Interview with Allison Pitinii Davis

Interview by Justin Goodman

Justin:

I wanted to start off with some background first because I think this work in particular demands to be considered with it given that it seems so bound by what identities you seem to associate with–it’s telling to me that “Greetings From Across the Counter” begins with an almost biblical “generation after generation” with Line Study being, essentially, a genealogy.

So I wanted to start with you laying out your background, however you want to define “your background.” In your introduction to “Inheritance” in The Missouri Review you talk about how you come from a long line of storytellers (“exquisite bullshitters”), which leads me to believe you might be interested in continuing that tradition.

Allison:

An author’s biographical background seems less central to a work than the author’s relationship to the material. For example, in my work, the biographical narrative is common enough—many people from northeast Ohio are from enormous, hyphenated-American families that work in small businesses. And we live in a nation of fathers installing carpets in trucking motels. But my father might be the only one who, after shaking his head in disbelief, leans over the check-in counter to tell a customer that the new carpet in 21 is too nice to even walk on. That’s the innkeeper you want renting you a motel room. And that’s the parent you want teaching you how to relate language to a subject.

I’ve been thinking about this quote from The Paris Review interview with author Elena Ferrante, the pen name of the author of The Neapolitan Novels: “The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero. And yet there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence.” There is a poem in my book called “Greetings from the End of The Line” in which I imagine my voice being interrupted by other voices until the reader can’t distinguish who’s talking. A “collective intelligence.” My dream, actually, is to pass my book around my family, around the people working at the motel, around Youngstown, and have people write in the margins “No, you’re wrong, it was like this!” or cross out lines and rewrite them from their own perspectives. The background I’m interested in exploring is one made up of commentary from bystanders, marginalized perspectives, and counternarratives—a remembrance that makes us rethink who composes history and how.

Justin:

And I can see this sense of “collective intelligence” in the epigraph for “The Motel Clerk Has Heard It Before,” where you quote “Frank Decker, interstate truck driver.” You have an eye for perspectives outside academia. I feel the telling difference between you and Elena Ferrante though is of medium. Poetry, unwillingly, is becoming too nice to even walk on for some people; it was reported by the Washington Post last year that poetry readership is experiencing a steady decline. Meanwhile, novels (especially those of an author as successful as Ferrante) have seen varying degrees of success. One could argue its because of the plotted-ness of novels, which, in the interview with The Paris Review, Ferrante implies: “The state of grace comes when the writing is entirely at the service of the story.”

How do you balance out the popular image of poetry with your dream of people writing in the margins of your collection? Do you see story as an important element of this work in exploring the background of bystanders, marginalized perspectives, and counternarratives?

Allison:

Good question! I think about this a lot.

Poetry is presenting your solitude to another person’s solitude. Good poetry demands that we confront ourselves–more than ever, we need to be irreversibly, uncomfortably aware that we’re throttling through a galaxy with billions of people who are all as lonely and alive as we are. Whereas plot-driven fiction, which I revere, helps me lose myself in a narrative. While poetry doesn’t have a market, I think that the expansion of higher education and rise of the MFA has made writing and studying poetry an option for a wider variety of people. I mean, here I am talking about it.

A meaningful blurb for my book came from my hero Rochelle Hurt, author of The Rusted City, a collection of poems about Youngstown. She wrote, “This book refuses the notion that poetry is an enterprise of the elite.” America has a labor poetry tradition. Youngstown had steel workers who published in the local newspaper. Yiddish-American tailors published in the Yiddish newspapers. They got their poetry to the people. I hope to balance out the academic image of poetry not only in subject matter but also in publication and distribution. I was lucky to find an incredible, small, female-run, independent publisher in Reno, Nevada that shares my “democratic poetry” vision. I plan on having a book release in the parking lot of my family’s trucking motel. I support and celebrate community poetry groups (hello LitYoungstown and Pig Iron Press!) and MFA programs that focus on community outreach (hello Wick Poetry Center!)

But at the same time, my poetry is an enterprise of the elite–I studied at Ohio State and Stanford with some of the most incredible teachers on earth. I sat at fancy poetry dinners while waiters spread napkins over my lap when I should have just walked out. About all of this, all I can say is that 1) I’m back out on my ass begging for adjunct work and 2) I use the little amount of power I have to try to improve accessibility.

