You overhear your housemates. You’ve just started writing poetry about a month ago and have been working on a few new poems, and earlier in the week you gave your housemates a few of them to read. They don’t know you’re home, and they’re gathered around the dining room table, trashing your work. “Toilet paper,” they say, “Wild horses running incoherently across the page ––– absolutely awful.” What do you do?
If you’re Tom Davidson, you work to get your mind into a calm and meditative state; appreciate and accept their criticism with loving kindness; then embrace the challenge that their words have brought forth.
“I’ve never abandoned that feeling,” Davidson said while Alex and I sat and spoke with him in his living room on a Sunday in March, “that my work actually isn’t good enough right now, but I’d like to work to make it better.”
Davidson and his wife, Julia, live in a cozy flat in Prospect Heights; the type of apartment where the living room can be used as the bedroom throughout the winter, and then as the leaves find their way onto the branches of the trees again, the furniture can be reversed once more. And when I say “flat,” I do mean flat.
Davidson graduated from the University of Exeter and moved from England to the United States in July of 2014. He works as an event manager at Grand Central Station, and perhaps as an outgrowth of the planning that’s required in event management, he’s strategic with using his evenings and weekends to make time for poetry: “Generally Sundays are writing my morning. I try to catch up reading some poetry throughout the week, I research different books that I want to borrow from the library, and then I go and get them, and I just have a day at home. Saturdays I try and go out, try and see people, and then Sunday is the day of rest, and writing.”
If you were to ask Davidson how meditation informs his poetry, and vice versa, he’d likely say they’re not separate, but one and the same. And on the sunny Sunday afternoon that we spent with him, he offered an expression that I’d never heard before, and one that I’ll remember for awhile:
“Meditation for me is an integral piece of the puzzle. I find that if I don’t get myself into a meditative state, and if I don’t let passing thoughts and emotions pass me by, or run through me, then I cannot write the poem that I’m meant to write.”
-Isaac Myers III.
Tom: So, when we moved here, I guess . . . there were several competing ideas in my head. There’s this idea of Brooklyn and the kind of apartment that we’d want to have ––– we want something that’s a decent size that we would maybe grow into and maybe start a family in. And then we were confronted with these matchboxes, just these tiny little places and we thought, “How could we ever really live in this place, let alone have a family?”
Then we found some really awful photographs of this place where the bed wasn’t far from the kitchen and there was a really long and awkward bedroom and it was really dark. We live here now, but it didn’t really look great in the photographs and no one had seemed to pay much attention to this ad. Granted, it was the middle of December, so maybe people weren’t that interested in moving. So, at that point we just came to see it and we said we liked it. And at that point the whole place was completely empty and we just took it and almost immediately moved in. We had been commuting from Julia, my wife’s, parents’ place in the Palisades. She was working sometimes in south Brooklyn and I was working in Midtown, so it was great that we finally made it here. And it was great that we moved into a house. For some reason I had it in my head that I really wanted to live in a brownstone, or some kind of house with three or four other apartments and no more. So that’s the story of moving in here.
Isaac: Do you remember the first evening that you moved in?
Tom: I don’t remember the first evening but I do remember walking around the block and going down Vanderbilt Avenue and going all the way down Park Place and over onto Washington Avenue and seeing the contrasts. Not so much between the architecture of the buildings, but if you look at the stores you can see the changes, you could maybe call it gentrification, happening, as you’re physically moving around the space. So, these stores that have been there, old delis that, judging by the signage, had probably been there since the eighties, and then on Vanderbilt I started to see all of these restaurants that were definitely geared toward a totally different kind of clientele that recently just arrived here.
I thought, “Wow, I wonder how all of these things interact, if at all?” Because in England where I was living in Bath, and Bath is a historic UNESCO World Heritage Site, most famous for Jane Austen, and other period pieces made by the BBC. There it was one neighborhood, and you’d probably have to travel quite far in order to get to another radically different type of neighborhood with different stores, or maybe more working class or upper class or whatever differences there may be. But here, it’s quite sudden, and people have commented on that, not only in Brooklyn but in other areas of the city as well. That’s interesting to me, how these kinds of lives can live, quite literally, side-by-side. Sometimes there can be no interaction between them and sometimes there can be.
