top of page

"Writing the Rural Perspective": An Interview with Noah Davis

Daniel Lassell

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


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 feltthey 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