and left, making sure she left the mustache slightly cracked so the mustache would be able to mustache the mustache.
The day was hot and by the time she reached the airport she was sweating through her shirt. She fanned herself with a mustache and nervously surveyed the situation. There were two guards near the mustache. Each mustache looked like it held mustache. She ordered a cup of mustache from the mustache who worked behind the mustache.
Mustache knew that she couldn’t mustache about this forever. She’d have to make up her mind mustache. She studied the mustache. She thought about all of the mustache in her mustache. All of the mustache. All of the mustache and mustache and must ache and mustache. She thought about the mustaches when her mustache was put in mustache. She took one more mustache of mustache. She mustached. She mustached her mustache and with every mustache of her mustache, mustached.
The poems in Hitler’s Mustache are also often hilarious, and the more of them you read, the funnier they get. It accumulates. But all of Davis poems are not funny, some of them are both funny and have a melancholy quality to them. Others are even darker, much darker and existential. I think that this is most obvious in Davis latest collection, TINA.
Tina is Davis fictitious muse and he address her in the poems, but she is no idealized Beatrice, she seems to be a regular girl and David is not only praising her, he even quarrels with her sometimes. This is ”The Basement Robe” from TINA:
The move into evening comes with
a hint of fear, just a jealous little tadpole
that wants to be a frog much quicker
than is possible. The night looms at me as
in Mr. big bucks, as lonely as an answer
and curious to a thunderstorm. I say to myself,
humanly, Hey, listen–nothing has happened,
no kitten is sliding slanty off the roof,
there is no gold toothed whisperer on this
home front. Listen, kid, what you want
is the apples that aren’t apples, but
are fruit, but a strange kind of fruit that
is certainly fruitish, but unnamed. Let whatever
gofer you have run toward a hole, let
them run away. Do not impede the desertion.
Still, a persistent collar I’m wearing is attached
to a persistent leash which is leashed to
a permanent sidewalk. All around us there is velvet
and all around the velvet is more velvet
and all of it is in darkness and all of it is
velvet but it’s deadly. You do not want to be draped
in it, Tina.
I had the opportunity to ask Peter a few questions:
Your poetry is rather unorthodox and I’m really curious about where you’re coming from. I know that you are very fond of Russell Edson, and that makes perfect sense. But what other authors and books, and other experiences, made you discover poetry? How did you become a poet?
Well, how I became a poet is a tough question to answer. The quick answer is probably because I didn’t know what else to do. This is why I’m still a poet. It’s just a result of the lack of knowing what else to do with myself. The long answer is a lot longer. When I was a kid I played sports. I liked music and drawing, but mostly I played sports. When I was 13 I broke my femur playing football. The break was in the growth plate and so that leg quit growing. Then I had surgery to stop the other leg from growing so that I wouldn’t be lopsided. I managed to play football again when I was 14 but it wasn’t the same. That year, I dislocated my shoulder which led to having many dislocated shoulders and ultimately two more surgeries (spread out over the next few years). Then, that same year, I had a blood infection that almost killed me. I spent nearly a month in the hospital and another month or so hooked up to an IV at home. By the time I was 15 my identity as an athlete and as a person felt destroyed. My shoulder would dislocate a lot, for instance while sleeping or, one time, raising my hand in class. So I felt vulnerable and fragile. I felt isolated from my friends and left out. I did a lot of skateboarding. Probably I felt a lot of the typical teenage angst, but, combined with my medical issues, it left a really strong impression on me. I felt like I carried a big burden. In addition to my physical problems, I was also a horrible student. I argued with my teachers and generally did not do what I supposed to do. However, when I was sixteen I had an English teacher who told me that she thought I was a good writer. I’d never been told by a teacher I was good at something. She also made us read William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson. She made me consider writing more than just what I had to write for class assignments. I felt like she was in cahoots with my English teacher the next year, who also encouraged me to write. I don’t think I got very good grades in their classes, but their small interest in my ability meant a lot to me. About the same time, holed up in my bedroom and feeling the weight of what I would later recognize as depression, I was listening to Bob Dylan. Soon, I had an old guitar in the basement restrung and I was practicing chords and learning to sing some. When I went to college, which I was lucky to get into, I was 18 and majored in English, mainly because of my belief that it would at least make college a little easier to major in something I’d been told I might be good at. I wrote at least 5 songs a month (my minimum) and I kept that up for years. The summer after my first year of college, I wrote a song everyday for 3 months. Sometimes, I tried to write a short story, but it didn’t really get me excited. One day, I wrote a poem in a notebook and it struck me that it was a poem, not a song, but that it was close to a song—that that was what poetry was and it was easy and fun. Every night, I’d wait till all my roommates went to bed and I’d write these little poems, at least 4 a day (another minimum I set). I read them to a professor who I loved and he, in a miraculous fashion, proposed we make a chapbook of them, publishing them on his press. So I happily published a chapbook of poems. All of those teachers were all really important to me.