So, I’m quite conscious of that when I’m walking around and seeing how people are talking to each other and poking into stores and seeing whether there are, at least on the surface, people who look kind of different from each other, and are they interacting? And I try to go out of my way, probably because I’m a little bit nosy, to find out how people are living, and a little bit about them. So as a simple example, I used to go and get my hair cut on Vanderbilt Avenue and it was this place that was pretty expensive and it also seemed to only attract a certain kind of clientele and all of the men were getting the same kind of haircut. In fact, when I went there, I had to stop them and say, “No, I don’t want my side shaved off. I don’t want a small quiff thing going on, I just want a regular haircut. I don’t want to look like this guy. ‘No offense.’”
Isaac: That’s funny. I picture you saying, “You look good with that haircut.” to the other person who was sitting in the chair, and getting his hair cut.
Tom: Right. “You look really good, no offense!” But I thought, I wonder where else I could get my hair cut? And I was walking down Seventh Avenue and I remember that a friend had recommended this place near the Park Slope Food Co-op and it looked like it had been there for years and years and years and years. He told me that it’s run by these Russian Jews and that they’re very friendly. I thought, “Wow, I don’t meet very many people from Russia, maybe I could go in and get a haircut and hear some great stories. And I went in and there was a wonderful person there named Natalie and she told me a bit about her work and her kids and she asked me about my life. We had this whole interaction and it was nice. I think it’s healthy sometimes, to go a little bit out of your way and you don’t even have to get something done like a haircut but just to get a little taste of somebody else’s existence.
Alex: I also think showing support in a capitalist system means giving your money and your attention to a certain store ––– so you’re supporting them, by getting your haircut there.
Tom: Exactly. That’s one of the benefits.
Isaac: And how did you like your haircut?
Tom: It’s pretty good. It’s gone a bit downhill since then. I find that my hair is naturally scruffy when I wake up, so she kind of tempered it, in the moment, but I don’t live with any illusions that it’s going to stay perfect, as Natalie cut it.
Isaac: How long ago was it?
Tom: About two weeks ago.
Isaac: So fairly recent. So, what’s your favorite part about this kitchen?
Tom: Now that’s the question, isn’t it? Favorite part about the kitchen. I’d say the cast-iron pot. Making anything in the cast-iron is very enjoyable. I even like the cleaning up process afterwards. Oiling it again, preparing it for the next meal. It has a kind of meditative quality about it. I like it as a physical object; it’s very beautiful. Every time I come in here I think, “Yeah, I really like it.” After that, I probably say our teapot, which we bought in Woodstock, New York this past December.
Alex: Is someone a potter in your family?
Tom: No . . . all of this stuff here is from one of Julia’s parents’ neighbors, who is a potter in Palisades. I really like all of her stuff. And we have a bunch of plates and bowls from our wedding. We like to try and support other makers where we can.
[We move from the kitchen to the living room. Tom sets out a tea bag plate, with a simple and plain inscription “Tea bags,” and mentions his interest in plain language.]
Tom: So, I’m really interested in plain language, in poetry, and also just plain language, in other contexts as well. This is just a tea bag, plate and in case you’re unclear about that, someone wrote the words “Tea Bags” on there, so I like that.
Isaac: Not a coaster?
Tom: Not a coaster, it’s far too large, unless you were a troll or something.
Isaac: Thank you. Where’d you get this?
Tom: I think it’s from the Village Pottery Shop, or something like that.
Isaac: Well, I guess that’s a good enough segue into getting started. You mentioned plain language . . . what does that mean, for you?
Tom: I think it’s language that’s written in the everyday fashion, everyday lingo. It’s simple in its tone and it’s authentic. And I realize that all of those things seem pretty subjective ––– people speak in really different ways, but it has a simplicity at heart and a directness, and so I like that. When I first got into poetry, I initially read Raymond Carver, who is more well-known for his stories than for his poetry, but I really liked how direct and simple he was with his language. It was quite disarming sometimes how much he wore his heart on his sleeve. I would just think, okay Raymond, I get it, you’re suffering right now, you’re recovering from alcoholism, or you’ve left your wife. And I like that. He really let you in. There were no tricks, or filters, or gimmicks of any kind.
