“I’m always writing back to the world, to the people I share the world with, the other living creatures, to my dead father, who I shared a deep connection, to whom I told what I saw in the woods at the end of each day.”
Native Species (Michigan State University Press, 2019)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I’m the grandson of poor, subsistence farmers on both sides of my family, but on my mother’s side, my grandfather stopped farming after the Great Depression and moved north to Naugatuck, Connecticut, to work in a rubber factory. My paternal grandparents had a first and sixth grade education; my maternal grandparents had an eighth-grade education. Neither of my grandfathers read much or very well. My maternal grandmother liked historical novels, and my paternal grandmother liked romance magazines and was a fervent reader of the Bible.
My father was an agriculture major at University of Kentucky but ended up becoming a veterinarian. He memorized poems in his one-room schoolhouse in Kentucky and would often quote them while we worked together on sick or injured animals. My mother taught kindergarten for three years but was a stay-at-home mom after that. She devoured Harlequin romances at night when everyone else was in bed.
I was born in Elkhart, Indiana, on the border of Michigan, and we had 40 acres of woods between Jones and Three Rivers, Michigan. I spent much of my time in the woods or helping my father at the animal hospital. My earliest memories are of being with other-than-human animals, finding deep connections with them. These experiences shaped my perspective as a writer, suggesting to me that the human animal is not necessarily the most interesting animal to write about. The language and cadence of blue-collar working people are what drew me to a plain-spoken poetry, and when I write, I have my grandparents and relatives and neighbors in mind. I hope I write a kind of poetry that they could understand on a certain level, that they would feel welcomed into my poems, not pushed away, like some academic or experimental poetry tends to do to working-class people.
How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?
I have a four-foot carved bear in my office that seems to be totemic for me and my writing. At present I’m writing a book-length poem through the perspective of a black bear named Ursus. The poem grapples with climate-change and the sixth great extinction event. I have other items from the natural world on my desk and shelves, too. There’s a wooden wash basin, the kind you would take to the river to do wash, carved out a single piece of wood, that’s been handed down through the family. A tortoise shell, grouse feathers, stones and pieces of wood from certain encounters in the woods. I also have a photo of an aspen grove by Ansel Adams on the wall; a painting by Craig Blietz, a Wisconsin artist who did the cover for my book In the Kingdom of the Ditch; two signed broadsides by the poet Dan Gerber; an artist-proof by Kurt Vonnegut of his pen-and-ink drawing “A Tree Trying to Tell Me Something,” which he sent to me with a lovely inscription, as well as a hand-written letter from Kurt. He was very kind to me and my poetry; he made me think that I might be able to write something worth reading. There’s a church pew in front of the window, a cross constructed of black walnut on the opposite wall that a friend made for me in a high school industrial arts class. And, finally, six bookshelves filled with books by some of my favorite writers. It’s like being in a choir. I may not be a soloist, but when I hear all the voices singing on those shelves, I feel like I can sing along for a while.
Could you share a representative poem from your book? Perhaps a poem that introduces the work of the book, or that invites the reader into the world of the book?
Sure. Here’s my poem “Almanac of Faithful Negotiations.”
Why did you choose this poem?
Native Species begins with an epigraph from William Stafford: “What I believe is, / all animals have one soul.” I chose “Almanac of Faithful Negotiations” because it suggests the kinds of connections I’m making in the book between human animals and other living beings. There are many poems in this book that depict transformations, often magically real transformations, of humans evolving into other forms, other animals, and I’d like to think we are all soulful creatures.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
My obsessions continue to be pretty consistent: death, religion (Christianity and its relationship to other religious systems), love for my family, the natural world, especially the local flora and fauna of my home landscape, the miraculous, the mystical, the ways those things are always wrapped up in a physical world, my attempts to breakdown the dualistic language that suggests we can parse the physical from the metaphysical, the neglected, those who Jesus called “the least of these,” social justice, environmental justice.
What’s your book about?
I find this kind of question very difficult to answer. I’m not sure that as the artist I really know what my own work is about. I can tell you the “things” that are in the book, but I’m sure I’d muck it up if I said what it was “about.” But here’s a description I wrote for my publisher when they asked for marketing copy that might answer a bit of the question.
Davis ushers the reader into a consideration of the green world and our uncertain place in it. As he writes in “Dead Letter to James Wright,” “You said / you’d wasted your life. / I’m still not sure / what species I am,” and, to that end, Native Species explores what happens to us—to all of us, bear, deer, mink, trout, moose, girl, boy, woman, man—when we die, and what happens to the soul as it faces extinction—if it “migrates into the lives of other creatures, becomes a fox or frog, an ant in a colony serving a queen, a red salamander entering a pond before it freezes.” He wonders, too, “How many new beginnings are we granted?”
