Interview with Featured Poet
Phebe Davidson


[TCP]: How did you come into poetry? When were you first introduced to it, and what poet or poem made you think, "Okay. I have to do this."?

[PD]: I came into poetry, I think, by sheer good luck. Actually, I was always already in poetry. My infancy and early childhood were full of A Child’s Garden of Verses, which my grandmother read to me so often we could both recite the poems without a book. My favorite poem (partly because I loved the swing set in our yard) was “The Swing”—which indeed carried me “up in the air so blue.”  The great magic of all this, for me, was that the words produced almost exactly the same sensation as swinging.  Because I was an only child in an otherwise childless neighborhood, and also because childhood asthma frequently confined me to the house, I became an avid reader.  So my later childhood was full of everything from Rudyard Kipling to Carolyn Keene; I had no objection to re-reading books I liked.  By the time I discovered poetry as an intellectual pursuit, I was already so steeped in the rhythms and tonal choices of Stevenson and others of the same era that the musicality of language was deeply ingrained.  I didn’t think about it consciously, but I could rhyme like crazy in reliable iambic lines—it was pure fun.  Much later, when I “discovered” the great moderns (Frost fairly early, Eliot much later) and (!!!) the beats (Ferlinghetti, Ginsburg et. al) I was ready and I was already hooked on the genre.  A particular poet or poem?  “The Swing” (of course), Kipling’s ballads, all of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell’s “Patterns. . .”.  And of course there were the women of my own generation, ranging from Lucille Clifton to Sharon Olds to Alicia Ostriker and hosts of others. There are names like WS Merwin, Richard Wilbur, and Seamus Heaney that are touchstones too. I’m not sure what made me think (after all that reading) that I had to do it too. I wrote my first poem in my early forties. At that point I was a doctoral student at Rutgers, had a husband and two young children. Shortly after my father died, I thought “I have to write a poem now.”   I no longer have a copy of that poem or remember any of its lines. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t much good, but it was, in its way, the beginning of the end. I’m still at it. 

[TCP]: As a long-time professor of English, how did your teaching life detract from or contribute to your craft? Was it an obstacle or a source of inspiration? You describe yourself as a "recovering academic" in your bio. What was the ailment in academe?

[PD]: Being a full-time professor fit hand in glove with my poetic life—despite distractions.  Remember that all my life, I had been a reader.  I had attended good public schools which I loved.  I became (having been assured by high school guidance counselors that publishing was no place for a woman) a high school English teacher.  It was work that I truly enjoyed—even loved—and if social history had followed a different route I could easily have spent my life in New Jersey’s public high schools, teaching English.  The greatest reason I didn’t was the astounding momentum of the feminist movement through the seventies and into the eighties.  One of the corollary pleasures of teaching high school English was the association with other teachers who were smart, talented, interesting people, many of them women.  As more opportunities arose in corporate and industrial work, a huge number of those smart, talented, interesting women took themselves out of public education and into finance, publishing, managerial consulting. . . all sorts of places that hadn’t been available to them before.  Having always liked being in school, the natural move for me was to higher ed.  So there I was, in a discipline I loved and still love, doing what I loved to do in the classroom, writing “around the edges” of the job’s demands on my time.  All those folks who think professors ‘phone it in’ for three to twelve hours a week have it dead wrong—those were often sixty-hour work weeks (since my contract specified teaching, service, and scholarship, that shouldn’t really surprise anyone).  So that made finding writing time difficult; on the other hand all that work was really energizing.  The political aspects of faculty life could be annoying and frustrating, but still strike me as a small price to pay for doing such rewarding energizing work.  The hardest things to manage, at least for me, were the political in-fighting and factionalism that seemed to be built into active faculty life.  And, of course, my summers were (more or less) my own.  What I am recovering from (still, believe it or not) is the unrelenting pace of my professorial years, the weight of responsibility to and for all those students, and the near absence of reflective time to think things through. 

[TCP]: You've published quite a few collections of poems, and I notice that many, while not necessarily adopting personae, focus on a certain character or figure. Can you tell us about one of these central figures and why you came to focus on it/him/her?

[PD]: Most of the time the figure is a female, and most of the time she’s some kind of outsider or observer. I’ll use the fairy tale poems as examples. I guess I should explain that I’m not much of a Hans Christian Anderson fan—his stories mostly strike me as namby-pamby, fussy excuses to moralize. The Brothers Grimm assortment of tales is far more to my taste.  So. I like stories that have elements of the macabre, a scintilla or so of brutality, a lot of danger.  Then I like to make up back story of a sort. What did the woodcutter’s wife really have to say to her husband to make him ditch his kids? What about Sleeping Beauty? Was she really an only child? And so on. So the persona (a cronish sort, and a really gifted poet, of course) lurks in corners and fills in those backstories, adopts the point of view of some hitherto unknown character.  It’s very much the same thing Gregory Maguire did so beautifully in prose  with Autobiography of an Ugly Stepsister.  That’s one kind of persona.  Another one I like comes from my belief that places, if they don’t actually have their own consciousness, certainly produce a specific consciousness in the people who live there.  Seven Mile is probably a good example of that. The voice that speaks through various people and events belongs to the disembodied and deeply wounded sense memory of a place: Always, always we abide, // Drought and fever. Flood and tide.

[TCP]: My favorite of your collections is The Surface of Things, in which you often take a natural image or a nature motif and elaborate on the hidden connotations of the wild world around us. Your first poem in that collection, "How Light Comes Off Water," contains the following passage: "There is no one // I can tell who will know what this / is unless his / own eyes have seen / it too and been // blinded some indeterminate / time by just that / brilliance." I read into this passage the implication that poetry arrives to a chosen few--those with a certain mind-frame who are willing to meditate on the hidden yet extractable meanings in quotidian beauty. It also suggests that poetry cannot be taught and must be catalyzed internally. Can you speak to this idea a bit?

[PD]: Surely.  This is the question where I will sound least sensible, but here goes.  Poets, ultimately, are born to the pursuit.  You can learn technique. You can suffer. You can love. You can know a poem when you see one. But you can’t learn the fire of poetry, the thing that is intuitive and (at its heart, I think) sensual.  It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time: Nothing is the same as seeing it. Nothing feels the same.  Poetry is like that. 

[TCP]: Do you have any poetry projects in the planning stages? Can you tell us about any ideas or projects you're working on now?

[PD]: Ideas? Projects?  I have a mess of Law and Order persona poems (a great weakness for old cop/lawyer shoes is central to my character) that are accumulating, and sooner or later I hope something will come of them.  I am also more and more drawn to form:  I would like to publish a book of poems at some point that has only durable older forms in it—the sonnet, sestina, pantoum, villanelle . . . .  And I have a folder labeled “late love poems” (for everything from my husband to my car) that may or may not find a larger shape.  That’s as specific as anything seems to be at present.  For what it’s worth, I still love to write poems, and just when I think I’ve exhausted my (let’s be honest) limited range, one of them will astound me.

What could be better?

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