National Poetry Month Special: Interview With Robin Davidson, Poet Laureate of Houston

Robin Davidson is Houston's current poet laureate. I was pleased to have a conversation with her about what her new position entails, and what she plans to do to promote the art of poetry in one of the country's largest and most diverse cities.

Shivani: You were a finalist for the Houston poet laureate position a couple of years ago, and this time around you were chosen as our city's poet laureate. What does the poet laureate position mean to you, and why was it important for you to persist?

Davidson: My colleague and fellow poet, Jane Creighton, Professor of English at the University of Houston Downtown, nominated me for the poet laureate competition in 2013. I would never have applied initially without Jane's faith in my work. I persisted because I continue to believe in the power of poetry to change lives, to engender in each of us deep human empathy, and I appreciated the opportunity it would be to work under the leadership of Mayor Annise Parker, a poet herself and a passionate supporter of the arts in Houston. The laureate role is one of service to poetry, ambassadorship. It is not to promote one's own work--because simply promoting one's own poems diminishes the position's opportunity to celebrate the widest range of poetry that may already exist in a community, or could exist, if the art form were introduced widely to those who might not yet feel its power. I hope to design opportunities that will engage the public in poetry--as readers, writers, listeners--and raise the visibility of the poetry that already exists here. The City of Houston is rich with poets and poetry devotees, among them such entities as Inprint, the UH Creative Writing Program, Writers in the Schools-Houston, Houston Poetry Fest, Meta-Four, Word Around Town, Speak!Poet, Public Poetry, Writespace, Monsoon Art Space, Gulf Coast Poets, Rice Gallery Words & Art, to name a few!

Shivani: How long have you lived in Houston, in what specific ways has the city shaped your growth as a writer, and how do you think you're different as person because of living in Houston?

Davidson: I have lived in Houston for nearly 50 years and have watched this city change from a parochial Texas town to what is now a world-class, cosmopolitan city rich with cultural diversity. The arts are thriving here, and the literary arts are only one trajectory of the larger presence of the arts in our city. One way that being a Houstonian has shaped my experience as a poet and translator is the opportunity to have studied in the UH Creative Writing Program, first with Stanley Plumly, and then with Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski. My life as a poet was launched from these mentoring relationships. Ed showed me the scope of poetry beyond the U.S. as I began to read modern poetry in translation extensively for the first time. He was the first to introduce me to Polish poetry. In fact he was responsible for bringing Adam Zagajewski to Houston in the 1980s. Adam's arrival each spring seemed always to herald the light, and this is when I first understood I was a lyric poet--a poem's music, its unfolding as epiphanic moment, were my doors into verse. Susan Wood too, in her work as a poet at Rice, became early on a powerful presence as mentor and friend--we met through our mutual connection with Stan Plumly, my first poetry teacher over 30 years ago.

Houston also offers access to incredible visual art--the Museum of Fine Arts--Houston, the Menil Collection, the Rothko Chapel--places I've come to love deeply and feel at home in. To enter a canvas, live there for a time, is like entering the space of a lyric poem. Houston also has a stunning music scene, one which has profoundly shaped my growth as a practicing poet. My son, whose stage name is The Mighty Orq, is a well-known Houston musician who specializes in Blues, as well as Americana and Rock. I've watched him develop into an artist whose exceptional talent as guitarist and vocalist is deeply valued by all kinds of audiences--in Houston, nationally, and abroad. I find it thrilling to live in a city where genuinely great live music is available every night of the week. I would be remiss if I didn't also say how deeply the presence of all my family together in one American city has impacted my development as a poet and a woman. So few Americans in the twenty-first century have the privilege of making the same neighborhood home for decades as we have. I am anchored by our shared lives.

Shivani: How would you describe Houston's poetry scene?

Davidson: Houston's poetry scene--wow, it's incredible--unique I think in terms of its authentic diversity! You can find every possible form of poetry in this city. In terms of gender, ethnicity, aesthetic style, and performance practice, the range of Houstonians who are writing and performing poems is breathtaking. Whether page or performance poets, whether academic poets affiliated with the UH Creative Writing Program, such as Chitra Divakaruni, Tony Hoagland, Kevin Prufer, Martha Serpas (or Ed Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski who were in Houston for nearly 20 years)--or those poets with strong ties to the local community, such as Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, Lupe Mendez, Jonathan Moody, Anis Shivani, Melissa Studdard, Chris Wise, with powerful reading presences and beautiful books out or forthcoming--and performance poets such as Jasminne Mendez, Outspoken Bean, Deborah (Deep) Mouton, Billie Duncan--to name only a few. No single reading or slam is ever predictable. It's thrilling to be here.

