Signposts Along the Path:
An Interview with Kelly Davio
KELLY DAVIO’S POETRY is as intense as it is resonant. In her 2013 collection Burn This House, she paints a chiaroscuro world of moral complexity. Contrast is integral to Davio’s work, and the depth and sensitivity with which she approaches the diverse depths of the human emotional experience are remarkable. Davio has experience in virtually every area of the literary process, from writing to publishing. Along with writer and editor Joe Ponepinto, she recently established Tahoma Literary Review, where she serves as Poetry Editor. In this interview, Davio sheds some light on her process, her latest project, and her work as a poet and editor.
Front Porch: In your debut book Burn This House, you create what might be called a poetics of paradox, or contrast. How do you perceive the role of contrast in your work? That is, how does contradiction (or apparent contradiction) function in your poetry?
Kelly Davio: One of my literary heroes is Flannery O’Connor, who said in her correspondence that one of the great lessons of purgatory must be the understanding of how little it would take to turn a vice into a virtue. I’d go so far as to say that it also takes very little to turn a virtue into a vice; that idea of moral fluidity was something that obsessed me as I worked on the poems that would become Burn This House. I grew up Pentecostal, on the fringes of Christianity, and ours was a culture that never stopped talking about evil, about Satan, about demons lurking behind every questionable thought or action. It was a pretty terrifying spiritual outlook, especially for a small child. When I left the church as an adult, I began to work my way out of that mindset of strict separations between the right and the wrong, between righteousness and evil. A great many of the poems in Burn This House reflect my process of coming to a more nuanced and holistic view of the world and its complexities. Perhaps the contrasts and paradoxes in the book are best understood as signposts along the path to a more integrated perspective on the world and my place as one person in it.
FP: I understand you've recently finished a verse novel for young adults, Jacob Wrestling. How did you approach the act of writing at the intersection of those three genres (poetry, literary fiction, and YA)?
KD: In graduate school, I read Kim Addonizio’s novel in poems, Jimmy & Rita. It’s a beautiful, tragic love story that’s told over a series of loosely chronological sets of free-standing poems. I’ve always been a fan of Addonizio’s unapologetic and dark aesthetic, and when I saw her bring her full gifts as a poet to the long narrative, I was hooked. Of course, book-length poems have been around for a long time; we’ve got Beowulf, after all. But I’d never before read a contemporary poet working within the long narrative form, much less doing so in a way that felt so fresh and relevant. I bought up all the old copies of Jimmy & Rita that I could find and gave them to friends—I became something of an evangelist for the novel-in-poems format! As I was going around spreading the gospel of Jimmy & Rita, a friend of mine who writes books for children turned me on to the phenomenon of verse novels in the young adult literary world. She got me reading Ellen Hopkins, who writes massive, tremendously popular novels for teenaged readers. Her books are tightly plot-driven, commercial, fast-paced novels, but written in a very accessible flavor of poetry.
When I began to look at these books side by side—Addonizio’s highly literary but loosely plotted book and Hopkins’s tight plot and more simply made poems—I began to think about trying to write a book that would mingle a strong narrative with literary craftsmanship. I didn’t want to sacrifice story or technique. I started to study structural elements in screenwriting as well as in fiction so that I could understand how to best bring off the story I wanted to tell, and relied on my training as a poet to write the individual scenes in verse. Most of all, I read as much as I could across genres. I needed to know what was already in print so that I could see where my story could fit into the overall literary landscape, so I could emulate what I admired, and so I could see what I wanted to avoid.
FP: More broadly, how do you tend to think about genre and the classification of written works, both your own and those you publish?
KD: In Jacob Wrestling, every poem stands, I hope, on its own, but together the poems tell a story that’s very much a novel; even though I did write a book that uses poems to form a story, I tend to resist the idea of “hybrid forms.” I have difficulty understanding what a hybrid form is supposed to be. For example, in my editorial role at TLR, if I’m reading a poem, I want to know that it’s a poem, not an essay with haphazard formatting. Or if I’m reading an essay, well, I want it to behave like an essay. This crotchety-old-lady tendency probably speaks more to my personality as a highly—almost obsessively—organized person than it does to any philosophical beliefs about what literature can be or do. It’s less an aesthetic than it is a reflection of my own need to feel grounded in what I’m reading or writing.
FP: In writing your verse novel, did form follow content, or vice versa?
