We do not choose where we’re born, what we’re taught. I try to remember that when I’m depicting Appalachia and its forests and its people.
In 2010, Todd Davis was the professor of my poetry workshop in my first year of MFA studies at Penn State, University Park. He was commuting from Penn State, Altoona, to meet with us every week. Before moving to University Park, my knowledge of Pennsylvania stopped at Philadelphia. He spoke at length about the land that surrounded us—the woods and the rivers and the animals that lived in them. I found the way he spoke about Pennsylvania to be incredibly moving, perhaps because I grew up on small town main streets and in well-maintained parks. I loved the idea of wildness that he introduced to us, and my potential place in it.
It has been my privilege to stay in touch with Todd since that class ended. His poems have won the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, the Chautauqua Editor’s Prize, the Midwest Book Award, the ForeWord INDIES Book of the Year Bronze and Silver Awards, and the Bloomsburg University Book Prize. They have been anthologized, featured by Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, and appeared in American Poetry Review, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, West Branch, and many other literary journals.
We recently talked about his newest book, Coffin Honey, his seventh full-length collection. The setting of Rust Belt Appalachia, which he spoke to us about in class, is front and center here, spoken about from every angle, from a teenage girl to a giant black bear. And also at its center is the interconnectedness we are all experiencing as our planet fails and we fail our planet.
The human world we’ve made and continue to expand encroaches and trespasses upon the ecosystems that sustain so many lives, our own included.
Sarah Blake: I think one of the things that ended up making you such an important teacher for me is how we both turn to the body for our imagery—scientifically, anatomically. For example, these lines from “Buck Day”: “Like a blood clot / moving through a vein, he walks…” which I admired so much I had to stop and write them down. I know what drives me towards the body in this way, but what drives you there?
Todd Davis: This engagement with the body is something I admire in your writing, too. I think about how embodied your novel Naamah is or a poem of yours like “You Are Connected to Everything” from your book Let’s Not Live on Earth.
My fascination with the body has its roots in my Kentucky farmer grandparents and my father’s life as a veterinarian.
My grandparents were poor subsistence farmers who lived close to the land, growing their own food, raising a few hogs, some cattle, milking a few cows, chickens running around the yard. Caring for these animals, taking their lives at certain points in the year, using those lives to sustain their own, required a visceral, physical interaction. One cannot deny the incarnational quality of such a life. For some, these kinds of interactions might be off-putting—helping a cow deliver its calf, especially if the calf is breach and must be turned, or the act of bleeding out a hog during the fall days of slaughter, the methodical act of butchering, finding a use for nearly every part of the body.
I loved listening to my grandparents name the different parts of animals and plants and trees. I’m still fascinated by language that expresses the bodily nature of things.
My earliest memory of my father is at our animal hospital. He’s giving me instructions as I help deliver pups from a Weimaraner, seeing them emerge, rubbing them down, keeping them warm until they could nurse. As I grew older, I helped my father in surgeries and witnessed the marvel of the interior body. He’d offer anatomy lessons as he worked, pushing aside organs, speaking in reverential tones about the purposes of certain structures, how they combine to make this miraculous creature live, even thrive.
More than 20 years ago I wrote a poem, “Loving the Flesh,” that was in my first book, Ripe. A line from Eric Pankey serves as the poem’s epigraph: “How surprised we are to find we live here, / Here within our bodies.” Sadly, I think that’s true for many people. The effect of dualism in religion and society has been profound, divorcing us from the celebration of the body, the reverence we ought to have for it. The sense that we surely belong in a body.
Sarah Blake: I’m curious about all of the voices and perspectives that have gathered here for this collection. There are poems in first person, third person plural, third person limited. There are teenagers and women and even a bear. We’ll talk about the bear in a moment. First, I want to hear about your approach to perspective in this book and why you focused so much on adolescence.
Todd Davis: I’ve tried to represent different voices, different perspectives, in all of my collections, but never to this extent. Long ago, when I first encountered poetry and stories, I was drawn to work like Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. I liked the idea of many different voices, many different perspectives, telling a story of a place.
The trauma in Coffin Honey, the existential threat as we face climate collapse, the desperation this breeds in the form of hatred or disinformation or scapegoating, all of it crashing down on the most vulnerable. I simply couldn’t imagine any other way to tell this story except by trying to represent it in these various voices and perspectives, multiple points-of-view to get at a kind of truth that is more accurate, more honest.
