DOGBYTES Interview: Teri Ellen Cross Davis

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Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of Haint (Gival Press, 2017), winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry.  She has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, the Soul Mountain Writer’s Retreat, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is on the Advisory Council of Split This Rock (a biennial poetry festival in Washington DC), a semi-finalist judge for the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Out Loud and a member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. Her work has been published in many anthologies including: Bum Rush The Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, Growing Up Girl, Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC, Check the Rhyme: An Anthology of Female Poets & Emcees, The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks and Not Without Our Laughter: poems of joy, humor, and sexualityCome hear Teri Cross Davis and Melissa Castillo Planas as they read work and engage in a conversation on craft and anthologizing Black poets for our Poets on Craft Series, February 26, 2019, 6:30pm at The New School.

Can you describe some of the biggest challenges you faced while writing your debut poetry collection Haint? Can you speak further to how you navigated those challenges?

For me, time to write was one of my biggest challenges. I work full-time, am married, and have two children. In the later stages of writing Haint I was gifted with time at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown. Those weeks away were really instrumental in allowing me time to polish the poems which eventually finalized the book. Having a writers group that I have been in for about a decade also kept me beholden to writing and producing on a regular basis.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

I am diving deep into black culture and contemporary black history by talking with and recording my elders. As I dive deeper into my family’s background, I also find myself thinking deeply about the language I grew up hearing, the phrases and their origins–I find these stories deeply compelling and am beginning to understand how that language and the code-shifting that came with it, shaped me and my understanding of the world and my pathways in it.

What topics of research or influences are informing your current writing?  

I love myths from many different cultures and I am thinking a lot about who we deify and why. I am seeing the influence of nature in my work. Over the past decade, I have thrown myself into gardening. From composting to researching flowers for all seasons, I appreciate the opportunity to take off my gloves and dig in the dirt, and make living things thrive. I find surrounding myself with growth to be a positive thing. And thus, I cannot be aware of the premature buds of daffodils in January without writing about them.

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

I spend time with my family–from introducing new books and films to my children, ages 10 and 8, to playing and talking with them. My husband and I work, and while our children have chores, with four social schedules, two growing bodies, and two bodies in constant need of rest, it is hard work keeping up with the house and its demands, inside and out. I am also trying regain my fluency in Spanish.

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

Oh, if we are not talking poetry, it is between Circe by Madeline Miller or The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, but even as I write that I would be remiss for not mentioning reading N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy and the joy and escape it bought to me. If we are talking poetry, I have started many books but not finished them, but three that I read from start to finish and really enjoyed were Madwoman by Shara McCallum, Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing by Charif Shanahan, and So Far So Good by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Name something you tried recently for the first time?

Last year I wrote and read my first lyric essay. I find it an interesting and welcoming challenge, combining the condensed clarity of poetry with the fluid strength of prose.

You are a poet, who serves on the Advisory Council of Split This Rock, a Poetry Coordinator at Folger Shakespeare Library and a member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. Through these collaborations how, if at all, have you witnessed the ability for poetry to shift culture and our political landscape?

I have seen a rise in the diversity of voices within poetry–from disability poetics, to Latinx, to a wider variety of Asian voices, to more LGBTQI+ voices– and that rise is shifting the culture in that more people see themselves in, and are validated by, poetry now, more than ever. I see people who are not afraid of writing their truth, which is a glorious thing to me, and I see that truth energizing people and aiding them in making emotional connections to the work and to others. I see people attending more poetry events and responding to the work in a way that makes me feel as if poetry is on a really good track and is allowing these readers a moment to pause and contemplate the stillness and themselves in it.

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

Read–this one I cannot stress enough–read people outside your groups, outside your life experiences, read people from a different era. Second, do not inhibit yourself on the page–I think being vulnerable is where a lot of good work can happen. In this way, I often think of something Audre Lorde suggests/asks of writers: to find the words you are afraid to write or say. And last, revision is your best friend. Writing the poem is one step, but revision is where the real work begins.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

It changes, sometimes it is a sense of wonderment at small things in the world. Right now it is the righteous indignation of children. When a child sees something unjust, their fury to make it right is inspiring to see as it sometimes gives rise to action or at least emotional and intellectual growth.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I was at Cave Canem in 1999, 2001, and 2003. I had the experience of being at Esopus, Cranbrook, and Greensburg. I absolutely loved Esopus, the reverence of being at a monastery, the first time being accepted as black and as a poet, the friendships that were born there. Each retreat has gifted me with more friendships and experiences. At the last one in Greensburg, my husband, poet Hayes Davis was a working scholar, so we finally had a chance to be at Cave Canem together (he attended 1996-1998, so we never overlapped).