Tony Trigilio with Peter Davis

Peter Davis
Peter Davis

In his monthly poetry podcast, Radio Free Albion, Tony Trigilio interviews poets about their recently released or forthcoming books. Always informal, each interview is a conversation—two poets talking about the work and play of the creative process and showcasing some of the most innovative new work in contemporary poetry. In this interview transcribed by Evan Kleekamp, Trigilio interviews Peter Davis.

Tony Trigilio: Let’s start talking about the origins of your new book, TINA. It’s probably not going to surprise you that I’m drawn to what Amy Gerstler said about your work, because I’ve mentioned this before when I introduced your reading at Columbia College Chicago [on February 12, 2014]. She’s described your work in general as poetry that “puts the id through a juicer.” And I know that’s a big place for us to start an interview, but for me it’s a way of honoring how compelling, and compellingly strange your work is. TINA is no exception. With that gigantic context, that’s way too big probably, can you talk a little about how the book came about, what the origins of the book were.

Peter Davis: Absolutely. First off, Amy Gerstler is completely kickass.

TT: I agree.

PD: And saying “id through the juicer” is a beautiful phrase that I’m very happy happens to be attached to me. But the TINA book started with just the very boring idea that poetry so often is addressed to a sort of nameless no one. It’s not really addressed to anyone most of the time. At any rate, how much of it changes when it is addressed to a single person. The thing that I always say is, for instance, if you take Robert Frost, you say, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep…Tina.” And the degree to which that changes the statement is pretty fun and significant to me. That was the sort of initial idea. I say all this as if I had an idea and sat down and started writing, which isn’t really the case, obviously. At first, I was just writing and then something happened, and this idea occurred to me, and I thought what would be a good name, and I got to Tina somehow. I don’t really recall how I got to Tina. Later on, as the thing evolved, a lot of the poems I was writing were to some degree about my childhood in this nostalgic way. I wrote a poem, “Eddie Van Halen.” When I was a kid, Eddie Van Halen was the greatest guitar player anyone had ever heard of. There was no question, like with my friends, if there was a discussion of who was the greatest guitar player, Eddie Van Halen was obviously first and then any other argument was basically there for second place. And I wrote about skateboarding some, and some other things that for whatever reason were just fun for me to write about. When I was writing about these things from my past, it sort of occurred to me that Tina, the person I was addressing in some way, was my life, kind of, as an artist. I didn’t necessarily want to be a poet; I wanted to be a rock star. When I was fifteen, I said I would be some kind of artist, and it was also the same time I fell in love with a girl for the first time, who I was with for a long time. Of course, that relationship with the girl eventually ended, but my relationship as an artist has continued, and it has not always been a fulfilling thing. It’s a hard . . . I want validation from the world. I don’t know what I want from the world. I think I want what most people want. I want love and all that stuff. For whatever reason in life, I’m drawn to things like poetry and music, and things that most other people aren’t terribly interested in. And things that don’t get me too far in the material world. That can be hard, not be participating in the big culture.

TT: I laughed when you said, I was fifteen and I wanted to be a rock star. Me, too. At fifteen, I didn’t walk around and say, well, yeah, I’m going to just be writing poetry into my forties, that’s what I’m going to do. No, when I’m in my forties, I’m going to have a pool filled with vodka, and I’m going to live in Beverly Hills, and I’m going to be a rock star, and my best friend is going to be Ronnie James Dio. None of that happened, you know.

PD: Absolutely.

TT: It would have been amazing. I think a lot about how, as poets, the validation is so delayed. The best we get, the closest we get to the immediate validation of music is when we do readings, but even that might be poems we’ve had percolating for a year. But with music, you’re in a band, you write songs, if you’ve got a gig two weeks later, you perform them. You get an immediate validation. I have that same split in my head, knowing that I’m doing something that not a lot of people are very interested in—poetry. Then there is this other thing, music, and unless you’re going to win a Grammy, not a lot of people are interested in that, either.

PD: You’re talking the validation, the immediate sort of validation, that’s true, too. But there’s also this idea when you’re young, you compare yourself to the greats. This is how I was at least, too. I expected, like you were saying, by the time I’m forty, I should be a millionaire! Because I’m comparing myself to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, and I think, well gee, by the time they were 22, they already had … but those are the rare, rare exceptions. That happens to people. This is sort of the American dream they keep waving in front of you. There are people like Bob Dylan, Taylor Smith, the young people who seem to come out of nowhere and they dominate the world, and everyone else compares themselves to them. And we all, for the most part, are utter failures, if that is our comparison. Most people don’t get validation for the work that they do until they’re, say, in their thirties, and I’m not just talking about artists. It takes time to become a CEO, it takes time to become the owner of the company, it takes time to get to a place where you’re getting back what you put into it. And that’s the same for artists, too. All those years in between, though, through your twenties when you’re not getting back that kind of … you’re not publishing books, or when your book comes out, you’re not getting reviewed, and you feel bad, and nobody loves you, and no one is asking for your work. It just takes a long time to get to a point where—and I’m not even there. I mean, I’m talking about getting there, and maybe I’m not even there.

