Solastalgia: An Interview with Poet Chris Davidson

Californios is pleased to present an interview with Chris Davidson, author of Easy Meal, the current chapbook in the Californios Chapbook Series. If you haven’t picked up your copy yet, you can purchase one over on our Chapbooks page.

How did you first fall in love with poetry?

I loved when my teachers would read Shel Silverstein in elementary school, especially its wordplay and humor, but I didn’t ever read poetry on my own. I might say that I fell in love with it my senior year in high school, reading through King Lear in Mrs. Kasprzyk’s class, though I didn’t then think of that as poetry. I thought of it as a cool story with language that when I learned to decipher it let me in on a great secret. A few years later, my junior year in college, I had a few professors who read poetry so well, especially the Romantics and those of the English Renaissance. The pleasure of hearing those professors read and then trying and sometimes succeeding to suss out the meanings of those sentences was…thrilling. I had some amazing creative writing professors, too, one of whom I’m still in touch with, and they got me interested in working with language, but I didn’t yet respect language as material to play with. I just wanted to be thought of as having deep and profound thoughts. If language served that end, great. It wasn’t till my second year in my MFA program that I started to care about poems as poems, as made things. My writing began to change. At their best, the poems I made then were like tiny engines that once started began to make their own way. One of my classmates, who’d read a bunch of my work, read one of these new ones and asked me, “What happened to you?” He meant that in a good way—like, had I experienced a knock on the head, or some revelation. I had, I think. I was in my mid-twenties then.

Which influences have shaped you most as a writer?

My first influences, and they’re still with me, were pop music and movies. There was a lot of music going on in and around the house, played on records by my brother and sister, who are a few years older than me, and by my parents. The Beatles and the Beach Boys were hugely important to me as a child. I think the compactness of their songs, how much melody and sound and sensation was packed into such a small space, shaped my whole young sensibility. That influence might be felt in my love of the short poems of Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, Frank O’Hara, Lorine Niedecker, and the like. We were not a literary household. We watched a lot of television. There were plenty of books in the house, but all of it was popular fiction, along with TIME, Sunset, and Popular Science. The other influences would be my teachers, other writers I know, many poems from a few key poets, worry about climate change, fatherhood, trying to work out my faith in fear and trembling.

Your poems deal a lot with urban and suburban Southern California. How do you approach writing about nature as a dweller in the city? How do you think poetry can help us think about the particularities and challenges of living in a place that was once a very different landscape and even climate than it is today?

Los Angeles has a remarkably varied ecology, much of it unnatural and even tragic, home to a wide array of creatures and plants that live in a relatively dense area. I live in suburban Long Beach, and on any given night when I go for a walk I might run into skunks, coyotes, possums, raccoons, rabbits. In the daytime, there are flocks of green parrots squawking overhead, along with hawks, squirrels, doves, even ducks. There’s a woodpecker that returns every year to a tree outside our bedroom window and wakes me early every day for one spring week, and a family of sparrows that makes an annual pilgrimage to our back yard to nest in our eaves.

The city will pay people to replace their lawns with low-water foliage, and my wife did that, both in front and behind the house. This has changed the way our yard feels. For the few weeks our sunflowers were in bloom a half-dozen sparrow-sized birds would feed on them every morning. We live three miles from the ocean, which is a big roiling wilderness. Just thirty miles to my north rangers have discovered a higher-than-usual number of Mountain Lion kittens born this summer. I mean, nature is right here. Wendell Berry says something about how it’s a mistake to say there is a difference between the urban world and the natural world. He says that there are only sacred and desecrated places. If this largely desecrated place where I live contains so much will to life in it that a pandemic, or small change in a patch of it, has encouraged more animals and plants to make themselves seen, well…I don’t know how to finish that sentence.