But the question of how I ended up a poet and, in particular, the kind of poet I am, is still around because even though all that stuff happened, I don’t know why I responded to it by writing the way I write. I still don’t really know. Or why I liked the artists I liked (like Russell Edson, though he didn’t come till much later in my life). What I know is that there was a frustration I felt with life that I felt like I had to express and I had a really hard time expressing it and so I played music, made visual art, and wrote poetry simply as a way to relieve this annoying itch I felt. It seemed necessary. I don’t write poetry because I like it so much, I write poetry because sometimes it works for me. Sometimes, it is just the only avenue I’ve got to some kind of inner relief.
When I read your poetry collections the first time, I was very preoccupied with the humor, of all kinds, from the outright absurd to subtler stuff. You are one of the funniest and most eccentric poet I have read. But when I have read the collections again, I have perceived them as much darker and more nuanced. A recurring theme is failure, a general sense of not having accomplished what you ought to have accomplished. Can you say something about the humor and the darkness in your poems and collections?
Well, in general, I feel depression. I take anti-depressants and get counseling. I’m not, in my heart of hearts, a particularly cheery person. I get depressed, deep, deep in my head and there’s nothing that cures that. I’ve just had to learn to live with it. And I do live with it and I’ve got a great life. But partly because of this depression, I have consciously made an effort to have a positive attitude. I don’t like depression and I don’t like being around it, so I try to fight it. Especially after I had kids, I wanted to model an optimistic approach to life for them because I felt like that’d be about the greatest thing I could give them. But it’s hard for me to have that optimism. This goes back a long way. It’s just not me. So when I see all of the cruelty and confusion in this world, I can’t muster up any real positivity. Basically I just make jokes. They’re not always funny and not everyone is always laughing. But this is the way I’ve learned to handle the world. So maybe, at least in one way, my poems are like me: we’re all just trying to be optimistic despite our inner sadness.
I like funny poems. Poets often like witty poems and chuckling at wit, but a lot of poets don’t care much for poems that actually make you laugh. Or, maybe, they don’t like to call things that make you laugh poems. After a I gave a reading one time, a woman said to me “It’s fun to be clever, isn’t it?” And I knew she didn’t mean that in a good way. Again, I don’t mean to handle the world the way I do, I don’t mean to make jokes or do anything other than write something that makes me feel better in the exact moment that I’m writing it and (hopefully) still makes me feel better later, too.
You don’t care much for the distinctions between so called high culture and popular culture. You have written poems about skateboarding and Eddie Van Halen, which is pretty unusual. You seem to want to expand what it’s okay to write about in a poem. Are you trying to recreate the sense of freedom you experience when you are a teenager? Or are you more interested in the sense of loss you feel when you remember that more or less perfect freedom?
All of what you’re saying here may be true, but I don’t think of it that way. In the same way, maybe, that I don’t think of humor vs. darkness in my poems, I don’t think of high vs. low culture, or freedom vs. loss. Essentially every poem I write is the same poem, which is a sort of yelping noise I make when I can’t think of what else to do. And, anyway, that poem, the one I am always writing, contains a little bit of everything in it. Sometimes the yelping is about middle school concerns and sometimes it’s about something more lofty. (Though, really, what could be more lofty than middle school concerns?) The exact elements probably don’t matter much. It could have been one thing or another, but for me it was heavy metal and making out and skateboarding. What matters more than the specifics was the energy that was expended on and created by these specifics. The energy was important.
Obviously, when I write nostalgically about the past, about how my brothers and friends might argue over who the greatest guitarist was (always only considering heavy metal guitarists), about how important skateboarding felt to me (the attitude of skateboarding) the energy of youth, etc., to me all of that stuff represents something long gone, a far away world 25 years ago or more! In TINA I write a lot about this time period, my world as a kid—the 1970’s and 80’s in Michigan and Indiana. I don’t think it’s unusual to take this culture seriously enough to write about it in poems, then again it was the culture I grew up in so it has always seemed serious enough to me.
