Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Amy Leigh Davis Confronting Desires & Truths

Interview with Amy Leigh Davis  -
Kansas City area poet & author of

 The Alter Ego of the Universe, Finishing Line Press, 2011

"Where does a person confront these things, these desires, these hidden truths, if not in a story or a song or a poem?" A.L.D.

MW: Amy Leigh Davis just published her first book of poetry with Finishing Line Press. She has attended the University of Missouri in Kansas City and was the recipient of the Crystal Field Scholarship for poetry. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Amy for several years now and she has graciously agreed to my interview about her work and book titled The Alter Ego of the Universe. 

Thanks Amy and congratulations on the publication. I imagine the publication has been pretty exciting, has it sunk in yet or are you still pinching yourself and trying to process everything?

ALD: Thank you. Getting published has invoked a plethora of emotions. For me, the feeling of excitement stems from a private feeling of fear that lies beneath the surface. Often I am torn between how I am expected to feel and how I really feel. I’ve still yet to put my finger on it, as they say.  I’ve had surprises come my way.  Dealing with a book contract and sales and promotions was not something that I dreamed of when I was sitting in my room, tapping beats and iambs on my desk, or journaling thoughts and images and trying to make a connection between the two. I’ve learned that by stepping into the realm of publishing I had to accept the possibility that I might fail.  But I am stubborn and know what I want. So, the same trust I put into my work, I put into the business of it. Also, I constantly had it in my mind that the editors at FLP accepted the manuscript for a reason. I am guessing that reason is that someone read my manuscript and thought, “Okay, this is worth our time and money.” 

MW: When I first read your book I was struck by a pervasive view of life itself throughout the pages. You deal with loss, disappointments, growing up… maybe a bit too fast. With motherhood, which may hearken back to growing up too fast. Was there anything in particular that you learned about yourself while writing this book and were there any cathartic elements to writing it?  

ALD: Good question. I mulled over the scope of the manuscript after I had completed several poems in which I was thoroughly pleased. I realized, in attempting to organize the book, that there were dominant themes that I certainly didn’t plan. I discovered things about myself not just as a writer, but as a person. I have a belief that there are indeed, two opposing forces that exist in the universe. I could never have perceived that about myself if I hadn’t written the manuscript. I didn’t want to be just a “good writer.” I wanted to express my experiences in a way that hadn’t been expressed (on a literary level) before.

As for the poems about motherhood, I felt this pressing urge to express the unexpected aversion a woman feels toward motherhood. There is this cliché that becoming a mother is the wonderful, delightful experience. For me, it was a life-alternating experience that came during a precarious time. I had been accepted at Columbia College in Chicago for the undergraduate Fiction Writing program, which I had been writing under the influence of for a couple years through a certain writer instructor. She and I developed this wonderful student-teacher bond that I am still moved by to this day, though we have grown apart. In March of 2006, we flew to Chicago to visit the college and meet some of the students and faculty.  I fell instantly in love with way the ground trembled when the El passed overhead. As we walked through the blustering, windy streets she gave me advice on how to live and survive on my own; “Keep moving, don’t make eye contact with strangers, whatever you do, don’t get attached to any one person, don’t get married, and don’t get pregnant.”    

So, that summer, I discovered I was pregnant. I had been communicating with a realtor in Chicago, because I didn’t want to stay in the dorms. So when I realized I was pregnant, I considered many options. I cried off and on. I became aware that whatever decision I made was going to affect the kind of person I was. I didn’t enjoy being pregnant until after it was over. In “Still Life” the speaker is pregnant and clearly feels trapped.  I didn’t (and still don’t) enjoy the aggravating issue that I will never again sleep like I did before my daughter was born; that blissful, blind sleep of youth. This kind of comes out in “Song for the Runaway Mother,” which is a poem that involves a mother who leaves her child in the night, yet still cannot escape or break that spiritual connection. Would I ever leave my own child? No, never. Do I regret having a child? No. She is a beautiful, clever creature whom I would die for.  But do I wonder about “what could have been?” Do I think, despite the good things that are present in my life, about that ultimate escape, that now forbidden dream? Absolutely. Where does a person confront these things, these desires, these hidden truths, if not in a story or a song or a poem?

