Kelly Davio is the former Managing Editor of Los Angeles Review, Associate Editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal, and a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has been honored in Best New Poets and has appeared in journals including Gargoyle, The Cincinnati Review, Bellingham Review, The Evansville Review, The Portland Review, Pank, and others. In Burn This House, her debut poetry collection, Davio takes on her upbringing in the fundamentalist Christian church, examining the ideas of sin, virtue, and the space between them from the point of view of a spiritual truant. Born and raised in Central California, Davio studied English at Westmont College and The Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Oxford University. She earned her MFA in Poetry at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, Whidbey Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Seattle, Washington, where she teaches English as a second language to high school students.
Michael Schmeltzer, Poetry Editor of A River and Sound Review, interviewed Davio in March of 2013.
Michael Schmeltzer: Your debut book, Burn This House, was recently released through Red Hen Press. How has the perception of the poems changed since you’ve been reading them out of your own book, and out loud to an audience?
Kelly Davio: I once heard a possibly apocryphal story that Kay Ryan, the former Poet Laureate, used to mark her books up as she read them to audiences, fixing the “errors” she found. At the time, I thought that was silly or even neurotic, but now I find myself doing the same thing, if only verbally! I keep finding myself inserting words that really should be on the page, or changing ones I’ve come to dislike.
In a larger sense, now that the book is out and no longer just my private manuscript, the poems feel less as though they belong to me and more as though they belong to my readers. People are reading them, hearing them, making judgments about them, having favorites and least favorites. It’s odd to me to watch my creative work begin to have its own life outside my own brain, but it’s also a delicious feeling to know that the poems are, after many years in some of their cases, being read.
MS: Did you intentionally write toward Burn This House or was there a point when you realized your poems were organically growing toward each other?
KD: I’m a firm believer that writers always work out their obsessions on the page, whether we like it or not. Even when we’re writing seemingly disparate pieces, there’s a great likelihood that we’re tattooing over the same lines in our work. This collection came together in an organic way as I began to realize what some of my obsessions entailed, where they came from, and why it was so important to me to write about them. At some point, I realized what I wanted the whole of the collection to be; I wrote some pieces specifically to fill the gaps I saw thematically, but most of the poems were written as independent entities that formed a larger whole.
MS: You say a writer works out their obsessions on the page. Do you see this relating to or
differing from what we call a (post)confessional mode of writing?
KD: I think writerly obsession goes beyond the confessional/post-confessional mode. Look, for example, at someone like Stephen King. Sure, writing horror has been quite successful for him financially, but is that alone why King writes book after book about madness and violence? I don’t think so. I think he’s genuinely working out, in every volume, his interest in human darkness and in the sometimes fine line between functioning human beings and violent madmen.
Take someone completely different–say, the Hassidic writer Chiam Potok. There’s always a thread of community alienation in his work. Or one of our finest living novelists, Margaret Atwood. There’s not a volume she’s written that doesn’t deal in some way with women’s liminal social status.
I wouldn’t presume that any of those writers are working out their own autobiographies in their prose; that would be too simplistic a view. But I do think that the ideas that haunt us, that inform how we see the world, will always make themselves known in our work.
MS: An author’s biography is one way readers can access poetry (for better or worse). Is there a particular way you tend to enter a poem? Through the musicality of the lines, or the images, for instance?
KD: I tend to enter a poem through its sound–its rhythms, its lyricality. I think that’s a holdover from my younger years; I’ve been a reader of poetry since I was a teenager. At that time, I often had no idea what the content or implications of any given poem might be, but I read for sound. I luxuriated in the textures and the rhythms of the work.
MS: Follow up: Is there a particular way you hope readers will enter Burn This House?
KD: Today, sound is still paramount to me when it comes to crafting poems, and I hope I’ve done a good enough job with the musicality that readers can enter my work there if they choose. However, it wouldn’t be wrong to access the work biographically, at least for some of the pieces in the book. It also wouldn’t be wrong to access the book from its stories, as many of the poems in this collection are narrative in nature. In fact, I don’t know that I have a preference as to how readers will approach Burn This House. My book is an offering to the readers; as to how they receive it, perhaps it is better that I have no say.
MS: You’re a writer, an editor, and an instructor of English as a Second Language. Tell me how these three roles affect your relationship to words. How much do your roles as editor and
instructor affect your role as writer?
