What are you reading these days? Do you love/hate/feel neutral about it, and why?
I usually read between five to ten books at a time, different texts depending on mood. I’ll spend an evening in my reading chair and read each book for fifteen minutes and move on to the next one, so here’s what my current stack looks like:
I’m always in the middle of a novel because fiction is my favorite escape. Currently I’m reading Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki, a queer sci-fi book that I’m enjoying immensely, and and not just because donuts and music are plot points. The novel I most recently finished was Akwaeke Emezi’s You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty, which I really loved. It’s summer, so I tend to go for warm, somewhat lighter books; I’m usually ready something heavy and Russian in winter.
I’m usually in the middle of several poetry books at once:
I’ve been really interested in visual poetry for the last five years, and am really enjoying The Book of Penteract, a gorgeously printed anthology from an excellent press that’s already caused me to order several authors’ books from the library, including Crystallography by Christian Bök.
I just finished and immediately began rereading Constellations by Astra Papachristodoulou, a favorite visual poet. I ordered it directly from her along with a few other chapbooks that I’m excited to tuck into next.
Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow. by Noor Hindi is a debut collection that I’ve been really looking forward to. She beautifully interrogates what it means to witness, how to approach that in an active, way instead of passive.
Natalie Diaz's debut collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec is feeling hitting home right now in unexpected ways.
I’m usually in the middle of several reference books, which I take a long time to finish because I rotate through them depending on mood and current interest:
At the recommendation of a friend, I’m slowly reading a little of The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science by Culadasa (John Yates). It’s a lot to absorb, so I read only a page or two a night but it gives realistic, practical advice that’s helped me a lot.
I just started How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm, which makes the case that perhaps it’s time to move beyond peaceful protest as climate change accelerates to render this planet uninhabitable for human life.
I’m almost done selectively reading Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966 to 1972 by Lucy Lippard, an extremely dense but fascinating historical record of a specific timeframe in the conceptual art scene. It’s mostly brief descriptions, show notes, and grainy photographs, but it’s still really cool to read about how people were philosophically exploding the idea of what art can be.
S.S.O.T.B.M.E. Revised: An Essay on Magic by Ramsey Dukes: I love to read about magical thinking and practices, even if I’m too lazy or cynical to do much beyond the occasional tarot spread.
I’m slowly working my way through Monolithic Undertow: In Search of Sonic Oblivion by Harry Sword, about drone music. It was a gift from a friend that keeps on giving in the form of a to-listen list.
There’s a long-term visual poetry project I’m percolating, so I’m slowly reading Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems by John DeFrancis as background. I saw him referenced in a translation footnote in The Three Body Problem (the whole trilogy was excellent; the third book broke my brain about 15 times) and got this book from the library. About 20 pages in I ordered it from my local bookshop (hi, City Lit in Logan Square!).
Even though I don’t really cook I’m usually reading at least one cookbook, right now two:
Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook by Kristen Miglore is excellent for the tips alone; I might be giving it as a gift this holiday season.
Some lovely friends just sent me a care package of exquisite tinned fish (mackerel is my all-time favorite) so I’m rereading The Magic of Tinned Fish: Elevate Your Cooking with Canned Anchovies, Sardines, Mackerel, Crab, and Other Amazing Seafood by Chris McDade. I might even make something from it this time!
Wow, I am blown away by how many books you are reading and narratives you are able to read at once. How do you keep all the different storylines straight in your head? Do you keep notes in a notebook or in the book itself?
Well I usually read only one novel at a time -- I like to get immersed -- so I'm generally dwelling in only one fiction narrative at any point. The rest (reference, poetry, cookbooks, non-fic) I read according to mood. Many of those books can be picked up and set down for weeks at a time, though sometimes I devour a whole book of poems in one sitting, which I plan to do this week with Marie Conlan's Neurotic Love Baby that just arrived.
I don't worry about how long it takes me to finish non-fiction books; the Chicago Public Library lets you renew many times unless someone else places the book on hold, so I can take my sweet time. I don't really keep notes on the books I read other than a running list of them that I update annually (https://j3s.net/reading-lists), though I'll bookmark pages that I love with passages I want to revisit after the book is done. Sometimes I'll take pictures of poems I love or recipes I'm interested in, but I don't really take notes. I'm not an academic (never got an MFA), so I'm not worried about retaining everything.
Could you provide for us a passage of writing that deeply shifts something inside you?
