Todd Davis teaches creative writing, environmental studies, and American literature at Penn State University’s Altoona College. His poems have won the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and have appeared in such journals and magazines as Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The North American Review, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, The Gettysburg Review, and Image. He is the author of three books of poetry—Ripe (Bottom Dog Press, 2002), Some Heaven (Michigan State University Press, 2007), and The Least of These (Michigan State University Press, 2010)—as well as co-editor of the anthology, Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (State University of New York Press, 2010). His chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems is just out from Seven Kitchens Press. Garrison Keillor has featured Davis’ poems on The Writer’s Almanac, and Ted Kooser has selected his poems twice to appear in his American Life in Poetry column. In addition to his creative work, Davis is the author or editor of six scholarly books, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Crusade, or How a Postmodern Harlequin Preached a New Kind of Humanism (State University of New York Press, 2006) and Postmodern Humanism in Contemporary Literature and Culture: Reconciling the Void (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
They tell the son, who tells his friends
at school, that the father’s death was
an accident, that the rifle went off
while he was cleaning it. I’m not sure
why he couldn’t wait. We understand
the ones who decide to leave us in February,
even as late as March. Snows swell.
Sun disappears. Hunting season ends.
With two deer in the freezer any family
can survive. I know sometimes
it feels like you’ve come to the end
of something. Sometimes you just want
to sit down beneath a hemlock and never go
back. But this late in the year, when plum
trees have opened their blossoms?
Yesterday it was so warm we slept
with the windows open. Smell of forsythia
right there in the room. I swear
you could hear the last few open,
silk petals come undone, a soft sound
like a pad sliding through a gun’s barrel,
white cloth soaked in bore cleaner,
removing the lead, the copper, the carbon
that fouls everything. My son knows
you don’t die cleaning your rifle:
the chamber’s always open.
I told him to nod his head anyway
when his friend tells the story,
to say yes as many times as it takes,
to never forget the smell of smoke
and concrete, the little bit of light
one bulb gives off in a basement
with no windows.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
This poem was written in spring 2006 when my oldest son Noah was in the 6th grade. One evening at dinner, as the family talked about what had happened during the day, Noah said that a classmate’s father had died over the weekend while cleaning his gun. Needless to say, Noah was upset and visibly confused. My wife Shelly and I knew immediately that the story our son was telling was the way the classmate and his family were trying to cope with what had happened. What made it that much more devastating was the fact that suicide ran in that family. This wasn’t the first time such violence had visited this young boy. What to do? This poem was born out of sorrow and out of the conundrum of how to help my son enter such a world where fathers die by their own hands. I only hoped my poem could help Noah see some way to stand by his classmate, to show some kind of mercy.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Revision, revision, revision. It seems that’s all writing is until you send the poem out into the world. Of course, when it comes flying back to you—whether published or not—there still may be some adjustments to make later. Usually when I draft a poem I stay at it for at least a few hours. Then for the next three or four days I keep checking up on the temperature of the poem. What this means is that the poem undergoes some form of revision—often minor adjustments, like line breaks or single word replacements, but occasionally major rearrangements occur, too. I don’t remember exactly with this poem, but I’d hazard a guess that it went through at least twelve to fifteen “revisions.” (I put “revisions” in quotation marks because with this poem it was minor tinkering.)
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Hmm. . . . inspiration. Yes, I suppose I believe in inspiration, but not in the way many people think of it. No big lightning bolts. No beatific rays of sunlight pouring over my head and giving me a poem outright. I believe inspiration is the blessed act of breathing in the world, of never allowing our senses to be dulled, of being attentive and awe-struck by the radical nature of our very existence. I suppose I’m affected by Emerson’s “ever-present now,” by the Buddhist practice of being fully present to the moment—living moment to moment—and by the Christian idea of the incarnation, the sensual world that blesses our being daily.
With that in mind, yes, occasionally as a result of trying to see the world in this way—which, like all humans, I fail at continuously—a poem seems to come to me virtually complete, as if received from some muse on high.
