Reflections on Beauty and Writing: Two Questions with Chad Davidson

Bart Kuipers for AGNI: I liked the way you reflect on beauty in your piece “Mutatis Mutandis” (AGNI 86), and especially the idea that imperfection and transience are key elements in appreciating it—as you quote Stevens, “Death is the mother of all beauty.” Reading your poem “Cockroaches” made me wonder: How do these notions of beauty influence your poetry? Are you aware of them when you write?

The essay on Spoleto started with a rather simple anecdote. As the piece makes clear, I run a study abroad program in Italy for my university. Each year, students are simply stunned by the place, and will almost inevitably say to nobody in particular (kind of to themselves or to the air itself), “This is so beautiful.” Writers constantly want to challenge the easy adjective, though, and hunt instead for linguistic precision. What precisely is beautiful about Spoleto? Could I inventory it, pay homage to that impulse we have (especially we Americans) to call Italy beautiful? Beauty can be a complex synthesis. It can also be quite simple. The essay tries to shed light on some of the ways I tried to answer that question: what specifically about Spoleto (and about Italy more generally) is beautiful?

As for how that relates to or influences my poetry, I am sure it does. Poetry (any imaginative writing, really) is concerned with aesthetics, even (and perhaps especially) when the object under inspection is not often categorized as beautiful. I suppose the Cockroach poem you reference and this Spoleto essay attempt to answer the same question but have arrived there from opposing poles.

BK/AGNI: You ask the question “Where doesn’t history transform a place, yes, but also warp the air around it, the way a desert highway trembles in heat?” and make the observation that “Time, […] forms a storage place just large enough for nostalgia.” I’m wondering: Do you feel history transforms the perception of a poem over time in that sense?

Most definitely. My appreciation of certain poems changes, expands (in some cases contracts) over time, just as my appreciation of any artwork or city or food will change. The specific issue in the part of the essay you cite, however, is how time itself provides for our nostalgia. History writ large—and not that particular building or monument or window box of geraniums—is often what we desire most of Italy (even if we are not conscious of it). The question, I think, is this: when we see the old cobbler, off a cobblestoned street of a medieval city center, do we see the cobbler or just a complex we might identify as “old-world charm”? I was interested in that noise, that disturbance, that double vision.

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AGNI CDChad Davidson’s most recent collection of poems is From the Fire Hills (Southern Illinois UP, 2014). Recent essays and poems appear or are forthcoming in Five Points, Gettysburg Review, Yale Review, Kenyon Review, and others. He serves as professor of literature and creative writing at the University of West Georgia near Atlanta and co-directs Convivio, a summer writing conference in Postignano, Italy. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


The Way It Went

by Nance Van Winckel

For me alone the book had been waiting untouched on its shelf since 1976. Forty-one years. The last time anyone checked it out—a certain Cheryl Mason—was in March of that year, the 19th to be exact. (Ah, to be as exact again as a day in ‘76!) Here was Miss Mason’s faded blue name on a card in the book’s back pocket.

I turn a page, read a few passages from the book, and tumble unexpectedly into love. A man is lonely; he walks around Paris all the way to page 63, where I blink, turn to the card again, and touch the neatly scripted one nine seven six beside Cheryl’s name. I wonder if she too lingered upon page 63 or at least felt a smile arise unbidden after its last paragraph’s perfect black period.

I put my nose deep in the book’s musk, its ivory pages with brown edges. Certainly the neighboring books on the shelf had tried but failed first to embrace and then to smother what ticks between the copyright page and dear Miss Mason’s “return by” date. I read and feel her eyelashes flutter. Maybe Cheryl had been a girl when she entered this book, but no doubt by April, a mature young woman walked the book uphill to return it to eternity.

Halfway through, I go backward in time and forward in space, feeling my way across the inky black ridges. My pencil tries not to but can’t help but put an asterisk on page 209 by that bit about the wee doves. Oh, oh, just…here. Dearest Mister Beckett! I drift asleep with you, my cheek upon page 222. Perhaps after the book resumes its crotchety life alone, my black asterisk will wink once to the very cursive Miss Cheryl. Or such is my brief thought on page 282, where I linger in the sudden icy chill of a swift breeze of words wildly blowing open the blah beige drapes.

