Adam O. Davis is the author of Index of Haunted Houses (Sarabande, 2020), winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry. The recipient of the 2016 George Bogin Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, his work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, The Best American Poetry, The Cincinnati Review, New Ohio Review, and Poetry Review. He lives in San Diego, California where he teaches English literature at The Bishop’s School.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I worked so long on Index of Haunted Houses (Sarabande, 2020) that I still can’t believe it exists as a book. But it does. It lives! And in living that means that the book and the poems in it now have a life of their own. They’ve moved beyond me—who knows where they’ll go and who will find them?—and are now part of a bigger story. Though it was a little disorienting letting go of the work that I’d held close for so long, the freedom and confidence that have come with the book being published have enabled my recent work to be more confident and more welcoming of idiosyncrasies, more adventurous and willing to court risk, both more true and more strange at once.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry came to me when I was seven years old—or perhaps even earlier as my mother read poetry to me when I was in her womb. That said, I wrote my first poem when I was seven. It was called “Falling Leaves” and it was about, you guessed it, falling leaves. Subject matter aside, what struck me when writing it was the giddy delirium I felt at crafting something out of words. I thrilled to the idea that I could not just build but preserve a moment through language. I’ve chased that feeling ever since.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It’s hard to say how long a writing project might take as I’m often unaware of having undertaken a project until I’m deep into it, but I like to have a lot of proverbial irons in the fire—different projects I can jump to when one starts to wane and then return to later afresh. In terms of how I begin writing, I always start with language and while I’m quick to build a substantial amount of material, it takes much longer to whittle it down. As a result, I often end up with soap bar-sized chunks of text that I then spend days, months, or years carving into shape. Index of Haunted Houses is the perfect example of my revision-heavy process as hardly any poems that appear in it appear in their originally-published form (for a more detailed take on this, you can find an essay about my revision process for the book here: https://lithub.com/making-poems-into-phantoms-one-broken-line-at-a-time/).
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A word, a phrase, an image—any bit of linguistic kindling can start a lyric fire for me. And while in my younger days I would wait for inspiration to strike I now strike out for inspiration by stealing time away. As I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve become more conscious of writing toward something—not necessarily a book but an idea, a theme, an obsession—and also more willing to dramatically fragment or augment or redirect poems so that they harmonize better with the world I’m trying to create.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Releasing a book during the pandemic certainly challenged my expectation for what a public reading would be, but I’m grateful that I’ve been able to do a number of Zoom events and connect with readers and writers across the world. For me, reading work aloud is an essential part of my creative process, particularly with revision when I’m constantly asking myself, “Would this embarrass me if I read it out loud?” If I can say “no” to that question, then I know the poem’s getting close to what it needs to be. I really enjoy public readings as they offer a crucial opportunity to experience the music in poetry—a music that might be very different from the form found on the page.
6 – Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
In Index of Haunted Houses, a major concern was how supernatural language is often used to describe economic events—“repossessed houses,” “zombie banks,” etc. During the subprime mortgage crisis, I was fascinated by the ways in which we used language to deflect blame from predatory lenders and support the notion that it wasn’t actual people and institutions who took away property and livelihood but some ghostly, omnipotent unknown. My work since Index has been equally haunted by the question of “home” though it’s more personal in addressing the question of the self and how our external geographies are reflective and reflexive of our internal ones.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The current role of the writer is the eternal role of the writer: To explode the world through language, to remind us of what we once knew as essential but somehow forgot, to return us to a kind of beautiful or terrifying wonder. To crib from Cummings, writers should make the moon rattle like a fragment of angry candy and in doing so make the reader take notice of what else might be tremulous or sweet.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
For my book, working with Sarah Gorham, Sarabande’s president and editor-in-chief, was incredibly helpful. To have someone as invested as I was in realizing the best possible version of my book was a gift in every possible sense. But even before I worked with Sarah I’d gone through hundreds of drafts with the help of some gifted writers who helped me distill it to its most pristine health. It’s important to get feedback on work—and to not be afraid of that feedback. If you want your work to improve, then honesty—though sometimes uncomfortable—is the only path to improvement.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In terms of writing, this quote from Philip Levine has seen me through many a dark night of the soul: “Many young poets have come to me and asked, How am I gonna make it? They feel, often with considerable justice, that they are being overlooked…. I always give them the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able. Don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Wait and be discovered or don’t be discovered.”
In terms of life itself, a primary care physician once told me, “Worry is an abuse of the imagination.” It’s become something of a mantra for me.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to photography)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’m a deeply visual thinker, so the transition from poetry to photography (and vice versa) is seamless, mainly because of the imagistic opportunities both allow. And, to be honest, the book didn’t fully come together until I added my photographs as section breaks: Suddenly there was a deeper resonance between the visuals and the text. In a sense, the page is no different than the viewfinder as they both give specific context to the nonspecific world—it’s through framing that we find the art.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
As a high school teacher, my writing life is fairly bifurcated between the school year and summer. There have been blissful moments (usually at a residency) where I’ve had the time to maintain a regular writing routine (eat, write, sleep, repeat), but as a teacher and a father and a myriad of other things, I have to steal what time I can, which like William Carlos Williams’ iceboxed plums (forgive me) makes that time I spend on my poetry all the sweeter.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I find it helpful to have other genres or artistic disciplines that you can turn to if you’re feeling tired of one. When I need a break from poetry, I can turn to fiction or nonfiction or photography or even some very primitive GarageBand projects. Also, physical exercise helps. During the pandemic it’s become even more important to step away from the page, to go outside and inhabit the world as a human being rather than limbic to-do list.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Having grown up all over the United States and Western Europe,
it’s hard to determine what “home” is. That said, here are a few that make me
feel like I’m at home: petrichor, malt, hot pine needles, wood rot, burning
leaves, chlorine, sugared vitamins…
14 – David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
As previously mentioned, photography (and visual art as a whole) is deeply influential to my work. Music as well. Everything really. I try to keep my general curiosity at a high boil. The pleasure of poetry is that all knowledge has a place in it so the more open I am to all intelligences the richer I find the work on the page. It pays to pay attention to everything, so I try to approach my days like a detective.
15 – What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Far too many to mention, but to name a few who helped guide me through Index of Haunted Houses: T.S. Eliot, John Berryman, Harryette Mullen, Sylvia Plath, Julio Cortázar, Jericho Brown, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ilya Kaminsky, Nathaniel Mackey, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Jean Valentine, Rae Armantrout, Timothy Donnelly, Mike Davis…
16 – What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
There’s so much I’d like to do from hopping boxcars to introducing my daughters to Zion National Park to writing books that I can’t list it all, so for now I will simply say that I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the harmonica.
17 – If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
A National Geographic photojournalist. I think there’s still time.
18 – What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m not sure what else I could’ve done; I’ve always written and never questioned why except to acknowledge that my life and my self would be all the poorer for not having done so.
19 – What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Known World by Edward P. Jones is staggeringly beautiful not just as a novel but a masterclass in narrative world building. The way he fleshes out the arc of a character’s entire life in the space of a paragraph—or sometimes sentence—is incredible. In terms of films, I watched Badlands for the first time a few months ago and thought its denim-clad fever dream of a fairy tale was fantastic—something the Brothers Grimm might’ve made had they been born in Kansas in the 20th Century.
20 – What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a second collection of poems as well as the most recent draft of a novel I’ve been writing and revising for the past seven years. I’ve also been thinking about realizing a few long-gestating essay ideas. But before all that there’s a stack of digital papers to grade.