TT: There’s the gigantic American dream, you hit the lotto sort of. And then there is just the slow steady accretion of work, and your craft gets better, you get better. I have flashes of that patience and then flashes where, you know, god, this country doesn’t give a shit about what we do.

PD: And I don’t even know for sure, completely, if it’s this country or just the world in general, you know. Sometimes I just think, what’s wrong with me, that all the things I’m interested in are, in general, things that other people aren’t. Both my brothers went into a little t-shirt business for awhile and they were thinking about ideas to put on t-shirts. And my brother is like, what do you think? And I was like, why on earth would you ask me? Everything I do is for the minority.

TT: I talk to my students about this. We’re so lucky, as poets we don’t have to focus-group our poems. That means we have like 25 readers, but that’s pretty cool—we don’t have to focus-group. There’s a purity to it. And I know, we can go back and forth about how that is great for the art and then it also can feel alienating. But I know from reading your work, and knowing your work well, I know that what matters to you is writing the best poem that you can, making the best art that you can, making the best music that you can. So I know, ultimately, it’s what feels right that is making the best art, but we get all these messages from outside that can mess with that feeling.

PD: For me, this was sort of, I guess I want to say late, I mean maybe it’s not late for other people, it felt late for me. But at some point in time—ten, fifteen years ago—I just realized, that all the work that I do, that I can ask other people for their opinions, and I have teachers with their opinions, and there is the world with their opinions, but ultimately it is—do I like it. And if I like it, if I feel comfortable with it, it just really doesn’t matter after that. And sometimes I think, that’s awfully selfish, like making myself awfully grandiose, the grand arbiter, but it is my shit. And I feel like I get to do with it what I want. It’s one of the only things in the world where the person, if they want to, gets to do exactly what the fuck they want to do. Like you say, there is no board meeting, there is no committee, it’s not a democracy. It’s me, and I get to do what I want to do. I ultimately have to be happy with what I’m doing.

TT: I know it could sound kind of selfish or solipsistic. Like you said, you don’t want to sound that way, it could at the worst sound that way. When I’m teaching a beginning workshop, and there is a student who has never written poetry before, who says, “I just want to please myself,” I say, well, that’s good energy, but you have to work at it more. You have to do more than that.

PD: Absolutely.

TT: And what you’re saying comes from many years of reading and writing. I feel the same way. At some point, you reach a point where you can trust your BS detector to know that if you’re pleasing yourself, you’re probably going to be pleasing a reader.

PD: You’re absolutely right, that was after years of not necessarily consciously, but certainly unconsciously, seeking the opinions and approval of often times people above me, but also times my peers. And of not trusting myself, which is what it ultimately comes down to—is this a good poem, or is this not a good idea, and sort of being hesitant. You can’t be hesitant. As a skateboarder analogy, when you drop in on, not necessarily like a half pipe, but any kind of thing you are dropping in on, you have to stomp it with your front foot to get down. You can’t be hesitant—you’ve got to do it. It’s the same thing with musicians, too. You can’t be half-assed on stage.

TT: Your music is going to be half-assed if you are.

PD: I was recently watching The Who from ‘75, and I mean they were just incredible. I was just like—that’s entertainment. They’re going for it. You have to do that, you have to stomp that first foot down and go.

TT: And really feel it in your body. And I think that comes from unconsciously absorbing the art form, and working with the art form for a long time. For some of us, it takes more time than others, but you have to just be really absorbed by it. In a second, I’d like us to hear an excerpt from TINA, but there’s one other question I would like to ask about the book before we go into the excerpt. I’m thinking about love poems and the old tradition of the love sequence. Maybe because we are talking about skateboarding, my mind went from skateboarding to tradition—I don’t know why, but it did. The epigraphs at the beginning of the book include Petrarch, and that telegraphs, to the reader, that we are going to be inside the tradition of the love sequence. How was this tradition rattling around in your head, when you were writing the book. How was it there and how did it affect the book?