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nance pixNance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Our Foreigner, winner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Prize (Beyond Baroque Press, 2017) and Book of No Ledge (Pleiades Press Visual Poetry Series, 2016). Ever Yrs, a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014), is her most recent book of fiction. The recipient of two NEA poetry fellowships, the Paterson Fiction Prize, a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, Nance teaches in the MFA Programs at Eastern Washington University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Blogging, Tweeting, Networking, and their Virtual Discontents

by Stephen Kessler

The Web is too much with us. Blogging and tweeting, Googling and Facebooking, we lay waste our powers—that’s why I’m writing this draft by hand in ink on paper, unplugged from any device but a roller gel pen whose brand I will not even name so as to remain unlinked from commercial clicks and animated ads and all the distractions of a pixilated screen.

The white paper with its faint gray lines is peaceful and passively inviting, not pulsating with the impatient rhythm of a black hole of self-expression demanding to be filled with endless blather. I don’t want to be part of the relentless assault on sensibility, the constant stream of so-called information and opinion and commentary and argument and images and likes and dislikes that constitute what passes for public discourse and community, a virtual conversation that might be better conducted in a café, between two people, face to actual face.

But look around most cafés and what you see are solitary people staring at their laptops or bent over their phones, essentially being elsewhere than where they are. With only a notebook as my portable device, I feel pleasantly unreachable, calm in the knowledge that I’m out of touch, free to reflect without distraction, or with the inspiring distraction of physical human behavior in a public place, overheard conversations or, outdoors, in a park or by the ocean, the immersive presence of natural phenomena that Wordsworth found restorative and grounding.

When he wrote, in the 1790s, that the world is too much with us, the Industrial Revolution was accelerating the pace of technological change in a way that gave him the jitters. He had to go walking in the Lake District to gather his sensitive wits in a setting that any British aristocrat could appreciate. Here in the States our natural landscapes are not so tame. In California, where I live, the four seasons are fire, flood, drought and earthquake. Silicon Valley’s virtual alternatives may comfort some, but could Wordsworth even have imagined the all-pervasive onslaught of the hyperconnected media storm constantly thrashing us with its agitated weather?

The option exists to take a break and look around at the world and listen to whatever ambient sounds that might suggest the rhythm of a song. Almost fifty years ago, when I studied poetry—reading it and thinking about it, not writing it in a workshop—with Robert Duncan at UC Santa Cruz, one of several profoundly simple things he said was that poets aren’t factories. The drive to publish, to advance one’s career, so central to the industrial culture of the MFA, for Duncan was nowhere near as fundamental as what he called, in his Statement on Poetics for Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960, “song and the reality of romance.”

That’s what I sense is missing from the swarming, teeming, blogging, networking, conference-attending, workshopping, tweeting, competing-for-so-little-that-it-seems-more-important-than-it-is social universe of senseless activity that is the naturally illusory atmosphere of the literary environment most contemporary American poets inhabit. They are driven not by myth or tradition or Beauty or spirit or imagination but by an irrational and probably counterproductive need for “followers” and “likes” and “viral” exposure and other forms of virtual and meaningless attention and approval and popularity, just as high-school students crave acceptance by way of mindless conformism.

This demand for attention, this compulsion to buzz in the virtual hive, this craving to be noticed strikes me as antithetical to imaginative integrity, to true creativity, to deep artistic gratification, which in my experience happens first of all between the writer and the blank page.

The tools we use are a matter of personal choice, and ambition varies from one writer to another, and our social instincts are highly individual, but before we automatically adopt prevailing trends in techno-connectedness, it is worth asking why and for whom we are writing, and whether our habits are enriching and enabling our highest practice, or burning us out with an overdose of artificial and irrelevant stimulation.

Log off and look around. The real, unmediated world is astonishing and, as Denise Levertov once noticed while riding the subway, not enough with us.

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stephen kessler by chip scheuer 2MBStephen Kessler’s eleventh book of poetry, Garage Elegies, is due out in 2018 from Black Widow Press. His translations of Luis Cernuda have received a Lambda Literary Award, the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, and the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His version of Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar received a 2017 Northern California Book Award. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, where he writes a weekly opinion column for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Survivor’s Guilt

by Sheila Kohler

One of the questions I have been asked most frequently, since publication of a recent memoir, is if this book has brought closure, if the writing of it has enabled me to go on with my life. Have I put the tragic event of an older sister’s death and possible murder behind me? My sister died at thirty nine in a car crash on a dry night, no other car in sight, her husband, a heart surgeon, who had beaten both her and their six children for years, at the wheel. Why had I not been able to stop this tragedy, knowing how dangerous this man was? How responsible was I? Could writing down this trauma enable me to forget? Does writing ever enable one to overcome what might be called survivor’s guilt?