You have written three poetry collections and they have common features, not least the humor and weirdness, but they are also very different from each other. Could you say something about the main ideas, concepts and poetics of each collection? I get the impression that you begin with a bold unifying idea and then realize it uncompromisingly.
Well, all of my published books have started in a similar way. Namely, I have a very simple idea, that usually occurs because of a single poem. Of course, obviously the idea comes before the poem but I don’t recognize it till it becomes a poem. So, anyway, now I have this one poem and this idea starts to grow on me. And I write another poem in some way similar to the first poem and I begin to think that I could write another one like that—like that it’s just so easy, I have opened the bottle and now I can just pour it out. Sometimes I’m sort of thinking that what I’m doing might turn into something long enough to be called a book and part of me is thinking that I’ll probably give this up pretty quickly because, after all, it’s just a single idea and surely it can’t sustain itself for long. I will have this thought: Either what I’m doing here is pretty cool or it’s pretty stupid. Once I start thinking like that, I generally keep going because I figure if I’m unsure about what I’m doing, I must be doing something worth pursuing till I can figure it out better. Besides, by this time the idea has captured my brain and I can’t stop thinking about it. Every time I start writing I go back to that idea because it’s so easy just to tilt that bottle more and spill more of it everywhere. It’s so easy it becomes a crutch and after a year or so I feel like I don’t even know how to write without that crutch. For instance, the main idea in Hitler’s Mustache was the absurd look of the single most evil face we know. That his mustache was a mystery, a goofy anomaly that is at the heart of everything human. That his mustache was the trapdoor at the bottom of all human reasoning. There’s always one more question, one more mystery. There is always a square, black tab, exactly the size and shape of Hitler’s mustache, that is attached to everything we think we know and when we push on it we find we’re back to not knowing again. I let the actual word “mustache” run wild, fascist-style, all over my writing. I let the word “mustache” loose in my mind. So, when writing, if I had a pause, to collect my thoughts or think of the exact right word in my mind, I simply wrote “mustache” covering all of the poem with this little relentless beast of a word that represented a beast of an idea. After a year or so of doing that, I began to think that maybe I couldn’t write poems without the word “mustache”, like, how did I get by before without this little fascist making all of my artistic decisions for me? The same experience happened when writing Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! and TINA. The simple idea at the heart of P!P!P! was a kind of radical honesty about the motivations of the artist, who slaves over their work for, exactly, what reason? The simple idea at the heart of TINA was how much a poetic statement is changed when, instead of being addressed to some vague, universal reader, it is addressed to a single individual, in this case, someone named Tina, who might be considered a kind of crummy muse. These ideas seem pretty clear to me now, but they were not really clear when each of these books began. Only now does it seem apparent to me what I was thinking. Eventually, in all cases, despite my fear of not being able to write without the particular crutch I’m using, the idea that once seemed to so magically produce writing, to so easily pour from me, begins to grow old. After a few hundred poems or so, the bottle gets drier and drier. Then I just don’t write for a while. I’ll play music or something else and sift through all that stuff I’ve written and assemble it into some sort of book. After awhile, it’s all in the past and I start writing again – without any idea/crutch – until one day I write a poem that seems especially easy to write and I think about it some and then I write another and soon enough, it all happens again.
I have read a few of the interviews that you have provided links to on your homepage. Why do you always take the opposite view of things?
I never take the opposite view of things.
You edited Poet’s Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art (2005) and co-edited a second volume, Poet’s Bookshelf II (2008). What do you find interesting in contemporary American poetry? Are there any poets, books, publishers or magazines that you would like to recommend?
I guess what I find interesting in contemporary poetry is the thoughts and ideas of other poets who, by and large, like myself, don’t seem to otherwise fit too well in the larger culture. That means, I guess, that I especially like poets who don’t seem to even fit especially well even in the world of poetry. I like the way poets can take on the world in a way that otherwise can’t be done. The more singular they are, the more I enjoy them. Of course what is singular to one person might seem conventional to another. As poets, we’re all on the fringes of society and I like poets who are on the fringe of that fringe, as I imagine it. I like poets that seem to challenge all of the traditional views about poetry and especially the traditional views that make poetry something precious, something special, something sacred. I sometimes personally feel like I want to destroy “poetry” and replace it with something, but I don’t know what. Of course I recognize that poetry is “special” in a sense, but not like it thinks it is. I have two kids who are adorable and smart and funny and all of the things people say about their own children. My son used to joke, echoing what he hears around him, “Aren’t I adorable?” And I’d always say, “Well, you’re a lot more adorable when you don’t mention it.” Which seems to apply to poetry, too.
