Interview with Nicelle Davis
As we enter April, National Poetry Month, we’re checking in with a past contributor to Escape Into Life, poet and performer Nicelle Davis. We wanted to find out what she’d been doing for the past five years, and it’s plenty! And you can also find her at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis, MN later this month. Nicelle’s answers to our questions are a nice tribute to EIL’s former poetry editor, Mark Kerstetter, as well. Happy National Poetry Month!
Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor: Nicelle, you had a poetry feature in Escape Into Life back in its early days, when Chris, our founding editor, was still alive and when Mark Kerstetter was the Poetry Editor. How did you find Escape Into Life, or how did EIL find you?
Nicelle Davis: I think I met Mark Kerstetter (electronically) and then, by extension, encountered Escape Into Life. I wanted to create a platform for hybrid essays on hybrid poetry on my blog The Bees Knees; this might have been one of those efforts that lead nowhere, except for one random and gorgeous essay sent in by a Mark Kerstetter: “A Place Where No One Has Been, The Place Where Everyone Is.” Mark Kerstetter’s essay on John Ashbery was my first introduction to Lautréamont’s Maldoror. Mark (like Escape Into Life) has a spirit of understanding and generosity. There was no shame in my not knowing about Lautréamont, rather an invitation to discuss, discover, and learn with Mark. In a series of brief email exchanges, he helped me discover French avant-garde poetry; this type of writing felt like finding a home after years of poetic homelessness. Later he invited me to share my poems on Escape Into Life.
EIL: Did some of your EIL poems later appear in books you published? For instance, “December 1980” is about the Gospel of Judas, so it would be in your second book, Becoming Judas, yes? Tell us a bit about that book and others you’ve published since your 2010 EIL appearance.
Nicelle Davis: Becoming Judas from Red Hen Press is a collection that attempts to explicate the process of growing up. I grew up in the back room of a music store. My father sold LPs, cassettes, and finally CDs. I watched the death of the music store come with the invention of MP3s. Before leaving the music industry, my parents produced many rock and blues concerts, so I also grew up backstage. Did I mention all of this happened in Mormonville, Utah? Thus my family, in many ways, are back of the world sort of people—fringe, even counterculture at times.
Becoming Judas looks at how music, religion, family, and other core elements blend, combined, and come undone. For me those elements were The Beatles, Mormonism, and counterculture. One of my most treasured reviews of Becoming Judas is on Mark Kerstetter’s blog, The Mockingbird Sings, where he writes, “If the difficulty of Becoming Judas can’t be escaped, it’s worth reminding one’s self that becoming an adult person is the most difficult thing in life. To quote Lennon, ‘It’s getting hard to be someone.’”
I’m obsessed with the idea of “being someone.” I want to know what is human and who gets to be human. I think all my work explores these questions on some level. Likewise, I’ve been rewriting the literary cannon trying to understand what books get to be books. My first collection is Circe, published by Lowbrow; it reinvents the Odyssey. Becoming Judas recreates the Bible. And now In the Circus of You investigates the power of the American mythos.
EIL: You seem to be very busy as a poet, with a number of exciting and unusual activities and events going on. First, tell me about your blog, The Bees Knees, and why you called it that! And what is The Poetry Circus?
Nicelle Davis: I like to make things. I’m making all the time. I don’t feel human unless I’m making. I made the Bees Knees to be part blog, part poetry experiment. I called it that because I feel a deep connection to the 1920s; if history repeats itself, I feel we are on the brink of recreating something akin to the roar and crash of the late 1920s. Only our fall, I anticipate, will be harder felt. I mean, even our honey bees (pollinators of the world) are so weighed down with chemicals and controls that they cannot remember how to be bees. We are in trouble. And yet, at the brink of disaster there is a chance that we might learn, might make different choices, might come to a reckoning and reconsider what really matters. With the threat of collapse, there is the refrain from past generations, reminding us, prodding us—the ghosts say this one and glorious life. We are made, like bees, to be dancers—we should ensure there is still a place for bees and music.
I house The Living Poetry Project at the Bees Knees Blog. This project looks for alternative forms of publication—it explores how to deliver poems to people who don’t usually look for poetry. It gives poems from a book on tools to construction workers; or surprises shoppers with hidden poems in the pockets of jeans on a store’s sale rack, burns a Rumi poem into small pieces of wood left scattered in a restaurant; or writes a poem on a t-shirt and gives it away.
I’m also interested in alternative readings. My college students have buried me alive during a reading for my upcoming book, The Walled Wife, which will be published by Red Hen Press in 2017. I’ve sponsored and hosted several odd poetry readings in the past, including The Poetry Prom in Pasadena and Santa Monica; I’ve held poetry readings in bowling alleys and arcades. The Poetry Circus is by far my largest production. By presenting poetry in alternative venues, the egalitarian characteristics of poetry are amplified. Poetry IS for everyone, regardless of where we come from or how we got there; we all process and understand the world through metaphor. I love the Poetry Circus because its audience ranged from newborn babies to 85 year-young listeners. The economics of the crowd varied from millionaires to homeless kids. This to me is exciting—hopeful even.
EIL: What other recent readings or events have you been involved in? And are you going to the AWP Conference this year in Minneapolis?
Nicelle Davis: They’re not quite readings or events, but the poetry films, collaborative efforts, are some of my favorite creations. These films get to travel the world; it is as though a part of me gets to do what I’ve always dreamt of—see the world. Maybe one day I’ll be able to follow those films, to know the world. These films also allow me to spend time and creative space with people I love and admire, especially Cheryl Gross—oh how I love Cheryl Gross.
And, yes, I will be at AWP! Will you be at AWP? I love it there; so many poets in one place—a delicious madness.
EIL: Anything else you’d like to tell us about your writing life? Definitely tell us a bit about your upcoming book from Rose Metal Press.
Nicelle Davis: In the Circus of You is an Illustrated Novel-in-Poems. It tells the story of a woman who rebirths herself inside out; it is a journey, one that I hope many will go on and all can relate to. Cheryl Gross illustrated my poetic fevers; we explore loss and the gains that come from great loss. I wish this little book well; it will need a lot of love. It will be interesting to see what the world will do with it—if it will have anything to do with it. It is strange book, but I love the strange for it is the strange that loves us back completely and without reserve.
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