PD: When I started, I wasn’t thinking about that, but it did evolve to, again, me thinking about my first girlfriend and then somehow comparing that to the traditional muse. I hate the word muse, and hate the concept of the muse. But I get it, I know what it’s like when something pats you on the shoulder, but I don’t like that word. And so I did sort of start thinking along those lines and it just so happened that I was teaching a class, a sequence where we go through ancient literature, and then, classical, renaissance and so forth, and we were reading Petrarch. And I thought, I hadn’t read them in awhile, and there was only six or seven of them in the anthology we were reading. They were great, and so then I ordered this book of Petrarch poems just for fun. And when I got that all of it—everything just sort of solidified in my head. There’s this quote, maybe I’ll look, there is this epigraph where he says, is Laura even real, that he is obsessed with Laura. And this is Petrarch:

So what do you say? That I invented the beautiful name of Laura to give myself something to talk about and to engage many to talk about me! And that in fact there is no Laura in my mind except the poetic Laura for which I evidently have aspired with long-continued unwearying zeal; and that concerning the living Laura, by whose person I seem to be captured, everything is manufactured; that my poems are fictitious, my sighs pretended. Well, on this head, I wish that it was all a joke, there it were a pretense and not a madness!

I just think that’s beautiful because, on the one hand, everything he’s saying is, “You think I made this shit up? I didn’t make this up.” But, on the other hand, he did make it up. The ultimate catch is that it is all true, what he just said, and I can sympathize with that. I feel like I know what that’s like.

TT: I get swept up in the idea that Laura was just in his mind, it was all made up, everything is manufactured, but, of course, it’s not—it’s all real, too. That tension is really exciting. One of the questions I had in mind was, don’t tell us who Tina is, but can you tell us how you envisioned her? Maybe you already answered that when you said Tina was your way of addressing your life as an artist. She’s a real person and she’s made up too.

PD: She is both something that I love, but something that is also a great deal of trouble. Again, let’s say you do have a muse, and let’s say you do, and we all supposedly want the muse, and you have someone coming to you. That’s not all fun and games. That keeps you up writing poems in your basement when nobody wants to hear them. You have obligations that aren’t always convenient for life. And people say they think of the muse as a good thing. I’m sure lots of schizophrenics think about the muse, it’s not just, “Oh, great—the muse.”

TT: Like lightning strikes—I’m waiting for lightning to strike. Well, when it strikes, it also means I have lightning going through me, I’ve got a terrible electric shock and that’s no fun. Even though then it produces work with the lightning. Well then, let’s hear an excerpt from the book.

PD: I’ll read, since we’ve already discussed some of these things, I’ll read from this poem called “Skateboarding”:

I skate for me and my homeboys!
We grind and carve!
Let’s skate! We yell that shit, Tina.
We fucking yell it!
We’re behind this grocery store, Tina,
shredding this curb and
John Law comes up and is like
Scram! Fuckers! So lame!
And I’m adjusting my beret.
And, Tina, my skate Betty, I know you
love me, but I can’t
even explain how much
I will skate or die!

TT: I like to ask folks I’m interviewing to talk about how one of those poems in the book came about. Not really to, for example, just tell us about the formal or stylistic choices—it could be that, or what was going on around you when you wrote the poem, what made it an important poem for you. And I’m wondering if you could talk about this in terms of the poem, “The Egyptian Revolution of 2011.”

PD: Yes. Absolutely. It’s a good thing that you picked that poem only because I don’t remember how some poems came about. Let’s see—obviously, the Egyptian revolution was taking place at the time and it was all over the news. And this was obviously a big deal. And here [in Indiana], for whatever reason, it was snowy, it was cold, and my kids got off school that day, and were home from school, they went over to a friend’s house, and I was sitting here. Now that I think about it—I never—I very rarely sit down with an idea of what I’m going to write. That poem is basically a long thing about how much I love my kids. Basically, I say over and over again that I love them, which I think is fair.

TT: “I want them to be happy happy happy happy happy happy happy.”

PD: I mean, there is only so much you can say, and I say this to my students too, sometimes. For instance, a phrase like I love you is paired down to its absolute essence. You know, I don’t care what kind of artist you are or how against clichés you might be or whatever. There is no replacing those words. I mean, what can you say? This is certainly how I feel about my children, but other things too, but certainly it’s all kind of heightened with children. What can you say? You know, I love them. What does that mean? Well, pretty much everything you think it means.

TT: And you flip inside when someone says that to you. You just flip inside. That’s how fundamental it is.

