Oct/Nov 2004 Miscellaneous

The Prose and Poetry of Terri Brown Davidson: An Interview

by Elizabeth Glixman

Terri Brown Davidson holds a Ph.D., M.F.A., and M.A. in English and creative writing. Her first book of poetry, The Carrington Monologues, was nominated for both the 2002 Pulitzer Prize and a Pushcart Prize and has gone into a second printing at Lit Pot Press. Marie, Marie: Hold on Tight, her first novel, will be released by Lit Pot Press in 2004. Terri has been nominated seven times for the Pushcart Prize, and her work has appeared in more than 750 journals, including Triquarterly, Hayden's Ferry Review, Denver Quarterly, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and New York Stories. Her chapbook Rag Men won The Ledge Competition in 1994; her chapbook The Doll-Artist's Daughter was published by White Eagle Coffee Store Press in 1997. Terri's second novel is Autobiography of a Jawbone and is based on the life of American photographer Diane Arbus.


EG Many of your recent stories are about the lives of famous women artists. What attracts you to women artists?

TBD I wouldn't say that I'm attracted to "women artists," per se. It's the quality of the consciousness of the artist, male or female, that attracts me. I'm as fascinated by Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Andrew Wyeth as I am by Dora Carrington, Diane Arbus, and Georgia O'Keeffe.

EG What is it about a particular artist's consciousness that attracts you?

TBD I look for a psychological niche that I sense hasn't been previously explored and that I long to inhabit, perhaps because of some gravitational pull of my own. In other words, their work or life suggests some question to me—usually a psychological or aesthetic question that needs to be addressed, but the process is rarely conscious. I love inhabiting and fictionalizing the lives of historical figures via my own method of method-acting, and I don't confine myself to an examination of artists: right now I'm doing research for a novel based on the life of Dian Fossey (I've just completed a novel on Diane Arbus).

EG Dian Fossey, the gorilla lady?

TBD Yes. She was one of Louis Leakey's "trio" of powerful women who studied primates, a threesome that included Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas. Each woman is or was invested—respectively—in chimps, mountain gorillas, and orangutans. Goodall and Galdikas are alive; Fossey was murdered, possibly by an angry poacher.

EG What did you find fascinating about her life?

TBD What wasn't fascinating? By some accounts, toward the end of her life, she was so aggressive about protecting "her" gorillas, using tactics such as torturing and mock-hanging poachers or kidnapping their children, that some people have judged her, then, clinically insane. But the immense passion—and compassion—that she had for those gorillas is not only beautiful and inspiring, it's the mark, to me, of a human being who wasn't afraid to risk everything for what she believed in, including her own life.

EG You wrote a series of stories based on Andrew Wyeth paintings. What was the question that attracted you to Andrew Wyeth's painting Christina's World?

TBD For Christina Olson (subject of Christina's World), it was the knowledge of her vulnerability as a young girl—as a disabled young girl—that translated into that painting, and how she looks almost "normal" in the painting though she was crawling up a hill toward the Olson house, a house, in fact, that she could never stop inhabiting.

EG What do you mean she could never stop inhabiting the house?

TBD She sat on a chair in that house and tried desperately to preserve her dignity, urinating on a pile of newspapers beneath her chair (she was incontinent). And yet, in the face of her disability, she had this incredibly warm and feisty friendship with Andrew Wyeth, who used her as a sort of renegade muse.

EG There might be people who would find Christina's situation or Arbus' lifestyle unpleasant, not fascinating. I read your story about Diane Arbus going into the sewers of New York called "Red Coat". At first read I thought why would anyone write this story? There was an ugliness to the whole experience.

TBD Like Fossey, she was a risk-taker. Born into an incredibly wealthy family (her family owned Russeks Fifth Avenue, which was the important department store in New York at one time; Diane's father was a great gad-about-town, a philanderer who even had an affair with Joan Crawford), she easily could have had a safe or predictable life. And yet she shrugged off all of this wealth and a later secure living as a top fashion photographer with her husband, Allan Arbus, to claim, through her camera shots, the people whom the world considered "freaks," but whom she considered royalty. She thought that freaks were braver than we are, in many respects, because they were "born" with their trauma. And I'm still amazed by the tremendous sense of compassion evinced in her portraits of institutionalized and retarded children.

EG Who do you think is your audience?

TBD I don't think much about issues of audience. I'm interested, primarily, in realizing the artistic goals that I set for myself and in revealing the truth about the world as I see it, even if that truth is painful and or dark.

EG How do you go about get into the minds and feelings of your famous subjects?