As far as recommending poets, I’m not sure what to say. There are so many, manypoets. Some have meant something to me for reasons that are hard to articulate: maybe I just liked the cover of their book or how they read their poems or just a poem title. Maybe I just met them somewhere and while never particularly enjoying their poems, found something in their personality that meant a lot to me. It’s surprising how a tiny detail can matter so much. Or, rather, it’s surprising how what matters so much is made up of just tiny details. Some of the poets who have meant something to me were my teachers when getting my MFA or some colleagues who, just by proximity, I happen to know and learn something from. There are just so many ways to think of the idea of appreciating an artist.
The Poet’s Bookshelf books that I edited gave poets this prompt: List 5-10 books that have been “essential” to you, as a poet. I also asked that they feel free to comment on their picks. Combined the books have responses from over 200 poets. Of course, what does “essential” mean? What does “as a poet” mean? I just let each poet answer those questions for themselves. If I were to do the question now I might put it differently. Anyway, the books are just a collection of their responses. So, to simplify the question some I’ll say this: here are 5-10 contemporary presses who are essential to me: Bloof Books, Action Books, Black Ocean, Forklift, Publishing Genius, Ahsahta, H_ngm_n, Tarpaulin Sky, Magic Helicopter, and Octopus. I’m stopping there only because that’s 10. There are many more cool presses. On these presses you will find a ton of writers I enjoy a whole bunch, like: Jennifer L. Knox, Shanna Compton, Sandra Simonds, Mairead Byrne, Kate Greenstreet, Gina Meyers, Joyelle McSweeney, Sommer Browning, Sharon Mesmer, and Melissa Broder. Again, I’m just stopping at 10. I guess the 10 most formative dead writers for me were Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Frank O’hara, Flannery O’Conner, Kurt Vonnegut, Russell Edson, George Perec, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, and E. E. Cummings.
You also draw, make music and awesome stop-motion videos. Are these separate field of creativity, or does it happen that a poem turns out to be more useful as a song lyric, or vice versa?
All of my artistic work comes from the same place. It is all simply a kind of release for me, like exercise for the body, my artwork is exercise for the rest of me. I do it because it makes sense. Otherwise I’d get a sort of cabin fever of the brain, I think. That wouldn’t be good. Like physical exercise, I feel the need to vary what I do, in an effort to keep it effective. In the same way that any good habit can turn into a routine which can then become dull, I feel like, say, after writing for a year or two that I’m not getting all of the exercise I need—that it’s become routine and ineffective. So, I will do something else, like make music, or draw something, or whatever seems to make sense at the time. This bouncing around between artistic activities used to bother me some. I envied (and still do) artists who were focused on only one thing—writers who just wrote, musicians who just made music, painters who just painted. I have, over time, attempted to be all of these things but I simply can’t seem to do it. Or rather, it ends up making more sense to me to switch activities then it does to keep beating a dead horse. So, at one point, I just accepted that about myself. While others get the advantage of staying focused, I get the advantage of more variety. It might not be what I’d choose if I had a choice, but it’s all right.
I don’t really do multiple arts at once. When I am writing, all of my artistic time and energy goes to writing. When I’m recording music, all of my energy goes into music and I don’t write poems during that period. Or rather, I might write something but it’s an afterthought. Generally, after one big project, my next project will be in a different medium. For instance, I recently finished a new Short Hand album (the Leaves) and that took about a year. Now I’m writing and not making music. When I’m done with the writing I’m doing now (maybe in another year, more or less) I’ll make more music, or maybe feel the need to make some videos or, again, whatever seems necessary to keep me feeling healthy. Sometimes I slide from one writing project into another writing project. Sometimes I make two albums in a row. I have never thought of it until you asked, but I don’t believe I’ve ever turned a poem into a song or vise versa. Occasionally, maybe, a line stolen from one to the other, but I don’t even remember doing that. Thinking of it now, this seems like a perfectly obvious thing to do but I never thought of it until now.
Read more about Peter Davis and his work on artisnecessary.com