This poem was a mixture of the proverbial sweat and tears you mention in your question and the more mystical inspiration of the spiritual and writerly practice of attentiveness.
When Noah told me about his friend, after we talked a while and I put him to bed, I went to my desk and wrote this poem in its entirety. While there was revision, I know it was not extensive. The poem was essentially my way of trying to tell Noah how he might respond to his friend the next day, how to help protect him from the other kids who might say that it was bullshit, that no one died cleaning their rifle. Central Pennsylvania is a hunting culture, and like most anywhere kids can be cruel and clueless. So the poem is about how to show mercy, how to live mercifully.
I read Noah the poem the next day before he headed to school. I told him that in this case, even if he didn’t believe the story, the right thing to do was to say, “yes.”
I suppose I should also say that inspiration, at least for me, is tied up in empathy. I remember as I composed this poem that I closed my eyes and entered—if only through the imagination—the world of this father who felt he had come to the end of something. The final images in the poem come from that kind of meditative act, that desire to crossover into another. What the poem’s final lines chronicle is both reportage of what the first person who would discover the body had to confront and a warning to myself and to the reader as to what it means to consider such an act, its consequences in the material world: the concrete blocks lining the basement walls, the single light bulb hanging from the unfinished ceiling, the smoke that hangs in the air after a rifle’s discharge.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Many of my poems utilize more formal structures than “Accident.” With this poem I felt stanza breaks, for example, would be at cross-purposes with the narrative thread in the poem, with the associational leaps I was asking the reader to make. The poem’s final form, then, is meant to push the reader through the poem, to leave us asking for mercy, praying for mercy, because we must remember that basement, that smoke, the light of that single bulb. I wanted some of the associational work to be done in tight proximity to what came before and what came after. My hope in doing so was to create a feeling of controlled confusion, of distress linked to stoicism.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I believe I sent it out fairly quickly. I wrote the poem in the spring, early April as the blossoms in the poem attest to. Because most magazines and journals stop reading in May, I waited until September and sent it out with several other submissions.
As you know, often you can wait for six months or more to simply receive a copy of a copy of a rejection slip. In this case, I was fortunate; the poem was fortunate. It landed in the hands of an editor at the right time. I received an acceptance from Indiana Review about two months later. So in this case—a true rarity in my experience—the poem was in print about a year after I wrote it.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I suppose I don’t have any set or fast rule. I need to believe the poem is working on at least two levels before I send it out. These levels have to do with the aesthetic and the content the poem must carry within that aesthetic. When I think a poem has done this, I get it in the mail. If that’s two weeks after I draft it, so be it. If that’s a year after I draft it, that’s okay, too. I’d imagine I’m not alone in making the mistake of getting a poem in the mail too soon, however. But when poems come back to me I try to have a forty-eight hour rule. I read them carefully a few times. If they still seem to be working, they must be back in the mail within forty-eight hours. After all, part of the trick of getting a poem into the broader world through publishing is to make sure it’s in circulation with editors. When you think of the astronomical odds of getting a poem published in some journals, then you realize, like a major league batter, you have to see a lot of pitches before you get your bat on a ball.
And this leads me to one of my mantras: I do not write for publication. I do not write for publication.
Why must I remind myself of this? Because publication can be seductive. It can suggest there’s no meaning in writing unless the work is published. (And we can even play the game of pedigree. How certain journals imbue our writing with even greater value.)
Of course, I do like to share my poems with the broader world; that’s why I send them out to editors. But if that were the end-all and be-all of writing, well, I’d have to stop pretty fast because rejection is the norm. I’m incredibly thankful to the editors at journals who have published my work, but the act of writing, the act of creation itself, has to be the reward. (The other path seems rather sadistic to me.)