Certainly this kind of material occurs again and again all through literature. “Beowulf,” the Anglo-Saxon poem, is one of the earliest examples where fratricide is closely woven into the text: Unferth, the Danish thane, kills his brothers, we are told; Haethcyn, the Geat, son of Hrethel, kills Herebeald and Grendel, himself, the monster, is the descendant of Cain who has killed Abel.

One of the most moving moments in Beowulf, a poem that comes to us from the 9th century or perhaps even earlier, is what is called “the father’s lament” (ll 2444-62), when a father confronts the death of a son killed by his own brother. Haethcyn, the younger boy, accidentally kills his brother, Herebeald, shooting him with an arrow. The father is left to lament an act without any means of redress or revenge. The poet writes:

“Morning after morning he wakes to remember
That his child is gone; he has no interest
In living on until another heir
Is born in the hall, now that his first-born
Has entered death’s dominion forever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling,
The banquet hall bereft of all delight,
The windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
The warriors are under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
And sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.

The Beowulf poet, whose references to religion are mostly from the Old Testament, mentions the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, which results in the birth of a race of ogres, elves, evil phantoms and giants, banished monsters. Amongst them is Grendel, a “fiend from hell” whose nightly vicious attacks become the scourge of the Danish king, King Hrothgar’s hall. This brother-killing, Cain killing Abel, results in a race of banished monsters, amongst them Grendel and Grendel’s mother, both of whom Beowulf fights.

Grendel, of course, is also the well-known novel where John Gardner gives voice to this monster who has emerged from the darkness of the misty marshes so mysteriously and frighteningly in Beowulf and is killed by Beowulf in the first part of the poem. Why, we might wonder, does this writer, writing in the 70’s, want to take up an ancient monster from an old poem and describe the world seen through his eyes? How does he get us to identify sufficiently with a monstrous, man-eating creature? And why would he try something so difficult?

Gardner, who knew the poem well, teaching it for many years, had, perhaps, a particular interest in this story because of his own life. As a young boy, growing up on a farm, he had accidentally backed a tractor into his young brother and killed him, a traumatic event he describes beautifully in a story called “Redemption.” Did he in some way identify with this monster, descendant of Cain, the brother killer, and so desire to give him a voice, to speak for him in the first person? Did he, himself, feel like a monster and perhaps even act like one at times, savaging his fellow writers so aggressively? He is reputed to have spoken disparagingly of Saul Bellow and Donald Barthelme, to mention two. Was he simply suffering from survivor’s guilt and was this his way of going on with his troubled life?

Another example that comes to mind is John Coetzee, the South African Nobel Prize winner, in his historical novel The Master of Saint Petersburg. This is ostensibly a novel about Dostoevsky, who returns to Saint Petersburg after the death of his step-son, Pavel Isaev, who has died in mysterious circumstances. The book is extremely well-researched and contains many erudite and exact references to Dostoevsky’s life (his epilepsy, his debts, his gambling, his first and second wives, the revolutionary Sergei Nechayev). But there is one glaring example where the novel alters the known facts of Dostoevsky’s life. In reality this step-son—who seems to have been something of a black sheep—does not die at all during Dostoevsky’s life but long after Dostoevsky is dead. Why then does the book center on the famous father’s great grief? Why do we have a scene when he prostrates himself on his grave? Why does he, in the act of making love to his housekeeper, find his dead son in her embrace? Is this then perhaps rather a father (John Coetzee) writing in this form to express his own survivor’s guilt, his own great sorrow at losing a son so young and so tragically?

These are questions we cannot answer, of course, but are interesting to us in considering how and why a writer takes reality and transforms it. Whether the act of writing of these tragedies even indirectly was of help to these writers in their lives we cannot know. We do know John Gardner died young and tragically in a motorbike accident at forty nine, whereas John Coetzee is still living and writing successfully today. Certainly, we can say in both cases that the ability to access this traumatic material and give it distance by transforming it into a structured form, ultimately made art.

