Keeping Poetry Alive, One Project at a Time
Q&A with Nicelle Davis by Dawn Leas
Nicelle Davis is a writer, educator, and artistic collaborator extraordinaire. Whether you are corresponding via email or having a face-to-face conversation, her dedication to and enthusiasm for the written word, the spoken word, art in its many forms, and the possibility of collaboration immediately grab your attention.
I first met Nicelle through a friend’s Facebook post about the latest Living Poetry Project for which she invited poets to send poems for her to write on umbrellas, which were then given away at the annual AWP conference held in Seattle in late February this year. We then met in person in front of the Red Hen Press booth at the conference where I became the proud caretaker of one of the umbrellas.
Nicelle is the author of Circe (Lowbrow Press, 2011) and Becoming Judas (Red Hen Press, 2013). Her third collection, In the Circus of You, is forthcoming this year from Rose Metal Press. She also has e-chapbooks available at Gold Wake Press and Whale Sound.
In addition to being the director of the Living Poetry Project, Nicelle is an assistant poetry editor at Connotation Press and the managing editor of The Los Angeles Review.
She currently teaches at Antelope Valley College and runs a free online poetry workshop, which can be found at The Bees’ Knees Blog, http://nicelledavis.com.
Here are a few questions (and answers) to give you a glimpse into the creatively dynamic world of Nicelle Davis. To find out more, visit her blog and follow her on Twitter @Nicelle_Davis.
DL: Tell us about the genesis of The Living Poetry Project.
ND: The first project happened spontaneously; I suppose most firsts happen on impulse.
I had just read Dave Bonta’s chapbook Odes To Tools. At the time my neighborhood was under heavy construction. (Who am I kidding, my neighborhood is heavy construction.)
On a whim, I wrote Dave Bonta’s poems onto Thank You Cards. I gave these “love letters to tools” to people who work with tools every day. I met many kind, generous, and funny people while sharing Odes To Tools. This chapbook helped me connect physically, intellectually, and emotionally with my home—and maybe it helped bring poetry closer to those who construct the home I love.
This first project turned into a personal obsession. Anywhere and with anyone I give away poems as gifts. I find myself constantly conceptualizing delightful ways to give people poetry.
I love all of the projects, but my top three would include:
1. Poetry Zoltar, played by the amazing Justin Wallace Kibbe. The Living Poetry Project partnered with Red Hen Press to give out poetic fortunes at the Poetry Prom in Pasadena. So magical!
2. The Poetry Vending Machine. I love this thing!
3. Poetry Pockets at AWP 2013. This was so much work, but perhaps my favorite. I hand sewed 100 poetry pockets to give away. The joy on people’s faces was priceless!
DL: How do you find contributors for your projects?
ND: Finding contributors is a bit of a wonder. It is organic as the project—a word of mouth system. I will send out a call on Facebook, WOMPO, Twitter, and simply ask around.
It is always a spontaneous call with surprising resolute—often with immediate responses.
DL: How does it make you feel when you see people sharing and commenting and contributing to The Living Poetry Project?
ND: Hopeful—a necessary and needed sense of hope is what sharing, comments, and contributions bring me. It helps me believe in poetry.
The Living Poetry Project feels clean to me. It is a pure exchange. When people engage with this project, I experience a deep sense of gratitude for the global conversation writing gives us.
DL: Would you give us a recap of the AWP 2014 Umbrella Project?
ND: The Living Poetry Project brought 30 poetry umbrellas–150 poems by 100 different poets to give away at the AWP conference in Seattle.
I hand wrote each poem, and loved every moment of it. Writing out the poems forced me to muse with each word. This is a gorgeous way to read a poem. It took several hours, but it also tricked life into giving me hours with poetry.
I like tricking life into giving more life; I think this is the work of an artist.
DL: Why did you decide to give them away in Seattle rather than sell them? What are some of the comments you received about them?
ND: The goal of The Living Poetry Project is to show how poetry is a priceless treasure.
Now don’t get me wrong; I strongly believe that artist should be able to make a living off their efforts; however this project is not about making a living—it’s about living the art.
DL: It only rained one day during AWP in Seattle. Did you see anyone using the umbrellas that day?
ND: The unfortunate thing about a 10,000 plus conference is that 30 umbrellas are quickly swallowed by the crowd.
My best interaction at AWP happened on the street. I was walking from the hotel to the convention center, five umbrellas under my arm, when two lovely ladies ran after me yelling “The umbrellas! Poetry umbrellas!” It was great to have these lovely ladies recognize the project without my having to introduce it. Such a joy.