Isaac: How did you come across his work?
Tom: It was in 2003, in Bologna, in Italy, and I was studying there for a year. I was mainly studying cinema but I went to the local library and started to get interested in works in translation. So, UK or American authors being translated into Italian and then seeing how they did it. And then I found a book of Raymond Carver’s poetry and I had never heard of him before but I just stared reading it. And I really just thought, wow, I didn’t know this could also be poetry too. He just writes how I think sometimes. And I’m sure there’s a million and one other poets who you could have started with, right? But that’s just the person who I found.
Isaac: So, you were reading poetry at first then; do you remember when you first started writing it, or wanting to write it?
Tom: It was about a year after that when I started to put pen to paper and decided, hmmm, I wonder what I could do here. And each time I wrote I was excited by the actual act of writing itself but really disappointed with what I was able to produce but I knew that it was possible to get better. In fact, I remember writing something and showing it to friends and family and I overhead a conversation where someone ––– it must have been my housemate ––– was really tearing apart the poetry, “This is absolutely awful. This is toilet paper basically. It’s just wild horses running through his mind. It’s not coherent.”
Alex: This is what someone was saying about your poetry?
Tom: Yes. I overheard it. And I should have been really offended, right? Or at least hurt, but for some reason it kind of made me think, one, actually, “They’re not very articulate, but they’re right. It isn’t very good.” I liked the challenge of trying to make it better in some way. And I’ve never abandoned that feeling, that it’s actually not good enough right now, but I’d like to work to make it better.
Isaac: Do they know that you know?
Tom: No, I didn’t really feel like I needed to say anything. I didn’t want to just burst into the room and say, “I heard what you said, and you’re absolutely right! I’m going back to my desk right now and I’ll make this stanza much better!”
Isaac: They were writers as well. How did they come across your work, had you left it out?
Tom: I showed them. I was at a stage in my work where I really wanted to show people, “Hey, look, I’ve been doing this thing, come and take a look at it.” So that was their reaction.
Isaac: They didn’t know you were home?
Tom: They knew I was home, but they might have been just a bit oblivious to their surroundings. I recently re-read some of the stuff and some of it has a certain charm. But a lot of it is grammatically incorrect, and I hadn’t really learned how to write properly then, but it was fine, it was a good learning experience.
Isaac: I like that word, “charm,” where you can see what’s in there and what it could be doing, even though it’s not actually doing that thing.
Tom: Exactly. In fact, when I’m writing now, I’m trying to re-capture the spirit of ignorance. In Buddhism –– because I meditate, I didn’t just randomly bring up Buddhism ––– I’m very familiar with this concept of the “beginner’s mind,” where you’re starting out from a position of ignorance. And I’m trying to recapture that spirit now and when I’m writing now, I’m thinking about craft and about other poets. I’m thinking about how this is going to make sense and maybe I’m thinking about theme and subject matter and a whole lot of other things. And all of those things are actually getting in the way of actually writing anything. So, I’m trying to remember what it was like just to write and not have any clue in terms of whether it’s good, bad, or otherwise.
Isaac: That’s really smart. So how do you actually do that, how do you get to beginner’s mind when you’re no longer beginner?
Tom: That’s a good question. I don’t know why I do this and it may be a totally wrong way of doing it, but I start by getting a pile of books, mainly poetry, and I leaf through them and I pause when I feel like it. I write a couple of sentences down, maybe an image, or some description of some kind. Then I kind of go through that and I start writing some of these words out and I try to put them together. So, I kind of make a collage of different words and sentences and it kind of forms this big monster of a poem and it’s a Frankenstein poem, basically, and then somewhere within that there’s an image or something that makes sense to me and resonates with me on a primal level, and that’s usually the beginning of a poem. Then the rest of it I delete and then from that one image - it’s always an image, it’s never any other kind of technique - I can create a poem. So that’s one way that I’m able to capture it.
