Claire Hamner Matturo interviews John Davis Jr., Author of “The Places That Hold”

CHM: John, thank you for taking the time to share some of your insights and thoughts with our readers. Let’s start by talking about your Southern heritage and agrarian ties. You are an eighth-generation Floridian, which must be increasingly rare. References to this legacy appear in your poetry in The Places That Hold, including “Letter to Ancestors,” in which you wrote: “I am writing you back / into existence.” You also wrote several poems about your grandparents and poems which have farms in them. How has that family legacy of deep Florida roots in the land influenced your writing and your outlook? Have you ever lived anywhere for long outside of Florida?

John Davis Jr.

JD: Florida is ingrained into my work just as it is ingrained into my DNA. I have never lived outside of Florida, unless you count a short stint as a camp counselor in North Carolina when I was twenty. Florida’s land, its agriculture, and its diverse history continue to open doors in my imagination, and I suppose it will continue to do so. I am grateful to have a strong Floridian lineage that allows me to see the Sunshine State quite differently from folks who haven’t been here quite as long.

CHM: As I understand you were a print journalist at one point, I wanted to chat a bit about that. I too began my series of careers as a newspaper reporter, and whenever anyone asks me about learning to write, I tell them to take journalism courses. My theory is that journalism teaches a person to find the true heart of any story and convey it with specific telling details in a tight format. To me, that’s wonderful training for poetry and fiction too. I wonder how you feel about your journalism days and how that might have sharpened your writing and insights.

JD: Fresh out of high school, I had been praised by English teachers for using sesquipedalian vocabulary and penning verbose compositions. Journalism scolded me for both, which I needed. No one had ever taught me to be concise, and the professors in j-school weren’t impressed by polysyllabic drivel. I learned quickly to write what needed to be communicated while saving column inches. That journalistic training was later reinforced by poetry instructors at the graduate level who believed firmly in muscular language. Any empty lines or unnecessary words that were there for the sake of “sounding pretty” went under the knife, no matter how much I loved their musicality. So yes, journalism remains an experience for which I am grateful, even if I moved on from it.

CHM: Your poems on the physical abuse boys suffered at the Dozier Reform School in Florida are devastating and poignant, yet balanced with humanity. I congratulate you on being both remarkably controlled and yet brutally haunting. I might never escape the image of the “tumbling red face” in “Laundry Duty, 3 p.m.” You mention in your opening “Historical Notes,” about the research you did on the abuses at that facility, and you dedicate The Places That Hold to Dozier survivors. How did you manage to find just the right balance in writing these poems about a time and place so gruesome and cruel?

JD: There was definitely a tightrope to walk there, as you said. My educator and dad “sides” were really angered by the whole scenario at Dozier, so I tried to turn on my objective journalist side to write the poems: “If I were reporting this rather than creating poetry about it, how would that look and feel?” I asked myself. There was a time in my professional life where I was called to horrific incidents ranging from fatal car accidents to late-night homicides, and I was required to pull out key details while remaining an impartial observer. I tried to begin from that kind of distance, and the poems themselves guided many of the diction decisions from there. I’ve never seen much purpose in exploiting the grotesque, especially if it’s going to open up well-sealed scars for others. But I also know there is merit in giving people an honest sense of exactly how good or bad a thing is, and sometimes that means including details we would rather not hear at the dinner table.

The Places That Hold

CHM: I am intrigued by what I see as a kind of character arc in these poems regarding your (or your narrator’s) point of view on the value of poetry. In the opening poem, “Tractor Ghosts”—which by the way blew me away—you acknowledge that your “unscarred fingers” which know “city currency” and “university books” are not strong enough to steer the ancient tractor which requires “a farmer’s muscle.” Later, in the last three poems in your collection, you are more directly critical about poetry in the context of the farming that is your family’s heritage. In “The Farm Poet’s Lament,” which expresses what I can only call contempt mid-point (“your learning is pathetic”) for poetry, you move to a kind of resignation at the end of the poem (“Every serif bares a tiny sharp tooth / severing heritage”). And you (or your narrator) find an apparent redemption from having left the “farmer’s muscle” and agricultural toil in “The Farm I’ve Willed You,” which ends with “You know and will grow / your own ways—a touch ingrained / for your children to find and recall / the knots of your knuckles, planks of your palms.” And perhaps more redemptive still, in the last one, “The Poem You Need,” you appear to recognize the value of poetry (“your eyes will leave the page as you sigh, / content with humanity still sweet on your tongue.”). I wonder if you’d address this apparent arc and how you feel about poetry as honest “work.”

JD: All my poetic life (which is roughly the last 25-30 years), I’ve had pretty consistent bouts of feeling like the literary work I do isn’t “real” enough as labor, no matter what Philip Levine or Carl Sandburg would say. Still, I keep doing it, or it keeps visiting itself upon me, one of the two. And truthfully, my self-imposed angst is unnecessary— all the agricultural ancestors before me would be thrilled that I wound up a farmer-poet in the tradition of Robert Frost or Wendell Berry. They were all big readers and lovers of language, too (albeit not writers). “The Farm Poet’s Lament” is an onzelle sequence; the onzelle is a form I invented some years ago, and it consists of 11 lines of 11 syllables each. Language scholars probably realize that its name comes from the French for the number eleven — onze. In “lament,” the last stanza departs from this pattern intentionally to parallel the message of the piece. I suppose it’s more than a little ironic to write such a tightly controlled formalist poem complaining about less difficult (or less valuable) literary labor. These days, I see value in both sweat and synapses, and I have a developing understanding of how those two necessarily synthesize. Like Robert Penn Warren said, “How do poems grow? They grow out of your life.”

CHM: The poems about your family, especially the ones with your children, are tender and genuine. The one about the timid son who won’t “Tarzan” across the creek is especially vivid and personal. I wonder if you’d address to what—if any—degree these poems are autobiographical, and also, please tell us how your sons felt about being your subjects.

JD:  The “Tarzan” poem is indeed autobiographical; there’s a small creek among the woods less than a mile from our house. It is “Little Bullfrog Creek” on maps, and it gets very deep when the rainy season sets in. Both boys and I have enjoyed it immensely. Admittedly, I’m pretty hard on my older boy in my poems because he’s the most like me, and I suppose a good psychologist would say I’m trying to fix my past vicariously through him — the fear of snakes, the timidity, etc. I guess all parents do that to some degree. My sons have always been fine with being subjects for Dad’s writing, fortunately. My oldest is talented in both theater and music, so he definitely “gets” the arts and how relationships are a key part of the humanities. My youngest shares my interest in the outdoors and my love of reading, so he is happy to have a place in my written words. I’m hopeful that one day they both look back on my work and see just how inspiring they truly are.

CHM: Thank you John Davis Jr for sharing your poetry, your thoughts and just a bit of your family with Southern Literary Review.

JD: Thank you for the opportunity. I appreciate it.

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