John Paul Davis chats with Thomas Fucaloro
TF: Thank you for sharing your vulnerable stories of love and heartache in your new collection, Crown Prince of Rabbits (great weather for MEDIA, 2016). There seems to be an underlining theme of a love gone bad while finding a new love blossom. You also have some interesting poems about your parents that really add some context to these poems. Was that intentional? Is that how you approached the manuscript originally or did that context emerge while you were putting it all together?
JPD: Interestingly I wasn't thinking about the book in terms of themes at all. I wrote the book over period of ten years, starting with my divorce, then a long period of being single and dating again, then meeting and falling in love with my current wife. So to the extent the book is about loss and change, it's because my life was about loss and change. Having my parents and my sons show up as much as they do wasn't planned. For a while I was very interested in the machines that become intimate parts of our live,s and many of the poems about family began as poems about machines: iPods, baby monitors, record players, bicycles, etc. I also remain fascinated with the body as a source of personal mythology and I went through a time where I wrote a lot about my body—beard, face, eyes, belly. Many of those became poems about family because of course we are often physically connected to our parents, siblings and children. The only poem I explicitly set to write as being about a person is the eulogy for my stepmother. In general I like poems to surprise me and that includes when I'm writing so I try not to say "today I will write about my Dad." I prefer to start with a question: "why do I remember the smell of Dad's record player more than how it looked?"
I approached the book in much the same way. Instead of plotting the book out like a flow chart, I tried to use the arrangement process as a way of understanding myself but I didn't want to overthink it, because what readers find in the book is often more interesting than whatever arc I could have mapped out would have been. So I guess I'm saying it emerged, but not when I put it together. It emerged when you asked this question…which is really beautiful…or when a reader tells me what my work is about. I'm lucky enough to have readers smarter than I am.
TF: There is also a huge music theme happening in this book. You have a lot of poems based on music that you love; it's almost like you have provided a sound track to these poems. How does music influence your poetry? And I know you are a musician as well, so does that add to how you write your poems?
JPD: Well I literally did make a soundtrack. I composed music to go with the reading of each poem—take a look on Bandcamp if you're curious. But yes, music is probably the thing that influences me most. Poems are themselves a kind of music; poems are a way of ordering words with attention paid to how they sound together when read. My entry into poetry came through music. Songwriters I admire would quote or mention poets and I'd go to the library and find their books. Poets have a long history of responding to music—O'Hara was obsessed with Rachmaninov; William Matthews loved Mingus, Terrance Hayes, Adrian Matejka, Tracy K Smith, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib all respond to pop music of varying types. The division between poetry and music is mostly an accident of technology anyway—we could write before we could record live performances. If it had been the other way around who knows if we'd perceive them as different genres?
TF: "Ode to the Bite Mark You Left on My Right Shoulder" is such a beautiful piece about the imprints we leave on each other, physically or mentally. Do you find it easy opening up in your writing process, or does it take a long period of editing to get there?
JPD: Thanks! When I write, I think about things like "how can I surprise myself?" or "does it feel good to say this" or it's an exercise in curiosity: "Why do I do that? Why do I like this?" I don't know about other people but I am a mystery to myself often. I find those mysteries interesting in the work of other writers, so I look for them in myself when I'm writing. In this case I was intrigued by the idea that pain and the potential for injury can be erotic, which isn't a new idea, but it was new to me, and I wanted to try and understand why.
TF: While writing this manuscript, who were some of the writers you were thinking about or reading during that time?
JPD: Well I spent most of the Obama administration writing the poems in this book, so I read a lot. I average about a book of poetry a week, so hundreds of books. But touchstones for me during that time included: Lynda Hull, Adrian Matejka, Ross Gay, Gerald Stern, Sharon Olds, Aracelis Girmay, Jack Gilbert, Yusef Komunyakaa, William Matthews, Stevie Edwards, Terrance Hayes, Sam Sax, Angel Nafis, Natalie Eilbert, Frank O'Hara, Maggie Nelson.
TF: Finally, what's next for John Paul Davis?
JPD: I have another manuscript ready to go that's been about three years in the works. It began with restrictions on my process—firstly, can I make a book where all the titles of the poems are single-word nouns? Secondly, can I force myself not to take common images for granted. Instead of saying "smartphone," what if I describe it as if my reader were from twenty years ago? I have about fifty poems in that manuscript. And I've been busy with music projects, and I have an idea for science fiction novel I'd like to take a crack at...
JOHN PAUL DAVIS was born in Durham, North Carolina, and has lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Ohio, and New York City. He is a graduate of East Carolina University and DePaul University. His writing has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Word Riot, The Journal, MUZZLE Magazine, RATTLE, Four Way Review, and Bat City Review. He is a former poetry editor for Em Literary and Bestiary Magazine. He helped run or host numerous poetry and variety shows including Page Meets Stage and The Encyclopedia Show. John Paul lives with his wife in New York City, where he works as a web developer, makes music and visual art, and writes poems. Crown Prince of Rabbits is his first book of poetry.