April 27–May 3, 2020
Marissa Davis is a poet and translator from Paducah, Kentucky, residing in Brooklyn, New York. Her original poems have appeared in the Carolina Quarterly, Rattle, the Iowa Review, Sundog Lit and Peach Mag, among other journals, while her translations have been published in Ezra and are forthcoming in Mid-American Review. An MFA candidate at New York University, Davis is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Graduate Fellowship, the winner of Cave Canem’s 2019 Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize, a finalist in Black Warrior Review’s 2019 Poetry Contest and was nominated by Sundog Lit for the Best New Poets 2020 anthology. Her first chapbook, My Name & Other Languages I Am Learning How to Speak, was published in April 2020 by Jai-Alai Books.
Author photo by Jenna Lanzaro
Self-Portrait as Persephone
I am afraid of his long man’s body
the way it creeps toward me in the gray
marrow of the night the way
I yearn for it to split me open
like a blade does a soft fruit
this is what my mother warned me about
when I was young & still combed my hair with poplar twigs
& ran barefoot between the rising yellow grains
that looked like sunrays & spun the sunrays into life
my navel then still smooth & smelling
like blue milk my head like sweat & sweet
almond oil when my mother labored
against my wild down bridled it flat to my scalp
as if that meant I would not shiver
towards the mouths of beasts
or lay my body
flat against the earth & trail
my nose across it my lips & yes my tongue
pretending it was
o I do not know what I pretended that it was
but in the endless summer
how the tree fruits puffed & tumbled
wind-felled sunken half-moons & I remember
how the sunheat turned their meat & the air
surged syrup-sharp gnat-thick
each month I ate just one from the ground
thinking this is what it will be like to be a woman
nectar in my mouth overflowing acid sugar mold sour light
but that was before I licked the honey blood
from arils before inside my cavern abdomen
hunger burst open what strange & tender poppy
before my mother’s howls
snapped the land to crystal now I align
with winter clinging
to the dark its swell its tightening
cold & taking this man
my mouth a resurrection so lush & animal
my plump body sharp against his seams
I rename night emergence
rename myself bloom, beast, knife
—From My Name & Other Languages I Am Learning How to Speak, Jai-Alai Books, 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem represents one of my first attempts to write about sex and sexuality. Coming from a pretty conservative part of America, there was still enough of a sex taboo in me that it only felt possible at that point to openly express desire in someone else’s voice. Hence Persephone.
In the traditional telling of her story, Persephone is a young woman with very little agency. She’s tossed back and forth between the yearning lover and the yearning mother, spending half of her life as queen of hell, half as princess of spring, in a way that felt, to me, like just one more spin on the Madonna / Whore dichotomy. I wanted the chance to frame her in a way that was much more complex; that returned to her the power of choice and allowed her womanhood to exist outside of the traditional trajectory of girl as possession-of-family then possession-of-man.
And I wanted sexuality, too, to be represented as knotty and nuanced. The experience of desire as a heterosexual woman in the context of patriarchy isn’t a wholly riskless thing—I wanted it to ring that the mother’s (Demeter’s) feelings in this poem are just as valid as Persephone’s. She isn’t just some kind of possessive figure, but acts out of a fear that stems from great love.
I wanted there to be some recognition of that danger on Persephone’s side, too, but also a growing confidence in her own womanhood, in what it means for her not to merely grow into it, but to love it in a way beyond the fear she had been taught. I was trying to find a way to write sex as a perhaps initially frightening, but then ecstatically wonderful thing—and to explore the idea that one can be changed by it, not in the problematic virginity-as-measure-of-worth way, but rather that both the experience of longing and the direct and immediate relationship sex creates between the psycho-emotional and the physical self can change the way one sees the world, moves through it.
I hoped to put language to what it could mean for the experience of the undeniable to be translated, paradoxically, into a kind of power—into a comfort, even pride, in the expression of the deeper, darker, tangled, sensual self—even as there could be simultaneously a love and nostalgia for the girlhood self who had waited to know what this would be; and then to the possibility of holding all of these past, present and emergent selves simultaneously within.
What are you working on right now?
Several things! I’m in the MFA program at NYU right now, finishing up the first of the two years, so I’m beginning to think about developing my thesis (which is then making me think more largely about eventually putting a full-length book together). Right now, I’m writing and writing and writing, trying to discover and then become the kind of poet I want to be: thinking about what my thematic obsessions are, what the budding hallmarks of my personal style are, what kind of individual rhythms and textures and shapes I want my words to sing through, etc. And then trying to write towards that.
Besides my own work, I’m also a translator, and I’m hoping to use my time this summer to advance on certain projects. I’m sporadically translating a few pieces here and there from an essay collection by French artists of color, and then I’m more firmly working through translating a full poetry collection by a contemporary French writer. I’m hoping to have that book all finished up before the start of the fall semester, but we’ll see!
What’s a good day for you?
