I Am Living: An Interview with Adam Davis
Adam O. Davis, the 2016 recipient of the George Bogin Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, has been published in many journals, including Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, The Paris Review, Gulf Coast, and ZYZZYVA. He has earned writing fellowships from Columbia University, Western Michigan University, and Vermont Studio Center. He lives in San Diego, California where he teaches English literature and composition at The Bishop's School. We talked with Adam via email about recent developments in his life and career.
Q: The biography on your website lists truths mixed with fiction, calling to mind the alter-ego exploits of Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket. What was your intention in exaggerating your biography in more-than-unusual ways? What is your opinion of writers like Handler who present themselves truthfully in certain scenarios and fictionalize themselves in others?
ADAM: My intention in crafting such a long-winded biography was to avoid having to write one at all. I always find the prospect of writing a bio with its intense abridgment difficult—what do people need to know, what should they know, what do I want them to know?—so I decided to simply write a list of jobs I’ve held, hope to hold, or never will hold. If anything, it was a fun exercise that turned up some gems I’m still pondering. “Ashram janitor,” being a favorite.
In regards to your other question, fact is best when it has all the style of fiction, and fiction is best when it has the unimpeachable power of fact, but for me the tension between the two serves for the best writing. Our greatest commodity as social creatures is stories—so much so that oftentimes I’m unconcerned with notions of fact or fiction, but truth—as antithetical as that might sound in this situation—is king, and truth in writing doesn’t rely on proof but belief—a good story is worth believing in.
Q: A Chicago publishing industry insider recently told the team at TMR that graduate school is almost altogether unnecessary (in regards to the “writing world”). You went to grad school, earning your MFA from Columbia University, so I’m inclined to ask: what are your comments regarding this assumption?
ADAM: At the end of the day, graduate school is a luxury—a very good and noble one, so far as luxuries go, but a luxury all the same, meaning that it’s unnecessary if we cleave to the strictest definition of necessity we have (a definition that goes hand-in-hand with money, but I digress…). Is an MFA in poetry an inconvenient degree? Perhaps, but it’s a degree I’m proud to have earned, and one that can do wonders for writers. So while it’s true no one needs to go to grad school, unless you’re in a choice literary position (think The Lost Generation in Paris or the Beats in San Francisco) you may find yourself at a loss for a community of writers, which is the one thing that an MFA can provide you with. And there’s also the question of time; namely, two years during which the only expectation that is placed upon you is to write. How many other opportunities will you have to focus on your writing in such a rich and intensive way (but don’t forget that you’re paying for it—in many ways it’s a degree that will further your craft but rarely further your post-graduate salary)? Finally, an MFA can certainly open some doors when it comes to publishing, but after that it all comes down to the writing. If the writing’s good, it’ll shine through—with or without a degree.
Q: As a teacher, what is the most valuable thing you believe you taught your students?
What is the most valuable thing that you learned while teaching?
ADAM: As a teacher, I would say the thing I try to stress to my students is the importance of objectivity, and how reading great poems and plays and novels and short stories can help us in understanding people and places so different from those we know. What have I learned? The importance of listening, of allowing others to speak, of trusting students to guide themselves toward answers—whatever they may be—than continually taking the reins and steering them toward them.
Q: What advice might you have for authors that struggle with listening to and/or accepting critique?
ADAM: Creativity is an intimate thing to share, and a difficult thing to comment on effectively as it can be tough to separate who we are from who we are—that is, our self from ourselves. In any case, the goal of critique is always improvement. Accept that the people reading your work are trying to do right by it, but in doing so they only have themselves as a reference. If you can hold to that spirit of best-intended assistance, you may be able to see how helpful they’re really being. And remember that the ultimate goal of a workshop is to become a better critic so that you can become your own best critic when you find yourself without a jury of your peers to consult.
Q: Many (but not all) artists endure some sort of suffering, and this inspires their art. "The Following Should Not Be Questioned" comes to mind, with lines like "Doubt sits in the smolder and song of soil, / where water pipes house the runaways of Temecula, all shivering, all shod / in black nail polish." And while the emotions feel personal, I notice that some of your poetry is brought through the lens of a character that isn’t necessarily you. Poems like "Pterodactyls at Work" and "La Reproduction Interdite" feature characters undergoing some sort of situation or trauma that brings them out of the norm. Were there any specific events or experiences in your childhood that may have caused you to want to be a writer? And was there ever a time in your life that you may have doubted your abilities - enough to consider another career path?
ADAM: Trauma can certainly be an inspiration for poetry, though I’m wary of using it as a foundation for all poems. I think people oftentimes confuse the critical power of poetry as being an inherently pessimistic one—analyzing, discussing, thinking: none of these should be viewed as the domain of the perpetually downtrodden. Certainly, such analytical thought can yield sad truths, but it also yields all truths. In terms of the more morose elements of my own work, I think it’s fair to say there’s usually a surrealism at play that allows me to explore the darker aspects of the poem (apocalypse, homelessness, etc.) without sinking so deep into the swamp of misery that the poem, poet, and reader is overwhelmed. If anything, my hope is that such an approach—ever had a dream where you’re watching yourself from afar with a kind yet concerned distance?—allows for an objectivity that allows me to explore what such things might mean to us as a society.
