"Writing the Rural Perspective": An Interview with Noah Davis
NOAH DAVIS grew up in Tipton, Pennsylvania, and writes about the Allegheny Front. Davis’ manuscript Of This River was selected by George Ella Lyon for the 2019 Wheelbarrow Emerging Poet Book Prize from Michigan State University’s Center for Poetry, and his poems and prose have appeared in The Sun, Best New Poets, Orion, North American Review, River Teeth, Sou’wester, and Poet Lore among others. He has been awarded a Katharine Bakeless Nason Fellowship at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and the 2018 Jean Ritchie Appalachian Literature Fellowship from Lincoln Memorial University. Davis earned an MFA from Indiana University and now lives with his wife, Nikea, in Missoula, Montana.
As the 2020 presidential election neared its conclusion, with Trump’s divisive rhetoric growing in intensity despite a global pandemic, I found comfort in reading Of This River (MSU Press, August, 2020), the debut poetry collection from Noah Davis that won the 2019 Wheelbarrow Books Emerging Poetry Prize, and which Adrian Matejka has called “a poetic apologue of remembrance, one that helps clarify our irrefutable, yet tenuous place in this world.”
It is a collection that, to me, is a fine example of the poet as witness. Many of the poems occur through the perspective of “Short-Haired Girl,” a fictional character who serves as the narrative vehicle for the book, who Davis skillfully employs to share the world of his real-life home, the Allegheny Front, a region that has since ended up playing a crucial role in the presidential election’s results.
After finishing Of This River, I reached out to Noah Davis and conducted this interview with him via email throughout the month of September 2020. In our interview, he discusses how the poetry collection came into being, his purpose behind “Short-Haired Girl,” his personal experiences that led to the book’s political nature, and his obsession with water.
Daniel Lassell: Noah, it’s wonderful to speak with you. Congrats on your debut poetry book, Of This River, out now from Wheelbarrow Books/Michigan State University Press! Reading through the collection, I was struck by how cohesive the poems felt—they seem to be in such conversation. How did this collection come about?
Noah Davis: Thank you, Daniel! It means so much that you’ve taken time to get to know the book. You’re absolutely right about the cohesive nature of the poems. Of This River is a very “novel-like” collection. Something I never thought I’d write when I was envisioning how my first book would turn out. But as I began laying the poems out on the floor trying to find an order in the years of work, I saw different characters popping up over and over again in lines. Looking back, I guess it was inevitable to discover these reoccurring characters as all my writing is based out of the Appalachian region of Pennsylvania, a place that creates a consistent setting of bears, railroad tracks, old mining sites, and rivers. The arc of the book follows “Short-Haired Girl'' and her family’s lives in my home river valley. Through their witness, I wanted the lines to show how the violences humans bring to the landscape are then reflected in the people spiritually and physically. My favorite people growing up were grandmas and grandpas who told stories about their home places. Honest stories. I always wanted to tell good stories about my home and how I learned to live from that place. I think this book is reaching toward that.
DL: I love the connection of your hometown with the landscape in Of This River. Indeed, place does play a key role within the collection, and I’m so glad you mentioned how the narrative arc almost reads like a novel—I found this so true, it’s one of those collections that draws me back after I’ve left a poem to realize foreshadowing at play. It’s a book packed with detailed, elegiac imagery and themes that range from violence to religion to ecological concerns—all converging.
There’s something haunting in the collection, which to me, becomes clear at the outset in “Drowning as Taught by Short-Haired Girl,” in which the speaker imagines snapping turtles eating her, and in your poem, “Woman Who Will Be Short-Haired Girl’s Mother Plants Potatoes after a Night Trying to Conceive.” I’m curious about “Short-Haired Girl”—how she came into being, both as a speaker and as a poetic vehicle for the rest of the collection. Can you elaborate? What compelled you most when writing, versus what emerged most clearly when editing the collection for publication?
