March 14, 2017

An interview with Allison Pitinii Davis

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Allison Pitinii Davis’s collection Line Study of  Motel Clerk launches this month. Poems from the collection previously appeared in TMR 39:1. Recently TMR senior advisor and graduate student Bailey Boyd talked with Allison about her new book, its influences, and her new poetry manuscript in progress.

Bailey Boyd: So many themes pervade the collection; hardly any themes appear in one poem without appearing again in another. The connection between each is so tight that Line Study feels as if you wrote the entirety of it at once. Could talk a bit about how this collection came to fruition?Line-Study-Border

Allison Pitinii Davis: The oldest poems in the book, including the title poem, are from around 2009, so I wrote the book across a span of nine years. I began “reporting” about the motel during elementary school for my Take Your Daughter to Work Day write-ups. I didn’t write about the motel as an adult until I took a course with the wonderful James Hall at the University of Cincinnati. UC is also where I first wrote about the Kent State Shootings, another theme in the book. Many people in my family have written ancestral accounts, so I already had inspiration and models.

From the beginning, the book was about immigration, Rust Belt diaspora identity, and labor. As an innkeeper, my dad takes his commitment to provide hospitality to strangers seriously, and as family members cycled through my book, I thought of myself as an innkeeper of the collection—each page number is a room number; how do I fix up each room? That’s how my collection came together. I was lucky to have a fantastic editor, Laura Wetherington, and publisher, Christine Kelly, to help me with this process.

Boyd: You’re a proud Ohioan and have said that writing about the state makes you feel closer to it and the people there. Did your relationship with Ohio change during the process of writing these poems? Instead of writing to get closer to the place, did you find that the place allowed you to get closer to the people in it?

Pitinii Davis: Yes, “the place allowed you to get closer to the people in it,” is an astute way of putting it. Ohio is where my great grandmothers sat at kitchen tables homesick for Greece, where my parents met dancing downtown, where I can’t go anywhere without recalling my life, my parents’ lives, their parents’ lives, their parents’ lives. Place is less of a backdrop than an atmosphere of communal memory. Youngstown is three-dimensional to many because it contains generations of memories. It has ruined everywhere else for me. Places where I only have my own memories are flat, underwhelming.

51shAiWNApL“Getting closer to the people” in the Rust Belt also means writing about the area’s  complex racial, gender, and class inequalities. Within the collection, I try to make my white privilege and Youngstown’s racial injustice visible. I value the many texts that provided models of ethical approaches: The Rusted City by Rochelle Hurt, Phenomenal Women compiled by LitYoungstown, Jim Villani’s long-running Pig Iron, Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, Ohio by​ Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality by Bruce Nelson, The Unwinding by George Packer, articles from The Vindicator, and others. There is some exploitative work published about the Midwest because people from other places get “stuck” there and use Midwesterners as props in their work. There are many reasons why I chose Baobab Press as my publisher, and one is that, in addition to being an independent, female-run, small business full of wildly intelligent and passionate professionals, it’s committed to Reno, a place, like northeast Ohio, that is sometimes demoted to a punchline. Reno is also full of all these older motels. It felt like a western cousin to my collection’s landscape.

My relationship with Ohio did change while writing this book because, while completing it, I lived outside of Ohio for the first time. I won’t repeat some of the classist things well-meaning poets have said to me on both coasts, but their comments made me understand the significance of my project in a new light. I’m sure some of my uninformed comments more than returned the favor. Leaving Ohio made me redouble my commitment to support artists attempting nuanced explorations of misunderstood/underrepresented places and perspectives. It is beautiful how much we can learn from each other.

Boyd: In perhaps my favorite poem, “She Understands More Than She Lets On,” in which the Laundryman’s daughter is able to understand the under-her-breath Greek of a host on a college trip, language is a source of power and knowing, while in other poems, language is either vulnerable to loss or it acts as a barrier. As a person who comes from a family of many languages, and as a poet whose art is rooted in words, does this relationship to language change for you, depending on whether you’re writing, speaking, or listening to it?

Pitinii Davis: Thank you for the kind words about “She Understands More Than She Lets On.” This is a wonderful question, and I fear I’m still too close to the answer to address it sufficiently. I do know that writing is a way for me to get the languages I grew up with on one page so they (and their multigenerational speakers) can hear and know each other.

For many people of my generation in the Rust Belt, language was an implicit signal that our roots were elsewhere. My mother grew up sharing a room with her grandmother who only spoke Greek. My dad’s grandmother is a native Yiddish speaker. My mother used Greek words in her vocabulary when we were little, and I didn’t know that they were Greek. I thought they were just slang English words and was confused when my friends wouldn’t know what I was talking about.

For many, language was also a signal of our generation’s assimilation. While I went to Hebrew school for a decade, I can’t speak Yiddish or Greek and was given an anglicized name. My parents, because of their own experiences of being made to feel “othered” and perhaps also fearing the implications of their cross-cultural marriage, subconsciously wanted my sisters and me to feel “normal”—assimilated/whiter—and the result is that we have more privilege than our parents but less connection to our own history. Charles Reznikoff, a major figure in the book, taught me how to negotiate this.

Singing is important in ways that may not be apparent in the collection. My rhythm is influenced by metrical patterns in Jewish liturgy. I’ve met other Jewish writers internationally who share this inspiration.

Boyd: Finally, do you have any projects that you’re currently working on?

Pitinii Davis: I completed a novella about gender and labor in the dawn of postindustrial Youngstown, and I’m working on a poetry manuscript tentatively titled The Neighborhood Girls. It’s about a group of girls who work at a Dairy Queen in northeast Ohio and fall in love with the elusive local meteorologist. I spent about a decade working counter jobs in Ohio in addition to helping work the front counter at the motel.

Many of these new poems have collective female speakers. I was raised in a big group of women—sisters, cousins, aunts—and I wanted to pay tribute to the complexities and richness of that “we.” The collective voice also reflects how women workers are often addressed and controlled: as a uniform group. The new poems are more lyric and voice-driven than those in Line Study.

51GG6vABmDLIronically, in Line Study, because it involves my family, I made thematic decisions collectively. I shared poems with family members and asked what to cut, what to reword. In The Neighborhood Girls, because it’s based on my own experience, I feel uncensored despite the collective speaker. Then I realized that I’ve always felt bravest speaking my mind when I’m part of a group of women; the collective voice was no coincidence. Many poets and collections have inspired me to explore the complex intersections of gender and voice, most recently Shelley Wong’s Rare Birds, Rosalie Moffett’s June in Eden, poetry by Heather Price, and poems forthcoming in Kathy Fagan’s Sycamore and Raena Shirali’s Gilt. I keep learning.

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