Steve Davenport is the Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Illinois. He’s the author of two books of poetry: Uncontainable Noise (2006) and Overpass (2012). His “Murder on Gasoline Lake,” published first in Black Warrior Review and later packaged as a New American Press chapbook, is listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. His chapbook Nine Poems and Three Fictions won one of The Literary Review’s 2007-2008 Charles Angoff Awards for Outstanding Contributions in a Volume Year. Steve’s literary criticism includes work on Jack Kerouac and Richard Hugo.
Ron Cooper: Nice to see you again, Steve. Tell us a bit about where you grew up, were educated, etc.
Steve Davenport: Glad to be here, Ron. Well, the North end of American Bottom the Illinois floodplain across the Mississippi from St. Louis. Madison County specifically, but not Robert James Waller’s. That would be the magical county in Iowa, the one with the covered bridges. Much of American Bottom is rust belt, but it’s also part of the Mississippi Flyway, important path for migrating birds, and home to Cahokia Mounds, important indigenous site that dates back to the days of Pompeii. Miles Davis was born north end (Alton) and grew up south end (East St. Louis). And maybe you’ve heard of Robert Wadlow, world’s tallest human? Come visit and I’ll take you to their respective statues. Both giants.
RC: So, some big shoes to fill in that county.
SD: You bet. Madison County is home also to Hartford and Bethalto and Edwardsville, the towns that raised me. The first of them, home to my father’s extended family when I was young, is a refinery town, the northeast corner of which is damaged by an estimated four million gallons of gasoline that have, over the years, made their way into the ground under the homes there and made the site an environmental disaster. Hence, the name of my website, Gasoline Lake (http://gasolinelake.com/) and the essay, “Murder on Gasoline Lake,” that gave birth to that name. Bethalto’s the nearby town where I mostly grew up and did all of my elementary and secondary schooling, a bedroom community up off the Bottom. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, also up off the Bottom, was my finishing school. I spent a dozen years there, taking my time with an undergraduate degree and then earning my MA and a living for a few years afterwards teaching basic writing classes for other working-class kids from the surrounding area, back then almost all of us commuters.. From there I moved to the state’s flagship school, University of Illinois, where I earned a PhD in American Literature and, with the exception of a few years teaching as an adjunct at Millikin University an hour away, have worked ever since in one role or another. Since 2004, I’ve been the Associate Director of Creative Writing (BA/MFA). In short, an Illinois boy all these many years.
RC: Funny how one’s upbringing can instill an interest in literature and writing in unexpected way. Now, Steve, your literary career started rather late in life. What was the hold up?
SD: Life, I suppose. Not sure I knew it was possible, Ron, or likely that a guy born on the Bottom could be a writer. As an undergrad, eventually majoring in English Ed, I took a creative writing course in poetry. I couldn’t tell you why except that I liked sound, playing with it, reading it aloud and hearing it, rolling it around in my brain pan. If I’d known then what a mantra was, I might have made mine “Sound over Sense.” I don’t believe I ever said a word in that class. Straight out of Hollywood casting, I was the jock in the back row, the intramural athlete of the month (slow pitch softball, baby) who’d recently decided not to walk onto the school’s wrestling team in part because there were two (two, not one) national champions in his weight class, a guy with a ball cap doing its best to hide his eyes. When a short sound-driven poem of mine got everyone’s attention, I was taken aback. I do believe that is what we call a seminal moment.
RC: Did that get you more involved in other sorts of literary ventures?
