Our Androids and the Rocketry of Youth:
An Interview with Peter Davis
Peter Davis' books of poetry are Hitler's Mustache, Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! , and TINA. He lives and teaches in Muncie, Indiana. More info at artisnecessary.com.
Front Porch: Can you talk about the subject of your new book, TINA? From the epigraphs, it seems that Tina is more of a psychic automaton—a machine built in your mind for a certain function—rather than an actual person.
Peter Davis: Well, this is the way I imagine it. To me Tina is, essentially, what other people might call the muse. I would never say muse though because I don’t believe in a sort of pseudo-mystical inspirational source. I would say, Tina. Having said that, Tina is not necessarily somebody you want to have on your back. She demands you spend each night in your basement (even when it’s cold) writing and thinking and drinking. And to what end? So you might be frequently, tacitly and overtly, rejected by society, by your friends and family, not to mention literary journals? She makes day to day living difficult because she forces you to constantly compare your own efforts with all of the phenomenal efforts of the past, imagined or real.
I fell in love with the idea of making art and being an artist roughly around the same time that I fell in love with a girl for the first time. I was fifteen, confused, anxious and excited. And though my first love and I eventually split, I have not been able to split from Tina. And as if she were a high school sweetheart whom I married early, I forever have doubts about what might have been. What loves and heartbreaks and one-night stands might I have missed out on by settling down so quickly? All those girls passing and I didn’t and don’t have a shot at any of them. I could have been a model airplane hobbyist, a bobsledder, a who knows what? But I’ll never know and, in this way, I feel robbed. Of course, this is the same theft every person has experienced.
So, while I’ve got nothing exceptional to complain about, still, I’m not letting that stop me from complaining. But also, occasionally, I’m grateful for the loyalty that Tina’s showed. I mean, I look back and she’s been there for me. All those really bad songs I wrote when I was 16, all those bad poems, bad words, bad ideas, etc. That was her! No matter what, she’s been there for me. Making me do stuff. Like a big sister, or a little sister, always annoying me into movement.
FP: These poems employ a style that’s sometimes plain with a calm pacing, but then the reader’s given fantastic scenes and images. For instance, “The Mustaches of the Past” reads “Some of them/(even the grotesquely deformed)/grew mustaches like/cranes lifting and lowering the/mandible…” Was this fuse-to-firework style a conscious tactic in creating this book?
PD: No. I was just trying to surprise myself. With the flat tone, against a wild line, against a wild lie or a dumb truth, beside a mustache crane, etc. Anything to pass the time and make the poem become, at least, something. Some motion, some movement. I’m just using tricks inside my mind to make something appear to happen. That appearance, though sort of a sham, is the best I can hope for and is, in it’s way, more than enough.
FP: The speaker in TINA, who seems fairly consistent throughout, is a dreamer that finds reality magical enough that they don’t have to create their own worlds. This manifests largely as clever observances of the world’s diverse possibilities. How did you create this persona? Was it a natural reflection of you, or something manufactured?
PD: It was definitely something natural and it was definitely something manufactured. I mean, I made it up, but it came from me. I guess the question is really if there is a difference between the natural and the manufactured, or whether those are both products of the same reasoning. I’m being honest when I say that I often don’t know what parts of myself are natural and what parts are manufactured. Even better might be to say that I didn’t create a persona—one simply emerged over time, as I was trying, and not trying, to be myself. So what I find, in the end, is this speaker who, in the book, I refer to as “Kyle.”
When I see what comes out on the paper, I’m always surprised by it. Like, what is this thing? Is it me? Is it something else? And, in the end, it’s just another book of poetry, by just another writer, in just another such-and-such time and place.
But when you say the speaker is a “dreamer that finds reality magical enough that they don’t have to create their own worlds,” I do believe in that. I am not a fan of the idea of anything being supernatural and I like to think that what is here and “normal” is more interesting than any ideas about magic and the supernatural.
FP: There’s a scientific tone in the book, exploring cause and effect, but this is coupled with a certain naïveté (or maybe it’s just optimism). Was this dichotomy an important inclusion?
PD: I think I know what you mean. In TINA, I ask and answer some mundane questions like, “Have you heard the term ‘question’ before? It is a word like other words except indicating a very specific idea.” Is it naïve to wonder whether a person knows what a question is, or not? Or is it optimistic? Or is it even necessary? I think that sort of dichotomy is important, but I didn’t think about it consciously while writing. I just thought that it was fun, when writing, to interrogate myself/the reader with a voice that constantly butts in saying “do you understand the concept of ‘butting in’?” and “do you know what ‘interrogate’ means?”
FP: Another common dichotomy in the book pairs actions with the inner monologue of the speaker. The precision also lends to the scientific tone. Is this dissection of moments something you do in your personal life?
PD: Do I dissect moments in my personal life? O, yes. Am I precise about it? Probably not. I’m a terrific fake scientist. Most of my reasoning is simply an emotion dressed in ill-matching logic. It’s ridiculously see-through. It’s like everything else. The wizard behind the curtain is a sophomore in high school. The emperor is wearing a Swatch.
