A Very Real and Open Window: Rob Taylor Interviews Emily Davidson

Nobody Does This On Purpose 

1.
I have been keeping my virginity
like the special occasion dishes

the company tablecloth

a pair of women’s gloves
that button at the wrist.

It is important at this stage in the game
to forget the subtle tarnish of the early twenties
and go mouldering on, fortitudinously.

2.
I do this on purpose.
Nobody does this on purpose.

3.
There are polar bears swept away
on ice floes, disembarking
in downtown St. John’s

to wander past the jellybean houses
and bellow confusion at the locals.

I think the bears are urban myth
but it is something to be endangered

it is something to be
bright white and monstrous.

from Lift
(Thistledown Press, 2019).
Reprinted with permission.

 

Emily Davidson is a writer from Saint John, New Brunswick. Her poetry has appeared in publications including Arc, CV2, Descant, The Fiddlehead, Room, subTerrain and The Best Canadian Poetry 2015. Her fiction has appeared in Grain and Maisonneuve and was short-listed for The Malahat Review’s 2013 Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction. She writes literary reviews for Arc and Poetry is Dead. Emily resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.   

Rob Taylor: Many of the poems in your debut collection, Lift, revolve around disappointments, be it with the city (“If she likes you, even a little, / Vancouver isn’t telling”), the wider culture (“Consumption is not a decision / but we practise, just in case”) or personal relationships (“I am single always, you never”). Through it all you seem determined to stay hopeful and optimistic. In “On Saturday,” for instance, you’re stuck at a party where people brag about investing “in real estate / before the bubble” and then it “begins to rain / the way fire spits.” Nonetheless, the poem closes with the line “I am not unhappy”—and the truth is I almost believe it! 

It’s as though the book is channeling the “This is Fine” meme. There’s something very Vancouver, very late-capitalism, very early-to-mid-30s about “This is Fine” energy. Do you see it as present in the book, or am I just projecting (mid-30s Vancouverite that I am)? If it’s there, to what extent do you think this stance is simply your nature, as opposed to a product of the city and time you live in?

Emily Davidson: The funny thing about this is that I actually was happy! “On Saturday” describes one of my favourite days in Vancouver; it was also, coincidentally, the day a good friend told me about their pending divorce. How can such a painful thing and such a sweet, perfect day coexist? Are things genuinely crap, or are they delightful?

The first thing my mother said after she received her copy of Lift was, “I read your book! It made me sad.” Which was puzzling to me, because that wasn’t my intention: I was just paying attention and writing things down. The negatives fail to tip the scales for me, generally. I guess that makes me an optimist? 

I could see how the situations, the concerns, the challenges of these poems might channel “This is Fine” energy, might trend towards ennui or despondency if you followed them far enough. The early-to-mid-30s seem to me so far to be a weird blend of small wins and major indignities. That’s real—and that’s not even mentioning Vancouver or late-capitalism (or climate crisis or politics). But I’d be sorry if the book conveyed an overall tone of resignation. I’m not terribly interested in ignoring the things that aren’t fine, there is simply something in my internal wiring that renders me determined to hold onto the funny. The good. The noteworthy. I think art, by its very nature, resists “This is Fine.” (Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.)

I find I have to hold both things at once—I’m here, I’m alive, things are beautiful; I’m here, I hurt, things are falling apart. All of that is always true.

RT: Yes, you’re right. The “This is Fine” meme is a very different thing from the artist’s perspective than from the dog’s. The dog’s stance—its resignation—is horrific, but we laugh/cringe because we recognize it, and know that sometimes embracing it is our best option. It’s only from outside of that room looking in, as artist or reader, that we can both laugh at, and wrestle with, our behaviour. (You’re the artist drawing the dog, not the dog itself, is what I’m saying!)

So I see “This is Fine” energy less as resignation than awareness and honesty, as you say. And also a call to action: these things happen; this is how we deal with them; could we/should we deal with them differently? Your book asks these big questions of us over and over again in a very compelling way.

Speaking of big questions, in “We Are Dancing to ABBA” you write (of Anglicans, having come from an Evangelical background): “They let me sit very still and unprodded / while I adjusted all my structures.” So many of the poems in Lift grapple with life’s great “restructurings,” whether they relate to religion, relationships, physical relocation, aging, the prospect of parenthood, etc. etc.

I’m curious to what extent the making of this book mirrored what those ABBA-loving Anglicans provided you. Did writing the poems create a still space in which to “adjust your structures”? And if so, what’s it like to see it out in the world now, helping other people consider their own adjustments (past or yet to come)?