ND: I’m glad you mentioned the elegiac qualities of the poems. I took an Elegy & Ode class taught by Cathy Bowman in my third semester of the MFA and the poems we read for that class really showed me that the manuscript was all elegies and odes. Deaths of animals, people, and places. Praises of animals, people, and places.
Short-Haired Girl came about after I brought a hunting poem into a workshop. The speaker was a teenage girl and three different commenters wrote back that the poem wasn’t believable because it was a female, and not a male, hunting. It’s obvious after looking at the national statistics of licensed hunters in America that men make up the vast majority of hunters—I think the most recent census took place in 2011 and at that time it was 89% were men and 11% were women. But growing up in central Pennsylvania, I had many girl friends who were serious hunters and we would talk at lunch or in the halls after the opening day of deer or turkey and tell the stories of our days in the woods. While Short-Haired Girl does hunt, fish, have a garden, and is a character deeply connected to the land, the balking against the reality of a young woman hunting isn’t the crux of why Short-Haired Girl is so important, but is only one example of the disconnect and two-dimensional perception the greater American population has for rural people. There is a dissonance in how rural poverty is displayed, how rural knowledge is displayed, how rural care and tenderness and violence are displayed. Particularly in the current political climate, rural America is seen as a monolith of whiteness overjoyed by their own ignorance, proudly voicing their racism, sexism, and xenophobic rhetoric. Damn that rhetoric. But as so many writers before me have argued, these are not all rural people. My poems attempt to bring attention to hollows where this is not the rhetoric.
When I was writing the poems all I was focused on was the writing. Each poem had to be as good as it could be. It wasn’t until I reached the compiling stage of the manuscript that I began writing specific topic poems to fill in gaps or change titles to better serve the manuscript as a whole. The clarity of the collection definitely followed the poem writing. I can’t write toward something. Only after thirty pages of poems does a shape really start to form for me. Short-Haired Girl was the main revelation. I think I had around eight Short-Haired Girl poems when I first began showing people the pages and I eventually realized that I needed to change poems with different titles to Short-Haired Girl poems and write more from her or her family’s perspective. She took over the manuscript in the last two months before submitting.
DL: I like how you connect the act of writing to being a political act, and I definitely felt this tension throughout the collection. Indeed, I feel like all art is a political act on some level, some more overt than others. So much of life and how we “make a living” seems intent upon crushing Art and artistic expression, especially in our capitalistic society. It then becomes a political act, just to create for any purpose beyond monetization. And I recall so many poems in your book that specifically illustrate the political, such as “Short-Haired Girl Goes to Church,” which speaks to the culpability between faith and environmental destruction: “In Sunday school / I ask / what we’re supposed to do / when the mountains / are all dust and rubble? / The teacher says / God will provide / for the faithful.”
And when discussing the political in poetry, I can’t help but be reminded of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which caused such a stir in its time. Some of the same issues are still present all these years later. Maybe it’s about lack of progress across decades, but there’s also something there that speaks universally to the human condition, in how a poem can bridge across generations. In creating political poetry that is both timely and accessible decades later, what advice would you give to emerging writers and poets?
ND: I think you’re right, the writing of poems in itself is a protest of the capitalistic ventures that we’re expected to participate in. Ross Gay is in love with this quote by Auden about the nothingness of poetry. Nothing happens from poetry and that’s the power of it. The same goes with playing pickup basketball, or going for a hike, or sitting on the porch while hummingbirds buzz by. These little protests collectively “waste” so much time that would otherwise be used to buy or make things that tear down mountains and forests or create machines used to kill other humans. Waste all the time in the world, please.