MW:  One of the things that I especially liked about this book is how active it is, lots of movement in these poems; a variety of places and situations. Have you always lived in the Kansas City area or have you moved about when you were growing up? I’m just wondering how much influence areas outside of Kansas City contribute to your writing? 

ALD: My mom moved my brother and me to Kansas City in 1985 or 86.” But before that, our lives were constantly uprooted. My father devoted his life to the service. He was gone overseas often; he started his career in the Navy, and then became a Marine. We lived in government housing projects. It is interesting that people talk about “the projects,” but they don’t ever attribute this to military children, as my brother and I were. We live in North Carolina, Washington D.C. and Virginia. I mention these places in “Custom Shades” and “Dad.” What is interesting about these poems is that they were prompted by photographs by Homer Page. I felt an emotional cadence with these images, but I was having difficulty translating that into language. I found myself digging open wounds to bring color, movement and life into those black and white images. This was very risky, because I was making a connection between a street girl in New York in 1949 and myself. By the end of that poem, I imply that she and I are theoretically one and the same.  As for “Dad,” I completely invent a character and give that character some elements of my heart. Some people assume that this character is me, but that isn’t the case. For example, I’ve never sat on a bus in a strange city, I imagined that I was and imagined how that would make me feel, given certain circumstances.

Then there’s the poem “Revolution.” This developed out of a trip to Canada. Certain words are repeated, which mirrors the revolution of night and day. In this poem, there is constant movement. The world itself is constantly moving. You’d be surprised how much you notice about nature when you’re in the mountains without television or radio, or no deliberate access to human civilization.   

MW:  The Alter Ego of the Universe or title poem is kind of playful and fun. But there are some serious elements to this manuscript. You deal with loss and disappointments pretty straight forward. How did you happen to select this poem for the title?  Oh, and who is Big Dude? 

ALD:  It is playful. I’m glad you got the light-hearted tone, because I wrote the title poem as a joke. Sometimes the best things that are written originate from this odd sort of humor. As anyone with one ear can tell, this poem has a distinct rhythm, almost like a nursery rhyme ballad. But one thing that a ballad is good at doing is recounting a story because it makes the story easy to remember. So I revised the poem, keeping that playful rhythm, but then investing in a story. That story I chose to tell is an ancient one; a creation story. Creation stories often explore the nature of man. I used theories such as The Big Bang and Evolution to explain “The Alter Ego of the Universe.”

I chose this poem for the title because I noticed certain concepts like chaos, time and  opposing forces seem to be a theme that govern the life of many of the poems represented in the book.

Oh, and I have no definite answer as to who Big Dude is. I imagine he is what the deists would call “The Supreme Architect.” He is only concerned with the creation and equilibrium of natural forces and does not intervene with human affairs. This is the reason why the story/poem ends with the “the fish walk out of the sea.” At the poem’s conclusion, the Universe’s alter ego has taken over, so to speak.                                               

MW: Contractions is one of the poems I really love.  I suppose because, and as a male this is going to sound awkward but I think (emphasizing “think”) it has to be pretty spot on. I mean I am a father of four and I was in the delivery room for all of my children, so maybe you can cut me a little latitude on this.  It also seems so Plathian to me… another reason to like it.  But I digress… this is one of a couple of poems in your book that addresses motherhood. Song for the Runaway Mother is another… you are the mother of a beautiful little girl, how has motherhood impacted your writing?

ALD: A great deal. Motherhood has made me reinvest myself not only as a person, but as a writer. This might even be odd to say, but I might not have been as good of a writer had I gotten everything I wanted in the beginning. It is a good thing that I ended up living and working in Kansas City. Some people will make these proclamations about “how to write” or “how to become a writer.” I’m beginning to think its all crap and nobody has any idea what it takes or how one goes about becoming a writer. It is the work that matters and the life that creates it. Writing isn’t something you need a degree to do. There is no doubt that I benefited from attending creative writing courses locally. I benefited because it opened my eyes to the criticism involved and the objectivity that exists in the literary world. I learned a great deal about poetics and prose elements and forms. I learned how to critique my own work, which is how I work now. I write and revise, write and revise until I surprise myself or discover something that I didn’t expect to be there.  

