Nicelle Davis is a California poet, collaborator, and performance artist whose most recent book is the novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Beloit Poetry Journal, The New York Quarterly, PANK, and SLAB Magazine. She is editor-at-large of The Los Angeles Review and currently teaches at Paraclete and with the Red Hen Press WITS program.
To read an exercise on writing description and Davis’ poem “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee,” click here.
In this wide-ranging interview, Davis discusses Borges’ “The Aleph,” Mikhail Bakhtin’s view of poetry as monolithic, and why poetry is not going extinct.
I love the poem “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee,” especially the way it uses a hole punched through a door as a means of viewing something quite larger about a relationship. It’s not unlike Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “The Aleph,” in which the characters can put their eye to a point located in the cellar of a house and see everything that exists in the universe. What was the genesis of your poem? Did you start with the hole in the door? Or with some other detail that then led you to the hole? In other words, do you start with the aleph or with the entire universe and work backward?
Thank you for taking the time to love any work of writing. And wow, what a question.
I can’t say that the poem “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee” was directly in conversation with Borges’s story, but I can’t deny that they might share a similar desire. I want a love that moves along the mirrors of the infinite, which expands and inverts simultaneously—a love that is so intensely real that it is no longer possible. The impossible—this is what I want. And my only chance of even glimpsing such a love is in metaphor. So I write poems.
“The Aleph.” That is such a perfect, perfect madness.
It’s difficult to talk about that story without becoming its characters. Discussing “The Aleph,” I will easily gush like Carlos Argentino, the madman poet, who sees what he wants in every line—I just as easily become the sour Borges who robs others of magic out of the raw envy of everything mystical. That is to say, for me, there is an aleph, which means the hole is aleph and aleph is a hole. Whole is the word game here, isn’t it? It’s the blessing and the curse of being a writer—more like being a dreamer.
I love how “The Aleph” is something more than story; it is a poem that hates poetry; it is an essay that risks bending events past the conceits we use to construct truths. It is everything and nothing—that story IS its subject: “The Aleph”—the everything/nothing of us. It is hysterical both in humor and despair. I love how the protagonist is hyper focused on one point, the unrequited beloved, and is forced into revolving that one burning point into all and every angle of existence. In other words the obsession becomes the aleph or the aleph is in the obsession. Borges writes of the aleph, “And here begins my despair as a writer.”
This sort of despair is the only thing worth living for—yes? I’d gladly trade of lifetime of certainty for a glimpse of ever expanding uncertainty hidden in some weirdo-poet’s cellar.
Now the real challenge is seeking such a love without going insane or becoming a complete asshole; that is the warning in Borges’s “The Aleph.”He warns that those who seek the universe—that is, those who dwell in metaphors—are mad poets and assholes Not exactly exciting options, but the reward of such pursuits is that we find an entire universe hidden in the beloved’s skin.
In the Circus of You is mindful of such complications.
The poems comes from In the Circus of You, a novel-in-poems, which is a strange hybrid animal. I’m curious about how this form affects the individual poems. Because a novel, theoretically, coheres in a different way than a collection, does it put pressure on the poems to repeat images or, perhaps, make certain images clearer or more spelled out in order to gain that overall coherence?
Sometimes it’s fun to look at the etymology of things. The root of “fiction” is new work, or new story. The root of “poetry” is to make. Yes, I would like to make new work—to enter and break open words. I’m not sure if this is possible, but I want to try.
The concept of a novel in verse is old; every epic poem has novel like characteristics. The Iliad and the Odyssey are novel(s) in a way, yes? Every novel has poetic elements, yes? It just so happens that the world (I would say, has always) chosen to privilege linear narratives over the stories manifested in poetry. I sometimes wonder if this privileging the linear over the nonlinear is similar to the world favoring war over peace; ecofeminism would say this correlation holds some merit. Instead of writing a lyrical novel, I wanted to make a novel comply with the dream rules of poetry.
I’m a fiction writer, not a poet, and so when I pick up a novel-in-poems, I’m approaching it from the novel end of the label, not the poetry end. How do you think the form fits into the form of “the novel,” generally speaking? Or, what draws you, as a poet, to the novel form?
Much of what I do is out of rebellion—In the Circus of You was in part written in response to Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin views poetry as largely monologic: that is, the text speaks with one voice, using one language—that of the author—admitting no possibility for outside voices (heteroglossia), and thus diversity of meaning within the text. Bakhtin concludes that “the language of poetic genres […] often become authoritarian, dogmatic and conservative, sealing itself off from the influence of extraliterary social dialects.” He seems to be saying that poetry is,at best, the worst form of navel gazing. I wanted to fuck with that; how much can one find in a navel; maybe an entire sideshow lives there?
Even more rabble-rousing is Christopher Ingraham’s recent article in the Washington Post, claiming that “Poetry is going extinct, government data show.” He writes on how the latest numbers from the SPPA show “poetry is less popular than jazz.” Well fuck, the only thing I might love more than poetry is jazz.
Okay, okay, I hear it all; all the voices telling us “if poetry isn’t dead, it should die.” Maybe part of writing a novel in poems was to tell those voices to fuck-off. I mean, the world still continues to process information and dreams in metaphor. The end of poetry is the end of dreamers; I’m not interested in such a world—I can’t imagine the world being interested in a dreamless existence.
Poetry traditionally has been the voice of the subversive, disfranchised—the voice of other. I find it convenient that during times of intense “speech oppression” that poetry is declared dead. A novel in poems, in a way, is the voice from the grave—the voice says, “Poetry is synonymous with human.”
The illustrations in the book are beautiful and amazing. I found that they affected how I read the book. They slowed me down, preventing me from jumping immediately from one poem to another, which seemed to benefit my readings of each poem. When you decided to include illustrations in the book, did you do so simply because they’re so wonderful? Or did you have a particular effect in mind?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Anne Sexton’s Transformations didn’t inform my wanting illustrations to couple with poetry. Also, I’m a huge fan of graphic novels and comic books; Spiderman is a rather perfect creation.
Even more influential than Sexton and Spiderman is just dumb luck. My path crossed with the incredible Cheryl Gross. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to work with her. I fell in love with her illustrations at first sight, and I asked if she would be willing to work with me. That was six years ago, and we continue to work together. This is a miracle, and I don’t take miracles lightly. Any form of art is a miracle.
As you pointed out in your lovely question, the pairing does slow down the read. I didn’t mindfully consider reader’s speed with the pairing of visuals and text, but I did intend for the words and pictures to feel like a conversation—for the reader to know they are part of that conversation. All art is ultimately meant to be a gift to some unknown love—the imagined voice at the larger table we dream of.