All I can say as a writer myself is that certainly the writing down of my sister’s life and death in fictional or non-fictional form, which I have done again and again, though it may have enabled me to go on with my own life, has not helped me to forget. On the contrary, it has helped me to remember, to preserve precious memories in written form, memories which I can only hope to share with others who might find something of themselves in my words.

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Kohler,SheilaSheila Kohler is the author of fourteen books, including, most recently, the memoir Once We Were Sisters, and she is the winner of the Willa Cather Award and two O. Henry Prizes for her fiction. Born and raised in South Africa, she has lived in the U.S. for many years and teaches at Princeton University. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Build Strangers, Bomb Walls

by John Poch

I wrote a poem called “Donald Trump.” It’s a curtal sonnet, and it’s not very good. Even though I knew I had little chance to succeed with this poem, I went ahead and wrote it. My inspiration to begin the poem was a poet-friend of mine, Matt Roth, who said this phrase that I immediately knew would make for a good ending of a curtal sonnet: “build strangers / bomb walls.”  That spondee, right? So I ripped him off, and then I just had to write the poem backwards to lead up to these final rhymes. As with most poems I write, I spent too much time on it. I’m a slow study. All told, maybe an entire 40 hours (spread out over a period of about two months). Incidentally, I wrote this poem before Trump even won the nomination. I never thought he would get that far or even be President. Who among us poets, the most imaginative of people, could imagine? I know thousands of poets, and there are only two of them who think Mr. Trump is doing a good job or could possibly do a good job. Of these two, one is a delusional person who believes Sandy Hook and the 9/11 disaster to be conspiracies perpetrated by the CIA and Jews. The other is, I think, a multi-millionaire, who personally benefits from Trump’s policies that benefit himself and the ultra-rich, so he’s laughing all the way to the bank, literally.

Like most political poems, my poem fails due to its knowing all too well its rhetorical stance. One of my favorite adages about poetry is by Yeats: “Of our quarrel with others we make rhetoric; of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry.” A poem must be a place of discovery. What’s to be discovered here, so I can be poetic and not rhetorical? That Donald Trump is, in fact, a petty and ignorant man, a lover of money, illiterate, a con-man, and a womanizer? Big surprise! Come on; everyone knows these truths we hold self-evident. Of course, being a poet, I need to say this in an interesting way, formally, so that’s a bit of a challenge and perhaps could result in something. But then, probably not much with this here poem. Yet so many people around me are writing political poems and getting so much attention for them, even though I don’t think much of these poems, in general. There’s little mystery, or none. At best, they might entertain with ranting, but they aren’t writing good poems.

I wrote the poem anyway because poems are places of discovery, and you never know what might happen. And I needed to lead up to that final surprising revelation of what it might be for a poet to say we need to “bomb walls.” I’m a pacifist, in general, though not completely, so I knew that I was conflicted there, and a poet needs to be conflicted about his writing.

For a year, I’ve sent the poem around to a whole slew of places, but no one wants it. I’ve tinkered with it, and it hasn’t got much better. I’m not upset. I get it. It’s just not very good. It’s got a few decent rhymes. Sometimes good poems go unpublished, but that’s not likely the case here. The politics (specifically, the rhetoric) limit the poem. Yeats wasn’t wrong. But my friend Paul Hunton, an Emmy-winning director, made a little poetry film out of it, and our collaboration is excellent, I think. My poem needed a little boost of visuals to raise it to a level worth listening to. It’s like most songs you hear on the radio. The lyrics aren’t very good out there by themselves, but some instrumental work allows the song with its faulty lyrics to climb the charts.

Check it out?

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John_Poch_4John Poch’s most recent book, Fix Quiet, won the 2014 New Criterion Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared widely in journals such as Paris Review, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, and Five Points. He teaches in English Department at Texas Tech University. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


October 24th: AGNI Reading!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017, at 7:00 p.m.
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave, Boston (Green Line B, Pleasant St.)

AGNI is celebrating its EIGHTY-SIXTH issue with readings by:

Liza Ward: Author of the novel Outside Valentine.
Qais Akbar Omar: Author of the memoir A Fort of Nine Towers, published in more than twenty languages.
Perri Klass: Winner of five O. Henry Awards and author, most recently, of the novel The Mercy Rule.
Richard D’Abate: Author of the poetry collection To Keep the House from Falling In.