Which brings me to the focus on adolescence. When we’re children, we’re at the mercy of so many forces. We don’t have the same power or agency as we might when we’re adults—physically or politically (and here I mean politically in terms of all power dynamics). These young lives not only deserve our attention but often need help in speaking their stories onto the page, into a poem.
I remember my own childhood and the experiences with good adults and bad adults, the times I narrowly escaped sexual abuse at the hands of a stranger, the times I did not escape verbal or physical abuse. I’ve been an educator for 35 years, beginning as a junior high and high school teacher. I’ve been a parent for 27 years. Over that time I’ve taken care to try to understand childhood and the path adolescent experience puts us on, a path we seldom are given a choice about and one that can control the course of the rest of our lives.
Sarah Blake: That’s been drawing me to depict teenagers in my fiction, too. But okay, now let’s talk about the bear. I often find, when I write from an unusual perspective, like an animal or an angel, that it takes me by surprise. I never go into it thinking I will write from that perspective. And I love the moment when I realize that’s the perspective that’s coming for me. How did Ursus come to you?
Have you ever noticed that children don’t find it odd to talk with animals?
Todd Davis: As I mentioned before, I’m the son of a veterinarian. I spent most of my formative years having as much, if not more, interaction with other-than-human animals.
Have you ever noticed that children don’t find it odd to talk with animals? I deeply respect and admire the ways Indigenous people speak of animals, the ways they relate to animals as kin, stories of deep and abiding wisdom in which animals speak and humans listen. I was in elementary school when I first heard a Potawatomi tribal member speak about animals in this way. It made perfect sense to me. It’s one of the reasons that my book Native Species begins with an epigraph from the poet William Stafford: “What I believe is, / all animals have one soul.”
I admire biologist Bernd Heinrich’s research and writing about animal lives, and that of botanist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer. More recently I’ve been excited by Douglas Chadwick’s book Four-Fifths a Grizzly: A New Perspective on Nature That Just Might Save Us All. In his book, Chadwick demonstrates the close genetic relationship between humans and grizzly bears, with whom we share 80 percent of our DNA. We’re 60 percent similar to salmon, 40 percent the same as many insects. Chadwick builds a convincing case for the deep and intimate ways we’re connected. We ought to pay more attention to these connections.
Just like an imaginative leap across our humanity—a leap required by any writer who writes beyond the borders of the self—the leap across species to write from a bear’s perspective, a bear’s concerns, while clearly an act of fiction, has the potential to reward the writer and reader, expanding our perception and regard for other forms of life, setting up the possibility for compassion and empathy.
One of the earliest Ursus poems I wrote was “Music for Film before the Destruction of a Drone.” The human world we’ve made and continue to expand encroaches and trespasses upon the ecosystems that sustain so many lives, our own included. What must it be like for a bear to see a drone fly overhead? I could think of nothing better than for the bear to rise up and swat the drone, gather it up and destroy it. After that poem, Ursus began to wander all over my notebook and my dreams, leaving a trail to follow.
Whether it was simple random coincidence or something more mystical, at a time when I was halfway finished with the manuscript and experiencing significant misgivings about the Ursus poems, I had an intimate encounter with a black bear.
It was June on the mountain in the state game lands to the west of our house. Mountain laurel was in blossom, pink silky balloons everywhere. This is the time of year that males travel a good distance in search of a female to mate with. An enormous bear lumbered out from between gnarled limbs, flowers shaking, and stopped 15 yards away from me. We stared at each other but neither showed any sign of surprise. No turning to run. No scream from my mouth. No vocalization from his. I didn’t have time to think if my stare would be taken as a challenge.
In that moment—maybe 30 seconds, maybe a little less—one that usually would have caused an adrenaline rush, I was calm.
Then the bear simply walked away and into another laurel grove. No rush. Just a steady gait away from me, heading down the ridge toward a small stream, disappearing among more laurel blossoms.
As I stood there, unsure if what just happened was inside a dream or real, I felt grateful. I felt an affirmation for those poems I’d been working on. I literally hollered “Thank you…” toward where the bear disappeared. Telling this story, I recognize that it sounds a bit silly, or too good to be true, but it happened this way, and I’m thankful for it.