ED: Yes, I think so. Not much about life makes sense to me—does it to you?—and so poetry was a good place to do the work of being uncomfortable. A whole book of tiny doubt cathedrals. (Okay, I maybe see my mom’s point now.) And a good place to uncover the beginnings of what might be built afterwards.

The idea that someone might be able to better consider their own restructurings after having read Lift—that’s the most encouraging thought. The making of the book was one of concentric circles of vulnerability for me: I started with subjects I was content to share, and then I ran out of safe things to talk about and had to wade into the next layer of exposure, and so on. Lift feels like a very real and open window to some of the parts of myself I’m still learning to like, but if someone were to climb through to their own discoveries—then the discomfort would be worth it. 

RT: Yes, exactly! We reveal and discover so that others can reveal and discover so that we can reveal and discover so that… Lift is certainly doing its part in that regard.

Speaking of (doubt) cathedrals, you and I are the children of Christian ministers. Another minister’s child/poet, Renée Saklikar, taught me the term “PK”—”preacher’s kid”—and it turns out there’s any number of us out there in the poetry world. How do you think being a PK, and being raised in a church, shaped your interest in the reading and writing of poetry? Did it have an effect on themes you tackle in your poems?  

ED: One of the real benefits of a religious upbringing is that your conversations and studies are centred around a text. And what a text for poetry! There’s repetition, archaic language, weird turns of phrase, astonishing contradictions, vibrant imagery—poetic elements I talk about now when I teach or engage with other people’s writing. Language was the way in at church—and so it’s remained for me in my writing practice. I love me a good psalm.  

Being raised in church surfaces as a theme in Lift—it was inextricably linked for me to family and morality, and I get to continue wrestling with it as I age. And then there are the implicit themes that bleed through (no pun intended) in my work that I may have borrowed: belonging, identity, doubt, purpose. Would I be so interested in these things with different roots? I mean, probably, but the answers, and the paths I take in search of them, will be informed by this strange heritage.

I’m reading The Odyssey for the first time right now (I know, I know, I’ll turn in my poet badge to security), and I got a little way in and thought, “Huh, this feels familiar.” Then I realized my brain had gone into Bible-reading mode—historical text, ancient culture, gods and quests. I’m loving it. 

Side note: I’ve discovered that a lot of PKs also end up as actors—I wonder if there’s something in the water/wine that makes us turn to art. Incidentally, have you heard of missionary’s kids? Those MKs are a whole other ball of wax.

RT: MKs! Oh dear. What will they think of next? That connection with acting makes sense—ministers are up there performing all the time. The PK poets I know are definitely on the more performative side during their readings, or at least have above-average confidence in front of a microphone. So I do think there’s something there. Mostly, though, I think the PK-artist connection is about what we talked about earlier: all that space to rearrange structures, which the Anglicans provided you. Art as a secular way to create a similar space for people. 

The poems in Lift create different kinds of “spaces” for their readers to think in. While many of the poems follow a linear narrative, others leap in subject matter from stanza to stanza, in a style reminiscent of the ghazal form. Some of these are written in ghazal-like couplets (say, “Interlock” or “Night Walk, Saint John”), while others like “Tenant” have irregular stanza lengths, and still others, like the excerpted poem that opens this interview, are built out of a numbered sequence of smaller poems. When in your development as a writer did you start experimenting with these kinds of non-linear poems? How do you think each of these different approaches to leaping from stanza to stanza alters the poems?

ED: I was introduced to ghazals in undergrad, mainly through the work of John Thompson, and I love the weird, sparse connectivity between the stanzas. It’s tenuous: poems held together by thematic hum. The tenets of the ghazal tend to creep into even my more linear work.

I think the leaping in subject matter between stanzas is my way of stringing unlike pearls. My brain collects images over time until somehow the final one drops in and I have a fistful of something. In “Interlock,” for example, the fistful was: two-stranded knitting, two people getting married, two romantic leads in a dumb movie about leap-year proposals, one person alone. Once I’d strung the components, it became a poem about fabrication—one person’s hands making something for two people in the context of the stories we tell ourselves about love. But it’s an uneasy fit, all of these images, so “scattershot” felt like the best method of organization. The throughline is absurd. Could I have achieved a poem without these leaps? Possibly, but less effectively, and with visible effort.

“Night Walk, Saint John” is more of a snapshot poem. Each stanza is a flash exposure: here’s a new build going up; here’s the ocean seeping; here are the church bells tolling. All taken the same night, all showing you the photographer’s perspective. You get to take home the set and make a collage. The poem gains an eerie resonance by being choppy.

Each poem I write emerges suggesting its own shape. Sometimes the stanzas are simply meant to mirror my own thought process, or how the poem fell out: fragmented, sharp-edged, scrappy. The numbered poems are often baby poems that needed to be in conversation with one another to hold water.