MW: I’ve found not only in this book but over the years of exposure to your work that you are masterful with word combinations.  A great example, in the poem Honey you write, “The sound/orchestrates the thousands/like an angry violin. /The bloated queen/ is the demanding composer.”  I will forever think of angry violins when I see a swarm of bees. Do you have any favorite word combinations like this from your work?  Do you find these come to you with relative ease or do you have to work hard to cultivate them? 

ALD: This is hypersensitivity I think, which is common in contemporary poetry.  Plath or possibly even Wallace Stevens might be the gods of this. Sensory perceptions are amplified. Interestingly enough, working in form allows me to make connections between words that I wouldn’t ordinarily have made. Lately, with new work, I have found that I am at my best when making sense out of illogical assertions. 

MW: The cover art for your book is very eye catching and I feel like is must have been a really good fit for the title poem. Who designed it and how did this come about? 

ALD: Ala’n Clevenger. She is the wife of a friend and a friend of mine. I had seen her paintings and a statue of a woman that she made out of hardware. I admired the originality. Though I am not an artist, it seemed she had invented a genre all her own.

I thought of her work instantly after reviewing options for the cover art.

When I asked her if she would be interested in illustrating a cover piece, she said yes and asked to read the manuscript. We met and talked about some themes or elements that I thought were important, but really, I wanted her to have the freedom to interpret the collection in her own way. She painted three original pieces for the cover art.  In addition, I considered using the sculpture. (She calls it a “statue.”) She sent me sketches and samples, and each time I was shocked by her vision. I think it worked out well and it was a great collaboration.  

MW: What’s been the general reaction to the book so far? 

ALD: The feedback so far has been positive, which is surprising. Usually someone somewhere can always find something negative to say. And I know myself there are poems in collection that are stronger than others, but so far nobody has officially stepped forward to point out anything overtly negative.

I do want to share one particularly, special feedback I got because I feel it really captured the true essence of who I aspire to be as a writer.  This is from Ralph Acosta,

Well, to me it's more than just "She's a good writer." I've wondered a long time what "poetry" is, and reading yours I think that what it is to me is that ability to concisely encapsulate experience so that someone else can see it in a new way, or for the first time. It's as though you have the ability to take someone by the arm, and say "move over here, and let the light hit it just right, and you can see ... WOW! Yeah, I never noticed that before!" I guess there are all sorts of poetry, but it's this sort of ability to enhance someone else's experiential life, to allow them to see the world through your eyes in such a condensed way, that I most admire.

MW: Amy, you dedicated this book to the memory of your brother Denny Davis who passed away not long ago. I wanted to mention this because I sense he was a pretty big influence on you growing up.  

ALD: Yes, and oddly enough, the manuscript was accepted four months after he died at the age of 32. We were incredibly close. I still can’t put into words the experience of this loss. He still exists within me and always will. 

MW: So what is next?  Are you working on a second manuscript already?  What should we look for in the future from you? 

ALD: I will write forever, whether what I write gets published or not is a different story. I have some short stories (probably in the slush piles) for consideration at some literary journals. I have another unsimultaneous story at another magazine and hopefully it will get read. I have a few stories that need to be rewritten. And within the last month, I have worked on 6 or 7 poems. I have lots of work to do. In addition, I work 45-50 hours for a research company and I also have a 4-year old running around the house. Hopefully, out of the chaos of my life, something will fall into place. 

MW:  Thank you so much for indulging us with these questions.  It’s good to talk poetry with you… as always.  I’m going to close by giving you the last word.   Tell us who Amy Leigh Davis is in one word.
ALD: Oh that’s tough. Crazy? Ambitious? Probably Crazy.  

Editors Note:  This interview was conducted the week of September 25, 2011

2011 © Michael A. Wells

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