I’ve developed a love affair with poetry this year. So, I found Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry collection, HAINT, at just the right time. I met the author at a recent literary conference and was delighted to discover that she too grew up in Northeast Ohio. Names and images of our home set the stage in her poems of childhood, such as “East 149th Street (Symphony for a Black Girl)” and “Akron at Night,” but many more of her poems present a powerful universal ode to girlhood, adolescence, and adulthood as a woman seeking love. Poet Ross Gay, another Northeast Ohio native, said of HAINT, “Although heartbreak is the origin of so many of these poems, it’s love that makes them go. Love to which they plead and aspire and pray.”
Teri was kind and generous enough to tell me more about what makes her poetry–and life–“go.”
Teri, HAINT is such a personal collection, taking the reader from your childhood through motherhood and family life. The first poem, “Fade to Black,” is a self-portrait, which traces your background: “Only now can pixels completely capture / the mulatto ancestors born in Virginia, / … yellowing successive generations in Cleveland.” Can you tell me how your upbringing in Ohio figured into the making of you as a poet?
It almost seems that everyone accidentally endeavored to make me a poet. My mother taught me to read using Nikki Giovanni’s poetry. She also pointed out Maya Angelou and Carlos Castaneda’s work to me when I hit ten and had a voracious appetite for reading. I was the kid who listened intently to the stories told by my older relatives. And I came across Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets and A Pocket Book of Modern Verse in our basement, leftovers from my parents’ college days. I would sneak down and read them and just felt a kind of glory in what those books held, how the words seemed so alive on those faded pages.
The end of that same poem is a foretaste of the collection, a journey of love–of others and the self. “Finally, / the close-up— a mirror, and I am discovering how slow love is…” Is this what you had in mind when ordering this collection, a chronological journey to love?
Definitely. This collection was a long time coming. I lived a lot of life between the first poems I wrote that made that collection to the person I was when I finished it. I was in my early 40s when it came out and it felt like such a defining moment to have it published. I wanted the poems in it to tell my journey and how I came to be the poet I was at the end of the book.
You write very frankly about adolescence–first period, first loves. You also grapple with the “price for beauty” you paid as a black girl. Did the craft of writing and of poetry help you to redefine beauty? Did you grow into acceptance, write into it, or both?
Both, it was a hard uphill battle to love my dark skin and kinky hair in a time before it was in advertisements and on televisions. Writing helped me to see what I needed to excise, to exorcise: the hurt, hate, anger and denial. Writing helped me push through the pain, much like giving birth, to know that there could be something worthy, a bettering, a healthy self-love on the other side of it all. At first though, writing was a therapy, a way to address the pain and see it on paper and once it was out, I could feel better and reflect with more clarity about my experiences.
You play with form in the poem “The small of my back (your hand here)”– best poem title ever!–with the shape of the verse on the page. “One Night Stand” uses the Golden Shovel form created by Terrance Hayes. “Scar Tissue” the Bop form. How do you come to these kinds of poems–material first, form first?
Each of these poems came about differently. With “the small of my back (your hand here)” I just HAD to play with form. The poem almost called for it and it was so much fun to do. “One Night Stand” began in that form and was only crafted to be in that form. And “Scar Tissue” evolved, as I knew I wanted to try out the form and wanted to pay homage to a song that was a favorite of mine (and my dad) as a child. But funny enough, it also takes the title from a favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers song, so it was a way to pay homage to the music and experiences that shaped me.
A couple of poems in your collection were written after songs–one after “Seasons” by the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby. How do music and poetry work together for you? How about visual art and poetry?
I always have music on—in my car, in my home, in my office, always. I also grew up in a household full of music, from The Temptations and Led Zeppelin to Steely Dan and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Songs create tiny movies of emotion in me and I love to dive into the rise and fall of the music and the lyrics. Words come next, to explain, to capture those emotions on the page, to help me sift through what the song has done to me. It creates a truly fulfilling loop as I cannot play an instrument and have not sung in a choir since my teen years.
So if words are my instrument, then they are what I will bring to all the whirlwind and kaleidoscope of emotions that music stirs up inside me.