Sarah Blake: That’s not silly at all—it’s amazing! In past books, you’ve written many poems that seem to be based in your own life, especially in moments with your sons. Images from those poems have stuck with me for years. I imagine that these poems must have felt very different. Or maybe not! Can you talk about the transition, for this book, away from your own life and towards the stories of others?
Todd Davis: While my previous books had poems about the stories of others, they made up only a small portion of those books. Part of the reason for that is the poets I read as I was just beginning to write were folks who wrote out of personal experience, and the “I” in their poems was usually closely related to their biographical self. I liked and admired that work and emulated it, imitated it. But the longer I’ve written, the less interested I am in poems about my own direct experience. The part of me that has been a lover of short stories and novels has emerged in poems.
“Taxidermy: Cathartes aura” is a poem that was first published in Native Species. I carried that poem over to Coffin Honey because that boy stayed with me, lived with me. I suppose he’s a fictionalized version of myself, a possible self, if I had not escaped two crucial moments when a stranger tried to sexually assault me. A poet friend told me she wanted to know more about this boy, that she cared for him. And so I began to write other poems with him in mind. And then Ursus crossed paths with him. And then a family and a village community appeared.
Sarah Blake: The “dream elevator” poems are found between each section of the books. They are poems that use a huge amount of white space, but the effect is not that of space or boundlessness. These poems use white space as a greater constraint than a uniform line. They are nearly breathless as they explore some of the deepest traumas in the book. Can you speak to your use of white space in these poems?
Todd Davis: Trauma can cause us to hallucinate, to experience dreamlike states. Sometimes those dreamlike states can feel claustrophobic and, of course, threatening.
For me, writing is a bit like acting, inhabiting another character. This is the case even when I’m writing a first-person poem based upon an event from my own life. There’s an immersion into that character, that moment.
As I wrote this book, there were moments that forced me to return to traumatic events in my own life, or to the stories of others who had shared their trauma. I’d find myself grieving, sometimes physically weeping, as I moved into these experiences, depressed during the days I lived in this world.
The emotion that was part of this writing experience doesn’t necessarily mean a poem is good. So much work must be done in revision, considering the poem outside the moment of its creation, trying to move beyond the initial emotion to see if I’m providing an authentic experience to the reader.
The “dream elevator” poems had very different formal constructions in their early stages: prose poems, tercets, quatrains, uniform line-length, staggered lines. But nothing was capturing the desired emotional effect.
It was that breathless quality, that claustrophobic sense of the world closing in, caving in on that boy, on our collective existence, that I tried to capture by using the white space, the degree of confusion as the words scattered and spilled across the page.
I want to consider violence from the victim’s perspective, to make it real for the reader as an act of social justice.
Sarah Blake: I always find it difficult to write about violence. My approach is to be as direct as possible. Did you end up with rules or directives or principles that guided you as you wrote about violence and trauma?
Todd Davis: As you know from my other books, violence is part of the world I attempt to honestly record.
Violence is often accepted in depictions of the more-than-human world, the predator-prey relationship of an animal feeding itself by taking the life of another. But too often nature writing has elided even that violence, working within the inherited boundaries of the pastoral, or using nature simply as a conduit to a higher plane of consciousness or peaceful spirituality, even transcendence.
My principle for writing about violence and trauma is similar to your own. I attempt to be as direct as possible. I want to consider violence from the victim’s perspective, to make it real for the reader as an act of social justice. But I also want to understand the perpetrator or those who witness the violence, to examine why the old and ancient rituals of violence, of hatred, of trespass, continue to this day. I want to expose these ills by shining a bright, illuminating light.
I spend plenty of time worrying about the impact my descriptions might have on a reader. I hope never to be gratuitous in my use of violence, shocking in order to draw attention. To combat such misuses of violence in my poems, I try to create a context for the action and demonstrate the downstream effect, how violence poisons all it touches.
How to confront a reader with the reality of something as awful as the sexual assault of the boy in my book? That was a very difficult question for me. I hope I’ve honored that boy’s life in the right way by telling his story and not looking away.
Sarah Blake: I was struck again and again by how you end a poem. I love “Field Sermon,” ending with “as if he’s been taken / by the Spirit: a babble over turned earth.” And “God’s unguarded jaws” at the end of “When the Stones are Undone.” I remember a reading we both went to, when Rick Bass came to Penn State, and he spoke about how he writes endings and how he considers them—something along the lines of a person pointing towards their future so clearly that you don’t have to write it. I was wondering how you think about endings, what you think they should accomplish, and how your poems find their endings?