Your question is about how I write about nature as a city dweller, and how poetry in particular can help me, I can’t speak for others, think through what it means to live where I live. My first formal introduction to poetry writing, in college, came through attention to the image. My professor, Kevin Clark, had his students all write short, four-line imagistic poems, in imitation of Ezra Pound and H.D. and others of that ilk. I did terribly, writing instead about my feelings, but the idea at least was planted: Begin with the image. Later, when I discovered haiku, which I’d known only as short poems of three lines and seventeen syllables, I understood that poetry is based on looking, on paying attention—on presenting the image, not commenting on it, and that haiku were valued for how well they captured the thing they described. This primacy of the image was further affirmed by a creative writing textbook I picked up in grad school. Western Wind began its lessons with “the senses”: make images, it told us. That’s what poetry can do: Help me see what’s around me. I’m simply not smart enough to formulate something beyond my own sensory experience. I walk a lot. When I walk I look, while listening to podcasts or music. What I see often ends up in the poems.

There’s definitely a sense of solastalgia in the work, and has been for the last twenty years. I worry about the future of this place. As I’m writing, California—the whole west coast—is suffering the worst fires in recorded history. The temperature of the planet keeps going up. Species are dying. What’s still present is a miracle and maybe poems can in their small way help me see a little bit more of that miracle.

At Californios we care a lot about form, and the formal principles I think of most when reading Easy Meal are uniquenesses of phrasing and internal rhyme. How do you approach choosing your often surprising turns of phrase and sonic resonances within each poem?

It took me a long time to think about the importance of sentences. In this chapbook, I only use so-called received form in the tankas. Everything else is just trying to make interesting sentences that sound good to my ear when I say them aloud. Some of the poems are really recent, and I’m not sure they’ve settled into their phrasing yet, and that takes time. The main thing for me is, do the sentences sound good, and do the line breaks do anything interesting in working with or against the sentences? I will say that I’m better at line breaks than I used to be, my ear is better. This is from years of reading my work and that of other poets. My revision is guided by how the poem sounds much more than it is by concerns over meaning or content. And that wasn’t always true.   

By now it’s cliche to ask, but I’ll ask anyway: how has this pandemic affected your practice of poetry? How in particular has it changed what you choose to write about?

I don’t think it’s changed things that much, actually. The pandemic, or the world we’re living through, shows up in my poems, but that’s because whatever is going on in my consciousness shows up in my poems. I will at times try to get away completely from it, by drawing from history or science texts and seeing what language possibilities I can find there, but I mostly write about what I perceive. I should say that I don’t know if the poems are about those things I perceive, but the language of the first drafts is often generated by describing what I perceive. Once the language is in front of me, then it’s simply material. I just want to shape it into an interesting thing. That’s the most fun part of the whole process.

What role can poetry play in 21st century America? Why do poets and poetry matter in the age of social media and global awareness?

I don’t know. A poem is made of language, and language is our way of connecting to each other, accusing each other, making peace with each other. It’s low-tech: you just need a voice and ears—this equipment is both literal and metaphorical, since a person unable to speak or unable to hear can still “say” a poem and “listen” to it. There’s something really cool about those arts that are extensions of, or shaped versions of, other activities: A marathon, for example, takes an activity that most people are equipped to do—run—and shapes it into a competition. Poetry does the same thing with speech. There are poets younger than me who are really good at using various electronic media to help us become more aware of the callings out and consolations of poetry in what seems a particularly tough time. I follow some on Twitter and elsewhere, and I’m grateful to discover new (to me) voices. It may be that as our lives get more and more surveilled, our modes for maintaining connection with each other increasingly commodified, poetry will remain a way of being and action that can escape all that. New forms might emerge, something like the landays Afghan women write and pass to each other, a kind of testimony beyond the imagination of the state and the corporation. I don’t know. For most people, though, poetry is not even part of the cultural landscape. I don’t have anything more insightful to say about this.

In addition to writing poetry, you also teach writing to undergraduates. What is your view of the role of the creative writing teacher in the university and in the larger community?

So few of the students who take a poetry writing class in will go on to regularly write poetry once they leave it. So my hope is pretty modest: That students may learn to read poetry with a little more interest and that they will become a little more excited by, and careful in their attention to, the English language. There’s a great sentence at the beginning of Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry, which I assign to my students. He writes that his aim is to help readers increase their enjoyment and understanding of poetry. I love that.