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The recent 100 Thousand Poets for Change reading, with Davidson and a number of the city's activist poets, at the University of Houston-Downtown.

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The bimonthly Speak!Poet event organized as a free-flowing discussion between a pair of poets; at Houston's storied Inprint House.

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A no-holds-barred discussion about democracy and elitism in poetry at Houston's Pacifica radio station (KPFT 90.1 FM), with, from left to right, Winston Derden, Stephen Gros, and host of the Living Art show Michael Woodson.

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At Monsoon Art Space, Fran Sanders, director of Public Poetry, and poets Dom Zuccone and Chuck Wemple, peruse Anne Sexton as part of the monthly Ex Libris online poetry discussion series.

Shivani: How has the experience of poet laureate been so far? What have been some of the high points? And surprises?

Davidson: I still find it remarkable that I was chosen by Annise Parker to serve in the laureate role. I have very high hopes for what can be accomplished, in collaboration with Houston's many individual poets and literary organizations, in the next couple of years. What I've found difficult is not the work--of which there is plenty--but the public nature of the position. I'm shy, honestly, a very private person. I read and write a lot. I teach a lot and feel very comfortable in the classroom with my students. I know well and am at ease with the ongoing work of a university. But I have never been in a public role of this intensity before, and I've struggled a great deal with that in the past six months. When we don't seek out a larger audience for our work, when we stay silent except on the page so that we write--as the Polish say, szuflada, for the drawer--it's much easier not to face the possible, even likely, insignificance of our art, historically, in the vast and complex world beyond our own desk. This has been perhaps the greatest surprise--my own ongoing internal struggle with seeing myself, my work publicly--that blatant smallness, vulnerability.

Shivani: What are your plans for the next couple of years as you fulfill your poet laureate obligations?

Davidson: What is thrilling about the laureate role is that I'm able to undertake larger projects I've long wished to pursue on behalf of poetry in my city, and can now do so in collaboration with a team of Houston poets whose diverse aesthetic styles characterize the larger community of poets working here. One such project is a Favorite Poem Project Anthology modeled on former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's national project, and built on collecting Houstonians' best loved poems. I hope this anthology will celebrate the strong presence of poetry among Houston readers. It involves making a city-wide call for submissions by Houstonians of their favorite poems and identifying a diverse selection of pieces to include in a print volume. I am hopeful that the literary press with which I am now affiliated, Calypso Editions, will be interested in publishing the book. A second project is an online Directory of Houston Poets that will celebrate the poets living and writing in Houston. Rich Levy and Krupa Parikh of Inprint have agreed to help develop and host this directory as webpages on the Inprint site. Both projects involve collaborations with librarians, Jennifer Schwartz and Carmen Abrego of Houston Public Library, and Radu Barbuceanu of the Cultural Affairs Division of the Mayor's Office--tremendous partners in this work!

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At a recent symposium on Rumi's poetry, musical interlude by The Mighty Orq, at Clayton Library.

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Robin Davidson leading the Rumi symposium at Clayton Library.

Shivani: Robert Pinsky visited Houston last September and held several events. What was that experience like, and how do you think poetry as a public project can become more viable?

Davidson: Pinsky's recent visit to Houston was a tremendous success. He was my teacher many years ago, he stepped in for Howard Moss one spring when Mr. Moss had to return to New York unexpectedly, and Pinsky was then, as now, amazing in the classroom. He is a learned poet, a passionate teacher, a vibrant public speaker, and he was enormously generous to my creative writing students during his visit to our workshop. His time with us will long be remembered by these emerging poets. Most memorable was his ability to speak numerous poems by heart--nearly any one you might name. Pinsky brought with him his own typed favorite poem anthology for students to see, consider--the very kind of anthology his national laureate project was modeled on, and it made a convincing argument: the committed artist ingests, learns from the work of other artists in his field, past and present; is always exploring, growing.

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Public poetry is by no means new. Poetry has long been a public art form--consider its origins in the oral performance of hymns, prayers in the Sumerian and Akkadian languages of Mesopotamia, or later the Dionysia of Athens where Greek poets composed narratives, choral odes, for public performance.

Pinsky's laureate project is a contemporary incarnation of an ancient understanding of poetry as central to our expression of longing, joy, angst, grief--the erotic and the numinous. Poetry, whether performed face-to-face as readings or slams, or online via YouTube or Periscope or other social media, is available in the public domain and is, I'd say, thriving in the U.S. and globally.

Shivani: You are also a translator from the Polish. What led to your interest in translating from this language, and how has it benefited your poetry?