It is the same with visual art. Some of the poems in HAINT are responses to the book, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History by Deborah Willis and Carla Williams. I took the book with me to Virginia Center for Creative Arts for a residency in 2015 and it helped me write the last poems of HAINT. I have such emotional responses to all art, and poetry allows me to harness and mine those response for poems.
You’re the winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry (among other awards). Do you get back to Northeast Ohio much?
Winning the Ohioana Prize meant so much to me—to be recognized by my home state felt like a real accomplishment and achievement. I go up to Cleveland at least 2-5 times a year. My mother, father, and sister still live there, plus so much of my extended family. Coming home is so much fun not only for me but for my husband and children, they love Cleveland too, which gives me a lot of pride in my hometown.
Living in the Washington, DC,-area, you’re very active in your writing community here. What does it mean to you to support your fellow poets and artists? If we’re poetry fans in this area, what shouldn’t we miss out on?
I think Washington, DC, has an incredibly welcoming and thriving literary community. It embraced me when I came to the city in 1998 and has shown me love and support ever since. Poetry has defined me for so long and I love being able to share it with people through my job as poetry coordinator and to uplift other poets. If a poet moves me, then I want to share their work with others. The Library of Congress puts on great events, as does Split This Rock with their biennial festival of poetry. Bookstores like Mahogany Books, East City Book Shop, Politics and Prose, Sankofa Bookstore, Loyalty Books will often bring and present poets.
There is the American Poetry Museum in Brookland, DC, which hosts great readings. George Washington University and American University will often bring poets. The University of Maryland has their Writers Here and Now series while Georgetown University has the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. Plus libraries around the District, Maryland, and Virginia often host poetry readings. There is rarely a week that doesn’t have a reading in the DC-area. And of course, the series I coordinate, the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series at the Folger Shakespeare Library!
As poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library, what’s the best perk of the job?
I get to surround myself with poetry every day. I used to sneak it in at other jobs, writing it during meetings, reading it on lunch breaks. But at the Folger, I can be out and about with it. I also have an office filled to the brim with poetry books, but one of the best perks is getting free poetry books. I just love it. It is like Christmas every other day.
I adore your website, poetsandparents.com. What does it mean to you and to your marriage that you and your husband, Hayes Davis, are both poets? What does it mean for you as parents?
Thank you! We worked hard on that website! As for our marriage, poetry is the bedrock of our relationship. We bonded over poetry from the beginning and it has played a significant role in some of our early moments in our relationship, from when we were dating and Hayes mentioned Cornelius Eady and I knew who that was, to him letting me tag along as he wrote a paper on the poet Derek Walcott, to us attending a reading by Nikki Giovanni on our second date, poetry has always and will always be something we connect on.
As parents, it means we have made children who are hungry readers and who know a lot of poets. We also know when to whisk the children away should one of us take up a pen and begin scribbling furiously. Plus we support each other in being first readers, providing edits, or offering kind words when the rejection notices come in, or some bubbly and flowers when the acceptances hit the email. To share something like this makes our marriage stronger and deeper and it means we always have something to talk about.
What are you working on right now?
I have finished (well, I keep tinkering but it really is done) a second manuscript and am sending it out (fingers crossed)! I created my own goddesses in it, as a way to elevate experiences and emotions I felt important and I am using stories from my grandmother and as a black mother in America to interrogate where this country is right now and where it needs to go.
Thank you to Teri Ellen Cross Davis!
Find out more…
Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of Haint, (Gival Press, 2016) winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is a Cave Canem fellow and a member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. She has received fellowships to attend the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Hedgebrook, Community of Writers Poetry Workshop, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is the recipient of a Meret grant from the Freya Project and a 2019 Sustainable Arts Grant. Her work can be read or is forthcoming in: Academy of American Poets, Auburn Love’s Executive Order, Avenue, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Figure 1, Gargoyle, Harvard Review, Kestrel, Little Patuxent Review, Natural Bridge, North American Review, MiPOesias, Mom Egg Review, Pacifica Literary Review, PANK, Poet Lore, Poetry Ireland Review, and Tin House. She is the 2019-2020 HoCoPoLitSo Writer-in-Residence for Howard County, Maryland and the Poetry Coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. She lives in Maryland with her husband, poet Hayes Davis and their two children.
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