KD: The story for Jacob Wrestling arrived in my mind almost entirely intact. The characters were clear to me, as were the ways they would all come crashing down (did I mention it’s not a happy story?). The proportion and pacing of the plot, however, is something that took a lot of work. We poets are used to getting a lot of high-impact material into a small package, but a novel needs time, buildup, and ever-so-slowly-rising action. I had a great deal of help with the plot component of the project from the novelist Kobbie Alamo and from my writing partner, the memoirist Tanya Chernov. They gave me the outside perspective that I needed to see where I was letting the story run off course and bring it back to a satisfying and recognizable form.
FP: Would you say that you have a particular philosophy of form?
KD: I know that there are many writers much better than I who will disagree, but I believe that form is the beating heart of every successful piece of writing. Even in free verse, which is my preferred workspace in poetry, there exists the memory—the echo, if you like—of all the received poetic forms in the literary tradition. From syllabics to line breaks, the quality of the craft underlies a piece’s success or failure. In fact, I feel that, the stranger the content or the more unusual the project, the more the form should be abundantly present. What we’re trying to do as writers is to give our readers satisfying experiences, and using the forms that have established themselves in their consciousness is one important way that we can do that.
FP: You and Joe Ponepinto founded Tahoma Literary Review together, and published the first issue this summer. What brought about the idea for TLR, and how did it progress from conception to production?
KD: Joe and I had worked together for a number of years at The Los Angeles Review, and when we both moved on from that project, we decided to take the many lessons we’d learned about running a journal and apply them to a new, completely different venture. We wanted to think about what needs were present and unmet in the current literary scene, and devise a way to meet those needs. In talking with and listening to writers, we heard over and over that writers wanted to be paid for their work, and they wanted a more transparent editorial process. We took several months to think, strategize, and develop a solid business plan that would allow us to pay our contributors and to provide as much openness and value as possible to our submitters. Then, we opened for business and hoped that we’d gotten it right. Joe and I were tremendously gratified by the response to our mission and our product; the number of submissions we received for our first issue was well in excess of our expectations, and our circulation exceeded 1,000 within the first month of Issue 1’s release. So far, so good.
FP: One of the stated goals of Tahoma Literary Review is to change the financial culture of writing, mainly by compensating contributors for their work. It can be a sensitive subject, but would you mind talking a bit more about the complicated relationship between money and poetry?
KD: Something that Joe and I talked a great deal about when we were coming up with a financial plan for Tahoma was the fact that literature has been so devalued by contemporary culture; when you can buy a three-hundred-page book for the same price as that of a three-minute audio track, something’s gone wrong. Mass retailers like Amazon have driven down prices for books to absurd levels; these retailers don’t care about books as literature—they care about them as salable objects. Writers, readers, and publishers, the people who actually care about books as cultural artifacts, are the ones who have to bring literature’s financial value back into the conversation. What Joe and I are doing is taking a small stand for poetry, stories, and essays by paying writers a professional rate for their work. We’re not trying to put a price tag on poems or stories—we’re simply reminding writers and readers that creative writing is valuable.
FP: How has your own writing life affected the way you read submissions and the type of work you publish?
KD: I approach every submission I open the way that I’d want my own submissions to be read: with care, with attention, with an open mind. It’s no small thing to send little bits of one’s soul into the world, so I try never to forget that it’s an honor—not a job—to read and publish poets’ work. It’s also important to me to be as professional and as efficient as I can with my responses to submissions. As a writer, I hate long wait times, and I hate rejections that are unnecessarily cold. I want to be the editor who gives a timely and kind response to everyone who’s valued my journal enough to send his or her work.
In terms of the types of poems that I get excited to publish, I love work that’s wildly different from my own. Reading poems from writers whose minds work in entirely different ways from mine both excites me as an editor who gets to bring work to the public and invigorates me as a writer who wants to try new approaches to her own poetry.
FP: How have your editorial experiences influenced the way you write and revise?
KD: One of the great benefits of editing is seeing what kinds of content are overly represented in the slush pile. Because poets generally write on their own, they probably aren’t aware that about fifty other people in the submission queue have likely written about exactly the same topic as they have, and in roughly the same way. I can’t tell you how many garden poems I receive in the warm months, or how many poems featuring snowy mornings and coffee cups all winter long. Seeing these poems in high volumes tells the writer in me what I should probably send out and what might be best kept in my desk drawer. When I find myself thinking, “I sure wish someone would send me a poem about X, Y, or Z,” then I know that, maybe, there’s an editor at another journal who might be thinking the same thing. Perhaps that’s my opportunity to write and send out a poem that fills a hole in the submission queue’s literary conversation.
—Timothy Connor Dailey
Kelly Davio is the poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013). She is the former managing editor of The Los Angeles Review and is a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Rumpus, and others. She earned her MFA in poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and teaches English as a Second Language in the Seattle area.