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
I collect titles. By that I mean that I’m always on the lookout for evocative phrases that might serve as a title. I teach in an environmental studies program and spend a great deal of time talking with students about native and nonnative species. I often pose the philosophical question whether we humans are native anywhere at this point in human history, based upon the ways we live in disharmony with so many other species.
Several years ago, I wrote a poem, with the title “Native Species,” that recorded a man’s transformation into a whitetail deer. This idea is a provisional answer as to how we humans might become native again, living closer with our home ground, living in concert with the very earth that sustains and makes our lives possible.
As for the arrangement of the poems in the collection, when I have around 100 poems, which usually takes about three years for me to write, I set them out on the living room floor and begin to see how they talk to each other. There’s a chemical reaction between poems when they are placed side-by-side. I enjoy this process. It’s similar for me to playing with line breaks in a poem. Different work gets done with different placement. Eventually I have to be at peace with the arrangement and send it to the publisher, but up until the point of the final galleys, poems may change places in the manuscript.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story? What’s the back story?
“The Turtle” is a poem that was written while I fished a remote section of a stream where I had encountered an ancient snapping turtle several times. The turtle would move across this series of small rapids each spring to climb the bank and bury her eggs. I developed a relationship with that turtle, a love for her endurance, for her perseverance to see that her eggs, her offspring might have a chance.
One year during the time that turtle would be laying her eggs, the horrific and tragic shooting and murders of African-American parishioners at a church in South Carolina took place. I am deeply plagued by our refusal as a nation to address issues of gun violence—(and I say this as a hunter and an owner of six firearms, which I use for hunting). I am deeply plagued by the continued racism that underlies so many of our institutions and systems, as well as by the disenfranchisement of many youth and the violent acts they commit. I am outraged by the overt ways racism has reared its head over the last few years. I wonder how many lives must be taken before we gather together to do something to try to prevent these events.
I don’t know if this poem is successful, but it was my attempt at connecting different creatures—the human and that turtle—with sacred stories and the forces that converge to bring about hate and what hate produces. I still hear those voices weeping when I fish that part of the river.
Did you have any rituals while writing these poems? What were you listening to when you wrote these poems?
When I was a younger writer, I listened to more music when I wrote. I don’t listen to music as often now when I write; I find I become more distracted by the music and less involved in the poem.
But when I did listen to music while writing some of these poems in Native Species, it was Peter Gabriel’s Live Blood, an orchestral reinterpretation of many of his more famous songs. There is something about his voice for me that is primal and his use of myth and sacred stories resonates with me.
As for rituals, I am a fairly steady writer, trying to take time most days to work on poems. That means sitting down at my desk after breakfast with a mug of green tea, flavored with lemon and honey, looking through my journal for lines or images or stories, gazing at paintings or photographs, and reading poems by others. These are the catalysts that bring lines to me.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
Oddly enough, it was the book’s title poem, “Native Species.” It was originally a longer poem, a lineated poem in stanzas. I cut significantly, turned it into a prose poem, and changed the ending. I did this with the help of two poets, David Shumate and Chris Dombrowski. It caused me some worry because I’d lived with that poem for nearly two years as it was. But I saw the weaknesses that they perceived and after the revision felt better about what the poem was doing. After that revision, the book seemed “done” to me. Or at least as “done” as any book or poem can ever be.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
I’m so grateful for my working experience with Michigan State University Press. This is my fifth book of poetry with MSU Press and my sixth book overall with them. In this age, such a long relationship feels like an exception, a true gift, and I do not take this relationship for granted. They are a special press with so many special people helping bring my book to fruition. The editorial and production process with MSU Press is orderly and professional, really quite efficient. While they have the final say for the cover image of my book, all six of my books have a painting or photo that I suggested. I think that’s because the editors and design people at the press truly understand what I’m trying to do with my writing. I’m a lucky, lucky writer.
What are some of your favorite books—perhaps some that have influenced you?
At fifty-three years of age, having read most of my life, having been involved with English departments for the past thirty-five years, I have so many, many books and writers that influence me. But for the sake of this question, I’m going to name some. This is a pittance of the entirety and will inevitably leave out a book or writer I adore. But here goes:
William Stafford, The Way It Is; Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude; Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass; Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon; Maxine Kumin, Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief; Philip Levine, What Work Is; James Wright, Above the River; K.A. Hays, Dear Apocalypse; Robert Wrigley, Earthly Meditations; Nancy Willard, Swimming Lessons; Jim Harrison, The Shape of the Journey; Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories; Sherman Alexie, The Toughest Indian in the World; Pattiann Rogers, Eating Bread and Honey; Rick Bass, For a Little While; John Irving, World According to Garp; Rose McLarney, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains; Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec; Alison Hawthorne Deming, Temporary Homelands; Stephen Dunn, New and Selected Poems 1974-1994; Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; Michael McGriff, Home Burial; Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Lucky Fish; Wendell Berry, Farming: A Hand Book; Jack Ridl, Broken Symmetry; Kathleen Norris, Dakota; Li-Young Lee, Rose; Chris Dombrowski, Earth Again; Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke; Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss; Mary Oliver, Twelve Moons; Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It; Brady Udall, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint; Ted Kooser, Winter Morning Walks; David James Duncan, The River Why; Ron Rash, Something Rich and Strange; Raymond Carver, All of Us; Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares; Jane Kenyon, Otherwise; Karen Russell, Swamplandia; Charles Wright, Appalachia; David Shumate, Floating Bridge; and Mary Rose O’Reilley, Barn at the End of the World. And at this point I cringe at the number of books and writers I left out……
What might these books suggest about you and your writing?