Todd Davis: I think what worries me about endings is the mistake of over-writing them, of stating the obvious or trying to explain what the poem has already been doing, what it’s already accomplished. As Rick says about endings, the future is so clear that you don’t have to write it.
On the most basic level, in a narrative poem, I hope to end on some strong action, not necessarily a concluding action, but an action that is strongly connected to the tension or conflict, the friction the narrative has been worrying over. An image, of course, is another good place to end a poem, allowing a leap of association. Or circling back to an earlier narrative action or idea, to offer a sense of reorientation and connection, even unity.
But these are fairly analytical, cerebral, ways of thinking about endings. I do consider all of this in revision, and at times an ending may change radically because of that consideration. As I’m writing, however, it’s more of a felt sense. It’s based on decades of reading other poems and stories.
I’ve been working at getting better as a maker of poems—seriously and concertedly working at it—for 31 years. In confessing this, you may scratch your head and ask why I’m not better at it! But just like an athlete or musician who has done thousands of repetitions, when you’re finally playing the game or playing a concert or writing a poem, the decisions you make are informed by those repetitions.
Sarah Blake: Appalachia plays a significant role in your poetry. So many poems in this collection highlight that, but I think the standout for me is “Up on Blue Knob.” What does it mean to you to write about Appalachia? What do you think an artist’s role is in documenting a place, creating its history?
Up on Blue Knob
most of the men possess one leg
shorter than the other, femur whittled
by thousands of hours wrestling
a plow along ridgeline. Because the mules
the men follow are fashioned by the hollow’s
pitch as well, the farrier trims hooves at an angle,
builds shoes to compensate. Wives and mothers,
when they call on kin in the valley, limp
across flat ground, hips unused to anything
but the swell and fall of the mountain.
For ten years children run with a normal gait,
the length it takes gangly limbs to sprout,
to learn to balance the sole inheritance
granted by this slanted world.
Todd Davis: I’m a geographical mutt. I was born and raised in Elkhart, Indiana. I went to college in Indiana and grad school in Illinois. I taught at Goshen College in Indiana for six years and then was poet-in-residence at Iowa State University for a year, before coming to Penn State, where I’ve taught and lived along the Allegheny Front for the past 19 years.
Yet I have deep roots in Appalachia. My father was born and raised in Kentucky. That side of my family goes back to the 18th century in Kentucky, and most of the Davises still live there. My mother was born and raised in Virginia, in the deep country to the west of Lexington. Again, her family has roots there back to the 18th century.
As a kid in northern Indiana, I didn’t feel like I fit in exactly. Our vacations were spent in Kentucky, visiting grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, all who had a heavy drawl and country ways.
Where I live now—between the villages of Tipton and Bellwood in Blair County—it’s considered the northern most tip of southern Appalachia. Because this is the place I’ve lived longest in my adult life, because this is where Shelly and I have raised our sons, because it’s afforded me the opportunity to be in daily contact with deep woods, with wildness, this feels like home.
I think an artist’s role in documenting a place, creating its history, is one of respect, of searching to understand why people act in certain ways, what their long relationship with a place demonstrates in terms of knowledge, why certain histories are not spoken of, buried or erased. In doing all of this, there’s a call to integrity, to not lie about it, to show it in all its contradictions and complexities. To veer toward sentimentality or nostalgia is to betray that place.
I write many poems that show how an extractive economy decimates a place—clear cutting and deep tunnel mining and strip mining and fracking. Paper mills on rivers that poison the water. Quarries that leave enormous holes in the earth. But to simply damn a place and its people is also a betrayal. We do not choose where we’re born, what we’re taught. I try to remember that when I’m depicting Appalachia and its forests and its people.
Sarah Blake: Of course, it’s hard to write about nature and wildlife and the mountains of Appalachia without talking about climate change. (It’s hard to write about nearly any place without talking about climate change at this point! But Appalachia has its own unique relationship to it.) You have the stunning poem, “How to Measure Sea Level Rise,” with its near-apocalyptic lines: “We huddle together in the dark, water lapping / at ankles, asking into what harbor we might sail…” How is climate change affecting your writing? How have you seen it change your writing over the last decade?