If we look at the longevity of the political poem from a Biblical lens, we must acknowledge what Christ says about the poor: “The poor will always be with you,” (Mark 14:7). So yes, we haven’t progressed as quickly as we might’ve hoped when Ginsberg wrote “Howl” in the 1950s, but the writers of the Bible also understood the issue of power dynamics that would last for millennia. Countries around the world are trying to figure out what to do with poverty. The political issues that Of This River is arguing for are fundamental issues, which are building blocks of all political art: class, race, social justice, and the environment. How do we treat the undereducated of our country? The people who are left to live in compromised environments? Our neighbors who look different from us? Who eat in different ways than us? I want all of these issues to be solved before this next decade passes, but in all likelihood, we will be struggling with the same concerns at that time, possibly even with heightened intensity i.e. climate change and the fires that are burning entire states. This country—many other countries also—does not have a culture of care. A culture that insists on the preservation of community and the wellbeing of others socially, emotionally, physically, mentally, and financially. I believe the greatest and most common cries sung from political poems are the pleadings through story, image, and sound that depict a lack, a want, or a presence of care. Write while holding the care you want for the people and place you love. That authentic intensity will be noticed.
DL: Thanks for that—I like that advice. Let’s shift slightly if we can, to wildlife. So many animals appear in Of This River—they seem to make up as much of the landscape as the people. One of my favorite poems, “St. Francis,” also ties in well with our conversation about political poetry, because it seems to be a post-apocalyptic imagining of the saint, Francis of Assisi, where he’s cleaning up the earth of dead animals, gifting the carcasses to carrion. It strikes me as so timely, too, questioning if St. Francis returned today, what he’d do after finding all that humans have done to wildlife. Can you tell me more about this poem? How did it come about, and what is it in conversation with?
ND: I’m always happy to talk about wildlife! Sometimes I still think I should’ve tried wildlife biology instead of English. In a lot of ways Of This River is about community. The non-human world is also our community. We must listen and take care of them or we ourselves will be lost. Lost in the very literal physical sense as we look at droughts in the west causing fires, acid mine drainage in Appalachia, fracking and oil pipelines in the upper Midwest, and also in the spiritual and emotional sense of losing a member of the space we call home. Wendell Berry writes about the black walnuts disappearing from the banks of the Kentucky River because of mine runoff in the mountains and asks how can he live there when they cannot? Human’s need the more-than-human-world. This isn’t the place to list all the research that supports this assertion, but I’d suggest people read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, as he compiles tomes of hard data regarding our development and continued physical and emotional health as directly related to our connection with the natural world.
“Saint Francis” is one of my favorite poems. Thank you for bringing it up. This is one of the earliest poems written in the collection, during my sophomore year of college. He’s still a major influence on my work, but I was really into Michael McGriff’s poetry during that time. Nearly an everyday read for me. In his first book that won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from Pitt, Dismantling The Hills, McGriff has a poem titled “The Last Temptation of Christ” about Christ being a man who has a concealed weapons permit, listens to a CB scanner, and ends up saving a person who drove their car into a river. That poem blew my mind. I’m a liberal Mennonite and a person who has spent enough time outside to believe that supernatural things happen, and I loved the idea of placing a religious figure in the contemporary world. My world. What would that look like? I played Division II college basketball for a small catholic liberal arts school outside of Pittsburgh and we were driving down to West Virginia for a game. It all happened in a second, like everything does when you’re driving 65 mph down the highway. There was a man in a truck bed doing a job that most people don’t see, but one that happens every day across America. He was picking up dead deer that were struck by cars. Three were already behind him in the bed and he was hoisting another as we passed. The casualties of our need to go somewhere fast. Anyone who has driven on a highway has seen dead deer and sometimes no one picks them up, and they rot to bones on the concrete, but there are people who will lift them into a truck and take them to massive, designated dumps where carrion birds of every kind descend and eat. Isn’t this a job Saint Francis would do? Take the lives that would otherwise waste in the sun to a place where others may eat, grow strong, and continue to live?
I’m glad you called the world we are living in “post-apocalyptic.” The world has ended so many times before. Maybe not in the huge way Hollywood and genre fiction has made us believe, but what else would you call a world where there were once somewhere between three and five billion passenger pigeons? A world where pioneers had to clear buffalo bones from the plains before they could till the soil? A world where just last week 100,000 birds fell from the sky dead?
