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Jay Davis has done his dharma to Portland’s literary scene: He’s hosted poetry slams at both the Free Street Taverna and the Skinny, made regular appearances at most of the open readings in town ¾ from MWPA’s Local 188 event to the Café Review’s monthly open mic at the Center for Cultural Exchange. He and pal Peter Manuel (host of Geno’s poetry night) and fellow poet Dennis Camire perform as the Trinity, an alternately irreverent and soul-searching trio of bards.
In the past, if you recommended a book, Davis would check it out. If you published a story, he’d buy the journal. If you needed a ride to an event, he’d drive — for years he shuttled to Cambridge’s Cantab poetry slam with fellow poets in tow. Davis’s generosity is grounded in a genuine love for language and for those who struggle to express themselves through it. And though he’ll tell you he’s a pessimist ¾ he is ¾ his vivid observations of human pathos are underscored with a similar kind of generosity. Davis sees beauty, and poetry, in the ugly and mundane, in the daily-ness of daily life.
The poems in his first chapbook, Whispers, Cries and Tantrums, published this past month by MoonPie Press (not the one in Virginia, a new one here in Maine), represent nearly a decade of writing, beginning with "Untitled," a poem about his disappearing act of a grandfather, and ending with "How to Write a Poem": "Expect the worst. Fear lives just outside./ Desire will always bring you closer to Fear." The poems are some of Davis’s quieter and more literary; he gave Alice Persons (co-founder of MoonPie Press) carte blanche to select material from what he jokingly calls his magnum opus ¾ a manuscript of over 100 poems.
"I was afraid she’d pick the best poems of the bunch and leave me with a sad, desiccated manuscript," Davis says, in his typically self-deprecating manner. What he found, though, is that having someone make the first pass for him clarified two themes in the remaining material, which he will publish in two more forthcoming chapbooks: crazy old guy poems and poems about family dysfunction. "How do you get any traction if you grew up happy and middle class and protected and loved?" Davis quips. "What would you have to write about?"
That said, he intends to save his dysfunctional family poems for last. "It’s hard not to think of yourself as a writer sometimes being off in this Olympian place, not connected to people," he says. "[But] when my mother read ‘Untitled,’ she cried. She was happy I wrote it, but . . . then my daughter read it, and found parallels. I have to be careful about who reads what." His connections to people and the responsibilities they engender are very much a part of Davis’s writing. A divorced father of three, he works a day job for a large corporation. Poetry may be his passion, but it must remain his avocation for the time being. Yet even that split provides him with material. "It’s always something I’ve separated off from my life," he says. "But I really had to get divorced and broken and depressed to start writing a lot."
He relates a brief story in which his three lives ¾ poet, dad, computer programmer ¾ overlapped: "I wrote this poem about the political economics of cookies; at bedtime, I said my son could have two cookies. He wanted three . . . [heated debate ensued]. I showed it to this woman who I work with in the underwriting department. She gave it to her husband who gave it to everyone in claims, because they deal with medical malpractice stuff, and it was about negotiation." He laughs. "I only heard about it on the elevator."
Davis’s ability to find pleasure in odd juxtapositions and small surprises pervades his writing, in which he delivers lovely revelations and poignant reflections in a wrapping of black humor. In "When I Die, Mrs. Earnhardt Won’t Be Able to Keep the Autopsy Photos Out of the Papers," he writes: "An unruly rabble of believers will hijack my body/ and tear it apart and run away with it/ and stash all the pieces into little pickle jars/ and wherever the jars are stored will be site/ of miracles, and publications, and bookstores." After years of supporting other people’s work, Davis now has his own publication on the shelves; check it out.
Tanya Whiton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Whispers, Cries & Tantrums is available at Longfellow Books, and will soon be available through MoonPie Press at www.moonpiepress.com
Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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