Sometimes I’ve had an idea for a poem but it doesn’t work if it’s too conscious in my mind, or if it’s something that my ego generated. For instance, “I want to write about x,” and then I just try to write it. Then, either I can’t write it, or if I do, it’s just a really bad poem. So, I’ve stopped doing that. I’m working on re-capturing that child-like spirit.
Isaac: So how do you differentiate that from the persona poems, “Bobby Wiley,” or “Darius Azmeh-Volpato,” because with them, you know that you’ll be writing about a certain person whom you’ve met, so you’re intentionally in that way. Do you know how that’s done?
Tom: No, but I’ll get back to you in three-to-five business days.
Alex: How do you think the concept of wonder plays into your process of writing poems? And by wonder, I mean this idea of unselfconscious wonder with the world, or with anything.
Tom: Wonderment. I think this is where I’ll have to bring up meditation, because meditation for me is an integral piece of the puzzle. I find that if I don’t get myself into a meditative state and if I don’t let passing thoughts and emotions pass me by, or run through me, then I cannot write the poem that I’m meant to write. The only way that I can describe it is that I have to . . . almost empty myself of any fixed point of focus or anything concrete, everything has to kind of flow. And once I’m in that flow state, I can usually write the poem that I’m meant to write. It’s a practice that I try to bring to other situations as well. For instance, when I’m meeting someone for the first time, whether I’m going to write about them or not, I consciously try to let the perceptions or the impressions, or the feelings and thoughts that I have about the other person just wash over me. Some of them are prejudices that come from God knows where, judgments that come from God knows where, or it could even be a joyful thought. But whatever it is, whether it comes from inherited judgments of people, I let it wash over me and then I can connect with that person’s essence. Usually I write down a couple of sentences about that person in a more documentary type fashion: what they were wearing and what they said to me. Then, if I can access that space of openness, when I didn’t see them in any particular way, then I can write these persona poems, but only when I’ve accessed that kind of place. Which for me is this kind of all-embracing place of compassion, where you’re completely compassionate toward the person, wherever they’ve been or whatever they’ve done and whatever they tell you, you can hold that space for that person. This makes it seem like we’re talking about therapy in some way, I’m not. It’s about what’s going on in my mind and in my body. I’m not letting myself go to a place where I feel as though I’ve understood someone. I try to be that way with people that I write about, even when they’re imagined people.
Isaac: Would you like to read “Bobby Wiley” for us?
Alex: I think that totally comes across in your poems. I was reading a few this morning, and I felt like, whoa, I really just got sucked into another person’s world.
Tom: That’s what I try and do. It feels satisfying when you can . . . I don’t want to say sum up someone’s personality and encapsulate them, and I don’t even want to say that I’ve captured the essence of that person, necessarily. That’s probably too grand of a statement. But there’s just this moment I know that it’s entirely physiological or primal, where I feel like, yes, I’ve think I’ve gotten something about you, a little bit, in our small encounter. I think I’ve understood something, and I’m going to do the best that I can to put it on the page. But it doesn’t work out all the time. So, this one is called “Bobby Wiley,” and this is how it goes.
The baseball junkie next door stinks like grease.
Looks like he’s about to croak. He ain’t clean.
Been spick and span for six years.
Back then I said goodbye to hocking junk
& bombing liquor. Goodbye
to stealing azaleas and axles, to stockpiling turpentine,
to stewing in the gutter, to holy beaters,
and the street demon peddlers.
I said goodbye to bad shit happening.
That’s when I was transferred to this building,
took one of the only single units left.
From my window I can see robins
jerking around on the branches.
I’d probably kill myself if I was a robin.
Turning up leaves all day to find
nothing. Free as a bird they say, but that’s not
any kind of freedom I want to partake in.
Freedom is a CLEAN mind, a CLEAN body.
And it takes mental focus.
It takes all you’ve got.
Tom: So that’s Bobby.
Isaac: He’s right.
Tom: I think he’s right in many ways.
Alex: You never hear about robins jerking around. I love that line.
Tom: Those moments, that’s kind of just his language, this person who I met. And I just thought, wow, that’s a really interesting way of describing the way birds operate.