DL: How would you describe your own work?
ND: My work is strange. I write about lost eye-balls, conjoined twins having sex, scab eaters—but these are just subjects. If I were to be honest, all my poems are love letter to a specific person; I work very hard to make the specific seem relatable—even general.
Something in this process is vital for me. It often doesn’t feel like I’m writing a book; it feels like the books are rewriting me.
DL: You seem to work on projects that are collaborative and bring together various art forms. Can you explain why you are drawn to this and how the process works for you?
ND: Everything overlaps. Art is interested in the layers; I’m interested in art. And I really like people—I mean love the company of others. I make art because it gives me a stronger sense of other; it creates others from within me. This same love (naturally) connects me with other artist.
There is nothing I would rather do than make with other makers.
I have had the privilege of collaborating with many talented and generous artists. One of my most deep artistic connections is with illustrator Cheryl Gross and composer Karl Preusser. Together we make poetry films that travel the world. This is magic for me—this magic could only happen with collaboration.
Please check out our work; we make it for you. Watch our latest poetry film at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUjD9M9lPPk
DL: You also teach poetry to many different age levels. How do you need to alter your approach to communicating with each of them, or is it the same for all ages?
ND: Teaching craft is always the same; however I find craft is second to facilitating possibilities. A teacher’s job is to help people give themselves permission to grow and explore.
Children need permission to approach adult topics; adults need permission to access their childlike imaginations. This is a very general statement, but it is the idea that guides my work as a teacher.
DL: Who are some of your favorite poets and why?
ND: We don’t have enough time to answer this question properly—so I will turn to my staples: John Keats, Stephen Crane, and Nathanael West. (Okay, so Nathanael West wrote novels, but his novellas feel like long poems to me.)
These are the three who pull me out of the murk and mess—and push me into the deep waters. They are the deep waters. They remind me there is always deeper and darker—they make me recognize when I’m being a coward, when I need to come up for air. They push me and pull me, simultaneously.
They are also street kids. I like that. Beauty is for everyone—even those who live outside of economical, social, and political norms.
DL: What are you currently reading?
ND: I love Red Hen Press and read every title. I think Talisman by Lisa C. Krueger is a devastating look at paternal love—a gorgeous devastation. Once, Then by Andrea Scarpino off the chain (read this book!). Slice of Moon by Kim Dower makes me smile at the ridiculousness of life, as does Ron Koertge’s The Ogre’s Wife. The Forage House by Tess Taylor makes me think. But…but…Patter by Douglas Kearney will change the way you see the world—the way you read a book.
I read everything Les Figues Press and Rose Metal Press publishes. I am so so so grateful for Ampersand Books for rereleasing Molly Gaudry’s We Take Me Apart (I love that book).
Elizabeth Alexander’s American Sublime stopped my heart. Ossian Foley’s Of: Vol. I, really delighted me.
My dear friends Kate Gale, Katie Manning, Lauren K. Alleyne and Cody Todd have amazing collections out. (Find them, read them!) …Oh, Oh, and I think Kate Durbin’s new book is coming in the mail!
I’ve been reading stupid amounts of literature on Shakespeare’s the Tempest. I’ve been reading a lot about space and time, about architecture. I’ve been reading my mythology like a good girl. I’ve been reading People Magazine like a bad girl. And then there is fiction…
Eh, there are so many good books. So many, it is maddening. I don’t sleep.
DL: What are you currently working on?
ND: Becoming Judas, just came out from Red Hen. I’ve been busy with the book tour—busy, busy, becoming.
In the Circus of You, will come out from Rose Metal Press next year. I’ve been going around town dressed as a clown to prepare for the release of that animal.
The Walled Wife, is my latest book—the book that wants to bury me alive. No really. I’ve been doing my research—letting people bury me alive to understand going under.
Here a picture, a video, proof: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uem8nO0h0e4
DL: What is next for The Living Poetry Project?
ND: Hopefully anything…everything! I am always open to suggestions.
I know that on March 29th at the Grand Park’s Downtown Bookfest my friends at Red Hen Press are going to pull the sky to earth—have a poetry cloud fight. Should be fun.
Dawn Leas’s chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet, was released in 2010 by Finishing Line Press. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in goldwakepress.org, Literary Mama, Willows Wept Review, Southern Women’s Review, Interstice, Poetry in Transit, and others. She is the Associate Program Director of the Wilkes University low-residency creative writing MA/MFA programs.