RT: Many poets write their poems entirely in lowercase letters, but they usually do so consistently throughout the book. In your case, three of the poems have lowercase titles, while the rest are capitalized. Even among those three there is variation as to whether or not the first-person “I” is capitalized. It feels as though you’ve resisted standardization that might alter your original vision for each individual poem (the poems, as you say, suggest their own shape). Could you talk a bit about your interest in using all lowercase at these particular times? In what way do you think it changes how/what the poem communicates? 

ED: There were poems in the book that asked to be spoken in a smaller voice, or with the hush of lowercase to speed their journey. And the reasons were all different: “child’s drawing” was always written, to my mind, in crayon, before proper capitalization mattered. The “I” in the poem is clear on who she is, but she’s realizing she was not completely clear on anything else. “the baptismal is a fish tank” is a poem trying to crack open the idea of the mystical in the mundane by circling it, uninterrupted. Removing all punctuation and capitalization was a way of bringing down the stakes—you know, we’re just having a regular conversation about immersion baptism, no big deal, we do this all the time, right? Totally normal. And “i meant for my heart to be an invertebrate” is a heartbreak poem whispered after the beloved has left. The lower case is a relinquishing, a retreat, a whisper, a confession.

It’s okay if I did this wrong. I certainly baffled my copyeditor. But there are things in this book I had a hard time writing. Pushing them through in the smallest letters possible seemed to help. And for the reader, I hope they land with gentler footfalls. 

RT: Ha! Your poor copyeditor. But I applaud your commitment to your poems and their particular voices.

That leads us well into talking about poetry mentors, encouraging and guiding younger poets along. In your acknowledgements you thank two mentors, Rhea Tregebov and Anne Compton, who you call your “poetry guides on opposite coasts.” Could you speak a little bit about your relationships with them, and how each of them shaped the poems in this (bi-coastal) book?

ED: Oh my goodness, yes, thank you. Can we just take a moment to appreciate mentors? I feel so much gratitude to have had the instructors I did. It actually sort of makes me sweat to think about my luck.

Anne Compton took me under her wing while I was an undergraduate student at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. She’s a Governor General’s Award-winning poet and a respected critic, and she was generous to my work from the very beginning, which was gracious of her, as it was bad and I was learning. I remember in particular one batch of poems I handed in, Anne gently and resolutely passed one back to me with the singular comment, “This is not a poem.” And she was right—it wasn’t! I’m so glad those drafts are buried somewhere on my hard drive and not out in the world. 

I am indebted to Anne for the shaping of a young poet’s ear and resilience and hope. She read and supported the first two poems I ever had published—“Conurbation” and “Night Walk, Saint John,” which appeared in their earliest forms in The Fiddlehead and later in Lift. She taught me pantoums and ghazals and when to take out the pruning shears and cut a poem back to its essentials. Anne is a poet deeply rooted in place, and I came up through the same soil. She’s a teacher and a friend.

Rhea Tregebov and I crossed paths during my graduate studies at the University of British Columbia—Rhea is also a decorated poet and a phenomenal professor. It is something to be in Rhea’s classroom: she teaches with great empathy and precision. She used to diagram every poem we workshopped on the board—what was happening, when, to whom—and we’d be in stitches by the end, because the drawings were so deeply bizarre. But the point was taken: a poem should hold up to scrutiny. It should not be soft, structurally, should contain no sinkholes of laziness or inattention. The building blocks of the poem mattered.

Rhea was my thesis supervisor: she read the early drafts of Lift, and blurbed the final version seven years later. She sensed somehow that the thesis process for me was going to be a long, slow uncovering—she didn’t press me to present work, but let me come to her in my own time. I felt skittish and untested, and she really put the legs on my work and got it to stop wobbling. As anyone who’s had the privilege to work with her can attest, Rhea champions each of her students—even those of us with long incubation periods. If I’d taken nothing else away from my MFA, Rhea’s friendship would have been enough.

RT: I know it’s a terrible question to ask when one is still basking in the glow of the first, but do you have a sense of what book number two might be?

ED: None whatsoever. Is that okay to admit? I’ve got a novel I’m trying to breathe life into. And I remain hopeful that I’ll figure it out. Rhea has the most lovely poem in the opening of her book All Souls’ about being rediscovered by poetry: “You thought all the poems had grown up / and left home. You didn’t expect to find one / putting its little hands on your face.” I’m happy to live here for a while, waiting for the small hands of poetry to find me again. I have to trust they will. This is fine.

Rob Taylor lives in Port Moody, BC. You can read more of his interviews here.