In regards to my childhood, I moved around a lot, sometimes to foreign countries, and I became aware at a very young age of how I functioned in relation to different cultures and places and people. When you can’t speak a language or you don’t understand customs you become an astute observer, meaning that I was constantly translating everything I saw and heard into terms that I could understand—and what else is writing but translating the world you see? Also, as a result of traveling, I spent a lot of time reading, drawing, and writing. Up until I discovered my family’s Magnavox camcorder, I wanted to be a cartoonist. After the camcorder, I wanted to be a film director, a cinematographer, a screenwriter. In all these pursuits it was clear that I wanted to tell stories, so I went back to the source (a relatively inexpensive one in comparison to the others) and wrote. Even now I still flirt with the idea of a different career. Film and photography greatly interest me, but I’ll always write—it’s something I have to do.
Q: From what it looks like, it seems that you haven’t had a poem published in any magazines since maybe 2013.
Why the hiatus? Have you been writing and not publishing?
ADAM: I’m terrible at updating my website—I’ve actually had a number of poems published over the past couple of years, and I just received the news that a few of my poems won the George Bogin Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. That said, I haven’t been publishing at my pre-2013 rate owing to a renewed focus on writing and a lack of time to submit (submissions, for me, take a long time). I’ve also been focused on my daughter, my wife, my dogs, my backyard. To paraphrase what Jack Gilbert once said in response to why he took a two-decade break from publishing, “I’m living.”
Q: As stated previously, you tend to make your poetry about characters. Examples include "Pterodactyls at Work", with these selected lines: "It was an era of strange hope. Back-broken, blistered, / we the bleary-eyed destroyed our habitats / before the sky's burden filled and finished us." As well as "Speaking with the Skull" : "I was alone & unknown, my account / that of the natural world—a tree stump / or stone. Blameless, I came into being / & have since been." Do you think that your knack for crafting poems around the feelings and stories of characters - or writing in such a way that even poems about you seem universal - is something that sets you apart from other poets?
ADAM: I’d agree that in many of my earlier poems—such as those you’ve mentioned—I shied away from any kind of confessional poetry, reserving the “I” strictly for characters rather than myself. In these poems I was primarily concerned with storytelling, creating fables or myths, propagating urban legends. Over the past couple of years I’ve shifted away from this and sought to write more personal poems through the lens of possibility—that is, the world that could be rather than the one that is. I’m interested in how the physical world reflects the interior world and vice versa. Looking back on my itinerant lifestyle I see now more than ever how the many landscapes I encountered shaped me. So, my current poetic interests lie in this idea of emotional and psychological geology—southbound glaciers, subducting plates, falling meteors, and rising skyscrapers have shaped us just as much as they’ve shaped the planet we live upon.
Q: You have recently received a grant and have spent the last summer traveling the country and researching your novel. Did the novel come first, did the traveling, or did they happen as a result of one another?
ADAM: The novel came first, then the traveling. It was incredibly helpful to visit the places I was writing about, even if I was removed from them by nearly eight decades. I’m about three-quarters through the fourth draft as I write this, with an eye to finish this draft by summer.
Q: What did you see in your travels that inspired you the most?
ADAM: What struck me the most was the windblown poverty of America. Living in a big city on the coast, it’s easy to forget how much land this nation encompasses, and how much of it has been abandoned. Not so much ghost towns but ghost counties.
Q: Many artists and musicians have children, and a common misconception is that once they have a kid, their ability to create will be obstructed. What impact has your daughter had on your creative capacities, if any?
ADAM: I don’t believe in ivory towers or sequestered chambers where a writer can be kept clean of life’s trappings and thereby better able to create their art—what hope do any of us as artists have in creating work with meaning if we dedicate ourselves to the avoidance of the very thing that should be inspiring us? Granted, there are many ways to do this outside of having children, but for me my daughter has raised the stakes, increased the importance of what I do, given purpose and belief—if I’m taking time away from her to write then it had better be good work. I may not have as much time as I used to for my writing, but I do ten times more with the time I now have because I recognize the value of it.
Q: Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
ADAM: The first poem I ever wrote was entitled “Falling Leaves.” It was about falling leaves. I was seven years old and looking out my bedroom window and found myself struck for the first time by the Mack truck of inspiration. I wrote the words in a rush, running to the kitchen to double-check my spelling of words with my parents, and then, after a few minutes, I had my poem. It’s still one of the few I know by heart:
Wind shakes the trees
as it passes by.
Q: What was the first poem you were ever proud of?
ADAM: I was, and still am, intensely proud of that first poem. It started everything that followed.
For more information on Adam Davis, or to contact him,
you can visit his website at http://www.adamodavis.com/.