Story, and especially character, is an important part of the book, but the collection I’m working on now is more lyric and explores the perspectives of women working counter jobs, which is how I supported myself for about a decade. Does poetry need to be “accessible” in order to be embraced by non-academics? My dad and I are huge Dylan fans—lyrics like “the sun isn’t yellow, it’s chicken” isn’t more accessible than most poetry being published. I think people can handle abstract language. I think poetry’s problem surrounds its professionalization. Poetry needs to create of culture where writing for writing’s sake is the reward, because except for a few lucky people, there’s no money in poetry. MFA programs are only as great as their diversity, and unless the academic job market picks up, MFAs need to find a way to prepare writers for a variety of jobs. Poetry can’t keep relying on the poetry contests, journals, and conferences in which a few poets benefit off of the entry fees of the masses. Right now the poetry world feels like a funnel: many are encouraged to enter, but only a few emerge, and being able to emerge often requires money, time, and connections. It requires the workings of capitalism. I love poetry and the people who dedicate their lives to art, but if the majority of us aren’t going to make a living off of it, then let’s go about it as ethically and transparently as possible. Let’s stop setting up false expectations, let’s encourage poetry because it is an ancient, radical, life-affirming, problem-solving force, let’s de-emphasize the unrealistic professionalization process and replace it with the training that the majority of poets will need to support themselves outside of the academy. Because poets were never only in the academy—poets are serving our coffee, collecting our garbage, teaching our high schools, raising children, dying in our prisons, cleaning our motel rooms, and, like Frank Decker, driving trucks on our interstates.

Justin:

It must have been great to have your hero write a blurb! Speaking of Rochelle Hurt, you reviewed Hurt’s The Rusted City for the New Orleans Review, saying it “shocked me into my own perspective.” I thought it was an interesting idea, that somehow people are outside of their own context, and since you described poetry (I’d like to think accurately) as a “life-affirming” force, I was hoping you could expand on the idea that poetry, in a way, revives us. Makes us “confront ourselves.”

And since Americans tend to be pragmatic in their understanding of “problem-solving”–fixing an engine, solving an equation–I was also hoping you could elaborate on what kinds of problems are fixed through poetry. Does poetry, in itself, let us understand what kinds of problems even exist?

I love the idea of reading poetry in the parking lot of your family’s trucking motel–so local, transparent, intimately attached to the noises that come with the territory. Was that your idea? Was your father initially for it? Do you think that, in a “charity starts at home” kind of way, poets should begin engaging the topic on a grassroots level?

There are always more questions, but I’ll pause here for now.

Allison:

Thanks, as always, for the great questions. For me, the interaction between language (or image or noise) and the person sensing it always results in some type confrontation. When I teach poetry, I always have my students hold a sheet of paper in front of their faces and move the paper closer or farther to represent the distance at which they’d like to hold their readers. Some poems invite readers close, and some poems hold readers at a distance. Both distances require different choices to achieve the effect. The Rusted City brought me close to the Rust Belt, my home, in a way most literature does not. In fact, a lot of literature demands that the reader avoid, pity, fear, or fly over the Rust Belt. The Rusted City demands the opposite. It makes the reader confront a place. It doesn’t apologize. It made me confident that I didn’t have to water down my own project—I could present the Rust Belt that I knew at full-force and expect my reader to enter it.

I write a lot of student recommendation letters, and even the ones for medical school ask, “Is this student capable of creative problem solving?” To write a poem is for the brain like a total body workout is for our muscles. Writing poetry requires us to think about how systems function together, how to organize and present information efficiently, how to connect disparate ideas, how to react when unexpected problems arise, how to find innovative solutions in fixed systems, etc. The “real world” applications are endless. I can’t think of a field that wouldn’t benefit from the unique skills gained through studying poetry. Poems are microsystems of reality.

I didn’t even think about the motel noises at the reading—that will be great! My dad will be running in and out of the office renting rooms! I got the idea of reading at the motel from my incredible editor, the poet Laura Wetherington. When I met with Baobab Press to decide if I wanted to go with them, she said it would be cool if I did a book tour at motels. And I was like, “This is the publisher for me.” A lot of the truckers who stay at my family’s motel have watched me (and, the older ones, my father) grow up, and they’re happy for me. They’ve encouraged me. A lot of them have kids who write. It should be a fun event.