We need our saints. We need to listen to our community. We need to change our actions for our neighbors.
DL: I couldn’t agree more. Such a poignant story too, the man on the highway shoulder picking up deer—so often we don’t see or consider who cleans up after us. Who atones for our sins.
Before we close, I wanted to talk about water in the collection, which I think connects back to our overall conversation. “Feeding Hogs as Taught by Short-Haired Girl,” for example, deepens the connection we’ve been talking about between humanity, animal life and the environment—and the injustice so often seen and unseen inflicted upon rural communities—especially in the last lines: “That’s why everything tastes like the water.” So much is accomplished in just six lines! Indeed, we are all connected by water, which is signaled in the book’s title. Could you share a few words on the role of water in the book?
ND: Water is definitely one of my obsessions. I grew up along the Little Juniata River in Pennsylvania. It’s a small river, I think most people would call it a big creek in a section that runs behind my neighborhood. And along the Allegheny Front there are dozens of small streams that are tributaries of the Little J where I spend most of my time. Beginning when I was eight, I think I’ve been wet from the knees down most days in April into September, and I wear waders all the other months when it’s too cold. These intimate bodies of water created a map of home for me. A map of comfort and knowledge. Comfort might be the wrong word because I’m often in discomfort during the intense days of wading up the cobbles and I witness discomfort in the woods around me—the thousands of predator/prey relations that every piece of healthy woods have—so maybe it’s more like a grounding more than a comfort. But during these explorations into some truly wild places for the East, I’ve found acid mine drainage killing the streams, the same streams that fill the reservoir of my small town. Water is such a mythical element in the most spiritual of senses, but it’s also a factor from which we can learn so much about the health of our place. Being an angler and someone who enjoys eating fish, there’s always the conversation about how fish only taste as good as the water they swim in. What about the deer that drink from the water? The birds? You and me when we turn on the faucet? What is that taste? How do we treat ourselves through our actions?
We are the water. There is a consistent amount of energy in the universe that is constantly transferring from form to form. There can be no disconnect from us and others. The moving water of my home illustrated that for me. Each body flows into the other to become something greater. Each river begins at a crack on the mountain and flows down to the valley.
DL: “We are the water”—I love that. Noah, thank you so much, again, for speaking with me. In closing, is there a poem, or an excerpt of a poem, from Of This River that you’d like to share? Where would you recommend for readers to buy your book?
ND: Of course, Daniel, thank you. This was a privilege and I’m so grateful that you’d want to talk about the book. As for where to buy the book: directly from Michigan State University Press or your favorite local bookstore! How about we continue with the water theme to bring this together? “Short-Haired Girl Praises a Child on a Horse,” was first published in Orion thanks to Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and I feel like it gives people a good idea of Short-Haired Girl. As much as one poem could.
Short-Haired Girl Praises a Child on a Horse
When I see a child sitting on a horse, I believe
for a moment they are the same animal.
Like owls sleeping in larch trees.
Like geese resting between cattails.
I believe this more if the child
isn’t wearing a shirt.
Like hummingbirds sipping cardinal flowers.
Like dragonflies drying wings on laurel.
If they cross a river, the child and horse
become even closer, a single wet body.
Like bees trembling spicebush.
Like lacewings climbing moss.
Out of the river, water drips down
the child’s legs and over the horse’s stomach.
River water becomes child’s water.
Child’s water becomes horse’s water.
Water must return to earth.
Like all children and their horses.
DANIEL LASSELL is the author of Spit (MSU Press, forthcoming September 2021), winner of the 2020 Wheelbarrow Books Emerging Poetry Prize selected by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, as well as the limited-edition chapbook, Ad Spot (Ethel, forthcoming Spring 2021). His recent poetry can be found in Southern Humanities Review, River Styx, Grist, Colorado Review, and Prairie Schooner. In his youth, he raised llamas and alpacas on a farm in Kentucky. Today, he lives in Colorado.