It’s sixty-five degrees, so sunny and breezy I’m squinting. I’ve had a quiet morning, maybe gone down to the Rockaways or a park, and read or written something good while there; hopefully had a close encounter with a dog. Back home that afternoon, I’ll bake up some wild dessert concoction to take to an evening potluck party with friends, where I’ll chat and dance and sing and snack and chat some more, perhaps have an especially delicious homemade cocktail or two—
So there’s the ideal! But really, if I’ve had any single element of this in twenty-four hours—spent time with friends or with nature, baked or sang or read or written, spent a little time basking in cool sunlight near either an ocean or a flowering tree—I’ll chalk the day up as a success.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I came to New York to start the MFA program at NYU. I had been teaching elementary school in Paris, France, for the two years prior but didn’t intend on continuing a third year, so I applied to MFA programs in the fall and got really lucky. When she heard that I’d be moving, a friend and coworker of mine in France—an American woman who had grown up in Bushwick, Brooklyn—recommended I check out her old neighborhood for the apartment hunt. Which I did—and now Bushwick’s home!
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I moved to Brooklyn in late August 2019, was there until mid-December, came back in February to start the new semester, and now, with the COVID-19 crisis, am back home with my family in Kentucky for the time being. Which is to say—I still feel very new to Brooklyn! Yet also not wholly. I’m at this interesting moment in my experience here where I feel simultaneously a sense of familiarity and a sense of constant discovery. I’m building a life in Brooklyn, figuring out what it is. Or is to me, or will be to me.
I’ll say, there was initially a sort of wariness—I grew up in the country, in small-town Kentucky. My family has a certain terror of the urban; they have a very particular, and not especially flattering, mental picture of what life in New York is like. I know it isn’t accurate, and it isn’t at all an image that I share, but when I first moved here that specter of my family’s fears did in certain ways affect my comfort in and ways of moving around the city.
But as I’ve been here that’s rapidly faded, and as I’ve gotten to know it more and more, I really, truly, love it here. There’s so much to see and do and experience. So much great food. So much creativity. So many neighborhoods to explore, each with their own personality. When I first visited New York two years ago, I believed that I could never live in this city—it was too loud, too filthy, the buildings so tall they blocked out any hope of sky. And I do frankly think I’d be miserable in Manhattan—but Brooklyn feels so much more low-key and comfortable to me, while still retaining all the amenities of urban life. It’s the most perfect kind of compromise.
I still do miss nature, trees, lakes, fresh air, wild turkey and turtles and deer—and I’m enjoying being home in Kentucky, now in the springtime, for that. Yet I miss Brooklyn every single day; being gone (and for longer than initially expected) is really making me recognize the extent to which Brooklyn, though still relatively new to me, already feels like home.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Not too long after I first moved in, I was walking around exploring my neighborhood—right around the Chauncey J—and came across all this street art, block after block, all within hardly a ten-minute radius from my house. I was absolutely floored—not just because it was all marvelously well-rendered (as it was) but because of the chosen subjects: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Snoop Dogg, Biggie smoking a cigar with Alfred Hitchcock. I grew up in a place where it feels like every other truck that drives by has a Confederate flag sticker slapped across it. Witnessing such utter love of Blackness and the diversity of Black artistic contribution, this publicly valued and celebrated, not just once but over and over again—I’d never seen or experienced anything like that in my entire life. And to be able to think: this is my neighborhood—that I would live among these, walk past them, every single day. It felt like such a gift.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
For sure. I’m really lucky in that this community wasn’t something I had to search for; since I moved here as an MFA student, a poetry community was already there, waiting for me, when I arrived. I’ve gotten wonderfully close with the other students in my cohort—I feel so fortunate to be able to share my life and my art with such wildly passionate, intelligent, generous, empathetic, talented humans. It’s a real honor and blessing.
COVID has of course changed things in the sense that we can’t spend time with one another physically as we used to. Many of us (myself included) have even left the city for the time being to return to our respective hometowns. But we’re finding ways around that and are keeping one another present in our lives. I’m helping a good friend of mine in the MFA to launch a weekly online writing community, Manderley Collective, that hosts readings, interviews, workshops, etc. on Sunday evenings via Zoom.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
It would be a long list, but Aracelis Girmay, Donika Kelly, Sally Wen Mao and Angel Nafis would top it.
I’d add to that list several poet-friends of mine that currently live in Brooklyn (in no particular order): Nancy Huang, Sasha Burshteyn, Jaz Sufi, Rachel Whelan, Rob Lynn, Bernard Ferguson, Elliott Case, Janelle Tan, Sara Elkamel, Cat Chen … In the relatively brief time I’ve known these writers, my interactions with them and their work have changed me, inspiring both me and my craft more than words can say.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My longest and truest mentor has been Donika Kelly. I was introduced to her when I was working on my undergraduate thesis by a professor of mine who had once been a professor of hers. Kelly not only gave me incredible guidance as I worked through the thesis that year, but has continued to be there for me in the years after—whether it came to life / career advice or placing a caringly critical pair of eyes on my work. Thinking of it, even the poem of mine above shows how much her work has influenced me, in terms of looking at the mythological portrait as a way of discussing such matters as love and sexuality (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you haven’t read Bestiary, and you should).