SD: Well, yeah. It wasn’t long before the prof, a novelist, asked me to be one of three student editors assisting him with Sou’wester, a national lit mag. Soon I was reading the slush pile and helping to make decisions. By the time I was about to graduate on the five-year (plus, an extra summer semester) plan, that little poem was published out east. I didn’t publish another for eighteen years, don’t think I even tried. Years of grad school, work, play, a couple of failed marriages take up a lot of time. While earning my MA at SIUE, I did an independent study in American Lit with a professor who encouraged me to keep a journal and write him a long letter for my final project. I channeled my inner Henry Adams and wrote sentences about my education. I mean I wrote hard. In the years that followed I spent a lot of time studying and thinking about the sentence and the ways in which punctuation moves phrases and clauses in patterns toward end punctuation. I honed my craft not in poems or stories but in things like postcard messages, the block space my form, and I wrote long, long letters to friends, some of whom were mystified by what they were supposed to do with them. One even asked me to quit. I never understand people when they say Poetry or Fiction or Workshop saved their life. I can say that Sentence has shaped mine and made the path I’m on possible.
RC: Somewhere along the line those sentences evolved into poems. Tell us about your first poetry collection, Uncontainable Noise. The topics you cover are, to say the least, wide-ranging and in many cases quite unconventional. Do you consider yourself an unconventional poet? Can a writer find inspiration in nearly anything, even the brutal or macabre?
SD: First thing I’ll say, Ron, is that book and those poems happened a long time ago. The book’s twelve years old, the manuscript maybe fifteen, and some of the poems a little over twenty years old. I haven’t forgotten those days and I claim an author’s ownership, but in some ways distance is making me a reader of them. Back when the manuscript won the prize that made it real, I was asked by the publisher to do a self-interview he could post on the press’s website. I think that Q-n-A, complete with sample poems and passages, comes as close to intent as I could ever come now. Scroll down there (http://www.pavementsaw.org/books/unnoise.htm) to “Nine Questions” for what I was thinking then. A few years later, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum followed up with an interview of his own at his poemoftheweek.org website (http://www.poemoftheweek.org/id319.html). I don’t aim to be unconventional. I think my aim is typical of most poets: I want to be singular. And yes, there should be no subject that’s out of bounds. Am I brutal? When the occasion calls for it, I hope I am. I aim not to shock, but to hit a truth that’s higher and deeper than factual accuracy. There’s nothing unconventional about that. Brute for brute’s sake? No. Brute for truth’s sake. That’s the hammer I swing.
RC: That poetic ball peen is, more often than not, deeply personal, sometimes so personal that you amaze me that you can make them relatable for readers who may not have had similar experiences. At the same time, though, you are not what anyone would call a “confessional” poet. I’m thinking mostly about the poems in your later collection, Overpass. Can you tell us about how those poems came about and how you are able to make the personal accessible to others?
SD: Thanks for that. Really. I never think about how I make the personal relatable. I figure if I happen upon the right combination of pattern and concreteness in sentences that punch lasting holes in mind and flesh, I will leave a tattoo worth rereading. And since I’m human, I suspect what happens to me happens to others. As an Americanist who specialized in Twentieth Century Lit, I’m well aware that there are folks who hate poets and poems that get labeled Confessional. I’m also aware that all poets and all schools, like all musical acts and all genre, will find their detractors, so the best thing for all writers, all artists, is not to give a shit and keep at it, craft and content. Yes?
RC: You get an “amen” there.
SD: Just as the poems that became Uncontainable Noise began as individual utterances about specific forms of damage (for the most part, marital), so the poems in Overpass began as individual utterances about specific forms of damage–the metastatic breast cancer experienced by Overpass Girl as well as the economic and environmental damage experienced by my home base, Gasoline Lake/American Bottom. In fact, three things made that manuscript possible: the work with place that I had begun in the essay “Murder on Gasoline Lake,” the heartbreaking news from a close high school friend that her breast cancer was metastatic (http://breastcancerconsortium.net/overpass-girl-power-anonymity/), and a request from a poet/poetry editor I did not know, Renee Ashley at The Literary Review, that I submit enough work for the second chapbook issue of TLR (50.4, Summer 2008).
RC: I’m sure you jumped on that!
