DOGBYTES Interview: Marissa Davis

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Marissa Davis is a poet and translator from Paducah, Kentucky, currently residing in Brooklyn, New York. Her original poems have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Rattle, The Iowa Review, Sundog Lit, Raconteur and Peach Mag, among other journals; her translations are forthcoming in Ezra and Mid-American Review. She received a BA from Vanderbilt University and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at New York University as a Rona Jaffe fellow, where she also serves as an assistant translations editor for Washington Square Review. Selected by Danez Smith as the winner of the 2019 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize, My Name & Other Languages I Am Learning How to Speak, is her first chapbook, of which Smith says, “exist brightly in the canon of Black femme poets and points to unfathomably bright future for the canon.”

What did you enjoy most about the journey of writing your prize-winning chapbook, My Name & Other Languages I Am Learning How to Speak? What was a challenge you faced and what did that challenge teach you? 

Ordering the poems was both the joy and the challenge for me. The process of gathering the poems themselves was relatively straightforward; they were written over a three-year span (from my last year of undergrad and the following two abroad years), but I had already done a lot of the work of compiling, revising, and searching for common threads while applying to MFA programs last winter. But at that point I’d written a set of poems, not a book. Making a book involved palpating connections: examining things like how to give the right amount of thematic variation as poem gave way to poem, and how to find the proper space for works whose themes were not echoed as loudly elsewhere but whose connection to those elsewhere still needed to be felt. But mostly, I had to learn how to view the poetry as one would view a mosaic or a work of pointillism: stepping back, viewing all of these disparate pieces as a unified whole, what image did I want it to proclaim? What story was it spinning? There were narrative and emotional foundations the early poems had to provide for the rest to find their proper voices; there were stakes to be laid, struggles to be worked through, learning to be done. And with so many moving parts, every shift in a poem would create a different sensation, a different tension, even a different story in the whole. Of those stories, there were certainly some that felt more honest than the rest, but also several that were honest. Understanding those distinctions enough to decide between them became an act of self-searching as much as an act of craft.

I think the greatest challenge, though, was figuring out how to end it (and I’ll add: if I found that end, it’s thanks to the readings/advice of several wonderful friends).  I didn’t want the book to tie up too neatly, everything finishing in sunshine and butterflies and riding a palomino into the sunset. It wouldn’t have been realistic and it wouldn’t have been true. I wanted an end that still allowed room for continued struggle as much as it promised survival and a certain acquiring of wisdom—but that also didn’t let struggle squash everything down into a trapped-ness negating what’s been earned. There had to be honesty but also a way out. I sought an end that would allow the process of writing to be understood as what it often is for me: a kind of questing, sometimes knowing and sometimes not knowing for what; a kind of sniffing towards the smell of heat until I can sense the light that makes it.

Thinking about your international experiences in France, as well as being a poet from Kentucky and now living in NYC, how is geography important to the role that language—or languages—plays in your chapbook? 

Being so far from home gave me a totally different appreciation for not only what language can mean, but also what my language means to me. I don’t think I realized until leaving how much shame I carried with me about the way I talked. I have a Southern accent, mostly of the western Kentucky variant with a hint of my parents’ Appalachian—it isn’t super strong, but it’s certainly present. For college, I found myself on scholarship to a rather wealthy, WASPy institution; feeling myself, at a very self-conscious 17, to be not just the strange dark-skinned girl among them, but the dark-skinned country bumpkin on top of it. So I scraped what accent I had until the scraping became something natural to me. In France, speaking mostly French, I noticed myself gradually, accidentally, reverting to my homegrown default whenever I did speak English (my best friend and coworker, a Californian who had studied linguistics, had a lot of fun pointing out and analyzing the re-appearance of my modes of speech that were so foreign to him). But I didn’t veer from it this time. Homesickness was teaching me to love, even yearn for, that speech. Hearing tourists in Paris who were clearly from the American South—and that tongue reminding me more and more of wild-blooming things, of goldhard summer sunlight, of whatever made my old there distinct from that here—stirred such an unexpected and physical kind of longing in me. Same for hearing Black American people. Same, oddly enough, for hearing Black French people and sometimes catching similarities in intonation, in the speech’s particular music, and thinking: my god, is this truly something we (of the diaspora) have kept with us all these centuries? I started to think of language as a kind of home, and a home we can carry with us, and a home that we give to our children, and a home that we offer to each other.

On the other end, though, is the complete and utter joy I feel for operating in a second language. I lived in a foreign language immersion dorm for three years in college, then I spent two years in France—so for five years straight, I was somehow lucky enough to sneak French into my daily life. I think that time and study led to a certain obsession with meaning and music that found its way into many poems in this chapbook: how some words can’t be translated at all, or at best only approximated; how the same word-idea can carry different nuances in different languages; what a word’s music has to do with this phenomenon; how that music resonates in us subconsciously; how a word can have so many subterranean meanings churning under the ones we most closely associate. And the near-mystical—or perhaps alchemical—nature of language’s multiplicity. And paradox as one of language’s instincts. And, word to word or sentence to sentence, wondering what could be the ghostly soulshape of what Walter Benjamin calls “pure language,” as the power of meaning-making shifts from the writing me to the reading you.