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’m reading through Danez Smith’s Homie right now and am, as always, so blown away by their work. Their range with form; their sense of humor; the way that, by the end of every poem, I feel full of so much bright, yelling, joyous love it could break me—it’s just a truly spectacular collection.
The Academy of American Poets also posted a Camille T. Dungy poem, “Characteristics of Life,” for Earth Day, that floored me in the most splendid of ways. There’s a feeling that I’ve been trying to reach for recently in my own poetry—a sort of union and communion with the natural world that feels honest and grounded and not didactic—that Dungy achieves so gracefully and flawlessly here. I couldn’t stop reading it.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
My, so many! I’m very ashamed to say I have yet to read a whole collection by Anne Carson or Frank O’Hara or any novel by James Baldwin. One day—or hopefully this summer—a version of me with much more time will read the entirety of Louise Glück’s perfectly titanic Collected. I technically read Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway both as a teenager, but I very much want to reread them with the eyes of an adult. Luce Irigaray’s books of feminist philosophy. War and Peace. A man back in Paris introduced me to René Char—the man didn’t last, but a strong desire to read Furor and Mystery did. Any book by André Breton.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I tend more often than not to dip in and out of multiple; I’ll usually have both a fiction book or two and a book of poetry that I’m reading through all at the same time, and the one I happen to pick up on a particular day depends purely on my mood. I tend to plan some of what I read in advance; some I choose at random. During the years abroad I had limited access to newer American / English-language reads (of poetry especially), so coming back from that I had a small list of books I’d been waiting to dive into—but generally, I just dip into a library and poke around and take home whatever interests me. I only read physical copies, unless there’s a very specific circumstance that prevents my doing so. I’m really bad with screens; I don’t watch much TV or many movies for that reason. They make it much harder for a thing to hold my attention. I do wish I were better with digital books though—I like to take a novel (or sometimes two) with me on subway commutes, and my purse would certainly be a lot lighter if I could just stick a Kindle in there.
No notes myself (though I do dog-ear pretty often), but I have a great love of finding others’ notes in used books. It moves me to see what others were moved by, how sometimes a line my own eyes glanced over could be the very thing that stuns and shakes someone else.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’m a pretty structural poet in a lot of ways, but I tend to shy away from established forms. Operating in anything outside of free verse, I often feel stifled or that my voice feels somehow less honest or authentic to me. I’d like to break out of that and eventually muster up the guts to take on (of my own free will, I’ll add, not as a class assignment that I write and then am too stubborn to actually do anything with) something like a sestina or sonnet crown, or even a contemporary form like a contrapuntal or Jericho Brown’s duplex.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I do actually write a lot at home! Either in my bed or on the living room couch, face-to-face with my weird assortment of houseplants. I also love writing in coffee shops, though; there are a few within walking distance of my apartment that I alternate at, though I also enjoy exploring other places when I have the chance to and / or the will to hop on the subway. It’s harder for writing since I need WiFi for my laptop (I’m one of those strange poets who writes even first drafts on the computer), but if it’s especially nice out I love to take a book out and read outdoors. If I have the time, I’ll take the A train down to the Rockaways and spend a long morning there. It’s a nice break from being in the city.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Prospect Park. It’s one of the first Brooklyn spots—maybe the first Brooklyn spot—I ever went to, thanks to a friend who brought me there last summer when I needed a break from apartment hunting. I have several friends who live in Crown Heights, so I’ve gone to a couple of coffee shops and restaurants in that area that I really enjoy. I love Ix for their wide selection of flavored hot chocolates; I’ve spent a lot of time at Manhattanville Coffee since a friend worked there; I love the mafé at Paris Dakar and the kabocha soup at Silver Rice. I had a friend that worked at Human Relations, a really lovely bookstore in Bushwick. On weekends, I like hitting the bars on Smith St with friends—there’s a little French spot in particular, Bar Tabac, that I love, since they’re one of the few places here that carry my favorite go-to drink from my Paris days. Plus, there’s a killer late-night dessert spot down the road.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the big-sky country,
And what I smell in its wild heat-scent, which you smell the same or differently.
For every breath that brightens me as good brightens you, in turn.
Because calm. Because fever. Because celebration. Because struggle. Because chance. Because choice. Because rhythm. Because motion. Because Basquiat and Biggie. Because sea salt and steel. Because once I went to Prospect Park at the height of summer, and what a friend and I thought was algae coating the lake was, in fact, a blanket of small leaves, malachite-bright—and a water lily tucked in the midst of them like a pearl. I knew this place could be home, then.