TBD I start with a feeling of synchronicity. As I said earlier, there's some fascinating aberration in the character's consciousness that speaks to me and makes me want to make the often-extensive leap into fictionalizing the character's life. My immersion into their feelings is wholly intuitive; I get a sort of a "mental trigger" that I'll be able to accomplish this after a vast quantity of research.

EG Tell us about your research.

TBD I read everything that I could get my hands on as research. To do any less is, in my view, irresponsible. I've also completed a book of short stories on Georgia O'Keeffe, Ladder to the Moon, and—in preparation for that effort—I read approximately forty biographies and monographs on O'Keeffe. I strive to become a "lay-expert" before I inhabit any of my characters. Again, it's an issue of responsibility. When I fictionalize these characters, I really try to be as fully immersed in their minds as I can, to intuit how they act. I can't tell you how many books I've already read on Dian Fossey. With every volume, I discover some new angle of vision that's typical of Fossey and that helps me make that final maneuver of sliding into her mind before I began writing AS her (even in third person).

EG What drew you to Dora Carrington as a subject for your book of poetry "The Carrington Monologues"? Why not put her in a short story?

TBD Nothing conscious, honestly, drew me. I read biographies, felt incredibly compelled by her, sat down and wrote a book-length poem about her over the course of a month's time. Especially for poetry, my process is almost wholly unconscious, and I like it that way. I never select genres beforehand; I try to let them select me!

EG You've mentioned that much of the process of writing for you is "unconscious" or from your subconscious. Can you give an example of this "unconscious" process?

TBD Yesterday I wrote a poem about a woman in the Midwest purchasing one of Hitler's drawings—and I have no idea why I wrote it.

EG Can you tell us some or all of the poem?

TBD I'm sorry; I can't, because it will be published in FriGG, a new and wonderful ezine, in October 2004.

EG You hadn't seen a reference to Hitler in the recent past?

TBD No. I simply try to keep a "wide-open" sense of consciousness. By staying opening to everything in my environment, or at least as much as I can, I can allow a variety of artistic material to "enter" me. I think that I'm good at this, actually, which is a strange thing to be "good at," admittedly. People almost have different "channels" of consciousness, and some people receive very few, are just not open to the environment, I'd say...we might call these people "shallow," but really, in some respects, they can't "read" or "hear" themselves. This is the greatest impediment that I can see to becoming a "successful writer," however we define that phrase (I define it artistically and not monetarily).

For me, this "not-knowing" helps me stay prolific (I can write twenty poems in a week, a novel in six months-year, fifty + short stories a year), and preserves the magic in the act of writing itself. The imagination is a "loamy" place. I honestly believe that most writers could be really prolific, but some don't have the best relationship with their subconscious, probably, as I indicated before. I feed mine and give it strokes!

EG How do you feed your subconscious?

TBD I read, read, read. Biographies, novels, poetry. And—to be honest—I daydream a lot, too!

EG There are numerous theories of creativity. One by Graham Wallas a sociologist in the early 20th century includes four steps in the process. Although it was a model for the methodology of scientific inquiry, parts of it sound similar to your process. Here is a brief outline.

Perception ,definition of issue, observation and study
Incubation, laying the issue aside for a time
Illumination, moment new idea emerges
Verification, checking it out

TBD That does sound like my own process, yes.

EG Do you believe that writers and artists process information differently than people who do not create works of art?

TBD Yes, but I'm not sure how, except for having better access to their own varying levels of consciousness.

EG Earlier you said," I love inhabiting and fictionalizing the lives of historical figures via my own method of method-acting" Can you explain this? It sounds like the process many actors and actresses talk about when preparing for a part. Have you ever studied acting?

TBD No, I haven't studied acting. But I did meet a fairly well-known poet who told me that she became the characters in her dramatic monologues. I watched her eat a grapefruit as "one of her characters." I thought it was fascinating and—initially—very, very strange. I don't do gestural things or engage in my characters' mannerisms—I simply try to feel as they felt, through a sense of empathy and what I call "emotional autobiography," which is using emotion from my own life to inhabit their disparate experiences.

EG Do you see the poet's job to be an actor of sorts on paper?

TBD No. I see the writer's job as one of method-acting to immerse herself in character if she wants to fictionalize historical figures (this is the responsible way to do it). I see the poet's job as to serve up poetic truth via the strongest and most convincing poetic language and techniques she's capable of. This is a stringent aesthetic demand, but having an expectation of almost-certain failure helps you keep the bar set high!

EG Why an expectation of certain failure?