I guess it would be Ruth Stone’s poem “Train Ride.” I’ve read it a lot in the last seven or so years, but especially in recent months; I read it at my father’s funeral service in July. I find it comforting.
by Ruth Stone
All things come to an end;
small calves in Arkansas,
the bend of the muddy river.
Do all things come to an end?
No, they go on forever.
They go on forever, the swamp,
the vine-choked cypress, the oaks
rattling last year's leaves,
the thump of the rails, the kite,
the still white stilted heron.
All things come to an end.
The red clay bank, the spread hawk,
the bodies riding this train,
the stalled truck, pale sunlight, the talk;
the talk goes on forever,
the wide dry field of geese,
a man stopped near his porch
to watch. Release, release;
between cold death and a fever,
send what you will, I will listen.
All things come to an end.
No, they go on forever.
When you are working on a piece, what inspirations do you draw from?
Oh wow, that depends on the piece! I guess it’s usually somewhat environmental or temporally relevant: some glimmery thing catches my attention, a physical object becomes a vehicle for swirling emotions, that sort of thing. If I’m really into a particular poet’s work, entrenched in a book and really digging it, their voice might tinge whatever I’m working on; sometimes I’ll even imitate a form or trick I think is cool, though I don’t send those poems out for submission, as that can be an ethically grey area. However, it’s fun to play and do whatever I want when I promise myself no one will see it. Most things I write are just for me, not the world.
How do you differentiate between poems that are ready/acceptable for the world versus ones that are just for yourself – are there criteria you have or is it more of a feeling?
Many times I know while writing a just-for-me poem that I'll never share it with the world; I have many of these pieces I call "emotional masturbation" that I write to help myself process events and feelings, not for artistic value or whatever. Sometimes the material is just too personal, not something I'd ever want made public; sometimes there's no craft behind it, just verbal vomiting on the page. All of that is fine!
For example, when my father was dying a couple months ago I wrote about a dozen...blobs, potential poems I guess, just to get some screaming, crying, and venting out. I draft most poems by hand in my notebooks (current one) and then type them up. After transcription, all but a couple of those deathbed poems got tagged (with Scrivener metadata) as "do-not-continue." A few of them contained some interesting phrases or poetic kernels that could become poems I edit into additional drafts, TBD. Poems that I want to show the world (or just my friends) hopefully have some confluence of crafted language and emotional resonance, an element of play and surprise. I love surprising myself.
What craft elements are you most interested in/attached to within your writing?
My poems usually begin as couplets by default, I just find them comfortable, though in the last six years or so I’ve gotten a bit weirder, experimenting with unexpected formats. I never got an MFA but spent the last twenty-five years taking craft and generative workshops at various writing centers (hi, Lighthouse!) and have tried all sorts of formal structures. It’s fun to learn shapes and then shatter them, reassemble the shards.
Recently I’ve gotten really curious about visual poetry. I’ve been interested in how image and text can be integrated since I got my first digital camera in 2000. Then, when I lived in Denver for six years and began making poemboxes, which are sculptural interpretations of my poems (heavily influenced by Joseph Cornell), I began wondering how other people were combining words and visual elements. It’s so exciting!
Talk to us more about poemboxes, how do they come to life and how is that process different from creating a poem on the page?
I grew up visiting and revisiting the Cornell boxes at the Art Institute of Chicago, they have stuck with me since childhood. I don't have any formal visual art training but I never forgot those art boxes! I started making poemboxes when I was in a marriage I needed to leave...perhaps constructing little worlds that went outside their borders was a means of escaping in place. Maybe I was just bored with my creative process and wanted to try something new.
Working with my non-dexterous hands was a challenge, trying to render visions in my head into 3D reality. Usually I pick a poem and then figure out how it wants to exist as a sculptural box, so the poem almost always comes first. From there it's a process of putting everything out on the workspace and moving components around until they feel right, though I guess you could describe writing poems that way, too.
Who (or what) are some of your writing obsessions, and why?
I use Scrivener to edit poems (after I handwrite the first draft in an unlined horizontally oriented notebook). It's a fantastic tool similar to the editor I use for my day job (Oxygen, I'm a technical writer for a software company) with a bit of a learning curve but so worth it. It has customizable metadata you can tag individual pieces with, so when I look at those tags I can see the recurring themes in my work. Lately there are a lot of mouths/broken jaws, sex and messy bodies in general, shards and glass, meditations on the limitations of language, escape/the void, interrogating memory as ghosts, geometry and geology, the gap between pictorial representation and reality, and a bunch of trees since I live in a fourth-floor apartment with a massive tree out my front window.
