Carol Ann Davis’s first collection, Psalm, appeared from Tupelo Press in 2007, the same year she was awarded a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. Recent work has appeared in Volt, Agni, and Threepenny Review. She directs the undergraduate creative writing program at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and serves as coeditor of the journal Crazyhorse. Her poem “Busy Their Hands” appears in the Spring 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poem “Busy Their Hands”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
“Busy Their Hands” was the first poem I wrote after the events of December 12, 2014, happened in my town (Sandy Hook, CT). I wrote the poem on Sunday, I think, after the shooting occurred on Friday. I have two children who do not attend the school but another nearby, and the poem chronicles my telling the older one about the tragedy, as well as my thoughts about raising both of them from their infancy to the present moment. I think the poem can be read as a poem about parenting in general, about accepting the sense of danger that is always everywhere surrounding children once you admit that to yourself; the specific event that incited the poem is the tragedy, but small, almost imperceptible dangers dog children all the time. In the poem, I recall watching my children run toward the ocean—suddenly so big I worried all that water would consume them. It doesn’t, and mostly, the dangers pass. But they are there, right there (“thin as an atmosphere”). Recently I listened to another poet answering questions about whether he feared death now differently than earlier in his life. He said something along the lines of, “well, I never worried about death at all but now I have children and so I’m terrified of dying.” The person asking said he didn’t have kids, so he didn’t understand why that changed things, to which the poet answered, “well, I just love them so much I’m terrified all the time.”
So there is that reality to raising kids, or more broadly, to loving anyone or anything—the reality of separation, which can happen unexpectedly and permanently. As James Wright says in “A Blessing,” “they love each other / there is no loneliness like theirs.” “Busy Their Hands” brings me near enough to my own isolation, and to those fears, to experience them intimately, and simultaneously asks me to remain near my children, who continue to grow, who return to their tasks seemingly unchanged by this sense of danger that is paralyzing to me. We often think of children as unaware of danger; we pretend we can protect them. I think it may be the opposite; as my son shows me in this poem—children are habituated to danger in a way that seems, to adults, intolerable. The poem grapples with or tries to accommodate that understanding. (Or so I came to understand after the writing of it.)
“Busy Their Hands” builds from tender and innocuous images of infancy to a much more disquieting picture of danger and fear in childrearing. However, while the poem intensifies emotionally as it progresses, the tone and pitch remain consistent throughout. Could you tell us about your diction and pacing choices and how they serve the larger aims of this poem?
The poem is in a very strange form—a form that I’ve written in for a couple of years. I’d say altogether I’ve written in this strange form for about three years, and this poem came around the 1.5 year mark of my experience with this form. I have noticed as I worked with the form that it relies more on the musicality of language than my other poems had previously. These poems tend to repeat snippets of language and rely on inverted or totally exploded syntactic structures; meaning, as such, flies in and out of view and doesn’t seem quite as important as the tonal resonances that build inside the structure of the poem. So I can see what you mean about the poem intensifying as it progresses. In this poem in particular, that intensity is especially important, given the subject matter, but I would say the form (rather than the subject) and its focus on language is what intensifies the emotion for me. The experience of the language is always, for me, the most important experience I have in the writing of a poem. So, the diction and pacing choices are language rather than subject-driven, and I simply work with the poem until it reaches a sort of tonal color or pitch that seems to suit it. Then I look back (not without fear, I might add) at what it is the poem might have said while the machinery of all this music was being visited upon me. I think the results elide themselves in interesting ways and resist meanings in ways that I find—what shall I say—emotionally responsible? That’s high-minded, but what I mean is I find more out about how I feel than what I think from these poems in this form. They provide a sort of linguistic and emotional gut-check.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
That I need it in ways I could never have appreciated earlier in my life, and that it’s very important that I show up to do the work they require.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Love. Love of persons and places and the existence of same. Love of language and paint and mica flecks and yellow leaves. And so on.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
Writing helps me move toward (though never arrive at) the person I would like to be. I don’t know of anything else that could help me get to that person, that person who knows how to love. I do know how silly this sounds, by the way, but you asked!
In the 1950s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
I have only one question for my own writing and for literature I read: does it search? I need the answer to be yes.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
I’m writing poems and essays now, sort of how I want when I want, because I’ve finished a few manuscripts and feel freed up by those finishings. I’m free not to gather things into a book but to let what’s coming come to me singly, severally. Perhaps I’ll keep writing poems in this form or move out of it—I don’t know. I would like to know that, but I guess I won’t know it until it happens. In the meantime, I’m reading a bit about Vermeer and a few other painters, and I’m enjoying the essay writing I’m doing.