Q & A with Carol Ann Davis, National Magazine Award Nominee

Jenny Gropp: “The One I Get and Other Artifacts” lyrically documents your family’s painful experience living in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, during and after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings on December 14, 2012. In the essay, you unfold the reactions and reflections of psyches in trauma, and allow us to move through that fear with you, one that hearkens to the very real fragilities of life. Given that Sandy Hook was not an isolated incident of mass violence in this country, could you speak a bit about how the continued episodes of violence in the U.S. affect you, especially in the wake of your own experience?

Carol Ann Davis: I wrote this essay as part of a revisiting of those crucial first hours when I discovered what had happened at Sandy Hook School. At one point in the essay I talk about being in my university office and gathering from my desk “the things of before that will accompany me to after”—and writing the piece was a way of fully embracing what my life would be in that after. To answer the second part of your question, part of after is certainly being much more aware of episodes of violence wherever they occur, and I have a different perspective now about how these events relate to each other, since many of them have in common the availability of guns in this country. That was an irrefutable fact before, as it has been after the events that so impacted me and my family, but it’s more present in my life now as something that I must reckon with.

It’s my view that these acts of violence affect all of us no matter whether we live where they’ve occurred or identify personally with a group or individual on whom violence has been visited; they are part of our common responsibility. Their increased frequency at least invites us to consider that they may be the consequence of decisions we have made as a society.

JG: One of the most difficult ethical aspects surrounding the Sandy Hook tragedy was the treatment, by journalists, of children’s voices. When writing your essay, did you feel a particular burden in trying to present the reactions of your sons and of other children as opposed to those of the adults?

CAD: When I was writing the piece I was focusing entirely on practicing a descriptive and documentary approach to telling the events exactly as I personally experienced them. It was important to stay with my own experience rather than to speculate about others. My own experience involved the reactions of my older son and certain details about my younger son; as it progresses the essay becomes largely preoccupied with their well being rather than larger issues that later became part of a national conversation. Because it’s a documentary-style telling, it includes snippets of conversation or writing by my older son. This is a technique that I had utilized in poems for a number of years, and it felt a natural process to include those passages in prose. I really had not thought about that formal choice in relationship to the journalistic treatment of children during coverage of the tragedy, but I see now it does have a relationship to that issue, since my essay has become a part of the larger discourse. My initial goal in writing the essay was to revisit those hours and see what it was that I could learn from precisely describing them.

The goals in writing the essay—to learn, to understand my own experience—are different from the consequences of publishing it. I published it, I think, because I felt that I had learned enough through the composition to have something to share with others, something of use. I think a writer, like many others, would like to be of use—I hope my work has a use for those who read it.

JG: In a previous interview, you stated that you are “deeply agnostic.” Your essay, with its almost incantatory repetitions of phrases both haunting and reassuring, seems to hold agnosticism in its chorus, functioning as ritualistic composition. I wonder if you could speak a little to this—about how this piece works for you as an act of agnosticism, or how it affected your views on agnosticism itself.

CAD: I grew up in church—singing, repeating Bible verses, etc.—so the incantatory possibilities of language are very much a part of my daily life; quite possibly those experiences led to my choice of vocation. The idea that repeating words leads to internal revelation is definitely inhered in me from childhood, though I no longer associate that experience with any particular religion. I sing songs in the car, over and over the same ones, studying their formal qualities and seeking a deepening of emotional experience. I understand and am grateful that all of this has its roots in my early religious practice. That said, what I love about agnosticism is that it holds in a useful and productive tension the ideas of knowing and not knowing; so do most religions, through the concept of doubt. Agnosticism doesn’t say there is a higher order but neither does it deny there could be. The emphasis remains on inquiry, and possibility. In that way, for me, the constant searching is about beauty and about redemption. Everything is possible, but nothing is truly knowable. It’s an open field. If a writer allows herself or himself to live inside that uncertainty, there’s a richness and depth that emerges; there’s something akin to faith in the doing of that kind of living and writing. This practice been a comfort to me all my writing life, though my experience of agnosticism has not really been changed by the experience of December 14.

The essay takes up some of these ideas when it talks about how you can get near to a thing, but never really approach it or know it fully. In the passage I’m thinking of, I’m writing about my efforts at understanding my older son’s experience of that day. Being near but never arriving at that knowledge approximates (in some way) my understanding of agnosticism.

JG: Your essay opens with an epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto.” Did you come across this poem before or after the Sandy Hook tragedy? And can you tell us about any other texts that might be in dialogue with your essay, or other pieces you’ve read that readers of your essay might appreciate?