Todd Davis: Because my poems are a kind of phenological practice, I suppose they can be seen as a record of climate change in the bioregion and ecosystem along the Allegheny Front. I was just working on a poem last month that looked at certain warblers staying longer and longer in our region as summer and fall get more confused with each other.
I wrote a poem more than ten years ago called “What My Neighbor Tells Me Isn’t Global Warming.” I’ve been teaching about climate change for more than a quarter century.
The poems in Coffin Honey are my most dramatic and dystopic, but that’s because over the past few years we’ve seen a stunning escalation and lengthening of fire seasons and flooding events and drought and hurricanes and the melting of glaciers. It truly feels like we’ve knocked the world off balance. I suppose part of Coffin Honey was my attempt to dramatize in poems how climate change, even climate collapse, might look, or does look, in the place I live in Appalachia.
Sarah Blake: Many of your poems open with epigraphs, from Classical Chinese poetry to the Bible to contemporary American poetry. How do you see your poetry in conversation with other texts? And how do you see your writing life in conversation with your reading life?
Todd Davis: In many ways, I think of poetry, all the individual poems written and published by famous authors and anonymous authors and everyone in between, as one long poem, a poem in endless conversation, endless singing, endless grieving, endless celebration.
I certainly conceive of my poems in conversation with other texts and with the writers who made those texts. It’s one of the reasons I’ve dedicated poems to writers whose work has moved or inspired me, why I send poems to those people, send my books to them. Their writing has been a gift to me, a grace to me, and I hope I can return that gift in some small way. And then there are those writers who may have died 800 years before, on a separate continent, whose work illuminates my life.
I’m also intrigued by the ways epigraphs change a poem, similar to the ways a title can change the reading of a poem. The context that another writer’s words might offer my own words.
The process of working on a poem is very similar to a walk in the woods for me, or going to the gym to exercise. It’s a daily act, a way of being present to the world.
Sarah Blake: The book ends on “Sitting Shiva,” which surprised me. What drew you to write a poem about shiva, and to end the book there?
Todd Davis: Coffin Honey is in large part a book of mourning. I’m not without hope, but the reality of our finite existence—whether we take true steps toward ameliorating climate change, whether a person who’s experienced trauma finds ways to live a healthier life with the help of others—is ever before us.
I certainly hope I have many years left, many streams to follow, woods to explore, time with my sons and Shelly, but at 57, there isn’t as much road ahead as there is behind. Something I heard from my grandparents and parents, and now I’m experiencing myself, is that as you age, more and more of the people you’ve known and loved are dead.
Some of my poems—and “Sitting Shiva” is one of those poems—serve as forms of instruction to myself. As I looked over the wreckage of this book, the lives harmed, the lives lost, the possible futures of climate collapse, I looked to what a black bear might teach me. The poem came quickly out of this space: “If you find the bones of a bear, sit down and stay with them. / The dead desire our company…. A full moon will rise from the bear’s skull, / showing what she thought of us. Hold the moon-skull in your lap, // stroke the cranial ridges.” This ritual, these instructions, help me stay in the present, to live in this moment. Perhaps this might help another reader, too? I can only hope.
Sarah Blake: What’s next for your writing?
Todd Davis: I’m always working on poems, which helps me transition from one book project toward another without much down time. I don’t like the way life feels when I’m not making poems. The process of working on a poem is very similar to a walk in the woods for me, or going to the gym to exercise. It’s a daily act, a way of being present to the world.
I turned over the manuscript for Coffin Honey to Michigan State University Press almost a year ago and began to write new poems in March 2021. I knew I didn’t want to continue to translate the darkness, the pain, of the poems I’d worked on the past three years. Hitting the same note over and over isn’t healthy. I needed to look at something else. The new poems have been more personal, exploring moments with my adult sons, with Shelly. Ursus is still following me, or I’m still following him. I’m glad he’s part of some of the new poems. But I’m trying to understand how to better live in hope in the face of so much darkness, how to be present to the beauty that exists now and not to waste what is given.
Sarah Blake is the author of Clean Air, a cli-fi domestic thriller, Naamah, a novel reimagining the story of Noah’s ark, and poetry collections, Mr. West and Let’s Not Live on Earth. In 2013, she received a Literature Fellowship from the NEA. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Poetry Review, and The Kenyon Review. She lives outside of London, United Kingdom. Learn more about her work at sarahblakeauthor.com.