Davidson: In my studies at UH, Ed introduced me to Polish poetry via the work of Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska. I first read Ewa Lipska's work in Adam's Modern Thought class. We read translations by her British translators, Barbara Plebanek and Tony Howard, for whose fine work I'm still grateful. In 2001, at Zagajewski's request, Lipska sent me a copy of her book 1999. My fascination with these poems launched my work in literary translation. I left Houston for Kraków on a Fulbright and studied the language there until I had enough reading fluency to translate Lipska's poems--with the help of my dear friend, Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska, a native Polish speaker, poet, and trained translator to whom Lipska introduced me. Nowakowska and I published a selection of Lipska's work, The New Century, in 2009, and we are currently completing a second bilingual volume called Droga pani Schubert/Dear Mrs. Schubert.

Lipska's poems are absolutely different from my own, which are often too long, baroque. I was drawn to her work because of its edge--not delicate, gossamer, but strong--however enigmatic. Her best poems I feel use that angularity toward a balance of both irony and empathy. I love this ambiguity in her work--where sardonic wit and compassion reside side by side. My immersion in Ewa's voice has helped move my own poems, I think, beyond what often feels dangerously sentimental. The Mrs. Schubert poems in particular have become a polestar for my verse. Through the creation of an equivalent persona (Mrs. Schmetterling) in a cycle called City that Ripens on the Tree of the World, I've tried to explore poetry as the uncertain intersection of personal and historical forces--what Lipska might call the accident or "the spectacle of our lives," which one both participates in and observes as witness.

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At Brazos Bookstore, ground zero for notable poetry events in Houston, a recent discussion by performance poets about the nature of their process and work.

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Former Texas poet laureate Larry D. Thomas reading for the Friendswood Public Library reading series recently.

Shivani: Is poetry a democratic art or is it elitist?

Davidson: Poetry, like any other art form, is not simply for the select few. Art is not luxury or ornament; it is essential to peace, to the health, well-being of the global community. The genesis of public libraries and museums speaks directly to the critical importance of public access to cultural artifacts. I do understand that historically the arts have been appropriated by various individuals and groups for their own political or socioeconomic purposes, but I believe in arts activism, in poetry as an instrument of democracy, human empathy, love. Poetry helps us navigate this unfathomably difficult world where unremitting suffering threatens to blind us to possible joys and triumphs. A poem's consolation or celebratory spirit or wise counsel belong to each of us willing to read or write or hear it. No one owns Poetry exclusively--it's for all of us, without boundaries, in its many incarnations. That's its beauty and power, and this is the very notion that led Pinsky to found the Favorite Poem Project in 1997 as it has taken shape in both the national anthologies, America's Favorite Poems and An Invitation to Poetry, and in the videos that document a broad cross-section of individual Americans reading and discussing poems they've found deeply meaningful. A poem is a lens, and it may use any language or form or presentation to connect us with an authentic experience of ourselves as human beings, that rich and ironic complexity. Poetry belongs to all of us.

Robin Davidson (starts at 5:20) reads as part of the Iconoclast poetry performance at the Museum of Fine Arts, a reading sponsored by Matthew Russell and Marlon Lizama. This was the launch of an anthology of poems by at-risk youth, a number of whom are incarcerated, for which Davidson wrote a preface.

Shivani: How should poetry be taught? How do you teach poetry?

Davidson: There are few "shoulds" in poetry, but mostly I would say that poetry should be discovered, not taught. I hear far too often from my university students that they don't like poetry, don't understand it. It doesn't interest them because it's too hard. But that changes when they begin to hear poetry spoken, performed, when they can actually see the possibilities for meaning in a poem's rich metaphorical life. The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva writes, "The whole event of poetry--from the poet's vision to the reader's reception--takes place entirely within the soul, that first, lowest sky of the spirit." I like to invite my students to explore the craft of poetry across centuries and cultures by seeking what Tsvetaeva calls the "event of poetry," and distinguishing that event from the ordinary commerce of our daily lives--e-mail or text messages or Facebook memes. We study modes of invention, craft and prosody certainly, but first and foremost, we look for what is most deeply human in a poem--what surprises or moves us, makes us laugh or swallow hard, takes our breath away. Once a student writer sees that a poem is a real and urgent human utterance that is speaking directly to them--a "message in a bottle" as Ed Hirsch says quoting Paul Celan, they feel compelled to respond, to speak back to that voice. They come to learn that reading and making poems is also linguistic play; it's a deep pleasure to discover what Hirsch calls "the spacious unfolding--the shining body--of the poem itself" (How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, xiii). And this is the beginning of a life-long engagement with poetry.