There are studies showing that people feel they can more easily express emotionally complex matters in a foreign language than their native tongue, apparently because the words don’t carry the same ingrained emotional associations. I like to muse on what this means for poetry. Can one think of poetry—its novel combinations of words, its novel images, its novel shapes, its slant-telling, to take from Dickinson—as a way of making language foreign to ourselves (for protection, for vulnerability, to allow space for an otherwise disallowed unlocking)? And can (or even must?) that act of foreigning invert itself in its own process, building a language so deeply one’s own that it becomes individually native—ours so ours but still transferable, legible, connectable by virtue of its semantic foundations?

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector. I’m continually floored by the language’s density and tension and hunger and bloodiness and daisiness and dizziness and questioning and questing and roiling serpentine light-wrenched duende. I feel like this book exists as a monument to the word, if a monument were a fluid, evolving, ungraspable thing—and so I suppose not a monument at all, except perhaps in the sense that one could call a holy book a monument in that though the nature of its lyric is openness it is also weight. The word, here, is “God.” There’s not really a narrative, and whatever narratives briefly arise are also fluid (living water is the book’s alternate title for a reason). The language exists for the language’s own sake and as a reader I have to learn to allow it to exist as such. Almost as with a work of abstract expressionism—unsurprising that Lispector herself was a painter—I have to throw in quite a bit of myself in order to be admitted into the garden the author is planting: but in a way that feels clarifying, even spiritual. The water washes. Agua Viva’s tools are feeling, structure, rhythm, a cosmic-reaching interiority; its expression is at once spontaneous and almost anciently precise. I feel like every paragraph teaches me something new about the possibilities of language and what language can form and be and hold.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

This is a rather small odd thing, but last week, I tried making flourless brownies for the first time. I used a base of canned chickpeas, which I’ve done with chocolate chip cookies before but always closely following a recipe. For these, I couldn’t really use the cookie recipe as a base because I wanted the peanut butter flavor to be as minimal as possible (which the original relies heavily on for hold and texture)—so it ended up just being me throwing a bunch of random stuff together completely on intuition and seeing what happened. They somehow actually turned out very good? Despite the odds!

What have you learned from your experiences teaching elementary school in France that has had an impact on your writing? 

First, wonder. Just how excited some of the kids could be about learning a new English word, rolling it around their tongues, testing it out and testing it out and testing it out again, delighting so purely in the rhythm and feel, slipping it in a sentence just to marvel at what it means (or just that it means)—witnessing that really taught me a kind of gratefulness to every word I spoke and wrote. And can be a spell. And the. No word is too small for melody nor too simple to be significant. Alongside that, I think the kids helped me feel more comfortable making language mine. As in: the students’ errors were often repeated, and they were repeated because error can have meaning, and error can have meaning because non-word becomes word the moment the child internally wills it to be (or is convinced it is, despite my blackboard warring) a word. I had a 2nd grade girl that, no matter how many times I told her to call me “teacher,” would always call me “teachers.” I corrected her every time; I explained plurals and singulars and the silent s in French plurals whereas in English such a singular simply has no s at all—it didn’t matter, all year long I was “teachers.” But I think that kind of unintentional stubbornness also helped me allow myself to not always think of language as such a proper, structured, sacred thing. I started giving myself more permission to wordsmash, lean into neologisms, break words partway through, etc. A thing could mean a thing quite simply because I wanted it to mean it. The only real limit is being understood.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or visual art.

Nature; southern landscape in particular. I say I grew up in a town called Paducah, but technically my childhood home is out in the country—which is to say: I grew up around a lot of land, meaning also that I grew up with an acute understanding of the earth’s goddishness. On one hand, it surrounded me with astonishing beauty. On the other hand, I was a rather paranoid little child raised on a fault line, in tornado country, in a river valley not wholly impervious to flood, and destruction on some scale felt not just possible, but impending. Maybe goddishness isn’t even the right word: with gods, destruction is a matter of want—and want can be prayed to, want could be held in abeyance. Nature destroyed because of need, or hunger, or whatever rhythms of its own creation churned either skyward or deep in it that it listened to because it had to, because one thing is connected to everything else and that’s just the way of it.

But at the same time: recognizing myself as subject to that untenability—that power—also meant recognizing myself as somehow part of it and made of it. Certainly shaped by it. Whatever connection I had to the animal or organic meant that I possessed its wild dignity too. I didn’t always feel such a dignity afforded to me in a sociocultural sense, but in this space I could feel it as it was: something innate, solid in me as one of my own organs.