About the grassroots-level question—I would feel like a fraud if I tried to mainly engage in poetry any other way. But maybe other poets would feel like frauds if they mainly tried to engage with poetry at the grassroots-level. I appreciate that there are and have always been many ways to approach poetry in America. And I deeply appreciate that poets need some way to make money, so I don’t fault any poet for taking the road that leads to, you know, shelter and food. To me, what’s important is that academic poetry isn’t held in higher esteem than grassroots poetry. Both because not all poets can financially access formal training and also because different approaches lead to a healthy variety in art. What if we only valued American music made by musicians who studied in conservatories?

Justin:

Your beliefs, like your poetry, are egalitarian (“Because in this lobby one man’s sleep is as good as another’s”). It’s refreshing. To that end, two last questions to round this with sleep.

In “The Jewish Cemetery at Youngstown” you write:

I’d be sick of people

historicizing my sister. parading her

as I’m parading her, as art

parades things, and for what?

Yet this doesn’t come across as an indictment of poets or poetry. “I’d be sick” is morally neutral, and even when forgiveness is asked for it turns into a question regarding the very thing that the poem asks forgiveness for doing. I think it’s a funny moment, personally, but I was hoping you’d like to explore that moment more–there’s a proximity that the poet has to the living, but what do you see as the proximity of the poet to the dead?

And to that end, as the motel clerk falls asleep in the lobby in the final poem, there’s the stand-out line “and because the one’s who wrote today’s edition have already written tomorrow’s.” It’s incredibly reminiscent of the epigraph of 10:04 (itself a quote of Walter Benjamin citing Scholem Gershom citing a Hasidic parable, I believe) in its predictive, reassuring, yet disjointing, power. Do you see this ending, this epigraph, your work, as hopeful exhortations for the future?

Allison:

This poem is about the 1970 Kent State Shooting, as is the poem “Language Loosened Back.” One of the victims was from Youngstown—my dad’s babysitter—and she is buried in the same Jewish cemetery as my grandfather, who is the collection’s Motel Clerk. She was shot walking to class by the National Guard.

In this collection, I place myself in a variety of proximities to the dead. I try to place them as judges, family, and strangers. By judges, I mean that I try to be worthy of them and prove that, despite my assimilation and my mixed cultural background, I am of them. By family, I mean that I try to remember that if my great grandmothers saw me working on this book, they probably would have said in a variety of languages, “Honey, relax a little, get some sleep.” By strangers, I mean that I tried to see them as individuals with their own agendas outside the book—I try not to historicize and parade them. It helped me to think of each page number as a room number at the motel and a different ancestor in each room. I know them but maybe they don’t recognize me. They’re just passing through.. The book—my language and attitudes—was shaped consciously and unconsciously by the dead.

While I like to think of myself as being the kind of person who would know every “quote of Walter Benjamin citing Scholem Gershom citing a Hasidic parable,” I’ve never heard this one—thank you for sharing it! In the book, I credit my grandfather, the motel clerk and laundry owner, as serving as “predictive, reassuring, yet disjointing, powers” in my family. To my knowledge, neither of my grandfathers knew their grandfathers, and neither of my parents knew their grandfathers, and I feel very lucky to have known my mother’s father and to feel as if I knew my dad’s father through the motel. I worry that my generation may be the last to feel rooted to Youngstown, Ohio and to the small businesses my grandfathers opened, so I wrote the book to preserve the world as I understand it. Of course, I am not the only person who feels this way—many people in my generation have had to leave the Rust Belt and other areas for work just as our immigrant ancestors came to this country to look for work. (And for the record, Trump lost in Youngstown—people there know he’s exploiting the working class, not saving it.) Amidst of all of this immigration and relocation, I was in the unique position of 1) growing up with multiple generations of my family and their family businesses and 2) having the educational opportunity to pursue poetry. If I was a boy, I probably would have been encouraged to run the motel instead of writing about it. I’m trying to get my dad to write a book about running the motel—it’d blow my book out of the water.

About the interviewer: Justin Goodman graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. Having moved from Long Island, he now lives in the City with reviews in Cleaver Magazine and InYourSpeakers, and work in Italics Mine, 360 Degrees, and Counterexample Poetics.

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