Laura Davenport’s latest collection of poetry has been a long time in the making. In this blog post, she talks about the poets that helped her find her own voice.
It took me a long time to admit to being a southern writer and longer still to declare myself a feminist writer. I worried that defining myself would be limiting. In fact, it was not until gathering together the poems collected in Dear Vulcan that I was able to see how pronounced these two identities are in my work. I realized I am fascinated by the way the landscape of our childhood shapes us. And that embracing identity is at the heart of a compelling voice. I am drawn to writers who negotiate that interior terrain and so lyrically present it, mapping their personal mythologies or using location as a touchstone, a launch point, or a metaphor for universal experience.
In my own work (to echo the famous quote from Toni Morrison), I write the poems I want to read. Every poem I write must pose some new challenge for me. So, I reach to a wide range of influences to instruct me, to open doors. Great writers give me permission and challenge me to explore new territory, whether in subject matter, syntax, or voice. Even disagreeing with a writer or disliking his or her work can spark a new idea or inspire a rebuttal. After many revisions, the unique voice of the poem takes over, but the initial spark of influence may remain in some choice of word or line.
The books selected below were with me as I wrote many of the poems in Dear Vulcan, and each imparted a lesson I tried to emulate in my work: a confident, confiding voice; breadth of imagination; primacy of landscape; relationships; and everyday moments radiating meaning. The poets hail from places as distant as fascist Italy, turn-of-the-century Portugal, or California in the 1960s, but each draws his or her creativity from the deep well of personal memory and location. Each offered a different lesson to me as I worked to discover my own voice and obsessions.
I am also grateful to the poets David Wojahn and Greg Donovan, whose classes at Virginia Commonwealth University introduced me to so many of these influences.
Fernando Pessoa, considered one of the greatest poets of the Portuguese language, is most noted for his prolific output and use of pseudonyms, which he called “heteronyms,” with detailed biographies and different writing styles.
Like many other poets, I am drawn to Pessoa’s audacity, the reach of his imagination (imagine creating 75 alter egos!), and dexterous use of voice. Several poems in my collection—including “If, After I Die, They Want to Write My Biography” and “On Reading Pessoa”—were inspired directly by his poems. The first poem in the collection, “The Lisbon Typist,” resulted from my wondering about the real circumstances of his life and how one might handle a relationship with this multifaceted yet frustrated genius. Writing this poem exposed my larger concern with the way women’s experiences are underrepresented or discounted in favor of men’s experiences.
I keep my signed copy of Late Wife in a special place in my library. I was fortunate to study under Claudia Emerson for a few semesters while pursuing a master of fine arts at Virginia Commonwealth University. I chose to send my collection to LSU Press in part because of her wonderful books.
I return to the poems in Late Wife because I am fascinated by how a troubled marriage is depicted through mostly pure description. There’s a sort of plausible deniability I like—the speaker could claim to be just describing the scene as it is, and yet the choice of detail is its own commentary. I admire how Emerson selects images to make small moments ring with meaning. Most importantly, Emerson gives me permission to write about my experience. These poems are accessible yet grow more complex with close reading, which is something I hope I emulate in my work.
Cesare Pavese—winner of Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize and author of fiction, poetry, and translations—is widely regarded in his native Italy. He pioneered a direct, unadorned style that has greatly influenced many, and he often writes about his native city of Turin. I am drawn in by the landscape of Pavese’s Italy, yet I find no home there. The attitude toward women reflected in these poems is sometimes troubling. Finding myself in awe of his style while also frustrated by his seeming ignorance of half the world’s population was a formative experience for me. Contemplating this feeling of erasure led me to write the first of the “In the City without Women” series. The poem “Some Women Fling Open Their Shutters” takes its title from a line in Pavese’s poem “Tolerance.”
The influence of Larry Levis is the hardest for me to describe, because it seems as present and all-encompassing as the winter stars he describes in this collection. Levis achieves several things I aspire to: candor and vulnerability in relating the past, crisp visuals, and associative imagery that somehow makes narrative “sense.” I am in awe of his ability to draw on landscapes of childhood to depict a private mythology, his understated images, and voice that is confiding but not confessional. The logic of Levis’s poems feels intuitive, not constructed.
Although all my poems are influenced by Levis to some degree, “Sermon: New Orleans” in particular was written after reading Levis’s “Sensationalism” as I contemplated the idea of an unreliable narrator directly addressing the reader. (The similarity, after so many revisions, may only be apparent to me, but it’s there.)
In Dear Vulcan, Laura Davenport confronts the vexing possibilities of human intimacy, confessing, “The question is what keeps me coming back.” The crisp narrative style and confiding voice of these poems invite readers to consider the ways in which unspoken expectations shape identities and relationships. Located in settings that range from distinct places in the South, such as the Birmingham skyline or a Nashville liquor store, to the imagined landscape of “City without Women,” the poems in this scorching collection measure again and again the distance between men and women.
Laura Davenport’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2009, Crab Orchard Review, Meridian, New South, and elsewhere. She lives in Savannah, Georgia.