PD: There’s just no escaping I love you. When I think, again, about my kids, I don’t know what to say and I don’t know what to tell people. So you tell people, Well, I love them. So that poem I say many times that I love them. After I’ve said all this stuff about how much I love them, “what really kills me is that many other people in this world who are humans who have felt the love I had for my kids and theirs is no different and my love is no better, and my love is no more pure, or less pure, or unequal to, in any way.” When you really think about that, that’s absolutely mind blowing. When you think about that—actually I was thinking about this yesterday on Facebook and everyone is posting about their dads. Oh, my dad’s the greatest dad in the world, I love him, couldn’t have wanted any other dad. Just the fact that there can be so many different people and personalities who are perceived by their children as perfect in some sense is an amazing thing in and of it itself. At any rate, to think that’s what is going on in Egypt, when people are, and obviously—well, not obviously—I don’t feel I overtly write political poetry and I have no interest in really directing people’s ideas. I don’t know what I’m trying to say. There is this awful world out there and here in America we are awfully sealed off from it, and it’s awfully nice to have the luxury to love my kids as much as I do, and to write poems, and to sit around, and to have days off school. When, meanwhile, other people in the world are losing their children, losing their lives. I know this is an obvious point, that anyone who is reasonably aware of the world recognizes how fucked up it is, and should recognize, I hope, that if you’re living in a place where there aren’t tanks going down the street, and there aren’t people dying, and you can go to the grocery store and get food and all of that stuff, it’s pretty good.

TT: The poem, at the fundamental level of the title, the poem could be simply be, Good golly, I love my kids. OK, that would be fine, the sentiment would be true, but to call it “The Egyptian Revolution of 2011,” I think, brings in that tension of how lucky it is to be able to say, I love my kids and not have a tank coming down the street or not have somebody shooting at you. It’s a tension we take for granted.

PD: And then this just also reminds me of something else I tell students, and this is what you are saying—not necessarily craft things—but it’s amazing how much a title can flip a poem. And, like you were saying, it could have been called, “Loving My Kids.” And that’s what a lot of what my relatively young writing students want to do. They write a poem about seeing their reflection in the mirror and then they title it “Mirrors” or “Reflections.” Meanwhile, just think of how you could flip a poem like that—you could just name it “Burt Reynolds Looks Into the River.” You can turn it into something completely different—“Satan Talks to God.” No one would know necessarily what that would means, but it would be a beautiful way of adding something to the poem.

TT: If the poem is titled, “You Are Looking At the Mirror,” and the poem is titled “Reflection,” you’ve got nothing parallel there, the title is right there with the poem, announcing it in a bullhorn. If you call it “Burt Reynolds Looks Into the River,” and if it begins, not that it should begin that way, but if it begins, “I just love my kids”—I’ll want to read what follows. I want us to get to another excerpt from the book shortly, but I can’t let an interview with you go without talking about how damn funny your poems are. And they’re not just funny, they’re loopy—and I mean this as a high compliment. I know that this isn’t the most common stereotype for what a poem can do, make you laugh. It might not have been how we were taught by our instructors when we were in college. I’m wondering if you could talk about how or what drew you to this kind of poem. When you were in graduate school were you, like, OK, I want to go in this direction, or did that direction just kind of sneak up on you and find you?

PD: I do think that most of us aren’t taught poetry in terms of humor. This is something I’ve at least thought before. Where we’re taught poems can have comical moments in them or they can be witty, that they can do these things, but they’ve always got to work back—this is the way we’ve been taught or I’ve been taught—they always have to work back down to something serious or profound in the end. To have a poem that actually ends with laughter was not something that was considered. I didn’t really consider it, either. For me, a really freeing experience with poetry was discovering Russell Edson. If you show somebody some Russell Edson poems, somebody who has some “conventional” conception of poetry, and you tell them, this is poetry too, I think that—for most people, if they take that seriously, if they understand—their concept of poetry has been broadened a shitload and just with one poet. He obviously breaks the conventional rules of rhyme and blah-blah-blah by being a prose poet, but then also the steps of logic that you make are so freeing in his poems.

TT: And unpredictable. You know, in his work, it’s like I’m on a highway and I’m suddenly off on an exit that was never really there in the first place—and it’s a bizarre exit, and the trees are a different color, and there are animals I’ve never heard of in the trees, and there is no other exit I’d want to be on by the end of the poem.

PD: What’s interesting about it, at least for me, thinking like that, going off on exits that aren’t there, and so forth, is really easy to do. And I think it is really easy to do for most people.

TT: I do it all the time.