SD: Hell yeah! When Renee asked if I had enough poems for a chapbook, I lied, said yes, worried for a week or two, then added some Black Guy Bald Guy fictions to some American Bottom/Overpass Girl (AB/OG) poems and crossed my fingers. TLR accepted the bunch and we called it “Nine Poems and Three Fictions.” I just found it on-line (https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/5977557/steve-davenport-nine-poems-and-three-fictions-the-literary-). Over the next couple of years, with TLR’s continued interest in my work and the ten AB/OG poems that earned me finalist status in The Poetry Center of Chicago’s 2010 Juried Reading for Midwestern Poets, I knew I was nearing a full collection. I didn’t have a publisher, though, and soon my own health got in the way. I had a stroke. For more about that, find someone to publish my third collection. Do you hear me, Mr. Knopf?
RC: Is he still alive?
SD: I don’t think so, but in any case, though I survived it intact, things got delayed, and I didn’t write much for a while and began losing hope I would find a publisher in time to get the book to Overpass Girl. Then something like a Hollywood poetry movie happened. The poet who had won the The Poetry Center’s Juried Reading, a talented designer (http://susanyount.tumblr.com/poetrytarot), busy poetry promoter (one-time Madam of the Chicago Poetry Bordello), teacher (The Poetry Barn), editor (Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal), and kick-ass poet (http://susanyount.tumblr.com/poetry), came to my rescue. Susan Yount published Overpass as the first collection in her Misty Publications series. Although it includes a few poems that might be construed as confessional, I see the collection as a work of witness. I say a lot more about Overpass in the second interview I did with Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum (http://www.poemoftheweek.org/steve_davenport_id572.html#interviews). I say it better there.
RC: Let’s try something technical. Many of your poems are written in traditional form, but often with your own twist on them. How do you decide on a form? Does the form come before the content or vice versa? Do you find that the restrictions of form push you work harder in certain respects?
SD: I don’t know why I turned out to be a kind of formalist, but when I sat down to write poems eighteen years after I published my first one, I discovered I responded well to a basic constraint, so I tried my hand at fourteen twelve-syllable lines, the sonnet and did my best to make the form my own. If David Wojahn could blow up the form in the rock sonnets in his collection Mystery Train, I figured I would take an old marriage counselor’s request that I go out on a country road somewhere and scream, yell, roar, howl and do just that in a syllabic form I came to think of a yodel sonnet. (See the links above for more about that.) From there I’ve worked in other forms (curtal sonnet, sestina, and so forth), but always with the intent of doing something new, of bending and maybe breaking or blowing up something that might need it. As I write about damage (physical, familial, economic, environmental), I seek, I guess, to do damage to old forms. I hope the effect is, in part, reparative. This interview, Ron, has caused me to revisit things I’ve said in past interviews. Not surprising I’ve forgotten some of my responses, but I stand by the guy who wrote them. He was closer to the action. These days, in the collection I’m shaping for what may be my third and final collection should I find an interested publisher, I’m doing my best to leave that bridge-blowing formalist in the rearview mirror.
RC: You and I have a number of writer friends from around the country who have little in common except growing up poor and keeping our roots central to our work. What are your thoughts on what might be an upsurge from an underrepresented segment in regards to writers? Do you think of this as a literary movement?
