Managing Editor Eric Smith spoke to Olena Kalytiak Davis about the seven sonnets she published in our Spring 2019 issue. Davis, author of the 2014 collection The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems, discusses inspiration derived from Shakespeare and Kendrick Lamar, the writing process, and the preservation of the self.
SR: Can you shed some light on the origin of these seven sonnets? Is there some impulse, or some moment in your life, that you consider their jumping off point?
Davis: these sonnets started writing themselves in nyc last year when i was staying at two different friends’ apartments. one had a squirrel in it. one a stack of books on shakespeare’s sonnets by the bed. i was pretty disturbed by the squirrel and ended up spending more time at the place with the stack. i have always had a hard time with my alleged “calling,” “hating” “poetry,” but “the sonnets” have always seemed kinda kin, and i find they can be pretty infectious. i maybe always get something if i turn to them in earnest, but i often don't. in the squirrel-less apartment, i got into don paterson going sonnet by sonnet—confidently understanding, in his british and unsquirrelly way, fucking everything. close(ish) attention to the procreation sonnets (for i went in dutiful order) led to some of the ones in the sewanee seven. as one may know, early in his sequence, shakespeare urges one to reproduce so that one’s beauty might never die. i had/have two kids; it so worked and it so didn’t. so i thought i would respond in kind with that information. it was a rare easy writing time for me: for a while i was just told to please go sit at the computer and if i did a sonnet would, by the sweetly fleeting by, emerge. this happened for about twenty days in maybe a row even after i came back to alaska? so then i thought: onehundredfiftyfuckingfour!, but pretty quickly cast a suspicious shameful eye on my “intent;” i did not try to too (too) forcibly hold/go on. ultimately, i knew i had to/would fail and the sonnets had to/would somehow de-compose. now i kinda like them pared way back/down to just the connecting words. or just the end rhymes.
SR: These poems echo familiar, rule-bound ordinances and inheritances, a tradition of argument and instruction. At the same time, these poems thwart expectations: theirs is an improvisational syntax shot through with unexpectedly elided rhyme and meter. And their DNA is equal parts high art and pop culture, threaded through with snatches of (among other influences and voices) Kendrick Lamar and Migos. How do you make room for so much in a form like the sonnet that so often seems overly restrictive?
Davis: i do like a/the argument making form and all the ghost arguments and all the other stuff the form already holds. i like stuff piling up, making one wonder what all one just heard, shit quickly getting a little complicated. rhyming is now maybe my one and only reliable form of active sense-making/sense-feeling, something my younger free verse only self would have found impossible to believe.
i just use what/everything i have. it usually can be made fit. D.A.M.N. happened to be on multi-generational repeat at the time. i think sylvia was wrong about toothbrushes. i love other people's “stuff,” love/hate my own “stuff.” (“look at your stuff!”)
SR: Who were you writing these sonnets for? And—assuming it’s not the same person—who do you think would most benefit from reading or hearing them?
Davis: i guess i just write to try to understand and to preserve “self,” versions of. i do sickly love the space where one moves from the one who just wrote the words (did one?) to the one who is first to read them. my kids are directly addressed in some of these sonnets, but, seventeen, nineteen, they are not interested nor ready for the poetry/posterity version of me. i’m voluble enough as “mom.” not sure anyone will benefit from anything (except maybe a bag of cash), ever. and i have certainly abandoned any hope (was it?)/illusion of redeeming (in both directions) “audience.” but it’s okay. it’s okay!