PD: They just haven’t considered that that can be part of poetry, or that that is a legitimate artistic experience that can be as fulfilling as any other legitimate artistic experience. Again, when I show students Russell Edson poems, their reaction is usually along the lines of, What the fuck. And just the night before last, when I was reading at the Dollhouse Series [in Chicago], someone said that to me. And that is always the best feeling, when somebody just says, What are you doing, what is that? I like that. That’s something that is important to me because I think that, ultimately, for me, I want to be expanding something—I want to expand what other people’s perception of poetry is so that they will let me—and other things of that nature, like Edson—fit in.

TT: And that’s the thing, if we are constantly trying to do something new with our work and be fresh and original, the What the fuck response is actually a pretty great thing to hear. If the language in a poem is something I’m familiar with, I’m not going to say What the fuck—I’ll just say, Oh yeah, this is “comic,” and this is “witty.” But then there is the What the fuck that really means, This is fucking hilarious and it’s a great poem. That’s not like what I would imagine a poem to be. What a great thing to hear!

PD: Quite awhile ago, a few years ago, I read somewhere, and—I forget how I stumbled across it—I was googling myself, and someone had put this post up that wasn’t meant to be flattering. It was just, Then this guy got up and he was reading about mustaches and 90210 and I don’t know what he was even talking about. I just felt like, wow, that is great. And I wrote that I’m so glad that you had this experience and this person wrote another blog post—apparently, he believes this a compliment—and I was like, I really do consider it a compliment. Thank you so much.

TT: Just that whole mistaken impression of, This crazy poet thinks I complimented him—it brings us full circle, which I wasn’t trying to do at all, to what we were talking about at the start of the interview. Unless you are making Hollywood blockbusters or Grammy-award-winning music, this sort of artistic life we choose is a life where you’re going to have these amazing communications with audiences that are really intense—that fantastic What the fuck moment—and then lots of miscommunications like, This guy thinks I’m complimenting him. I’d rather have that than have everyone say I sound like everybody else they know.

PD: Just to make a quick distinction, too. There are various ways to be nonsensical to people or to confuse people. You could get up on stage and sort of shout random words; you could shout gravy, turnbuckle, biscuit, leaf, you know, etc. You could do that and people would walk away saying, “I don’t get it, I don’t understand,” but that’s a different type of non-understanding than when you can follow the words and follow the ideas, but they haven’t added up the way they were supposed to. When it’s over you’re like, now I don’t know what I was just experiencing.

TT: You’re talking about those moments when you read a poem or hear a poem, and you know you are hearing a made thing, you know you’re hearing a crafted thing, and it’s like there is architecture to it, and you’re inside the architecture. It’s just that the logic, and the thinking, and the feeling behind it is quirky and strange—you end up in a place you didn’t know what to expect. That’s a What the fuck moment. It’s not just a throwing-random-words-around moment.

PD: And there is nothing wrong with that confusing moment either, per se, but it’s a different type of confusion when you feel like you should be able to get it, but you don’t. You feel—there is no reason—there are regular sentences, you know Russell Edson uses regular sort of sentence constructions, and why shouldn’t this sort of add up. I don’t know what Russell Edson’s reputation truly is in the literary world, it’s hard to say. But I certainly find him to be a really important poet, and since he recently passed away, it’s worth mentioning how good he is at being surprising and making stuff that is, to me, really important stuff.

TT: In almost every conversation with another poet about strangeness, surprise, and humor, he comes up. He’s sort of like an archetype for us. Well, let’s hear another poem.

PD: I’ll read this poem called “Emily Dickinson” and obviously, as I like to say, she was a famous American poet, but this is called Emily Dickinson.

She’s all like, “I like writing” and
“I’m good at it.” She’s, like,
“I like white and looking out
of windows,” and, like, “I like
baking bread and the Bible,” and, like,
“I like my alone time.”
She’s like, “It’s cool.”
They’re like, “I don’t know if it’s cool.”
She’s like, “It is.”
They’re like, “You’re weird.”
And she’s like, “No, I’m not. Maybe
you’re weird.”
And they’re like, “No, you’re weird.”
And she’s like, “Am not.”
And they’re like, “Are too.”
And she’s like, “nah-uh.”
And they’re like, “uh-huh.”
And she’s like “Whatever!”
And “Talk to the hand!” And
“Whatever.” And
they’re like “Whatever.”
And she’s like, “Whatever.”

Peter Davis writes, draws, and makes music in Muncie, Indiana. His books of poetry are TINA (Bloof Books, 2013), Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! (Bloof Books, 2010), and Hitler’s Mustache (Barnwood Press, 2006).  He edited Poet’s Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art (2005) and co-edited a second volume, Poet’s Bookshelf II (2008).  His poems have appeared in such places as Jacket, La Petite Zine, Court Green, Rattle, and The Best American Poetry.