Plus there’ll be a performance of words-to-music by singer-songwriter Nuda Veritas. Our release party follows.

The fall issue features stories by Patrick Dacey, Julianna Baggott, Liza Ward, and Perri Klass; poems by Maggie Smith, Anzhelina Polonskaya, William Archila, and 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner Peter Balakian; essays by Jung Hae Chae, Ann Tashi Slater, and Donald Quist; a portfolio by Sarajevo artist-architect Mensur Demir; and more.

This event is free and open to the public, and wheelchair accessible. For accessibility concerns or other info, please contact Senior Editor William Pierce at or (617) 353-7135. It’d be great to see you there!

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Wait For It

by Carolyn Guinzio

When my poem “The Moving Walkway Is Ending” appeared in AGNI Online, I knew there was a sense in which it was true. It’s the last piece in my most recent book, and I had no idea what might be coming next. I’ve bridged the gap with a visual poetry project, but as far as text-based work is concerned, I can’t see past the threshold.

My last book incorporated into the poems the interruptions so many of us have learned to contend with. Social media, smartphones, telecommuting, etc., have all come into common use primarily since I was writing my first book. My only defense was to address it and absorb it into the work. It functioned almost the way a form would: a constraint I was challenged to work within. I never (purposely) wrote a 140-character poem, but many people use the Tweet in this or a similar way—wringing much feeling out of this miserly ration. I count among these Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Last week, my family and I saw Hamilton in Chicago, an event we were all looking forward to for months. Most people know by now that it’s a miraculous convergence of great…everything. What I keep coming back to, however, is the writing. I’m an admirer of Miranda, and I felt sure, from the first time I heard the song “Non-Stop,” that he relates to the uncontrollable need to write he attributes to Hamilton. Many writers have brief bursts of energy like that—when you can’t sleep for your mind working, when things are writing themselves in your dreams, when every innocuous observation is like kindling. But they are necessarily brief. We might crave that level of engagement, but being “on” enough to make really good work is not a sustainable state for most of us.

In the play, Aaron Burr’s caution, his waiting “to see which way the wind blows” before acting, is mostly posited as a flaw that keeps him from greatness—like a poet flipping through literary magazines to figure out what’s current so they can imitate it. Hamilton, on the other hand, “writes his way out” of seemingly unsolvable situations. Sometimes writers try to “write their way out” of not writing. There is a moment in the performance of the play, however, that acknowledges the fact that it’s more complicated than it seems, and it resonated with me because I’m in the throes of a fallow time.

The quiet power exerted by the play’s ensemble is subtle and so fitting for the story of our country’s origins. The staging revealed things—delightfully—that listening to the album could not—like some of the best poetry readings I’ve been to, when something in the poet’s reading illuminated the work. A single word or a phrase sung gently by the ensemble were among the most powerful moments in the play.

Most startling was the tone of the ensemble’s directive to “wait for it” that occurs in the last moments of “Hurricane,” the suggestion that there are times when patience might be a better plan than intuitive impulsiveness. “Wait for it” occurs throughout the play, mostly as a criticism of indecisive, noncommittal weakness. In “Hurricane,” on mere hearing, I’d read it as “look out for what’s coming next,” as Hamilton convinces himself that writing The Reynolds Pamphlet is a good idea. But this was a moment when the “villain” of the story actually had the right idea. Some things should be written, some maybe shouldn’t. Let it unfold organically without trying to exert control.

A sequence of tragedy unfolds as a result of this compulsion to publish. The stakes are happily lower for an obscure poet such as myself, but I’ve thrown out roughly seven times the work I’ve kept, and I can attest that all of that work would qualify as tragic. We have all the power over the voices whispering in our minds, but there are times when we should heed them and wait.

I’m anxious to be working on something new, and I’m anxiously, impatiently, excitedly awaiting whatever Miranda produces next. But I also feel sure he won’t make the same mistake Hamilton did as he frantically wrote The Reynolds Pamphlet. I’m willing to wait for not only whatever will follow Hamilton, but, on my own scale, whatever the next project will be.

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Carolyn Guinzio photoA poet and photographer, Carolyn Guinzio’s most recent collection is Spine (Parlor Press, 2016). Her book Spoke & Dark (Red Hen, 2012) was selected by Alice Quinn for the To The Lighthouse/A Room Of Her Own Prize. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.