TBD Because art can never be perfect. In fact, art isn't even about perfection—it's about capturing the flawed, the beautiful, the intensely human. Having said this, I don't leave a poem, a short story, or a novel until some aesthetic "sensor" in me believes that it's as perfect as I can make it.

EG In " The Carrington Monologues" Dora's voice is strong relating a clear sense of the Victorian times she lived in and the oppressive nature of her family life. There is a balance in "The Carrington Monologues" of descriptions of the physical environment, the social climate of the times, and the inner world of Dora Carrington. Did you consciously try to achieve this?

TBD Thank you! I do work to try to give a flavor of the physical environment: that's a simple externalizing of details that's necessary for the poetry to "come alive." I never think much about the social climate of the times, though I have to be aware of it, of course, to write convincingly about the character. I'm not a social or political poet: I have no interest in this as a goal, though I'm often accused of being a "political poet." I'm a pure aesthete through and through. Language is what I live for, the medium by which I enter a character.

EG Why do you think people accuse you of being a political poet?

TBD I think that many poets define art in terms of the "political"—but, for me, the human condition is much broader and encompasses more issues than the political or social. I want to be an artist, not a didact, which I see as a much "narrower" goal.

EG Dora Carrington the British painter who is the star of "The Carrington Monologues" was a woman who seemed to be lost in her world until she met Lytton Strachey a member of the famous English Bloomsbury group of avant garde artists and thinkers in England in the early twentieth century. How do you feel about Dora? Would you have like to have known her?

TBD I think, honestly, that I would have been terrified to have known her! I've encountered contemporary poets who are very much "mini-Dora's": promiscuous, confused, mentally out of control, psychologically aberrant. Such people don't make the best of friends, and I aspire to a psychologically quiet life. I only want to WRITE about psychologically aberrant individuals, not mix with them socially. Why do I want to write about them at all? Well…they're psychologically dramatic. I'm attracted to the drama of their lives but want to live a rich and lovely and peaceful life myself, full of warmth and stability and love.

EG Besides her devotion to painting nothing really mattered but Lytton. She was not a very liberated woman in one way.

TBD She wasn't a liberated woman in most respects, I think. She essentially devoted her entire life to a man who was more interested in other men than he was in her. She was addicted to him, as I see it, and couldn't leave him. She used him as a psychological crutch and allowed her painting to take a back seat to him, eventually. She's portrayed in other literature (WOMEN IN LOVE, for example; D.H. Lawrence didn't have the highest regard for her) as a kind of lisping, childlike figure. Yet, she had a streak of lasciviousness that she cultivated for Lytton's benefit. I think, if I'd ever actually met her, I would have hoped to persuade her to see a shrink...or maybe go on some meds. As a friendly suggestion, of course! But I think she was brave to survive the life she created for herself as long as she actually did.

EG Did you have a master plan when approaching "The Carrington Monologues"? Did you say I will write 42 poems?

TBD I had no plan at all. The book just happened.

EG The photograph on the cover of " The Carrington Monologues" is quite erotic.

TBD I selected the photo in conjunction with Beverly Jackson, the publisher, for a variety of reasons: it's erotic, as the book clearly is; the woman appears to be making a bold dive whose end result we can't glimpse; I thought the photo was aesthetically gorgeous, beautifully framed and composed; the woman has her hands on her head as she dives, signaling, to me, a sort of psychological discomfort. Plus, the photo really announced itself to Bev and to me as "right" for this particular book. This is something that you know in your gut, and we were lucky to have found it.

EG "Ripeness is all, and this earthbound poetry exhibits a robust feminine imagination. This is a celebration in beastliness." (Dusty Dog Reviews) This quote is in reference to the poetry in "The Carrington Monologues." Do you think of yourself as a writer of "erotica" or as an erotic person?

TBD I think eroticism, like imagination, is a form of harnessed energy. If you live and breathe, you're erotic: all of us are. I don't consider myself a writer of erotica, though. I'm focused on the whole human package in my characterizations, not just the sexual/erotic parts.

EG When did you start writing poetry?

TBD At the age of three, I started writing short stories; I moved on to poetry when I was four years old and was actively writing it by the age of six. One of my strongest childhood memories is of my first-grade class, which had an oversized print of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" on the wall. I was supposed to be learning about Columbus. When the teacher called on me for a question, I started reciting the poem to her without looking at it. I suppose it was odd (the class was surprised, and I ended up with gum in my hair—elementary-school kids don't tend to appreciate nonconformists), but I loved the way it sounded; I loved the way the poem TASTED in my mouth, Donald Hall's "Milktongue." When I was in third grade, my teacher called my parents in for a conference and said, "Do you know you're living with Emily Dickinson?" But of course they encouraged my writing. I was already involved with The Waste Land by the age of nine.

