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'The presence of the past'

A Q&A with poet Davis McCombs


FINDING POETRY IN ARKANSAS: Davis McCombs, Porter Fund Prize winner.
  • FINDING POETRY IN ARKANSAS: Davis McCombs, Porter Fund Prize winner.

Poet Davis McCombs was awarded the 2015 Porter Fund Literary Prize earlier this month, joining Arkansas writers Mara Leveritt, Trenton Lee Stewart, Kevin Brockmeier and others in literary recognition. Born and raised in Kentucky, McCombs has lived with his family for nearly 14 years in Fayetteville, where he teaches and directs the Program in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas. His poems, which have appeared in the New Yorker, the Oxford American and "The Best American Poetry 2008," are dense, lyric visions of silence and solitude and history and, lately, Arkansas — especially the Ozarks. We recently talked over email about books, his writing and how Arkansas has only recently begun to unroll itself in his work:

Where does a poem start for you? How do your poems develop?

It varies, but to me some of the most satisfying writing experiences have been those times when, for lack of a better word, I sensed the poem, almost as if it were a presence, still without form, still without subject, and often, in the beginning, without any words attached to it. One finds one's way toward a poem like that by intuition, through openness, by grasping, stumbling.

But once you bring the poem into being, if you're able to, the process has a whiff of the miraculous about it, and I find that that sense of magic, for me at least, clings to the finished poem.

In an essay you wrote for the Oxford American last month, you mention that you came to Arkansas 13 years ago from your home state of Kentucky. Because your poems are so much about landscape, I'm curious — how did the change in landscape first start affecting your work?

Well, it started with a single poem. Out of the blue.

My wife, Carolyn Guinzio, is a poet and back in the fall of 2013 we got in the habit of exchanging poems on a given day every week. Many of these pieces, of course, could be discarded or perhaps contained a line or two we could salvage, but some of the poems were more than that. It was a very intense time for both of us. I think the energy of that experience, the pressure of having to produce, allowed me to find my way to writing about Arkansas, something I thought I'd never do.

I used to say that my poems had a kind of homing instinct. Even a poem that started out with a setting in, say, Arkansas or Massachusetts or Virginia or Illinois or California (all places I've lived) would have this way of circling back, through the twists and turns of revision, to Kentucky. And then, during the course of this fertile autumn, that stopped happening. All of a sudden. I was surprised, a little frightened, but then, really quickly, I was excited, filled with a sense of new possibility.

That's how writing about the Ozarks started for me. And Carolyn's work from that fall became a large part of her newest book.

Your most recent poems are very much about Arkansas, specifically the Ozarks. Even more than that, these recent poems absorb, or at least channel, the history of the region. How do you channel the past?

I'm not sure how to answer this question with any certainty. I do feel the presence of the past, intensely so. I always have.

When I worked as a park ranger at Mammoth Cave National Park [in Kentucky], the past was very present there. In the cave itself, the evidence of over 4,000 years of human activity is visible, easily accessed. I felt the lingering energy of that past very deeply.

I suppose the same is true here. You just have to look a bit more closely.

Where do your historical characters (ones like Maw Earl in "Trundle") come from?

Sometimes they're real people, but more often than not they're creations, amalgamations, bits and pieces drawn from people I know or have known.

"Of Thorns" draws the reader to a beautiful image of quiet and solitude. It happens gradually ("there's no shepherd / stepping from the trees with his crook, not even the curve of the moon / that gathers each night its flock of polished stones"). What is this place for you? Is it the "place," the headspace where you go to write?

I think so, yes. But I'm also talking about a real location or series of locations that throughout my life have served as wellsprings, sanctuaries, centering, sustaining or grounding forces.

Can you tell me about solitude? How important is it to you?

It's quite important.

I think often about my students and their need for solitude. As a teacher of creative writing, I try to guide my students and support them and direct their reading. I try to serve as an example of how you make a life that has room for poetry. But I also know that the real work they have to do happens when they're alone in a room. That's where they'll learn how to take what's going on in their minds and give it form. It's a process that will be different for every person — intuitive, probably impossible to explain. That's the most crucial task a young poet faces; it requires solitude, lots of it, and no one can do that work for you.

What are some of the books (not just poetry collections) that have shaped you as a reader and writer?

Here are a few of the books that have entered near talismanic status for me over the years: Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop," Aleda Shirley's "Chinese Architecture," Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," Ted Hughes' "River," Lucie Brock-Broido's "The Master Letters," Seamus Heaney's "Death of a Naturalist." I just noticed that the word "death" appears in three of these six titles. I'd never thought of that before ...

Are you teaching this semester? What's on your syllabus?

I'm teaching our undergraduate poetry workshop this semester. It's one of my favorite courses, but given the nature of the class, I won't have an extensive reading list. A poet you can bet will show up, though, is Keats. I don't think I ever teach a course without somehow bringing Keats into the mix.

What's next for you? Are you working on a new collection?

Finishing one, I hope. I think I'm close, but I have thought so before, only to realize that something wasn't right or that there was some piece missing and that I had much work left to do. I'm such a slow writer. Each of my previous two books took around eight years to write, and this one, it seems, is no different.

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