CAD: The Bishop poem is simply one of my all-time favorite poems; Bishop’s work has been a constant in my life for thirty years, and her poems come to me the way the hymns of my childhood do—to reuse a word, they are inhered in me at this point. Interestingly this particular poem takes place as Bishop overhears all the activity in a town square while she sits in a window, listening to what is happening “under the window,” alert to but also apart from her surroundings. It occurs to me now that because I was new to Newtown when the tragedy occurred, I made use in my own essay of the distance Bishop takes, and of her descriptive approach. She is one to allow the details of the landscape—and of human speech—to deliver to her information about her own emotional life, and I was hoping for that. She leaves herself open to those reverberations the concrete noun and the precise adjective can give a writer in understanding his or her inner life. I was trying to coax the physical world into dialogue with what I can’t see—my emotions and the possibility of their adding meaning to what I could see, touch, taste, smell, or hear. Flannery O’Connor cites Joseph Conrad as saying something about describing the visible world in order to infer an invisible one; I’m paraphrasing a paraphrase but you get the idea, and it’s an idea passed from one writer to the next over eons.

Bishop is with me, always. I recommend her poems be read and reread, but I don’t really have a sense of what this essay is in dialogue with. I wrote it out of necessity, using the training I had, which includes long study of many poets and writers. When I wrote it I was reading a lot of Rumi, and looking at art.

JG: Is “The One I Get and Other Artifacts” now part of a larger project of yours, or did the writing of that essay spurn other similar pieces relating to the Sandy Hook event or other related tragedies?

CAD: I have one other essay that is specifically about living in the aftermath of this tragedy. It’s called “On Practice, School Buses, Hummingbirds, Rumi, and Being Led”—you can probably see the ways in which the title brings up some of the same preoccupations I’ve discussed in this interview—and it was published last year in AGNI. I’ve been writing essays for a number of years on various subjects, and I have published five or six that might eventually be collected into some sort of book. The essays from this period in my life might also pair meaningfully with poems from the same period, given the lyrical qualities of both and their common concerns. It’s hard for me to really see this as a project per se because I am writing continuously, and staying down inside the work—rather than thinking analytically about it from above—is the most useful way for me to keep that writing process healthy and ongoing.

I also don’t see the writing I’ve done in Newtown or about the tragedy as separate from any other work I completed previously. Prior to the events of December 14, 2012, I had written quite a lot on the theme of children in danger—considering my own children as well as historical examples. The central poem in Atlas Hour (Tupelo Press, 2011) explores the idea of parenting during the holocaust after my husband and I visited the museum in Prague that holds a collection of children’s art from Terezin; many other poems about my children in that book deal with various traumatic possibilities, as do some of the poems in Psalm. In the same interview in which I talked about my agnosticism, I also discussed the idea that parenting is itself a harrowing proposition. That interview took place in November before the tragedy occurred in December, so if anything I’ve become increasingly aware of the themes in my work that had already made themselves felt. Put another way, I can see how my work has prepared me to keep doing that work—I feel as if I am always writing, it turns out, toward some spiritual and actual deadline I can’t see. The trick is to work hard enough, and to be receptive enough to the possibilities the world gives you. to be able actually to recognize them, appreciate them in all their specificity, and write about them in ways that continue to reveal their depth and mystery.

JG: This essay was nominated for a 2015 National Magazine Award in Essays and Criticism, and as a result is receiving quite a bit of attention. I wonder if this causes disquiet for you, since the essay deals with such a sensitive subject, felt both privately and publicly. And what would you hope comes out of all of this recognition?

CAD: I live a pretty quiet life. Even my primary genre of poetry is quiet! As a poet, I don’t have much attention come my way, and when it does, it’s a low-key thing—publication, a compliment from someone I’ve long admired that comes in an e-mail or in the actual mail (imagine!). The reception of this essay has been very different. The idea that I might be speaking for any group of people is a little unsettling, given that the essay—like all of my work—speaks only for itself, and only for that moment; I’m really still only speaking for myself, but I understand that any word out of Sandy Hook gains amplification given its circumstance. That said, I am not exactly the person I was when I wrote the essay. I recognize her as an earlier version of me. Now that I’m much closer to people who live here, I don’t feel the Bishop-distance I felt and that enabled me to try for some level of objectivity in the essay. At the same time, I am comfortable with the essay and its reception; I’m grateful that its subject and utterance are relevant to a national conversation that I feel must continue to take place even as anniversaries pass. Personally, when I read it it brings me back to the particular difficulties and emotions of a time that is and always will be a very important one in my life.

As I said earlier my hope for the piece is that it might be of use. If it gives those who were not here on that day a sense of what it was like to be here, then it creates some sort of empathy. That’s the most I can hope for, I think—to add to a common understanding.

 

Jenny Gropp, managing editor of The Georgia Review from 2012 to 2018 is currently co-executive director at the Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama and a BA in English literature and creative writing from the University of Montana. Her poetry and prose can be found in FenceColorado ReviewSeneca ReviewBest New Poets, and Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art, among others. Her first book, The Hominine Egg, a collection of poetry and prose, was published by Kore Press in 2017.