SD: I’ve gotten this question before and I’m never sure what generates it. I didn’t grow up poor. My father, who retired at the age of fifty-two, had a solid union job as a pipefitter at Shell Oil Refinery and later became a company man, and my mother was a Registered Nurse who didn’t have to keep a job all of the time. For a few years we also owned a corner grocery store that was attached to our home. My father was poor as a child. He grew up during the Depression and lost his father at age eleven and watched his mother take a job at the International Shoe Company Tannery that was within walking distance, across the street, in fact, and a couple of railroad tracks from my birth home. And my mother’s parents divorced when she was young and her father was often absent, in prison a couple of times. When her mother sought work out of town for extended period she was raised by grandparents in a farming community that kept everyone fed. But none of these details means I grew up poor. Was Gasoline Lake a rough place? Depends on your point of view, I guess. When I did the interview our mutual friend Eric Miles Williamson set up with French writer Alexandre Thiltges and French photographer Jean-Luc Bertini for what became the 2016 table-top book Amérique: Des écrivians en liberté (https://www.amazon.fr/Am%C3%A9rique-%C3%A9crivains-libert%C3%A9-Alexandre-Thiltges/dp/2226321470), I didn’t imagine I would make the final cut. While no photo’s included, I’m in there with a description of their visit to Gasoline Lake, which is again a name I gave to my old neighborhood because of the environmental damage. Unfortunately, through no fault of Alex Thiltges, who reported what he saw and an unflattering thing I said about the rough condition of those damaged few blocks, about the devastation the lake of gasoline has done to my childhood memories and more importantly the property values there, I somehow became a poor, working class writer, but “working class” and “poor” are not synonymous. I was never poor. Do I see myself as a member of a literary movement? No. I do, however, believe the sum of my early and recent experiences in Hartford and my mother’s tiny rural hometown of Athensville, Illinois, make me who I am, a writer who does not shy away from hard truths. And that practice has led me to like-minded writers, many of whom have become friends. In your case, good friends.
RC: You have a remarkable series of fictions that you call “Black Guy Bald Guy.” Tell us about them, what drove you to write them, what do you hope readers take from them?
SD: One day while I was enjoying some quiet time in my office, a grad student came into the suite looking for a secretary he often talked to. I knew his first name was Rashid, but we’d never been introduced. When I told him Theresa had stepped out on an errand, he turned to the door, and as he went through it, he said, “Thanks, Bald Guy.” For a couple of seconds, I sat there, then ran to the door and yelled after him as he was going down the stairs, “If I’m Bald Guy, what do I call you?” Like we were doing the pilot for a sitcom, he responded with perfect timing, “Black Guy.” With that he was gone and I was back in my office writing the first Black Guy Bald Guy. Sometimes it’s that simple. All of the BGBGs that have been published are available at my website and maybe that’s where they belong. Or maybe they belong between the covers of a book. Should I, a bald guy, create a black guy? I think we have an obligation to think about and, if we’re writers, write about race. I’m also writing about identity in these fictions. I see Rashid Robinson, a writer also (http://www.lincolnhall.illinois.edu/storyography/stories/transcripts/robinson/), from time to time, and I owe him for that moment, but over the years it’s my good friend David Wright, who is bald and who is black and who is Texan and whose father is African and whose mother was French and Jewish and white, I owe the most to for our conversations over beer and whiskey lunches and for the parts of his life I reshape and for the confidence he gives me as writer and for his example as a writer writing about race (https://www.amazon.com/Away-Running-David-Wright/dp/1459810465) to continue a project that others would tell me I should set aside. In an essay he wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education and I’ve reposted at my website (https://gasolinelake.com/david-wright-on-writing-race-in-america/), he writes about that very topic and makes the argument that writers should all “face race head on.” I do my best. And yes, that’s me in the essay.
RC: You have daughters who have kept you busy over the years with everything from theater to various sports, tennis, cross country, marathons, and volleyball. All writers face this: How do you balance the writing life with family time, or do you not oppose them like that?
SD: I love the daughter I helped raise until divorce took her north, and I love the four that followed her when I met the right woman for me, the woman on the blue horse who rides through Uncontainable Noise and teaches me to take one last chance, the mother of those four, the woman who married me twenty-one years ago and keeps coming home after work for more of the same, which for me is everything. All of the daughter activities that rope off sections of time, that continue to this day, without them, the daughters and the roped-off sections, I would do no writing. One day after another with nothing but time is death for me. I need constraints, which is another way of saying family. I know you, Ron Cooper, writer, family man, understand. Thanks for this last question. It means the world.
RC: As always, a pleasure, Steve.