First, I suppose it demonstrates that I’m affected by prose and poetry equally. Second, these books suggest that I love writers who embrace the body, who are spiritual, who love the people of this world, who love the animals of this world, who celebrate our contradictions, who believe in forgiveness, who wish to defend the persecuted, who never lose sight of joy and the miraculous condition of being alive.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new book that is filled with poems—or, as I said earlier, I conceive of it as a book-length poem in sections—that revolve around a character named Ursus. Ursus is a bear, likely a black bear, but I don’t name him as such. He is a bear living in a world radically impacted by climate change and the extinction of other animals and pandemics that affect humans and other creatures. It’s set in a not-too-distant future and has some apocalyptic brushstrokes. I’m enjoying the writing process, being lost in this other world, so similar to our present circumstance, funneling my perspective and concerns without using my autobiographical self as the speaker. Being a bear in the book allows me to see things and feel things I might not as a human.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, etc.) what would it be and why?
If I had any talent for painting, I would have been a painter. If I had any musical talent, I would have been a musician. I love both of these forms of artistic expression. I fill my life with paintings and music, probably two of the things, when I’m not in the woods, that I crave most. But I did not have talents that would allow for these pursuits. I’m thankful that poetry, at least the poems I write, rely on image and the music language can provide.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
You’ll be a writer if you are in love with the act of writing. If you desire fame or fortune, then you should exit the room right now. There is no fame or fortune in writing for 99.9% of the people who write. And even for those who win the writing lottery, I doubt that fame or fortune comes without some true costs.
But if you love the creative act of dreaming new worlds, new characters, of writing about true places and people, if you love playing with words, listening to the happy accidents words create, then pursue this passion by reading the very best writers, by reading the work that is being published and praised in the present. Try to learn how these writers have constructed their stories and poems. Imitate that construction. Pay attention to the world. Learn the names for the things you see. Learn how to do physical things. Fill your stories and poems with these physical objects and acts. The metaphors will be built from these physical objects and acts and will then begin to do the hard work of carrying the emotions and ideas you hope to communicate.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
Hmmm…. I only had one creative writing class in my education. I took a poetry workshop with the Zen Buddhist poet Lucien Stryk. As a result, my mentors or teachers were books. Often, I wish I’d had the chance to do an MFA because of the community I might have been a part of, the connections I might have made.
So as for wisdom, I suppose I’d say realize the most important thing is to show up at your desk regularly. Don’t expect your work to be informed by a flash of inspiration. Inspiration (or the muse) is wonderful when it visits, but that happens so seldom. Think about the number of hours it takes for someone to get good at a particular skill—the ten-thousand hour rule you’ve likely heard about. Then think about the long-haul, the long-marriage with your craft. I’m always inspired by stories of writers who publish their first book later in life. William Stafford was 46 when he published his first major collection, as was Billy Collins. A dear friend of mine, Mary Rose O’Reilley won the Walt Whitman prize and had her first book of poems published at 62.
This is hard for many young people to accept. We are a results-oriented culture. We praise and hold up the young, the savant. But the reality is that most of us are in for the long slog and our talents will accrue over time and we’ll be making much better stories and poems in our 30s, 40s, 50s, or later, than in our 20s.
Whose work helped you write this book? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
My inspiration is the complexity of the natural world. But that sounds so abstract! The veined colors in the small petals of wood sorrel inspire me, as do the tendrilled blossoms of witch hazel in November. The track of a bear or fisher or bobcat in the snow. The design of a brook trout’s skin. The poems of others who have come before me. Living with Shelly, my wife of thirty years, watching my sons grow and change. I’m always writing back to the world, to the people I share the world with, the other living creatures, to my dead father, who I shared a deep connection, to whom I told what I saw in the woods at the end of each day. In some ways, perhaps my father is always the person who inspires me to write poems.
Todd Davis is the author of six full-length collections of poetry, most recently Native Species and Winterkill, both published by Michigan State University Press. He edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball, and co-edited the anthology Making Poems. His writing has won the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Bronze and Silver Awards, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, and the Chautauqua Editors Prize. His poems appear in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Missouri Review, North American Review, and Poetry Northwest. He teaches environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College.