Tag Archives: In the Circus of You

An Interview with Nicelle Davis

21 May
Nicelle Davis is the author of three books of poetry, most recently the novel-in-poems In the Circus of You.

Nicelle Davis is the author of three books of poetry, most recently the novel-in-poems In the Circus of You.

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Nicelle Davis

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Nicelle Davis

Nicelle Davis latest book is the illustrated novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You.

In the Circus of You pairs the poems of Nicelle Davis with the illustrations of Cheryl Gross.

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Nicelle Davis

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.”

Michael Noll

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?

Nicelle Davis

Anne Sexton's Transformations was praised by Kurt Vonnegut and called "blood-curdling" by Stanley Kunitz.

Anne Sexton’s Transformations was praised by Kurt Vonnegut and called “blood-curdling” by Stanley Kunitz.

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.

May 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Reveal the Universe through a Single Detail

19 May
Nicelle Davis latest book is the illustrated novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You.

Nicelle Davis latest book is the illustrated novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You. It includes the poem “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee.”

In Jorge Luis Borges’ famous story, “The Aleph,” a character goes into a cellar and looks at a particular part of it, a mere point, and through it he sees the entire universe. It’s a dizzying concept that makes graduate students go, “Ooh,” when they read it, but it’s also a metaphor for how writing often works, especially descriptive passages. A single detail can provide a glimpse of something much larger—the universe or a relationship or the internal self. The problem is finding that detail and, when you do, knowing how to look through it.

A great example of how quickly a single detail can expand into a world can be found in Nicelle Davis’ poem “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee,” which is part of her new novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You. You can read it now at A cappella Zoo (it’s the third poem in the excerpt).

How the Poem Works

The poem begins with this line: “There is a hole the size of your fist in our bathroom door.” This is, of course, a powerful image, and, if you imagine it as an aleph and put your eye to that hole in the door, you can quickly imagine the sort of things you might see: violence, anger, fear, and all the ways they can appear. The next line seems to set up some of those emotions: “My fault, I’m told, for pushing the hinge towards your movements.” Imagine if the poem had looked through that hole and seen the speaker of the poem, hiding in the bathroom. What do you think the poem would see? The obvious answer is a kind of keyhole snapshot of a woman. But that’s not exactly where the poem goes.

Instead of peering through the hole and seeing the speaker the way that a camera would, the poem uses the hole to see into the speaker: “I used to dream of large machines with hands pounding apart concrete so a single seed could be sown.” This is a fitting image, as it keeps with the violence of the hole. But it also moves far beyond that original image, as do the next lines, which move forward in time and also outward, giving us a glimpse of the relationship over a long period of time:

After this spectacle of effort, I’d wake with a fever of 103. You never understood how I could be sick so often.

When I teach poetry to a lecture hall full of students required to take an English course, I talk about how poems often try to move as far as they can from line to line. The thrill in reading the poem, if you feel any thrill, is in appreciating how far it can jump and still maintain some sort of coherence. In the presence of undergrads, I usually refer to this quality as something particular to poetry, but the truth is that prose writers make these leaps as well. Just read Vladimir Nabokov, Toni Morrison, or Paul Harding.

It’s the same kind of leap that Borges made with the aleph. When you peer through a descriptive detail, what you see is not simply the next logical detail but something unexpected. The surprise we feel is often what pulls us through the writing, whether it’s prose or poetry.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make intuitive leaps in description, using “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee” by Nicelle Davis as a model:

  1. Start with a scene that contains strong emotion. Davis’ scene contains anger and fear, but these aren’t your only options. Any emotion will work. The goal is to access a moment for a character, narrator, person, or speaker when they are ready to see or look beyond what is right in front of their faces. Those moments are usually accompanied by powerful feelings. This is true in life as well: when we’re feeling love or joy or satisfaction or anger, our minds tend to leap beyond the immediate circumstances to the past or future or places that don’t exist and never will. Anxiety is a perfect example of this: It’s a feeling that pulls you out of the moment and into some possible future. So, choose some scene in which you, the writer, or the character you’re writing about are feeling charged up.
  2. Find your aleph. Of course, you may be thinking, “Sure, I’ll just find that perfect, all-seeing, all-encompassing detail. Wait, what’s that in my pocket? Oh, there it is.” Most of us can’t find that detail in one try. So, start brainstorming. If you drop yourself into the scene, what do you see? Davis choose a point of impact (literally), where the emotion has erupted into action. This is a pretty direct image (though it’s not as direct as an image of the fist punching through the door). You can choose something that directly conveys the emotion, or you can look to the side, at something that is next to the thing that directly conveys the emotion. Regardless of what you choose, try looking through it. Does the image make you want to keep writing? Or do read it and feel your energy drop. This is hardly scientific, but that’s how writing often works. Look for an image that revs up or directs your already charged emotional state.
  3. Jump past the obvious next detail. Davis could have looked through the hole in the door and seen a woman. But that would be obvious. Of course that’s what is visible through the door. The reader understands the logic of the scene and can intuit that next step. So, move beyond it. You can move chronologically (what came before the scene or what comes after). You can move from the physical to the mental/emotional/spiritual (which is what Davis does). You can zoom out (which she also does) or zoom in. You can jump sideways to a moment or image that fits in some way with the image or moment where you began. Try all of these. Some will work and some won’t. You may find that once you make one intuitive jump, you’re able to make others. The first leap gives you and your writing permission to move out of the immediate scene and toward some detail that surprises not just the reader but you as well.

Good luck and have fun.

%d bloggers like this: