Collected Works Bookstore interviews poet Michael Davidson

CWB: Your latest book is a collection entitled Bleed Through and it is a collection of new and selected poems. To have such a volume issued is a high honor. How long have you been publishing poetry and, what were your earliest publications? Were they chap books or book-length manuscripts? What advice do you have for aspiring poets who wish to publish their works?

MD: My first chapbook, Exchanges, appeared in 1972 and there were a number of small pamphlets during this period. My first “real” book, The Mutabilities, appeared from Sand Dollar Press in 1976. Since then there have been four other books and now Bleed Through which collects poems from all of these. My advice for aspiring poets would be to establish community by participating in workshops, reading groups, blogs, little magazines or on-line forums. Start a reading series, publish an on-line journal, go to poetry readings. Despite our romantic picture of the solitary poet, we create poems, as Jack Spicer said, through our “bartalk, our fuss and fury with each other.” Poetry is often written in response to something—a quotation, a slight, an argument—that provides the poem with a kind of silent interlocutor. The more the emerging poet engages with the art in all of its varieties the more he/she engages with the world from which poetry emerges.

CWB: Your poetry is, to my mind, very experimental. You seem often to take up the subject of language in of itself and the limits and capabilities of language in regards to understanding? Can you speak a little to this theme?

MD: I try not to use the term “experimental” or “innovative” since such terms tend to pigeonhole the work and make it unavailable to the curious reader. I do push language into odd corners, often changing direction mid-sentence, but I do try to maintain the lyric possibilities of “sight, sound, and intellection.” If one is patient enough, one will see that there is always a narrative hiding beneath the surface, one that is constantly under siege by asides and distractions. I try to keep the narrative running like a subterranean stream while remaining open to inevitable associations with certain words or registers. And yes, because I don’t believe in language as unmediated access to experience, it (language) often becomes the subject of the poem. But this, to my mind, is not the same as art-pour-art, language for its own sake, but rather a focus on the material means of expression.

CWB: From the context of your poems in Bleed Through you seem very familiar with a wide range of literature, both in poetry and in other mediums of writing. Do you draw a good deal of your inspiration from contact with other books. It has been suggested that literature is, rather than something new and fresh every time, a dialogue with its self. That is that literature, whether poetry or philosophy or fiction or anything else, is a response to the history of literature. The painter Delacroix defined genius as realizing that, “All subjects have been handled before, genius finds just a little bit more to say about them” and goes on to use the metaphor of a wheel that travels down a rut in the road and, by passing through that well traveled rut, ads more to our understanding of a well-worn topic. How does this idea find you?

MD: Well, I’m a teacher of literature, so it’s not surprising that cultural references will pop up. Literature is a dialogue with itself—its traditions, genres, cultural meanings—but it’s no less a dialogue with the world it engages. Or rather, writing engages the so-called “outside” world only through an aesthetic frame. We can’t see the political without a narrative that has, to some extent, been prepared for us by some other form. I’m not saying that in order to recognize evil in political leaders, we must first read Richard III or Macbeth, but we often use such sources to reinforce or recognize ethical crises. When I say “aesthetic frame” I’m speaking about any organization of the senses through a medium, not some alternate world to the quotidian. It’s what makes the quotidian visible.

Now as for Delacroix’s statement: it presumes that there is a topic that remains continuous and “well-
worn.” But of course this belies the emergence of new topics that couldn’t have been imagined in an earlier era (Black people are human; women should vote; humans derive from apes; space is variable). Genius could also mean the ability to see that something is fundamentally different. I think the “rut” paradigm he invokes is useful for an era of horse-drawn wagons, but to see the contemporary “information highway” as an extension of that metaphor rather obscures the difference between them. Gertrude Stein’s paraphrase of Picasso might be appropriate: someone complained that his portrait of Stein did not resemble her, to which he responded, “it will.”

CWB: There has been a lot of movement in arts communities to make art more public and, not only that, but to make the arts more compatible so that by putting together different mediums in art (i.e. painting/ sculpture/ poetry) art is not only more publicly oriented, but more accessible. How do you see poetry moving beyond the page and out into other places? Can it do so effectively? What kinds of projects, if any, would you like to see poetry entangled with and evolving into?

MD: This is an important issue since funding for the arts in education has been drastically cut at the same time that global capitalism is reducing the cultural sphere to the bottom line. But poets and artists and musicians are making good use of the excrescences of capitalism by crossing genres, moving out of the museum and into the street, off the page and into the pixilated screen, out of the studio and into collaboration. I’m not sure that this hasn’t been the situation since the mid-19thcrisis in an era when if it can’t make money it isn’t necessary.

I would agree with critics that poetry is becoming more inaccessible to the general public, but that is not because the poetry is more difficult but that the audience is not being taught how to read. Rap, hip-hop, slams, and open-mic events are creating a vital new audience for poetry, an audience that probably doesn’t read John Ashbery but which is becoming attuned to the sounds and rhythms of urban constituencies. That’s all to the good. And many people otherwise alienated from the publishing world can now publish their work in on-line venues, contribute to chat groups, and create new work in a virtual community. So while the cultural value of poetry has been diminished in the official venues of cultural authority (universities, funding agencies, journalism) it has been revitalized within the unofficial venues of our information society.

CWB: You have suffered from hearing loss and, I feel, some of the newer poems in your book address that subject. How has the lose of your hearing effected you as a poet? How do hearing and poetry move along together? How can they be separated?

MD: I realize that most people speak of losing hearing as “suffering a loss,” but I prefer to see it as a gain since it has given me an entirely new purchase on the senses—and on embodiment generally. As a consequence of anticipating deafness, my family and I learned ASL (American Sign Language), and I began to write about Deaf poets and performers. The result was a new appreciation of the rich cultural world of Deaf persons but also of new possibilities for poetry when it is enlarged to include poems “written” on the body, signed in space. With continued moments of hearing loss, I try to write out of that experience, registering the sense of frustration and anger that often attends the experience. But I also try to “hear” what it is I’m not hearing so that I can better adjust my language to a new sensorium. My work in disability studies that resulted in the book, Concerto for the Left Hand, is a direct consequence of this experience.

CWB: What does the future hold for you and your poetry?

MD: The immediate future includes my retirement from teaching. I’m hoping that this will give me more time and occasion to write poetry.

CWB: Finally, what is on your coffee table right now? What are you reading and drawing inspiration from and what have been some of your favorite literary sources of inspiration in the past?

MD: that’s a great question. Right now on my coffee table are the following: The Disability Studies Reader (4th ed.); J.M. Bernstein’s great book on Kant’s aesthetics, The Fate of Art; Andrea Brady’s poems in Vacation of a Lifetime; Jeremy Prynne’s Poems; Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall; Eileen Myles, Inferno. How’s that for specificity?

Favorite sources of inspiration in the past? Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, George Oppen, Jane Austen, John Ashbery, Beethoven’s late quartets, Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, the paintings of Poussin and Manet, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project, almost anything by Samuel Beckett.

Bleed Through: New and Selected Poems Cover Image
$17.95
ISBN: 9781566893398
Availability: Available to Ship - Est. Delivery in 8-13 Business Days
Published: Coffee House Press - December 3rd, 2013