Poets in Conversation: Marissa Davis
How did "Diaspora Poetica" come into being? Tell us a little about the origin, inspiration, or circumstances surrounding it.
I began writing “Diaspora Poetica” during my MFA, following a lesson on Paul Celan. I’d been wanting to experiment with writing more associatively—if not altogether narrative in style, my poems tend to be attached to certain logical progressions—and Celan’s (at times, borderline esoteric) writing struck me as a roadmap. I was similarly struck by Celan’s story and complicated relationship to language, as a German speaker who lost his mother to the Holocaust. As a Black American, I felt a parallel—if my native language is English, it is because that tongue had been forced upon my ancestors at the expense of their own, as one of countless terrible violences. “Diaspora Poetica” became, then, an investigation into poetry as a weapon: as a space of truth telling, of course, but also a mode in which language itself is broken and reshaped according to one’s own will. I was interested in the ways in which that kind of deconstruction and reconstruction of language, and language’s social and historical representations, can be a kind of liberatory motion.
The form of this poem is so striking. How did it find its shape? How do you determine the form or shape for your poems generally?
Often, I just play around until one feels right! I always aim to allow some kind of symbolic connection between page and word—in this case, I knew that I wanted something that was at once broad, fearlessly taking up the page’s space, and fractured, making the poem’s language feel stripped and elemental. I tend towards short lines (a tendency I’ve been trying to fight some recently!) because I love the anticipation that line breaks create; in this poem, though, it also helped contribute to the feeling of breaking-and-building that I wanted the poem to take on. Rhythm is generally also a big motivator for me of both line breaks and form more largely. Form is a musical score; the way it looks is the way one reads it. I’ll often try to play with breath and rush and pause and slowness by manipulating form (and punctuation, for that matter) in some way.
What’s something you wish you knew when you first began writing?
You have to be a reader to be a writer! I did read a ton as a young person, but almost exclusively novels; I really didn’t encounter much poetry until I was older. Of books of poetry, I mostly knew the few I’d found on my parents’ bookshelf as a teenager—my grandmother’s copy of Kahlil Gibran’s Prose Poems and a collection from the 90s that had belonged to my aunt—and ones I’d occasionally come across in my town’s library (a book of Emily Brontë’s poetry; Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, which I loved). I hardly read contemporary poetry until college, when I took poetry workshops. I believe that there’s so much about writing that I would have learned so much sooner had I read more contemporary poetry from a younger age.
If you could have a conversation with any musician, writer, or artist (past or present), who would it be and why?
This is always a tough question for me, and I feel like I answer it a little differently every time I encounter it! Right now, it’s maybe Frida Kahlo. I’ve long loved her painting, and there’s something of its dimensions—simultaneously dreamlike and earthy, embodied and symbolic—that I want to harness in the quality of my own writing. Her artistic inspirations and practice, plus her political life, interest me; I’d love the chance to hear her stories.
When the BPJ editorial board gathers for selecting poems, it has been our tradition to cook and share soups and stews. Do you have a favorite comfort food (or food tradition) that sustains you? Would you be willing to share a recipe?
My grandpa is the king of soul food. Now that I’m old enough to go visit on my own, I’ve been getting to enjoy his chicken livers—which he made for my cousins, but never us, when we visited growing up, since my mom hates liver. He’s also notoriously recipeless, though— if you want to learn, you have to be in the kitchen watching him make it—so I unfortunately don’t have one to share!
Otherwise, definitely my mom’s chili; I always ask her to make it for me when I’m home, regardless of the time of year. I also don’t have a recipe for this one, though! I kind of enjoy the tradition of only getting to have it when I’m back in Kentucky, so I’ve never learned how to make it on my own.