Through | Out of | With
The canned voice that answers poet Olena Kalytiak Davis’s cell enunciates clearly, almost elegantly, before the line goes dead: “This person’s mailbox is full. You cannot leave a message. Bye.” No surprise. This person may, but likely will not, answer if you call instead of text. This person doesn’t care if her mailbox is full.
Davis has lived in three completely different Alaska regions. Bethel was first, where she lived while earning her Master of Fine Arts in poetry. She ‘commuted’ to Vermont and back for in-person portions of her graduate program otherwise conducted over distance. Later, she lived in Juneau before landing in Anchorage. Visitors to Davis’ home on the edge of downtown encounter a poem before they get to the front door. A friend emailed it years ago, and she painted it onto the wall of her arctic entry.
Winner of both Guggenheim and Rasmuson Foundation artist fellowships, among other awards, Davis is the author of four poetry books. Her most recent, “The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems”, was published in hardback by Copper Canyon Press and reviewed by Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker. “The poems can be tawdry, but any art so fixated on its imperfections comes off as weirdly pure. … They feel like quickies, rough liaisons where ‘sex meets books,’” he wrote. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including multiple editions of “The Best American Poetry.”
A first-generation daughter raised in Detroit by Ukrainian immigrants, Davis trained in law as well as poetry and makes a somewhat grudging living as an attorney. The law work relates more than one might imagine to the work of making poems, she says. “I do the same thing in my poems as I do in my legal briefs. They’re not wholly unrelated skills. … It’s looking at everything and seeing what’s the crux of the matter — what’s important — and then figuring out your take.”
Nothing about her approach to poetry suggests that fame and attention are what’s important for Davis, though she’s had healthy doses of both. She abstains from social media, has never had a website, and — she notes — lives about as far from New York as one could without leaving the country. “Was I ambitious? Am I ambitious? Sure, there’s definitely that but, you know, there’s a limit to what I will do to indulge that ambition. And that limit has contracted as I get older.”
In her front room, a white bookcase of white-spined books sits beside a tower of more white books. The room exhibits Davis’ designerly touch, a taste of what awaits further inside, beyond her small kitchen with its petite oven and scarce counter space. A bouquet of sharp pencils and her computer sit by wooden spoons, knives, spatulas, a cutting board, tins of Kusmi tea.
Davis mentions how books — which share her roof by the hundreds — each combine two qualities she likes: a book is both like packaging, “a material thing that’s attractive,” coupled with the “stuff” inside — she used a saltier term — “that either undercuts that, overcuts it, or explains it.”
“You know, it’s endless,” she said. “There’s always something endlessly interesting in a text.” She could just as easily be describing her home.
As a reader, her own relationship with genre can be fraught. Poetry, especially, can both pleasure and irk her, by turns, “probably because I participate in it,” she says.
Years-worth of filled notebooks testify to that participation from a tall stack in one corner. Literary journals are crammed beside detergent on the shelf above the clothes washer. Though all the books she’s written are poetry, she says “I genuinely have a love for prose. And it so happened that I think I have that inborn proclivity to lyric, you know. It’s about overcondensing. It’s about small spaces jam packed, and not having to explain yourself. Like, that’s my basic makeup.”
All her poems are highly tuned. Nothing’s left to chance. She’s a craft maximalist, and a similarly detailed attention shows in the spaces she inhabits. In every room at home, personal ephemera is displayed alongside high and low art. It’s a house of healthy plants, good lighting, stunning photos she’s shot of her kids, a luxuriant cat called Emily Dickinson, and books in more colors than white. Another poem (Dickinson’s “I cannot live with You”) is painted onto the laundry room door.
Ten years passed between the publication of her last two full-length books, a decade split up with a trim chapbook to tide over her large and growing readership. The critic Chiasson described Davis as that “rare poet who makes underproduction an aspect of her glamour.”
Her latest project blends the familiar territory of poetry with the spaciousness of prose. She’s writing a novella built on the sonnet form. “I do like that it’s a structure that highlights logic and thought,” she says. “I’m drawn to that, and to the restrictions.” The book will have fourteen fourteen-sentence-long chapters, and the ultimate sentence of each will rhyme. The new hybrid approach allows her to expand and compress on the page.
Even while she moves into new formal territory, she’s still writing poems. She’s imagined a two-piece structure pairing sonnets and free-verse poems. Maybe these projects — hybrid novella and the poetry sequences — belong bundled together, published in a kind of sleeve. Mid-process, she’s already thinking about the “product” and how its very packaging — its physical form — might represent its written form.
This new direction is part of Davis’s effort to remedy what feels at times like a creative standstill. “Although I have worked in both form and free-verse, written short and long poems, both plain-spoken and highly stylized, I simply feel that this is not all I want to or can do. I want to somehow organically move through and out of the form, yet carry part of it with me. My work has always reached toward the unknown, the not-yet-envisioned.”
Despite her successes as a writer, she downplays it: “I never do it. And I always do it,” she says wryly. “I don’t make a lot of money, and I do this work. … I’m a human, living. And my poetry tries to report that in some honest way.” She gestures at her home — her live-work studio. Her poems preserve pieces of her life. “They’re proof of something. They’re proof of being alive. They’re proof of paying attention. For me, it’s satisfying.”