What are some ways in which you remain productive/find time to be a writer?
It’s taken me decades to establish a consistent writing practice. I’ve been working full-time since I was twenty-one (I'm about to be forty-five), so if I don’t make time for my creative practices they won’t happen. I view it as something nice I do for myself: get up earlier and spend forty-five minutes before my day job working on poems and journaling. It helps that I’ve been working from home, fully remote, since 2013. I usually try to set aside a weekend morning for a block of several hours, too, to type up everything that’s been scribbled in my notebook that week.
What are some ways in which you get through a block in your creative work?
It helps to remember that nothing is forever. Most things in nature happen in cycles, so if I’m in a fallow period, so what? When you repot a plant or make a cutting, you don’t see much visible growth for a while because the plant is spending energy establishing a root system, so I just try not to sweat it. Anxiety will just amplify itself. Instead, I try to focus on more poetry administrative stuff, like editing older pieces, submitting to lit mags, etc. When all else fails, I go to a museum or work out/take a walk. Art and moving the body are powerful medicines.
How do you navigate the experience of submissions/rejections/acceptances?
I use a spreadsheet to track submissions, it goes back to 2002 and has about 540 submission entries so far (oh my god!) so yeah, I like to be organized. I used to take rejections personally but being an editor for Inverted Syntax annihilated that. As an editor, I see so much amazing work that we can’t publish for one reason or another; it’s never personal. When I look back at poems that got declined twenty, even five years ago, I’m quite grateful to the editors for the rejections; I’ve submitted so many cringe-y, weak, or private poems that I’m so glad they don’t live in public view now.
About five years ago I did that “aim for 100 rejections in one year” thing – I think I succeeded but haven’t attempted that pace since then. I tend to forget about submissions once I send them, that way acceptances are a pleasant surprise. The work, to craft poems I love, is the goal, not so much publication.
Regarding your pieces in Issue 02, what do they mean for/to you?
I have three pieces in Issue 02, and wow I am so honored to be included in this gorgeous publication!
-- “Lake House as Hourglass” was written during a really difficult phase of getting divorced, having to improvise in a new environment, unable to see what comes next.
-- “Seeds” came out almost in one piece. Usually my poems go through at least a dozen drafts but this one didn’t seem to want much tweaking.
-- “Gun Control” also emerged close to fully formed, but I sat on it for a few years. I even asked my mom: do I really want a poem about my vagina out there in the world? Turns out that yes, I do.
Do you have any recent publications and/or projects?
I haven’t published a book in a couple decades, so I’d like to thank the amazing editors of The Champagne Room for being incredibly supportive good people. I have to shout Inverted Syntax, a lit mag I help to edit, because Nawal Nader-French is a wonderful, skilled editor and thoughtful friend. I have a new (OK, four years old) poembox out in the debut issue of Cutbow Quarterly, which contains so much cool hybrid work. I also have a new poem out in The Jupiter Review and one slated for Heavy Feather Review's next print issue. I think Collective Aporia / *apo-press is awesome, they published one of my visual poems in their first issue, and their workshops are always fun and inspiring, a lovely community.
Is there anything else you would like to share with other writers?
Writing is a verb, not just a noun. It’s not content, it’s your work, and while capitalism has devalued literature it’s still urgent and necessary, but also something you have to want to do for yourself. Forget about anyone else reading it and just start writing, that’s when the interesting stuff comes out. Establish a practice and stick to it, even if it’s just fifteen minutes before work or an hour on a Saturday. Consistency can be its own reward, but even more so when the right word or crystalline phrase bubbles up to the surface. Those moments of awe, when I finish reading or writing a poem that makes me go WOW!!, those are the reward. Whoops, I didn’t mean to give advice but here we are. Keep writing. Use your voice.
Jesica Davis (she/her) is a poet and software technical writer from Chicago who has lived in various places including Champaign-Urbana, Sydney, Minneapolis, Berlin, Brooklyn, Denver, Miami, and Michigan. She’s an Associate Editor for Inverted Syntax whose work has appeared in Dream Pop, Storm Cellar, streetcake magazine, The Laurel Review, Kissing Dynamite, and other places. Jesica studied poetry at the University of Illinois (as well as The New School, NYU, and Poets House), was the final Alice Maxine Bowie Fellow at Lighthouse Writers Workshop (2016-2017), and won the Tarantula Prize for Poetry (Pilgrimage Press, 2018). Sometimes she makes poemboxes, which are sculptural interpretations of her poems. See j3s.net for more.