The reflections my native landscape inspired in me arise again and again as themes in my writing: terror, marvel, self-recognition, powerlessness, power, definition, cycle, desire, instinct, cosmic unity, darkness as shaper of the beautiful. Nature, influencing my poems’ themes, inevitably also influences my poems’ imagery and texture. I’m always striving towards the organic: in language, for a June-like lushness; in tone, for a rolling, arabesque-ing, breeze-in-treetops sort of elegance.

When you’re not reading, writing or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy and money?

In too many ways! I keep sometimes maybe a little too busy. I’m a language nerd (if you couldn’t tell) and so I’m slowly but surely working on learning Spanish. I’ve been sporadically taking belly dance classes since my senior year of college, but now that I’m in a city where they’re more readily accessible, I’m trying to restart again in earnest. I love baking, and in particular experimenting with wacky versions of classic recipes (the aforementioned chickpea brownies being a prime example). I apply for a lot of scholarships/work odd jobs to be able to afford to travel, when possible. RE: spending money more precisely, I’m a lover of inspired (and unfortunately often pretty pricey) cocktails. I’m lucky enough to have a lot of old friends now living in and around the city, as well as to have made many new friends since arriving, so I spend a lot of time going out for coffee or pizza and having potlucks and other get-togethers. I love singing—which I feel is maybe not altogether separate from my writing practice; I love poetry in part because of how it allows for such a direct and intense relationship to the music of words. I sang throughout much of my youth, then stopped in college, then missed it so much that last year I started in a really wonderful little jazz choir in Paris, and then joined an all-women/femme social-justice folk choir when I moved to New York until my class schedule prevented my attendance. But I still sing in the shower, I sing when I clean, I sing when I walk the dog, I sing anywhere and anytime I think I can get away with it without bothering anyone!

From your experience, what have you noticed are the biggest challenges to your ability to foster community through writing in Paris that differ from challenges faced in the U.S? 

I’ll speak mainly on Paris versus New York:

New York is just so big. It can be overwhelming. If I wanted to find a poetry community in Paris, I knew exactly where to go; I was familiar with two English-language weekly reading series and about three monthly ones where writers tended to gather. In New York it can sometimes be paralyzing just knowing where to start. There are so many options that even Google can’t really help. That largeness, though, is simultaneously really amazing—it’s wild here, going to readings sometimes and seeing every single seat being filled. I’ve never witnessed that anywhere else. There’s such an immense and thriving community of writers and lovers of writing in this city.

I’ll add that I’m also lucky in the sense that I came to NYC for an MFA program, so community was already kind of there. I’m grateful to have met so many wonderful poets in the program who have introduced me to so many other wonderful poets. Of course, in a certain way Paris was similar; I had a fiction-writer friend who introduced me to her poet friend who introduced me to her poet friend and then we three poets became a workshop/writing group, one whose fellowship was incredibly important to me. It remains true, though, that in Paris the amount of people writing in English is just by circumstance much smaller—which has its upsides but also its drawbacks when it comes to community-building.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

  1. Find what affirms you, and chase that—which I mean not only as writing advice, but also general wellbeing advice. It can be a person or community of people, it can be a song, it can be a book, it can be a beloved family recipe, it can be tending to a garden of your favorite plants—it really doesn’t matter. Search for it, find it, know it, follow it, carry it in your mental pocket as balm or worry-stone when you need it most. And if you want to write to it, write to it; if you want to split it open and examine its architecture, understand why it means what it means to you, and find a way to incorporate its lovely shape into the textual yours, do that, too.
  2. Seek your language. I think as Black people in particular our relationship to language can sometimes be complex: it is so communal for us, so bonding, but outside of certain spaces we can find it reviled or ridiculed. There can be such love and pride but also an external pressure of shame. We live in many languages; we code-switch for survival. I think our language, like our bodies, can sometimes be a beloved thing made distant from us. But the page is a place to overturn that; it’s where language is totally and completely yours to mold. You make the rules: you can twist it, turn it, build it, break it, build it back again in your own image. Plunge into that freedom; seek out what shapes your language, what gives it fire, and what it means to make your language yours.
  3. This one you’ll likely hear many times but it makes it no less true: read, read widely. Read widely generally, of course—but also read Black writers (and read Black writers who are American, and read Black writers who aren’t American…).  And if you find you aren’t having Black writers presented to you, don’t be afraid to seek them out yourself. It’s so important for us to see ourselves in each other; to have that community even across continents or decades. For one, I believe it’s important just as people, for remembering how to see oneself wholly, tenderly, joyously—but also, as an artist, to reflect on how those that came before you shaped their own keys to unlock whatever others tried to lock away from them, and from there to figure out what that keyshaping is for you.