Jon Davis, Director of the Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Preliminary Report (Copper Canyon Press, 2010). Two chapbooks, Thelonious Sphere (Q Ave. Press) and With (a collaborative poem) (Firewheel Editions) were released in 2013. He is also co-translator of Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan's book Dayplaces, which is forthcoming from Tebot Bach. He has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Lannan Literary Award, a G.E. Younger Writers Award, and a Lavan Prize. He is currently the City of Santa Fe’s fourth Poet Laureate.
When the midnight phone rang,
my friend’s voice kept trying
to say the word hysterectomy, that
one-word melody with ancestors
stalking the madhouses of nineteenth-
century England. I was, of course,
moved, more by the simple
failure of elocution than the illness —
which was a factoid in a slick
magazine. Like learning that a giraffe
has seven neck bones, that a bat
will eat a ton of mosquitoes
in an average year. Hysterectomy.
Abstract as a memo from the President
of Nocturnal Congestion. The dishes
shifted in their dishwater nest. The refrigerator
hummed its cryogenic folksongs.
The budgerigar honked and chittered
in its night-shrouded cage. I wrapped
the phone cord around my finger
like a man wrapping a phone cord
around his finger. The voice
in the telephone. The voice in
the telephone. I kept hearing
appendectomy, lobotomy, laparoscopy.
The sadness soaking into the words
like hand cream. The words thick with it,
bloated. Seven neck bones. Imagine.
Like you. Like me. But the miraculous reach.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
This poem was composed around 1997. I don't remember too much about the actual composition, except that it began as a parody of a certain kind of poem of which I disapproved and thought too formulaic, too clever, too superficial. I had actually invented a persona, Chuck Calabreze, to compose such poems. (Though "invented" is too strong a word; Chuck shambled up the walkway one afternoon and offered his services.) "Giraffe" was composed, along with four similar poems, in one morning, in about an hour. I allotted myself (as Chuck) fifteen minutes for each poem. The poem started with the impulse to demonstrate how easy it is to write such poems, the formula for which is to enter into an associational state, indulge a kind of "household surrealism," and move quickly to an ending that seems both beside the point and to the point.
To my surprise, two of the poems I wrote in that hour eventually appeared in Preliminary Report. (For those keeping score, "Black Spaniel & Drunk Parents" is the other.) I kept coming back to "Giraffe" because of the surprise of the ending and the sounds of the lines, "The dishes/ shifted in their dishwater nest. The refrigerator/ hummed its cryogenic folksongs./ The budgerigar honked and chittered/ in its night-shrouded cage."
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I changed nothing. This is the first draft. I allowed myself fifteen minutes from typing the first line, to finishing it, to affixing the title.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Although I'm typically a reviser, I'm mainly a tweaker and a tightener, a line-breaker and a refiner -- not an overhauler. I believe absolutely in inspiration. I suppose if I thought there was a problem with American poetry it's that beginning poets believe too much in inspiration and experienced poets believe too little in it. This poem was entirely received. No sweat. No tears. No loss of bodily fluids at all. I think of Andre Breton speaking of surrealism: "The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him." And: "The ease of everything is priceless."
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The technique was all in the twenty years of practice prior to the poem's arrival. For me, craft is learned on the practice court. The poem is the game. You catch the ball on the wing and you know you can hit the jumper, drive left or right, hit the runner or take it to the rack, or make the quick pass to the cutter. If you've been practicing, all the options are there, the skills sharp. Of course, no matter how well prepared you are, you make bad decisions, bad passes, or--you're open, your form is solid, but you still clang the rack rim. In those cases, luckily, in the slow-moving game of poetry, you can revise--and I typically do. The small adjustments usually continue for two or three years.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
The fact that it began as parody and turned out to be a real poem was unusual, though it happens occasionally. The fact that I did not revise a word is highly unusual.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I think about four years. It appeared in the Iowa Review in 2001. For the longest time, I didn't know whether it was a "real" poem or not, so it just floated from stack of papers to stack of papers. I'd install it in a book manuscript, then remove it, then reinstall it. At some point, when I got enough distance from what I thought I'd done, I began to see what I'd actually done and accepted its poem-ness.
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 don't have a rule. I wait until the the poem is ready, and that varies from poem to poem. I don't feel a strong impulse to publish until I get close to having a finished book manuscript. I always have Donald Hall's curmudgeonly admonitions from Horace in the back of my head: "Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years." The opposite of Breton's permissiveness. And also necessary.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Giraffes indeed do have seven neck bones. Bats do, indeed, eat a ton of mosquitoes in an average year. Everything else is a fiction, though the fictions do have emotional correspondences in the real world. I've gotten all sorts of terrifying telephone calls, late night and otherwise, over the years.
Is this a narrative poem?
I suppose there is a deflected narrative at the center of it. My friend Dana Levin says I engage a "Poetics of Avoidance." I keep telling her it's a "Poetics of the Cautious Approach." I think Dana is correct. Dana is usually correct.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
A group of poets who shall remain nameless, since the poem began in parody. The lesson I wound up relearning was to trust inspiration. To accept the gifts. To trust the associative imagination. To trust Breton's "incredible ease"--at least sometimes. My concern about the "incredible ease" became an embrace of the "incredible ease." Or at least a recognition of how often the poems I love best are the ones that occurred despite my intentions, not because of them. (It's interesting now to note that the line about the phone cord is a much diminished version of a famous Pablo Neruda line.)
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
An intelligent reader who finds 90% of what passes for "culture" to be too blustery and extroverted? That might be the reader I think of. Someone on a crowded bus staring into the pages of a book as if the real world could be found, could be somehow reignited, there.
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?
I tend to work over my poems mostly in isolation. When I'm close to finishing a book manuscript, I usually run the whole manuscript past Arthur Sze, Greg Glazner, Dana Levin, and Santee Frazier.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
My poems are, to my ear and eye anyway, so various that there's no central style or form or voice to differ from. Some of my poems let the dog off the leash, let it romp a while, then clip the leash back on and head home. This is one of those poems. Not all of my poems are so permissive. Not all of them end up at the dog park. Not all of them romp in the wet grass.
What is American about this poem?
The obsession with fact. The telephone call. The focus on individual, local tragedies, because we've been largely exempted from many of the concerns that other populations face everyday--trying to find enough food and clean water, trying not to be killed by another group of angry or hungry or fanatically religious people, etc.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Chuck Calabreze left it on the doorstep. I discovered it. Gave it a good home. An education. A snappy outift.