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
In my practice, I would say poetry is closer to fiction than to nonfiction. I’m more than willing to make up, to imagine into being, certain elements that will make the poem, as an art object, work. Despite my normal practice, however, this poem relies heavily on fact. Reading back over it, there really is nothing that I’ve made up. Of course, we could get into a philosophical discussion about the matter of my perception, of my choice of framing, what gets left in and what gets left out, and how such decisions are a way of making a fiction about a factual experience that none of us can ever apprehend without these very tools. But let’s keep it simple. This poem relies heavily on whatever reportorial skills I have.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes. But it is more than a single narrative. As you can see there are several narratives occurring at once—the son who tells his friends his family’s story about his father’s death; the implied narrative of a man who has committed suicide; the narrative of the speaker who struggles to understand how this man, this father, could have taken his own life; and the narrative of the speaker in the poem trying to find some way to help his own son, as well as the son of the man who has committed suicide.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I don’t remember exactly who I was reading at the time I wrote this poem, but I can offer some pretty good guesses because there is a core group of poets whose work I return to again and again. (And when I say again and again, I mean I read a poem by these folks at least once a week.) It’s a fairly long list, and like most writers I fear I’ve left someone off, but I’ll give it a shot: Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Mary Oliver, Jane Hirshfield. Philip Levine, Stephen Dunn, Charles Wright, Eric Pankey, James Dickey, Wendell Berry, Jack Ridl, David Shumate, Jane Kenyon, Robert Bly, Nancy Willard, Richard Jones, Mary Rose O’Reilley, Mary Swander, Brian Turner, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Julia Kasdorf, Keith Ratzlaff, Jeff Gundy, Sherman Alexie, Dan Gerber, Jim Harrison, William Heyen, Ted Kooser, Greg Rappleye, Maurice Manning, Jim Daniels, Linda Pastan, and William Stafford. There are, of course, so many other writers I read and love, but these writers I’ve named—and I know it’s quite a list in response to your question—really are spiritual and artistic guides, a family or community to which I write back. Some new writers who didn’t have books out at the time but whose poetry now works as a “triggering town,” as Richard Hugo would have it, are K.A. Hays, Chris Dombrowski, and Paula Bohince.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
My ideal reader is someone generous enough to take the time to read a poem I’ve written. Seriously. But in practice my ideal readers are my first readers. Up until his death this past July, my father either heard over the phone or received via post the early drafts of my poems. My mother, too, gives me a caring ear and listens to my poems. My wife Shelly and my two boys hear what I’m working on at the table over supper. Am I blessed or what?! My family suffers me kindly.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes, and I’m not sure where I’d be without them. Here are the saints who bear my poetry up, offering either encouragement or critique or both: Jack Ridl, David Shumate, Mary Linton, William Heyen, Mary Rose O’Reilley, Dan Gerber, Chris Dombrowski, and K.A. Hays.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I really see my work as all of a piece. I try very hard not to have boundaries or divisions between my physical body, my spiritual practice, my professional work, my writing, etc… I’m sure some divisions or boundaries creep in, but I suppose I’m a disciple of William Stafford. I try to write daily—(I don’t get up quite as early as he did!)—and I’m in love with the process of writing, the act of creation. So this was the poem I needed to write, I had to write, on the day it was written. The practice of poem-making is part of the fabric of my daily living. So everything I do is research. I’m pretty curious about most things, and I see some of the work of poetry as a way of documenting what the world has blessed me with in a given moment.
What is American about this poem?
I suppose it's “American” because of its setting, its cultural context. But I think of all poems as part of the book of poetry. Some poems are forgotten, some are resurrected by critics or publishers or other poets and artists. No one knows what poem will continue to exist even ten years from now, but I do believe the best poems transcend their temporal and cultural boundaries. For example, many of the classical Chinese poets—Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Po Chü-i —speak to me, as if they were the farmer who lives down the road.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I don’t believe in the perfect poem. That’s not to say that I don’t try to polish and polish my work. We spoke earlier of revision. Even after a poem of mine is published in a journal it often goes through another revision or two before entering a book manuscript and being published in that context. So: all poems are finally abandoned. But just like the creators of poems—all of us imperfect, all of us fallible—the poems themselves are all the more beautiful and valuable to me for their imperfections.