KD: My mentor, David Wagoner, always encouraged me to look at writing, teaching, and editing as a triad not to juggle but to embrace. Doing all three at once has proven difficult, but I’ve found that David was right; the three tasks really all do feed one another. On the whole, I think my relationship with words themselves is less affected by my work than is my relationship with other people producing words. For example, my work as a writer informs the way I try to treat my submitters at the magazine. I know what it’s like to feel lost in the shuffle, and I work hard to be a respectful, kind, supportive editor. Writing also informs my teaching of ESL, because I too know what it’s like to wrangle with the language or to find difficulty in what I want to say. Editing others’ work and seeing the way they craft words for better or for worse sharpens my own eye as a writer (though I’m still prone to mistakes, of course), and the methods I use to teach writing inform the way I discuss revision with my contributors.
MS: Recently, the staff over at VIDA released their gender count of some major publications. The results were dismally unbalanced in favor of male authors. How do you tackle this as an editor? As a writer?
KD: I have very little patience for journals who claim that it’s not possible to publish women and men in equal numbers. Throughout my time as the managing editor at Los Angeles Review, we’ve always split either at or quite close to the 50/50 mark between male and female writers, and it hasn’t been the herculean task some editors make it out to be. We’re simply aware of our demographics as we work on issues. If we’re notably light on female writers, we send out special calls asking more women to submit. And they do. And we find great work to publish. If you let writers know that they are welcome and that they will be taken seriously, they will send work. It’s really that simple.
As a writer, I have little patience for other readers and writers who continue to support, with their dollars and their attention, the magazines that have dismissed gender parity as an issue of importance. If you take the issue of representing women writers seriously, why would you keep buying a magazine that disregards that issue? It makes no sense to me as a writer, editor, or reader.
As much as I think VIDA’s attention to the issue of gender parity has been an important conversation, I’d like to see better discussion about representation of LGBTQ voices and minority voices in magazines as well. There’s at least as much work to do in cultivating diverse groups of writers in print as there is in equalizing numbers of male and female contributors.
MS: It’s fair to say there is a lot of pressure to publish in the literary world, especially for those seeking academic tenure, but what do you think some of the benefits are of rejection?
KD: Rejection is a good thing! We can learn from it, but only if we let the experience teach us. If we take the attitude that rejection comes from people who don’t properly appreciate us and who must be broken down, we’re not going to be very happy or very professional about our submissions. Rejection isn’t ever a referendum on a writer’s talent, and there are a number of reasons writing may be rejected; when it comes to publishing in magazines, maybe we sent our work to journals toward the end of reading periods and there wasn’t space for us. Maybe the editors had already accepted pieces too similar to our own, or we sent work in an aesthetic vein that didn’t jive with the journals we targeted. Taking the time to think about which factors may have worked against us can help us do better. When it comes to finding homes for book-length works, the odds just aren’t in our favor, and if we take each rejection as a scathing rebuke of our work, we’ll only give ourselves grief. The unfortunate fact is that there are more good poetry manuscripts than there are publishers to print them or readers to appreciate them, so we have to be immensely patient with the submission process. It can be a time to reflect on our books, to tighten them, to polish them, or even to reinvent them if we need to.
MS: You’re also writing a novel in verse, which brings up the fascinating topic of genrebending. Tell me a little about the difference between writing a unified book of poetry versus a novel in verse. What changes for you in your approach, if anything?
KD: Yes, I have a novel in poems on my desk as well! Writing Jacob Wrestling was an entirely
different experience from that of writing Burn This House. To craft Jacob Wrestling, I had to not only make sure that the book followed the rules of good fiction, but also to ensure that each poem itself was an aesthetically pleasing stand-alone piece. Unlike Burn This House, which came together somewhat organically, Jacob Wrestling was an exercise in intensive outlining and plotting. The process had its brutal side, as well, as I had to cut what I felt were great poems for the sake of plot. The process of writing that book also required a depth of focus that the previous collection did not, particularly because I wrote Jacob in a frenzied four months, whereas Burn This House came together over the course of about two years.
MS: If I recall correctly, you once compared a book of poems to an album, especially in terms of organizing some sort of arc. If Burn This House was an album, what would it be?
KD: What a fantastic question! My response might be purely aspiration, but I like to think that, were it an album, Burn This House might be something like The Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats. My book is somewhat similar to that album in its themes–how our younger years haunt us and follow us into adulthood–and in its style–some apparently bare and vulnerable autobiography and some wild flights of imagination. The Sunset Tree gets heavy rotation in my house, so it’s not unlikely that it’s influenced my own work in some way.
MS: Anything else you’d like to tell us?
KD: Anyone who buys this book will have good karma forever. Kidding. But not really kidding.