FP: The anger of the speaker often leads to some of the funniest parts of the book. Why’s the speaker so mad at Tina?
PD: Because she’s an endless source of frustration, she’s such a tease. While she can create moments of happiness and bliss, she more frequently creates moments of confusion and anxiety. Drives me crazy with her memories and her unfulfilled expectations.
And, also, probably the funniest thing in the world is getting angry. I mean, angry?! At what? The only thing funnier is knowing how stupid anger is and getting angry anyway.
FP: The book has a great, youthful spirit about it. The poems “Skateboarding” and “How Today Becomes a Creepy Spider” come to mind. How are you able to achieve such vivacity?
PD: I don’t know, but I wonder this: where does the energy of youth go? Where do you use it and enjoy it as an adult? When you’re fifteen and really believe, deep in your soul, that you will SKATE OR DIE, how do you square that when you’re an adult and you know that the passion you were so passionate about was only a period of time? You will not SKATE OR DIE, you will quit skateboarding and start writing poetry. And you will watch passions rise and fall—for people, for artists, for ideas, for activities, for your whole life long. Then, what is deep in my soul, you wonder? You might say, Well, I was just a kid and so I was stupid when I thought I knew what I wanted. But I am an adult now and I still don’t know what I want. I didn’t think I wanted to be a dad, but it’s been the greatest thing ever. I’ve wanted to make art for most of my life, but found my life as an artist troubling. Who knows what I’m after or how to get it? Not me. My whole life, the vivacity of an idiot.
You know how some people literally bounce their legs around whenever they’re sitting down? Vibrating their legs continually? That’s me, literally and figuratively. When I was a kid, it seemed that when sitting somewhere (at church or a movie or a anywhere) my dad was constantly reaching over with his hand and placing it on my knee, as to say, stop bouncing your leg. But I never could for very long and here I am, so many years later, bouncing my leg as I type this. Sometimes my wife (even knowing the above) will reach over and do the same thing.
I still feel like a kid in a lot of ways. Or maybe I think that only because of the chronology. If I had been an adult first and turned into a kid, perhaps I would be saying that I still like an adult sometimes.
FP: Humor can be hard for a lot of writers. Though, judging from your two previous books Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! and Hitler’s Mustache, and now counting TINA, humor’s an integral part of your poetics. How do you approach humor in the writing process?
PD: I don’t try to be funny and write funny poetry. Instead, I try to write words that surprise me as I’m writing. And, it turns out, for whatever reason, what surprises me most frequently is something that might be deemed humorous. This is, perhaps, because I’m naturally pretty negative so that moments which are light-hearted and, thus, unusual, seem surprising? I don’t know. Maybe I just conflate surprise with levity. I don’t know. I know I don’t want to be depressed. I try to avoid depression. Depression is so natural and, thus, laughter is very appreciated.
I started writing poetry as a serious result of my inability to express myself in a way that felt adequate. I was mostly morose and self-pitying. I would have never imagined, back then, that years later I’d be considered a somewhat humorous poet. I’m cool with this but think about what it means sometimes. I tend to purposely read funnier poems at readings because I just think humor is more suited for audiences than thoughtful reflection. (Thoughtful reflection is for the people reading alone, humor for those at a gathering.) I still think there’s a decent amount of poetry people who dismiss poems that, when read aloud, end in laughter. Some poetry people appreciate poems that have jokes in them, or humorous moments, but they still want the ending of the poem to result in a hummed, reflective sigh, not a laugh. Okay, maybe they’ll accept an ending that results in a knowing chuckle. But, the point is, they do not see laughter as a worthy result. To me, laughter is a more than adequate reaction. Good enough, I think. Better than tears.
FP: It’s always refreshing to hear of a writer creating in artistic mediums other than writing. You paint, draw, play music, and create your own stop-motion videos. How did you become such a well-rounded artist?
PD: Honestly, I know it’s nice to be described as “a well-rounded artist,” but here’s the thing: I only practice various art forms because each one I try seems so unfulfilling that I have to try another. And everything is unfulfilling without trying to fill it with art.
Getting good at various mediums is a result of not being satisfied with any single medium. Each medium is compelling and fun, with its own beauties. And that sounds good, but for me this has led to a lot of frustration. While I don’t envy anybody else’s artistic struggles, I sometimes wish poetry or music or drawing or something, alone, felt like enough. Instead, I spread myself thin trying to fill in all these teeny holes. Doing the best I can. My friend told me about some guy who was patching holes in his screen door with peanut butter. That’s me.
FP: TINA officially comes out this April. Do you have anything else in the works right now?
PD: I do. I am writing an epic poem about the history of the Nazis. Why? Because everyone is always saying, Man, I wish I could learn more about the Nazis while reading a really, really long poem. So I am simply filling a hole in the market. The public demands it and I respond.
Read Rachel Zucker's poem "Wish You Were Here You Are" here.