EG What kind of childhood did you have? I haven't met many nine year olds who read T. S. Eliot.

TBD I had an idyllic childhood. My parents encouraged creativity in both my brothers and me, and my mother had taught me to read by the age of three: I went to school able, already, to read newspapers. Any book I wanted, my parents would buy me. My parents are brilliant people, and we had lots of conversations, when I was tiny, about Van Gogh and Picasso and all the great figures in art and science. I'd save up my allowance to buy some special edition: I bought a grand edition of War and Peace when I was eleven. My parents never confined me to "baby books"—I had free rein of all the public materials at the library and took advantage of it! When I was twelve, my favorite film was Long Day's Journey into Night. My mother was besotted with the film, too. We used to watch it together over and over, always weeping at the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone. I'm following the same kind of path with my own daughter. At only four, she already knows words such as "onomatopoeia" and "lugubrious"! She's also completely computer literate, which I think is pretty astounding (please excuse me: proud parent here).

EG Have you always written free verse? Do you see yourself as part of any poetry movement or tradition?

TBD I've never written exclusively free verse. I write both free verse and what I called "bastard formalism"—formalism that's played with and subverted for my own poetic ends (nonce forms). I've written bastard sonnets, pantoums, sestinas, villanelles. I try to separate myself from movements and write what I feel driven to write.

EG Are there any contemporary poets that inspire you?

TBD Susan Mitchell, Dave Smith, Alice Fulton, David Wojahn, Richard Jackson, Brigit Pegeen Kelly—those with a terrific ear, I suppose.

EG I know you teach writing courses at the Gotham Workshop. How does being a teacher affect your writing?

TBD It may be the other way around, I think: I'm a better teacher for being a writer myself. Every day, with my students at Gotham Writers' Workshop, I'm in the writing trenches with them. I know what it feels like on a daily basis to struggle with my work, to love the submission process and also despair at it. I think that being a writer, too, makes me inordinately craft-conscious and therefore artistically pragmatic, which is really good for students. In my poetry classes at GWW, I'll take an entire submitted student poem and rewrite it from scratch, which really tends to help them: the students can "see" the process.

EG This is a favorite poem of mine from "The Carrington Monologues":

Carrington Courts a Candle Flame

Eviscerating gold flutter. Tip the candle sideways:
a bubbling of palest wax: all eaten-away remnants
flood down into t he holder. Lytton has gone to bed.
And this is the loneliest hour, three a.m.,
When the white candle glows and gutters in shadows
Whose colors, as I gaze upon them, I identify
As burnt umber. Violet. Blue violet. Almost red.
Around me the darkness of this house bursts up
Like a flame and, when I contemplate it,
All I can see is the blackness
Through shadow, of course, are composed of many colors.
The art, you realize, is in seeing them,
In training the eye sufficiently to recognize what can
And can't be labeled "simple"-
Because all light –absence is complex.
I pass my palm once, lightly, over the flickering,
feel the skin warm as if heat-bubbles
Were pushed up into my palm crease,
Don't lower my hand because I'm not masochistic
But continue to study that steadiness suddenly wavering
Over these brillant red-yellow flutterings
I never wanted to chase the darkness away
Though it's grown too complex for me to remain.

I feel empathy toward Dora in the darkness of her confusion. Do you want readers to like Dora and the other people you write about?

TBD More than "liking" them, I want readers to understand them, to feel a human connection, which I feel is the larger aspiration.

EG If I were to describe your work, I would say, it is a journey into darkness with moments of light.

TBD Yes, I agree. That is a beautiful way of saying it.


Terri recently discussed parts of her latest novel Autobiography of a Jawbone: on Jordan Rosenfeld's NPR program, Word by Word.

From Chapter 20, "Dissolution," of Terri's novel Autobiography of a Jawbone:

She was darning the sock, slipping the weave of the hole over one finger, tightening the weave, tucking the needle in. She was darning Sarah's ripped sock while she painted the Sistine Chapel. She lay on the scaffolding that had tilted Michelangelo almost to the ceiling, gazing at the enormous curved finger of God, his wondrous flying robes. Paint fell into her eyes; she blinked and rubbed them. When she thought about how high up she was, her throat tightened and the muscular saints and archangels whirled around her, the hardwood floors glimmering below, sending up glittering light that struck her retinas when she rolled over, gripping the scaffolding, hearing it creak, and imagined her body plummeting.


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